Is it possible to read Genesis 1–11 well? Can it be understood when we are so far removed from its events, even from the time of its writing? Many would say it certainly can be understood, but would then disagree over every minute detail of these texts. How can we know how to read such an ancient text as the author intended it to be read? C. John Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, shares many of C. S. Lewis’ literary and linguistic insights while also building on them with concepts from modern linguistics (lexical semantics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, etc.). (Collins also served as Old Testament chair on the translation committee for the ESV Bible, and was the Old Testament Editor for the ESV Study Bible.)
While many know C. S. Lewis from his The Chronicles of Narnia series, as Collins notes, Lewis “trained in philosophy, classics, and English literature (and taught them at Oxford University and later at Cambridge)” (25). Lewis made many astute observations that “reflect the raw observations that lie at the base of several linguistic disciplines” (25). These observations are found in some of his books, such as A Preface to Paradise Lost, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock, Reflections on the Psalms, Studies in Words, and The Discarded Image. As well, “offhand remarks appear scattered throughout Lewis’ writings” (25, fn.30).
Collins introduces his book with the thoughts of some critical scholars (Charles Goodwin and Benjamin Jowett) in the nineteenth century who read the Bible in an overly literal way, believing the “plain sense” of Scripture to be contrary to the modern science of that age. Psalm 93:1 reads, “Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Obviously, that means the earth does not move around the sun, right? If so, it is contrary to the Copernican theory. However, is God’s aim to teach us science through the Bible? Or is the Bible about God, his character, and his plan and method of salvation to bring mankind back to him?
What does Genesis 1–11 mean? Why were these chapters included? Jumping ahead, chapter 5 gives us the context of Genesis 1–11, and chapter 6 gives us the function of these chapters. The literary context is how the text fits together with itself and with the surrounding texts; the context of the shared world is what the author and the audience share, thus how the text produces a message to the audience.
What do these chapters teach then? Israel knew that Abraham was their father, and Genesis 1–11 can be read as a “preface that provides the universal setting for which the particularizing call of Abram is the solution” (114). Israel is one family/nation called to be a light to all the other nations. These chapters shape Israel’s worldview. While they share similarities with stories and texts of surrounding nations, Moses offers the true story of both Israel and of the whole world.
What were these chapters meant to do in the life of Israel? Genesis 1 uses the name elohim (“God”) to speak of the Creator God, and Genesis 2 combines elohim and yhwh (“the Lord God”—see Gen 2:4–5, 7–9 for some examples) to point out that the world-creating God is also Israel’s personal covenant God. He has the authority to instruct Israel—and everyone else—how to live. This is his world and his land. Collins writes that the Pentateuch is the “constitution” for Israel, and it is a narrative intermingled with laws. The Pentateuch is meant to shape an identity and worldview with what God has done in both creation and the exodus as well as the ways in which he instructs his people to live.
Chapters 1–6 are more theoretical and technical chapters, although Collins uses many good biblical texts to show how the theories work. Chapter 7–11 show how the literary theories are played out in Genesis 1–11. You could just jump first to chapter 7 and read straight to the end, and that would be fine. I did that, and I read chapters 1–6 after. However, I wish I would have just started at the beginning. I actually enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second! Collins isn’t always easy to read, but he really has helped me understand Genesis 1–11 thanks to these chapters.
Chapter 2 brings us into the thoughts of Lewis, communication, and how we are able to understand literary works. When we read a book, we have to ask “What is it?” (dealing with genre and style); “What is it intended to do?” (how is it meant to affect its users?), and “How is it meant to be used?” (what kind of users are envisioned by the work, and what knowledge and beliefs do they share with the author?) (35).
Chapter 3 looks at speech act theory and biblical rhetoric. Within speech act theory, it is understood that every utterance or text has three aspects:
- Locution: what is said;
- Illocution: the intended effect of those words;
- Perlocution: the actual effect.
Collins gives an example of a father asking his child, “Do you know what time it is?” The child could either respond “yes, I do” or “No, I do not.” But that isn’t the point the father is trying to make. The father may be asking so that his child will look at the time and tell it to him. Perhaps it is so the child will see that it is past her bedtime, and she should respond with hurrying to bed. Perhaps it is seeing that if they don’t hurry they will miss the ball game. Either way, he is not asking a question just to know whether or not his daughter knows what time it is. This is a rhetorical question (found in Matt 5:46; Gen 3:9; 4:9, to name a few). In the last two examples, God is not ignorant of where Adam and Eve are, or whether Cain is his brother’s keeper. These questions “intend to offer the hearers an opportunity to do something” (52).
Is Genesis 1–3 poetic or scientific? Lewis gives us an example of how one could describe a cold winter day:
- It was very cold—this is ordinary language reflecting the daily language of English speakers;
- There were thirteen degrees of frost—this should be scientific language as it relates to measurements that can be tested with an instrument;
- Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
the hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
and silent was the flock in wooly fold:
numb’d were the Beadsman’s fingers—this is clearly poetic, conveying “more of what it would be like to experience that cold night” (62).
A text that is poetic doesn’t mean that that which it tells us about was fake or unhistorical. Rather, it is giving us a different perspective than what scientific or even ordinary language can. Collins writes, “Scientific language aims at a high level of detail with as little ambiguity as possible and seeks to explain the inner workings of what it describes…Poetic language aims to allow the reader to imagine what it was like to see what it describes—even if what it describes is not real and even if we have no experience of the referent” (63).
There is some scientific language in the Bible, in Leviticus’ lists of clean and unclean animals, for example. But even there, it animals are ordered according to how the original audience grouped them, not with how we might group them. (Such as how rabbits are said to “chew the cud” in 11:6. This is merely simple observation, and is not meant to be a scientific analysis of mammals and how rabbits “truly” should be grouped. The point for Israel was for them to eat specific animals in a way that kept them separate from the other nations.)
In chapter 4 Collins discusses the relationship between rhetoric and truth, as well as communication takes place when people share the same experience of the world (such as beliefs, values, experiences, language, etc.). Collins compares “true” communication with “trustworthy” comminucation, noting that something does not need to be literally true for it to be trustworthy.
Chapter 5 gives us the context of Genesis 1–11, and chapter 6 gives us the function of these chapters. Collins gives examples of other nations (Sumer, Mesopotamia, Egypt) creation myths. Many scholars compare the writings of these other nations with the Old Testament, note the parallels, and say something to the degree of, “See, the Israelites believed the earth was flat because we see that other nations believed it too!” But Collins presses on the brakes here. Just because there is a parallel doesn’t mean all (or even some) of Israel shared that belief. (As Collins notes in a few places, most Israelites didn’t think the earth wasn’t round because they thought it was flat. Rather, many simply never thought about it).
Chapter 7 offers a rhetorical-theological reading and explores how Genesis 1–11 supports the aspects of life that were meant to define Israel. In chapter 8, Collins looks at how Psalms 104 and 136 and Chronicles 1 retells the creation story. He takes up the question on whether God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo), as well as how others (including the Bible itself) understood how Genesis 1 and 2 are connected, the reality of human origins and the fall, the flood, and how others understood Genesis and Hellenistic science. Chapter 9 asks if Genesis 1–11 is teaching or affirming a world picture, that is, how one imagines the world to be shaped—its physical dimensions (243). Collins writes that readers “likely did not take the biblical materials as making claims about the shape of the world,” and when we look at the literary form of different texts, “the passages… do not have the intention of drawing a map” (249).
Chapter 10 looks at God’s divine action in Genesis 1–11, and builds up a metaphysic “in which God is active in every event, every bit as directly in the natural as in the supernatural” (270). This chapter was more difficult for me to get excited over, but it will surely hit someone’s sweet spot. Finally, chapter 11 shows how the story should function for both ancient Israel and the modern Christian. Through Christ we are heirs of Abraham (Gen 12) and are the means God will use to bless the rest of the world (295).
There really is a lot more I could say about this book. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected as Collins ably demonstrated how language, literary forms, the difference between “literal”, “historical,” “poetic,” and his distinction between “truthful” and “trustworthy” (just to name a few). The Bible is trustworthy and it is accurate in everything that it teaches. It is our job to understand what it is teaching. I hope many will read and consider the points Collins draws here to see if they make sense with what the Bible teaches. I do think many of them work, and I am thankful to have come across Collins’ work. He has opened my eyes to greater depths of meaning in Genesis 1–11, and I am lookin forward to reading (and reviewing) his commentary on Genesis 1–4.
- Author: C. John Collins
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Zondervan Academic (November 13, 2018)
- Article: Theological Response to Joshua Swamidass, The Geneological Adam and Eve—here Collins argues for a historical Adam and Eve.
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.