C. John Collins (professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary) is an immensely helpful voice among the massive crowd of people commenting on the relationship between Genesis and modern science. As an expert in biblical Hebrew, linguistics, and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds, he is able to guide readers reliably through the thicket of interpretive questions.
In Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, Collins draws from linguistic theories, literary-rhetorical criticism, and (most enjoyably) the common-sense insights of C. S. Lewis on how to read literature well, and constructs a reading of Genesis 1-11 that is particularly sensitive to how these texts were designed to communicate truth to their intended audience(s). The result is a refreshingly nuanced approach to the biblical origin story — an approach that allows room for diversity of opinion with regard to scientific theories, remains faithful to the truth of the text instead of dismissing it wholesale as myth, and interacts with how other ancient interpreters understood and applied these passages.
The first half of the book is a rather technical discussion of the interpretive methods and theories that Collins will employ in the second half of the book to develop his interpretive reading of Genesis 1-11. This first part makes for rather dense reading that will challenge lay readers, but is nonetheless worth working through, since the methods Collins introduces are essential for a responsible reading of Scripture. There were quite a few pages I had to read slowly, particularly when he was delving into the finer points of rhetorical criticism and speech-act theory, but the examples he gave of how these tools open up the meaning of difficult Scripture passages were effective and well-chosen. This section would make Reading Genesis Well a very useful text for a college or seminary class on introductory hermeneutics.
If one wishes, they could skip to the second half of the book and just enjoy Collins’ exposition of the text of Genesis 1-11, which is overall very helpful. He does a great job of showing where other interpreters have been too hasty in seeing Genesis as mostly a copy of other ancient Near Eastern origin myths, while still also showing where there are probable points of contact. What’s even more useful is Collins’ argument for why even those ancient Mesopotamian “myths” likely had some roots in history, in what their audiences considered to be historical persons and events, even if the stories were embellished with symbolism to make rhetorical and religious points.
Another strength is Collins’ discussion of how Genesis was designed to function in its literary context as the first book of the Torah. He makes the case that the Torah was originally meant to serve as Israel’s constitution, a charter that was to shape their worldview and identity as a nation. One implication of this function would be that Genesis 1-11 provides the foundation for how the nation was to view their own origins, their relationship to the wider world around them, the intentions of their Creator God for that wider world, and thus their mission in the world.
In other words, Genesis is a worldview-building story. And because of this, Genesis 1-11 would have been designed to communicate actual, objective truths about the world to its Israelite audience, and to communicate those truths on that audience’s level, in a way they could appreciate and apply. Both of these elements must be held together if one is to arrive a responsible interpretation.
This is where Collins’ overall approach is most helpful. He steers a course between two bad extremes: on the one hand, treating Genesis as all myth with no real history behind it; on the other, treating it as a purely “scientific” history (by modern standards) with no rhetorical symbolism or poetic imagery. Collins shows how a great number of interpreters have gone astray by trying to stress a “literal” approach that is, in fact, too wooden and that overlooks the conventions of ancient communication. Even what looks like a straightforward prose narrative can still involve heightened speech and symbolism, considering this is how the ancients told their histories. But that doesn’t mean an ancient Israelite reader would have “just known” that these stories were myths made up to illustrate theological truths. It is history, but by ancient standards, not modern.
Reading Genesis Well is an excellent resource, both as a primer on doing hermeneutics well and as a guide for understanding and teaching the early chapters of Genesis. It is a dense read, and the first half is very much on the technical side, but if you’re interested in diving deeper into the subject, and especially if you’re looking to have an informed perspective on how the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 relates to scientific theories about primeval history and origins, then you can’t afford to pass up Collins’ contributions to the discussion.
On a more personal note, now that the holidays are mostly past and 2020 is upon us, hopefully I can get back to a more regular posting schedule! I’ll be teaching a course next semester on Old Testament, so I’ll likely share bits and pieces from that.
In the meantime, let me know in the comments what you think about Collins’ book. I’d also love to hear what books you’ve found most helpful for studying the early chapters of Genesis, so please share those as well! And I pray you have a very happy new year.
See you down the path.