Volume 43 - Issue 2

Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception

by Iain Provan

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.

Andrew Reid

Andrew Reid
Evangelical Theological College of Asia
Republic of Singapore

Other Articles in this Issue

One of the features of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement is the use of the rule of faith in biblical interpretation...

Evangelicals have criticized Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and the idea of strategic withdrawal, with some citing Abraham Kuyper as a model of how Christians should engage the world today...

In The God Who Saves (2016), David Congdon seeks an elusive synthesis of Karl Barth’s dogmatics and Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutics: he integrates Bultmann’s insistence on the concrete historicity of individual human experience with Barth’s stress on the universal salvific significance of Christ...

Everyone agrees shame is a pervasive problem; yet, in book and articles, we find writers often talk past one another...

What are the purposes of the songs of the Apocalypse? What effect are they intended to produce? After a brief discussion of the question of sources, the function played by Revelation’s hymns is explored with particular attention being paid to their connection to the cosmic conflict theme, the way they model celebration in the face of tribulation, the comfort they offer believers and the warning they present to unbelievers...