Who hasn’t read the book of Job more than once and each time come away with new questions and new insights? How many sermons have you heard on the topic? How many bible studies have discussed its contents? It is a multilayered piece of great literature, its composition inspired by God through His chosen human author. There is an interpretive immediacy for the direct audience of the author and yet a timelessness woven into the text via God’s inspiration. Multiple truths are to be found there upon searching. Might we not expect that the early chapters of Genesis to be this rich in meaning as well?
The text of Genesis One is certainly one of the most discussed passages in the Bible. But those discussions often collapse around just a few subjects preventing the full scope of the meaning of the text to be appreciated.
I have read countless commentaries, popular books, and scholarly papers on the subject. Each adds some new perspective, some new insight, but I often feel let down as if there is something that is missing. Questions go unanswered or avoided and the books often contain a polemic against other interpretations, spending as much time on the negative than building a positive case.
I have been waiting for a book that I can give to another Christian who is earnestly grappling with understanding the Genesis text. I have some favorite books and articles and yet when I share them I feel like I have to provide a series of caveats about where the author is blind to a particular bias or has, in my mind, theological weak spots. I want a book I can share without reservation and say: “I think you should read this book. If you do you will come away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for what God is communicating to us about himself and his creation.
My long wait has come to an end with the publication of “The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: a multi-layered approach” by Dr. Gregg Davidson and Kenneth Turner*. Their book doesn’t seek to present a singular interpretation of Genesis 1, in part because the authors believe no single interpretive framework can possibly capture the fullness of God’s revelation. Instead, the authors present seven layers or lenses through which we can read Genesis 1.
This is not a four views of Genesis book whose goal is to contrast and compare positions, often leaving the reader with the unsettling feeling that theologians have advanced nonoverlapping mutually exclusive options to choose from. No, Davidson and Turner have a different goal in mind. In “The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One” they present different but complimentary approaches to understanding Genesis with the belief that by gleaning the insights from multiple interpretative frameworks a greater appreciation of God’s message to his people through time can be gained. There is no expectation that every aspect of the interpretive layers must be correct in every way. We see through a glass dimly but the more eyes that look through that glass the more we can use those eyes to draw out different aspects of God’s revelation. The expectation is that God, through his Holy Spirit, has guided His people to witness ever more clearly over time in Genesis One the manifold beauty of his Word.
I expect that many individuals approach a book on Genesis 1 or 2 with the expectation that the authors will be promoting a young-earth, old-earth, evolutionary creationist, or some other science-centric perspective of Genesis. The very fact that this is the most common first thought – what does the bible say about the age of the earth and how life forms were physical produced-is a large part of the problem in modern discourse about Genesis. It assumes that answers to questions we have about origins were the primary intent of the author of the Genesis account. To see our modern conversation play out on social media and in churches one would think that other lessons about God as creator and his nature and purpose in creation are secondary to answers of our scientific age questions.
If you come to this book thinking, will this or that position be torn down or built up, you may be surprised. Davidson and Turner don’t ask what the Bible has to say about the questions we bring to the text, rather they ask what God intended to reveal to us about himself and his purposes in creating and communicating with man. The Hebrew authors of scripture speak to us in many ways and through their divine inspiration often are communicating messages that reveal broader and deeper truths for all peoples through all times. We should expect that the first chapter of the grand testament of God’s communication to his people through poets, prophets, historians, fishermen and even a doctor would be filled with meaning that transcends one simple narrative.
Davidson and Turner have sifted through a deep body of literature generated by hundreds of Christian scholars and theologians to pull out the threads that have captured support over time and which affirm a historically orthodox biblical theology while leaving the chaff or secondary aspects of these interpretive frameworks on the cutting room floor. The result are seven interpretative frameworks or manifold layers of wisdom to be gained from this critical stage-setting passage of the Bible. They have found in the deep wisdom of the Genesis 1 text a manifold beauty of God’s word that Christians of most theological stripes can rejoice in.
The chapter titles are simple: Song, Analogy, Polemic, Covenant, Temple, Calendar, Land. Each presents an interpretive framework that seeks to bring out a truth that God, through his human author, wishes to communicate to His people through the opening words of Genesis. The interpretive frameworks that some chapters present have not always been regarded as intuitive or simple to grasp but isn’t that what we would expect from a God that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend? However, one of the gifts of these authors is their ability to distill scholarly work into some of the simplest and yet thorough overviews of these interpretative frameworks to date. As a result, I am confident readers of all degrees of biblical literacy and regardless of preconceived ideas will find new insights in each chapter of the intention and beauty of God’s creative acts and goals for His creation. New layers are not mutually exclusive of the previous but often intersect providing us with a greater capacity to appreciate the beauty and eternal truths in this text.
Each chapter ends with a set of questions for personal reflection or for use as conversation starters for small groups that may wish to read this book together. For example, the last question in the last chapter is important to consider.
“If Christians embrace the manifold beauty of Genesis 1 (all or a subset of these layers), how might conversations about Genesis or creation begin to change?“
One doesn’t need to agree with the inferences and conclusions of each of these layers. Just recognizing that Christians over thousands of years have pondered the depths of the Genesis record and gleaned truths about God’s creation, His character, His plan and our place in that plan should help to find common threads or layers rather than to wall off insights gleaned from a multitude of perspectives provided by Christians earnestly seeking to draw out the truths from this text. This is a recipe for deeper and more productive discussions about Genesis within the church.
Lastly, I need to disclose that I know both of the authors of this work and Gregg Davidson in particular having presented alongside him at workshops and authored chapters in another book that he edited (The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth). The book discussed in this review includes a dedication to myself and I read and provided feedback on a few of the chapters.
Tl;dr Go put this book in your Amazon cart right now! An engaging book that will affirm the depth and beauty of God’s character in the opening scene of God’s revelation to His people.
*“Gregg Davidson is a professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. He contributed to The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth (Kregel 2016). Kenneth Turner is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Toccoa Falls College. His Pd.D. dissertation was published as The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel: Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and edited the Daniel I. Block festschrift (Eisenbrauns, 2013).” From the publishers page (Kregel)