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Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary Paperback – September 1, 2005
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"From every standpointmethodological and theological, structural and syntactical, linguistic and literary, apologetic and and worldviewthis expository survey is a model of 'good reading' of the text. Here you have a landmark treatment of Genesis 1-4 as canonical communication from God, a work of detailed scholarship that no serious student or honest teacher will henceforth be able to ignore." --J. I. Packer
About the Author
C. John Collins (PhD, University of Liverpool) is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of The God of Miracles and Science and Faith.
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In Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, C. John “Jack” Collins offers a detailed exposition of the Pentateuch’s opening chapters and interacts with key introductory issues such as authorship and provenance. He also addresses topics that routinely surface with respect to the historical and scientific implications of the early Genesis narrative, such as the nature of the creation “days,” and when and where the account took place. Lastly, he assumes a pastoral role by providing practical application that is tailored toward his modern audience.
Collins is clearly motivated by a fascination with the text, as his introductory sentence reveals: “How can anyone grow tired of studying the opening chapters of Genesis?” Moreover, he wants to equip pastors and students alike by sharing insights gleaned from over thirty years of study. While he acknowledges that various controversies surround these chapters, he also expresses a “distaste” for them insofar as they distract from the focus of the text itself, which was to “craft a view of the world in ancient Israel by telling a true narrative of the creation and fall of man.” At the same time, he does not evade the controversy and devotes sufficient space to presenting his personal and professional perspectives on such matters.
As of this review, Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he has taught both exposition and languages since 1993. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MS in computer science and systems engineering, 1978), Faith Evangelical Seminary (MDiv, 1985), and the University of Liverpool (PhD in Hebrew Language, 1989). He also served as Chair of the Old Testament Translation Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible and has authored three other books: Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Crossway, 2011); The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (Crossway, 2000); and Science and Faith: Friend or Foes (Crossway, 2003).
In the book’s formal introduction (chapter one), Collins explains his purpose as one of providing “an academically rigorous treatment of the biblical text that explores the connections of the parts of the Bible and the impact of the Bible on life today.” He clarifies that his vision of “academic rigor” includes a literary-theological method informed by contemporary discourse analysis with the aim of developing an integrated understanding of the relevant segments. Given that method is key to such an endeavor, he reserves chapter two for describing the mechanics of this discourse-oriented literary approach.
He embarks on this task by first explaining that discourse analysis takes the text to be an act of communication; specifically, it is the means by which the author, using a shared world picture (not to be confused with worldview), produces an effect (the message) in his reader. Thus, “discourse analysis [through means of understanding genre, information structures and rhetorical features] studies how texts accomplish their communicative purposes.” The literary approach, of which there are many varieties, focuses on the author’s use of communicative devices to produce said effect (the message) in his audience. In particular, Collins notes his preference for conservative literary approaches, which focus on the text having meaning. This differs from modern approaches where analyzing the text’s provenance takes center stage, and also differs from postmodern approaches where meaning is resident in the reader, assuming it exists at all.
Chapter three addresses the issue of literary context; i.e., how Genesis 1-4 relates to the rest of the Pentateuch. Collins explains that these four chapters (along with 5-11) “set the stage for the mission of Israel to be the vehicle of blessing to the rest of the world.” Specifically, they demonstrate that there is one God who created everything and made everyone in His image, and that the special relationship that God initiated with mankind was broken and needed restoration. Thus, Genesis’ first four chapters reflect a universal theme with respect to the rest of the Pentateuch which portrays the particulars of God’s broader plan in the institution of covenants.
Chapter four commences the core of the commentary, expositing Genesis 1:1–2:3. Likely the looming issue in many readers’ minds is the question of genre, to which Collins suggests “exalted prose narrative” as an apt description. That the text is “prose narrative” means it makes truth claims about the way the world is, and that it is “exalted” is to remind readers not to impose a “literalistic” hermeneutic on the text, since its proper function extends beyond mere conveyance of information to the evocation of appropriate attitudes that such information should foster.
Collins takes up the subsequent pericope, Genesis 2:4–25, in chapter five, where he observes the shift in genre from a exalted prose to “normal prose narrative.” He also interacts with the length of the creation week—an incendiary topic among people from certain points along the theological spectrum. It is within this context that Collins advances his view that the “days” of Genesis 1 and 2 are “analogical days” inasmuch as they reflect “God’s workdays”; thus, “their length is neither specified nor important, and not everything in the account needs to be taken as historically sequential.” Nevertheless, certain features strongly suggest that the days are not 24-hour durations; e.g., the seventh day is open-ended and active, indicating lexical flexibility in use of the Hebrew term for day (yom).
Proceeding to Genesis 3:1-24, many interesting questions come into view, some of which may surprise readers unfamiliar with common conclusions of critical Old Testament scholarship. For example, Collins cites the work of James Barr who, contrary to the traditional “Fall” view of Genesis 3, regards this pericope as unrelated to primeval disobedience with respect to Adam and Eve. Rather, Barr reasons that since the words “evil,” “rebellion,” “transgression,” “guilt” or “sin” were not employed by the narrator, something other than deviance is in view. However, as Collins observes, verse 17 (“Have you eaten of the tree that I commanded you not to eat?”) “could hardly be improved upon as a description of disobedience.”
Collins concludes his formal commentary with Genesis 4:1-26, noting that while it is standard to impose a section break between Genesis 3 and 4, the narrator most likely intended its occurrence between 4 and 5. He offers several reasons for this conclusion, such as notable linguistic connections, and that the genealogy which commences chapter 5 serves as a segue along the lines of a literary fast-forward button. He also interacts with such questions as Why was Cain’s offering rejected, and Where did Cain’s wife come from? Throughout this exposition, Collins pastorally highlights the presence of divine grace that accompanies human brokenness in the post-Edenic episode.
Having completed the commentary itself, Collins turns attention toward the topics of literary unity, authorship and sources. He offers a brief survey of the Documentary Hypothesis (i.e., JEDP) that originated with the nineteenth-century German scholar, Julias Wellhausen, and explains how similar assumptions are still advanced by some modern-day scholars, though not without difficulty. While source criticism of this nature is applicable to the entire Pentateuch (and sometimes Joshua), Collins addresses only that which pertains to the first four chapters of Genesis. Specifically, he offers rejoinders to Richard Friedman’s seven lines of reasoning for his own variety of documentary hypothesis and concludes, by appeal to Kenneth Kitchen and others, that readers “need not doubt that Moses is the primary author of the Pentateuch as we have it.”
Chapter nine takes up Genesis 1-4’s communicative purpose by analyzing three elements: (1) its ideological context, by considering the text’s relation to other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories; (2) its the literary context, by addressing how the four pericopes fit within the broader scope of the Pentateuch; and (3) the life setting of the audience. With respect to the first element, where a structural literary correspondence is observed between Genesis 1-3 and other ANE creation accounts, Collins expresses how the Hebrew text is closer to “alternative story” than pure “polemic.” In other words, the text is corrective in nature as it addresses the world picture advanced by other protohistorical accounts.
Relatedly, chapter ten examines historical and scientific considerations of the early Genesis text. Here, Collins clarifies the distinction between “historical truth claims” and “historical truth values,” where the latter implies some criterion by which to judge the former. In this regard, he observes the importance of reliable testimony, since direct means of physical verification are either inadequate or unavailable. With respect to science (and in light of nuances related to its various cognate forms), he argues that ”…it should be clear that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not a scientific account,” though this in no way implies inferiority to such accounts, since one must ask “inferior for what end?” More significantly, Collins argues that the text’s communicative purpose is not, for example, to specify the length of the creation period, but rather to inculcate a perspective “shot through with wonder, delight, and awe of the boundless energy and creativity of God.”
The concluding chapter is one of application, where Collins employs the concept of worldview to convey how one may “see the world through the eyes of Genesis 1-4.” He distills variegated notions of worldview into a minimalist list of questions, including: Where does the world come from, is it bad or good (and how can we define such terms), how should people live, and what place does God occupy in it all? From such a perspective, Genesis is remarkably informative in answering key questions that ultimately concern everyone.
Readers of different theological persuasions will naturally hold Collins’ work with varying degrees of esteem—what one person considers noteworthy, another will view with contempt. For example, Professor Mark Kreitzer commends Collins for his “many outstanding insights,” but takes issue with the long creation period entailed by his exegesis. He writes, “[Collins] claims that the original creation was very good. However, by supporting billions of years of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ he cannot explain the seemingly meaningless chaos of the fossil record, the millions of extinct species, and the nature of a good creation and a supposedly good God who creative (viz.) in such a haphazard manner.”
In response to Kreitzer, it must be observed that he tacitly imposes a theological constraint on divine goodness that inexplicably precludes the possibility of animal death and extinction prior to the fall. He considers such phenomena “haphazard,” yet in so doing, begs the question in favor of his own undisclosed presuppositions about the meaning of the term “good.” While he clearly thinks creation ought to have happened a particular way, merely assuming it to be the case falls short of demonstrating the point. Strangely, this problem echoes a similar theme in Charles Darwin’s thinking as Cornelius Hunter observes:
…as Darwin matured in his studies of nature he increasingly viewed nature as anomalous, inefficient, and downright brutal. How could an all-good God create such a gritty reality? The problem was aggravated by the rather two-dimensional God the Victorians had in view. It was a tradition that had been building for centuries, and by Darwin's day the popular conception of God was a very pleasant one. Positive divine attributes such as wisdom and benevolence were emphasized to the point that God's wrath and use of evil were rarely considered.
Of course, Kreitzer (rightfully) expresses strenuous opposition to evolutionary theory, but the premise of his objection appeals to a theological perspective about divine goodness that requires much more explanation than he offers, which is merely an allusion to Isaiah regarding “harmony between predator and prey and between children and deadly vipers.” Though, as Collins observes, nothing in the text precludes the possibility of carnivorous animals before man’s fall; moreover, Kreitzer’s assertion implies that carnivorous sea creatures (e.g., jellyfish, starfish, crab, trout, sea snakes, penguins, otters, and orcas) were also vegetarian, yet any such notion is conspicuously absent from the text. Furthermore, Collins notes how Psalm 104, which celebrates the creational order, includes appreciation for the carnivore: “The young lions roar after their prey, seeking their food from God (v. 21, NASB); and if any doubt remains as to the goodness of this economy, the psalmist concludes, “Oh Lord, how many are Your works! In wisdom you have made them all” (v. 24a).
Additionally, Collins observes the mistake in assuming that Genesis 2:17 precludes physical death in creation before the fall, and relatedly notes that the statement “you will surely die” is masculine singular, indicating application to Adam (and by appropriation, Eve, cf., 3:2-3). However, nothing in the text indicates any punitive extension to non-human entities such as animals. Thus, he states, “If one wants to speak of fallen nature, he should mean by that a world fallen in man—namely, a world that is ruled by sinful human beings and … is the means by which those humans find toil and frustration.”
Unfortunately, to points such as these, Kreitzer offers no direct rejoinder. In fact, he goes so far as to accuse Collins of doing eisegesis with respect to his genre classification of Genesis 1 as exalted prose narrative, a pericope that Kreitzer classifies as “straightforward historical prose.” In support of this accusation, he asserts that the Jews and the church held to the latter genre based on “overt evidence in the text itself” and that “the narrative style is nothing different from any other Hebrew narrative in Scripture and thus must be read as history not God’s heavenly story.” Of course, the obvious oversight in this reasoning is that Genesis 1 is unique from every other Old Testament historical narrative in its description of events that were unwitnessed by any human person.
Additionally, the “straightforward historical prose” that Kreitzer prefers encounters difficulties internal to the text itself. For example, in harmonizing the difficulty between Genesis 1:11-13 (creation of vegetation, plants, trees on “a third day”) and Genesis 2:5-7 (“no shrub of the Earth was yet in the Earth … then the Lord created man … then the garden is planted and trees grow), Collins observes that this is resolved if the latter Hebrew word translated “Earth” (‘erets) is rendered “land,” as the ESV translates it. Collins’ view—which preserves the creation sequence and Mosaic authorship of chapters 1 and 2—is that vegetation, plants and trees were created chronologically prior to man, as Genesis 1 states; thus, Genesis 2 refers to a particular “land” (i.e., not the entire “Earth”) during a given season (summer), which was due for rain. Naturally, this harmonization only works if a full climatic cycle occurred before man arrived on the scene, but this requires more than three days in the creation period. However, since adequate time for this seasonal cycle is unavailable on Kreitzer’s analysis, the textual difficulty remains on his “straightforward” reading of the text.
Insofar as Kreitzer’s review cites only two ‘agreeable’ observations by Collins, it represents one end of the theological spectrum where dissenters of an extended creation period are plentiful and sometimes bugged by contrasting perspectives. Unfortunately, it appears that Kreitzer represents the latter party in this case, as the two ‘agreeable’ elements he cites are merely used as jumping-off points for an assailment of Collins’ analysis. Specifically, he writes:
There are many outstanding insights that Collins provides to help understand this foundational passage. For example, He claims that the original creation was very good. However, by supporting billions of years of nature “red in tooth and claw” he cannot support the seemingly meaningless chaos of the fossil record…” [and] “Another excellent point of Collins’ work is the fact that he correctly states that the original creation was “very good.” Yet he never attempts to deal with the counter-discussion that a very good creation, according to Scripture itself, was an earth with harmony between predators and prey and between children and deadly vipers.
Clearly, to regard Collins’ recognition that creation was “very good,” hardly seems to exemplify any “outstanding insight” on his part, and thus calls into question the genuineness of Kreitzer’s ostensible commendation. Moreover, since a similar tone pervades his assessment, the review ends up reflecting a kind of diatribe much more than an objective treatment of Collins’ actual analysis.
However, as Old Testament Professor William Barrick demonstrates in his review of Genesis 1-4, it is possible to “take a number of issues with Collins’ interpretations,” and yet appreciate that “The detail with which he pursues its text and its implications theologically is unmatched in the usual commentaries.” For example, instead of berating the author for his old-earth perspective, Barrick regards him as being “disarmingly transparent” when he states that his “sympathies are with the harmonizers. But I hope I am honest enough to change my mind if the evidence leads elsewhere.” In fact, it is Collins’ transparency coupled with his detailed exegesis and charitable treatment of opposing views that gives credibility to his project. Perhaps this is why Professor Barrick, in spite of his numerous interpretative disagreements with Collins, will make Genesis 1-4 “required reading for all future course offerings.”
In spite of the dissenting views, many readers regard Collins’ work as an agreeable treatment of the text and what has become a controversial subject in a modern era—namely, the science-religion relationship and its implications for biblical inspiration and inerrancy. For example, one reviewer articulates the issue by observing, “While I remain convinced the whole Bible - from Genesis to Revelation - is uniquely inspired by God, it seems our focus on ‘verbal’ inspiration has created a blind spot; we seem to miss the literary forest for the lexicographical trees.” Since maintaining a robust doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy is probably what many critics of Collins’ work have in mind, it is important to observe that he preserves these key doctrines by acknowledging the importance of such textual features as phenomenological language.
In that regard, James Hamilton, Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary, notes how Collins emphasizes that “the world picture described in the Bible might not be as different from our own as some [dissenters of inerrancy] suggest.” Here, the concept of world picture differs from worldview in that the latter is intended as normative while the former need not be. By way of example, Collins writes, “I, as a modern who accepts contemporary cosmology as part of my world picture, can share a worldview with some ancient whose world picture involved a stationary earth with an orbiting sun.” Thus, as Hamilton summarizes:
Collins argues against the view that “the water under the earth” (Exod 20:4) refers to a subterranean ocean (264), and he asserts, “There is no evidence that the ‘expanse’ . . . must be describing a solid canopy as a physical entity; it is enough to take it as if the sky were such” (264, emphasis his). For Collins, “it may well be that some biblical statements reflect a world picture that we cannot share—say, on the size of the earth, or that the moon is a lamp rather than a reflector. But this does not mean that the world picture is part of the message being communicated” (265).
Such considerations underscore the importance of recognizing phenomenological language when distinguishing the biblical narrator’s worldview (from which the communicative intent is derived) from their world picture—a feature that can obscure the communicative intent when given undue priority.
Given the careful and thorough treatment that Collins gives, both exegetically and theologically to these and other key issues within the early chapters of Genesis, it can be safely concluded that he accomplished his intent of providing “an academically rigorous treatment of the biblical text.” Since unanimity of opinion in this domain is an impossible standard by which to judge the matter, Collins’ success can be evaluated not merely by those who give hearty approval of his work, but especially by recognized experts who disagree with his conclusions, though still endorse the quality of his analysis and argumentation (e.g., Professor William Barrick).
While Collins’ target audience is technically “pastors and students,” the latter category is broad enough to encompass anyone willing to wrestle with the material he presents. On that note, there is an assumed level of competence in ancient Hebrew (and some Greek), as words and passages are, in many cases, cited in their ‘original’ forms to derive the most thorough insights and detailed meaning. Additionally, presentation of concepts requiring specific grammatical knowledge, such as Hebrew verb conjugation, typically occurs without the benefit of amplifying instructional explanation. Thus, in order to get full use of this volume, prospective readers who do not possess such background knowledge should be prepared to either infer the concepts from the context, or reference additional study materials in parallel with their reading.
Also, as the book’s title makes sufficiently clear, this is very much a “commentary,” not a special work in apologetics or polemical theology, though hints of both disciplines inevitably surface. Nevertheless, developing a solid grasp of Collins’ analysis and argumentation can serve the apologist well in regard to science-theology issues such as those mentioned in the assessment of this review (e.g., distinguishing worldview from world picture, especially in light of phenomenological language). Finally, given the significance of the subject matter itself, this work is recommended reading for anyone who desires a deeper interaction with these important passages (regardless of their expositional or theological training). As Collins observes, “For it is the true story of our beginning…of how we got here, of how we ought to live now…and of God’s faithfulness to his people.”
These are followed by chapters on Sources, Unity & Authorship (in which he discusses the arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis, then gives his reasons for concluding that Moses is the primary author), The Communicative Purpose, questions of history & science, and appropriating Genesis 1-4 today.
He even explains why he chose to include Genesis 4 in this book about "The Beginning." I found Genesis 1-4 to be a well-documented, well-reasoned study that is eminently suitable for a layman like myself.
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