Bill T. Arnold Cambridge University Press 2008-10-13

Arnold, Paul S. Amos professor of Old Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, has added to the burgeoning literature on Genesis. While following the general layouts and approaches characteristic of the commentary genre, Arnold’s work emphasizes the newer literary-critical methods that focus on the rhetoric and narrative features and the figures of speech of the existing text.

In addressing the nature of that text and how it reached its present form, he operates from a moderate historical-critical stance that sees little if any evidence of a Mosaic hand at work in the Book of Genesis or even in the Pentateuch as a whole. Thus (with many modern scholars) he cavalierly dismisses more than three thousand years of Judeo-Christian consensus on the questions of authorship, date, and composition. His position in his commentary is perhaps best summarized in his response to a question raised in the blogsite of his Asbury colleague Ben Witherington: “I argue that what we have in Genesis is a carefully crafted and edited final product, comprised of the following earlier sources. First, an old Israelite epic narrative, which is among the earliest written texts of ancient Israel, and may roughly be understood as similar to source-critical definitions of the J document. I am not in agreement with many today who date this epic late, and I also do not accept several other features of the Graf-Wellhausen definitions. Second, priestly materials typically identified by the siglum P. Against the Graf-Wellhausen JEDP theory, I see this material as pre-exilic based largely on impressive linguistic data presented in recent decades by Avi Hurvitz and others. Third, materials originating in a Holiness school distinct from other priestly materials, also of  pre-exilic origins and assuming the earlier P traditions (which reverses the sequence of these sources in the JEDP theory). So I suppose for Genesis, that leaves us with JPH, instead of JEP.”

The significance of this assessment of the Genesis material goes far beyond questions of authorship and dating; indeed, it reaches to the very heart of biblical theological method and interpretation. The message of the book meant something quite different to a Mosaic audience than to any number of subsequent audiences that may have listened to the accumulating traditions that eventuated in the book as it is today. This of course is precisely why attention today is addressed not to ancient historical settings and to theories of composition of biblical texts but to literary analyses of these texts regardless of the processes by which they ultimately took final shape.

Arnold offers fresh ways of looking at the literature of Genesis. He clearly is abreast of the finest modern scholarship and is at his best when viewing the narratives of Genesis against the ancient Near Eastern background of which they are a part. He regularly features excerpts from the literature of surrounding nations by way of comparison and contrast or even suggestive of a common fund of tradition. With respect to certain critical and troublesome issues and passages (e.g., the age of the earth, the universality of the Flood, and the historicity of the account of Abram and Melchizedek in Genesis 14), Arnold is either silent or extremely cautious about committing himself one way or the other. This is not necessarily a negative evaluation because many of the conundrums of Genesis defy ready and easy solutions.

Serious students of Genesis cannot afford to ignore this important addition to the literature. One need not agree with a scholar’s presuppositions, methodology, or even interpretation of controversial texts to find his work beneficial. This commentary will enjoy frequent attention on the part of this reviewer.

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