The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament)

Written by Victor P. Hamilton Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Hamilton presents us with the first volume of a study whose emphasis is clearly philological and historical, while remaining aware of some of the theological issues which concern the evangelical interpreter of the book. The introduction is strong on the history of the major issues of authorship, origin and formation. Despite some awareness of the variety of studies on literary structure, Hamilton confines his ten-page discussion on structure to arguments for the divisions according to the toledot formulae (i.e., ‘these are the generations of), which he finds to be the superscript introducing what follows. Although he argues that an evangelical view of Scripture does not require belief in Mosaic authorship of Genesis and that a composite text is a possibility, the reader is left uncertain about Hamilton’s own view of the date, the author and the composition of the book. It is not that Hamilton confesses uncertainty, it is that he nowhere expresses his own view. The same thing occurs in his discussion of the date of the patriarchs. On p. 67 Hamilton writes, ‘We are not saying that the patriarchal traditions have to be true to be of value. Of course they do not.’ Yet this is placed in the midst of warnings about the doctrinal problems caused by denying their historicity. Again, the writer evokes a dialogue with himself from which no clear consensus emerges. Balancing this is a consistent tendency to argue for a second-millennium bc (or earlier) setting throughout the text of the commentary.

Theologically, God’s faithfulness to his promises, despite the patriarchs’ failures to remain faithful or even to maintain a basic standard of ethics, is understood as the solution to the problem of increasing wickedness with which Genesis 1–11 ends. The ‘days’ of Genesis 1 should be understood as a literary device forming part of an anti-Canaanite polemic. The text of Genesis is not mythological because the distinction between God and nature is sustained throughout. Hamilton argues that the distinctiveness of the patriarchal religion is found in God’s election, promises, and relationship with those he calls. Although a few later works are listed in the bibliography, there is little in the discussion of the commentary to suggest that this research forms a significant part of his research. Most surprising is the omission of G. Wenham’s commentary on Genesis 1–15, which appeared in 1987. Hamilton is aware of Wenham’s 1978 palistrophic analysis of the flood story but does not address this when commenting on structural issues of chapters 6–9 (nor his suggestions regarding 8:4, which verse Hamilton finds impossible to harmonize). This is symptomatic of the work’s lack of awareness of research done in the middle and latter part of the last decade.

The study of Genesis 1 results in clear and helpful discussions of the exegetical issues for vv. 1, 2, and 26–28. Only the parallel usage of ‘image’ and likeness’ in the Tell Fakhariyah inscription, with its implication that these two words are ‘poetic’ synonyms and not theologically distinct, seems to have been overlooked. A concluding part at the end of this, and of every relevant section throughout the commentary, examines the usage of the text from Genesis in the NT. Hamilton tends to refer to parallels in the texts from Ebla. However, these conclusions must be treated with great caution. It is by no means clear that the ‘water from the ground’ of 2:6 has any relation to an Eblaite month name. Besides phonological problems, the word is read in a completely different manner in later publications of the Eblaite text. Hamilton’s attempt to relate the origin of the first part of the name Jerusalem (the part missing from the Salem of Gn. 14) to the Sumerian word for city, URU, is incorrect, as demonstrated by the second-millennium bc spellings of this city in Akkadian and Egyptian.

On the difficult questions surrounding the role of the woman, Hamilton argues that the ‘helper’ is a position of equality, that 3:16 describes the woman’s birth pains and the husband’s tyranny over his wife, and that the NT appropriation in 1 Timothy 2:8–15 is intended to have universal application in not allowing a woman to teach or to have authority over men.

This commentary is a substantial contribution to the study of the first part of Genesis. Its strengths lie in Hamilton’s philological, grammatical and comparative Semitic work, as well as in his useful synthesis of prior research. Thus it is a work which every researcher in these ancient texts will want to consult.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver