Genesis 1–15

Written by Gordon J. Wenham Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Those who are familiar with Wenham’s commentaries on other books of the Pentateuch will rejoice to see the addition of a work on this key section of Scripture added to the list. The work is designed to be of interest to students, pastors, lay persons and lecturers. The introduction of 33 pages discusses the present state of scholarship on the whole of Genesis, as well as focusing on chs. 1–11 in particular. There is an introduction to Genesis 12ff. at the beginning of the comments on chapter 12. The inclusion of chs. 12–15 in this volume may reflect Wenham’s conviction that the later part of the book is tied in with the earlier section.

Wenham demonstrates a broadly evangelical position with a survey of the contemporary concerns of source criticism, that vexing problem which has occupied so many scholars of Genesis over the past century. His decision to opt for an early P (in the form of a series of shorter sources) followed by a J, dated somewhere between the thirteenth and the tenth centuries BC, should not cause the serious evangelical student to overlook the combined force of linguistic and comparative Ancient Near Eastern arguments which Wenham marshals to define a date of the early second millenium as accurately relfected in many traditions. Nor can a commentary which deals with the contemporary scholarly literature fail to consider the literary aspects which distinguish sections and chapters in Genesis. This is indeed the great advantage of his approach; for by dealing carefully with those distinctives it is possible also to appreciate the literary motifs and devices which unify the text and bring it out of an Ancient Near Eastern environment to address readers of today.

While remaining within the limits of the Word series format (bibliography, translation, textual notes, form/structure/setting, verse-by-verse comment, and explanation), Wenham introduces several helpful additions. First, the bibliography, already vast for the opening chapters of Genesis, is limited to key older works and otherwise serves as a supplement to Westermann’s 1974 tome. From that year until 1987 it will serve as a standard resource for students and scholars, providing one of the most complete listings available. The incorporation of secondary literature into the commentary’s discussion is impressive. Of course, full justice to all the literature can never be more than an ideal (e.g. I missed more than a passing reference to Bird’s majesterial study of 1:27 or Meyers’ careful analysis of 3:16).

Second, the textual notes serve both the traditional purpose of comparing the readings of other translations, versions and targumim, and also provide an analysis of verbs and verbal forms in the MT. The former is always of interest, observing the difficulties (although the larger problem of 15:2 is placed in the comment section), the conjectures and the variants (thus the note on 4:17 allows the emendation of a misplaced gloss and one on 4:18 observes the harmonization tendencies of the versions), while regularly retaining the MT in the translation. The latter will be welcome to many students who read Genesis as part of their introduction to biblical Hebrew. Further, such notes provide a point of departure for analysis of the Hebrew text and avoid confusion in assessing interpretations where ambiguous verbal forms are involved. Indices at the end include authors, subjects (surely there are more than 60 listed), biblical texts and Hebrew words.

The form/structure/setting sections allow Wenham to continue the sort of literary analysis already begun with his earlier work on Genesis 6–9. In characteristic style, there is a competent survey of the important older and recent opinions, which is followed by a position more often mediating than polemical. There is a minimum of bias for or against evangelical scholarship. Thus the comments of Wiseman and Ross are set alongside those of Savasta and Oded in evaluating Genesis 10. The value of such an approach is an honest presentation of the variety of important views. The weakness is lack of adequate criticism and a clear distinction of where interpretations differ. Thus the discussion concerning Genesis 1:26–27 and the image of God is one where the problems and proposed solutions are set out in a fashion which is a model of clarity, but the conclusion remains noncommittal.

Wenham’s designation of the early material (Genesis 1 through the flood story) as protohistory seems to be a compromise between a reluctance to use the term mythology and a recognition that it cannot be called history or even the prehistory of the following chapters. Despite the symbolic and universal significance which he finds in the protohistory, Wenham clearly sides with an historical emphasis, as evidenced by his observations that the writer/redactor saw no difference between the material of Genesis 1–11 and that found in the patriarchal narratives.

We miss more space devoted to an integrated theological understanding of the text, if only because the few pages set aside for distinguishing Genesis 1–11 from Ancient Near Eastern ideology and for integrating it with the rest of the book are so provocative. For either the traditional discussions of Christian theology, which have made the opening chapters of the Bible so important, or the more recent studies from feminist and deconstructionist theological perspectives (often reflected in what Wenham designates ‘new literary criticism’), the reader is left to find scattered observations in comments on specific sections. In fairness, however, Wenham’s own concern is ‘the original meaning of Genesis, what it meant to its final editor and its first readers’ (p. xiv), and he should be evaluated on that basis, not some other. An important example is the contrast Wenham makes between the Gilgamesh epic, with its emphasis upon the ‘Noah’ figure’s activities and speeches, and the biblical flood account’s description of the quiet and passive obedience of Noah. The Explanation section of the commentary is where theological interests are appreciated. Usually they provide more than the three-and-a-half page redundant plot summary found in the Explanation of 2:4–3:24.

In an already crowded field, Wenham’s work will serve the interests of students and pastors who seek guidance with the Hebrew text and some sane and informed direction in the bewildering array of explanations of the early chapters of Genesis. Scholars will find Wenham’s bibliographies and his reinterpretation of source criticism to be of interest.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver