Thinking About Genesis

genesis hebrewAny thorough LDS discussion of the early Genesis chapters must do several things.

  • Must wrestle with the ancient Near Eastern context (other creation accounts), the Israelite views (both expressed and implied) in Genesis and the relationship between all of them. How are they alike? Different? Is their relationship one-way, literary, polemical, dependent? How univocal are these texts?
  • Must wrestle with the nature of revelation and prophethood as creative, participatory, and reinterpretive. How much do prophets adapt and rework the past for the present? Does affirming “inspiration” or “revelation” imply anything about genre or “correctness” within a field of study? What is the relevance and nature of later reappropriations, comments or quotations (e.g. Paul on Adam, D&C on Adam-Ondi-Ahman, etc.)
  • Must wrestle with the nature and relationship of Moses, Abraham, the temple, and Genesis, including the production and textual history of each of these accounts. Are these history, science, “myth,” other? How do we know, and what does that mean? Are LDS accounts independent witnesses? Who wrote these accounts, when, in what context? What were the sources or traditions they worked from, or within? What were their purposes in writing? Were the texts edited and reshaped for a different purpose later?
  • Must deal with each of these sources (Bible, ancient Near East, LDS) and their interpretations in the original languages and texts; in other words, close reading of Hebrew, Akkadian, and Ugaritic, not KJV English;  Words of Joseph Smith and manuscript histories, not Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith or the History of the Church.  Translation often obscures important connections or smooths over difficulties, or misleads even.
  • Lastly, if they want to have any impact, the discussion must be framed and presented in such a way that does not poke the average LDS in the eye, or strike them as so non-traditional as to be “outside” status. Most people don’t respond well to being insulted or talked down to. One must respect LDS tradition and sensibilities while also explaining why traditional LDS treatments or views fall short. In other words, you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by beating them over the head, but by “persuasion…love unfeigned…and pure knowledge.” (D&C 121:43-44). Lay it all out carefully, respectfully, non-dogmatically, and if they don’t come to agree with what’s presented, they will at least understand the argument.

These are complex sources and complex questions with lots of entanglements, and the amount of data is vast.

I once taught an Institute class, made up mostly of RM PhD students in hard sciences, who wanted to know how I as a faithful Mormon PhD student in Semitics, read Genesis. We spent about 10 hours of class on Genesis 1-8. (David, an Evangelical PhD student was in my Institute class that that time said it “significantly alter[ed] [his] views of scripture and in particular the Old Testament.”)

Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading on Genesis and wondered if this is a book project I’d like to take on. I think there’s a real need, and I’d like to see it filled. On the one hand, I feel underqualified in several ways, and I’m apprehensive about my ability to be sufficiently thorough and clear, and walk a fine line (too critical? Not critical enough? Too “scholarly”? Not enough?) On the other hand, I certainly have some of the relevant training and experience, and feel comfortable in both the academic and lay LDS worldviews, and “translating between them.”

Is something better than nothing? Will anyone else ever be bold (foolish?) enough to take up the challenge? What other issues need to be considered? And does anyone care, or in other words, is there a market?

40 comments for “Thinking About Genesis

  1. September 9, 2011 at 10:54 am

    When I taught Sunday school at Oxford I was surprised by how many people in the class had questions about these kinds of things. I think there’s definitely a need, and it’s something I’ve looked at as well, but there will always be that significant segment of the LDS population that will reject anything that moves away from the traditional LDS scriptural lens.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    September 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Oh, Ben, I’ll pre-order a dozen copies.

    You’ve stated the parameters so well that I have no doubt that the project would be worthwhile. Of course, in 40 years, it will make you cringe, but only because the field will have advanced so much because people were standing on your shoulders!

  3. September 9, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I’d buy it. I am an RM PhD student in the hard sciences, so maybe there’s a theme here.

  4. Owen
    September 9, 2011 at 11:25 am

    I think more on this topic is really critical because those early chapters are so important in shaping our understanding of how God interacts with the world and, thus, our lives. If the cartoon version of Genesis prevails, our understanding of prayer and miracles will remain cartoonish.

  5. September 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

    How soon can you have it ready? The only commentaries available to us now as Latter-day Saints are “outside,” which do something of what you’ve outlined here except that they’re ignorant of additional LDS scripture and prophetic insight, or else they’re so far “inside” that they merely use verses here and there as launchpads for doctrinal sermons rather than discussing the text itself.

  6. Jacob M
    September 9, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Please do so! I have neither a PhD nor am I majoring in hard science, but I would love a Mormon view of Genesis treated at book length.

  7. Jax
    September 9, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I’d buy it, twice probably.

    Do your best, and if someother scholar thinks he/she can do better, then let them try and we’ll have two works on the topic. The worst that can happen is you spark the idea in someone else who just hadn’t thought of it.

  8. September 9, 2011 at 11:57 am

    I would not only buy it, but most likely be an effective missionary for it as well.

  9. September 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    It’s a lot of narrative to deal with for one book.

    I read Alan Dershowitz’s “The Genesis of Justice” a long time ago – not a difficult read but provides some interesting ideas/questions to consider.

  10. clark
    September 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I’d love a book like that but as Danithew notes that’s a lot to try and pull off.

  11. Ben S
    September 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Danithew/Clark- It would really only be the first few chapters, perhaps as far as 9, but it’s still a huge project.

    Ardis- I have lots of notes, some outlines and mindmaps, but no actual writing, unless you count a lot of blogposts jousting and feinting. But if I’m going to do it, I have approximately 22 months to write it and secure a publishing contract. After that, some of its utility to me decreases. And of course, if it can happen before the next round of Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine…

    Owen- Indeed. One of my motivations is apologetic; I know of people who have left the Church because they’ve been pressed by local leaders or teachers into an absolute (false) dichotomy between, for example, Young Earth Creationism and Science. I’d like to muddy those waters, provide some room, though I wouldn’t explicitly address either topic, I don’t think.

    All- thanks for the encouragement. Looks like there is some demand and enthusiasm for such a project.

  12. Kevin Barney
    September 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    You’d be great with this, Ben.

  13. September 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Sounds like a great project, Ben. I join others in encouraging you to proceed with writing it and in adding my name to the list of those who would purchase a copy.

  14. Sam Brunson
    September 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I have adored the marginalia of my Jewish Study Bible; I would love to have a book-length treatment of the first several chapters of Genesis. So add me to the list of people who would certainly buy a copy, and evangelize others to do likewise.

  15. Sonny
    September 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    And I would like to join Christopher in joining others in encouraging you to write.
    Not only would I buy it for myself but would likely buy it as gifts for family and friends.

  16. Sonny
    September 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Also, after reading your first three bullet points, I think that somehow working in Rulon Gardner onto the cover of the book may be appropriate.

  17. September 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I read Robert Alter’s new translation and commentary (well, helpful brief footnotes) on Genesis. But an LDS effort to bring together the various LDS Genesis narratives, as noted by Ben, raises a lot more issues for a commentator to weigh and balance.

  18. Martin
    September 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Yes, please write it.

  19. hbar
    September 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Please do this, Ben. I’ll buy a copy.
    An aside: I was one of the RM PhD candidates (now RM PhD) in the class Ben taught. It was wonderful, and I enjoyed the discussion very much. I learned a lot about the text. I’ve come to appreciate the remarkable opportunity we had in that class to discuss Genesis with a group of people who had real expertise on almost all of the issues that come up in such a discussion.

  20. Jonathan Green
    September 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Ben, how would you position this project in relation to “Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament,” beyond the focus on the early chapters of Genesis rather than on the whole OT?

  21. Adam Miller
    September 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Write. Write. Write.

  22. Stephen Hardy
    September 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    For those of us who are complete idiots, fearing that I again must reveal my lack of knowledge, my total ignorance. So, I must ask: Who is Ben S? Can I look you up Ben? Where do you teach and what do you teach? Why the 22 month window? I also would be very interested in such a book.

    I, by the way, was very interested in the Nerd List that you put out a few days ago.

  23. Ben S
    September 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Stephen, you can find me here, here, here, here, here (though some of the posts there are wrongly attributed to me), here, here and elsewhere under a pseudonym.

    My blogging history runs, T&S guest, Millennialstar, FPR (undisclosed), Patheos, full circle to T&S.

    I don’t teach anywhere, though I’ve taught at BYU (3 summers) and Institute (volunteer, about 9 years). My career is currently going in an unexpected direction, and I have 22 months before I’d need to put the book on a resume. I’d prefer not to say more than that at this point.

    Jonathon, could you elaborate a bit? Like JWOT in terms of… layout? Approach? Depth? Design? Glossy pictures? I like the book, but since I’m not a BYU RelEd employee and I’m not even going to attempt Deseret Book, I have fewer institutional constraints than they do, and a much narrower deeper focus.

  24. Mike
    September 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I would be very interested. If you are not qualified then get qualified. You are most certainly closerto it than I am.

    I disagree with the final preposition about this not poking LDS people in the eye. How can you poke someone in the eye when they already have a thick layer of wool pulled over their eyes?

    Let the evidence fall where it may and follow it. Have faith that the truth will prevail.

  25. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    September 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Sounds intriguing. Count one more customer.

    Will you be looking at the Adam and Enoch parts of the Book of Moses as well?

    Since you will be addressing the interpretations that drive Young Earth Creationism, I assume you will also address the role that the Noah narrative plays in that belief system, as an alleged cause of extinctions and geology. My own very personal theory is that the Noah story is basically the original escape-from-the-wicked-to-a-promised-land narrative, the original of which the Jaredite migration was a mirror image, and that the narrative itself does not demand that the effects of the flood were global, as distinct from comprehensive in the region where Noah lived (presumably early North America).

  26. September 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Ben probably already knows about this two-volume set of Jewish commentary on the subject of Genesis – but just thought I’d provide it anyway as a useful source.

    “Bereshit” or “Bereishis” is the Hebrew title for the book of Genesis – coming from the first word in Chapter 1.

  27. September 9, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Also, I know Ben knows what Bereshit means … just throwing that out there for anyone who might follow the link. I write this clarification under the assumption the comment I made earlier gets out of moderation.

  28. Ben S
    September 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Raymond- I don’t know that I’ll address Enoch extensively, but if I go as far as chap. 9, Noah will definitely get a good write-up.

  29. Brad
    September 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Who do you want as your publisher? Deseret Book or an academic press?

    Also would you intend to offer mainly a review of different LDS views on the Book of Genesis over time, or would you attempt to include your own view as an LDS person on the Book of Genesis? If the latter, my hat goes off to you. I know that if I were to engage in such an undertaking that the result would likely be quite unpalatable for the multitudes of traditional LDS. I would probably tick off CES as well if I were working there.

    Lastly would your hypothetical book include comparisons of Genesis with other creation stories by non-Hebrew peoples?

  30. Manuel
    September 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    It would be very interesting if you could also touch, even if briefly, on early Christian/Gnostic accounts and interpretations of the creation, as found in the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi library.

    I know they represent a radically different approach to that of “more traditional” accounts, but I think it would be of great value to analyze them scholarly, especially in comparison to an LDS approach, since I believe the LDS and Gnostic approaches and objectives of the creation account have a similar end/purpose, regardless of how differing the accounts are.

    I also believe these early Christian Gnostic accounts are exceptional gems of early Christian cosmology that have been gravely neglected when it comes to analyses of the creation. Little attention has been paid to them, and it is quite a shame.

  31. September 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I’m actually kind of surprised that this niche has gone unfilled for so long. It’s a lot to chew on, but I would love to see what you could do with it!

  32. Ben S
    September 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Jared*- There are a few things, but none of them meet the criteria I laid out.

    Manuel- Like the extensive Enochic material, that’s too far afield for the book, and way out of my area of expertise.

    Brad- I’ve had fantasies of a publisher like Oxford, but I think (aside from the fact that I didn’t finish my PhD, don’t teach, and only have a few minor publications) the problem is that I want to write *to* LDS, instead of about them. Grant Hardy’s note (question 2) about having to revise some of his “believing” sections only confirmed that for me. I don’t want to approach that kind of neutrality, but make clear that I am a traditional believer, a Book of Mormon historicist (FWIW), etc.

    I won’t even try DB, since I intend footnotes and endnotes, as well as quoting out-of-favor sources like (gasp!) Dialogue or general authority sources that run against current tradition or views.

    I hope for Kofford or something similar.

    I’ll rarely be dogmatic; my approach is to present several perspectives (including diachronic LDS views or contrasting Apostolic views), and explain why this one or that one holds particular appeal for me.

  33. Tom D
    September 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    This sounds like a great project. I loved Cleon Skowsen’s “The First Two Thousand Years” when I read it as a teenager, but it doesn’t square with what I’ve learned since of archeology and science. If it is possible at this time, I’d love to see a better LDS effort at squaring Genesis 1-8 (and D&C 107:41-57, etc.) with modern science and textual analysis.

    I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true, but I think that we still carry with us many traditions and interpolations of men that are not so true. I rather like Moses’ priesthood line of authority as listed in D&C 84:6-16. On the other hand I now find Adam’s personal blessing of his descendants through Methuselah in D&C 107:41-57 to be problematic due to the extreme age of the patriarchs. I’d like to believe that that meeting was historical but the ages are not. I’d love to see a faithful effort at clearing up some of these problems, or at least a nicer “shelf” to put my concerns on.

  34. September 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Ben– I would love to read your book when it is done. But be sure and finish before mid-2013, so I can take advantage of your superb scholarship when we hope to publish the second edition of “In God’s Image and Likeness” (IGIL). ;-)

    Besides updating the material throughout, the commentary will be extended to include the Enoch and Noah material–David Larsen will have finished his Ph.D. at St. Andrews with James Davila before that time and has agreed to help bring his knowledge of the Enoch material to bear on the subject. I am hoping his professionalism will help make up for my amateurism.

    I agree that DB/Covenant is not worth your effort for a book of this nature. Though he might be willing to publish such a book, I would avoid Kofford, too–he and I had a contract initially for IGIL, but when it was clear that they were way behind schedule and that the book quality was going to be substandard, I asked him for a release from the contract and found a publisher willing to do a high quality full-length edition. Though not everyone wants to consider this as a serious option, you might also think about self-publishing–that way you can be sure to get exactly the results you want, and I don’t think you would be severely handicapped in distribution given the limited number of outlets for LDS publications you would have to deal with.

    Best regards,

    P.S. Owen, I miss seeing you in Seattle these days–unfortunately, as you know, my son’s family moved to Redmond…

  35. Jim F
    September 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Of course you should write it. And I’ll sell copies. But, as has been pointed out, the big question is “Who will publish it?” Perhaps Salt Press?

  36. September 10, 2011 at 12:52 am


    It is simply amazing that so many books are written and yet a book like the one you describe does not exist. Your third bullet is the most important in the list, I think. People interested in scholarly treatments of Genesis have one million options, but there is almost nothing written from the perspective you describe about the intersection of Moses/Abraham/Genesis and the temple narrative.

  37. Ben S
    September 10, 2011 at 8:07 am

    I’m in such an early stage, I’m not really worrying about a publisher; more about writing the thing.

    All- really appreciate the encouragement and expressions of interest. It’s motivating.

  38. Chris O'Keefe
    September 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Ben, please write the book. I love this idea. Perhaps you could find a co-author who helps addresses whatever shortcomings you feel you bring to the project.

  39. Hugh
    September 23, 2011 at 12:02 am

    What if you didn’t have a publisher? What if your distribution method were completely electronic? I’ve seen a few successful bloggers (who have no qualifications but the value of their opinions) do so.

    Just brainstorming.

  40. Hugh
    September 23, 2011 at 12:03 am

    What if you didn’t have a publisher? What if your distribution method were completely electronic? I’ve seen a few successful bloggers (who have no qualifications but the value of their opinions) do so.

    Just brainstorming.

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