Book Review – Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis (John Sailhamer)

I’ve read several of the newly revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, but this was my first Old Testament volume. All the comments I’ve made before about the nice layout of the series apply again here, as does my reservation that it sometimes seems to fall between the gaps, not quite being an exegetical commentary for academics, and not quite being an expositional commentary for preachers.

The Introduction

Sailhamer introduces Genesis as a book concerned with global and ‘family’ matters – it is a book with unity but not uniformity. He briefly surveys different opinions on authorship, and takes on the unwarranted skepticism of some critical scholars and seems to favour a “compositional” view. He believes the purpose of Genesis should be viewed in terms of the purpose of the Pentateuch, which looks forward to a new covenant and a Saviour-King. He observes a pattern of poems concluding significant sections in Genesis, and believes that many of the events are selected to demonstrate that the past portends events in the future. Ultimately the central concern of the Pentateuch is the rule of God among his people and within his creation. It is written as an answer to the failure of the Sinaitic covenant, and points forward beyond itself to the time of the promised “seed” of Abraham and a new covenant.

The Commentary

Naturally I was interested to see what his take on the creation account was. He suggests that a seven day week follows an unspecified amount of time. There are some detailed footnotes which rather irritatingly refer the reader to the first edition for more information! He also detects a polemic against idolatry in the creation account. The recurring description of various creative acts being “good” indicates that these developments are for the “good” of humankind. In Gen 2:15 he rejects the translation that man is to “work and keep” the Garden, but rather is to “worship and obey”. The “knowledge of good and evil” refers to Adam and Eve wanting to decide for themselves what is good and evil.

He has an interesting approach to Cain. He sees the story of the mark of Cain (Gen 3:13-14) as being one of repentance and forgiveness. He demonstrates how lots of these incidents in earlier chapters are reflected in laws given later in the Pentateuch. Here the example is cities of refuge.

The real key to the Pentateuch according to Sailhamer is found in the poems. He takes care to show that the poems link together the seed of Abraham with the coming King from Judah. They are one and the same.

In many ways it felt as though Sailhamer’s main interest in this commentary was not really to explain the meaning of individual passages (though he does do a bit of that), and not at all to suggest preaching points or applications (these come very rarely), but rather to explain why a particular story has been included, and how it fits into the overall scheme of the Pentateuch. He is always looking for links backwards and forwards (which he calls “inter-textuality”). He points out parallels between the lives of Noah and Abraham, between Abraham and Joseph, and even between Eve and Sarah. Abraham is an example of someone who had God’s law written on his heart – he obeyed it even before it was given.

He picks up on the importance of the promise of kings in Abraham’s line. Even though the closing portion of Genesis seems to focus exclusively on Joseph, the author still shows how Judah is “next in line” after the fall from grace of his elder brothers (Reuben, Simeon and Levi). Judah transcends Joseph – he will ultimately be in the royal line even if he now bows the knee to Joseph. I felt at first that he was stretching things to suggest that Judah remains the prominent character in spite of Joseph’s leading role in the narrative, but he did find more evidence for this than I was expecting.

Joseph himself is described as a “second Adam”, and is the only man in the Old Testament who is said to have been filled with the Spirit. Abraham also is a “second Adam” and Jacob’s sons represent a “new humanity”. Genesis also shows repeatedly through the struggles between older and younger brothers that God’s blessing is not based on natural rights. While he doesn’t join up the dots for you, Sailhamer certainly points expositors in the right direction to be able to preach the gospel from the Genesis story.

Strengths and Weaknesses

It was an interesting read, and didn’t tackle the kind of issues I was expecting. Many ethical and theological topics were left unremarked on. I suppose that is inevitable in a mid-sized commentary. The great strength of this commentary is that it takes a big picture approach. It develops a sense of the overall progression of Genesis and how it fits into the Pentateuch. Its weakness is that if you were to use it as a reference to get some insight on a particular verse or passage, you might find many of your exegetical and theological questions haven’t been addressed. But overall I would say it represents good value for money, as you get Exodus and Leviticus in the same volume for little more than the price of a single commentary.

Book Review – The Message of Genesis 12-50 (Joyce Baldwin)

This volume of the Bible Speaks Today series picks up where David Atkinson’s one left off, although it actually was published earlier. Baldwin starts off with an introduction that recaps the story of creation, and deals with some of the modern scepticism concerning the historicity of the patriarchs. She clearly has an interest in archaelogical finds, and often fills in historical details throughout the commentary. She does not however seem particularly interested in engaging with questions like “how come the patriarchs got to have more than one wife?”.

It covers the latter 39 chapters of Genesis, and includes most of the Biblical text, only leaving out a few lists of names. This takes up a significant amount of the available space, meaning that each chapter only has room for 3 or 4 pages of comments. The space is mainly used to recap on the story and supply any additional historical information required to understand it. Points of practical application can be found in most sections, although they are usually fairly brief comments, and the book does not take on the sermon-like style of some others in the BST series. Often parallels are hinted at between the types of difficulties the patriarchs and their families faced and the ones we do.

The book is broken into four main sections covering the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. God’s purpose in bringing blessing and salvation to the world through small beginnings is traced throughout. Links with the work of Jesus are made in the obvious places, as ultimately Baldwin sees Genesis as “an epitome of the gospel”. The book closes with a brief recap of the main themes.

This volume is well suited as a companion guide to use as you read through Genesis, as it helps you to appreciate things you might otherwise have missed. However, it is not really a reference book, neither is it particularly aimed at providing a structured outline for Bible study of each chapter. As with all BST volumes, it takes the text seriously as the Word of God, believing it to be relevant for us today.

Book Review – The Message of Genesis 1-11 (David Atkinson)

Much of the discussion in evangelical circles about the opening chapters of Genesis revolves around the historicity of the events described, and in particular, whether the six days of creation were ‘literal 24 hour days’ or not. Atkinson does allow himself to get drawn into the complexities of these debates, although his own understanding of the issues becomes apparent. He broadly accepts theistic evolution, noting the structure of the six days of creation in Genesis 1 as being two groups of three, and seeing the first chapter as a hymn of praise. He sees the story as referring to other creation myths only to refute them and assert the one true creator God.

As you would expect, the creation story raises all sorts interesting issues that Atkinson takes up. For example environmental concerns, sexual equality (he is an egalitarian), the nature of time are all discussed. There is also a helpful section on marriage and Christian sexual ethics, where he addresses the issue of homosexuality. He also explores what it means to be made in the image of God, arguing for more than simply having certain capacities, but to be in relationship with God, and to act as his representatives.

Moving on to the story of the fall, Atkinson considers the nature of sin, and considers the origin of evil to be left as a mystery. The commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis fills the first half of the book. Unusually for BST Old Testament volumes, the full text of the first 11 chapters of Genesis is included in the book.

The rest of the book shows how there is repeated sin and judgement, but always with a hint of hope. The story of Cain and Abel provides opportunity to explore the “unfairness” of grace, while the story of the Ark introduces the themes of salvation and covenant. The story of Babel almost leaves us with an unhappy ending, but Atkinson continues the commentary through to 12:3, where the promise of blessing comes to Abraham, and so fittingly, the book closes with its focus on Jesus.

I found this book a very interesting read. The fact that it didn’t answer the type of questions like “was the Ark seaworthy, and large enough to hold all the animals?” meant that there was space to explore the theological themes in the book. His stance on evolution will no doubt please some and irritate others, but the 190 pages given to these opening 11 chapters of Genesis have been well used to explore a wide variety of important subjects.

Those wanting to nail down exact points of doctrine or exhaustively explore the background and possible interpretation of the early Genesis stories will need to consult the more technical commentaries, but those who simply want to get a feel for the story of creation to Abraham without getting embroiled in controversy over science and history, will find much useful material here.