Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary

By C. John Collins
Philippsburg, N.J. : P & R (2006). xiv + 318 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 111-114

C. John Collins is Professor of Old Testament and department chairman at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He also authored The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (Crossway, 2000) and Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Crossway, 2003). As a Bible translator he served as chairman of the Old Testament Committee for the English Standard Version and contributed “What the Reader W ants and What the Translator Can Give: First John as a Test Case,” in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Crossway, 2005).

Genesis 1–4is an exegetical commentary that “includes a literary-theological method informed by contemporary discourse analysis” (1). Collins describes this method as seeking “to read the text the way a competent reader in the original audience would have done, to the best that we can reconstruct that competence” (5). Collins penned a portion of his second chapter (5-32) as a response (9 n. 6) to Robert L. Thomas, “Modern Linguistics versus Traditional Hermeneutics,” TMSJ 14/1 (2003):23-45. Using 1 Samuel 3 and Matt 4:1-11, Collins illustrates his methodology based upon a series of nine questions (18-30).

In Chapter 3 the author places Genesis 1–4 in its literary context (33-37) before embarking on four chapters exegeting the text’s four pericopes: 1:1–2:3 (39- 100), 2:4–25 (101-47), 3:1–24 (149-88), and 4:1–26 (189-220). In each chapter Collins identifies the boundary of each pericope, its structure, and its genre. Then he provides an essentially literal translation richly footnoted for syntactical and exegetical details before commencing the main treatment of the text. The remainder of each chapter deals with “Extra Notes,” which are expanded discussions of key interpretative elements of the text. For example, these “extra” notes for 1:1–2:3 display the following headings: “Genesis 1:1 and creation from nothing” (50-55), “The proper rendering of the refrain” (55-56), “The fourth day” (56-58), “The meaning of kind” (58-59), “Genesis 1 and the Trinity” (59-61), “The image of God” (61-67), “The use of the words create and make” (67-68), “Genesis 1:28 and environmental ethics” (68-69), “The goodness of creation” (69-70), and “The unusual seventh day” (70-71). Next comes a literary-theological exposition (71-83, for 1:1–2:3), followed by what the author terms “Other Reverberations” (83-100, for 1:1–2:3) dealing with references to the text in other OT and NT texts.

After presenting the characteristics of 1:1–2:3, Collins concludes that the genre is “exalted prose narrative” (44). He understands “created” in 1:1 to refer to an event preceding the storyline that follows (43, 54). Interestingly, he seems to impose the Western concept of “day and night” on “And there was evening and there was morning, the nth day” by making the “evening” refer to the end of the day and the “morning” refer to the end of the night—resulting in day followed by night rather than the traditional night followed by day (56). In what may have been an oversight, no reference to 1 Cor 11:7 occurs anywhere in Collins’ discussion of the image of God (61-67), and his treatment of 1 Cor 11:7-12 with regard to Gen 2:4-25 (141-42) does not provide an explanation. Making certain to distinguish his view from that of Meredith Kline, Collins opts for a literary framework interpretation of the days of Genesis 1 (73 -74). In his opinion the framework theme does not require the reader to do away with the sequential nature of the days (74, 111). However, he takes a “broadly sequential” view that allows for the creation week to be “some years long” (129). For the seventh day, he opts for an ongoing creation Sabbath that did not end like the previous six days (74-75, 92-93, 125).

In Gen 2:15-17 Collins identifies an Adamic covenant, but not a covenant of works (112-14). As for the location of the Garden of Eden, he believes that “the flood could not have obliterated” (120-21 n. 65) the clues for identifying its location. On the issue of the length of the days of Genesis 1, he associates himself with the analogical days view that holds that the days’ “length is neither specified nor important, and not everything in the account needs to be taken as historically sequential” (124). In a disarmingly transparent statement regarding harmonization of the Bible and science, he declares, “my sympathies are with the harmonizers. But I hope that I am honest enough to change my mind if the evidence leads elsewhere” (124).

In Collins’ opinion, God has not revoked the creation mandate for man to fill the earth and subdue it (130). In fact, he bases his system of biblical ethics upon this mandate. Thus, the Ten Commandments cannot be done away with, since they are rooted in the creation ordinances (131-32) and keeping those commandments is restorative and evangelistic (132). According to Collins, Gen 3:15 is messianic in the sense that it envisions a champion who engages the dark power that uses the serpent. Therefore, “we may say that Genesis fosters a messianic expectation, of which this verse is the headwaters” (157, 176). Due to the syntactical specificity of the text for an individual as the offspring of the woman, he sees no need to resort to some sort of sensus plenior (158).

In his eighth chapter Collins takes up the matter of the sources, unity, and authorship of the Pentateuch and Genesis 1–4 in particular (221-35). He warns that writing an obituary for the Documentary Hypothesis probably might prove premature (224). He concludes that “Moses is the primary author of the Pentateuch as we have it” (235). Chapter 9 discusses the communicative purpose of Genesis 1–4, taking into consideration the ANE background, the Pentateuch as a whole, and life in Israel (237-47). Reluctant to describe Genesis 1–4 as a polemic, Collins takes it as an alternative to the ANE stories—an alternative that corrects the pagan versions of events and provides the true interpretation (242-43). Chapter 10 tackles questions of history and science (249-67). It is in this chapter that the author most clearly identifies himself as an adversary of a literalistic reading of Genesis 1–4, of young earth creationism, and of creation science. The final chapter (269-78) considers “how Genesis 1–4 can shape our view of the world today” (269).

This book concludes with a fairly extensive bibliography (279-98) that lacks adequate reference to key creation science and young earth creationist sources (e.g., those written by Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb). Two indexes round out the volume (biblical and extra-biblical references, 299-308; subjects and names, 309-18).

Collins’ volume ought to be read by anyone seeking an exegetical treatment of Genesis 1–4. The detail with which he pursues its text and its implications theologically is unmatched in the usual commentaries. As the title claims, this is a linguistic, literary, and theological commentary. This reviewer teaches a seminary course on Genesis 1–11 in which he takes issue with a number of Collins’ interpretations. However, this volume will be required reading for all future course offerings.