Reviews of

Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)

In Abraham, Biblical Criticism, Bill T. ARNOLD, Cambridge University Press, Genesis, HB/OT, Hermeneutics, Kerry Lee on May 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm

2012.05.08 | Bill T. Arnold. Genesis. The New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxii + 409 pages. (PB) £16.99. ISBN: 9780521000673. (HB) £50. ISBN: 9780521806077.

Reviewed by Kerry Lee, University of Edinburgh.

RBECS would like to thank CUP for kindly providing us with a review copy.

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Note to the reader: the following review is a good deal longer than what I would submit to an academic journal. In the process of reviewing this commentary, my own professional interest in the book of Genesis and in general hermeneutical method compelled me to address some issues in greater detail. I hope the reader will find all of it to be of interest, but in case someone simply wants the more conventional book review, I have attempted to constrain my additional ramblings to the section entitled “A Question of Methodology.”

The expressed purpose of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series is to “elucidate the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures for a wide range of intellectually curious individuals” in a way that is “accessible” and “jargon-free.” As readers of this review will know, commentary series are typically aimed at a range of readers, and we might generally divide commentaries into devotional (aimed primarily at the reader with no specialist training, but hoping to be useful to pastors and teachers), expository (aimed primarily at someone with a degree of training – like pastors – but useful to lay readers; the best ones will be useful to specialists, as well) and exegetical categories (focusing on philology, diachronic analysis, comparative literature and historical-critical issues; contemporary application of the text is often absent or secondary). In the tradition of the Cambridge Bible Commentary, the NCBC series aims to be an example of that second category, the expository commentary. But not all expository commentaries are made equal, and not all volumes within a series are of equal value. The best ones bring out from the biblical text treasures old and new, effectively digesting and communicating recent developments in scholarship without being carried away by trendiness and combining this data with the strengths of the history of scholarship. Bill Arnold’s Genesis does this and in such a way that it should be accessible to virtually any reader.

The format of the NCBC series makes them easy to use. The text is divided into manageable units (usually one or two chapters in length, frequently less, rarely more) that correspond to story or plot units. The full text of the NRSV for each segment is given, followed by a satisfying, if not exhaustive, amount of commentary (more than one finds in Anchor Bible commentaries; a good deal less than, say, Word Biblical Commentaries, and without the separate sections dealing with text-criticism, form and structure, etc.). Sources are cited in accordance with Chicago style guidelines in footnotes (rather than endnotes), with full citations the first time a source is mentioned. Considering the intended market for this commentary, the partially annotated bibliography at the beginning of the commentary is very helpful, especially since it is really intended to be more of a “Suggested Reading” list. The end material includes an index of citations (both biblical and non-biblical sources), an index of authors, and an index of subjects.

The commentary for each section is written in an expository essay form rather than in a verse-by-verse form, though Arnold deals with enough particulars that one can usually find commentary on individual verses. Two kinds of excursuses appear periodically throughout the commentary. Those entitled “Closer Look” focus on the Ancient Near Eastern context. There are twelve of these, more than half pertaining to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, and examples include “Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East,” “Covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures,” and “Endogamy in Ancient Israel.” The other kind of excursus, of which there are five, is entitled “Bridging the Horizons.” The intention of these is to focus especially on the continuing relevance of the Scriptures. Examples include “Genesis 1 and the Ideologies of the Ages,” “Abram’s Faith,” and “Abraham, Father of Us All.” One can compare and contrast this arrangement with the NIVAC’s structural arrangement of each section into “Original Meaning,” “Bridging the Contexts,” and “Contemporary Significance.” The same kind of comments are elicited in both commentary series, but by making these foci excursive rather than structural, the NCBC removes a good bit of redundancy that tends to creep into the NIVAC volumes. In the main commentary Arnold is constantly making comments that veer into the realms of historical context or contemporary application. The excursuses allow him to highlight particular issues without burdening every section with a mandatory devotional passage.

For the layperson or pastor/teacher, I cannot recommend a better commentary on Genesis (another one, yes, but not a better one). Arnold’s writing is lucid and engaging. The manageable units actually make it possible for this commentary to function as a devotional commentary (if one is willing to spend more than 15 minutes a day reading and studying the Bible). There are 42 units of varying sizes, but going through this commentary systematically over the course of one-and-a-half or two months would be beneficial for any student of Genesis. Arnold also wrote Encountering the Book of Genesis which is used in churches and universities as a text book. For an in-depth Bible study class, I would recommend considering Arnold’s NCBC commentary as more advanced text book. While the commentary includes discussion of some advanced subjects, a conscientious reader will come away from the discussion having learned something no matter the reader’s educational background.

There are certain features of this commentary that make it useful to the specialist as well. Arnold clearly has mastered a wide range of secondary literature, as is evident in his footnotes (which are always worth checking). Yet those footnotes are not burdened with teems of citations whose relevance is often unclear or dubious. This is the work of a confident and competent scholar. Secondly, while the NCBC is not intended to be a philological commentary, Arnold does routinely bring up issues relating to the Hebrew text. What is more, I have yet to find a place where his use of linguistic data seems a stretch (an unfortunate tendency in commentaries where contemporary application is emphasised).

Third, Arnold applies the methods of literary theory, and he does so in a careful but up-to-date way (the last several decades have seen a great deal of scholarly work that uses literary-critical methodology to justify saying nearly anything about a text). My own personal preference would have been to see more of this and more application of narratological analysis, but what Arnold does is well done. He treats the characters of the text warmly, as one does when talking about a novel or movie, but he does not delve into psychological speculation (e.g. what must Abraham have been feeling at this time?), which many confuse with literary analysis. His understanding of the emotional state of a character is based upon cues in the text. Interpreters of the Hebrew Bible, both scholar and pastor, should study Arnold’s scholarship here and take notes.

Bottom line: Genesis, by Bill Arnold, is an easy-to-read expository commentary that should be useful to a very wide range of readers, from layperson to specialist. It effectively digests and communicates recent developments in Genesis scholarship and in OT scholarship more generally, creating a commentary for which there is no precise contemporary analogue. It is more concise than Ken Matthews’ two-volume NAC commentary (1996 and 2005). It is more thorough and a much higher quality reading of Genesis than that found in Turner’s Readings volume (2009). Unlike Brueggemann’s older IBC commentary (1982), the sections dealing with contemporary application are subordinated to a careful reading of the text (Brueggemann’s commentary is valuable, but at times it seems to skip over the text entirely to get to application). The closest corollary would be Clare Amos’ volume in the Epworth Commentaries series (2004), or perhaps John Walton’s NIVAC commentary (2001), but I think it an improvement over both of these. Arnold’s scholarship is thorough but careful, not given to idiosyncratic readings. This means that it is a safe bet for someone looking for a point of access into the labyrinthine world of Genesis scholarship, a good one-stop shop for a layperson looking for a quality commentary on Genesis for their home library, and a dependable conversation partner for the scholar.

A Question of Methodology

The following may appear to be unreasonably picky, but there is one issue I would address more closely, and that is Arnold’s own description of his methodological presuppositions. Arnold’s position is that the best approach to biblical hermeneutics combines synchronic (the text in its present form) and diachronic (the history of the text’s composition) investigation, that the two sets of questions mutually inform one another – a position with which I agree. However (and this question is part of the contemporary scholarly dialogue), which kind of investigation should have priority? This is not simply an ideological (i.e. conservative vs. critical) question, since (1) the conservative/critical dichotomy is mostly a false one, and (2) one can find so-called conservative and critical scholars on both sides of this question. Concerning this issue, let me quote Arnold:

The complexities of combining synchronic and diachronic approaches for biblical books are numerous. Many positions are possible along a continuum between those who, on the one hand, use redactional and diachronic historical studies of a text as a means of defining the structure, and on the other hand, those who investigate structure and synchronic relationships with little regard for the compositional history of the text. As a means of revealing my approach in this commentary, and therefore avoiding a complete philosophical defense for this approach (which requires a monograph instead of a brief commentary), I simply assert here that I favor an approach that reads the text twice, once for its compositional history as a means of informing the second reading, which emphasizes the synchronic structure of the whole (pg. 3).

In this paragraph, Arnold reveals just the sort of grasp and use of up-to-date scholarship that the NCBC professes as its aim. Exclusively diachronic study of the biblical text has been widely regarded as insufficient for decades. More recently, the hopelessly subjective nature of synchronic study that is not careful to be as emic as possible, and the way it consequently seems to produce wildly different readings of the same text with little justification for those readings, have led many scholars to see a two-pronged approach as desirable. However, there is still a great deal of room within this general agreement for methodological nuance. The fundamental question, in my mind, is what is the basis for diachronic investigation of a text? It is and always has been (ideally) so-called seams in the final form – details of the final form that resist synchronic explanation and can be more simply answered by positing them as artefacts of the compositional process. This would imply, then, that synchronic reading must have primacy. We must find the seams first. Simply accepting those details deemed to be seams from previous generations is not enough, because our knowledge of ancient history and literary style has grown a great deal since Wellhausen and Gunkel. If a received seam can now be better explained as an intentional feature of the final form, there usually remains no further reason for regarding it as a seam, and the diachronic theory built upon it is rendered foundationless. In a commentary of this sort I would not expect Arnold to offer a full philosophical defence of his position, but the fact that he expressly supports diachronic primacy must be pointed out, and it ought to be defended.

In Arnold’s defence, however, his commentary is primarily concerned with the final form of Genesis (diachronic speculation serving a supporting role), so the actual implementation of his expressed methodology typically avoids the pitfalls inherent in it. In addition, diachronic primacy can produce different results based upon one’s particular diachronic theory. For example, diachronic primacy is what led scholarship to treat Genesis 2:4a as a colophon for 1:1-2:3 for a long time – the toledot phrase from 2:4a is usually attributed to P, as is the first creation story, whereas the Eden story is attributed to J, so, the reasoning goes, 2:4a must be a concluding title. Simply keeping sources together and assuming they are coterminous with synchronic plot units would lead one to divide the text in the middle of 2:4. However, toledot phrases everywhere else in the Pentateuch (mostly in Genesis, but also in Numbers) are not colophons but headings, meaning 2:4a has to belong with 2:4bff. This observation is a result of synchronic primacy, not diachronic primacy, unless one holds a priori that P material is not only an independent source but a good deal of redactional editorial material, as well (which is one view of P). The point is that differing views of P are dependent on differing readings of the final form, so they are dependent on synchronic primacy. Arnold follows the flow of contemporary scholarship in connecting 2:4a with what follows rather than what precedes. So in practice what Arnold actually does in this and other instances is prioritise the synchronic reading. Interestingly (and ironically), this makes Arnold’s approach essentially opposite to von Rad’s, who argues, in opposition to the trend of his time, for the priority of synchronic readings in the introduction to his OTL Genesis commentary (1961) but then proceeds to comment on Genesis diachronically in a way that does not truly depart from his predecessors.

Arnold’s treatment of the two expulsions of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16 and 21) is another example of how his actual practice prioritises the synchronic reading. Acknowledging that a sequential reading of Genesis would put Ishmael in his early teens, Arnold notes that the text hints at a much younger age. However, he says:

Attributing this text to a separate source than that of Gen 17 [sic] may be a partial solution, but ultimately the text stands now to emphasize the compassionate concern Abraham has for Ishmael. Translating “and to the child” rather than “along with the child” conveys Abraham’s reluctance to let Ishmael go … and leaves open the possibility he placed the provisions on her back so her hands were free to take Ishmael by the hand (pg. 196).

On this and a number of other points, Arnold prioritises synchronic readings, despite his statement of his own methodology in the introduction. So is this follow-up excursus ultimately irrelevant. I do not think so. Scholars need to be especially conscious and careful in their methodological discussions. Arnold’s actual practice is logically sound wherever I have tested it in this commentary, but his description of that practice is not. This leaves open the door for the sort of circular reasoning that has plagued diachronic scholarship for over a century. All of this does not, however, alter my high opinion of Arnold’s commentary.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh
k.d.lee [ at ] sms.ed.ac.uk

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  1. […] at the reader with no specialist training, but hoping to be useful to … … Read more: Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) « Biblical and Early … ← Inspirational Christian Stories, Poems, Gifts: New Personalized […]

  2. I very much appreciate this review, and the careful reading of my commentary. I especially appreciate Mr. Lee’s comments about the primacy of synchronic readings, which I think is an important point about the way I introduced methodology in the introduction. On the one hand, I did not consider my diachronic reading as primary necessarily, but was thinking of only of “first” and “second” readings as chronological in the history of our discipline. The diachronic approaches were developed and exhausted before the synchronic approaches appeared only the last 3 decades or so.

    On the other hand, Mr. Lee is exactly right, in my opinion, that we should be explicit about assuming the primacy of synchronic readings. We may do the work of reading at both levels simultaneously, but I agree that we should give priority to the synchronic approach, especially in explaining the “seams” of the text. At times, this explicit preference for synchronic readings can help us avoid the excesses of diachronic analysis, as Mr. Lee points out in his review. So I think he has refined and nuanced in a better fashion what I should have stated explicitly in the introduction.

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