Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Arnold, Bill T., Genesis (NCBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Pp. xxi+409, Paperback, US$26.99, ISBN 978-0-521-00067-3.

This commentary presents the reflections of a scholar who has listened closely to the Book of Genesis.  His examination of the text repeatedly combines critical insight with judicious assessment of the evidence.

Arnold aims to explicate the final form of Genesis with consistent attention to the compositional history of the book.  His presentation combines a synchronic-literary with a diachronic-historical reading of the text.  He does not engage in a full presentation of diachronic questions in this commentary, whose primary audience is clergy and theological students; however, such critical analysis underlies the decisions he makes about interpreting the various passages.  Arnold identifies the main literary sources for the Book of Genesis as the old epic narrative (JE) dating to ninth-eighth century (or perhaps even to the tenth century) and the priestly source, which Arnold regards as preexilic.  He identifies the final redactor of Genesis as the author of the Holiness Code.  For example, this redactor from the pre-exilic Holiness School would have added Gen 2:4 in order to link the two creation stories into one continuous story in which parts of each story complement one another. The redactor would also have added the Joseph Novel (Genesis 37–50) at the conclusion of Genesis.  Through his diachronic analyses, Arnold frames and nuances his interpretation of the final form of the passage.

One of Arnold's stated goals for his commentary is to situate the genres of Genesis within their ancient Near Eastern context.  Therefore, frequent references to comparative material from Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Egypt show how ancient Israel was conversant with neighboring cultures and capable of maintaining its distinctiveness.

Arnold explains how toledot (“offspring, descendants”) clauses produce eleven panels in the Book of Genesis.  In addition to Gen 1:1–2:3, there are five toledot clauses in the primeval history (1:1–11:26) and five toledot clauses in the ancestral history (11:27–50:26).  These toledot clauses introduce lists and narratives.  The lists take the form of linear (Gen 5:1–32) or segmented genealogies (10:1–32).  These genealogies map out the territory and identity of the various peoples and relate them to those in the narratives.

Arnold identifies the Book of Genesis as mytho-history because it draws upon mythical material in creating a timeline of cause and effect to explain the origins of the world and the people of Israel.  In line with this concern for the historicity of the biblical narrative, Arnold draws upon the socio-political history of the ancient Near East in the Bronze Age to support the historical plausibility of particular accounts where possible.  He tries to maximize the amount of history in the biblical narrative but is careful to do so within the limits which the genres of Genesis allow.  For example, Arnold argues that there is an air of historicity about Abram's battle with the eastern kings in Genesis 14 and claims that this narrative is based on a source older than most others used in Genesis.  With regard to Genesis 12 and 24 which speak of Israel's ancestral roots in northern Syria, Arnold refers to the Binu Yamina of the Mari texts whose tribal lifestyle provides a parallel to that of the ancestors in Genesis 12–36.

Arnold is attentive to the theological significance of the arrangement of materials in Genesis.  For example, Arnold explains that the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11:1–9) is placed after the Table of Nations (Gen 10:1–32) in order to emphasize that the spread of sin matched by the spread of grace in Genesis 1–11 will be reenacted in subsequent history.  The larger pattern in Genesis 1–11 is creation / un-creation/re-creation.

Arnold is sensitive to issues of gender and hierarchy. He contends that Genesis 2 has an egalitarian thrust: ʾādām is a generic term for humanity; woman is not only revered as the partner of the man but also is placed at the culmination of the narrative in Genesis 2.  He interprets Genesis 2 to be concerned about companionship, procreation, and marriage.  The point of Gen 2:24 is that marriage is about the reuniting of two parts of a sexual whole.  Thus, Genesis 2 provides an explanation for the nature of sexuality.  With regard to sexual violence in Genesis 34, Arnold understands the conflict between the brothers of Dinah and the Shechemites to arise from a disagreement over marriage practices between different ethnic groups rather than a response of the brothers to the rape of their sister.

Arnold regularly provides excurses to describe particular topics, customs, or theological concepts: e.g., the role of women in Genesis 2–3, genealogies in the Bible, covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In his excursus on biblical covenants, Arnold contends that all biblical covenants are binary and usually asymmetrical.  His terminology brings clarity to the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as an unconditional covenant.  Arnold argues that every covenant involves mutual obligations (binary), but many covenants impose greater responsibility on one party.  So God's covenant with Noah places more emphasis on God's promise than it does on human obedience, but both promise and obedience are integral to the covenant.

Arnold regards the phrase תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ in Gen 1:2 as an unproductive emptiness that poses no threat to God, but he seems to contradict this stance in his excursus on Genesis 3 dealing with the problem of evil in which he says that this unproductive emptiness has not been destroyed but “merely transformed and controlled by partitioning.”  Perhaps this new qualification that chaos still has power is triggered by the narrative of Genesis 3, but the way this is framed stands in tension with his treatment of chaos in Genesis 1.

This critical commentary marshals as much literary, textual, and archaeological evidence as possible to maximize the amount of history in the biblical narrative and will raise questions for those who argue that the pentateuchal sources are exilic or postexilic.  Nevertheless, this clearly written, well-argued commentary provides, in my opinion, a solid, well-grounded introduction to the Pentateuch for masters-level students.

Dale Launderville, Saint John's University School of Theology/Seminary