Bill T. Arnold, Director of Hebrew Studies and the Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary has a new commentary out, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). This commentary is described as “an innovative interpretation of one of the most profound texts of world literature: the book of Genesis. … The author of this new commentary combines older critical approaches with the latest rhetorical methodologies to yield fresh interpretations accesible to scholars, clergy, teachers, seminarians, and interested laypeople.” (Ok – that covers just about everyone.) Over the next several posts we will dig into his commentary on Genesis 1-11; The Primeval History.
There is always a bit of concern when terms such as innovative and fresh are used to describe an approach to scripture. After all the books have been around for millenia – in the case of Genesis something approaching three millenia – what more can be said without treading on dangerous ground? But we know much more these days of the language, content, history and context of the book than was known 1500 years ago when Augustine wrestled with the text, 500 years ago when the reformers wrestled with the text, or even 50 years ago when our grandparents wrestled with the text. These data, this knowledge, cannot be dismissed or ignored as we move forward.
Arnold’s approach assumes the essential validity of the source analysis approach to the text of Genesis. But Genesis must also be read canonically as a whole. In brief summary: Large portions of the text were written by a Yahwist author (J), a historian writing in the 8th or 9th century BC or before, incorporating earlier sources in the text. Although components have been assigned to an Elohistic author (E) it is unlikely that this existed as an independent document – thus this material is designated JE. The second source is a priestly author (P) and Arnold is also convinced of a pre-exilic date for this material. Finally Arnold suggests that Genesis, including Genesis 1-11 also contains material from a pre-exilic Holiness editor.
Rather, I propose that the Holiness editor has composed portions of Genesis as new material and edited the whole. So, for example, Gen 1:1-2:3 and the tôlĕdôt structuring clauses may be explained as the Holiness redactor’s way of introducing and tying together the authoritative and long-revered Yahwistic traditions with the equally authoritative but more recent priestly materials. The result is a unified whole. p.17
The tôlĕdôt clauses frame the descendents or generations of someone or something and are used to structure the entire book. The end result is a crafted and carefully organized whole.
The process of composition of the book of Genesis, using these various sources and traditions of ancient Israel, may be compared to the composition of the gospels of the New Testament. As the gospel author’s collected the narratives and teachings of Jesus, combining both written and oral sources, producing “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so a final redactor has done so for ancient Israel’s traditions devoted to origins – primeval and ancestral. I propose that the final edition of Genesis is the result of a similar process by an editor of the Holiness school of pre-exilic Israel, who combined and organized these various materials into a continuous and meaningful whole. p.17-18.
This leads to the first of two major questions today:
What do you think of Arnold’s comparison of the composition of Genesis and the composition of the Gospels – source material arranged to produce an orderly account?
Bottom line: while there may be Mosaic material in the sources used by the Yahwist author, Genesis is not univocal and it was not composed as a whole by Moses, or anyone else.
Arnold makes the point that when the biblical sources are held to the same standards as other ancient near eastern (ANE) texts the general context of the patriarchal story must be taken seriously – including Mesopotamian roots and sojourns in Syria-Palestine and Egypt. The Ancestral Narratives can be rooted in the context of history.
The Primeval History is different. Although the narrative can be placed in the context of ANE places and ideas, it is not rooted in history in the same fashion. In fact, it appears that Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the six day creation is one of the latest additions to the text designed to set the tone and introduce the whole, composed in the late monarchy, before the exile.
Thursday we will come back to consider the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3, but I would like to end this post with a consideration of the inspiration and intent of the text of Genesis.
Although the analogy between the form of the gospels and the form of Genesis is interesting, it has some limitations. Comparison of the resurrection accounts in the four gospels or the cleansing of the Temple in Mark and John should tell us something about the nature and purpose of scripture – and this applies to Genesis as well. On the other hand, Genesis, especially Genesis 1-11, is not assembled from eyewitness accounts or even from recent or reliable oral tradition, and this begs a question, the second major question for today:
What is the nature of the source material incorporated into the composition of Genesis 1-11 – how is this material inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing? Or is it? Is the inspiration in the assembly and intent of the final text? Or are inspiration and/or inerrancy the wrong terms to use in the first place?
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