Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

David W. Cotter, Genesis (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry: Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003). Pp. xxxviii, 366. ISBN 0-8146-5040-6. $49.95 

This commentary on Genesis represents the most recent installment in the Berit Olam series, which intends to provide a commentary for laypersons, pastors, and scholars that elucidates the final form of the Hebrew text, i.e. the Masoretic Text. In particular, the emphasis is on understanding Genesis as narrative and a literary unit, rather than addressing historical-critical issues. No rationale is offered for choosing the Masoretic Text as the basis for the series, nor is the dating of the so-called “final form” of the text ever clearly defined. Some may view this as unnecessary, but the present writer believes it is a position that requires some defense unless the target audience (which is not the case) are Jews. 

As a literary entity the elements of plot that Cotter investigates generally fall under the categories exposition, inciting moment, complication, turning point, and resolution/ conclusion. Cotter also devotes attention to developing the point of view and aspects of characterization in the narrative. It is interesting to observe that though Cotter notes that most literary structures originate in the mind of the exegete rather than the text (p. xxi), the commentary abounds in employing chiastic structures as a heuristic device.

Though there are useful discussions of the narrative and aspects of characterization, one cannot help but be disappointed by the comments on particular passages. In many places where one would expect an extended dialogue there is a brief paragraph. For example, the discussion of the plural “Let us make. . .” in Gen 1:26 receives all of six sentences. After the reader is told “there is no good and entirely convincing explanation for the plural,” the paragraph concludes with the suggestion that God may be “speaking internally in a sort of deliberative language” (p. 17). Likewise, the infamous “sons of God” passage in 6:4 is treated in four sentences (p. 53). The Nephilim are “fallen ones”. When one reads about the incident between Ham and Noah, “It is not clear what the misdeed is,” but “it is clear that slavery, servitude, is a result of sin and not intended by God” (p. 63). Cotter cites Justin Martyr as the only authority to explain why Canaan is cursed rather than Ham: “For the prophetic Spirit would not curse that son himself, since he had already been blessed by God.” Though the discussion of humankind being made in the image of God is lengthier (pp. 21-22), it consists almost entirely of quotes from Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Cotter’s conclusion seems to agree with Gregory who suggests that the image of God means “that he made human nature participant in all good.”

The nature of the comments that we have included above exemplifies why the target audience for this commentary is unclear to the present reader. The discussion is inadequate for scholars and students. Difficult issues garner minimal attention and footnotes are noticeably absent. In addition, the narrative analysis is not consistent. For example, what is the basis for his assertion that slavery is not intended by God? The explanation for the curse of Canaan brushes aside any attempt to treat the text as well as scholarly contributions. Such comments may pass the layperson unnoticed, but apart from the aversion to discussing critical issues there is little that commends this commentary even to the non-specialist. For example, not only is there little exploration of many interpretive problems, prominent features of the narrative are neglected. The role and function of the genealogies is basically ignored and the remaining tension in the narrative between the role of Judah and Joseph at the end of Genesis is not even mentioned (pp. 326-327).

Cotter desires to produce a commentary “engaged with the philosophical realities of our day”. Yet, there is no discussion of the nature or origin of sin in Gen 3 (p. 31), let alone a more abstract deliberation about the possibility of establishing a created order with moral beings without the presence of evil, or the tensions inherent in ethical decisions in our day. Given Cotter’s fondness for citing patristic writers, Augustine’s discussion of evil in The City of God would have been very appropriate at that point in the commentary. 

The commentary would be quite readable for a layperson and the narrative analysis would be informative, but in other ways it is unhelpful to them. Scholars will be disappointed and there are better examples of literary studies for students. Thus, it is difficult to recommend this commentary, because there is no area that it addresses that would commend it to a particular audience. 

R. Timothy McLay, St. Stephen’s University, St. Stephen, NB, Canada