Genesis 37-50: A Commentary

By Claus Westermann
Minneapolis : Augsburg (1986). 269 Pages.

Reviewed by
2.2 (Fall 1991) : 217-218

Twenty years of labor went into this monumental work on Genesis by Claus Westermann. The original German publication appearing in the series Biblischer Kommentar Zum Alten Testament has been translated into English by J. J. Scullion. The present volume was preceded by two others, Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-36, published in English in 1984 and 1985 respectively. Upon publication the first volume was declared by some to be the most exhaustive and finest work on Genesis 1-11.

The commentary abounds with shrewd comments from many perspectives. Several examples bear this out: historically the title "Pharaoh" often is followed by the individual name (e.g., Raamses), but "before the 22nd dynasty he is always without a proper name" (p. 74, citing O. Procksch). Philologically, the author's knowledge of the Hebrew language extends to the advanced discussion of terms relating to Joseph's prison experience. The use of the Hebrew term mshmr in 40:3 "does not describe a place, namely, the prison, but a situation, detention" (p. 74). Literarily and critically, the author is also sensitive to literary cues such as the role of Gen 40:23 in providing a transition to Chapter 41. In the first episode Joseph's rise is followed by an undeserved fall. In the second a well founded expectation of release is followed by disappointment. This prepares for the turn of fortune in Chapter 41 (p. 78) where Joseph will be led from danger to Pharaoh's court. Text-critically, variants are brought out in a clear and accessible manner: "The Greek, Syriac and Samaritan Pentateuch all have `without God one can give no assuring answer'" (p. 84). Theologically, the author challenges the reader to look beyond explicit references to God in the Joseph narrative to see God at work behind the scenes. "God was with Joseph: His path leads into the depths, but God's support accompanies him even there" (p. 250); "God is also with Joseph as he undertakes to interpret the dreams" (ibid.) and "God's action also follows the steps of the brothers," for example, when the brothers cry out in their guilt, "What has God done to us?" (Gen 42:28).

Westermann treats the Joseph story as a literary unit and places it within the Jacob episode of the patriarchal history (p. 45). His discussions of Tradition History, literary form, and redaction critical issues may prove foreboding. Also, several typographical errors confuse the sense of the commentary (e.g., "They thus intend to destroy the dreams [should be "dreamer"?] and his dreams" (p. 41). But for the careful student of Scripture, Westermann's work is a wellspring of helpful philological and theological insights. A good working knowledge of critical methodologies is essential to a prudent use of Westermann's work.