Finally in Print! (and a question about Moses) (RJS)

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?

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  • J.L. Schafer

    Thanks for this wonderful article.

    For those of us who bought the ebook, there was supposed to be a study guide that would be given to us for free. Has that happened yet?

    “There is so much more to the story than creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Agree? Disagree?”

    Clearly, one can’t jump from the Garden of Eden immediately to Calvary without losing an enormous amount of understanding of what “fall” has done to the world and what “redemption” looks like. I don’t have a problem characterizing the big picture as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. The problem comes when fall and redemption are presented in simplistic ways that overlook vast sections of the Bible.

    “Does accepting that Moses didn’t write Genesis affect your other beliefs? Why or why not?”

    Peter Enns doesn’t deny that some sources contributing to Genesis may be very old and could conceivably go back to the time of Moses. He makes the case that the editing and compilation — the final storytelling — took place during or after the exile, when the Jews were wrestling with their national identity and God’s purpose for them after they had lost virtually everything. For me, it is helpful to know this. It places Genesis in the centuries approaching the birth of Christ, a context where messianic expectations and revelations are coming into focus, and it makes a Christocentric reading of the Pentateuch all the more natural.

  • DMH

    J.L. Yes, the ebook has been updated, and would 2nd your comments.

  • scotmcknight

    J.L., I will speak up on the creation, fall, redemption, new creation theme of the Bible. Here are the issues for me:

    1. No one read the Bible/Israel’s Story like that in the Bible until Romans 5 and, less clearly, 1 Cor 15.
    2. That reading omits People of God — Israel, kingdom, church.
    3. That reading tends far more often toward individualism instead of a corporate emphasis, which is the Bible’s.
    4. So, we need Israel/church in any sound reading of the Bible.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Scot, thanks for chiming in. That’s essentially what I was getting at. It seems that the Bible places the salvation of individual souls within the greater context of the kingdom and corporate redemption of humanity. The modern revivalist way of presenting the gospel reverses that order, placing the salvation of individuals first, and then corporate redemption comes about by summing up lots of saved individuals.

  • DMH

    Scott. Is #1 perhaps due to the somewhat unexpected nature of the Messiah? No one understood what it was quite all about until that happened?

  • For a 21st century person to read the book of Genesis outside of a context of Jesus Christ is to invite confusion.

    Genesis is Jesus’ Genesis and we today should only read it through His eyes.

  • Phil Miller

    Reading Genesis as a prologue to the Pentateuch does change the way I approach the book. I look at the events not as simply a collection of cool stories about God, but rather, I start to see it more like a family history. I think if you spend time around more minority communities you kind of see that is a much more natural way to approach things. There’s a greater sense of group history and wanting to know where they came from. I think many Americans don’t really know their history more than a few generations, if that.

    As far as Moses not writing Genesis, I’ve got to say it doesn’t really change much for me. Pseudographical writing was pretty common in ancient times, and it wasn’t viewed as misleading. It was actually viewed more as a way to honor the person who’s name it was being credited to. And really, even reading the Pentateuch on your own raises some questions. For example, I remember reading the accounts of Moses’ death when I was little, and I was confused as to how Moses would write about where he could be buried. I remember thinking, well maybe God told Him… But that still didn’t make much sense to me.

  • Rick

    “they see importance in the way Genesis is situated as part of the Pentateuch.”

    Sailhammer takes a similar approach, stressing how Genesis is a lead-in for the story of Israel.

  • AHH

    On the “Moses” question, I think it would be a non-issue if not for that single NT passage where Jesus references “Moses” in alluding to Scripture. After all, I don’t believe (and here things are different from cases like 2nd Peter) the Pentateuch has any internal claim to being written by Moses — that was just a tradition that the Jews developed at some point.

    But that one passage makes it harder for those with certain approaches to Scripture. The solution, I think, is to accept that it is “OK” for Jesus to reference something in the manner commonly understood by his audience, even if it was technically incorrect. I think the more clear example of the mustard seed (not really the smallest seed despite Jesus saying so) and the idea of kenosis and Jesus’ full humanity are helpful in that regard.

  • RJS

    Rick (#8),

    Sailhammer does take this approach, and his work is also important to recognize. I believe that John Piper, for example, has used Sailhammer’s approach to show why YEC is not the only, or even the best, reading of Genesis.

  • Rick

    RJS #10:

    If I am not mistaken, Sailhammer is hesitant to utilize ANE sources in his analysis of Genesis, while the scholars you mentioned in your post, and those such as John Walton, readily utilize ANE sources.

    So your line, “Genesis is a defining story and to be understood it must be read with ancient eyes as much as possible” brings up some interesting questions on how best to do that.

    That beings said, it is very interesting that both approaches (ANE and un-ANE) come to many similar conclusions about Genesis.

  • I have no problem accepting that Moses didn’t write it although I would allow that the writer included parts originally written by Moses. Does anyone know any resources that proposes that Genesis though 2 Kings (Minus Ruth) was written by one author? I posted about it briefly here but haven’t found much info regarding it: Also, David A Dorsey proposes a chiastic structure that runs from Genesis through Judges. I haven’t read it but it looked interesting:

  • CGC

    Hi RJS
    Another thought provoking post. It seems to me that even though there is a kind of hermeneutic of belief and hermeneutic of suspicion, there are two opposite ways of reading Scripture in the end (one that believes and one that rejects). I relly does not matter to me the dating, authorship, whether people used pseudo names etc. Do we use ANE as some have to help us understand the context and message of the Bible better or do we use it to belittle it and tear it down? I think its a mistake to put one’s trust in Moses had to write every single word of the Penteteuch or the Bible can not be trusted to if the Bible says anything that others were saying during that time, then the Bible can not be trusted. These are the more problematic issues from my perspective rather if Moses wrote the book of Genesis or not.

  • On a lighter note… Normal people is like functional families. There are none. Only families with varying degrees of dysfunction and only people with varying degrees of abnormality. Accordingly, academics definitely have their own range on the abnormal spectrum! Just saying. I get the title. 😉

  • MikeW

    I have found that reading Genesis as the beginning of Israel’s journey into the promised land brings into focus the plot line that hold the entire Pentateuch together – especially the notion that Israel’s is being lead into the Land to recapture an Edenic way of life, where death and sin are pushed back, as it were. Jacob Neusner and NT Wright have been pivotal in helping me see this more clearly.

  • Kenneth Padgett

    Thanks for this Scot. I’m very interested in checking this book out.

    I also love to see Sailhamer’s name come up when we’re talking about Genesis and the Pentateuch, I think he has much to offer here.

  • Marshall

    Genesis was not written by Moses, but by another prophet of the same name. And heavily edited later.

    Are we talking about just Genesis, or the whole Pentatuch? Genesis works fine as a standalone story, seems it might as well have different sources.

  • Kenneth Padgett

    “Genesis was not written by Moses, but by another prophet of the same name. And heavily edited later.”

    Sentences like this are unhelpful when they are not accompanied with some supporting evidence. Let’s make sure that when we’re on this blog we don’t just make massive claims and then leave with no further explanation.