Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Genesis for Normal People (2012)

If Jesus promised blessing to those who make peace, then I hope that Jared Byas and Peter Enns are receiving plenty of it - because that is exactly what they have done in writing Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible (2012). Since the book of Genesis is central to a many contentious arguments about science, human nature, and various Christian doctrines, Genesis for Normal People is truly a work of peacemaking. Somehow I don't think that the authors' blessing is pouring down in the form of dollar bills because this eBook sells for an inexpensive $4.99 from Nevertheless, the peacemaking potential of this book is enormous and I cannot help but give my 'blessing' in the form of an enthusiastic review.

I should probably note that I went to seminary and studied the Bible, but that didn't render this book "beneath me." In fact, I learned a lot from this book and I wish I had read it during my seminary class on the Pentateuch. This book isn't just about Genesis, it also helps to understand the history of Israel more clearly. So even though Byas and Enns were writing for a "normal" audience, it's a good read for anyone hoping to understand Genesis, as well as the biblical narrative.

In Genesis for Normal People (hereafter GFNP), Byas and Enns provide a clear and concise introduction to the book Genesis; not only in content, but in how to read ancient literature. As such, the authors stress the importance of reading Genesis as an ancient story, not as a textbook. Furthermore, the reader is encouraged to read Genesis as a whole book rather than a collection of unrelated stories. Once we grasp this we are then able to understand Genesis as book #1 in a 5-part series: the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Genesis, which means "beginning," only makes sense as the beginning portion of a much larger story that is the Pentateuch. What exactly is the point of this larger story? The authors of GFNP paraphrase it like this:
"Listen up, Israel. Yahweh is the creator of the cosmos. He also redeemed you from Egypt and gave you the land of Canaan as a home. You are his people and he alone is your God, worthy of your complete devotion."
Therefore, it is imperative that we read Genesis as the beginning (or even background) to this narrative and not as anything else (a textbook, for example).

Byas and Enns also stress the important of reading Genesis in its ancient context. That means understanding: Who wrote it? When did they write it? For whom did they write it? and Why? In GFNP we learn that Genesis is an anonymous book (readers may learn why the old hypothesis that Moses wrote it is false). Instead, Genesis was authored by Israelites for Israelites probably sometime after 1000 BCE (after the first monarchy). Even though Genesis retells events that occurred as early as 2100 BCE, the stories themselves were not written down until after 1000 (probably even closer to 700BCE). Rather than leaving the reader to trust "modern scholarship," the authors of GFNP give some examples from the Genesis text itself that point to a later date (e.g. that Cain and Able offer sacrifices is anachronistic; the list of kings in Gen. 36 could only occur after 1000; and more). This is yet another strength of GFNP: the authors always give examples and evidence for their perspective.

Why is all of this date stuff important? Because it gives us an idea of how the Israelites would want to write the stories of Genesis and what kind of things might be important to them. Since the Pentateuch as we know it today did not come together until ca. 539 BCE, we must consider the historical context that influenced these stories. Specifically, the authors of GFNP explain that much of Genesis was written or re-written during the Babylonian Exile. Therefore, Genesis must be read with the Babylonian exile in mind! It is no wonder, then, that Genesis' creation account mirrors the Babylonian creation myth while also clearly making fun of the Babylonian gods (for more on this, buy and read GFNP). It is no wonder, then, that the Israelites would write a satire about Babylonian worship practices, specifically the use of a tower (for more, buy and read GFNP).

More importantly, though, the exile shaped Israel's understanding of their history and identity. Thus write the authors, "It's not hard to imagine, then, why the Israelites at this time did some soul searching. They looked back at their ancient past to make sense of the tragedy of their recent history. 'In view of all that happened, are we still God's people? Does he still care for us? How can we make sure that this doesn't happen to us again? Will we ever regain the glory of our past?' To address these very real and pressing questions, they began retelling their story - one last time. That last telling became what Christians call the Old Testament."

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Genesis reads like a story that reconnects a people to their roots. In the midst of their exile, Genesis recounts the struggle between human beings and God. The stories of Genesis are about paradise (Eden, think Canaan) and death (expulsion from Eden, think exile). And many of these stories are symbolic portrayals of "Israel miniature" (for more, get GFNP!). Yet, always, these stories recount the faithfulness of Yahweh to his people. The stories of Genesis reinforce that Yahweh is both Creator and Savior.

With a better understanding of the perspective of the ancient Israelites, Byas and Enns expound all 50 chapters of Genesis. The authors break down their mini commentary into the "accounts" of Genesis. These are the 10 sections of Genesis that begin with "This is the account of..." (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 26:1; 37:2).  These introductions help give the book its structure and provide the framework for GFNP's commentary, which is able to cover every major account in Genesis. By following this structure the authors of GFNP present Genesis' accounts as one flowing story that leads up to the Hebrew people's enslavement in Egypt (beginning in book #2, Exodus). Thus, anyone looking to understand Genesis as a whole book need look no further than GFNP.

Honestly, this was one of the most pleasurable books that I've read in a while. I literally LOL-ed my way through it, which is why it is such a powerful resource for peacemaking. The authors are both scholarly and pastoral, with an added (and much needed) sense of humor. This approach relieves a hell of a lot of pressure for those who take these complicated, ancient texts seriously. It is much easier to learn new perspectives when the your teachers are humble, humorous, and genuine. This is the feel that I got from Byas and Enns while reading and I am the better for it. Not only do I give Genesis for Normal People my enthusiastic endorsement here, I will be writing a post or two about some classic Genesis stories that will further endorse this little eBook gem. So check back for upcoming posts about Genesis.

1 comment:

  1. Your review makes me want to read the book! Josh.