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Genesis 1-4. C. John Collins.
on March 26, 2007
Having just begun a study of Genesis when I purchased this book, I must say that it was money well spent. Collins is the general editor of the Old Testament translation of the English Standard Version (ESV), a newer and highly 'literal' Bible. His proficiency in ancient languages and literature, philology, theology, exegetics, source studies and theories, and biblical scholarship generally (ancient, modern, recent, and current) is evident throughout this volume and is consistently a necessary antidote to dogmatic and sometimes reckless expositions by supposed experts of both the conservative and liberal varieties. At once Collins is orthodox, cautious (appropriately tentative), informed (scholarly), and given to carefully analyzing the interpretational assertions and shortcomings of all commonly touted exegetic and scholarly schools. Most importantly, he rightly asks that we not defer so readily to our post Enlightenment expectations of 'normal' narrative and instead cooperate with evidences of the author's intent.
There have always been questions and disagreements as to the correct understanding of these texts, and, for the last two centuries, questions and disagreements as to the sources and motives involved in the texts. For Collins, all of these issues, as they relate to the chapters being studied, are scrutinized. After explaining why we must reject the expositional assertions of some readers and scholars--that these texts not be viewed through the lenses of subsequent ancient writers, Collins examines the "allusions, echoes, and reverberations" relating to these texts that we find in later Old Testament, inter-testamental, and New Testament writings.
As must be expected, Collins' expositions and conclusions may not please those who enter into Biblical studies with firm conclusions already demanded at the outset. Some may disapprove of his frequent examination of the inter-testament writings, but to do so would be to misunderstand the larger expositional process. Some may dislike his conclusions regarding the meaning of the Genesis 1 creation "days," but his position seems well supported and appropriately tentative (as I believe any honest treatment must be). He finds the "literal" (i.e., "normal day" or "24-hour day" theory) understanding to be inconsistent with, and uncooperative with, immediate texts and later reverberations. He seems to take a position that embraces the "literary" understanding as to the "days" being structural literary devices, but also goes at least part way with the "day-age" theory in that he sees no reason to set aside the abstract sequence of the discourse. (Collins shows no interest in the "revelation" theory of Genesis 1 days, and it seems that none may be warranted). He is correct that we need not trenchantly encase our understanding in any single theory (if you think you understand how creation worked/works, start reading at Job 38, smarty-pants!) His exposition on the nature of the genealogies of Genesis 4 is informed by a relatively quick but [I believe] decisive examination of echoes (OT, Apocrypha, NT), supporting a conclusion that if one looks to the genealogies as being intended to produce mathematical sums, sharply defining temporal history, one must then choose not to cooperate with the author's intent, which, without doubt, was about lineages and relationships and not about modernist expectations of 'history'. That the genealogies permit (and contain) gaps, even significant gaps, is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt (by direct comparison of echoing accounts). That none of the Bible's writers had any interest in calculating genealogical sums toward the modernists' concept of history, should, of itself, be instructive. This was never their intent.
Having read Richard Friedman's articulation of the Documentary Hypothesis (source criticism, "higher criticism"), I found Collins' treatment of source criticism to be quite valuable. S.R. Driver's positions are critically analyzed as well as Friedman's, and the Documentary Hypothesis receives serious damage from Collins' examination of the literary clues found in these four chapters (the focus of this book), although he suggests that the same result applies to the entire scope of the Documentary Hypothesis if subjected to literary analysis. (As Collins points out, while source criticism traces its inspiration to assumptions that the materialist MUST posit concerning sacred texts, apart from the "motive" aspects of source theories, source criticism, per se, is not inherently incompatible with theistic expectations of scripture.) Before summarizing his treatment of source theories, Collins writes: "Do these pericopes come from separate sources or not? There is no way to answer this question, since the putative sources no longer exist. But for each feature that is put forward to support the source theory, it turns out that literary and grammatical considerations supply a better explanation in terms of the overall flow of the narrative. In other words, if someone produced this text by stitching sources together, he left the seams smooth indeed." pg 231 Stepping briefly beyond the four focus chapters (but with an eye to a tie-in), Collins also discusses the expositions and arguments that K.A. Kitchen has recently brought to bear against the Documentary Hypothesis, showing that, at least certain specific texts within the Pentateuch would have to have been composed in the 12th or 13th century BC, and further, that the texts containing features that can only be explained rationally by placing then in that era would have to have been written by someone with a conspicuous high education in that era's best literary art and style. Among the Hebrews (slaves in Egypt), who could fit this description and be capable of producing the kind of literary eloquence we find in Genesis 1, for example. The obvious candidate is inescapable, his name is Moses ("educated in all the learning of the Egyptians. . . a man of power in words" [Acts 7:22], see also Ex. 2:10, Heb. 11:24-27). No, this doesn't establish, or necessarily even support, the traditional viewpoint that Moses was THE author of the Pentateuch. This traditional view is unwarranted in its extremity, unsupported from scripture, and certainly not Collins' understanding. The full picture of authorship/editorship of the Pentateuch cannot be painted, but the Documentary explanation is unwarranted (though interesting).
A properly informed understanding of these first texts of the Bible is of tremendous value in understanding the whole of scripture (and, as any good contextualist would note, the reciprocal is true as well). This is probably the best book of its kind available.