The book of Genesis is always an edifying read and Dr. Richard Belcher Jr. offers a nice tour of the text with a special focus on the progress of redemptive history in the narrative. Genesis is here seen as both foundational and forward-looking, laying out the origin and early history of the promises of God and at the same time leaving the story unfinished, looking forward to a time when the one promised would come.
As with most commentaries Belcher begins with an introduction analyzing the authorship (Moses), the genre (historical-narrative), the role of ancient Near Eastern context (seeing the Bible as not being bound by its context but offering a polemic against it, making a “complete break with the ancient Near Eastern mythological cosmologies” while also being “a deliberate anti-mythological polemic meant to undermine the prevailing mythological cosmologies” (p25)), and discussing the nature of the ‘days’ in Genesis 1. Thus Belcher begins by upholding the classic conservative reading of the text which he then uses as the foundation for the rest of his engagement with the text.
Belcher begins his commentary on the first chapter of Genesis by noting the purpose of the book as a whole: “Genesis was written to show that Israel’s God is the sovereign Creator whose purpose to establish His covenant rule upon the earth will not be hindered by the sinfulness of humanity.” (p51) The first chapter thereby lays out the basic truths of the biblical worldview.
From here Belcher offers a solid walk through the rest of the book. The commentary is not verse-by-verse but rather section-by-section. If I could only have one critique of this commentary it’s that it’s largely descriptive; that is to say, a solid portion of the text is simply a restatement or summary of content of the text. Regardless, Dr. Belcher offers accessible insight into the progression of God’s plan throughout the early history of mankind as presented in Genesis.
The commentary isn’t aimed toward a more technical text-critical audience, but it would serve well as a introduction to the deeper elements of the text or as a nice devotional to read along with the Bible during daily study. For either of those purposes I would highly recommend this text.
–“Scripture reflects God’s world view because it is His revelation. The character of Israel’s God as the true and living God ensures that the literature and world view of Genesis is not culture-bound to its particular setting.”-21
–“Whenever sin seems to be getting the upper hand, God moves to hinder its effects and to establish His sovereign rule.”-51
–“The word ‘good’ can mean that something is beautiful (Exod. 2:2) or that something is useful in fulfilling a purpose. The latter meaning fits Genesis 1 as various aspects of creation are declared good. The things which God creates fulfill their purpose in making the earth a place for human habitation.“-53
Unfortunately I have more than one critique of this text and given that this is a commentary on Genesis most of them center around the way the author deals with issues regarding the first few chapters.
The Issue of Days
The issue of the days of Genesis is of course the main hot-spot of contemporary interpretation.
In arguing against the literary framework theory Belcher argues that this is bad because it introduces a semi-poetic element into the text that is meant to be historical narrative – yet it is the question of to what degree the text is historical narrative that is at issue.
To support that the text is historical narrative Belcher appeals to the imperfect waw consecutive, since “one of the major functions… is simple, chronological succession.” He goes on to state that “If the intent had been to teach a non-chronological view of the days, it seems strange that the author goes out of his way to emphasize chronology and sequence.” (p31)
A few things are important to note here:
1) Belcher doesn’t say that this portion therefore is very likely historical narrative, he says that it therefore is, presumably necessarily. In short, Belcher puts nearly the entire weight of his argument on the grammatical function of this word; unfortunately the word cannot bear the weight…
2) This is because, as Belcher points out, conveying simple chronological succession is only one of the major functions of the term; it is not its sole, necessary function. Perhaps more importantly, a chronological/temporal succession does not necessitate that the succession is historical, much less a simple, concrete (what some would call ‘literal’, though that is a sloppy use of the word) historical; furthermore, something being historical does not require it to be simple concrete narrative.
[Note: I am fine with saying that Genesis 1 is historical – that God did indeed create everything it says he created (God as the creator and the historicity of Adam is imperative for the rest of Genesis and the whole of scripture) – the question is whether it is a simple, concrete, historical (ie, 24-hrs) or something more nuanced.]
As stated in Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar “the imperfect with waw consecutive serves to express actions, events, or states, which are to be regarded as the temporal or logical sequence of actions, events, or states mentioned immediately before.” Note: The meaning is not limited to temporality and – most importantly – ‘temporal’ must not be confused with ‘historical’; any narrative has a temporal succession.
To nail this point home it is helpful to look at other places the imperfect waw consecutive is used, places that are without question not historical, which is basically every parable in the Old Testament.
Thus if we look at Ezekial 19:1-9 we have a parable about a lion, “A lioness! Among lions she crouched; in the midst of young lions she reared her cubs. And she brought up one of her cubs; he became a young lion, and he learned to catch prey; he devoured men. The nations heard about him; he was caught in their pit, and they brought him with hooks to the land of Egypt.”
Each of those uses of ‘and’ is an imperfect waw consecutive. In the parable of the eagles in Ezekiel 17:3-10, again, imperfect waw consecutives. If we turn to the most famous parable of the Old Testament – Nathan’s parable to King David about the lambs – again we have the imperfect waw consecutive throughout: “but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Finally we might turn to Judges 9 where Jotham tells a story about trees talking to one another to try and anoint a king for themselves: “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’…”
Yet again, the narrative is littered with temporal succession which is clearly not meant to be taken as historical. This is simply because telling a narrative – whether historical or allegorical or poetic etc – requires temporal succession, that’s simply the nature of a narrative. Belcher merely assumes that ‘temporal’ or ‘chronological’ translate to ‘historical’, but this is simply untrue
[Note: Again, I would agree that Genesis 1 is historical; my point is that if the grammar cannot even bear the burden of the historical, it surely cannot bear the burden the simple concrete historical. The historicity must be arrived at – and can be arrived at – by other means besides grammar.]
In case it is unclear, this issue can be demonstrated by asking a simple question: “How else one would tell an allegorical account apart from using a word that conveys temporal succession?” Allowing that the word is functioning temporally the question is still not answered whether this temporal succession is meant to be taken as concrete historical or not. If I say that “Frodo walked from the Shire to Mordor” I have used simple chronological succession, but that says nothing about the historicity of the statement. If I say “Martin Luther spat in the face of the Pope, he then became the father of evangelicals everywhere, a giant amongst men” my statement is again a temporal succession and is even – as we know – historical, but it is not a simple concrete historical. It is not ‘literal’. Luther did not ‘literally’ spit in the Pope’s face, nor is he the biological father of all evangelicals and he wasn’t exceptionally tall.
So we must ask, “If we wanted to tell an allegorical narrative as a polemic against the mythological narratives of the pagans, something that has elements of historical truth but is not necessarily ‘literal’, how else would we do that apart from using the word that conveys chronological succession?” If we want to say ‘this happened and then this happened’ in a narrative, chances are we would use the imperfect waw consecutive.
3) Finally, it’s worth noting that Belcher appeals to the grammar of Bruce Waltke regarding the use of the imperfect waw consecutive, but Waltke himself – as he has since made even clearer – in his own commentary on Genesis doesn’t take that view the 24-hr/historical narrative view that Belcher advocates.
Instead Waltke argues that Genesis is ‘ideological art’ and himself takes the literary framework theory, stating that “[the literary framework] interpretation is consistent with the text’s emphasis on theological, rather than scientific, issues.” Waltke views the events as historical, but doesn’t argue that they are necessarily literal.
In short, not only is it the case that the imperfect waw consecutive can be taken as logical rather than temporal (as some interpreters do), but even if we take it as temporal that by no means requires us to take it as historical, and even if it is taken as historical that by no means requires us to take it as literal/concrete. The keystone of Belcher’s position thus crumbles to dust under its own weight.
[Note: All of this is not to say that Belcher’s position is necessarily wrong, but simply that his argument for his position cannot come close to bearing the weight he puts on it.]
The grammar of Genesis 1 is simply insufficient to determine any necessary interpretation of the text. One can argue that the grammar points one direction or another, that it makes one interpretation more or less likely, but the grammar can’t be a keystone.
Ancient Near Eastern Context
One of the first issues with Belcher’s approach is that he has a somewhat simplistic understanding of how the creation narrative relates to its ancient Near Eastern context.
Belcher largely dismisses the apparent influence of the ancient Near East upon the text of Genesis and what overlap he does recognize he attributes to the polemic nature of the text.
Thus in distinguishing between poetry and narrative Belcher points out how “a reference to pillars may be a way to describe the stability or the permanence of the earth… The idea that the Genesis 1:6 sets forth a view of the sky as a solid dome is based on the meaning of the term raqia… Thus the best understanding of raqia in Genesis 1 is a transparent expanse, which is a reference to the sky. One should also be cautious in thinking that there was a monolithic view of the cosmos in the ancient Near East.” (p23)
Now that is fair enough on its own, but in the ancient Near East the sky was in fact seen as a dome and the earth was believed to be held up by pillars. Thus when the Bible uses this same language the literal image of these things is what would be communicated to its readers.
That is, the ancient audience would not have read them as poetic descriptions, because that’s what the surrounding nations actually believed. We must then either admit that the Bible is using ancient Near Eastern thought-patterns (albiet not prescriptively or normatively) or assert that it was written in such a way as to deceive its readers by reinforcing with overly-subtle poetic metaphor the things the people actually believed.
For comparison imagine a modern text that spoke of “the earth revolving around the sun”; since that’s what we actually believe is happening, we as modern readers would never interpret that as a poetic analogy.
The same notion is applicable to the ancient Near East; the readers of the text wouldn’t have read lines about pillars and domes any more poetically than we would a line about the earth revolving around the sun. Yes, we should avoid ascribing a monolithic view to the ancient Near East, but we should also avoid trying to make their thought patterns fit into ours and take seriously the overlaps that ancient Israel did have with their neighbors.
Dr. Belcher does rightly note that Genesis 1 does serve as a polemic, where he errs is in asserting that it is in a sense a wholesale polemic. Yet we must parse out what the text is objecting to and what it is not.
Belcher correctly identifies that the text is opposed to “any notion of an opposing force that stands over against God in combat” such that “the great sea creatures in Genesis 1:21 are presented as created by God, which means they are not pre-existent rivals of the Creator that need to be conquered, as in Canaanite mythology” (p25). Belcher further correctly observes that it is a polemic against the heavenly bodies being divine; it asserts instead that these bodies were created, and even notes that since God sends the rain the need for fertility cults is undercut. All of these points are well-taken.
The objection comes in that Belcher seems to use this to imply – or as evidence – that this break from the “ancient Near Eastern mythological-cosmologies” entails a break from ancient Near Eastern cosmology in general (that it is a polemic against “the false views of the cosmos”). Yet a polemic against the mythological aspect does not entail a polemic against the cosmological aspect.
Nowhere in here, however, does Belcher point to a polemic against the cosmological structure itself; it’s a difference between saying the sun is not a god and saying that the sun does not exist in a certain relation to the land, asserting the former makes no necessary comment on the latter.
Rather than make any real argument against the cosmological aspect Belcher asserts that “if the Bible reflects a mistaken, mythological view of the cosmos, then it is hard to maintain a high view of the truth or the authority of Scripture” (p22). In short, he resorts to a clumsy ad hominum, but this is simply untrue and borderline slanderous to the many evangelical scholars who believe the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant Word of God and merely believe that what God is communicating in this passage is not what Belcher claims it is.
If we begin by assuming that the text is concrete/literal historical narrative, then yes, arguing that it imports the false cosmology of the ancient Near East does indeed undercut a high view of the truth of Scripture. As we have already argued it is far from necessary to take the literal historical approach.
BUT, if the text was never meant to be concrete/literal historical, then this is no issue; in this case it is merely a matter of discerning what the text is trying to communicate verses what it is not. Belcher acknowledges that “Genesis was written to show that Israel’s God is the sovereign Creator whose purpose to establish His covenant rule upon the earth will not be hindered by the sinfulness of humanity.” This fact is in no way marred by viewing the text as a literary device or acknowledging the fact that it utilizes ancient cosmology.
As John Walton puts it:
“In these ways, and many others, [the Hebrews] thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking… God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography – he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter…
Concordist interpretations attempt to read details of physics, biology, geology and so on into the biblical text. This is a repudiation of reading the text at face value. Such interpretation does not represent in any way what the biblical author would have intended or what the audience would have understood. Instead it gives modern meaning to ancient words… Taking the text seriously is not expressed by correlating it with modern science; it is expressed by understanding it in its ancient context.”
A few minor criticisms of the text include:
- Belcher says that “the necessity for understanding ‘day’ as a long period of time comes from outside the account of Genesis 1-2, namely, from the scientific evidence.” (p28) The issue here is that is is unlikely many who hold the day-age view would object to the literal content of that statement, yet the statement is misleading. The point of the day-agers is that the possibility of ‘day’ as a long period of time comes from – yes – outside Genesis 1-2, in that it comes from other passages of Scripture that use it this way. It is that possibility which the day-agers then taken in tandem with the evidence to argue for a reasonable likelihood that the term means ‘day’. If any argue that it is necessary then I would stand with Belcher in opposing such language.
- Belcher denies the existence of the heavenly court in Genesis 1, instead arguing that ‘us’ is God speaking to the Spirit (p54). I’d would be more likely to follow the rationale of interpreting this as referring to the divine council.
- Belcher argues that the sin of Ham against Noah in chapter 9 is one of disrespect. It is much more likely that the sin is one of maternal incest given the language of Leviticus 20, which is more consistent with the larger contextual issues and better explains the curse of Ham’s son. Belcher’s analysis of the passage is rather simplistic.
- Despite noting that ‘good’ here is a functional good, Belcher argues against older earth views on the basis that the original creation was declared good. He argues through implication that death is not good and so couldn’t have been part of the original creation. Yet if we are using ‘good’ functionally – as Belcher does later – then there is no reason to argue that death is not “useful in fulfilling a purpose.” It is that definition of ‘good’ – his own definition – that Belcher fails to wrestle with in this discussion.
He may or may not be a Time Lord.
Categories: Book Reviews