Genesis is the beginning of the story, starting creation and moving toward the creation of a people called Israel. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and Joseph and brothers, these are the foundational stories, but the distance between that book and our day is quite wide and thus we need good and helpful guides. John Goldingay, David Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, seeks to offer us that guide.
The title of the book defines the audience quite well. This a set of commentaries – two in all – that focus on Genesis, written with a broad set of readers in mind. It doesn’t presuppose any expertise in the Bible, even providing at the end of each volume a glossary of words that might need some defining. A similar set of commentaries on the New Testament is being written by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham.
In style and scope these commentaries remind this reader of William Barclay’s Daily Bible Study series that Westminster Press published a generation earlier. The difference in these two approaches is that while Barclay tended toward historical and cultural analogies, Goldingay largely integrates his commentary with stories from his life – family, friends, students. Each set of passages is usually introduced with a story from life, drawing the reader into the ancient story through the modern one. Whether that is helpful, only the reader can decide.
In terms of approach to the text, Goldingay is a scholarly British evangelical. He views the text as divinely inspired and guided, but that doesn’t mean that he takes the text with wooden literalness. He recognizes that the text Genesis came into existence over time, at the hand of multiple authors, though he doesn’t go into any detail as to the nature of that process. Indeed, he doesn’t deal with traditional authorship questions – JEDP. One would assume that the author doesn’t believe that such a discussion would further the conversation about interpreting the text at hand. Suffice it to say that God was involved and that the number of authors was several.
Goldingay sees history in the Genesis account, but he also sees parables. He likes the word parable rather than myth, due to the way many use the word myth (in a negative fashion). As he reads the text, he’ll suggest where the story is moving into the realm of history or the realm of parables, recognizing that often there is a gray area. Genesis 1 and 2 and the story of Noah, they are much more likely to be parabolic, stories that teach us about God and our relationship to God. As we get toward Abraham and the stories that follow, they are more in the realm of history, though even here there is some room to maneuver.
With regard to Genesis 1, which is often at the center of debate, he writes:
God did not design Genesis 1 to tell us what a camera would have caught if it had been present to film creation. Faulting it for failing to do so misses the point, and defending it to show that it does do so also misses the point. We have no need to try to show that science is wrong and that actually the world was created in six days, just a few thousand years ago. Equally we have no need to try to conform the "facts" of Genesis with science, for instance, by suggesting that a "day" in Genesis need not mean twenty-four hours but could cover a longer period (1:27-28).
To try to make the biblical text conform to science, or the reverse, simply misses the point that the text (and God) intend to make. The point he wants to get across is that this text has meaning for us, in our day.
If we needn’t be concerned about history and science in Genesis 1 and 2, which he sees as being a historical parable. To say this doesn’t mean that it’s not true, only that the truth is carried in a picture. But as we move along there is a movement, around Genesis 11 and 12, where parable begins to merge and then give way to history. But again, the point is not the historicity, but the story of God’s desire to reconcile and bless the world that God created (and recreated after the days of Noah). Of Abraham, he writes that here the story becomes more about real people and real places. He notes that the scholarly consensus has moved back and forth as to whether Abraham existed, so it’s wise he says, not to “hitch one’s wagon too firmly to whatever is the current scholarly consensus. Ultimately, he suggested that there will never be the kind of historical evidence that can make for “definitive judgments” (1:141). But, Goldingay sees in the way the story progresses signs that it is more than a parable.
Goldingay is open and yet cautious. Yes, I would use the word cautious rather than conservative. He seeks to anchor his commentary in the scholarly mainstream, but doesn’t push the envelope too far. There are not many surprises to be found here, but then this is written not for scholars but for lay people seeking to understand an ancient text so that they might find instruction for the faith.
On a personal level, I was interested in seeing how he handled the Sodom and Gomorrah story. He starts out his comments with an acknowledgment that this text stands at the center of contemporary debates. He writes about friendships with homosexuals, and recognizes their humanity and decency. As to where he stands on the issue, he writes:
I don’t take the view that same-sex relationships are just as valid as heterosexual relationships, but neither do I think they are inherently more terrible than various other ways of falling short of God’s vision for sexual relationships (2:27).
With that introduction to his own sensibilities, he goes on to say that this passage doesn’t speak to the nature of same-sex relationships that are under discussion today. The outcry that reaches God’s ears, that leads to judgment isn’t the sexual behavior of the people of Sodom, but rather “the violent way weak people are being treated by powerful people. The implication is that the issue in Sodom is the affliction of the powerless by the powerful” (2:28). The attempted rape of Lot’s visitors is just one more example of the violence and faithlessness of this city.
The book of Genesis is central to the Jewish and the Christian faith traditions. In it we find the roots of our faith. We hear of creation and covenant. We receive our commissionings from God and yet we see the ways in which we can be faithless. Goldingay, is in the end, a trustworthy guide. One need not agree at all points, to find in these two volumes a lively and instructive commentary on this most important text of scripture.