Book Review: In the Beginning – By Henri Blocher

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Letter TThe opening chapters of Genesis have likely had more written about them than most any other section of the Bible. Especially in the modern world the question of how to interpret these chapters is seen as especially pressing in the light of claims that the theories of science call into question and influence how they should be read.

In his book In the Beginning Henri Blocher offers a fairly in-depth analysis of the first three chapters of Genesis (with a short chapter surveying chapters 4-11 at the end). This analysis is not primarily a technical breakdown of the grammar and syntax of the chapters nor an interaction with the ancient Near Eastern context. Rather it is a commentary on the major themes of the chapters which seeks to weigh varying interpretations and offer an internally and biblically consistent vision of not only what is going on at the beginning of Genesis but also what lessons should be gleaned.

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Blocher’s book begins with a survey off inspiration, genre, language, and the relationship of these with science. Blocher rejects anti-scientism, fideism, and concordism (which he sees as asking too much of the text). Instead of taking one of these he sees scientific opinions as playing a “ministerial, servant-role” in relation to Scripture; thus, in reference to Judges 9:7“Our knowledge about trees plays a servant-role; it helps us to discern the literary genre and hence the meaning” (p25).

For Blocher science can never act as an authority or impose itself onto a text and texts should not be made to speak about things outside their contextual purview. That is, “we have the right to bring our prior knowledge of reality to bear only as far as we can presuppose it in the human author of the biblical text… we have no right to go over their heads in order to set forth a ‘divine’ meaning which they would never possibly have imagined – even if those men did not grasp the whole import of what they attested” (p26).

It is at this point in the discussion where genre becomes relevant, for the genre of the text determines to some degree what the human author was referring to. Blocher argues that Genesis rather than being merely poetry or prose is instead an “exalted, semi-poetic language” (p32), such that it can both speak of history while at the same time using metaphorical and/or figurative language.

In the present day it is impossible to discuss Genesis without discussing genre and its relation to science and varying ideas about creation and evolution, and with his first chapter Blocher makes it clear that addressing this controversy is one of his key concerns. Thus, the second chapter of Blocher’s book tackles the question of how to understand the week of creation. Here he outlines the four main approaches: the literal interpretation of 24-hr days, the reconstruction theory which sees a gap between verse 1 and the rest of the chapter, the concordist theory which sees the days as ages, and the framework theory which sees the days as a logical and literary device; Blocher advocates for the fourth.

With the framework model settled on Blocher moves on to discuss the cosmology and general metaphysic of the picture given in Genesis 1, the nature of the image of God, humans as man and woman, the covenant and the breaking of the covenant (analyzing what the exact nature of the sin was). In all of these areas Blocher takes the standard evangelical approach. His discussion of the breaking of the covenant is especially good, however, where he argues for the historicity of the fall and in turn of Adam due to this historical embeddness of evil being a key theme of the entirety of Scripture. Thus he notes:

“[In contrast to Genesis] For theogonic myths, such as the Babylonian ones, evil is incorporated into the cosmos as one of the primary ingredients of reality. [For evil to be historical rather than ontological] It requires us to take as essential the historicity of the fall…

While looking like history, myth is profoundly allergic to it – it seeks to destroy it by the repetition of the archetypal pattern which keeps evil firmly fixed within it… The etiology offered by the myths is not really intended to be historical; rather, it is ontological – Eliade spoke of an ‘ontological obsession’ – or systematic. That is why they are not completely distorted if they are treated as pure archetypes. But with Genesis the case is completely the reverse. It stands in clear opposition to the myths by giving a historical beginning and by refusing to integrate it into a cosmic order. It is impossible to respect its intention without affirming its historicity…

The genealogies that follow will give further confirmation Adam is considered, therefore, as a character who lived in the past. The events in the garden of Eden must affect all human beings in the same way as the deeds of the patriarchs influence the destiny of their descendants, from the faith of Abraham to the pre-eminence of Joseph, with the sole difference that the role of the head of the human race is unique and more decisive. Now this idea supposes that he is situated in time at the very head of the race.”-160-162

Blocher lays out this historical dynamic exceptionally well before moving on to discussing the effects of the covenant being broken, such as hostility between the sexes and work becoming toil. Blocher then ends with a survey of chapters 4-11 followed by an appendix delving further into the scientific questions around creation and the formation of mankind.

On the whole I don’t have many issues with this text other than minor interpretative differences and a belief that Blocher fails to pick up on a lot of the ancient Near Eastern imagery and contextual input. Blocher is largely balanced and generous in his presentation of the varying perspectives on this section of text, speaking both to their many strong points while not neglecting their weaknesses or the shortcomings of his own positions. He also interacts with a wide range of scholarship, from Kierkegaard to Calvin to Barth to Levi-Strauss to Von Rad and many more, offering literary as well as philosophical and psychological insights into the text at various points.

The text will serve anybody well as an evangelical introduction to the theology of the opening chapters of Genesis, although those who want a strong interaction with the contextual influences or who desire a more literalistic approach to the text will likely be disappointed.

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Memorable Quotes:

  • “The form of the days, employed with consummate skill, tells mankind that he will imitate God on earth, which very calling forbids him to identify with his earthly work. It refers hi back to his most essential relationship, that with God. That is the message of the sabbath.”-58
  • “Pagan cosmogonies are at once theogony and theomachy; in other words, they tel how the gods were born and how they quarrel, the birth of the universe coinciding with their battles, love affairs and reproduction. The Bible is the only exception, for even the Greeks, when they made the divine impersonal, did not set it free from the world…. If in the first tablet there are allusions to Mesopotamian cosmogony, these are highly discreet features and their purpose is polemical.”-60-61
  • “The self, the ‘I’, discovers itself in greeting another… It is not good for mankind to be alone on the earth, because it would be fatal for him to be alone, without God, amongst the creatures.”-97
  • “Sexuality… necessitates being-with… The constitution of each of us is a summons to community.”-p97
  • “Procreation is a purpose of marriage only indirectly, since sexual union will be the means of obeying the blessing-commandment of the first chapter. Procreation is not the purpose of marriage as such. For his institution the Lord gives only one reason: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.'”-109
  • “Mankind cannot, without destroying himself, be anything other than what he is by God’s decree.”-122
  • “Evil is not in the good that God has created, but in the rejection of the order that God has instituted for the enjoyment of the world.”-140
  • “Genesis aims to supply the true reconstruction, guided and guaranteed by divine inspiration, over against the fantasies and errors reconstructed by others.”-159
  • “The proposition concerning Adam is very far from being a ‘flying buttress’; it serves here as the very foundation.”-166
  • “Each wishes to make the other his or her creature, an object to dominate. Each finds in the other a rival god and an independence that threatens their own.”-174

 

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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