I first heard about the Jewish scholar, Nahum Sarna, on our trip to Israel last year. Our guide, Ray Vander Laan, referenced his work repeatedly and recommended that we read his books. After receiving Understanding Genesis (as well as Exploring Exodus) for Christmas, I was eager to receive what Sarna had to offer.
Sarna’s Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel is a thirteen chapter journey through the book of Genesis. It is not a commentary as much as an introduction to the world of Genesis. So, not every story is covered and Sarna does not proceed verse-by-verse through any section. Instead, “the book…is designed to make the Bible of Israel intelligible, relevant and, hopefully, inspiring to a sophisticated generation” (from the introduction). Through rigorous use of textual and archaeological data, Understanding Genesis attempts to expose the Biblical text to the challenging questions of modern scholarship in order to get a greater sense of the purpose and power of the Bible.
His approach is both historical and theological. In the first half of the book, Sarna argues extensively that much of the material of Genesis 1-11 is drawn from shared stories of the ancient near east. Yet, these stories are not merely borrowed or adapted, but wholly transformed by the monotheism of biblical Israel. Unlike its pagan neighbors, who spoke of whimsical and untrustworthy gods, Genesis portrays God as wholly sovereign and wholly good.
In the second half of the book (Genesis 12-50), the focus shifts to the calling of Israel, its covenant relationship with God, and its place in salvation history. Again, the ethical monotheism of Israel is a stark contrast to its pagan neighbors. Sarna argues for the authenticity of these narratives in large part because of how little they fit in with later Israelite religion. If Israel were to make up these stories, they would not have made them so embarrassing. The patriarchs are continually broken, immoral people who serve a faithful God.
Nahum Sarna is a Jewish biblical scholar and Understanding Genesis is written from a uniquely Jewish perspective. Naturally, Sarna sees no allusions to Christ or his redemptive work. Sarna’s work is best when he addresses the tough historical questions related to the text. He is not a minimalist, so he is willing to consider that many of the stories are historical (or at least have a historical core). Even though I don’t agree with his historical assessment at every point, his approach and fearlessness produce some insightful results. Instead of undermining confidence in Scripture, Sarna sees the best archaeological and historical data as supporting Scripture.
Additionally, Understanding Genesis shines when Sarna attempts to grapple with the theological purpose in telling the narratives of Genesis. Scripture was not sanitized as it was written, but its composition was not neutral either. The shaping of stories has theological significance and must be read as revealing truth about God, humanity, and their relationship.
However, there are times where this delicate balance between historical and theological reading of Genesis is not held together well. Sarna occasionally gets bogged down in historical reconstruction and skips over entire stories, depriving readers of their theological significance. The book is uneven in coverage. For instance, the Battle of the Kings in Genesis 14 receives as much coverage as the whole story of Jacob and Esau, and the quest for the geographical location of Sodom and Gomorrah takes up the same amount of space as the theological importance of the story of its destruction.
Overall, I found Understanding Genesis to be thought-provoking and informative. It is a somewhat challenging book that I would recommend only to those already quite familiar with the book of Genesis.