What's New in Interpreting Genesis
by Paul E. Koptak
Paul D. Koptak, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and Biblical Interpretation, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago. The following article was published in The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. LIII, No. 1 (February 1995), pp. 3-16.
While some of the best known and most loved stories are found in the book of Genesis, congregations can often tune out a sermon or lesson on Genesis with the thought that they are travelling well worn paths. On the other hand, Bible readers regularly find much that leaves them surprised, shocked, or wondering about how some of these stories (the rape of Dinah and Tamar's seduction of Judah) have anything to say about God's ways in this world. A number of recent studies have been published that offer help to readers and communicators who wish to hear the stories of Genesis as they were intended to be heard and to discover their significance for life at the threshold of a new century.
Commentaries and Expository Guides
The first of three commentaries to be completed in 1994 is Gordon Wenham's, Genesis 16-50 (Word Biblical Commentary Series, Waco: Word, 517 pp., $27.99) a companion to his 1987 work on Gen 1-15. The introduction to the first volume included an extended discussions of both source criticism that seeks to describe how the text came to be and literary studies that explain how the final form of the text reads. He offered a detailed yet clear review of the recent challenges to the classic JEDP hypothesis and posited his own theory that J was an editor who drew together earlier sources (including P, a reversal of typical critical theory) into the narrative of Genesis somewhere between 1250-950 B.C.E.
Wenham is a careful commentator who sets out the interpretative options before offering his opinion. For example he lists five alternatives for understanding the "knowledge of good and evil" in Gen 2:9 before offering his decision that it is a reference to wisdom. A five page excursus reports on attempts to deal with the great ages of the early inhabitants. The introduction to the ancestral narratives observes a number of parallels between the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and their families: all leave their homeland, quarrel with their brothers, move south to or toward Egypt, receive God's blessing and are buried in the cave of Machpelah.
The introduction to the second volume treats the issues of historical setting, patriarchal religion, and the roles that history and theology play in commenting on the text. Although the narratives are written from a suprahistorical perspective that is prophetic (the writer knows the mind and intentions of God, which ordinary humans and historians do not), the events and figures must have some historical basis, otherwise the theological claims have no basis. Radical arguments for and against historicity are balanced out with a careful review of the ways that the story does fit with the early second millennium, 2200 to 2000 B.C.E.
Again, Wenham skillfully balances the competing claims of historical and literary analysis, holding up neither as primary. Some observations are especially helpful, such as the three-fold bowing or meeting Joseph as a companion to Joseph's three-part rise to power. Wenham's command over relevant literature is outstanding. He can describe the cup Joseph placed in the sack by reference a monograph The Tabernacle Menorah. Yet the commentary does not suggest a larger purpose for the Joseph story; the analyses are faithful to the details but lack an overall synthesis.
The commentary follows the Word format of bibliography (Wenham's are extensive), translation, notes on text and translation, form/structure/setting, comment, and explanation. The arrangement allows readers to select the issues they will engage, but also points to the necessity of all the steps for a proper exegesis.
Victor P. Hamilton has also completed the companion to his 1990 Genesis 1-17 (Genesis 18-50, New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, 800 pp., $39.95). The first volume offered a 100 page introduction that traced the rise of the documentary hypothesis, the challenges of Van Seters, Rendtrorff and Tengström and the fields of rhetorical and literary criticism. Other sections treated the theology of Genesis, the historicity of the patriarchs, canonicity and text, with a twenty-five page bibliography that handily put in one place all the major secondary sources. This is a valuable introduction, but Hamilton did not say much directly about his own commitments and approach. Given the diversity of methods that populate biblical studies these days, a word or two would have been welcome.
The familiar format of the NIOTC of translation, commentary and technical footnotes also help the user to choose the level of the discussion. The notes on the translation of Gen 1:3-5 take up most of the page! Following each section of commentary is a small section on New Testament appropriation of the Old Testament texts. The first shows how Genesis 1:1-2:3 was used in John 1:1-5, Col 1:15-20, Matt 19:4/Mark 10:6 , Galatians 3:28, Heb 4:4 and in general New Testament terminology. This is a very appropriate way to help preachers and teachers to develop a biblical theology. For example, Harrison's argument that the Old Testament does not explicitly link Adam and Eve's sin with the sin and death of all humans is followed by Paul's use of Genesis 3 in Romans 5:12-21 that does.
In treating the Joseph story, more emphasis is put on fine points of translation (often a boon for the preacher) than on the problems of reading that the many literary studies have raised. Ambiguity is glossed over, the man at Dothan is simply noted, Reuben intervenes because he is oldest brother, and Hamilton makes his own argument for the literary unity of Gen 37, only footnoting the literary studies that support the position. The now complete commentary offers a wealth of information that makes it a valuable resource, yet more theological synthesis of major sections would have been welcome.
The Genesis commentary of Terrance Fretheim in the New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, $65.00) takes up 355 pages of volume I. (The NIB deserves a review of its own as a commentary for pastors and teachers, supervised by a consultant team of pastors.) Fretheim discusses methods for study of Genesis, stating his own preference for literary study with an emphasis on "theological movement" within the texts. He covers the use of narrative and genealogical forms, the literary unity of the text, its structure and theme, and the issue of faith and history. He concludes that while it is not possible to demonstrate the historical existence of the figures in Genesis, we may understand that the ancient writers were able to recall authentic memories and to retell them with a theological intent. Fretheim rightly observes that alongside the theme of divine blessing goes a stress on "the role of the human in the divine economy," thus holding a certain tension between God's plans for "good" and human cooperation and resistance with that plan.
The Bible text is reproduced in both NRSV and NIV versions; this allows for comparison and communicates an interest in serving both mainline and evangelical christians. Hebrew words are printed and transliterated when they are important to the comments, but Hebrew is not used to engage in extended exegetical discussions. Emphasis is placed on the major point of the texts. For example, the image of God is judiciously explained, not as a distinguishing quality, but as a description to the whole human as a mirror of God's dominion in the earthly sphere. This view is similar to that of ancient kings, who thought themselves to be such reflections of deity. Genesis democratizes the image by claiming it for all.
Issues current in the debates on Genesis interpretation are raised and answered in non-technical jargon for the non-academic but informed reader. For instance, Fretheim calls the scholarly reliance on "chaos" forces into question in the light of God's sovereign will. His comments also show how a narrative like Gen 2-3 is open to interpretation and misinterpretation depending on the narrative signals and method one uses to read. Fretheim notes that the woman does not tempt the man or lead him into temptation in any way, but both succumb to the serpent's logic.
Each commentary section is followed by a series of reflections that usually answer readerly questions like the nature of the serpent, the language of a fall and original sin (with reference to Romans 5). The near-sacrifice of Isaac can be viewed as child abuse in modern eyes, but Fretheim notes that Isaac's questions show both his and Abraham's unwavering trust in God. Therefore, parents should be attentive to their own children's questions whenever the text is read and heard. Jacob wrestles with God, but this story does not symbolize repentance and character change; it is rather a test, as was God's test of Abraham. Would Jacob continue on with God, even when the going gets tough? In this way, Jacob's experience is like our own.
Many of the comments overturn traditional readings. When our tendency is moralize, Fretheim will stress God's activity, and when we will overtheologize, he will point out the human side of the story. The balance between human and divine effectiveness is most skillfully woven into his treatment of the Joseph story. Each reflection section concludes with a word on what has been said by or about God, stressing the theological nature of a story in which God seems hidden. Joseph's words of consolation to his brothers, "God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen 45:5) are described as theophany based upon formal similarities to the speech of God (26:24 and 46:2-4) that eases fear and announces what God has done or will not do.
This is the first commentary to take seriously the point that the Joseph story is a story about God (by the way, "God" is the last word in the commentary) and God's work in the world, but not at the expense of the importance of human action as a response to that world involvement. The fresh and profound reading of the Joseph story serves as the capstone of Fretheim's stated approach. I was not always happy with the revisions of old readings- they sometimes seem to excuse human responsibility- but in the end evil is called evil and good is called good while an overly simple generalizations are avoided. This is literary reading with an eye to theology and a method to be emulated.
Donald E. Gowan in Genesis 1-11: From Eden to Babel (International Theological Commentary series, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, pp. 125, $10.99) says little about his approach other than his conviction that the narratives of Genesis can proclaim theological truth when its reports are historically or scientifically inaccurate. He prefers the term "archetypal stories" over the traditional "saga," explaining that the stories explain what is typical about human nature, not what is unique to one time and place.
The theory of archetypal story is brought in to explain the appearance of the flood story in many ancient literatures, water being an archetypal metaphor for the chaos of life. Rather than explaining the repetitions in the Genesis flood story by reference to literary art, as Wenham and followers do, he compares the P and J versions. He concludes that P emphasizes the corruption of the whole creation, while J is more concerned with the sin of humanity. If so, then the pattern is similar to the movement of Gen 1 and 2-3, from creation as a whole to a focus on humankind. But whereas Gen 1 and 2-3 form two distinct literary units, the flood story does not. What Gowan does not discuss is how the different agendas of J and P coalesce into one whole telling of the story.
Gowan's work is cautious and meticulous, yet he is able to clearly lead the reader along his lines of argument. He works to remove a lot of underbrush of misunderstanding and moralizing of the text, seeking to listen to it on its own terms. By preferring to speak of archetypal stories and to point out what the text does not say or teach, I find his approach to be sometimes negative, especially when he chides readers for asking questions the text does not mean to answer.
David Atkinson's devotional interests come to the fore in the first sentence of , The Message of Genesis 1-11: The Dawn of Creation (The Bible Speaks Today Series, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990, 190 pp., $12.99): "The poem of beauty and grandeur which forms the opening chapter of our Bibles is a hymn of praise ot the majesty of God the Creator." To say this is not to imply that he is not interested in understanding the text as an ancient document. Atkinson suggests that its portrait of God would be a rock of stability for people in exile who would be tempted to succumb to the religious ideas of their conquerors.
Atkinson, like Gowan, explains that the theological interest of the writer is not the same as our interest in how it happened, but his tone is gentler, adding that creation is not "a scientific category." Even so, he notes that the orderly style of Gen 1 reflects a mind that is "not far from the interests of science." The exposition engages issues of environment, time, and sabbath, quoting from C. K. Chesterton, Peter Berger, Arthur Peacocke, Fritjof Capra, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Barth, and Moltmann- and all this for Genesis 1!
Probably the strongest section is the discussion of Noah and the flood. It is here that Atkinson finds a challenge to confront the problem of a creation that will either explode (the nuclear crisis has changed since 1990 but has not disappeared) or die of environmental poisoning. While not as thorough and penetrating as Gowan's commentary, Atkinson's work does satisfy by stating conventional positions without requiring dated applications of them. The many references to his reading show this to be an exposition compassionately connected to the world and its need to hear a message of good news.
J. Gerald Janzen's Genesis 12-50: Abraham and All the Families of the Earth (International Theological Commentary series, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993, pp. 215, $17.99) uses a method of analysis that is literary and theological. He rightly claims that literary work itself is not enough; it must be used in service of theology.
The overall result mixes literary and theological concerns in a way that not only gives preachers something to preach, but also gives them some clues as to how. Narrative preachers especially will appreciate suggestions for fresh retelling of the old, old stories. For example, Janzen suggests that Joseph was not a spoiled brat, but one who suffered persecution in ways similar to Jeremiah and the Psalmists.
Some interlacings are overread. Even if the Samaritan woman in John 4 makes a few allusions to Deuteronomy (mentioning the prophet to come and the right place to worship), this does not mean that this woman is following Tamar's example (Gen 38) in trying to raise offspring for her first husband in line with Deut 25. The reading is ingenious, but based on a few links that could lead in a number of directions. Even if Janzen stretches too far at points, his feel for the richness of language as a tool to inform, but also to evoke, makes this commentary a pleasure to read and an experience in rediscovering the ancestral stories. It is well worth the price.
In seeking to answer the introductory questions about date and setting, Joyce G. Baldwin in Genesis 12-50: From Abraham to Joseph (The Bible Speaks Today Series, Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1986, 224 pp. $12.99) makes reference to the ongoing debate on the historicity of the ancestral figures. Through many footnotes, readers will become familiar with the content of Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives, (IVP, 1980, presently available from Eisenbrauns) and its argument that Abraham was a living figure.
The readings stress faith and its tests, but sometimes at the expense of the questions that readers might have in response. Abraham should have trusted God instead of passing off Sarah as his sister on the assumption that God would have protected him just as he protected Sarah (from Abimelech at the least). How do readers appropriate this affirmation of divine protection in the light of martyrdom or holocaust? Lessons of faith will also raise questions of faith, and Baldwin most often skirts these.
Baldwin's comparison of the sale of Joseph to other examples of suffering servants (Isaiah 53 :3-6; Zechariah 11:12-13, 13:7-9) echoes some of the typology used in early Christian interpretation and it is good not to overlook this part of the history of exegesis. However, the lessons often veer toward easy moralization. Judah's deception of Tamar is condemned (Gen 38), but nothing is said about Tamar's commitment to her rights and the survival of the family that motivated her deception of Judah. Joseph forgets his father's house and acknowledges that God made him fruitful (Gen 42-50-52), but this is no disloyalty to his family and heritage; it is a refusal to linger on past hurts in bitterness and establishes Joseph as a moral model. In sum, the commentary is strong on historical background and individual faith lessons, but does not penetrate beyond these to an appreciation of the ambiguity of faith in the midst of life, or the social responsibilities of the person of faith.
D. Stuart Briscoe's, Genesis: The Communicator's Commentary, (Word Books, Waco, Texas, 1987; also available in paper in the Mastering the Old Testament Series, 414 pp., $12.99.) seeks a middle road between a preacher/teacher's need for explication of the biblical text and application to daily life. Briscoe states his preference for application. He offers an outline of Genesis that breaks each chapter into three or more parallel points- "Faith's High Point: Gen 22:1-34" lists "The Incident as a Test, The Incident as a Triumph, The Incident as a Type." Each section opens with the text taken from the New King James Bible.
The writing style is friendly and vivid; in speaking of the believer's response to creation he writes, "This sense of wonder makes created people worshippers." Interspersed with the comments are illustrations, often taken from Briscoe's experiences and encounters with others. The readings are conventional; the tower represents human pride and independence, Abraham is a model of faith despite his failings, Jacob learns virtue through the school of hard knocks, and Joseph is a boy with some growing up to do, just like those boys Briscoe recalls from his days as a youth worker.
The emphasis is on relationships, faithful dealings with God and other people. Judah's speech before Joseph is commendable because it does not evade responsibility. Some of the proverbial wisdom is striking: "Man is free to make his choices but he is not free to determine the consequences of his choices." We may wish for inclusive language and may shy from such "moralizing" of the text, but coupled with Briscoe's lessons on theology and God's ways with people, such moral teaching does not seem out of place. Thus the commentary models one version of biblical exposition, that which organizes the exposition around the lessons of the text. It would serve well for examples of how the text could be taught and preached, and would remind those who read it to remember the needs and questions of the people who will be listening. The book could also be used as a devotional guide.
Allen P. Ross, in Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988, 744 pp., $29.99) states that his book is not a commentary of Genesis, but a guide to help teachers and preacher appreciate the richness and complexity of the narratives and to organize the theological teaching for presentation to a contemporary audience. He divides Genesis into over 60 sections. Each section's treatment includes a short introduction, a summary of theological ideas, an analysis of structure and synthesis into an exegetical outline followed by a development of the exposition. A bibliography concludes each section. Although Ross confesses his skepticism about historical-critical methods, he acknowledges that one can learn much from reading these studies, so the bibliography ranges widely across the theological landscape. Like Briscoe's work, the book is helpful in modeling an expository approach to exegesis and biblical preaching with a focus on individual application.
Monographs and Specialized Studies
The survey of commentaries and expository guides gives some indication of the diversity of method at work in biblical studies today. Even though they have made their way into the commentaries, literary and social-scientific approaches are still "what's new" in biblical studies. The following works use and refine one or both of these methods to answer new questions posed by careful reading of the texts.
Sharon Pace Jeansonne has used a literary method that attends to point of view, plot, pace, dialogue, and character development in The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990, 152 pp., $12.00). Jeansonne's goal is to bring the overlooked women of Genesis 12-50 into the spotlight by reading the stories from their perspective. A helpful introduction helps readers understand the storytelling techniques of narrative gaps, ambiguity, repetition, combination and sequence of narratives, names and epithets, type scenes, and setting. Some interesting insights appear; what many interpreters have overlooked or excused, Jeansonne calls abuse. Thus we feel Sarah's shame and fear when she is taken into Pharaoh's household and are horrified that Lot would offer his daughters to the men of Sodom to protect his guests. Tamar is used sexually by Onan and Potiphar's wife is a plot device who is given no character of her own.
It is therefore puzzling that Jeansonne concludes with a brief reference to the narrative's function to define Israel's relation to its neighbors; this is clearly not her agenda in reading. She assumes that the narrative method will expose how the text would have itself read and does not recognize that her empathic stance is a concern she brings to the narrative. Some of her readings are taken from cues the narrator provides, while others are inferences she draws from the text. Reader response criticism is fine when it is acknowledged that that is what one is doing. Many of the insights generated are powerful and would enhance the teaching and preaching of these stories, but they should be used with a clear statement of the reader's stance, something like, "How do we encounter these stories? What do we feel when we see what happens to these women?"
Other literary studies do not take the general approach to narrative that Jeansonne does, but narrow in on some aspect of it. Laurence A. Turner in Announcements of Plot in Genesis (JSOT Supplement 96, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990, 210 pp., $37.50) argues that the narrative of Genesis offers four "Announcements" that not only give the reader a foretaste of what is to come, but provide signals for how the story is to be read. God's command to the first humans in Gen 1:28, God's promise to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, God's oracle to Rebekah in Gen 25:23 and Joseph's God inspired dreams all signal a course of events and create an expectation in the reader that will either be satisfied or frustrated.
Turner uses contemporary literary theory to shape his definition of plot and chooses not to answer questions of authorship, date and composition. He concludes that the plot of Genesis does not follow a fixed pattern of promise and fulfillment, especially as humans carry out God's instructions. God told Abraham to go and leave his family, but he took Lot because, Turner argues, he hoped Lot would be his heir. He did not live his life as a blessing for others, and at the end of the story Abraham has only one legitimate son, and has only seen the land that he does not own. Why? Abraham's stumbling obedience is in part to blame. Likewise, Esau never serves Jacob as was promised in the oracle, and Joseph's father and mother never bowed down to him as he dreamed, because both father and son tried to make the foretold events happen through their own efforts.
In sum, by reading the announcements very strictly, Turner goes against the "predestinarian" mainstream of Genesis interpretation and sees God's commands and promises only partly fulfilled. His observations come together in an interesting formula: "human attempts to frustrate the Announcements tend to fulfil them; human attempts to fulfil the Announcements tend to frustrate them." This conclusion bears great theological significance for an understanding of human nature, obedience, and faith, but Turner seems content to state that it calls into question the idea that God's will overcomes all obstacles in Genesis. His comments do force readers to look closely and to ask if more is said about human resistance to God's will in Genesis than is typically assumed. While I wonder if Turner is using too tight a definition of fulfillment, his attempt to point out some unexamined assumptions about the text are well taken.
Hugh C. White, in Narration and Discourse in the Book of Genesis (Cambridge University Press, 1991, 312 pp.), examines the distinction between the speech of the narrator and that of the characters to see what light can be shed on Genesis. He observes that characters such as Adam and Abraham are introduced as recipients of the divine Word; little is said about their appearance or character traits and nothing is said about the source of the divine Voice. This divides the narrator's function and alters the typical relation of the narrator to the characters. The voice of God cannot be treated as simply another character, because it shares elements with the voices of both story-teller/creator and those whose stories are being told.
Speech-act theory informs his treatment of the divine promise, promise being a clear example of a word that does something for the listener (creates hope, doubt or questioning) even as it signifies. However, Genesis opens not with a promise, but divine Command ("Let there be light.") that is followed by words to the created humans of permission and prohibition (Gen 2:16-17). The material description of the scene in Eden sets the stage for a humanity motivated by desire, and sets up a contrast between the world inside and outside, again presaging the expulsion.
If inordinate desire was expelled by prohibition and punishment in the garden story, desire is introduced again in the promise to Abraham along with a new mode of living in relationship to desire. By receiving land, offspring and blessing from God in the form of a promise, Abraham's desire is satisfied in part and a new relationship is established with the promisor, a relationship of faith. Divine promise replaces divine prohibition.
The transmission of the promise to more than one son is the center of the Joseph story as the divine Voice recedes into the background. Joseph's dreams of greatness are a new form of divine promise and Joseph, in reporting the dreams, becomes a quasi-narrator who is caught up in the action. His theocentric words at the end of the story, "God sent me... God meant for good" writes a new story on top of the one told by the narrator, one in which God is the "primary acting subject." At the end of the story of Genesis God declares his purposes through a human voice.
This is a very sensitive and perceptive reading in which interpretations are grounded both in immediate context and in the context of the whole book. Modern narrative theory (which White surveys in the first third of the book) provides tools to help White observe what is going on, and so his larger conclusions are very solid, while some of the details seem overworked. Preachers and teachers would appreciate this book if they read it for an eye-opening account of the communication processes at work in narrative and for a renewed vision of the rhetoric of Genesis, but it will not offer quick help with Sunday's sermon or tonight's Bible study. White opts for richness and complexity over easy accessibility.
In The Voice of Jacob (Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature Series, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, 122 pp., $22.50) Leslie Brisman attempts to redefine the earliest of the modern biblical approaches, source criticism. Rejecting the traditional theory that the Pentateuch is the product of independent strands, Brisman postulates a multi-voiced text that resulted from the effort of one writer to reinterpret the viewpoint of another. The earlier foundational writer is not J, as Wellhausen suggested, but rather the voice of pious obedience and transcendent understanding of God (found outside the J texts in E and P). Brisman calls this voice Eisaac, joining the E of the Elohist strand with the name of the famous figure of faith and obedience. The earthy and irreverent style of J is revisionary, not pristine, and so J is called Jacob after Isaac's wily son.
Although Brisman's stated intent is to bring some sense of relationship between what are often viewed as separate literary strands, his reading fails to present a compelling vision of Genesis. The interplay between Eisaac and Jacob does produce a number of fresh insights into isolated features of the text, but what lacks is a clear notion of Jacob's purpose in re-reading the stories. Brisman does little to explore the motivation behind Jacob's revisionary spirit; therefore little insight is gained into the significance of this revised work for ancient or modern readers. We are left with a behind the scenes look at the making of a film without the film itself. While seeking to unify the texts (by pointing out their interaction), he has driven Eisaac and Jacob apart.
Another book in the same series, King and Kin: Political Allegory in the Hebrew Bible by Joel Rosenburg (Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, 254 pp., $10.95) speaks of the interaction between certain texts as political "midrash." Genesis is a commentary of sorts on the Davidic history in II Samuel, a political allegory. Key words in the account of Amnon's rape of Tamar remind the reader of the temptation in the garden, but the story is more than a moral fable; it also criticizes David's political strategies. Absalom's murder of Amnon resembles Abel's death at the hand of Cain, especially when interpreted by the woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14:5-7). Most importantly, the garden story sets out a pattern that can also be seen in the lives of Abraham and David: a protagonist leaves home and kin behind, suffers scandal and exile via a woman (note the assumptions concerning the woman's role), allows one son to be preferred and experiences the death of that son (Isaac was as good as dead in Abraham's eyes) and sees a another son exiled. Engaging and provocative, Rosenburg's treatments of the stories take these patterns and hold them forth, not as something imposed on the text, but as an underlying schema that urges one to read broadly and deeply. What readers may think to be forced patterning may turn out to be the subtle allusion that the narratives place before them.
The social scientific approach is best seen at work in Naomi Steinberg's Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993, 162 pp., $12.00). Her thesis is that, "the stories in Gen 11:10-50:26 are concerned with genealogical continuity and inheritance." (p. 5) Against the anthropological system typified by Levi-Strauss, she holds that marriage establishes descent and not the formation of alliances. Her analysis of the narratives leads her to the conclusion that the issue of where the men of these stories find their spouses is central, since only patrilineal collateral marriage within the line of Terah establishes a claim to the land of Israel. Children born to marriages outside of that marriage system are ineligible.
Steinberg observes that three genealogies (Gen 11:10-32; 25:12-26; 36:1-43) introduce three major narrative cycles (Gen 12:1-25:11; 25:27-25:29; 37:1-50:26) that depict issues of reproduction and inheritance. The Sarah-Hagar cycle depicts polycoity, the practice of raising offspring through a woman who is not a wife. Ishmael is not to inherit because he is not a son of a female descendant of Terah, as is Isaac. The birth of Jacob and Esau to Rebekah shows how inheritance is resolved when a monogamous marriage with a female from Terah's line produces more than one candidate as heir. Jacob buys the birthright for lentils and Rebekah helps him steal the blessing, but between the two incidents is a report that Esau married a Hittite woman, one who is outside the line of Terah. Rebekah sends Jacob to her brother Laban to save Jacob from Esau's wrath, but also to make sure that he marries within the proper line. But Jacob marries two of Laban's daughters; which will produce his heir? In this situation of sororal polygyny, cross-cultural studies report multiple heirship. Multiple heirship is helpful in understanding the prominence given to two sons, Joseph and Judah, in the narrative and in the poetic blessing off Jacob in Genesis 49. In addition, all twelve sons may be also be considered heirs. Thus the problems of lineal descent is dissolved and a horizontal system is set in its place; in this system, descent from Terah can be traced through any of the twelve tribes.
The approach does not account for everything, however, especially the break in the pattern that appears as Judah and Joseph take wives that are not from the patrilineal heritage. It is simply observed with an explanation in narrative terms, that Jacob accepted the sons of Joseph. The issue of inheritance in general also carries theological overtones which Steinberg does not discuss, but her focus allows for a clear reading of the narrative that puts many confusing details in their place.
Literary concerns come into Steinberg's work, and they are present as well in two other studies that employ methods from the social sciences. Terry J. Prewitt's The Elusive Covenant: A Structural Semiotic Reading of Genesis (Advances in Semiotics Series, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, 160 pp., $20.00) integrates the study of literary form, sign theory and kinship structures to demonstrate unifying structures in the narrative. He examines genealogical patterns, the depiction of polity and history, narrative structural patterns and the resultant mythos and ethos represented. He posits a chain of chiastic structures for each cycle of stories, but does not mention Gary Rendsburg's similar work in The Redaction of Genesis. As one would expect, there are many complex charts and explanations; therefore, the book is valuable as an analysis of the cultural and organizational dynamics at work in the text, not as a commentary.
Devora Steinmetz's title, From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict, and Continuity in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster Knox, 1991, 224 pp., $15.95) reflects her interest in the tension between inheritance and aggression that is present in father-son relationships. After reviewing the theories of Malinowski, Freud, Girard and others on the role of fatherhood, Steinmetz uses the story of Oedipus to illustrate the problem; a father wants to insure immortality by passing on all of his "self" (both material and cultural) to an heir, but in so doing insures his own mortality and displacement. Hence the father-son conflict that must find resolution. The family relationships depicted in Genesis 12-50 both seek that resolution and model a social system for Israelite society in which members can live together without conflict. While violence between father and son does not arise as it does in other ancient stories, violence does threaten whenever blessing is about to be transmitted.
The book rightly notes the presence of violence and sacrificial images in the narratives (The ram at Moriah, the goat slaughtered to deceive Isaac, and the goat slaughtered to deceive Jacob) but the explanations derived seem far removed from the concerns of the text. The book is especially strong at pointing out links between the stories, especially the parallels between the pairings of Isaac and Rebekah and Judah and Tamar; both women covered their faces before meeting the men, both meetings occured near a well with a name that puns on the act of seeing, and both have twins who struggle in the womb, with one twin associated with the color red.
Steinmetz also rightly observes that the actions of characters in Genesis prefigure events in the later history of the nation; Abraham goes to Egypt and returns to Canaan and there fights with inhabitants of the land, just as Israel will do later. More importantly, key words related to the covenant show up in the stories of Abraham and Jacob. In sum, the book is strongest at pointing up links and connections and sensitively observing the use of these links to forge a typology of the nation in the patriarchal stories. It is less effective in handling the theme of intergenerational violence, something that seems to be more of a concern of modern psychological and sociological theory than that of the biblical narrator.
This survey of commentaries and books on Genesis is not exhaustive, but it should show that the practice of interpretation has continued to move away from concerns for the history of the composition of Genesis as it moves toward the study of the way the narratives tell their stories. This move places a new emphasis on the narrative's purpose to shape audiences' perceptions of the world around them and to instruct them in how to live in this world and relate to its God. To say this is not to say that historical concerns are unimportant to interpreters, but that these interpreters are becoming more and more aware of their role as readers of the historical and theological reality that is presented to them in the texts. In my opinion, this is a good development as long as the new emphasis on reading is matched by a concern for the theological teaching of Genesis. If the discovery of that theology is the goal, then attention to the communicative strategies of the texts ought to be able to help us to teach and preach with greater competence, sensitivity and power.
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