Five books on Genesis I could not do without . . .

Those who have read my profile are aware that my primary area of interest is the book of Genesis, more specifically, the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle. My first entry into this topic in any sustained way was a paper I wrote while getting my master’s at Duke. I have since written a piece focusing on the Jacob/Laban narratives specifically that is being published in the Spring 2009 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies (and which I will post here on the blog in the very, very near future), as well as a paper looking at the divine oracle in Gen 25:23 as it relates to and informs the deceptions in Gen 25:27-34 and 27:1-45 (see the abstract a few posts down; I will be presenting a version of this piece at SBL in New Orleans).

That said, I have done much reading on Genesis and Jacob, and I have found myself reflecting on the bibliography I have compiled, noting what works I have interacted with most or found to be exceptionally good and helpful dialogue partners (which of course does not necessitate agreement!). I here provide five books on Genesis I could not do without. I recognize this list is terribly, terribly exclusive–and to be sure there are many great and seminal volumes worth mentioning (for instance, Gunkel’s classic commentary on Genesis from 1901, or Westermann’s three-volume work in the ‘Continental Commentary’ series, or even Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative)–yet given my methodological leanings and the specific questions I am asking, these are the five books (in no particular order) on Genesis that I could not do without.

1. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).


In my view, anything by Brueggemann is going to be a worthy read. But all prejudices aside, this volume is by far one of the most honest assessments of the theological complexity within Genesis. Foundational for Brueggemann’s treatment is that the Genesis narratives–the Jacob cycle included (contra Westermann)–are highly theological. In fact, one may say that for Brueggemann, Genesis says much more about God than it does about humanity. But what I am most appreciative for in this volume is the absolute candor of Brueggemann’s understanding of God’s character. For Brueggemann–and for myself–God is a “scandalous” challenge in the book of Genesis (and elsewhere in Scripture, I would venture). That the portrait of God is not ‘white-washed’ but rather allowed to stand in all its theological complexity makes this volume a wonderfully honest attempt to interpret the ‘difficulties’ of Genesis.

2. J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1991).

Fokkelman’s volume is devoted entirely to the Jacob cycle save for one chapter on the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). As the title suggests, Fokkelman emphasizes the artistic aspects of the Genesis text, focusing upon not only what the language communicates and means but how it communicates and means. I am grateful for his close, literary reading of the text, with an eye towards shifts in person, tense, as well as his intra-textual insights. As of yet, I have not come across a more satisfying, cogent articulation of the literary artistry of Genesis. Fokkelman, in my opinion, successfully demonstrates that literary form and meaning are indissoluably linked. To my eye, there is not another volume like this one.

3. Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (Old Testament Readings; London: Routledge, 2000).
Brett successfully combines a literary reading of the biblical text with aspects of social theory in the attempt to demonstrate that the Genesis narratives covertly undermine Yehudian ethnocentrism. I am especially thankful for his treatment of Jacob in relationship to God (for instance, noting that Jacob is the only character to put specific demands on the deity [Gen 31]). I am also thankful for his situating of the final form of Genesis in a specific historical context, which allows for his literary interpretations to manifest themselves (albeit in a ‘coded’ way) in the social reality and experience of post-exilic Judah. While I ultimately think much more is going on in the Genesis narratives than a challenge to ethnocentrism, Brett’s close reading of the text has been an invaluable tool in refining my own understandings and interpretations.

4. R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Diselection: Ambiguity in Genesis 12-36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-Exilic Judah (SBL Semeia Studies 39; Atlanta: SBL, 2001).
I first read Heard’s book 4-5 years ago for a class at Duke, interestingly alongside Brett (above). It is fascinating to me that they both interpret by and large the same evidence in the same historical context (Persian era Yehud) and arrive at polar opposite conclusions. As I mention above, Brett sees the Genesis narratives as challenging Yehudian ethnocentrism whereas Heard sees the text (Gen 12-36 specifically) as affirming ethnocentrism “because [YHWH] said so.” Heard’s literary analyses of the ambiguous characterizations of Lot, Ishmael, and–most relevant for my interests, Esau–challenge any ‘easy’ or simplistic conception of any of these biblical figures. His insights have surely pressed me to articulate my sense of Esau’s character (and I still see him as intentionally portrayed as a bumbling, ignorant, over-dramatic buffoon who is ever-prone to being tricked . . . even in the reconcilation scene in Gen 33) with a greater level of specificity and recognition of the alternatives. Heard’s volume is one of the first I go to when I plan to write on Jacob or the ancestral narratives.

5. Laurence A. Turner, Announcements of Plot in Genesis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008) [original publication by Sheffield Academic, 1990].

When I first read Turner I was upset I had not come up with the argument myself! Put most simply, Turner avers that the ‘announcements’ in Genesis–for instance, 12:1-3 for Abraham, 25:23; 27:27-29, 39-40 for Jacob, and 37:5-11 for Joseph–are not reliable indicators for how the plot will ultimately unfold. Only one announcement, Joseph’s initial dream, seems to be the object of perfect fulfillment. Other announcements are either partially fulfilled . . . or not fulfilled at all. I have found Turner to be a strong dialogue partner; of the five books listed here, he is the one I find myself struggling with the most. His reading of the overarching plot of the Jacob cycle is compelling for a number of reasons–but I have also come to believe it is wrong for a number of reasons (some of which I detail in my SBL paper). Yet, I must confess, Turner’s careful reading of the entirety of the Jacob cycle has pressed me perhaps more than any other to hone and articulate in a careful and cogent manner my own interpretation of the whole of the Jacob cycle.

I look forward to reading your comments, thoughts, and/or questions on these volumes (or on others not listed here). It was difficult to narrow down to these five . . . but having written this post, I now stand more convinced than ever—–these are the five books on Genesis I could not do without.
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13 thoughts on “Five books on Genesis I could not do without . . .

  1. Bryan says:

    This is a great post, John. We should get a whole bibliobloggers’ series like this. I’m working up one about Leviticus.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Bryan:

    I am glad to hear it! It would be fascinating to me to get such a series popping up on other blogs. If this post is well-received, I am already planning out in my head the “runners-up” (or, another 5 books on Genesis I likely couldn’t do without . . . !!).

  3. Phil Sumpter says:

    One of my favourite systematic theology blogs is inhabitatio dei. He did a post a while back on Brueggemann and there was a fairly full discussion in the comments, which may interest you.

    I have yet to read his commentary on Genesis. It’s just a question of time. If only I could speed read … and sleep less …

  4. John Anderson says:

    I think i missed the mention of the Genesis commentary. His Jeremiah commentary, though, receives notice.

    Either way, it was an insightful read; thank you for pointing it out to me. I must admit, I am a very sympathetic (perhaps even uncritically fawning) reader of Brueggemann. But, I would maintain the reason for that is because he does not flatten or tidy up the text. Whether this leads to disjointedness or not had not crossed my mind . . . but to be fair, I’m sure we are all guilty of this in one way or another. If one looks close enough at any given method or interpretation, one is bound to find something to pick at.

    Brueggemann is an honest interpreter of the text we have not the text we wish we had, which I think is important. And while I do tire from time to time of his consistent pushing of a social agenda in each of his writings, I do recognize (with gladness and appreciation) that he is trying to make the text relevant for contemporary communities of faith. This is, I would argue, most important for those texts that are problematic, difficult, and troublesome. Perhaps these are some of the very same reasons I have chosen to tackle the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle . . . from a theological perspective.

    How about the other books I list here? Any other thoughts?

  5. JMS says:

    Hi John, came across your blog and wanted to say hello from the Discipleship Dojo! (gsdisciple.blogspot.com) I’ve posted similar blogs on Revelation and recommended resources and I was happy to see your Genesis resource suggestions. My interests in it have tended to focus in the earlier chapters (Creation to Isaac), so I wanted to share two resources that I’ve benefited from:

    Victor Hamilton’s 2-volumes in NICOT
    and
    Rethinking Genesis by Duane

    Anyway, keep it up brotha.
    JMS

  6. John Anderson says:

    JMS:

    Welcome! I look forward to your comments!

    Indeed, I am familiar with Hamilton’s two volumes. I do not own them, but they are on my “to-get” list—perhaps at SBL in New Orleans. I do not, however, know the Duane volume; I will surely look into it, thanks!

  7. wiserblog says:

    Thanks for posting your Genesis book list! Some of which I am sure will serve as future additions to my own library. Keep blogging. I’ve enjoyed reading you.
    Peace,
    -MLW

  8. Brian says:

    Hi John,

    Somewhere I came across your blog. It loks good I was wondering if you knew of an NT PhD student there at Baylor – Peter Reynolds (?) I went to the same seminary as he did but did the MDiv – I need to do more reading in the OT – it’s hard as a pastor and daddy to 2 year old girl.

    One commentary I have on Genesis was for a preaching class, Allen P Ross’ Creation and Blessing. It helped me figure out (I think) Jacob and Easau’s birth story.

    Be Blessed!

    -Brian Fulthorp

  9. John Anderson says:

    Brian:

    Greetings! Thanks for commenting; I hope you will continue to do so.

    Indeed, I know Peter Reynolds. We have had several classes together.

    I have Ross’ volume, though I have yet to read it. If you look a few posts down on the main page, you will see my proposal that has been accepted for SBL in New Orleans. It deals with the Jacob/Esau birth stories. The abstract doesn’t give it all away, but my view of the birth narrative is a bit different than most.

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