Genesis 1-11:26, Vol 1A in The New American Commentary

By Kenneth A. Matthews
Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman (1996). xvi + 528 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
8.2 (Fall 1997) : 244-247

Kenneth A. Mathews is Professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. He is an acknowledged expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, textual criticism, biblical Hebrew, and the literary study of the Old Testament. Professor Mathews is co-author of The Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus Scroll and also the Associate General Editor for the Old Testament commentaries in The New American Commentary series. The New American Commentary is the continuation of the tradition established by the older An American Commentary series under the editorship of Alvah Hovey at the end of the nineteenth century. In keeping with that tradition, the current series affirms “the divine inspiration, inerrancy, complete truthfulness, and full authority of the Bible” (from the Editors’ Preface). The format makes the materials available to layman and scholar alike. Technical points of grammar and syntax appear in the footnotes rather than in the text. The commentaries use the NIV translation, but individual commentators have the freedom to develop their own translations of the original text where they differ with the NIV.

A detailed 90-page introduction begins with a helpful outline of its contents (21-22). A brief outline of Genesis 1–11 commences the commentary proper (112). More detailed outlines precede subsequent commentary sections. Occasional charts are helpful in two ways: (1) providing detailed material pertinent to the discussion at hand and (2) visualizing the genealogical records. Three excellent charts fall into the first category. Two are tabulations of the chronologies of Genesis 5 (300) and 11:10-26 (495) according to the MT, LXX, and Samaritan Pentateuch. The other is a modification of Richard Longacre’s structural analysis of the flood narrative based on discourse type and linguistic features (354).

Excursuses present five topics in the commentary. They include the translation of 1:1-2 (136-44), the image of God (164-72), the human soul (197-99), the origin of civilization in ANE mythology (283-84), and the revelation of the divine name (293-94). Mathews favors a view of the image of God which includes the aspects of rulership and sonship.

 Throughout the commentary, each major section begins with a discussion of literary structure and is usually followed by a presentation of the theological theme. Then it treats the pericope verse-by-verse, following the outline presented for the text. The text of NIV appears in bold type at regular intervals in the outline. Transliterations of all Hebrew and Greek words and phrases are in the body of the text. The footnotes contain citations of the non-transliterated Hebrew and Greek. Source materials, recommendations for further study, additional technical detail, and grammatical references come only in the footnotes. End materials include a person index and limited subject and Scripture indexes.

The commentary accepts Moses as the author/compiler of Genesis. Mathews shows a healthy respect for the contributions of historical and literary criticism but refuses to allow them to be forced upon the text. Mathews sees tôledôt references in Genesis as evidences of pre-Genesis sources that the author incorporated with certain modifications and a degree of elasticity (31-32). He utilized the formula to give the book unity and to employ genealogy to demonstrate the narrowing focus of the book as it progresses (34).

According to Mathews, Genesis 1–11 functions as the preamble for the Pentateuch. One of its themes is the promissory blessing of humanity (51). Human disobedience postponed in part that blessing and a fivefold cursing is encountered in Genesis 1–11. A fivefold blessing (Gen 12:1-3) through Abraham and his descendants as detailed in Genesis 12–Deuteronomy 34 counters the cursing.

Under the topic of the “Theology of Genesis” (54-63), Mathews discusses patriarchal promises (blessing, seed, and land), God and His world, human life, sin, civilization, and covenant. “Interpreting Genesis” (63-85) includes innerbiblical interpretation, Jewish interpretation, Christian interpretation, and Pentateuchal criticism. The last section covers source criticism, form and tradition history, revisionist trends, and traditional criticism as well as literary readings and canon. The author accepts a second-millennium date for the composition of the Pentateuch (79-80).

 In his treatment of parallel ancient literature and Genesis (86-101), the commentator demonstrates a cautious consideration of such witnesses. Nothing has been discovered which compares directly with Genesis 1–11. The biblical pericope differs substantially from contemporary myths. Although the biblical text exhibits an undertone of repudiation, it does not contain an open disputation of the pagan concepts. The topics in the parallel literature discussed by Mathews include creation and mankind, Eden, long-lived patriarchs, and flood.

The final section of the introductory materials deals with creation and contemporary interpretation (101-11). Mathews accepts the biblical creationist viewpoint and refers to a number of recent scientific treatises espousing a designed universe and an ultimate Designer, God. The commentary was published before the author could include a reference to the most recent treatise in support of this view: Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (N. Y.: Free Press, 1996). Mathews concludes that Genesis 1–11 is a theological account grounded in history. He affirms its historicity, accuracy, and authority.

In the body of the commentary, the author reaches a number of significant conclusions. He supports the ex nihilo creation through the context rather than by means of the Hebrew term bara’ (128-29). In his first detailed excursus, Mathews defends the view that Genesis 1:1-2 should be included in the first day of creation without any “gap” or divine judgment (136-44). He waffles on the meaning of “day” in the creation narrative, ultimately deciding on a nonliteral sense even though a definite answer remains elusive (149).

 The following are conclusions regarding some of the remaining exegetical cruxes in Genesis 1–11:

 2:6 ’ēd refers to underground streams (195-96)

2:9 The “tree of knowledge” was probably intended as one means by which God would have dispensed His wisdom to the man and the woman by permitting them to eat its fruit at His discretion (203-6).

2:23 Before the fall of man, the paradigm of leadership-followship in the man-woman relationship had been established as a creation ordinance. This paradigm is especially applied to the family (218-22).

3:15 The woman’s “seed” is a reference to Christ, but it also includes a dimension involving the believing community (247-48).

3:16 This verse is best understood by comparing it with 4:7b regarding the juxtaposition of “desire” and “rule.” The woman will attempt to control her husband, but she will not succeed since God has ordained his leadership (248-52).

 4:3-4 God’s response to the offering of Cain was due to his attitude and integrity rather than to the identity or nature of the gift itself (268).

4:7 Cain had to make a choice between repentance and obstinance. Choosing repentance would give him the opportunity to master his sin. If he made the wrong choice, his sin would be stirred up to consume him (269-71).

4:26 The last part of the verse announces a new and decisive direction in worship for the descendants of Seth (291-93).

5:1-32 The MT text is preferable to the LXX. The genealogy is open, but, at maximum, it telescopes only a few millennia into the selective format (299-305).

6:1-4 Sethites (“sons of God”) married any women (“daughters of men”) they chose, including Cainite women. Their licentious lifestyle produced a time of unprecedented wickedness (320-39).

6:3 The reference to 120 years was the shortening of the average human life span from what it had been (335).

 The commentary in general handles various exegetical issues fully and with attention to detail. In a few instances, however, it misses an opportunity for completeness. One example is in the discussion of the dietary prescriptions found in 1:29-30 (175) and 9:3-4 (400-402). At no time does Mathews introduce the concept of progressive revelation. In fact, he seems to avoid any suggestion of how the Bible interpreter might explain the differences in dietary prescriptions throughout the corpus of Scripture.

Another example of incompleteness occurs in the comments about the four rivers watering the garden of Eden (2:10-14; 207-8). Although the commentator discourages any identification with contemporary geography, he does not indicate that the primary reason would be the geographical and geological alterations resulting from a universal flood in the days of Noah. Mathews’ failure to discuss this possibility is probably related more to his waffling on the universality of the deluge. In one of the most disappointing sections of the commentary (that dealing with the Noahic flood), the author first admits that “there can be no dispute that the narrative depicts the flood in the language of a universal deluge.” Then he leaves the door open for the opposite conclusion: “Yet if the report is a phenomenological depiction, permitting the possibility of a local flood, the meaning is not substantially altered: all that Noah and his generation know is swallowed up by the waters so that none survives” (380).

Except for a footnote on page 107 listing a few references to recent creationism, the author ignores the substantial body of literature that exists regarding a universal flood. In 76 pages of commentary regarding Noah, he recommends only one source to the readers (380) which specifically deals with the current discussion: S. Austin and D. Boardman, “Did Noah’s Flood Cover the Entire World?” in The Genesis Debate, edited by R. Youngblood (Nashville: Nelson, 1986) 210-29. That unfortunate lack of even a cursory treatment of the key issues involved mars an otherwise very good commentary.

This reviewer looks forward to the publication of the remainder of Mathews’ treatment of Genesis. If the other volumes of The New American Commentary are as well done, the series will have accomplished its goal of being the worthy successor of An American Commentary.