Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature

Written by G. W. Coats Reviewed By Gordon Wenham

George Coats is probably the most distinguished living American pentateuchal critic. Certainly he is very much in the mainstream of critical thinking, so his book gives a good insight into the way the scholarly wind is blowing. This book is part of a series entitled ‘The forms of Old Testament literature’. This series aims to present a form-critical analysis of every book of the Old Testament.

This volume examines the structure, genre, setting and intention of every part of Genesis: indeed Coats gives a minute verse-by-verse description of every story. Thus the tower of Babel story is defined as a ‘tale’ and its nine verses are broken into fifteen sub-divisions: v. 1 exposition, vv. 2–4 proposals, v. 3 construction of bricks, v. 3a speech, v. 3b act, v. 4 construction of city and tower, etc. Though its present setting is part of J, its earlier setting is uncertain. Its intention, like chapter 10 (P), is to explain the dispersal of the nations. Basically then this book is an exercise in labelling the contents of Genesis according to agreed form-critical descriptions. Each section of analysis is followed by a good bibliography of recent writing on the passage.

This is undoubtedly a valuable exercise: it is reassuring that someone of Coats’ stamp finds no myths in Genesis. His attempt to define terms precisely and carefully is also a great gain: for example, he defines the individual stories in Genesis as tales, reports, legends, and the final collections of tales and reports as sagas. Thus he talks of the primeval saga, the Abraham saga and so on. These labels do not say anything directly about the historicity or otherwise of the material.

Coats claims his book is essentially exegetical. Certainly his discussion does contribute to understanding the flow of thought in Genesis, but it really contains the preliminaries to a proper commentary. The preacher or historian will not find what he needs here unfortunately. Nor will the modern literary critic gain much. Indeed I think the subtitle ‘with an Introduction to Narrative Literature’ is positively misleading. It led me to expect something along the lines of Alter’s or Gunn’s books, i.e. an exploration of the techniques used by biblical storytellers, but all it contains is a series of definitions of what Coats means by ‘saga’, ‘tale’, ‘novella’ and so on.

Coats’ approach to source criticism is interesting. Like other recent writers he rejects the existence of an E source: Genesis consists of two main sources, J and P. He is dubious about attempts to press further back behind the history of the material that makes up J and P. Unlike many form critics he is much more insistent on the unity of the material that makes up J or P. In both the primeval saga and the Abraham saga many of the stories belong together and it is impossible to recover an earlier version of these stories in which they were independent.

There is thus in this book a noticeable attempt to escape from the dissection that has characterized much pentateuchal study. Unfortunately Coats still looks on J and P as so distinct that he never brings them together in effective exegesis. We still await the day when mainstream scholarship accepts the substantial unity of the whole of Genesis. Meanwhile those looking for a sober up-to-date treatment of its critical problems will find this a very useful volume.

Gordon Wenham

Cheltenham and Gloucester College