Book Review: How to Read Genesis

[I wrote this review for an Old Testament class. I hope it’s helpful]:

Tremper Longman III . How to Read Genesis. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 2005. 178 pp. $15.00.

            Every story starts somewhere, and a coherent story makes sense only against the backdrop of the beginning of that story. God’s story, as God moves it seamlessly along the trajectory we might call “redemptive history”, begins with a book commonly called “Genesis” or “beginning”. In Genesis, God begins the story. If we want to understand the story, we must understand Genesis. Because of that, Tremper Longman wrote a book — How to Read Genesis. Longman is a professor of Old Testament, and understands that the Bible is “a single book, of which the book of Genesis is the first chapter” (15). When Longman titled his book, he told his audience his purpose in writing it: “to explore the interpretation of the book of Genesis” (16). He aims “to present an overarching understanding of the book itself” (16) and “to reflect on the principles of interpretation that are most important to arriving at a proper understanding of the book” (16).

Summary

            In How to Read Genesis Longman does not intend to provide an exhaustive commentary. He, as stated above, desires to provide an “overarching understanding” of Genesis, and to inform and apply relevant hermeneutical principles. He divides his work into five parts. He examines how to read Genesis: (1) with a strategy; (2) as literature; (3) in its own world; (4) as God’s story; (5) as Christians. Parts 1-3 are more “methodological”, outlining tools (both general and those specific to Genesis) for the reader to use. Parts 4-5 are Longman’s interpretations of the larger narratives and the Christological factor seen in Genesis as a whole.

In Part 1, Longman presents basic hermeneutical principles. These are: (1) recognizing the literary nature of Genesis; (2) exploring the historical background of Genesis; (3) reflecting on the theological teaching of Genesis; (4) reflecting on the contemporary situation. Throughout he builds what adds up to a list of fourteen interpretive questions (38-39). In Part 2, Longman discusses the authorship of Genesis and the “shape” of Genesis. First, he discusses the issues surrounding Mosaic authorship of Genesis, outlining also the Documentary Hypothesis. He then discusses the “shape” of Genesis, by which he means: (1) the genre of literature; (2) the structure or “outline” (59) of the book; (3) the author’s style. Part 3 is Longman’s discussion of the historical context of Genesis. He examines three things: (1) whether Genesis is intended as myth or history; (2) the relationship of the flood account to other flood accounts; (3) the customs surrounding the Ancient Near East at the time of the Patriarchs.

Longman, in Part 4, divides Genesis in three broad sections, examining each one in turn. These are: (1) The Primeval Narratives: Genesis 1-11; (2) The Patriarchal Narratives: Genesis 12-36; (3) The Joseph Story: Genesis 37-50. Part 5 finds Longman concluding with a reading of key Genesis passages in light of Jesus Christ, that is, “reading Genesis as Christians” (163).

Critical Evaluation

            Overall, Longman’s book aids the reading of Genesis immensely. It is a resource that can be widely used at the lay level because of its readability and helpfulness. At the end of each chapter, there is a bibliography “for further reading” on the topic. Longman also includes an appendix with an annotated bibliography of commentaries on Genesis. The first three sections of the book give the reader a comprehensive and helpful framework for interpreting the book. In many ways, after reading this book, someone could come to a very satisfying (both personally and exegetically) interpretation of Genesis, in part and in whole.

            So, it should be clear that at the macro level, the book is fabulous. That said, a three more minor-level criticisms can be levied against the book. First, on the issue of authorship, Longman lends too much credit to the “ultimately composite nature” (56) of Genesis. Now, his point relates to what appear to be later scribal and editorial comments within Genesis. That these comments and edits were made seems almost indisputable. However, his language appears to be somewhat heavy when he calls Genesis “ultimately composite”, later saying that the Pentateuch underwent “significant post-Mosaic redactional activity” (57). Troublingly, Longman makes these statements, but does not clearly define what he means. This lack of clarity in Longman’s language here – i.e., “ultimately” and “significant” – can too easily be read to mean that the majority of the Pentateuch has a non-Mosaic, composite nature.

            Second, in his discussion of the creation of man and woman, Longman is ambiguous as to the nature of the relationship between the sexes. Longman says of the Hebrew ‘ezer that “whatever the translation, it is important to realize that this term does not imply subordination” (108). Again, it seems that here Longman does not sufficiently define his term. Paul appeals to creation as the basis of a woman’s “submissiveness” (1 Tim 2:8-15, ESV). If Longman means by “subordination” the notion of “submission,” he interprets Genesis wrongly. Possibly he means something close to “lesser human value”, but, again, he does not clearly define himself here.

            A third and final critique pertains to Longmans discussion of the genealogies, specifically that of Genesis 5. He explains that ancient genealogies would often skip generations because “many [i.e. genealogies] simply desire to show a line of descent” (122). The implication of this is that “we must not use [genealogies] to figure out how much time passed from the beginning of the genealogy to the end” (123). Now, it seems that in this case Longman hauls the burden of proof upon himself; because on a superficial reading the genealogies certainly appear to show a direct and chronological lineage. His proof for this assertion about the genealogies is this: “We learn these facts about the genre of genealogy from a comparison with other genealogies from the broader Ancient Near East” (123). He provides a footnote to a work on genealogy, but does not give any sort of annotation for the work cited.

This third critique is the most pertinent, because the age of the earth is a major point of debate amongst conservative scholars (and scientists). The genealogies are a crucial piece of the puzzle. It would have been more helpful if Longman had given even a truncated proof for his interpretation of the genealogies. His position might be rock-solid, but, as stated, the burden of proof is on Longman, and his proof is lacking

Conclusion

            As stated, the criticisms against How to Read Genesis all occupy a mirco-level place in the book as a whole. Overall, the book provides an immense help to the reader, especially one who does not want to sift through a technical or painfully detailed commentary. It is not an overstatement to say that How to Read Genesis should be the first non-biblical book to give someone who wants to understand the book of beginnings. It is fundamentally sound, practically helpful, and Christ-centered. It provides the reader with working and workable knowledge of two contexts: the context surrounding the events and writing of Genesis and the context of eternity, when the Seed of the woman and Abraham will rule forever.

 

 

 

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About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
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3 Responses to Book Review: How to Read Genesis

  1. Dad says:

    God has such perfect timing.
    I am finishing up doing a study of Matthew in the next couple of weeks. I wanted to teach through Genesis next. (First book of each testament and all that, I guess…)
    I’m gonna get this book as part of my plan.
    Thanks!

  2. Alex says:

    What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher’s interpretation of the story? (here: samsonblinded.org/blog/genesis-37.htm ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I’d like to hear other opinions.

  3. Danny Slavich says:

    Alex,

    It doesn’t seem to be a very plausible interpretation. I think it misreads Judah’s motives — see the word “profit” in the text, which indicates that Judah wanted to gain financially, along with ridding the brothers of Joseph.

    The text clearly says that the brothers, with Judah at the helm, sold Joseph into slavery. Why else would they be fearful when the again encounter Joseph in the later chapters of Genesis?

    Blessings,
    Danny

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