The Genesis of a Commentary
Modern commentaries on the book of Genesis can be almost worthless. Much of modern Bible scholarship has become obsessed with “source criticism”-the attempt to try to figure out what literary sources went into the composition of a book of the Bible.
The attempt to discern which sources a document drew upon can be an entirely healthy thing and can shed light on the interpretation of the book. But much of the time Bible commentators become so concerned with dissecting a book and breaking it down into its component parts that they pay too little attention to, or even leave out entirely, explaining what the sacred author was trying to say.
This craze is nowhere more obvious than in commentaries on the foundational books of the New Testament, the four Gospels, and on the foundational books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
In the latter case, the reigning view is known as the “JEDP” theory. It asserts that the books of the Pentateuch (or Torah) are composed from four sources, which are known as the Yahwist (J, from the German spelling of “Yahweh”), the Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly (P) sources.
The JEDP theory is now losing ground on two fronts.
First, some respected Bible scholars are questioning individual pieces of the theory (many Protestant scholars have begun to question the existence of the E source) or the entire theory as a whole (as did Kikawada and Quinn in Before Abraham Was).
Second, even among scholars who are open to the four-source hypothesis, there are people who are saying, “Wait a minute! Let’s not focus so much on where the biblical author is getting his material but on what he is trying to say.”
Being more concerned with what the sacred author is trying to tell us is the root-the genesis, if you will-of a commentary put out by the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia. This work, which is part of the JPS Torah Commentary, is simply titled Genesis and is by Nahum M. Sarna, the general editor of the series.
Sarna frankly sets aside the JEDP theory as the key to understanding Genesis. “Whatever the merits or demerits of this type of analysis, it is beyond doubt that the Book of Genesis came down to us, not as a composite of disparate elements but as a unified document with a life, coherence, and integrity of its own. For this reason, a fragmentary approach to it cannot provide an adequate understanding of the whole. To be preoccupied with the smallest units of literary tradition may have its purposes; but the exercise is ultimately of limited value.”
Sarna’s commentary thus comes as a breath of fresh air, not only because he is concerned with explaining what the author of Genesis is trying to say, but because Sarna has a high regard for the value of Genesis as a historical document and points out many things supporting the antiquity and accuracy of the work.
His introduction, for example, contains a list of eight categories of evidence which demonstrate the antiquity of the material in Genesis. Sarna points out that Genesis has a “large number of divine names that never recur in the Torah and, with very few exceptions, are not found again in the rest of the Bible.”
Social customs and religious practices of the patriarchs also reveal to us, Sarna says, the antiquity of the Genesis material, as some of the things the patriarchs do would have been unthinkable to the authors of a later age if they were making the material up. Sarna notes:
“The Stone Pillar (matsevah). This cultic object is sternly forbidden in Leviticus 26: 1 and Deuteronomy 16:21-22 as being abhorrent to God; yet the Genesis narratives do not hesitate to ascribe its use to the patriarch Jacob. It is clear that the texts were not altered to conform to the standards of a later age. The same conclusion may be drawn from the report about Abraham planting a tamarisk and engaging in worship at the site, an act prohibited in the legislation of Deuteronomy 16:21.”
“Family Life. Abraham married his half sister, an act that is repeatedly forbidden in the law collections. Jacob was simultaneously married to two sisters, mothers of the tribes of Israel, a marriage arrangement outlawed in Leviticus 18:18. . . . And whereas intermarriage with foreigners, natives of Canaan, is prohibited in Exodus 34: 16 and Deuteronomy 7:3, no such interdiction is either assumed or implied in the narratives of Genesis. . . . In general, religious differences between the patriarchs and foreigners are never a source of tension. The only sins attributed to non-Israelites are of the moral kind; idolatry, a major theme in the rest of the Bible, is never mentioned.”
Sarna ends this section by saying, “The cumulative effect of all this internal evidence leads to the decisive conclusion that the patriarchal traditions in the Book of Genesis are of great antiquity. This assertion is quite independent of the external material culled from thousands of documents uncovered in the towns of Mari, Nuzi, Alalakh, and Ugarit, as well as other ancient sites in the Near East. These texts issue from the second millennium B.C.E. and provide numerous parallels with patriarchal traditions.”
Some writers on Genesis, notably Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, are so concerned with vindicating the historical accuracy of every single line of Genesis that they fall into the same trap as the source critics, being so concerned with the historicity of the text that they fail to devote enough attention to what the text says.
Sarna avoids this pitfall. After his initial section on the antiquity of the Genesis material, he merely notes, from time to time, places in the text where something is recorded that would not have occurred to a later writer or that would have been suppressed if the later writer were trying to sanitize history and make his own side look good.
By adopting this method, Sarna keeps his focus on what the writer is trying to say to us, and he does not wander off on other trails, however interesting they might be to modern readers. One consequence is that Sarna does not attempt to deal with issues of science and modern cosmology. His goal is to explain the meaning of the text, not to write a scientific treatise.
He gives little attention to the questions of when the world was created or whether Adam and Eve were historical individuals or were symbols of the primitive human community. Creationists and evolutionists who want Sarna to make ringing declarations on such issues as these will be disappointed with this.aspect of his commentary.
The closest he gets to dealing with issues of science, after highly praising the creation account in Genesis 1, is to say, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable. The Genesis narrative does not seek to make intelligible what is beyond human ken. To draw upon human language to explain that which is outside any model of human experience is inevitably to confront the inescapable limitations of any attempt to give verbal expressions to this subject.
“For this reason alone, the narrative in its external form must reflect the time and place of its composition. Thus it directs us to take account of the characteristic modes of literary expression current in ancient Israel. It forces us to realize that a literalistic approach to the text must inevitably confuse idiom with idea, symbol with reality. The result would be to obscure the enduring meaning of the text.”
This statement may not please those who hold to a six-day creation theory, but they should not write off Sarna as a godless evolutionist. He does not endorse evolution; he leaves the chronology and mechanism of creation as mysteries.
He writes passionately about the God of the Bible as an infinite, all-holy, and all-powerful Being who really created the world and everything in it, even if the act of creation is represented in Genesis 1 under a different literary form from what some assume (see the discussion of the six days in CCC 337).
Even in his account of Genesis 1, Sarna says many things that a six-day creationist will find intriguing and informative, especially his analysis of the anti-pagan apologetics.
Sarna says a lot of things six-day creationists will approve of. One issue many find a constant annoyance is the question of whether Genesis 2 contains a separate and independent account of creation from Genesis 1.
Here Sarna comes down on their side, saying: “Chapter 2 is not another creation story. As such it would be singularly incomplete. In fact, it presupposes a knowledge of much of the preceding account of creation. Many of the leading ideas in the earlier account are here reiterated, though the mode of presentation is different.”
The ultimate value of the commentary does not lie in its treatment of the first three chapters of the book (there are, after all, 47 other chapters to comment upon), especially since his task is to explain what the text says, not relate it to current cosmological the ones.
As he expounds the meaning of the text, Sarna brings out a wealth of information of which very few laymen and even few scholars are aware. Time after time he produces an insight from history, archaeology, or the Talmud that sheds new light on a passage that one has been reading for years.
In order to maintain his focus on the meaning of the text, he omits issues one may be curious about. I wish he had dealt with rival Christian interpretations of certain passages, such as Genesis 3:15, which he did not relate to the coming of the Messiah.
But, as one would expect, just as he sidesteps the issues of source criticism and evolution, he similarly sidesteps rival Christian interpretations in an attempt to maintain a consistent focus on what he believes the text says rather than what others have said about it.
The discriminating reader-the one who will sort the good from the bad and who is willing to learn from those who don’t believe exactly as he does-will find Sarna’s commentary a treasure trove of new insights on the book of Genesis.
— James Akin
By Nahum M. Sarna
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989
Evangelical acquaintances introduced me to Ogden Nash’s line: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” If there is puzzlement among today’s Evangelicals, there must have been still more puzzlement among the ancients, who thought the Jews were crazy for claiming that God (presuming there was only one and not a whole pantheon of them) had chosen them, an inconsequential people, to be the seedbed for his redemptive work. Why the Jews? Why not the influential Romans or, before them, the Greeks or Assyrians? But the Jews? It made no sense.
Choose them God did, and from them came the Messiah, yet few Jews recognized him to be the one they had been longing for. They envisioned a different sort of messiah, and thus the chosen people did not choose the Church-at times they even opposed the upstart faith with violence.
However quickly the Church may have grown among the Jews of the first century, we must keep in mind that Jewish converts to Christianity were vastly outnumbered by Jews who rejected Christian claims and remained under the Old Covenant.
A wall, seemingly impenetrable, rose between Christians and Jews. Few passed from one side to the other. Conversions to Judaism from Christianity were as uncommon as conversions from Christianity to Judaism. A few peeped over the wall, but fewer still jumped to the other side.
Perhaps that is why, as a genre, stories of Jewish conversions to the faith have a poignancy and a delight singularly their own. There is something of the unexpected about them.
Bread From Heaven is filled with poignancy and delight, and the unexpected turns up on just about every page. There are, for instance, not one but two stories of brothers converting: Theodore and Alphonse Ratisbonne, who became priests, and the twins Joseph and Augustine Lemann, who also were ordained.
Blessed Edith Stein is here, as are Jean-Marie Lustiger, today’s cardinal archbishop of Paris; Raissa Maritain, the wife of the philosopher Jacques Maritain; and Israel Zolli, the chief rabbi of Rome, who converted in 1945, largely under the influence of Pope Pius XII.
Ten of the 23 stories are of post-1950 conversions. One I already knew but was pleased to revisit: the account by my friend Jeffrey Rubin, who, at the time of writing, was the editor of The Latin Mass magazine. If I single his out, it is because Jeff’s story has a bit of the Everyman flavor to it, at least for those of my generation.
Jeff was like the secularized Jews I knew at school. They were analogues of Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, showing up at the synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “In our house the real religion was Knowledge (not bad as false religions go), which itself was taken to be, perhaps with some justification, a special province of the Jews. Weren’t we, after all, the People of the Book? But the father of our faith wasn’t Abraham but Freud, and our ‘Book’ was the latter’s Collected Works.”
Like the others profiled in Bread From Heaven, Jeff finally took up better reading, turning back to the Book and learning of its chief Protagonist
— Karl Keating
Bread From Heaven
By Ronda Chervin
New Hope, Kentucky: Remnant of Isreal, 1994