Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, & Theological Commentary

By Thomas L. Brodie | Go to book overview

A NOTE ON METHOD

Priority of the Literary Aspect—before History and Theology

The study of Genesis has generally involved two central disciplines—history and theology. It is tempting, therefore, in approaching the book, to begin with these. History would survey several centuries and suggest sources and forces that could cast light on the text and its historicity. Theology—perhaps after gleaning something from the historical inquiry—would move quickly to the ultimate questions of meaning.

However, priority in importance does not mean priority in the order of investigation. To some degree, the first thing to be clarified concerning Genesis is neither its (historical) origin nor its (theological) destination, but simply the text itself. The text, the finished writing, is the number one artifact, and no amount of historical background or theological acumen can substitute for taking that artifact seriously. Before asking “What was the historical background?” one must first ask “Historical background of what?” To do otherwise is like trying to figure out “who done it” without knowing what was done. It generates a situation where, in Sarason's words, “The historical question is posed prematurely” (1981, 61; cf. Moberly, 1992, 73).

As an artifact, an object, Genesis is literary, at least in the basic sense that it consists of writing—words and sentences on pages of some kind. And the first step in taking it seriously is to be sensitive to writing—to the full text and to the procedures normally involved in writing, in other words, to literary procedures. The literary aspect has “operational priority” (Polzin, 1980, 5–7, esp. 6). Literary procedures are like the foundations of a house: on their own they are unimpressive and almost useless, but to build without them is to invite disaster.1

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If an investigation is not founded on an adequate treatment of the literary dimension, then other factors begin to determine the direction of the investigation. Whybray (1996, 72, 74) implies that some decisions about what is historical spring not from evidence but from two very diverse kinds of energy—faith or iconoclasm.

Other analyses are more complex. The canonical approach, for example, though necessary in its emphasis on the finished text and on theology, tends to be impatient with many of the triviallooking details of the literary aspect.

History that is unduly self-preoccupied—impatient with full literary analysis—tends to endless circling and inconclusiveness (see Davies, 2001). The past, by its nature, is largely lost; and historical research sometimes develops into an effort to retrieve the unretrievable. If the past that is sought never existed, the futility of the quest, instead of generating a cessation of scholarship on that issue, sometimes generates increased efforts—and thus at times the increased circling and inconclusiveness.

The bypassing of adequate literary analysis may also be seen even in such fine scholars as van Seters and Halpern. Van Seters is a far-seeing pioneer on several fronts (historicity; dating; literary genre; relationship to the prophets and Greeks)—a pioneer to whom this writer is greatly indebted. Yet, perhaps because of the demands of his wide-ranging exploration and because his primary orientation is historical rather than literary, van Seters has never fully engaged the completed text of Genesis in all its unity and artistry. At some level the historical investigation (the historical component) has gained priority over the literary, to the detriment not only of the literary but also of the historical. This does not, of course, invalidate van Seters's pivotal contribution, but it limits it unnecessarily.

The work of Halpern (1988) is brilliant. Yet in constructing history Halpern uses parts of Judges as if they were separable blocks, each with its own history. In saying this he has not paused sufficiently to grasp the book's literary unity—a unity which is not only editorial, as Halpern observes, but pervasive, continuous. Halpern indicates (1988, 61) that Judges is not continuous in the same direct way as the Court History. This is true, but it is continuous nonetheless, though in a different, spiraling, way (see, for instance, Webb, 1987; Kim, 1993). Once the pervasive literary unity of Judges emerges, it is no longer possible to separate specific units and to use them as if they had independent histories.

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