Ten Intro Books For Getting a Handle on the Early Chapters of Genesis

Creation of the Sun, Sistine Chapel

Creation of the Sun, Sistine Chapel

A friend recently asked for a list of books to read as an intro to the issues in Genesis 1-3 as well as the Moses and Abraham parallels.  I focused on the former, because there’s not a whole lot dealing with the latter. I have a few chapters on it in my book, so I could write a separate post, if desired. When I taught my Institute class on Genesis a few years ago, I wrote a summary of each week. I treat Moses and Abraham briefly, here.

The books below are generally introductary volumes from different angles. If you read all of these, you’ll have a fairly good understanding of what Genesis 1-3 say, where they came from, how they have been interpreted in the past, and the major issues involved- evolution, age of the earth, “historical Adam,” etc.)

  1. My first suggestion is, always always begin with a good translation and some basic minimal commentary to get situated and familiar with the text. For that, I’d recommend The Jewish Study Bible with the entire Old Testament annoted and essayed, or if you want something a little narrower, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with CommentaryAlter is primarily a literature scholar, but also Hebrew Bible; his notes are heavily informed by sensitivities to Hebrew and literary aspects of the text. For more background, see my Religious Educator article “Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed.” The latter half has suggestions about Bibles, commentaries, and how to use them profitably.

These other books are not in any particular order, but address different aspects of understanding the early chapters of Genesis within the Bible as a whole.

  1. Either Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science or The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible.
    • Israelites conceived of the cosmos very differently than we do today; not as globes rotating around the sun, but as a flat earth with a solid dome above, and waters above and below that. I’ve only read excerpts of these, but as far as I can tell, each is written by someone who takes the Bible quite seriously and also has formal academic training. Anyone who insists that a “literal” reading of Genesis matches a scientific description of the modern cosmos, then, is imposing on and twisting the text, as well as making assumptions about its purpose. So-called “creation texts” in the ancient Near East are often about something other than creation, counter-intuititive though it may seem.Here’s a video showing Israelite cosmology (but none of the ancient Near Eastern parallels)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8duzqEOhw8
  2. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible Updated ed, (Oxford Press, 2013).
    • Based on his Harvard dissertation, Barlow demonstrates that LDS interpretation of the Bible at the highest levels has run the gamut from woodenly literal to extremely non-literal. It shows there has not been historical agreement on how to read the Bible, even among Apostles. That said, I’m not aware of any public statements from General Authorities current or past who show a real awareness of the contextual issues with e.g. dating Genesis 1 or strong similarities with Akkadian myths such as Enuma Elish (for Genesis 1) or Atrahasis/Gilgamesh (Genesis 6-9.)
  3. Either Charles, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation or Halton, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views
    • Both of these have the same quasi-debate format. Multiple authors each present their own view, followed by short rebuttals by the other authors. The former has eight participants who are given more pages. (IIRC, Walton, Longman, Collins, and Averbeck all have some good things to say.) The latter volume is newer and has only three authors, including Kenton Sparks, who really nails it for me. Hoffmeier is particularly problematic, as reviewed by Peter Enns.
  4. Barton/Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin (Oxford Press, 2009).
    • A collection of 13 essays on a variety of issues relating to interpretation of Genesis 1-3, history of evolution, science, scripture, genre, what difference Darwin made to our understanding of Genesis (very little, actually), etc.
  5. Peter Enns, both Inspiration and Incarnation:Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins.
    • The former deals with three common assumptions about the Old Testament made by Evangelicals (and Mormons too!) While not focused entirely on Genesis 1-3,  the assumptions Enns discusses relate directly to how we understand those chapters. (I reviewed it for The Interpreter.)  In the latter book, he deals with Genesis 1-3, particularly the Eden story, and “the historical Adam question.”
  6. Walton, both The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate.
    • Now, I like Walton, I’ve read a lot of him, I recommend him, and just as I do with all of these books, I sometimes disagree (which is why I’m writing my own). The Genesis 2-3 volume is on my shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. My Dad liked it though.  These are clear and easy to read. I reviewed Genesis One, with its temple-centric interpretation of creation for The InterpreterGenesis 2-3 includes a section written by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, a plus.
  7. Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence
    • Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard, takes a different approach. He looks at different creation accounts in the Bible for what they tell us about the world and the nature of good, evil, and God. A fantastic book, but I recommend some of these others first if you’re not used to quasi-scholarly discourse or haven’t read anything about Genesis 1 before.
  8. Mark Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Fortress Press, 2009)
    • Smith is a brilliant and charismatic Catholic scholar at NYU. This volume is longer, more densely academic than the others, and excellent. As you might guess from the title, Smith focuses on the nature of Genesis 1 as written by Israelite priests in Babylon. A whole chapter is devoted, for example, to the question of “What is myth, and does Genesis 1 qualify?”
  9. Most of these scholars accept some form of the idea that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 were originally separate creation stories, with different focuses, and not entirely consistent with each other. The classical version of this is known under various terms, like Documentary Hypothesis or Source Theory. While not the most up-to-date, Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible is the most accessible account of this idea, which goes back 1000 years to observations of inconsistancies in the Biblical text made by Jewish and Christian believers. Source criticism is one way to account for these inconsistancies.

Lastly, I’d check out Biologos, particularly those posts by Walton, Enns, Hyers, Wright, Sparks, and Giberson.

See also my older somewhat overlapping list of books on creation here.

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3 thoughts on “Ten Intro Books For Getting a Handle on the Early Chapters of Genesis

    1. I hadn’t seen it before, and will add it to the list. From the reviews, it seems more like a memoir combined with some observations on Genesis and translation. All the blurbs come from literary and newspaper reviews, not Hebrew Bible people.

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      1. I haven’t seen it yet. I was hoping that you had. Steve Peck recommended it to me, and I’ve ordered it. It looks interesting, but I’m hoping that it is more than memoir.

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