John E. Hartley’s commentary on Genesis is part of the NIBC (New International Biblical Commentary) series. Published by Hendrickson Publishers and Paternoster, it is 393 pages long, and has a 37-page introduction covering such topics as structure, composition, religion of the patriarchs, historical witness to the patriarchal accounts and New Testament connections. The commentary is based on the NIV, and each passage is divided into three separate sections: a short introduction, verse-by-verse comment, and additional notes. Most linguistic comments are placed in the additional notes, and Hebrew words are transliterated. Three excurses discuss in greater depth the topics of original sin/gender relations, antediluvian culture, and the sacrifice of Isaac. The latter is especially to be singled out for its pedagogical usefulness. Hartley explores briefly both the Jewish and Christian understandings of this undeniably central passage in Genesis.
The editors of the NIBC series, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, write in the foreword that “the purpose of this commentary series is to help readers navigate this … literary and spiritual terrain.” They call their position ‘believing criticism,’ that is, neither pre-critical, nor critical nor anti-critical. This is instructive to help the reader, or prospective reader, to place the commentary, as well as the NIBC series, within the spectrum of the various kinds of literature available on Genesis.
The exegesis varies in quality from insightful and informative on the one hand, to moderately speculative and inattentive to detail on the other. The discussion of the linguistic issues, such as semantic ranges of words, is not exhaustive, but still contains a great deal of helpful information. This commentary is not intended solely for those who can read Hebrew.
The commentary reserves any reference to current or historical scholarship for the “additional notes”. But as a rule Hartley does not mention these in the main comments. This is not in any way to suggest that the book is lacking. The stated purpose is to explore the spiritual and literary terrain.
The author does list different schools of thought around a given topic (for example, the creation theories, or the meaning of the nephilim). This gives the reader a good idea of some (not all) of the leading ideas around the topic, without going too deeply in the murky waters.
If the book is described as taking the stated position of believing criticism, it is an apt description. Hartley takes the position that Genesis had multiple authors. These, however, are not J, E, D and P, but are various editors and authors (including Moses), who finished the Pentateuch around the time of Solomon (around the time that Wellhausen says composition began). Hartley also makes an excellent case for his understanding of the palistrophic (chiastic) patterns within the structure of Genesis. According to Hartley, the occurrence of toledoth marks not only a new section but also a new author. It would however have been helpful at least to mention the documentary hypothesis.
One cannot help feeling a certain desire that Hartley would have gone one step further at certain points. For example, Hartley discusses the six various curses given in Genesis leading up the story of the tower of Babel. In this discussion, the blessings which follow later on in Genesis are described as follows: “these acts of mercy assure us that God cares for the well-being of humans despite their proneness to do wrong.” Hartley does not however tell us of what the curses assure us. In a book designed to be somewhat pastoral, it would also have been helpful to discuss the current relevance of the curses.
It would also have been desirable to do go into somewhat more depth in the first excursus. Here Hartley discusses gender relations in light of the curses of the fall. It would not have been space wasted to mention Augustine and his views on sexuality, as they have had such a lasting effect on the interpretation of this passage. However the material in this excursus is very instructive on the issue of gender relations in the Christian Church. Hartley maintains that men and women can live in equality as Christians. For him, the fall resulted in an enmity and struggle between the genders from which we are freed, as we are freed from sin. This material is a breath of fresh air, both in its progressive attitude and in its clear and consistent thought structure.
One gains the impression that Hartley, and ordained minister in the Free Methodist Church, is writing for pastors and readers who wish to be guided through Genesis by a pastor. This is a great service to the Church. Hartley’s approach, in the introduction, is to discuss the factual matters of the book before turning to the more pastoral comments. He also reserves reference to the New Testament for the end. It is an instructive approach, from which Christian students would do well to learn.
Hartley’s commentary does not purport to be exhaustive in its interaction with scholarship. Therefore the theology student looking for a guided tour of Genesis scholarship, ought to look elsewhere. Nor is it a comprehensive guide to word studies and linguistic matters in Genesis, even though there are a number of such comments made. But for the Christian student who wishes better to grasp the significance of Genesis within the Christian faith, the book is heartily to be recommended.