Category Archives: The Book of Genesis

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

maxresdefaultThe more I study Genesis, the more I am convinced that we often come to the Creation story (and other biblical texts) with the wrong questions. How one answers the question, “Are the seven days of Creation literal?”, can determine in some people’s minds whether a person is orthodox or not. To some it is a question of believing or not believing in the authority of the Bible. Perhaps “wrong” is too strong a word in my above statement. Given our 21st century mindset, and the Creation-Science debate, the question of whether Creation took place in seven days seems to be perfectly logical. My point is that we often fail to examine the presuppositions that lie behind some of the questions we ask. If we fail to examine the presuppositions behind our questions, we are in danger of bringing our own agenda to the biblical text and expecting answers that the text may not be addressing. In other words, since the age of Enlightenment we are predisposed to ask questions about the material origins of things. Where did this come from and how did it happen? These are perfectly good questions but we mustn’t assume that they are the same questions people in the ancient world would ask. I am of the mindset that we should first seek to understand what the Bible means in its ancient context. I have written elsewhere on the importance of biblical backgrounds and understanding the culture of the ancient world (see here. You can also click on “Bible backgrounds” for other articles). Just as most people need the ancient Hebrew translated into a modern language they can understand, so it is important to translate (as much as is possible based on our current state of knowledge) an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture (the culture in which the Bible was birthed). Once we can determine the ancient context and what a story would have meant to the original audience, it becomes an easier task to see what it is saying to us today. After all, if we come with our own agenda and seek to place an artificial grid over the text through which it must be interpreted, we can make the Bible say anything we like. My purpose in this article is to first examine what Genesis 1 meant in its ancient Israelite (Near Eastern) context, and then to return to the question of whether Genesis is teaching that Creation took place in a literal 7-day period.

The Connection Between Creation Stories and Building Temples

Walton's book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.
Walton’s book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.

Ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian literature all share the common trait of viewing the temples of their various gods as being the hub of the cosmos (the world as they knew it). John Walton states, “Throughout the ancient world, the temple was a significant part of the cosmic landscape. It was considered to be at the center of the cosmos, the place from which the cosmos was controlled, and a small model of the cosmos—a microcosm” (Walton, J. H. (2011). Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (p. 100). Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns). The building of ancient temples are described in cosmic terms with their tops in the heavens and their roots in the world below (the netherworld). Temples were viewed as the foundation of the cosmos and the bond that held everything together. Temples were pictured as sources of life-giving water and thus were providers of the fertility of the land. From the temple the god controlled the fertility of the land. Most importantly for our purposes here Walton notes that, “The interrelationship between cosmos and temple is also evidenced by the fact that accounts of origins often include accounts of temple building, with temple building at times being at the climax of the origin account or even serving as the purpose for creation” (Walton, J. H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology p. 107). Walton not only makes these observations, but gives plenty of evidence by quoting from ancient sources. Check out his book if you’re interested in reading the actual sources. Another way of summing up the importance of the connection between creation and temple building is the quote cited by Walton from Coote and Ord which states,  “The temple is the focal point of creation in nearly every account available to us“(p. 107, emphasis mine).

Temples, Resting, and 7 Days

Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.
Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.

Two other features are significant regarding the temples in the ancient world. First a temple is the resting place of the god. Although rest can imply different things since ancient gods had many human qualities, most importantly rest communicates the concept of rule. As when a god rests on his throne in the temple. This is not for the purpose of taking a nap, but for ruling. The other significant feature is that several accounts of ancient temple building relate it to a seven day inauguration period at the end of which the god comes to dwell in the temple.

To this point we have noted connections between Creation and temple building and the concepts of rest (meaning rule) and seven days. However, all of this has been in reference to literature of the ancient Near East. The evidence referred to is not to say that the Bible has borrowed from the Creation myths or temple building stories of the nations around them, as much as it is to note that these things are part of the culture of the times. These ideas are in the “atmosphere” of the ancient world and as such Israel partakes of similar ideas (though distinct in other ways). This is where some, especially those who think of themselves as Bible fundamentalists, become uncomfortable. Before moving to the biblical evidence (which will hopefully satisfy those who are skeptical), I think it’s important to take a short rabbit trail and talk about the importance of understanding another culture.

Although people today have different beliefs about various things, they share certain cultural language and understandings. If I say I have taken a flight from Paris to Atlanta, everyone knows that I booked a flight on an airline and flew in a plane to Atlanta. I don’t have to explain myself in detail. I don’t have to mention that I had to go through a security check. Everyone knows that is part of the procedure. If I talk about my laptop or texting someone, or say I have taken a “selfie,” everyone knows what I mean without further explanation. However, if someone from the past could come and visit our 21st century culture (even from as short a time as 150 years ago), they would have no idea what I meant by any of these things. Our culture, our history, our language, would all need explaining. If I told someone from the past that I flew from Paris to Atlanta they might think I’m lying or claiming to be a god (because who can fly?), and they may not have any idea what Paris and Atlanta are. The same is true of the ancient world as we try and understand their culture and language. There are many concepts taken for granted because they were understood and didn’t need further explanation. Ancients understood the connection between Creation accounts and building temples. It was as much a part of their culture as selfies and laptops are a part of ours…no additional explanations were needed. This is why when we read Genesis 1:1-2:3 we do not automatically see that the Creation story is talking about God taking up residence in His temple. And if we preoccupy ourselves with questions from our own cultural standpoint (Are the seven days of Creation literal?), we will never hear the original message. We need “ears to hear” and it begins with understanding the culture and the signals that are in the language of the text that communicates its meaning.

The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon's temple.
The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon’s temple.

Before presenting the biblical side of this argument I’d like to illustrate what I have just stated above. God authorized Moses to build a tabernacle, a dwelling place that would symbolize His presence with His people (Exod. 25-27). We are told that the plans were given to Moses on the mount and he was to see that everything was made according to that pattern (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). Therefore the plan of the tabernacle came from God. When Solomon’s temple was constructed, it was built by following the plan of the tabernacle, except that it was twice as large. However, we know from Scripture that Solomon was aided by Hiram, King of Phoenecia, and his craftsmen (1 Kgs. 5:18; 1 Chron. 2:7). We also have evidence of temples built before the time of Solomon that resemble the plan of Solomon’s temple (see the picture at the left from Ain Dara). An article from Bible History Daily entitled “Searching for the Temple of King Solomon,” states, “the closest known parallel to the Temple of King Solomon is the ’Ain Dara temple in northern Syria. Nearly every aspect of the ’Ain Dara temple—its age, its size, its plan, its decoration—parallels the vivid description of the Temple of King Solomon in the Bible. In fact, Monson identified more than 30 architectural and decorative elements shared by the ’Ain Dara structure and the Jerusalem Temple described by the Biblical writers.” My point is that in some important ways, the Temple of Solomon was unique. However, in many other ways it resembled other temples that were part of the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East.  Similarly, the Creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is unique (and it certainly proclaims a very unique theology), however, it also shares commonalities with the culture of its time in the way the story is told.

The Bible and Creation, Temple Building, 7 Days, and Rest

Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God's rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!
Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God’s rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!

Although I admittedly went on a bit of a rabbit trail above, I hope I have demonstrated that it is important to consider evidence presented to us from the ancient Near East when seeking to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. What I would now like to demonstrate is that the Bible makes the same equation between Creation, temple building, seven days and rest. Isaiah 66:1 connects several of these ideas. In this verse, Heaven is said to be God’s throne, while the earth is His footstool. The next question concerns building God a temple: “Where is the house that you will build for Me?” In other words, if the heavens and the earth are God’s temple, how can He be contained in a building? The final question in this verse connects the idea of rest with a temple when God asks: “And where is the place of My rest?” The image of throne mentioned earlier in this verse helps us to understand that God’s rest involves his rule over Creation (the heavens and the earth). Psalm 132:7-8 speaks about God’s tabernacle, which is referred to as His “footstool” (just as the earth was called God’s footstool in Isa. 66:1). The psalm goes on to picture the ark of the covenant being taken up to be put in the tabernacle with the words, “Arise O Lord, to Your resting place.” Later in the psalm we learn that “The Lord has chosen Zion.” Zion is His dwelling place and God declares, “This is my resting place forever” (Ps. 132:13-14). These passages from Isaiah and Psalms clearly connect the ideas of God’s temple being His creation (heaven and earth), along with the tabernacle and temple which are only copies of the reality. These passages also assert that God rules from his Temple (that’s where His throne is) and it is His resting place.

We have still not mentioned how the idea of seven days fits in. Above, we noted that in other ancient Near Eastern accounts of temple building the time period of 7 days was significant for the inauguration of the temple and its occupation by deity. The same understanding can be found in the account of the building and consecrating of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6-8. In 1 Kings 6:38 were are told that it took Solomon seven years to build the Temple. In chapter 8, the Temple is inaugurated during the Feast of Booths which occurs in the seventh month. This feast, according to Deuteronomy 16:13-15 lasts seven days. Solomon actually extends the seven day feast for an additional seven days (1 Kgs. 8:65). Note the emphasis on temple building and the number seven in this passage: 7 years, the 7th month, a 7 day feast, followed by another 7 days.

When Genesis 1:1-2:3 relates that God created the world in seven days and then rested, what it is seeking to communicate is that God created the earth as His Temple. God’s desire is to dwell with human beings. That’s what a temple or tabernacle is all about. God’s rest on the seventh day means that He has taken up the task of ruling over what He has created. This truth is communicated very effectively by John Walton and N.T. Wright in a couple of short videos. Here are the links: John Walton: Interpreting the Creation Story; and NT Wright and Peter Enns: What Do You Mean By Literal?

Conclusion: So Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

After looking at the above argument and watching the video by NT Wright and Peter Enns, my hope is that we might rethink our question. My question would be, “Why does the inspired author structure the Creation story according to seven days?” One answer could be, “Because it really happened in seven days.” But based on the evidence presented here, we might say that a more important observation is what those seven days communicate. If the Creation story is seeking to tell us something about God’s desire to dwell and rule among his creation, that seems like a far more important truth than simply saying seven days means He created the world in seven days. The modern question and answer doesn’t leave us much to chew on. But the intent of the story in its original context gives us a lot to think about! The debate about whether the days of Creation in Genesis 1 are 24 hour days has good arguments both for and against. For example, the sun, moon, and stars are not created until Day 4 (Gen. 1:14-19). Since we are told they were created “for signs and seasons, and for days and years,” we might conclude that it is impossible to tell how long the first three days were. We measure days, months, and years by the sun and moon, so how do we know that days 1-3 were literal 24 hour days if there was no sun or moon? Another unusual feature of the Creation story is that every day ends with the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning.” Every day, that is, except day 7 which has no ending whatsoever. Now that’s a long day! This clearly suggests that the focus is not on a 24 hour period. However, the 24-hour-side might come back and point out that Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath because, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exod. 20:11). This now sounds like literal 24 hour days. More arguments can be mounted in favor of both positions. To me the sad point in all of this is while we argue which position is the correct one, or the most orthodox one, we are missing the true beauty of the Creation narrative and the real significance behind the meaning of the seven days! In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me whether God created the world in 7 literal 24 hour days or in a longer (or even shorter!) span of time. I want to know why He created this world,  and what Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to say to my life.

Favorite Genesis Commentaries

Favorite Genesis Commentaries

Last year I intended to begin a series of posts on my favorite biblical commentaries. I began with a post on my favorite commentaries from 1&2 Samuel (click here), but unfortunately I have not taken the time to continue this series until now. Below I list some of my favorite Genesis commentaries. But before proceeding to the list below I’d like to explain a little about my selection of commentaries for biblical books. As Michael Heiser explains in his mobile ed course from Logos, Introducing Biblical Interpretation, there are 3 different kinds of commentaries: 1. Devotional or Popular (a one volume commentary with very general info);  2. Expositional (more specific, English based, dealing with some textual issues); and 3. Scholarly (based on research in the original languages, with more indepth discussion of the various issues raised by a text). Generally, my commentary selections come from category 3 because I have found these kinds of commentaries to be the most insightful and beneficial. Sometimes a selection may also come from category 2. Although devotional commentaries are a great resource for getting some basics and for inspiration, my focus is on those commentaries that give a deeper insight into the text. Following the lead of my previous article on Samuel commentaries, I will list my 5 favorite Genesis commentaries, although this time I have listed them in the order of my preference from 5 to 1.

This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

5. James McKeown, Genesis, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 398 pp.

What I like about the Two Horizons Commentary format is that the first part of the book focuses on the commentary proper while the second half of the book treats important theological topics raised by the biblical book under discussion. The commentary on Genesis itself in the first part of this book is only 193 pages. My first reaction was that this was a thin treatment of a biblical book with 50 chapters! However, McKeown doesn’t waste any space and does an excellent job of focusing on the main points of the text. The second half of the book greatly enriches the commentary portion and allows McKeown extra space to focus on important topics in Genesis. McKeown breaks his treatment down into 3 parts: 1) Theological Message of the Book; 2) Genesis and Theology Today; and 3) Genesis and Biblical Theology. Under “Theological Message of the Book,” McKeown devotes 100 pages to the important themes of Genesis. His opening discussion concerns “Main Unifying Themes,” of which he sees descendants (the theme of the seed), blessing (or relationship with God), and land as the key themes of Genesis. McKeown states that, “The theme of descendants is the foundational or key theme, since the others, blessing and land, can only be recognized by their relational function to those who benefit from them–the descendants” (p. 197). In Part 2: “Genesis and Theology Today McKeown examines the various questions regarding Genesis and Science (Creationist and other approaches, the Day/Age theory, etc.). Part 3: “Genesis and Biblical Theology,” examines the influence of Genesis (including quotes, allusions, and ideas) on the rest of the biblical canon. If someone was looking for an insightful, but shorter treatment of the Book of Genesis, this is a commentary I would definitely recommend.

This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

4. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 656 pp.

One of the greatest strengths of this Genesis commentary by Waltke, is also one of its weaknesses. Waltke pays great attention to the structure of the Book of Genesis. He believes it is an intricately woven set of concentric patterns (some would say chiastic patterns). Although Waltke really opened my eyes to the literary beauty of the Book of Genesis, and taught me to look at it in a way I had not before, many would argue that at least some of his concentric patterns are forced. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that his commentary follows the outline of the Book of Genesis by using the “these are the generations of” (Hebrew: toledoth) formula. A lot of the introductory material is designed to familiarize the reader with various literary techniques that can be found in the Book of Genesis. Things such as key word, contrast and comparison, foreshadowing, and inclusion, to name a few. Besides a commentary section, Waltke has many other useful ways in which he examines the passage. He summarizes the theme of each “book” (or toledoth), provides an outline, does a literary analysis showing the structure, summarizes the theology and adds other helpful discussions. For example, in “Book 2,” (Gen. 5:1-6:8), Waltke provides helpful discussions on genealogical structure and the use of numbers. While one may not agree with all of Waltke’s conclusions, this Genesis commentary is packed full of information and insight, and presents a very illuminating way of looking at the Book of Genesis.

Volume 1 of Hamilton's 2 volume Genesis commentary, available at Amazon USA / UK
Volume 1 of Hamilton’s 2 volume Genesis commentary, available at Amazon USA / UK

3. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, vols. 1&2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990, 1995), 522 & 774 pp. respectively

The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) series is simply one of the best commentary series out there (its companion on the New Testament is also excellent–see my review here). If you’re looking for high quality evangelical scholarship, this series is hard to beat. Hamilton certainly upholds this standard in his excellent 2 volume Genesis commentary. Hamilton begins in volume 1 with a 100-page introduction which concludes with a whopping 25 page bibliography! In the Introduction, Hamilton discusses such topics as the structure, composition, theology, and canonicity of Genesis, as well as others. Unlike the other two commentaries mentioned above, the NICOT includes a translation by the author from the original Hebrew. Thus each section begins with this fresh translation and any footnotes the author deems necessary in explaining the Hebrew text and his translation of it. A verse by verse commentary follows. Each section (usually following chapter divisions) concludes with a helpful section entitled: “New Testament Appropriation.” This section looks at NT quotes from Genesis or the NT’s appropriation (hence the title) of certain concepts from Genesis (e.g., the image of God). As one might expect from a commentary that is approximately 1300 pages, Hamilton’s commentary patiently discusses significant problems in Genesis interpretation (e.g., who are the “sons of God?”) and provides a lot of wonderful insights.

Wenham's 2 volume Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
Wenham’s 2 volume Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

2. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis, Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Waco: Word Books, 1987, 1994), 353 & 517 pp. respectively

For those of you who read any of my reviews, you may be aware that Gordon J. Wenham is a favorite author of mine (see my review of Exploring the Old Testament: Pentateuch, by Wenham). This is actually my favourite Genesis commentary, but my reason for putting it at number 2 will be discussed below under number 1. Wenham spends more than half of his introduction discussing “Genesis in Recent Research,” which involves the authorship and composition of Genesis. It includes a look at the documentary hypothesis (JEDP) and the “New Literary Criticism” approach. Wenham argues for the unity of many of the Genesis narratives and concludes that the most likely scenario for Genesis is that it was written by one author whom he designates as “J” (using the old terminology) somewhere between 1250 – 950 B.C., with a few late editorial updates (e.g., “Ur of the Chaldeans”–Gen. 15:7). Wenham sums up his discussion of the theology of Genesis by stating “If the message of Genesis is essentially one of redemption, Gen. 3-11 explains why man needs salvation and what he needs to be saved from” (p. lii). For those who are unfamiliar with the format used by Word Biblical Commentary, each section contains the following: 1) an original translation of the Hebrew text by the author; 2) notes on the translation itself; 3) comments on the form, structure, and setting of the passage under consideration; 4) a comment section (this is the verse by verse commentary); and 5) an explanation section which sums up the meaning of the text and seeks modern-day application. Each section also includes a detailed bibliography. One of the strongest aspects of Wenham’s commentary, in my opinion, is his analysis of the structure and flow of the narrative in Genesis. While this is more commonplace in commentaries today, Wenham’s Genesis commentary was among the pioneering efforts of the New Literary Criticism approach. The careful reader will be greatly rewarded working his or her way through this excellent commentary.

This 2-volume Genesis commentary by Mathews is available at Amazon USA / UK
This 2-volume Genesis commentary by Mathews is available at Amazon USA / UK

1. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis, The New American Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996, 2005), 528, 960 pp. respectively

My reason for giving the nod to Mathew’s commentary on Genesis over Wenham’s is because Mathews has the benefit of reaping the insights of Wenham, Hamilton, and many other Genesis commentators before him. If you could only buy one Genesis commentary, this is the one I would recommend because of the great synthesis of material that it contains. This is not to say that Mathews does not offer his own contributions to understanding the text of Genesis, but only to affirm that he has greatly benefitted from the work of others before him. The sheer size of this commentary, nearly 1500 pages, suggests its thoroughness (at least as far as can be expected on any one book of the Bible). Mathews excellent 90 page introduction in volume 1 only covers that volume (which treats Gen. 1:1-11:26). In volume 2, Mathews has another 60 pages of introductory material before beginning the commentary on Genesis 11:27-50:26. Mathew’s favors a literary approach, and this is one of the first things he discusses in the Introduction of volume 1. The stated purpose of the New American Commentary series by the editors includes “illuminating both the historical meaning and contemporary significance of Holy Scripture” (Editors’ Preface) and focuses on two concerns: 1) how each section of a book fits together; and 2) a theological exegesis which provides practical, applicable exposition. The NIV translation is used throughout the commentary with the author’s comments on the Hebrew text when necessary. Each section begins with an outline of the passage under consideration followed by introductory comments, commentary on the verses themselves. Theology and application is interwoven in the commentary and at points the commentary is punctuated by “Excurses” on important topics. Mathews demonstrates a mastery of the material and no important discussion is omitted. This commentary is the most comprehensive commentary on Genesis that I have come across. It should definitely be a part of any Christian’s library who desires to be a student of the Word.

There are, of course, many other commentaries on the Book of Genesis worthy of reading. Those mentioned above are simply my favorites. Honorable mention should also be given to Umberto Cassuto’s 2- volume Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann’s Genesis commentary in the Interpretation series, and Gerhard Von Rad’s Genesis commentary in the Old Testament Library series. For a popular treatment of Genesis that is based on scholarly research (but reads as if the author is telling you about his discoveries in Genesis), one should consult Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard by Paul Borgman. By the way, Borgman is the author of David, Saul, & God, previously reviewed by me at the following link (click here).

As the first book of the Bible, and as the book that provides the foundation for all the rest, I would greatly encourage you to study the book of Genesis. I am confident that studying it with one or more of the commentaries above by your side would be a blessing and greatly enhance your knowledge and understanding of Genesis. For an overview of the main theme of Genesis see my article: The Theme of the Book of Genesis.

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK
Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK

The Exploring the Old Testament (as well as Exploring the New Testament) Series, has similar goals to the “Encountering Biblical Study Series” (see my review here on Encountering the Book of Genesis), and the “Teach the Text Series” (see my review here on 1&2 Samuel in the Teach the Text Series). Each of these series focuses on providing the beginning Bible student with an overview of a certain book or certain portion of Scripture. The goal is to introduce the reader to the main teachings and issues involved. The biggest difference with the Exploring the Old Testament Series is that it focuses on larger blocks of Scripture (The Pentateuch, the Historical Books, etc.). The author of this volume, Gordon Wenham is Senior Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at the University of Gloucestershire and is currently lecturing at Trinity College, Bristol. Ever since his commentary on Leviticus in the New International Commentary Series published in the late 70s, Wenham has been a favorite author and commentator of mine. You can always expect to learn something new. His books are always insightful and clearly written.

Contents of Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch

Gordon J. Wenham, author of "Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch."
Gordon J. Wenham, author of “Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch.”

For a book with only 199 pages of text, Wenham covers a lot of territory and packs in a lot of information! There are 11 chapters (including a 1 page “Epilogue”). Chapter 1 begins by asking, “What is the Pentateuch? Basic Features.” Wenham discusses the name, the genre, why there are 5 books, and other introductory questions. Chapters 2-7 present an overview of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each chapter looks at particular issues and problems related to each book, and gives a chapter by chapter commentary over the entire book. The reason that it takes 6 chapters to discuss 5 books is because Wenham spends 2 chapters on Genesis (dividing his discussion between Genesis 1-11 and then 12-50). Like the “Encountering Biblical Studies” (EBS), each chapter of “Exploring the Old Testament” includes maps, charts and tables. This volume on the Pentateuch, however, unlike EBS, does not include photos, which I believe is a wise choice. As noted in my review of “Encountering the Book of Genesis” (see link above), the reproduction of black and white photos tends to come out very poorly. When Wenham has felt the need to reproduce a particular image, it has been drawn rather than photographically reproduced. All of the drawings, maps, charts, etc., have been done by Wenham’s son Christopher, who has done an admirable job. I found the charts to be particularly helpful. Wenham frequently includes charts to show parallels or demonstrate differences in the text. Wenham also includes text boxes. Some of these highlight special issues such as “Egypt in the Joseph Story,” in the Book of Genesis (p. 53), or “Further Reflection on the Census Results,” in the Book of Numbers (p. 106). Many of the boxes are labeled “Digging Deeper.” Wenham explains these boxes to the reader by stating, “I want you to get out of the tourist bus and explore the terrain for yourself before you move on to the next issue” (p. xiv). These boxes are designed to present thought provoking questions and assignments that allow readers to do some “digging” for themselves. Here are a few sample topics: “Ancient Marriage Customs” (p. 48), “Making Sense of Sacrifice” (p. 86), “The Chosen Place of Worship in Deuteronomy” (p. 134), and “Claims of Mosaic Authorship” (p. 160).

The final chapters of Exploring the Old Testament Vol. 1: The Pentateuch (chaps. 8-10, not counting the “Epilogue”), include 3 important areas of discussion. Chapter 8 looks at the “Theme of the Pentateuch.” This chapter is a wonderful example of how this series seeks to present the Big Picture. Wenham approaches the theme of the Pentateuch with a  brief historical survey of what recent scholarship thinks. This not only gives the reader ideas on the main theme, it also introduces him or her to modern scholars and their thoughts on the Pentateuch (By the way, every chapter ends with a select bibliography for further reading and study). Wenham evaluates the various positions presented and then concludes with his own view of the theme of the Pentateuch. His conclusion is: “The theme of the Pentateuch is the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs, which are a reaffirmation of God’s original intentions for the human race, through God’s mercy and the collaboration of Moses” (p. 157).

Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.
Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.

In chapter 9, Wenham deals with the “Composition of the Pentateuch.” Some readers may be tempted to skip this section because it deals with the history of how scholars think the Pentateuch came into existence. I was tempted to skim it very quickly, not because I find this subject uninteresting, but because I have read many other summaries on this topic. However, I found Wenham’s treatment to be the best survey on this subject that I have ever read. He seeks to present each position clearly and fairly, allowing the reader to judge and evaluate the various theories and approaches. As in the previous chapter, Wenham also shares some of his thoughts on the production of the Pentateuch.

Chapter 10 entitled, “The Rhetoric of the Pentateuch,” is closely connected to chapter 9. Here the focus is not on how the Pentateuch came to be, but when. Based on the theories from the previous chapter, Wenham walks the reader through the various historical periods of Israel’s history asking the question “What would the original readers have learned if the Pentateuch had been written in this particular historical period?” The periods include the time of Joshua, the united monarchy (David and Solomon), the time of Josiah (7th century B.C.), and the post-exilic period (5th century B.C.). Wenham states the values of each historical situation and allows readers an opportunity to decide for themselves. Although Wenham doesn’t seek to prejudice the reader by naming a particular historical period that he thinks the Pentateuch was completed by, it seems (by reading between the lines, and being familiar with his commentary on Genesis!), that he would opt for an earlier period rather than a later one.

Evaluation: Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1

This volume concludes with an Epilogue, a short glossary of terms, and a subject index. As noted at the outset, Wenham has done a masterful job of packing a lot of information into a thin volume. This is an excellent text for anyone seeking to gain basic knowledge about the first 5 books of the Bible. Given the purpose, I cannot note any particular weakness. I would only say that if someone was looking for a little more indepth treatment of a particular book (such as Genesis), the EBS series, or the “Teach the Text” series would be better (although there is no Genesis commentary in the “Teach the Text” series yet). But if the Big Picture is what you’re after (and in my opinion getting the Big Picture is the best way to begin), then you can’t go wrong with this volume. As a teacher, it is exciting to see publishing companies coming out with excellent introductory series for the beginning Bible student. All 3 series mentioned in this article (EBS, Teach the Text, and the Exploring series) are well worth the investment of the student’s time and money. In conclusion, I highly recommend Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch.

Buy Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch at Amazon USA / UK or From IVP Academic

  • Series: Exploring the Old Testament (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 223 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 083082541X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830825417
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.9 x 10 inches

(Special thanks to IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2003), 234 pp.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Goals

Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK
Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK

Encountering the Book of Genesis is part of the Encountering Biblical Studies (EBS) series. According to the editors, the goals of the EBS series include 5 intellectual goals and 5 attitudinal goals. The intellectual goals include: 1) present the factual content of each OT book; 2) introduce historical, geographical, and cultural backgrounds; 3)outline primary hermeneutical principles; 4) touch on critical issues (why some people read the Bible differently); and 5) substantiate the Christian faith. The attitudinal goals are a unique feature of the EBS series and include: 1) to make the Bible a part of students’ lives; 2) instill in students a love for the Scriptures; 3) to make them better people; 4) to enhance their piety; and 5) to stimulate their love for God. The attitudinal goals, along with intellectual goal number 5 (substantiate the Christian faith) make this series unabashedly evangelical in the truest sense of the word (seeking to share the gospel with a view to transforming lives). The goals also make it obvious that the focus of this series is on students. In fact, the publisher’s preface states that “this Genesis volume is intended primarily for upper-level collegians” (p. 13). This should not discourage any serious Bible student from picking up this book however. Although at times there is some “upper-level” collegiate language, the book is eminently readable and full of good information for anyone wanting to explore the main messages and issues concerning the Book of Genesis.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Structure

Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky
Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky

Arnold breaks his treatment of the Book of Genesis into 5 different parts. “Part 1: Encountering God’s Creation” looks at the so-called Primeval history found in Genesis 1-11. “Part 2: Encountering Abraham: God’s Faithful Servant,” treats Genesis 12-25. “Part 3: Encountering Jacob: God’s Troubled Servant” looks at Genesis 25-36. “Part 4: Encountering Joseph: God’s Model Servant” examines the rest of Genesis (chapters 37-50). “Part 5: Encountering the Authorship of Genesis,” completes the book by reviewing and evaluating the evidence on the authorship of Genesis. This includes everything from examining and evaluating the evidence for Mosaic authorship to surveying the history of the documentary hypothesis. A final concluding section surveys the story of Genesis and shows Genesis’s part in the canon of Scripture, especially as it relates to the Pentateuch (entitled: “From the Patriarchs to Moses”) and the rest of Scripture, including the New Testament (entitled: “From Moses to Jesus”). In terms of his actual commentary on the sections of Genesis, Arnold follows the toledoth (“these are the generations of…”) formula, which is the natural outline of the Book of Genesis itself.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Content

Each chapter of Encountering the Book of Genesis begins with an overview of what the student can expect to learn (laid out in terms of an “Outline” of the biblical text, and “Objectives”–what the student should know after reading the chapter). Similarly, each chapter ends with a set of study questions. Unlike some books with study questions, these questions are actually helpful in making the student think about the material covered in the chapter. By answering the study questions, the student can be confident that he or she has achieved the goals announced in the “Objectives” section at the beginning of the chapter.

Because Encountering the Book of Genesis is intended to be a student textbook, each section not only includes a commentary on the passage under consideration, it also includes photos, maps, charts, tables, and special text boxes that deal with specific topics. This layout has many features in common with the “Teach the Text” series reviewed elsewhere on this blog (see my review on the Samuel commentary in this series, including the Logos version which can be found here). The text boxes are often quite interesting. Some of the topics include: “Did God Use Evolution to Create the World?” (p. 27); “Life-Spans of the Pre-Flood Family of Adam” (p. 56); “Polygamy in the Bible” (p. 95); and “Levirate Marriage in the Old Testament (p. 150), to name only a few.

What I Didn’t Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

don't likeWhile it is a great idea to include photos, maps, charts, etc., the black and white presentation of the Encountering Biblical Studies series is very disappointing. In most cases the black and white photos are so indistinct that they are not helpful whatsoever. The colorful cover of Encountering the Book of Genesis is very appealing, but sets you up for a major disappointment when you open the book. Next to the photos, some of the maps that are included are unhelpful. For example, under a section entitled, “Who Were Israel’s Neighbors?” (p. 44) a black and white map of the ancient Near East is included–so far so good–but the map doesn’t detail the names or places of any of Israel’s neighbors! I also didn’t find the map of the much-disputed location of Sodom and Gomorrah very helpful (p. 103). To be fair, however, many of the other maps included are useful. Another small irritant is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Considering that the editors didn’t want to muck up the format by having footnotes at the bottom of the page, this is understandable, nevertheless, for those of us who like to look at the footnotes, it is a constant nuisance. My final complaint about this volume concerns the binding. I have the paperback version of Encountering the Book of Genesis and I found it to be very unwieldy. The book is very stiff and difficult to handle when turning from page to page. As books become used and the binding relaxes, they can often be opened to a particular page without the entire book folding back in on itself. Such is not the case with this book. You must hold it open with two hands or give up trying to read a page. This feature is another reason why the use of endnotes is annoying.

What I Did Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

i.1.s-facebook-like-button-first-amendmentWhat did I like about Encountering the Book of Genesis? Absolutely everything except what I have noted above. The text is well written and full of good information, especially for the beginning student of Genesis. Don’t let the 234 pages fool you; there is a lot of information packed into this volume! For one thing, the book is larger than usual, measuring 17.1 x 1.4 x 24.8 cm (Americans break out your measurement converters!), and consisting of two columns of text per page. Arnold is well-read. He draws from the best material available on the Book of Genesis and the ancient Near East and does a great job of distilling it for the student. He clearly communicates the main themes of Genesis (see my article, “The Theme of Genesis” for what these are), and deals with all the major issues pertaining to it. The bibliography is excellent and there is also a glossary to help the student with unfamiliar terms.

Besides his insightful comments on the text, Arnold has a couple of chapters that focus on helping the reader to gain the bigger picture of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis. In Chapter 3 “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” (pp. 43-53), Arnold looks at Israel’s neighbors, ancient Near Eastern parallels to Genesis 1 and 2-4, as well as ancient views (including Israel’s) of the nature and makeup of the universe. In the chapter on the Flood story, he also looks at ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Flood (pp. 59-61). In Chapter 6 “Tracking Abram and His Family” (pp. 77-88), Arnold looks at the geography of the ancient Near East, deals with questions related to the historicity of Abram, introduces the student to the scholarly breakdown of ancient archaeological periods (Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, etc.), and discusses the nature of the religion of the Patriarchs. In my opinion, Arnold’s discussion of the religion of the Patriarchs (which he discusses in several places throughout the text), and its differences with the later Mosaic Period, should prove to be insightful to beginning students of Genesis. While some might call Arnold a bit “preachy” I would prefer the word “pastoral.” However one looks at his application of biblical truths (personally I liked it), he admirably achieves one of the stated goals of the EBS series.

Evaluation of Encountering the Book of Genesis

I suppose the highest personal praise I can give this book is that I plan on using it as a foundational textbook for my class on Genesis. The books in the EBS series are intended to be textbooks, and Encountering the Book of Genesis has certainly achieved that goal. This book deals with all of the major themes and issues related to the Book of Genesis, while at the same time doing it in a concise way. The text boxes, tables, charts, as well as some of the maps, also go a long way in visually orienting the student for a greater learning experience. I recommend Encountering the Book of Genesis, not only to “upper-level collegians,” but to all who are interested in learning more about the Book of Genesis, while also being personally challenged to grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Buy Encountering the Book of Genesis at Amazon USA / UK

  • Series: Encountering Biblical Studies
  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801026385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801026386

(Special thanks to SPCK for sending me this copy of Encountering the Book of Genesis, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

The Theme of the Book of Genesis

The Theme of the Book of Genesis

It's important to get the big picture.
It’s important to get the big picture.

Whenever possible, I like to summarize a biblical book in one statement. This is much harder than it might seem, and sometimes I am unsuccessful in coming up with a single statement. While it might seem like an oversimplification to summarize a book of the Bible in one sentence, it is helpful when it comes to gaining the “Big Picture.” In my experience, many people do not know how to connect the dots of a book in order to see the big picture. Some study books of the Bible without ever considering how the various things said fit together. For example, the Book of Genesis contains some of the most well-known stories in the world. Stories such as the Creation, the Flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham’s offering up Isaac, and Joseph’s “rags to riches” story in Egypt, are told in every Sunday School class and have even frequently appeared on the silver screen. These stories are often told in isolation to one another and some readers never stop to consider what connections they share. So while someone might listen to a lesson on Joseph and learn about God’s faithfulness in the midst of adversity, they don’t ask what that has to do with the story of Creation, or Abraham, which are also recorded in the Book of Genesis. In other words, many people fail to grasp the big picture of a biblical book. As the old saying goes, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Bible study that never looks at the big picture can lead to more questions than answers!
Bible study that never looks at the big picture can lead to more questions than answers!

The failure to think in terms of the overall message of a book of the Bible is often the result of preaching that one Sunday is in the Gospel of John, and the next Sunday is somewhere in Isaiah. Topical preaching can be very valuable and certainly has its place, but some Bible teachers and preachers often fail to teach the Word verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter. In other words, many Christians have not had good Bible study habits modelled for them. As a result, many people in the church are unfamiliar with how to study the Bible and how to hear the messages that are being proclaimed in It. In this article I will take a look at the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, and attempt to, not only summarize it’s message in one statement, but show you how I arrived at that summary statement.

Key Words in the Book of Genesis

Biblical writers repeat key words and ideas!
Biblical writers repeat key words and ideas!

Key words are an important way of discovering the meaning of a biblical text, or even a whole book. We all know that “repetition is the first law of learning.” If a particular point is important, a writer or speaker will repeat it several times to make sure the reader, or audience catches its significance. The most frequently repeated word in the Book of Genesis is the word “bless.” The words “bless,” “blessing,” etc. occur a total of 88 times. Not only is “bless” the most frequently occurring word in the Book of Genesis (excluding God and God’s name), there is no other book of the Bible in which it occurs more. This observation is a clue that blessing is an important theme in the book. There are several helpful tools that help identify key words. First, a good concordance, second, a good bible software program (e.g., Logos Bible Software), and third, a good Bible commentary (such as Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary series).

Be fruitful and multiply is the first blessing mentioned in Genesis.
Be fruitful and multiply is the first blessing mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

Since we have discovered that blessing is the most frequently occurring word in the Book of Genesis, the next step involves finding out what blessing means in Genesis. Once again a concordance is all that’s necessary, although a good Bible Word Study Book is also helpful. By using a concordance, I can see the various ideas associated with blessing in Genesis. The first thing I notice is that blessing is frequently connected with the gift of life. The first two occurrences of “bless” in Genesis are connected with the statement: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22, 28). Not only are living creatures blessed with the ability to reproduce, but I also notice that the word “blessing” only begins to appear once life is created! These observations suggest that blessing and life are closely tied together in the Book of Genesis. As I search for other connections, I notice that blessing is also connected with possessions (Gen. 13:2), protection (as when Abram lies about his wife and he and Sarah are protected by God), the gift of land, descendants, and a great name (Gen. 12:2-3); fertility in the midst of drought (Gen. 26:12), and saving others from starvation (Gen. 41:55-57), plus much more! I begin to notice that even when the word “bless” doesn’t specifically occur, the idea of blessing is still present in many stories.

Offspring in the Book of Genesis

The second most repeated word in the Book of Genesis is "seed" or "offspring"
The second most repeated word in the Book of Genesis is “seed” or “offspring”

When I begin to look for the second-most repeated word in Genesis, I find that it is the word “seed” or “offspring.” The word “offspring” occurs 59 times in Genesis. This theme of offspring further confirms what I’ve learned about the connection between blessing and life. Already, a few key ideas are beginning to take shape on my understanding of Genesis. Once I begin to recognize the connection between blessing and life (or offspring), the genealogies of Genesis also take on a new depth of meaning. No longer do I simply view them as a long list of boring hard-to-pronounce names, but I begin to see how they are intimately connected to this theme of blessing and life. The genealogies literally show God’s blessing at work. Through them we experience human beings being “fruitful and multiplying!”

I am now beginning to form a basic understanding of the main theme of Genesis. It involves God’s desire to bless. That blessing includes many things (protection, deliverance, possessions, etc.), but ultimately the blessing is about life. God’s blessing in chapter 1 of Genesis resulted in a world that was “indeed very good” (Gen. 1:31). Sin ruined God’s good world and introduced the opposite of blessing, curse (Gen. 3:14, 17), and with curse also came death (Gen. 2:17; 5:5). But Genesis teaches me that God isn’t content with a world that has been plunged into a cycle of sin, curse, and death. Therefore, God continues to bless. In fact, God promises that human beings will triumph over the curse through the “seed” of the woman (Gen. 3:15). This is the first messianic promise in the Bible, and it is why there is such a focus on “seed” (offspring) in the Book of Genesis. The genealogies follow a pattern of tracing the promised seed, and so we see another reason for their significance. Although I’ve identified a key ingredient in attempting to summarize the message of Genesis, there is still another important theme I need to account for.

God’s Promises to the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis

God's promises to Abraham continue the theme of blessing and offspring in the Book of Genesis.
God’s promises to Abraham continue the theme of blessing and offspring in the Book of Genesis.

As I follow the story of God’s blessing in Genesis, and see it constantly disrupted by sin, I come to the story of Abraham. God’s call of Abraham is clearly an important dividing point in the Book of Genesis. From this point on, God begins to work with a specific family: Abraham and his descendants. The reason for this is not because God has given up on the rest of mankind, but because He plans to use Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). In fact, through the promises given to Abraham, I recognize the occurrence of my two key words in God’s statement: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Therefore, the promises given to Abraham are clearly an important part of the theme that God desires to bless by bringing life. Not only do I continue to see the key words “bless” and “offspring” throughout the rest of Genesis, but I now find the recurring theme of “promise.” This key idea is not found in the recurrence of the word “promise” but in the actions of God in the story. God begins by making certain promises to Abraham, which include the blessings of land and descendants, but also the promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed. These blessings are repeated a number of times to each generation of Abraham’s family. We can trace them, not only in Abraham’s life, but also in the lives of his son Isaac (e.g., Gen. 26:3-4, 24), and grandson Jacob (e.g., Gen. 28:3-4, 14). The apostle Paul clearly saw this theme of promise in the story of Abraham and he writes about it a number of times (e.g., Rom. 4:13-14; Gal. 3:16-18–note that Paul also uses the key word “seed” in both of these passages!).

Although there are other sub-themes and motifs used in Genesis to communicate the message (and I will examine some of these in a future article), we have now reached a point where we can formulate our sentence. If I had to sum up the message of Genesis in one sentence (in fact, 6 words) it would be: God’s Promise of Blessing and Life. I believe this statement captures the big picture. In this statement we have the key themes of blessing, life, and promise, and the One who is behind it all.

I hope this exercise has not only given you the big picture of Genesis, but that it has also suggested some fruitful ways to go about getting at the message of a biblical book. For other articles that explore certain aspects of the message of Genesis please see my series on “Violence in the Old Testament” parts 4, 5, and 6. For articles that explore other tips on studying the Bible please see my series, “Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study” of which this article is a part.