Book Review: Genesis (BECOT)

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. Under the review proper I’ve got some remarks comparing it to other Genesis commentaries – as this is a book of the Bible I’ve spent a lot of time in.

Book Review: Genesis (BECOT) by John Goldingay

Since 2020 I’ve gotten into a habit of reading commentaries cover-to-cover, largely in my devotional time, though sometimes alongside my work in publishing. For devotional reads, I will tend to pick volumes in series that I know, by authors I know, and that will slant more towards my understanding of the Bible in general. I will sometimes read a very critical or liberal commentary devotionally – but usually alongside another, shorter, more devotional commentary. Occasionally (As with David Ford’s standalone theological commentary on the Gospel of John) I will start using something devotionally, realise it is not particularly helping, and read it in ‘normal reading time. This commentary, though, is one that I’ve read cover to cover alongside the text of Genesis, and appreciated. It is the inuagural volume in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch (henceforth BECOT) and clocks in at around 800 pages, not including some blanks and almost twenty pages of front matter. Genesis is a long book (50 chapters), so commentaries tend to be long, and often extending into two volumes. Goldingay is to be commended for getting what he does into one volume that doesn’t feel totally impractical (compared to, say, the enormous formats used for single volume systematic theologies).


Goldingay offers a translation of Genesis in this book – different from his For Everyone translation, for those aware of it – which is quite quirky, hand in hand with being quite literal/scholarly. This quirkiness is a self-aware feature of the commentary – likely to be specific to Goldingay, rather than the series (Although he does write other volumes in the BECOT series!): I have indicated some pints at which my views is idiosyncratic, though being idiosyncratic is not necessarily an indication of being wrong” (p. xii). His introduction is clear and relatively short, and (like the rest of the commentary) relatively readable. He helpfully and rather originally likens reading Genesis to watching a major television series, particularly with regards to the way it blends narrative and other forms. In common with it’s place as the start of the Pentateuch and the Christian Bible, Goldingay notes that “Genesis both is and is not a self-contained scroll; it is both complete and incomplete” (p. 2). Whilst he engages with a range of scholarship – and, importantly, historical commentators – he asserts (in my view rightly) that “One cannot base an understanding of Genesis on knowing the date of its stories or on seeing it as the expression of the ideology of a particular group or period in Israel’s history” (p. 6). In this readers are invited to read the text we have, hence the Exegetical nature of this commentary, and the BECOT series.

In general, the structure of this commentary is fairly straightforward: an overview section, followed by translation of the passage, followed by interpretation of the passage, followed by the implication of the passage. However, the ‘implication’ section was sometimes missing – often on pages where there was white space – and I wonder if there could have been an explicatory note about why this was the case at various points. Generally, this is a good structure for a commentary – in my devotional use it was helpful to have the translation in the volume (Though it’s idiosyncratic nature had me reaching for my ESV or phone most of the time) – and it is a volume that will make a helpful reference for pastors and preachers, whilst also being clear and logical.

In terms of the content of this commentary, and the positions that Goldingay takes on various questions of interpretation, I offer a few quotes and comments thereupon. On the early chapters, Goldingay takes an interesting approach, exegetically based, that I would sum up as ‘anti-fall’, though I felt he was not particularly mindful of historic interpretation. This is a helpful challenge to very negative readings of Genesis 1-3, however, and his reminder that “Like Ecclesiastes, Gen. 3 honours the ambiguity of humanity’s position in the world” (p. 85) is a point well made. I think it would be fair to say that Goldingay is less concerned with toeing a party evangelical line on issues of origins, and more concerned with reading the text for the people of God today, a theme flowing throughout the work: “The situation when the people of God has no capacity to generate a future is the situation to which Gods promise speaks” (p. 205, comment on Gen. 11:30); Genesis and Psalms see God’s activity as creator as not just relating to the past; it also has implications in the present” (p. 240, in a section with interesting political implications); The theological genius of narrative or story is that it can do justice to the complexity of who God is and the way life is in a manner that systematic analysis cannot” (p. 466). 

Throughout this very readable commentary on a predominantly narrative Biblical text, Goldingay makes a range of theological statements, tying his work into the wider Christian doctrinal landscape. Commenting on the story of Abraham and Isaac, Goldingay sees Christological themes, The trustworthiness of this God is newly embodied when God gives up his own son for his people and for the world, actually doing what he did not in the end require of Abraham” (p. 360). Echoing the radical equality of the sexes in Genesis 1, Goldingay reminds us that in the person and story of Rebekah, “As is the case in the Hagar story, Genesis assumes the reality of the relationship between God and a women as well as God and a man” (p. 408), a truth which remains as radical in today’s sex/gender confused world as it has throughout history, patriarchal or otherwise. One theme that I maybe hadn’t fully appreciated in Genesis before (not least as I spent time last year reading Exodus [with Alexander] and Numbers [with Ashley, whose commentary I reviewed]) was that of purity and religions, summed up in this quote: Foreign people defile because they serve foreign gods, and people who serve foreign gods or worship in foreign ways need purifying” (p. 546). Obviously, Goldingay isn’t making a xenophobic remark, but instead emphasizing the reality of idol worship. Indeed, his way of stating things clearly and concisely is a welcome feature of this commentary.

Overall, then, this is a helpful commentary from a broadly evangelical but also sensitively Christian and appropriately critical perspective. Goldingay’s imagery of this book as a multi part tv series makes sense, not least with emphasis throughout Genesis on interpersonal relationships. I think this BECOT volume would be straight off the shelf if I were to be preaching through or on a section of Genesis, and I’ve got a few references from it for other projects. The volume, in hardback, is nicely produced, although the BECOT visual cover style is not that exciting. If I were to sum up this commentary in a few words: readable, interesting, idiosyncratic, creative.

Some comments on this commentary in relation to other commentaries on Genesis I’ve used/read, partly because at some point I’ll be working on David Baker’s entry on Genesis in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, which will be more technical than this BECOT volume, I think. Goldingay’s idiosyncracies combined with Christian faith mean that he’s more useful than Robert Alter or Walter Brueggeman (Interpretation, WJK). It’s a similar level of readability to Steinmann’s recent Tyndale Old Testament Commentary volume, which is impressive for a commentary twice the Tyndale size (To clarify – Steinmann’s is twice the length of the commentary by Kidner, which is now dated, that it replaces. Goldingay is twice the size of that!). Goldingay is more up to date in terms of scholarship than Wenham (Word Biblical Commentary) but probably less conservative. In terms of level, it feels like a fair competitor for Hamilton’s 2 volumes in Eerdmans NICOT, though I’ve spent less time with that.

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