How to Read Genesis (RJS)

How to Read GenesisA couple of weeks ago I posted on a short book by John Walton and Tremper Longmann III, How to Read Job, ideal for a small group or adult class studying the book of Job.  Tremper Longman III, The Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, has a similar book on How to Read Genesis. This is also worth a plug as a nice book to introduce productive discussions in a small group or adult class. You may or may not agree with his approach, but the issues raised and the questions posed are important ones. Dr. Longman also has a new commentary on Genesis in the Story of God Series where his approach can be fleshed out in much greater detail. I am going to start a series on Genesis, reading through Longman’s commentary, with John Walton’s The NIV Application Commentary Genesis and Bill Arnold’s Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) open alongside. How to Read Genesis is an excellent place to start this series.  The first part of the book lays forth four principles and fourteen questions to guide our reading of Genesis.

Principle 1.  Recognize the literary nature of the book of Genesis.

Genesis is a literary work with a purpose. It was written in a particular human language, not a divine tongue.

Q1 What kind of book is Genesis?

The genre or genres of the book (there can be something of a diversity between different parts) will help guide any careful and faithful reading of the book. “The question of the genre is not an easy one, and it is highly controversial. However, no reading of the book can proceed without making a genre identification. Most people do it without reflection, a dangerous procedure since an error in this area results in fundamental misunderstanding of the book’s message.” (p. 23)

Q2 How did ancient Hebrews tell stories?

The book is a literary masterpiece, but to understand the message we need to understand what the audience expected from a story such as this one.

Q3 Was Genesis written at one time by a single person?

An involved question.

Q4 What can we learn about Genesis from comparable ancient Near Eastern literature?

The similarities and differences are important. We can learn from both. The book addresses ancient Israelite concerns, not modern concerns. “For instance, we will come to realize that the biblical creation accounts were not written in order to counter Darwinism but rather Enuma Elish and other ancient ideas concerning who created creation.” (p. 25)

Principle 2. Explore the historical background of the book

In addition to the literary form of Genesis it is important to consider the historical context in which the book arose. A book like Genesis can tell us about the past both directly and indirectly. But it cannot be exhaustive, and it will assume elements of the ancient Near Eastern context. Longman gives three questions to guide a discussion of the historical background.

Q5 When was Genesis written?

As a corollary, was it written all at once or over an extended period of time?

Q6 What does Genesis tell us about the past?

Q7. Does our knowledge of the ancient Near East help us understand Genesis?

Principle 3. Reflect on the theological teaching of the book.

Genesis is an important part of the Christian canon first and foremost for what it teaches us about God. Any reading that focus too heavily on the human details will miss the point on the most important issues.

Q8. How does Genesis describe God?

One significant point is that Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) describes a personal God. It doesn’t generally focus on philosophical ideas about God.

Theoretically, God could have chosen a number of different ways to reveal himself to us in a written text. He could have inspired the writing of a philosophical or theological essay. The text could have taken the form of a description of God’s attributes. … We might have received a learned and abstract analysis of the nature of God’s being. But we did not. What we have in the Bible (and in Genesis) are stories and poems that tell us about God’s involvement in the world. … like much of the rest of the Bible [Genesis] does not describe God in abstract ways, but tells us how God acts in the world.

Thus we learn about God not as a force, but as a person. God is a person who creates, involves himself with his creation and rescues and judges his human creatures. (p. 28)

Q9. How does Genesis describe God’s relationship to his people?

Q10. How does Genesis fit into the whole of Scripture?

As This is an important point for consideration. We shouldn’t read any book of  Scripture in isolation. Each book helps to inform us concerning the context and purpose of the others. In his commentary Longman notes that “the book of Genesis lays the foundation for all of the history of redemption.” Humans rebel (over and over again); “But right from the start of their rebellion God begins his pursuit of restoration of blessing with his people.” (TSG Genesis p. 16)

As Christians we read the Old Testament from the perspective of later knowledge as well. The coming of Christ informs our understanding of Genesis (and the rest of the Old Testament).  In Luke 24 we read that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” v. 27 And later “‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” v. 44-45 Longman introduces the analogy of reading a mystery story. When we know the ending, many of the details of the earlier story make sense. All of Scripture records God’s interaction with his people. When we know of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we read some of the earlier events through a better lens.

Q11. What in Genesis is theologically normative for today?

Principle 4. Reflect on your situation, your society’s situation and the global situation.

GenesisThe Story of God Bible Commentary series is particularly well suited to address this question. Each passage is examined from three angles: listen to the story, explain the story, and live the story.  The last angle is directed to our 21st century situation. Genesis was not written to us. We will always benefit from a better understanding of the literary and historical context of the book. Genesis was, however, written for us. It is a theological text that teaches us about God, but more importantly is does have impact on our lives today. It will be interesting to see what Longman has to say in this section. In How to Read Genesis he poses three question.

Q12 What is my redemptive-historical relationship to the events of Genesis?

Q13 What can I learn from Genesis about how to think and act in a way pleasing to God?

Q14. How can I keep from imposing my own views on Genesis?

I look forward to reading both How to Read Genesis and the full Genesis (The Story of God Bible Commentary). It will be interesting.

What do you think of Longman’s principles and questions?

Is there anything you’d add?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.