Genesis 16–50. WBC 2. By Gordon J. Wenham. Dallas: Word, 1994, xxxviii + 517 pp., $27.99.
The second volume of Wenham’s commentary on Genesis in the WBC series happily maintains the level of scholarly erudition readers have discovered when using his first volume. That the second volume covers the last two-thirds of Genesis, while the first covered but the first third, in no way indicates that Wenham has offered us a thinned-down commentary on the last thirty-five chapters of Genesis.
The introductory section includes five brief essays (2 to 5 pages each) on (1) historical setting of the patriarchs, (2) Egyptian background to the Joseph story, (3) chronology of the patriarchs, (4) religion of the patriarchs, and (5) history, theology and the commentator. Throughout this section Wenham presents a convincing list of arguments against the recent trend to treat the patriarchs as entirely fictive/literary personalities.
At the same time, he concedes some of the excesses of indiscriminate and superficial appeal to extra-Biblical sources to shore up the historicity of the patriarchal age. He even sides with the critical commentators, to a degree at least, in his reflections on Exod 6:3, to wit, that the patriarchs knew God only as El Shaddai, and that knowledge of God as Yahweh emerges only in the Mosaic period (p. xxxii). For Wenham the bottom line is that if we have no patriarchs, then the promises of God were never actually spoken to them, and hence the theological heart of Genesis is destroyed (p. xxxviii).
The bulk of the commentary, as one would expect, is analysis of Genesis 16–50. The format is that of the first volume. The author divides these thirty-five chapters into thirty-four units, the shortest being 25:12–18 (Ishmael’s family history), the longest being three-chapter sections from the Joseph story (Genesis 43–45 and Genesis 48–50).
Each unit proceeds with the same sequence of presentation: (1) bibliography, (2) the author’s own translation, (3) grammatical notes on the Hebrew of the unit under discussion, (4) a discussion of form, structure, and setting, (5) comment, usually on each verse, or occasionally a cluster of verses, (6) explanation in which the unit’s meanings, relevance and application are probed. The commentary concludes with an author’s index, a subject index and an index of Biblical texts. I believe these indices could have been improved by the inclusion of a Hebrew word index.
In my judgment Wenham is at his best and most original when he is discussing form, structure and setting. Already in the first volume and in published articles he has demonstrated a great sensitivity and insight in threading his way through the whole maze of arguments advanced by scholars vis-à-vis the source background of a particular passage and then presenting a case for his own position.
As in volume 1, he continues to make a case for the view that the so-called P portions of Genesis 16–50 (and E portions too) are earlier than the J portions, thus radically reversing a time-honored position of OT source-critical studies. For statements on J’s redaction of P (and E), see his comments on pp. 19, 79, 174 and 220. And yet, while Wenham continues to use the letter designations J, E, D and P, it is not clear to me exactly what he means by these, regardless of how he arranges them chronologically. For example, when he consistently cites the authorial/redactional work of J, what J does he have in mind? Wellhausen’s J? Van Seters’ J? Or, is he using J to designate something totally different from what J normally implies when used by Biblical scholars, and if so, what is it?
The bibliographies are up to date and tend to include only articles published since Westermann’s three-volume commentary of 1974–1982. Both in his notes and comments, Wenham avoids excessive footnoting. Thus in any given section there may be forty or fifty listed articles at the head, but in the comments that follow maybe only five or six of these articles will be alluded to.
The notes section will be useful, of course, almost exclusively to the individual who is using this commentary with his/her Hebrew Bible open. For the most part they deal with grammatical issues and cite frequently the standard works of Gesenius and Joüon. At times the notes are a bit too cryptic and could be extended for clarification and significance.
The last section of each unit discussion is called “Explanation.” According to the general editors’ statement at the beginning, the purpose of the explanation (and the comment) is to provide “a clear exposition of the passage’s meaning and its relevance to the ongoing biblical revelation.” At times Wenham succeeds admirably in this task. On a few occasions, however, the explanation section involves essentially a recapitulation of the unit’s contents, already discussed in the translation/comment sections.
To illustrate, while it is certainly correct to speak of Ishmael’s birth as a “diversion” in Genesis’ longer perspective (p. 13), do not God’s promises to Hagar vis-à-vis her child (16:11–12) at least hint that the God of Israel is actively involved in the life and destiny of the unchosen? By the way, throughout Wenham’s discussion of chaps. 16–21, I wonder whether Abraham’s behavior is as exemplary as Wenham would have us believe, and whether Sarah’s is as obnoxious as he would have us believe.
Or again, while Wenham’s discussion of the behavior of Abraham and Isaac in conjunction with the Aqedah incident is salutary (pp. 112–118), does not this text focus more, or at least as much, on God? Is not Genesis 22 as much a test for God as it is for Abraham? And if Isaac is a type of Christ for the NT writers (p. 117), is not also the ram? After all, who died? Similarly, while the famous passage (28:10–22) of Jacob at Bethel says much about Jacob (pp. 225–226), does it say anything about a God who binds himself unconditionally to a deceiver and an exploiter?
All of us, preacher and teacher alike, owe a deep debt of gratitude to Wenham for this concluding volume on Genesis. In my judgment, it is at the top of a number of Genesis commentaries written by authors whose working hypothesis is that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine and growth in righteousness.
Victor P. Hamilton
Asbury College, Wilmore, KY