Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Schüle, Andreas, Die Urgeschichte (Genesis 1–11) (ZBK, 1.1; Zurich: TVZ, 2009). Pp. 173. Softcover, € 32.00. ISBN 978-3-290-17527-6.

The book under review, part of the Zürcher Bibelkommentare on the Old Testament, is a commentary on the first chapters of Genesis with special focus on “Themen und theologischen Kernfragen der einzelnen Abschnitte der Urgeschichte.” Furthermore, as is the general purpose of the series, the book aims at reaching both scholars and interested readers outside academia.

The introduction (11–25) briefly touches upon issues of composition, intertextuality, and theology. Without going into details, the author rightly positions the primeval stories in their ancient Near Eastern context. He also gives a very accurate and up to date overview of the current role of the Documentary Hypothesis regarding the book of Genesis (comparable to the views presented in A Farewell to the Yahwist by Thomas Dozeman and Konrad Schmid).[1] The author adopts a narratological approach to the text that pays attention to recurrent motives and which is informed by Mesopotamian myths. The results of this narratological analysis are presented (curiously?) under the "subheading 'Theologie,' even if they have little or nothing to do with 'theology,' in its commonly used meaning.

The main part of the book consists of a discussion of subunits in the text. Each section starts with a translation of the Hebrew text followed by some general comments. The Hebrew text, however, is not included, which in itself is not problematic given the goal of the series; but the use of disputable translations such as “der Geist Gottes” in Gen 1:2 (27) is. The overall analysis of the unit, often dealing with the setting of the story and/or its global structure, is followed by an analysis of its subunits. These analyses highlight the themes rather than specific words or a particular phrasing. In this the commentary differs from the many others that as they analyze the text verse by verse pay particular attention to ‘problematic’ terms or expressions.[2] The current approach—of focusing on themes and storylines as announced by the author in the prologue—allows for a reading and understanding of the text as a united whole. At the same time the reader might be missing too much information to be able to build up an overall picture. By omitting a  detailed discussion of the text, the interpretation as presented by the author becomes more authoritative and less interactive, at least, from the perspective of the readers.

The commentary stands out by its constant comparison of the stories with their Mesopotamian counterparts and by its positioning of the account in its non-Israelite environment. More than perhaps any other commentary, the author pays attention to this intertextual aspect. Already in the introduction the reader is made aware of the role of this aspect and later, time and again, Schüle introduces Mesopotamian material to explain the biblical motives. To a certain extent the book is, therefore, a comparative analysis of the Hebrew text and its ancient Near Eastern counterparts.

Another recurring topic is the role of the Documentary Hypothesis. The author nicely keeps the balance between recognition of the traditional sources P, J, and E on the one hand and a rejection of this division. Although he sometimes seems to accept the more recent theory by referring to P and non-P narrative at several places, the major emphasis is on the dialogue between the different sources rather than on distinction and separation. A minor point of critique is that this aspect of the presentation could have been strengthened had the author taken a clearer position on the whole academic debate. The author has a tendency to reopen the debate every time anew by recalling the hypothesis. It would have been more efficient to settle the issue in the beginning and to focus on the dialogue between the sources from there onwards. This way, if the commentary would be used as commentaries often are, readers who might have skipped the introduction and who therefore are unaware of the author's appraisal of the Documentary Hypothesis might find these scattered comments very helpful.

Both the strong tendency to broaden the horizon with an interest in the ancient Near East and the dialogic way in which source theory is approached make this volume a worthy contribution and addition to the existing commentaries on the primeval history. At the same time, there are many weaknesses in this work as well.

First, the interest for what the author calls ethical questions often results in farfetched and loosely built interpretations that will not convince the scholarly or critical reader. This is especially the case of excursi. These discussions are very brief and often situated far from the realm of biblical studies as usually practiced in the academic world. They tend to lead to vague hypotheses that cannot be argued in a convincing way. For example, the author discusses the relation between the ancient and modern world (48–50) and spends half of the pages on Second Isaiah and the Babylonian exile. The remaining page consists of a generalized comparison between “biblische Schöpfungvorstellungen” on the one hand and “moderne Naturwissenschaft” on the other hand and presents them as diametrically opposed and incompatible. The conclusion, namely “es ist unter modernen bzw. postmodernen Voraussetzungen vielleicht schwieriger als je zuvor, die Welt als Einheit zu begreifen und insofern zu umfassenden Wahrheits- und Wertvorstellungen über die Welt zu gelangen (50),” is just another claim, vaguely formulated and not supported by any argumentation. It is not clear what interludia of this kind add to the commentary as a whole. Another example, Schüle introduces a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (84–87) to elaborate on the garden of Eden, but in a way that is far from critical: “eine der genialsten Interpretationen, die die ambivalenten Textsignale der Eden-Erzählung auslotet, liefert Hieronymus Bosch in einem Triptychon von ungefähr 1500 n. Chr., das den Titel ‘Der Garten der Lüste’ trägt” (84). Despite the interesting observation of ambiguity, the author does not explore this feature He chooses to continue on the path of genius painters whose work he fails to date correctly.

Secondly, there are almost no references in the book. Any further reading apart from the brief and mainly German bibliography in the back is thwarted. While there has been much written on themes, such as Mesopotamian intertextuality, there is no hint of this in the book.[3] This is problematic. Non-academic readers might develop the impression that the volume represents a radical departure from previous studies and contains numerous new observations, which is not the case. Academic readers may wish to have an easy way to identify whose ideas and insights they are reading and full bibliographic information so they may pursue their readings on a specific issue. The current format does not allow either.

Thirdly, it is clear that the author has many interests; however, the work would have benefited from a more centralized focus, e.g. the intertextual relation with the Mesopotamian literature. Since the book focuses on themes rather than on a verse by verse analysis, it would have benefited from a different structure and orientation. Due to the addition of irrelevant excursi and vague discussions as well as the lack of any references to works that support the positions taken by the author, the current volume lacks a certain focus and scholarly substance.

In sum, the work stands in between a scholarly commentary and a layman's work. It contains many elements that show profound study and knowledge of the book of Genesis and its history of interpretations. This is illustrated through the author's interest in the intercultural dialogue of the Hebrew text with other ancient Near Eastern sources. However, due to the lack of references and the tendency to elaborate on ‘metaphysical’ questions the book steers away from an academic approach. While the foreword promises a book for both scholars and any other interested (read non-academic) readers, it will mainly reach the latter. For the academic, scholarly reader, the conclusion will likely be as the token in Dan 5:25: מנא מנא תקל ופרסין, “weighed and found wanting.”

Karolien Vermeulen, University of Ghent, Belgium

[1]Thomas Dozeman and Konrad Schmid, eds., A Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation (SBLSymS 34; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

[2]To name a few: Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989); Claus Westermann, Genesis I 1.1 (Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament; Neukirchen: Neukircherer Verlag, 1999); Bruce Waltke and Cathi Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001).

[3]Monographs on the topic, e.g. Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York: Norton, 1997); J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002). Articles, e.g. Richard Averbeck, “Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions (ed. J. Hoffmeier and A. Millard; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 328–56.