James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons OT Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 375 pages.
I would like to thank Eerdmans for providing me a review copy.
I received my copy of McKeown’s commentary on Genesis with excitement and a little hesitation. I am always eager to read commentaries that show sensitivity to theological issues and the theology of the text. On the other hand, commentaries by biblical scholars often lack that theological edge, focusing instead on issues of lexicography, syntactics, translation, and so on. As it happens, my excitement was warranted and my hesitation was, for the most part, not. McKeown’s commentary, while not ignoring the important issues that standard OT commentaries on Genesis discuss, does a fine job illuminating the theology of the text.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains a passage by passage commentary on Genesis and spans approximately 175 pages. Part 2 contains the “Theological Horizons of Genesis” and is also about 175 pages. Part 2 includes such topics as the main themes of Genesis (Descendants, Blessing, Land; cf. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch) and sections on the doctrine of creation, creation ex nihilo, the Fall, the imago dei, the character of God, and others. In “Genesis and Theology Today” McKeown discusses science, mission, ecology, and feminist theology, and in “Genesis and Biblical Theology” he traces the significance of Genesis through the Bible.
McKeown shows solid familiarity with the ancient Near East and uses that knowledge judiciously. He points out the similarities but highlights how different the worldview of Genesis is from the ancient Near East. This is a real strength of the commentary since comparisons between Genesis and the ancient Near East can be very illuminating, provided one recognizes the differences and doesn’t overplay the connections (12).
The commentary section is fairly non-technical; McKeown is sparing with his footnotes and Hebrew, though he includes the Hebrew text with a transliteration occasionally. He comments on whole passages, not verse by verse, and the commentary is well-written and accessible to a broad audience. Occasionally he uses the NT to clarify something, which is refreshing in an OT commentary, though he generally focuses on what the text means in its OT context. The commentary on some passages tends to be simply a recounting of the events of the text—fairly common for commentaries, but quite unhelpful. However, this is only true in places.
While the commentary is good, the true value of the book is in Part 2, especially his discussion of the unifying themes of the book, which was the topic of his PhD dissertation. When discussing disputed issues, he is usually fair and charitable (e.g., Genesis and science, different perspectives on the imago dei). Occasionally he takes a stand on the issue, and occasionally he lets the issue lay only having described the different positions. In some cases his offered solution either seems too simplistic or too similar to a position he had already critiqued. For instance, in discussing the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”) he rejects the messianic/Christological interpretation suggesting that it does not treat “the remainder of Genesis as significant for understanding the passage” (204). He goes on to suggest that 3:15 ought to be read in light of the theme of the “seed” in Genesis, but this is hardly incompatible with a messianic interpretation. In fact, a messianic interpretation of 3:15 allows one to see how the narrative tension builds in Genesis as each new “seed” sins or dies (cf. Hebrews 7:3), but also to see how each “seed” points in some way to Christ who fills all things. McKeown later concedes that his interpretation doesn’t necessarily exclude the messianic interpretation (206).
Several other points are worth noting. First, I get tired of hearing how Genesis isn’t a science textbook (6, 317) as if this is a pertinent observation. Does anyone actually believe that? At best this is a hyperbolic critique of people who think that the purpose of Genesis is to relate the age of the earth, but no-one thinks it is a “science textbook.” Can we put that straw man back in the barn where he belongs? Second, I was disappointed that McKeown chose to identify the audience of Genesis with the post-exilic community. He notes that such a choice avoids the controversy of dating Genesis and fits with the theme of exile in the book (10). His point is not that the audience of Genesis was the post-exilic crowd, but that if we treat them as the audience we get closer to how the original audience (whomever that was) would have read Genesis. Admittedly, it doesn’t affect his interpretations much, but it was a disappointing concession to critical scholarship. Third, I was pleased to see him critique the Documentary Hypothesis and hold out the possibility of Mosaic authorship (7–8).
On the whole, this is a great commentary, and well worth the money, especially for Part 2. He makes some insightful comments and is theologically sensitive. For example, see his comments on the contrast between Judah, whose overriding concern is for Jacob, and Joseph, who shows no concern for his father in ch. 44; 215. He doesn’t get bogged down in technical details that often make commentaries dry. It was well-written and accessible. I would recommend this to pastors and scholars of Genesis. I give it 4 stars.