Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible
by Peter Enns and Jared Byas
Patheos Press (2012)
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According to its authors, Genesis for Normal People is designed for “normal people…who are curious about the Bible and want to get a handle on what Genesis is all about.” In the same foreword, Peter Enns and Jared Byas point out the elephant in the room immediately. This book is not about science and the Bible. The focus of Genesis is not on that. The creation story is one small part of Genesis, which is itself just one small part of the larger work known as the Pentateuch, which itself is a small part of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).
So what they want us to see, right from the start, is that Genesis tells a story that is an important part of a much bigger story. The goal of this book is to help ordinary readers of the Bible get the big picture of Genesis and its story and how it relates to the whole story.
One important factor in reading this story rightly is remembering that it is an ancient story. We can’t approach it like it is a modern history textbook. Nor is it a book of principles to teach us how to live. “When we stop using Genesis as an argument, a textbook, or a code of conduct, and begin to see it as an ancient story — with memorable characters, twists and turns, ups and downs, accomplishments and mistakes — we find it fresh, deep, and more true and relevant than we might expect.”
Enns and Byars agree with scholars who have concluded that the Pentateuch as we know it came together sometime after 539 B.C., when Cyrus of Persia delivered the Israelites from the Babylonian Captivity. The Exile was a time of national trauma for the Israelites, causing them to look back at their ancient past in order to make sense of what had happened. A big piece of the answer was the Pentateuch and its stories, which reminded them of their identity and helped them make a new start, grounding their present and future in their past.
After giving a succinct overview of Genesis and how it is put together, Enns and Byers take us section by section through the book. Here are a few examples:
- Genesis 1 is “a reminder to Israel and a slap in the face to everyone else, especially the Babylonians,” an ancient creed that shows why Israel’s God is alone worthy of worship.
- Genesis 2-3 is a very different kind of creation story, shifting the focus from the creation of the cosmos to the creation of Israel. The story of Adam and Eve is about Israel, “a preview of Israel’s long journey in the Old Testament as a whole.”
- Genesis 4-5 tells the story of Cain and Abel, an example of how disobedience to God not only leads to personal death, but has lethal consequences for social relationships as well, a point Israel’s prophets made time and time again in their oracles against the nation’s sins.
- In their commentary on Genesis 12-22, the authors show how Abraham’s story mirrors that of Israel. A key section in chapter 12, when Abraham goes down to Egypt in a time of famine, is the exodus story in miniature. Abraham’s journey, in which he learns God’s faithfulness and the importance of trusting God fully, challenges the exiles in their season of “barrenness” to trust God for fruitfulness and possession of the Promised Land.
I think the final paragraph summarizes the approach Peter Enns and Jared Byas take and the conclusions they arrive at in this commentary:
The book ends with the death of Jacob and then Joseph. With this, Israel’s infancy comes to an end and a difficult period of growth is about to begin. The movement from a people to a nation is not one that will come easily — it will end with Israel licking its wounds from Babylonian captivity. And as we have seen, that larger story is already in view throughout Genesis. Israel’s ancient story is one of struggle, with God and with others. It is also a story of Israel’s faith in God, that he will come through for them no matter what. Genesis is Israel’s story to show that God can be counted on, from the very beginning.
Genesis for Normal People is an excellent introduction to the big picture of Genesis as it fits in with the big story of the First Testament. It models an approach of reading the Bible as an ancient document that many of us need to learn, without having to get bogged down in theories of interpretation and background studies that don’t deal directly with the text. It is written clearly and the authors are personally engaging and pastoral in their teaching.
It won’t answer all your questions, and it’s not designed to do that. Genesis for Normal People is an overview that whets one’s thirst for more, and any book that leads one more deeply into Scripture gets a big thumbs up from me.