Last April I posted on a new e-book by Peter Enns and Jared Byas designed to introduce normal people (whatever this means) to the book of Genesis … the most controversial, misunderstood, and abused book of the Bible. I concluded my post with a comment that the book is well worth the price, but I hoped it would come out eventually in a form that is easier to use in classes and group settings. Well eventually has arrived, and not a day too soon. Genesis for Normal People is now available as a print book as well as an e-book. The new version includes the original text as well as a study guide with summaries, discussion questions, and notes for leaders.
This book is well worth another post.
Genesis for Normal People is written in an informal voice for Christians who have little if any formal training in biblical studies. 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. 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. (p. 5-6)
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). 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.
Last week I reviewed In the Beginning … We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. This book also explores the meaning of Genesis, starting with the question: What did Genesis mean to the original authors and readers? Miller and Soden have a somewhat different take, and a more conservative take than Enns and Byas – but they agree with Enns and Byas on some important points. As Enns and Byas put it “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” (p. 66 GfNP). Genesis is a defining story and to be understood it must be read with ancient eyes as much as possible. Miller and Soden situate much of the writing of Genesis at the time of the Exodus, (although using older sources and edited somewhat at one or more later dates). They see no reason to disregard the traditional view that the hand of Moses is responsible for most of the text. Thus the most important context is the context of the captivity in Egypt and the return to the promised land. In contrast Enns and Byas see a much later date for the final editing of the text we have (although using older sources in the process) and thus the most important context is probably the Babylonian captivity and the return to Jerusalem sometime after 539 BC. Like Miller and Soden however, they see importance in the way Genesis is situated as part of the Pentateuch.
Two of the discussion questions from chapter 1 of Genesis for Normal People may help frame the important issues here (p. 106).
How does reading Genesis as the first part in a five-part series differ from reading it as a stand-alone book? What changes?
I’ll suggest, perhaps, that reading Genesis as the first part of a five-part series, and as a foundational document for the rest of the Old Testament, makes it hard to jump from creation and fall to redemption. There is so much more to the story than creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Agree? Disagree?
Does accepting that Moses didn’t write Genesis affect your other beliefs? Why or why not?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.