Peter Enns and Jared Byas have a new e-book published through Patheos that is designed to introduce normal people (whatever this means) to the book of Genesis … the most controversial, misunderstood, and abused book of the Bible. Genesis for Normal People is written in an informal voice for Christians who have little if any formal training in biblical studies. It will rock the world for some because it presents the purpose and form of the OT in general and Genesis in particular from a point of view that is distinctly different from the approach the average Christian is familiar with. But this is an important lesson.
A running theme from Enns and Byas is that we have to learn to read the OT through ancient eyes … this is how we can best understand the message. No – it doesn’t mean this is the only way we can find God in scripture, but it does put meat on the bones. Here is a great example used to make the point in Ch. 1 The Genesis of Genesis:
It’s easier to understand what you are reading if you know when it was written and under what circumstances. Orwell’s Animal Farm might make sense as a cute (better, disturbing) story about talking animals. But knowing when it was written (1945) and the circumstances that led to it being written (a critique of Joseph Stalin’s oppressive Communist regime) will help you see that the book is actually an allegory. If you don’t catch that, you miss the whole point. In other words, knowing at least something about the historical context of a story—when a story was written and under what circumstances—makes you a better reader.
The same is true of Genesis.
Just because Genesis is in the Bible doesn’t mean we can read it any way we please. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the stories were written with twenty-first century readers in mind. Whether we say that Genesis was written by ancient Israelites or even by God to ancient Israelites doesn’t change the fact that Genesis was written a long, long time ago, in a language that is now essentially dead (Jews in Israel today speak a different form of Hebrew). Genesis is really old, and if we are going to read it well, we have to make adjustments in our thinking.
The purpose of Genesis for Normal People is to provide some of this background and context in an entertaining and readable fashion. This is not an academic treatise (although I do find academics to be “normal people” thank you). The book may satisfy some, enrage a few, but should whet the appetite for more in many others.
Is it important to know the context when reading the Old Testament?
Should Genesis, or any other book of the Bible, make sense without this context? If so, why?
Some may wonder if we need another book on Genesis – can’t we just get over this whole science-and-faith controversy and focus on the gospel? The Fall, perhaps, is important because Paul tells us it is (Romans 5, 1 Cor 15) – but is anything else in Genesis really all that significant for “normal people”?
Here I’ll skip ahead a bit to a point made by Enns and Byas in the beginning of Ch. 8:
Oftentimes we are taught to read the Bible the way we read a book like Aesop’s Fables or The Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh – as a collection of short, stand-alone stories. These stories may have some of the same characters, but there is no ongoing story line. We should not bring that way of reading to the Bible, where we are left with the “story of Noah’s ark” or the “story of Joseph” as stand–‐alone stories with moral lessons to be learned. These stories are part of a larger continuous story.
… Genesis is not a series of pithy short stories with moral lessons, but a series of vital stepping‐stones in the story of Israel’s beginnings.
Genesis is a defining story without which it is hard to make sense of the rest of the Old Testament. The New Testament and the Gospel are likewise hard to interpret without making sense of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.
This is a very important point. The context of Genesis, and for that matter, Exodus and the rest of the Old Testament as well, is important, not just for a better understanding of Genesis, but for a sound understanding of the Gospel of Jesus God’s Messiah. A key point made by Scot in The King Jesus Gospel and By Tom Wright in How God Became King is that the roots for the Gospel of Jesus Christ told in the New Testament are inextricably planted in the story of Israel in the Old Testament. The understanding of Genesis then is not a detail of minor importance secondary to the Gospel – it is the beginning of the story of Israel and the story of the Gospel.
We’ve lost the understanding of the story of Israel. We move from the Fall to Incarnation to Crucifixion to Resurrection with everything in between of secondary or tertiary importance. The OT is a collection of pithy stories demonstrating the power of God and providing moral lessons for our life. This approach makes for bite-size Sunday school lessons and powerful motivational sermons. But it doesn’t do justice to the story of God and God’s people; and it allows many to dismiss the scriptures as a collection of unbelievable ancient myths and stories. We’ve out grown these – or so I’ve often been told.
I am interested to hear what others think – but I think this is an enormous problem in our church today. The bible as a collection of moral stories and miracles does not touch the heart or mind of a large segment of our society. I am not a “normal person” perhaps. I am, after all, an academic. But from my perspective this piecemeal approach and lack of coherent narrative plays a huge role in the move away from faith as an intellectually viable option in our colleges and universities. We fail to convince because we do not understand our story and we do not teach or preach the whole story.
We’ve out-grown the stories contained in the Old Testament because we don’t know how to make sense of them as the story of Israel and the story of Israel’s God. Here we come to a place where Genesis for Normal People can help. Enns and Byas make the case, as Enns did in The Evolution of Adam, that the construction of the Old Testament as we have it is born out of the experience of exile and return from exile, sometime after 539 B. C. Some of the sources are most definitely older. No one is claiming that the text was constructed out of thin air at this late date. But the Old Testament as we have it was shaped, edited, and compiled in response to the experience of Israel in exile. The OT is inspired of God and points to Jesus, God’s Messiah. This is, after all, the Gospel. With this context, many of the little bits and pieces can be brought into focus … and this includes Genesis.
Enns and Byas conclude in Ch. 1
So how we read Genesis depends on us knowing these circumstances, just like knowing Stalin is vital for us to understand Animal Farm. Knowing that Genesis as we have it in our Bibles is written as part of the Pentateuch, and that the Pentateuch is written as Israel’s constitution in light of the traumatic events of the Babylonian exile helps us read this story with ancient eyes.
The book continues with chapters working through the text of Genesis …
Genesis from 30,000 Feet,
Genesis 1: Yahweh Is Better
Genesis 2-4: Adam Is Israel
Genesis 4-5: Cain Is a Fool
Genesis 6-9: Everyone Is Annihilated
Genesis 10-12: Babylon Is Evil
Genesis 12-22: Abraham Is Chosen
Genesis 23-25: Isaac Is the Father of Israel
Genesis 25-35: Jacob Is Israel (Literally)
Genesis 36-50: Israel Is Saved
Conclusion: Now What?
The book is well worth the price (which is quite modest) … and should make a great conversation starter, for a conversation we need to have. This book should whet the appetite for more – whether you agree with Enns and Byas or wish to explore alternative ideas. I hope it comes out eventually in a form that will be easier to use in classes and group settings. You may disagree – but I find e-books, unless printable, of little use in such a setting.
What do you think?
Have you read – or been taught to read – Genesis as the foundational story of Israel and thus of the Gospel? If so how?
Do you think Enns and Byas and I are right – that we have tended to teach and view the Bible as a collection of short, stand-alone stories? If so, is this a problem?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.