Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11

By Bailey, Randall C. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2019 | Go to article overview

Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11


Bailey, Randall C., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11. By C. John Collins. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018, 336 pp. $36.99 paper.

C. John Collins is Professor of OT at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and also serves as chair of the OT translation committee for the ESV. A prolific writer, several of his previous works prepared him for the present work under review. In addition, Collins's educational background (a graduate degree in science and engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Linguistics from the University of Liverpool) qualify him to produce Reading Genesis Well.

Many contemporary readers seem to approach the reading of Genesis 1-11 and similar passages with a methodology akin to the description found in the book of Judges-"everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6b; 21:25). Such differing approaches by both scholars and laypeople create a mass of confusion regarding just how to read Genesis 1-11, or any other biblical text, whether narrative, poetic, or, figurative language in general. In short, there exists no literarily acceptable approach to a proper reading of the text.

Collins's methodology brings order out of this chaos by establishing what he designates a "rhetorical-theological" (p. 28) approach that puts great weight on how the ancient audience would have perceived and interpreted the text.

Collins summarizes his methodologies on pages 24-31, with specific summaries of chapters 2-11 on page 28. Chapter 1 sets the stage by showing the inadequacies of reading the Bible literally. Collins observes that both traditionalists and evangelicals agree with the basic premise of both Benjamin Jowett and James Barr-"that anything other than a straightforward literalism is less-than-fullyhonest way of reading the ancient text" (p. 24)-and argues that this view is problematic. In contrast to this literal approach, Collins labels his method "critically intuitive" (p. 26) and describes how the work of C. S. Lewis in "lexical semantics, speech-act theory, and sociolinguistics" offers "a model" for his approach and orientation (p. 25). Like Lewis, Collins is "a religious traditionalist" and "not a fundamentalist" (p. 30). His "critically intuitive" approach relates to apologetics; nevertheless, he is "not aiming at apologetics as such" but at "an interpretative program for biblical material, especially, that of Genesis 1-11" (pp. 31-32).

Chapter 2 introduces Lewis's views. Collins argues that some simple observations from Lewis will point us to questions whose answers lie in the areas of linguistic studies. Collins combines this methodology with rhetorical and literary criticism, which are usually treated as separate departments of study.

Chapter 3 builds on one of Lewis's unpublished essays that deals with ways in which language can be used for different kinds of communication. Chapter 4 describes how communication takes place against a backdrop of a shared experience. Chapters 5-6 deal with various aspects of reading Genesis 1-11: the different kinds of context (chap. 5) and the function (chap. 6) of these chapters in an attempt to determine what kind of cosmic picture is inherent in the texts and what role that picture has in their communication.

Chapters 7-8 offer a rhetorical-theological reading of Genesis 1-11, arguing from a sociolinguistic perspective that we should greatly respect what audiences from organically connected cultures have seen in these chapters. Chapter 8 examines the interpretations of audiences from organically connected cultures by examining what readers from such audiences have said on selected topics. Chapters 9-10 examine some of these passages in light of the tools Collins has developed in the preceding chapters. Chapter 11 deals with responsible appropriation for the ancient context and the modern believer.

Without doubt, this book is a "must read" for all evangelical scholars of the Hebrew Bible/OT. …

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