November 27, 2014

Genesis for Normal People

Genesis-for-Normal-PeopleGenesis 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.

Enns outside

Peter Enns

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.

Comments

  1. I got this on Kindle, and didn’t really enjoy it. The main reason for my dislike (and quickly waning attention) was the method of writing – the book consists mostly of assertions. However, there are many biblical theologians who would disagree on many of the assertions made. The book offered very few reasons for why I should accept the assertions, the critical component in argumentation.

    • Bible commentaries for lay people are not generally characterized by scholars arguing about their positions. If you want that from Enns, read The Evolution of Adam or his other more scholarly books.

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        This neatly illustrates my point about genre: get the genre of a text wrong and you will read it with the wrong expectations.

      • “The Evolution of Adam” is an important complement to this book as it handles the question of how Paul uses the Genesis stories, which is more problematic than how Genesis uses the Genesis stories.

        • “of how Paul uses the Genesis stories, which is more problematic than how Genesis uses the Genesis stories.”

          That sounds interesting, Michael Bell. I would like to know more about what he says about Paul.

      • Chaplain, I don’t think that is an adequate defense. Ken Ham asserts stuff in his “Biblical commentaries for lay people” too. Are “lay people” just too stupid to be given reasonable justification? Why should I listen to Enns and not Ham? An author doesn’t need footnotes and technical detail to make a justified point. I did enjoy the evolution of Adam, though.

        • Are “lay people” just too stupid to be given reasonable justification?

          Yes. :-)

          Seriously, though, I didn’t think that Enns simply made unfounded in Genesis for Normal People. All of his assertions are pretty much givens in one way or another when it comes to OT scholarship. The fact is I’m sure he could write a book that is completely footnoted and annotated, but do you really think the average reader is going to take the time to read footnotes/endnotes in a book. I don’t.

          I think the thing is that most people in churches are already dealing with a severely poisoned well when it comes to dealing with Genesis. They have been told over and over that there’s only one way to read the book. I think Enns isn’t really writing so much for people who are gullible enough to believe Ken Ham, as much as he is for people who are smart enough to know that Ham is full of it, but don’t really know where to start.

          I guess I’m wondering what points Enns made that were unjustified? I thought he did a pretty good job in laying out the basic outline of how he reads Genesis.

        • Most “lay people” who shopped in the Christian Bookstore where I worked wouldn’t read a commentary if you gave one away for free. Fiction, Fix-My-Life, Get Healed in Ten Easy Steps, What the Bible Says About Weight Loss and Veggie Tales are about as “heavy” as it gets. My boss used to say I was a dinosaur in my personal choice of reading and said he couldn’t order books “like I read” for the shelf simply because they wouldn’t sell.

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    “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.”

    One of my broken-record points is genre genre genre. When people claim to read the Bible ‘literally’ they don’t actually mean it. They don’t read “The Lord is my shepherd” literally. Such a reading would be patently absurd, and entirely miss the point the Psalmist was making. Why do even self-proclaimed literalists understand this instinctively? Because the genre of that psalm is lyric poetry, which in turn is familiar to modern readers. We read it and immediately understand that “The Lord is my shepherd” is a metaphor, even if some of us have trained ourselves to recoil from that word.

    The problem we run into with Genesis 1 is that it is written in–and commentary on–a genre that is not familiar to modern readers: the Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myth. (If you don’t like the word “myth” here, then feel free to substitute “story”.) They stopped writing in this genre thousands of years ago, and apart from Genesis 1 these stories were forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century that archeologists uncovered these, and people are still howling at the implications.

    They oughtn’t, though. They should rejoice. Imagine you had gone through life completely unaware of lyric poetry except those examples found in the Bible. Not understanding the conventions of lyric poetry, you believed it necessary to read these Biblical examples literally. You tied yourself in knots trying to explain how The Lord is literally a shepherd. Not only that, He is literally an employee of the psalmist. What a revelation it would be to learn of lyric poetry, and to finally understand that psalm!

    I inherited from my father some of his textbooks from seminary. Among them was a collection of ancient Near Eastern texts. I remember thinking this an odd thing to study in seminary, but I have come to understand why it is important.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    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.

    To use terminology from a Wellman novel, these are our Old, Old Stories. These are God’s Old, Old Stories. Any “principles” in an Old Old Story will emerge from the narrative and dramatization, not a spelled-out statement of fact from a checklist.

    • HUG, I really like calling these “The Old Stories.” That designation communicates the essence of these accounts and what they do in and for us.