Discovering Genesis

Discovering Genesis ProvanA few weeks ago, I posted a review of Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, one of my former teachers at New College, the University of Edinburgh. Perhaps I am suffering from a bad case of nostalgia but I have recently been reading a book by another of my New College lecturers, Iain Provan.

Iain Provan is currently Marshall Shephard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College, Vancouver, where he has taught Old Testament since 1997. He has published several important books, including (with Tremper Longman, III, and V. Philips Long) a major study of the history of Israel and a study of Old Testament theology with the eye-catching title of Seriously Dangerous Religion.

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading his recently-published volume, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception (London: SPCK, 2015). This is part of a fairly new series that introduces biblical documents by discussing their content, key principles and methods of interpretation, and their history of ‘reception’ in literature and art. Provan’s contribution on Genesis is clearly written and fairly accessible for students and serious readers without formal theological training.

Chapter 1 introduces Genesis as a whole, with particular emphasis on structure as the key to understanding how the document functions. Provan also provides a brief outline of the narrative plot. Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to a survey of approaches to reading Genesis, prior to the Renaissance and following the Renaissance. Space is devoted to both Christian and Jewish interpretation, as well as to modern critical approaches, such as social-scientific criticism, feminist criticism, and ‘canonical criticism’ (though Brevard Childs did not favour that terminology, preferring ‘canonical approach’). These chapters would provide students with a helpful orientation to the history of interpretation of Genesis.

Although Provan discusses all approaches quite objectively, it becomes clear in Chapter 4 that he has limited interest in the older source-critical approach. He writes,

I share the scepticism of others as to our ability to reconstruct with much objectivity either the documentary or oral sources lying behind Genesis, and in any case I am less interested in the sources that might lie behind the book than I am in the book itself. I suspect I am among the majority of readers at least on this latter point, and probably nowadays on the former point as well (p. 50).

Instead, Provan seeks to explore ‘the world of Genesis’, which he understands both as the world portrayed in Genesis and the world of the 5th and 6th centuries BC in which, he believes, Genesis was given its final form.

In chapters 5-11, Provan offers brief discussions of the various ‘acts’ of Genesis, broadly following the toledoth (‘generations’, or ‘account’) structure, though not precisely since he covers the eleven occurrences of the formula in seven chapters. Given how much has been written on Genesis, Provan does a remarkably good job of discussing both the features of the biblical text and the scholarly debate in these chapters.

Genesis 1-2 are among the most controversial chapters in the Bible, and Provan will challenge most readers (whatever their viewpoints) with his analysis. For example, he challenges the standard critical view that these chapters contain ‘two creation accounts’ (p. 59). Provan believes that this view is based on a failure to recognise the literary coherence of Genesis 2:4. Provan suggests that a literary decision better explains the features of the text than a source-critical approach (p. 60) and that the two chapters should now be read as a literary whole (p. 61). I will highlight just a few other provocative suggestions: Genesis 1:1 considers God’s act of giving order to existing material and does not address the question of creation out of nothing (pp. 62-63); ‘very good’ does not imply ‘perfect’ (pp. 63-64); in the early part of Genesis 2, the Hebrew term ha’adam should be translated ‘earthling’ rather than ‘man’ (p. 68); ‘Eden’ should be understood ‘not so much as a particular place in the world, but a state of being in the world’ (p. 70). Provan offers brief reasons and evidence for each of these claims, but the brevity demanded in a book of this size leaves his suggestions less than conclusive.

In keeping with the emphasis on reception, he reflects on the theme of ‘Eden lost and found’, drawing on various authors and artists from ancient times to the twentieth century.

It is probably inevitable, given their foundational nature and the vast debate in secondary literature, that the first three chapters of Genesis should receive a substantial portion of the discussion (pp. 59-94, 36 pages) compared  to the remaining forty-seven chapters (pp. 95-189, 95 pages). Yet, even the relatively brief discussions of the later chapters include valuable insights and thought-provoking  evaluation of challenging issues. For example, Provan devotes the best part of four pages (pp. 120-24) to the question of whether Genesis 9:2-3 mark a transition from a vegetarian state to a carnivorous state. I found the discussion of the ‘Binding of Isaac’ (Genesis 22:1-19) insightful. It is also one of the relatively few discussions that clearly relate the text of Genesis to New Testament texts.

Discovering Genesis displays several notable strengths. First, in brief compass, Provan provides a rounded introduction to important aspects of the study of Genesis, including general content, literary characteristics, history of interpretation, and reception history. All this in less than 200 pages is quite an achievement! Second, Provan engages seriously (though not extensively, given the constraints of space) with a range of important secondary literature. Third, literary features of the biblical text (including Hebrew constructions, identified in transliterated form) are highlighted and explained. Fourth, Provan does not avoid the hard questions, such as the nature of the flood narrative (see pp. 115-20). Of course, the interpretation of Genesis is so contested that readers will not all find his answers to these questions equally palatable, but any careful reader should wrestle with such questions and Provan does his readers (and particularly students) a considerable service in raising them.

Inevitably, some questions remain. Provan pays careful attention to the text of Genesis (and is concerned that modern questions should not be imposed on the ancient text; see p. 98), but I felt that he did not sufficiently consider how some of his exegetical decisions would relate to wider theological questions. For example, his very brief comments on ‘the Fall’ left me with many unaddressed questions. Also, while the material on ‘reception history’ is fascinating,  and is doubtless worthy of consideration in its own right, I am still not sure what contribution it makes, if any, to understanding the text better. I did not see Provan provide any explanation of his own view of what such discussion achieves. Related to this, while Provan includes quite substantial blocks of detail on reception history, this does not seem, largely, to include the New Testament writers’ use of the text of Genesis, which receives only fairly cursory attention (Romans 5:12-20 receives only a fleeting mention in a section of the consequences of the Fall on p. 83). With respect to the literary context of Genesis, while it is certainly the case that Genesis must be interpreted in light of other literature from the ANE, I think that the exact nature of that relationship requires further clarification. Finally, the text of Discovering Genesis concludes somewhat abruptly at the end of a discussion of the reception history of the Joseph narrative (and, slightly bizarrely, with a reference to Joseph and his Amazing, Technicolor Dreamcoat!). It might have been useful to have included a short concluding chapter or epilogue, perhaps indicating the contribution of Genesis to the Pentateuch, the Hebrew canon, and the Christian Bible.

Overall, I found Discovering Genesis  to be a clear and well-informed discussion of Genesis that would be particularly useful for theological students or preachers who need an accessible overview of the scholarly discussion of Genesis. Provan has a high view of the coherence of the final form of the canonical text. While some of his comments and conclusions are provocative, he asks important questions that require coherent answers (whether we follow Provan’s views or not). I learned from him both when I agreed with him and when I didn’t. Discovering Genesis will repay careful reading and thoughtful engagement.

[Many thanks to SPCK for providing a review copy of this book, with no requirement other than an honest review.]