Book Review: Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis

Provan, Iain. Discovering Genesis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 224 pp. pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

Discovering Genesis by Iain Provan is the first Old Testament volume in Eerdmans new Discovering Biblical Texts series (Discovering Matthew and Discovering John are currently available). The Discovering series attempts to Provan-Genesisapply author, text and reader based methods to the biblical text in a complementary way in order to invite students into a theological and historical discussions raised directly by the text. As with other contributions to this series, Provan lists and evaluates interpreters, often focusing on reception history.

After a short introduction to the structure and plot of Genesis, Provan devotes two chapters to “reading strategies” for Genesis, using the Renaissance as a dividing point for the two chapters, but he divides his history of interpretation into four major sections: up to A.D. 476, medieval readings 476-1350), Renaissance and Reformation (1250-1648) and modern readings (1648-today). Prior to the modern period, Provan gives examples from both Jewish and Christian commentaries showing how serious readers of Genesis tried to make the book apply to a new situation. For the most part, this involved allegorizing the text, but there are examples of writers who did take the stories at face value. What unites all these Jewish and Christian pre-modern readings of Genesis is an assumption of the authority of the book of Genesis.

By the modern period, Enlightenment thinkers had eroded the authority of Genesis. Baruch Spinoza, for example, famously declared that a plain reading of Scripture was not worth of a reasonable person’s assent (34). The study of history and geography, along with the rise of Darwinism, had a major impact on the study of Jesus. Post-Enlightenment commentaries reject allegory and return to the text, often with positive results. For example, prior to the modern period, Jacob is a model of virtue. By actually reading what the text says it is clear Jacob is a scoundrel (159)!

Provan surveys briefly Source, Form, and Redaction criticism. Although he does consider the emphasis on genre to be a positive contribution of Form criticism, Provan finds these methods problematic. Provan is skeptical about our ability to objectively reconstruct the documentary or oral sources behind the text of Genesis and he expresses his lack of interested in what lies behind the book (50).

In addition to these three, Provan comments on Muilenberg’s Rhetorical Criticism and Structuralism as a bridge to the now-popular Narrative Criticism. Provan thinks Narrative Criticism provides a “more satisfying resolution of the ‘difficulties’ in a text than that of which Wellhausen was capable” (44). He includes short sections on Social Scientific Criticism and Feminist Criticism. With respect to Social Science, Provan offers Norman Gottwald as an example, although he concludes “Gottwald does not illuminate the text at all; he suppresses it” (46). Finally, he briefly introduces Brevard Childs and Canonical Criticism, concluding that Childs’s method offers “a framework in which man previously illumination f the text through the ages . . . can be brought into fruitful conversation” (48). One element missing from this short survey of approaches to Genesis is a Theological Reading of Genesis, perhaps illustrated by James McKeown in his Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary on Genesis.

The third chapter locates the “word of Genesis” in its proper time and place. Although this is perhaps the most important “reading strategy,” the chapter is tantalizingly brief. Since modern study of Genesis focuses on the literal sense of the text, it is necessary to place the text in the proper historical, social, and literary context. For Provan, the world of the Ancient Near East included complex cultures which worshipped many gods in temples within emerging city states ruled by divine or semi-divine kings (52). By the sixth century B.C. these foundational beliefs were being questions by most cultures. Provan considers Genesis to be the response of Mosaic Yahwehists to the kinds of questions many cultures were asking about the “old religion” (55). Genesis develops a cosmology in which there is one God who rules as king of the universe and creates the cosmos as his sanctuary (56). Humans are marked out as his image and given dominion over the cosmos to rule on behalf of the divine King, God.

The next four chapters cover the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It may be surprising at first almost forty percent of Provan’s book is devoted to only these chapters of Genesis.. But since most of the theologically rich passages in Genesis are in the first eleven chapters appropriate Provan spend significant space unpacking the often difficult theological questions of Genesis 1-11. Anyone who has taught Genesis knows students have more questions about creation, the Fall and the Flood than any other section of book.

Provan treats the problem of two creation stories by suggesting a single author who wrote the stories in order to highlight the transcendence of God (60). Many (especially evangelical) readers approach Genesis with scientific questions, but Provan sticks to the text in order to argue the creation accounts are about God ordering chaos. God blessed his good creation, but after the human rebellion he curses the creation, creating conflict between humans and their environment. In these chapters Provan does cover many of the common questions asked about the first few chapters of Genesis, although given the brevity and purpose of the book, he can only hint at possible answers.

The final three chapters of the book are devoted to the Patriarchal narratives (Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Jacob, and Joseph). Abraham and Sarah and placed in the context of the Ancient Near East. For example, Abraham’s lie about Sarah and the use of a hand maid to produce an heir can be illustrated in the culture of the second millennium B.C. Since the stories are far less controversial, he does not need to interact with scholarship as often as the first few chapters of Genesis

Provan makes use of rabbinic texts and early church commentaries to demonstrate how early readers received the text of Genesis. Frequently he makes reference to medieval commentaries, art and literature. What is more, he often refers to modern interpretations of the stories and Genesis in contemporary art and literature. Most of these are classical references, although he does include Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited as in contemporary allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis chapter 22 (149). Most of these allusions are simply mentioned, however the footnotes tend to treat these allusions in more detail. A helpful addition would be a website collecting photographs the art referred to in the text.

Conclusion. Discovering Genesis is a short introduction to the study of Genesis ideal for use in a seminary class on the Pentateuch or a more specialized class on Genesis. Provan presents the material in way which will also be useful to the general reader interested in the theological and historical issues for reading Genesis with accuracy. As an introduction, the book is often frustrating in its brevity, but this is to be expected given the goals of the book and the Discovering series.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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