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Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) by…

Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)

by Bill T. Arnold

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I was really looking forward to this new commentary in The New Cambridge Bible Commentary series: Genesis, by Bill T. Arnold.
As the entire commentary appears to be a cliff-notes commentary, I can also endeavor to give a brief cliff-notes review to preface my main review:
Two steps forward, and two steps back.

What do I mean? Arnold puts forth his overall purpose in the commentary in the following statement:
"...I simply assert here that I favor an approach that reads the text twice, once for it's compositional history as a means of informing the second reading, which emphasizes the synchronic structure of the whole".
What this boils down to in his commentary, in all truthfullness, is that he eschews the time-honored method of "historical-critical scholarship (source, form, and redaction criticism)" in favor of "more recently developed synchronic approaches (narrative criticism and discourse analysis)". This isn't to say that he totally ignores the scholarly findings of the former methods, but that he briefly touches on them from time to time, finds fault with them in various degrees and then proceeds to approach the text of Genesis in a very literary and confused manner.

The recent trend of literary analysis has been one in which the time-tested and well-attested Documentary Hypothesis (in it's various forms, revisions and evolutions) is thrown by the wayside as inconsequential in helping to understand the current form of the texts in question. Whether various stories were written by J or P is unimportant to proponents of this literay approach, and they must jump through many hoops in order to find various ways in which they see the overall unity of the text confirmed without the help of consulting the individual documents (for example, a typical literary-approach proponent will find several "theme" words - as far as they are concerned, words that are attested in multiple documental sources - and suggest that the existence of these "theme words" indicate the same author, and thus pronounce the JEDP theory as obviously useless and outdated. After all - what are the odds that 2 separate writers would use the same common word in very similar ways and in very similar situations? Or that an editor would use the words to help complete his job: editing the sources together?). To further help their claims, some of them resort to ad hominem attacks against earlier proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis (like the common allegations, whether true or not, that Julius Wellhausen - the great grandfather of the JEDP theory - was a virulent anti-semite, and this invalidates his work. Surprise, many of the great German Biblical Scholars of the days-gone-by were anti-semites, and also anti-christians! This was, unfortunately, the times in which they lived. They didn't start calling it Biblical "Criticism" for nothing. Aside from that, Wellhausen was not the first to propose this theory, not all of his predecessors were anti-semitic or German, and the theory does not depend on such views. To me, this is merely orthodoxy reacting against critical scholarship's work of showing the very human nature of the Tanakh - and using the very emotionally loaded term "anit-semite" as a substitue for "anti-orthodox, inspired, divine author").

Besides this, the current commentary of Arnold's is a text-book example of why discarding source-criticism in favor of a strictly literary approach is unadvisable. He says:
"My primary task in this volume, therefore, will be to comment on the text as we have received it" -
not realizing (or more likely, in full realization) that this is what most commentators and believers had been doing for ages before Biblical scholarship got it's jump-start from Spinoza, Hobbes and the German Scholars that grew up out of the Enlightenment. A Literary approach is comparable with a traditional, conservative, religious/devotional approach to the scriptures, in my opinion; similar to how Creationists (an apt analogy, considering the book being commented on) attempted to revive Creationism, after the assaults of Darwin and his cronies, by changing the name to Intelligent Design, and dropping most of the overtly religious language. The proponents take the original views, modify them as little as possible to match modern findings, change the terms used to describe these orthodox views and thereby attempt to skirt all previous scholarship or criticsm that once (and still) challenged the original views.

The Literary approach tends to read the book as a straight narrative, and in this commentary you will find many strange (perhaps not-so-strange to some people who have been trying to make this book fit their literalist interpretations for many years) notions which attempt to make sense of the contradictions, doublets, etc that result when reading the text as a straight narrative. I feel that if Arnold had written a commentary on the Gospels, he would be one of the people asserting that the cleansing of the temple happened twice, or that the cock crowed 6-10 times. Anyone who has been exposed to Gary Rendsburg's lectures on Genesis will know what to expect from Arnold. He takes disparate information that makes perfect sense in the traditional Historical-Critical School method that scholars have spent so much time on, and attempts to force them together into a continuous narrative.

This Literary approach leads to some bewildering contradictions when approaching Genesis (not to mention the rest of the Torah) - contradictions that can easily be done away with by using a JEDP approach, but which become supreme obstacles when shackled to the dogma of the conservatives. A few examples from the book in review:

1- The change of the divine, aloof "elohim" of the 1st chapter to the more personalized, anthropomorphic "Yahweh elohim" of the 2nd chapter is given a brief, and unilluminating mention. Rather than chalking it up to what we know about the individual authors and their personal ideologies and agendas, we have an explanation that the editor was attempting to mix the two accounts together, and lessen the shock of the Priestly writer's "elohim" suddenly morphing into the "Yahewh elohim" of the Yahwist writer. While this may be true, it throws a kink into a literary approach. Add to this that barely a word is said about the change in the order of the Creative events, and we have a literary contradiction that has easily been solved by traditional criticism for over a hundred years now.

2- The Genealogies - again, brief mention is made of the importance of these genealogies and why it is that they do not match, contain doublets and contradict each other. From a Literary approach, it appears that the author of the various geneologies was not good at fact-checking or editing his own 'redacting' of the sources. When we consult the traditional JEDP theory of an editor unwilling to butcher separate traditions that were important to separate peoples, we have a much better understanding of their role in the story. We are able to appreciate them for what they are, rather than trying to force them into a coherent, continuous narrative that is not possible of error, assuming it's origin beyond man. One wishes that Arnold had spent more time consulting Cross, rather than Cassuto.

Further examples could easily be encountered, thus highlighting the failure of traditional Literary interpretations in dealing with these 'contradictions'. Biblical Scholars have already come to grips with them and shown them to not be contradictions - they are only contradictions and difficulties to those who persist in a Literary or fundamentalist approach to reading scripture as a divine whole, inerrant and holy and written by one person (or being).

In addition to these Literary shortcomings, we have many examples of issues just left out completely or glossed over summarily.
1- The Geneaologies, again - all the members of the name lists who became the "fathers" of certain crafts or peoples known in the ancient world. What happened to them during the Flood? How did they survive the Deluge?
2- Cain's wife, and his fear of being murdered. Murdered by who? Married to who? The traditional apologetic justifications are not even mentioned - just a brief reference to how tribes enacted revenge on each other. Wherever those tribes might have come from, we are not told.
Some of these may be trite - but are important to others: they at least want to see how a scholar would approach the issues, rather than a Sunday School teacher who glosses over them.

My other main gripe is that, despite many scholarly years of showing direct influence from other people's traditions and myths (showing the book was not created in a vacuum) - Arnold can't quite make up his mind as to whether they influenced Genesis or not. On a few occasions, he begrudgingly admits that yes, indeed, we seem to have a direct borrowing from another people's tradition. How important is this to approaching Genesis? Well, it depends on Arnold's mood, or what it might mean to certain people and their sensitivities. I certainly haven't found any rhyme or reason as to why he chooses to accept some and not others. He just can't make up his mind whether it mattered that the writers of Genesis were exposed to foreign influences - or if the stories of Genesis have a majesty belonging to themselves, separate from other stories of the time. In the end, he appears to favor a narrative that, while not created in a vaccum, should be read as if it has been.

A definate Christian theological underpinning, stretching all the way past the early church fathers, also seems to inform many of his interpretations. While this may be fine for those folks who have no problem calling the Hebrew Scriptures the OLD Testament in deference to their NEW Testament, the Greek Scriptures - this may rub many readers the wrong way.
This stems from Arnold's desire to have this volume be useful for teachers and pastors, no doubt. In the end, it reads like an extended Sunday School discussion.

All these things, and more, contribute to my profound dissapointment in seeing a modern commentary (from Cambridge, no less) be so wishy-washy in approach. There is a lot of potential in this small volume, but profoundly wasted in short, cursory observations for the most part. When the text is elaborated on in detail, it usually takes the form of Christian speculation.

Which brings me to the good things - it's not all bad, after all! There are quite a few issues which Arnold brings up which will be illuminating, surprising and very enjoyable to most people. Unfortunately, the amount of time or the summary way in which he dismisses many of them as untenable (with nothing more than a personal like or dislike as the reasoning, in many cases) is a big let down.

All in all - this is a commentary for a beginner to intermediate student, who wishes to use it as a jumping point for further investigation using better commentaries. For many people, this commentary will be just fine, and will perfectly gel with their pre-conceived notions of the unity of scripture. For others, it is just a taste of something that could have been and should have been much better.
Two steps forward, and two steps back. From purely devotional readings of scriptures pre-Spinoza/Hobbes, we have jumped to scholarly readings of scriptures post-German enlightenment, and now scholarship has reverted to the original readings, unde the guise of a 'new' approach. ( )
1 vote mattardo | Jul 23, 2011 |
This is a very good book and an advance in our commentaries on Genesis. Despite my criticisms, I accept A.'s claim that a commentary that takes account of both diachronic and synchronic approaches is superior, more illuminating and complete, than one that adopts only one approach. This commentary is testimony to that superiority. It is a significant step, but it is not the last.
added by Christa_Josh | editCatholic Biblical Quarterly, Robert B. Robinson (Jan 1, 2010)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 052100067X, Paperback)

This commentary is an innovative interpretation of one of the most profound texts of world literature: the book of Genesis. The first book of the Bible has been studied, debated, and expounded as much as any text in history, yet because it addresses the weightiest questions of life and faith, it continues to demand our attention. The author of this new commentary combines older critical approaches with the latest rhetorical methodologies to yield fresh interpretations accessible to scholars, clergy, teachers, seminarians, and interested laypeople. It explains important concepts and terms as expressed in the Hebrew original so that both people who know Hebrew and those who do not will be able to follow the discussion. "Closer Look" sections examine Genesis in the context of cultures of the Ancient Near East. "Bridging the Horizons" sections enable the reader to see the enduring relevance of the book in the twenty-first century.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:30 -0400)

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