Genesis for Normal People, Second Edition (2019), by Peter Enns and Jared Byas – A Book Review
Genesis has always generated a lot of questions for me. It began back when I was a youngster. How was it that God created light on the first day of creation but the sun only arrived on the fourth day? Did snakes have legs before they were cursed? Why was Abel’s sacrifice acceptable to God and Cain’s not? Where did Cain find his wife and all the people to build a city? How could all the animals fit into Noah’s ark and what did the carnivores eat while on the water?
In circles I have moved for most of my life such questions were not safe to ask because they seemed to challenge the historical accuracy of these accounts. If these stories were not historical fact, it was said, how could you trust the Bible for anything? However, this book has given me the freedom to ask such questions aloud. But as the subtitle of the book, “A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible” suggests, answers would not come easily.
But answers do begin to emerge, say the authors, when we are able to give up a literalistic reading of the text. “Think of the Old Testament as Israel’s story, written in light of national trauma, to encourage continued faithfulness to God” (13). That is to say there is more to the story than a simple, literal telling; it is focused on transmitting a message to an ancient people caught up in a national trauma that found them questioning their relationship to God. So, far from reinforcing a modern need for an infallible text, Genesis calls modern readers to enter that story to hear faith questions being answered for people of old.
A good place to begin is to admit that most likely Genesis, or indeed the entire Pentateuch, was not authored by Moses as many believe. To begin with, the text is written in third person, even describing Moses’ death and burial. Furthermore, say the authors,
The Hebrew of the Bible is largely from the time of the kings of Israel, about 800 BCE, and later. So when Genesis tells stories… it does so in a Hebrew that did not exist yet at the time the story is happening (120).
So any way you look at it, the Genesis story is not likely a first-hand account of someone who was on the scene when these stories are said to have happened. Indeed, according to the story, Moses had not yet been born at the time of the Genesis narrative.
The most important key to understanding Genesis, say Enns and Byas, is to understand that Genesis is the story of Israel told in such a way as to demonstrate that God can be counted on from the very beginning. All indications point to the Babylonian captivity as the context in which Israel’s story was written down. It was needed in order to encourage discouraged captives to continue believing that God had not forgotten about them; that they were still the people of Yahweh!
Far from simply being a factual repository of how Israel’s story unfolded, it is a story told in such a way as to prefigure the present situation of captive Israel. I only have room to highlight some of the ways in which this happens.
I found that once I got used to the glasses that Enns and Byas offered me, I discovered a richness in the book of Genesis I had largely missed before. And, in the process, a lot of my childhood questions were answered in a satisfactory way.