Monday, March 30, 2009

Five MORE books on Genesis I could not do without . . .

My post immediately below on "Five books on Genesis I could not do without" has caused me to reflect further on other Genesis volumes that I have found particularly insightful or helpful. As I have glanced at my bookshelves since making that post, I have been plagued by a guilty conscience. "Is ____ really that much more valuable to me than ____?" Perhaps I should rename the original post "Five books on Genesis I ABSOLUTELY, WITHOUT A DOUBT, CERTAINLY could not do without"? (but I fear that would only introduce greater guilt!) So, perhaps in a sympathetic vein, I submit to you another list of five books on Genesis--some of them perhaps little known--that I could not do without . . .

1. Michael James Williams, Deception in Genesis: An Investigation into the Morality of a Unique Biblical Phenomenon. Studies in Biblical Literature 32; New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
Williams' volume is perhaps not that well-known, but given that it deals explicitly (one of only a handfull of titles I can think of off the top of my head) with deception in Genesis, I have found it to be a worthy dialogue partner. Williams offers a catalog of deceptions in Genesis (a list to which I would add several other episodes), and traces out the way in which they were interpreted in later Jewish tradition. Ancient Near Eastern and folklore parallels round out the volume. As a conclusion, Williams avers that deceptions in Genesis are positively evaluated when they succeed in restoring shalom and are negatively evaluated when they disrupt shalom. While I ultimately disagree with Williams on many matters--for instance, I would argue that the narratives often provide either no evaluation (i.e., Jacob's fleeing from Laban in Gen 31 or his promise in 33:17-18 to join Esau in Seir, only to instead go to Sukkot) or an ambiguous/mixed evaluation (i.e., compare Gen 27; 29:26; 48:13-20)--his careful analysis of specific texts of deception, their history of interpretation, as well as their aNE precurors makes his volume a seminal one for any study of biblical deception.
2. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
I am unquestionably indebted to Alter not merely for his methodological programme put forward in this classic volume, but also for the many illustrations from the Jacob cycle he employs. Alter has, in my mind, wholly revolutionzed the study of the Hebrew Bible, and while this work comes some six years after Fokkelman's Narrative Art in Genesis (see post below), Alter has arguably set the agenda for subsequent literary readings of biblical texts (I would venture Alter to me a much 'tamer' version of Fokkelman). He has successfully demonstrated the highly literary quality of the Hebrew narratives--his work on Hebrew poetry, I feel, is less adequate, although still insightful--and his views cogently wed modern literary understandings with a careful, close, and sympathetic reading of the biblical text.
3. Susan Niditch, A Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Niditch's study interprets the biblical text--specifically the three wife-sister stories in Gen 12, 20, 26; Jacob and Joseph; and Esther--against the background of broad, cross-cultural sensibilities regarding the underdog and trickster. Viewing these narratives as a product of oral tradition, Niditch notes how they inform an Israelite worldview and identity. Seminal to her conception of the trickster is that this irascible figure serves the purpose of cementing group identity, which I take to be a helpful starting place for deciphering the function of these narratives within a postexilic (Persian) context. I further appreciate her work as a modern attempt to continue Gunkel's work with folklore, which sees many parallels with the texts of deception in Genesis. Niditch and I are also one of only a few who interpret the extortion of the firstborn scene (Gen 25:27-34) as an episode of deception.
4. Diana Lipton, Revisions of the Night: Politics and Promise in the Patriarchal Dreams of Genesis. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 288. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999.
Lipton's volume is perhaps little known, which is unfortunate given that its content is replete with great insight and depth. She treats five dream texts in Genesis--Abimelech's dream (Gen 20); Jacob's Bethel dream (Gen 28); Jacob's dream about the spotted and speckled sheep (Gen 31); Laban's dream (Gen 31); and the covenant of the pieces (Gen 15)--in the attempt to demonstrate how these dreams seek to revise the reader's understanding of events. I have yet to finish the entire volume, but her analysis of Jacob's dream in 30:10-13 coheres very well with what I argue to be the relationship between the seemingly incompatible chapters 29 and 30 (see my forthcoming article in PRSt). Given also my view of these dream texts as ultimately 'theophanic' texts and thus of decisive importance for interpretation of the Jacob cycle as a whole--more particularly YHWH's role within the cycle--I am appreciative for Lipton's sustained treatment of these narratives in a single volume.
5. W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal. Louisiville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
I would contend that next to Brueggemann's commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation series (see below), very few books on Genesis focus on issues of theology or of the divine. Humphreys goes one step further, reading God as a literary character in the book of Genesis. The opening chapters offer a helpful orientation into matters of literary characterization, and Humphreys' ensuing, synchronic treatment of the Genesis text highlights God's characterization from two sources: the narrator's own statements about God and what other characters have to say about God. Against this backdrop, the diversity and ever-changing role(s) of God are discussed: designer, destroyer, patron, parent, etc. And, as has perhaps become the norm in all of these volumes discussed here, while I do not agree with Humphreys' characterization of God in relation to the texts of deception, his careful attention to the non-static roles God plays throughout the text make this work an important one with which all students of Genesis should be acquainted. I will be posting a more thorough review of Humphreys in the next few weeks.

A few other important works deserve mention here:

David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.

Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election. Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2007.

Mignon R. Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
I look forward to your comments!
All the best!


  1. John, I just got finished reading Alter's book and I think his chapter on characterization is outstanding. I suspect something from his book will end up in my dissertation.

    Let me suggest some other great books on Genesis. I have found Allen P. Ross' book, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, to be an excellent book. I also think that Gordon Wenham's commentary is outstanding, as well as Victor Hamilton's (I am biased on the last one--he was my prof at Asbury).

  2. Brian:

    Indeed, Alter is an amazing resource. I am incredibly grateful for his work.

    Thank you for the suggestions. I am familiar with all of them. I own Ross' Creation and Blessing; Wenham's WBC is outstanding, I agree, as is Hamilton's NICOT commentary.

    I have compiled a roughly 15 page bibliography on Genesis, including books, articles, and essays/book chapters in anticipation of my (hopefully!) imminent dissertation. If you are interested in seeing it, let me know.

    All the best!

  3. John, thanks for the list. Several of those volumes had escaped my notice. I picked up Kaminsky's book just this past weekend at the Upper Midwest SBL where he was the plenary speaker. The book looks very thought-provoking from what I've looked at so far. I may post on it after I've had a chance to read more. Good luck developing your dissertation. I'm at a similar place right now narrowing my interests for a dissertation proposal due in the summer.

  4. Hi John,

    Very interesting choices. I would also encourage you not to overlook stodgier contributions, such as Westermann's commentary, or that of Benno Jacob. You might find Meir Sternberg's Poetics of Biblical Narrative of interest. I know I did.

  5. Douglas and John, thank you for your comments.

    Douglas: Kaminsky's volume is a helpful one to covenantal theologians like myself. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    John: I concur with Westermann -- I own his three volume set in the Continental Commentary Series, and aside from his employment of source hypothesis designations (JEDP), he has many moments of great insight and brilliance. Sternberg and Jacob are also on my dissertation bibliography. As I mention above, I have compiled a roughly 15 page bibliography of relevant works . . . so my list here is obviously quite abbreviated. If you are interested in the bibliography (which is always growing), let me know.

    All the best!

  6. Thanks for posting these, John. As an NT guy, I'm particularly in the dark when it goes to Genesis, a sad state of affairs but reality nonetheless.

    Keep it up!

  7. Hello John, I'm glad to find your blog through your comment at BiblePlaces Blog. Hesed We Emet, great title.
    Shalom from Jerusalem.

  8. Hi John, I think I am going to look into getting the one by Alterto help get me started. I noted on your other blog on Genesis commentaries that I have Ross's Creation and Blessing. As to something more technical would you recommend Wenhem or Hamilton? Thanks,

  9. For a technical commentary on Genesis (assuming I am understanding what you mean by technical), I would suggest Wenham's "Word Biblical Commentary" volumes, certainly. I would also add in Claus Westermann's three volumes in the "Continental Commentary" series. Both of these would be fine works; I must caution, though--Westermann does employ traditional source-criticism in his commentary, so he will make comments and assumptions at places based upon whether material is attributed to J, P, etc. But still an overall helpful volume.

    If anything, both Westermann and Wenham should provide a fine bibliography to point you elsewhere.

    Happy reading!

  10. I should also mention - Alter does not focus on the Genesis narratives throughout. His volume is much more a methodological demonstration, arguing (correctly) for the literary artistry of the Hebrew Bible and its contribution to meaning. It is surely worth owning, but do not purchase it under the assumption it only treats Genesis. Far from it.

  11. right, I understand about Alter and I would like it for that purpose (literary aspects of the Hebrew Bible) - I was just wondering about a technical add for Genesis - as a pastor I like to try to have at least one more or less technical and one more pastoral/application based commentary to aide in study and sermon prep.