Category Archives: The Book of Genesis

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.