Reading Genesis

howtoreadthebibleThe latest entry in the how-to-read-the-Bible genre is How to Read the Bible (HarperOne, 2015) by Harvey Cox, a Harvard divinity prof who has been around since the sixties (his classic The Secular City was published in 1965). The first chapter is devoted to Genesis. He offers some helpful perspectives to go beyond simply plodding though chapter by chapter, verse by verse, trying to follow what is going on or being said. Here are four approaches to shape one’s reading.

Historical Criticism. Like most non-LDS religion professors, Cox relates the shock of entering his first year of graduate studies and encountering the documentary hypothesis (what he calls the “multiple-source hypothesis”). His Evangelical background did not prepare him for the idea that the Bible was written by different authors with different views. He worked through J, E, D, and P. He eventually determined that

the multiple-source theory did help explain why there are different accounts not just of the creation, but also of the flood, God’s promise to Abraham, and the moving drama of Hagar and Ishmael. … Little by little I decided that recognizing Genesis as the work of many hands did not diminish its spiritual significance. It deepened it.

Here’s an interesting question. Do LDS students who follow this or a similar course of study hit the same sort of faith hurdle in graduate school or seminary? (I mean real seminary, not LDS youth seminary.) My impression is no, but readers who have had the experience can weigh in. Biblical inerrancy is not an article of faith among Mormons. In fact, Article of Faith 8 affirms that the Bible has been improperly transmitted down through the years and is now flawed. One could even imagine that such an exposure to the messy real story of how the Bible came to be would reaffirm an LDS understanding rather than challenge it. The most readable introduction to the documentary hypothesis is Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (Summit Books, 1987).

Narrative Approach. Rather than chopping the text up into chunks contributed by different sources or traditions, this method takes the final text as given and asks what it is doing, what it is saying, and how it is doing and saying it. Whether a section of text was written by a single author or pieced together by a final editor, it did after all take a final form, the one that we actually read and the moves us or inspires us or puzzles us. The classic book by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Belknap Press, 1990), popularized this approach. There is just more going on in any book or chapter than is evident from a straightforward reading, even with a study bible. After reading the book’s chapter on Genesis, I’ve never read Jacob’s night encounter with an angel in Genesis 32 the same.

Rhetorical Criticism. Sort of developed out of the narrative approach, with a little more attention to particular authors and arguments and styles of persuasion. “This is also an especially helpful approach, because it enables us to see not only that the different writers of the Bible differed with each other, but also that the argued against each other.” Recently, Grant Hardy employed this approach in his Understanding the Book of Mormon (OUP, 2010). Recall that back in 2011 we did a roundtable and 12 Questions interview with Grant on his book. If you liked that book and found it enlightening, you are acknowledging the power of this approach.

Effect History. “How has this text been used, applied, or deployed in the centuries since it was written? … What difference has it made?” This also goes under the title “reception history,” and we likewise have a good example of this approach for the Book of Mormon, Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon (OUP, 2003).

Note the title to this post is “Reading Genesis,” not “Teaching Genesis” (my prior post). I’m not suggesting these approaches should be adopted by lesson manuals or be employed by teachers. That’s just too much to expect in the Age of Correlation. But you probably owe it to yourself to elevate your own study and understanding of the Bible. Feel free to note in the comments other approaches and other texts that have enhanced your own reading of Genesis, the Bible, or LDS scriptures.

11 comments for “Reading Genesis

  1. I think Biblical scholarship, especially the documentary hypothesis stuff that ends up teasing Genesis 1 and 2 apart can be pretty challenging. Combine that with the scholarship that argues for dependence of Genesis 1 on Enuma Elish and it can be hard (I certainly think it is hard) to hold onto other things that seem really important for our doctrine like whether or not there was a historical Adam. It has doctrinal value, but I have a hard time agreeing with the notion of a historical Adam, whatever Elder Holland has to say about it. Additionally, I’ve basically disposed of the notion that Moses and Abraham are historical revelations uncovered or otherwise revealed to Joseph Smith and that the “primeval history” of Genesis has an historical value. I have no idea what to make of the Book of Mormon in terms of origins. For me, much of that is due to Biblical scholarship (and work of a similar bent on LDS scripture).

    All that said, I love the scriptures, whatever their origin. I’m partial to Peter Enns’ argument that the scriptures are both human and divine, and the challenge is to figure out what the scriptures say about the divine. For all the human that I see in the scriptures (and Biblical scholarship has really helped draw that out for me), I still see God in them. So despite that challenge, I’m not leaving the church. Church is a lot harder for me than it used to be, because I don’t read the scriptures the way it seems like most everyone else in Sunday School does. My faith is a very different, more uncertain thing than what it was before I was willing to take Biblical scholarship seriously. (FWIW, this has all been the result of personal study, not an academic program).

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Dave. I’ve read Friedman’s book, “Who Wrote the Bible,” which I enjoyed. Kugel’s work by the same title as Cox’s (“How to Read the Bible”) I thought was excellent. And great introductions to the authorship and evolution of both the Old and New Testaments can be found in the Yale Open Course Series: “Introduction to the Bible” and “New Testament History and Literature.”

    I am a lawyer by training, so I never had the graduate school/seminary experience that Cox described. Nevertheless, reading these books was revelation since I had never encountered any of these ideas (and probably never will) in the CES curricula.

    My faith wasn’t challenged by reading these books, except to the extent that I now discount or disregard most of what I encounter in church manuals on these subjects. Rather, I found these discoveries exciting and eye opening. Simply stated, the scriptures made more sense to me after I had been exposed to these ideas than before.

    Obviously, none of these hypotheses/theories provide all the answers, but they sure do raise a lot more questions. And I love questions.

  3. While I remain a bit dubious of some of the details of various authorship arguments in the Bible (a lot of conclusion from little evidence) the Documentary Hypothesis shouldn’t be that controversial. I think it is simply because of some unfortunate backlash against scholarship in the early 20th century. However the idea the Ezra and others compiled the Bible shouldn’t be that controversial just given the text. Likewise the notion of a deutoronomist around the time of Josiah and Jeremiah shouldn’t be that controversial. The Book of Mormon itself talks about missing books and even appears to follow traditions some ascribe to the Josiah reforms. The very notion of apostasy should make the idea of the compilation of the OT and even NT very natural.

    Why some Mormons, especially the CES department, have this weird inclination to feast at the fleshpots of fundamentalist Evangelicals whose theology is so opposed to ours has never made sense to me.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think people can go too far the other direction adopting too skeptical positions. But what’s odd to me is how at odds with Mormon scripture and Mormon doctrine so many of these evangelical infused fundamentalist ideas really are.

  4. BTW – maybe it was because I took many of my religion classes from the honors department at BYU rather than CES, but I encountered the documentary hypothesis quite early in my undergraduate curriculum at BYU.

  5. Clark (#3 & #4), I had the same experience at BYU. A young Wilfred Griggs introduced us to the documentary hypothesis. He also explained the rationale for the Q source and delved into the New Testament Apocrypha. Hardly the typical CES curriculum!

    “Why some Mormons, especially the CES department, have this weird inclination to feast at the fleshpots of fundamentalist Evangelicals whose theology is so opposed to ours has never made sense to me.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  6. Griggs was great. I had him for Pen &the Sword, a History of Civ class. I heard that he didn’t mix well with other RelEd faculty…

    “Why some Mormons, especially the CES department, have this weird inclination to feast at the fleshpots of fundamentalist Evangelicals whose theology is so opposed to ours has never made sense to me.”
    Because they don’t understand it?
    OTOH, it can certainly be a challenge to tradition. If your view of tradition is narrow, and you ascribe heavy weight to it, then the challenge is all the stronger.

  7. Why some Mormons, especially the CES department, have this weird inclination to feast at the fleshpots of fundamentalist Evangelicals whose theology is so opposed to ours has never made sense to me.

    It could be because we have the Doctrine and Covenants, and we want to apply the same accuracy/reliability standard to the rest of the standard works that we get to apply to the D&C.

  8. Jader, It seems to me even the D&C is a bit more tricky when you look at it closely. Such as how the Book of Commandments got reworked and then later sections where fragmentary notes were fleshed out into full sections – often in confusing ways such as with D&C 131:1. If anything the composition and development of the D&C ought inform how we read the OT. It seems a great example of there being no fixed texts.

    Ben, I think that’s ultimately the problem. Having a tradition and then tying too much of ones identity to it. Give McConkie credit, while in many ways he helped develop that tradition, he was pretty quick to jettison parts of it he saw problematic. Too bad CES didn’t follow more his model.

    On the other hand since the 90’s I think this CES traditional model has been in a rearguard defense. More and more gets cut out from them by the brethren. Especially as becomes more and more significant to members. I suspect before long we’ll actually have much better CES manuals for seminary and institute.

  9. I should add that I don’t think the CES problem is a conservative/liberal issue. I consider myself very much within the conservative tradition. A lot of the honor religion classes that introduced things like the Documentary Hypothesis at the time were founders of FARMS, hardly a liberal institution. My favorite religion class was Chauncy Riddle’s six credit epistemology of religion class. Riddle had often been put in the whole so-called net-orthodoxy movement. Yet he didn’t mind discussing these sorts of things at all. From his perspective the issue was more your arguments, from what I could see.

    It was just the CES folks in the religion department who seemed to want a very simple superficial and often wrong presentation of scripture. I think they believed pedagogically most students just weren’t prepared for the rest. Even people fully aware of a lot of the other issues in CES followed a very superficial presentation in their religion classes. Their hearts might have been in the right place but I think it was a counterproductive strategy ultimately.

  10. They should retire the title “How to Read the Bible,” because no one will ever do it as well as James Kugel did it. I learned more from his book than any other I’ve read in a very very long time. I sing its praises to anyone who will listen. I would be an amazing companion to your study of the OT.

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