When you think of background research for understanding the OT, it’s natural to think of the books that cover Israel’s early history and the worldview of Israel. As Bible students know, it’s the Pentateuch that pirmarily covers that material. The Pentateuch is also arguablt the portion (except maybe Psalms) that most ministers preach from when they venture into the OT. The material covers origins, the flood, the Tower of Babel, the patriarchs, Moses, the exodus, the Law, the sacrificial system, and even part of the conquest. Most ministers do something that looks like background study for making these themes of great antiquity comprehensible. It’s fair to say, then, that this particular volume of the ZIBBC needs to be the showcase volume.
I’m happy to say that Volume 1 does the set justice. It is far more comprehensive than anything comparable, like a handbook on the Pentateuch1 or “normal” commentaries which, by their nature, must focus more on textual analysis. I’ll try and illustrate those points while giving you some highlights of the set. To be clear, I won’t always agree with the thoughts of the ZIBBC contributor, and would perhaps have added something that isn’t included. That shouldn’t diminish the value of the set for readers, though.
The contributor for the Genesis volume was John Walton, the ZIBBC general editor. Walton has had broad exposure to ANE comparative literature, and so he’s a very good choice for Genesis. The material on Genesis makes the expected connections: situates the book against wider ANE history and chronology, discusses comparative ANE flood narratives, the Sumerian King List, and reviews possible historical connections to the patriarchal narratives in terms of archaeological discoveries that illumine patriarchal culture. But Walton goes far beyond the expected. For an evangelical work, his effort to draw attention to comparative cosmological and religious (theological) material is to be highly commended. There’s nothing to be gained from hiding this material from the reading audience. The result of doing so, in my experience, is that inquiring minds will judge the contributor either incompetent or dishonest when he or she learns that there’s more to the story (and its background) than what that evangelical writer told them.
For example, Walton guides the readers carefully through comparative cosmology, showing the biblical writers to be describing a flat, round, earth with a solid sky (“firmament”), connecting these elements to ANE cosmological texts. This is not only being honest; it’s having a firm grasp on the obvious when the text is closely followed. Walton explains why the material is what it is — what polemical and theological purposes are served — and so what is missed by treating Genesis as a science textbook. I would like to have seen more careful though put into explaining how “normal” this understanding ought to be for us, considering the fact that God made no attempt to change a writer’s worldview before choosing to use him, but given the space constraints of the print world, this omission was unavoidable. Walton also serves readers well with his discussion of the temple and the cosmos, showing how cosmology and temple theology relate to one another. Walton’s full explanation on how the key to reconciling Genesis with science is to note it isn’t about science, but about “temple cosmology” is set forth in his recent book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. The section on Genesis 6:1-4 is weak, but this was expected, as Walton’s views on the sons of God incident have been published.2 The survey of flood accounts and Babel parallels are nicely laid out and illustrated with comparative portions. The discussion of parallels to the patriarchs are appropriately cautious and, as throughout all the volumes, beautifully illustrated with photographs. I have other quibbles, but not with respect to the omission of any material.
Again, as a scholar I’m going to have points of dissatisfaction, but most of what I could muster falls on the side of wishing Zondervan had devoted whole volumes to each book of the Pentateuch.
Next up: Exodus
- See for example, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. ↩
- Walton dismisses the divine beings view with the observation that “There are no examples from Akkadian or Northwest Semitic mythological texts of divine beings marrying or cohabiting with human women,” but then proceeds to give us some on the next page — examples where kings claimed divine sonship by virute of being fathered by a god. When I read “Ningursu inserted the germ of Eannatum into the womb. Baba gave birth to him…” I have to wonder how much clearer the idea of sexual intercourse between deity and a human woman could be expressed. The point of the Genesis 6:1-4 story is to put forth the notion that Israel’s later enemies, the descendants of the nephilim, were fathered by the fallen gods of the nations that were allotted to lesser Gods by Yahweh himself. Israel was Yahweh’s spawn, through Abraham and Sarah, as it were, while the nations set aside by Yahweh at Babel (cp. Deut 32:8-9 with LXX and DSS) had their own spawn. This is why the giant clans of Moses and Joshua’s day are explicitly connected (redactor or not – it’s in the final form of the text) with the antediluvian Nephilim, fathered by the sons of God. This “divine combat of lines” where one God fathers his heirs for rule vs. other divine beings who do the same to seek the demise of their divine enemy is not foreign in ancient cultures, whether ANE or in the classical world. Also, Peter and Jude both affirm the “angelic” view (and angels are not humans). There is simply no angelic sin named in the OT other than the Genesis 6:1-4 incident. To come up with another one to explain what Peter and Jude reference with respect to angels that sinned around the time of Noah (!) is to insert something into their words that isn’t there. I’m not sure how Walton can so clearly see ANE connections in so many other places but has chosen to balk at this one. Perhaps it’s just that Walton is unnerved by the metaphysical issues that result, but the assumption of flesh by divine beings, with the consequent abilities and limitations of said flesh, has precedent elsewhere in both testaments. There are other biblical-theological reasons why the divine view of Genesis 6 is important, but I don’t want to digress to far. ↩
I also found Walton’s write-up on Genesis 6:1-4 to be disappointing considering how well he handles other issues. There seems to be a reluctance to accept a plain reading of the text.