Genesis for Normal People

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

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.

  • The creation story, as told in Genesis one, is a variation on creation narratives circulating at the time of writing. This telling is a “slap in the face” of the Babylonian narrative: “Sun, moon and stars are signs, not beings; Israel’s God works alone; all humans bear divine image; it puts the brakes on and says that this one God of a captive people is responsible for taming chaos and filling the air, sea and earth.” All this is told to encourage faithfulness to God, not to establish a modern, scientifically accurate account of how the world began.
  • The Adam story, beginning in chapter two, is a story of Israel in miniature. The point is not that God didn’t want people to know the difference between good and evil, but that this knowledge should come through the process of obedience to God. Failure to follow God’s path to wisdom leads to death, estrangement from God, and exile for Adam and Israel alike.
  • The story of Noah features a God concerned about wickedness, not annoyance at the noise people were making, as the Babylonian version has it. And it provides a reason for the presence of the wicked Canaanites in Israel’s story. It all had to do with Ham seeing his father naked, thus bringing a curse on his son Canaan, which doesn’t make moral sense to modern readers.
  • Chapter ten explains how and why people were scattered over the earth, “each with its own language.” Then comes the story of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, clearly a jab at Israel’s Babylonian captors famous for having built such towers. Two different stories, not told to establish historical fact, but to reassure captive Israel.
  • Abraham’s story, like that of Adam, is also the story of Israel in miniature. He moves from Babylon to Canaan, struggles with faithfulness, journeys to Egypt and back, accepts the promise of people and land, and receives the message that obedience is important for blessing. It is hard not to see such mirroring in any part of the Abraham story.
  • And the story of Jacob, far from presenting a model of virtue, serves to confirm that Jerusalem – the location where God dropped the ladder from heaven – is God’s special place to which captive Israel hopes to return.

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.