Like the writer of Genesis and using his words, Provan drops the reader of his book into the book of Genesis in his first sentence. His opening paragraph simply sets the scene by raising the issues to which the book will seek to provide some perspective. The first four chapters then provide the context for reading Genesis before seven chapters on the content of the major sections of Genesis.
Chapter 1 is an introduction that, for this reader, is a highlight of the book. It provides a sweeping, grand, informative overview that raises more questions than it provides answers for. Nonetheless, it helps give perspective on the whole through demonstrating structural markers that frame the book, an outline of the overall story, and a description of its distinctiveness.
Chapters 2 and 3 give helpful surveys of the ways in which the Old Testament in general and Genesis in particular was read both before and after the Renaissance. The survey is relatively short but informative and would provide a very helpful introduction for those first approaching serious study of the Old Testament (although it surprisingly downplays the importance and impact of the biblical theology movement).
In chapter 4 (“The World of Genesis: Locating the Text in Its Time and Place”), Provan reiterates his conviction stated elsewhere that the literal sense of a text is of primary importance. This literal sense is bound up with the historical, social, and religious context in which it came to be, which Provan argues is during the time of revolt that happened throughout the world during the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Although the literal sense of the text is of primary importance, that sense is invariably bound up with the historical, social and religious context of this period, particularly that of the ancient Near Eastern religion. It represents Mosaic Yahwists wrestling “with questions of faith and identity in a newly emerging world” (p. 55).
Provan seeks to demonstrate the benefits of such a reading in a case study of cosmology in Genesis 1 and 2 under the title, “Mosaic Yahwism and the Religion in the Ancient Near East” (pp. 55–58). This reading shows the positive benefits of such an approach but also demonstrates the risks associated with it, not least that of succumbing to the temptation to allow it to dominate the reading of the details and whatever prehistory and use it may have had in other contexts. Further questions also then arise in relation to how the text might then be used in a context very different from that posited by the author and how authoritative it is in those contexts.
The remaining seven chapters survey the major “acts” of Genesis, with significant weight given to Genesis 1:1—2:25 (followed by chapters on 3:1–24; 4:1—6:8; 6:9—11:26; 12:1—25:18; 25:19—37:1; and 37:2—50:26). The goal of each is to offer “a close reading of the text highlighting key interpretative issues, and weaving in (selectively) consideration of how that section of Genesis has been read historically” (p. 59). Although some of these sections are not as exegetically tight as they might be (e.g., Genesis 2 and 3 and the concept of rest), they do provide a helpful way into the book and open up matters of interpretation that are important to address. A particularly helpful addition is Provan’s constant interaction with other historical interpreters including commentators ancient and modern, artists, novelists, and even composers.
Provan’s book will be helpful for students and others looking for an overview of Genesis. Preachers who have already done their exegesis of the text and others interested in the history of interpretation of Genesis will find it valuable for its variety of perspectives. As a reading of the text it is thorough and well-informed, sometimes speculative, always interesting and stimulating, and not without presuppositions that are open for contention.