Book Review: Genesis 1-11 [Windows on the Text]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Windows on the Text Genesis 1-11

I was excited to read this new book on Genesis 1-11, the first in what I believe (And hope!) will be a new commentary series from Langham Publishing. Langham says this about the series: “Windows on the Text is a ground-breaking Bible commentary series written by followers of Jesus in Muslim contexts. It develops biblical insight in deliberate conversation with the Qur’an, the Hadith, and local Islamic cultures. Confident that the Bible in its entirety speaks directly into Muslim contexts, it opens new windows into the holy word of God to equip and empower believers to live out their faith in loving service and clear communication within their communities.” In general terms, this volume sets a strong starting point for the series – as I noted on Goodreads at roughly the halfway point, this is a book that is very, very readable, offering fascinating insights from a Bangladeshi context, comparison to/with the Koran, and more. I do have some niggles, but that is to be expected (and no, one of them is not that IVP/Apollos isn’t publishing this series, though a part of me wishes we did!). In order to keep this review brief I won’t comment on how the volume handles every text – instead I’ll offer some comments about shape and format, and then a few subjects I’m particularly interested in.

The basic shape of this volume is relatively conventional for a commentary – as is often the case (A notable recent exception would be John Goldingay’s Baker commentary and Andrew Steinmann’s helpful Tyndale Commentary) with commentaries on Genesis, more than one volume is used. I don’t know if there will be a subsequent 12-50 volume on Genesis (I hope so, though given some of the overlap with Qur’anic material, it might need to be 12-30 and 30-50, so three volumes) – but this volume actually covers Genesis 1:1-12:3 (herein being a niggle – though I can understand why a designer might not want to put that on the cover!). It does this in 266 pages of commentary proper. There are prefaces from the two authors, an introduction of 37 pages, four pages of bibliography, and a subject index and a Qur’an index. I was slightly surprised that there wasn’t a Bible index – not least as the primary market for a book like this is likely to be that most common user of commentaries, the Christian preacher – particularly as one of the strengths of this volume was it’s biblical-theological awareness. On this, when considering ‘The World of the text’, the authors intend to “read any particular passage remembering that it is a part of a book, which is a part of the whole Bible” (p. 8). I think a biblical index would have helped to underline this – and allow this commentary to be used by preachers when they consider any of the non-Genesis biblical texts alluded to or quoted.

Eight chapters cover the first eleven chapters of Genesis – with the inviting subtitle Bud of Theology, Grandmother of the Sciences, Seedbed of the Holy Books. To give a flavour, in the introduction the volume we read “Genesis 1-11 is a theological bud ready to blossom – that is, it provides the beginning for understanding God. It contains the petals which will unfurl and blossom as we read on in the Bible” (p. 30). The different chapters of the volume engage with different chunks of texts; following a short introduction to the section, then a consideration of ‘The Worlds Behind and in Front of the Text’ (with sections on ‘The New Testament’ and ‘The Qur’an’) followed by a brief section on ‘The World of the Text’ (Which includes comments on structure and genre) shorter textual units are printed (From the English Standard Version, interestingly enough) and followed by commentary. Once each section has had its own commentary – often broken down with subheadings around particular questions – the authors offer ‘Theological Reflection’. This is welcome – and integrates a range of concerns – before closing with several paragraphs of ‘What about us?’.

My personal and theological interest in Genesis began back in secondary school (For American readers, ‘High School’) – and so I was particularly interested to see how Azad and Glaser handle a few things, including how these subjects interact with the Qur’an. The unique perspective of Genesis is highlighted: “while the creation is referred to in many places in the other books, it is only here, in Genesis 1-2, that we find a coherent account of the whole creation. The Psalms, the Prophets and the Qur’an have scattered verses which mention different parts of the creation. Genesis tells us to what they are referring” (p. 38). My primary theological topic of study, the notion that humans are made in the image of God, recieves a good treatment – augmented by the authors awaress both of the Qur’an and other non-biblical ancient texts. It is sobering – if perhaps explanatory of some things – that “There is an important difference between Genesis 1:26-7 and the Qur’an regarding the creation of humankind. The Qur’an does not designate humans as created ‘in the image of God’… the Qur’an uses the word khalifa, usually translated as ‘viceregent’” (p. 44). This is fascinating – though I would have loved to have seen the authors engage with the work of Richard Middleton on this (I don’t recall him engaging with the Qur’an, but the ‘viceregent’ language has resonance).

A key part of the narrative of the first chapters of Genesis – after creation – is what Christian theology has called ‘the Fall’. One fascinating dissonance between the biblical and Qur’anic accounts is well noted by the authors – it “has consequences for how we understand human nature” (p. 125). Later, though, we read that “Genesis 4 both shows us that sin has severe consequences and gives us hope” (p. 168). Another key theme of Genesis – and the Pentateuch, and ultimately the Old Testament – is that of covenant. The authors skilfully relate the rainbow of Genesis 9 to texts from Ezekiel and Revelation, concluding that, “Right up to the end, God will remember his covenant” (p. 227). An echo of all these themes is found in the way that Genesis is about both everything and everyone, and a very specific set of things and people: “Genesis 1-11 is unique in that it gives the histories of all peoples, even though it will then focus in on one particular people” (p. 242). This is echoed in the way that Azad brings his own Bangladeshi Muslim-majority context to bear on the text, not in a way that obscures, but a way that illuminates. This commentary (in line with the best of Langham’s publishing efforts) is a beautiful example of how I (a relatively parochial white man living in the UK, speaking only really English) can learn from the global church, in an intellectually engaged and contextully sensitive way.

This is not a full critical commentary on Genesis 1-11 – I think the authors lean heavily on Wenham’s work in his Word Biblical Commentary [WBC] on the same textual selection – but there are various critical engagements, within the space constraints. This puts the reading level perhaps a little higher than a Tyndale Commentary, but more accessible by far than the aforementioned Baker Exegetical, or WBC commentaries. I think that this makes it a useful purchase for those interested in thinking about Genesis, particularly those in pastoral or other forms of ministry in Muslim-majority contexts or working with those with Islamic backgrounds. I am excited about the potential for this series to bring biblical studies into conversation with the Qur’an in a winsome evangelical way; to have the opportunity to re-read familiar texts through other peoples’ eyes, and increase the ability of Western pastors and scholars to see how other parts of the world and the church engage with texts and ideas. As this is the first volume of a new series, I hope that the niggles I had (like formatting up to 12:3 at the smaller end, and the lack of inclusion of a biblical index at the much larger end) can be ironed out and that this can be a truly global commentary, a gift to the wider church.


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