The latest entry in the how-to-read-the-Bible genre is How to Read the Bible (HarperOne, 2015) by Harvey Cox, a Harvard divinity prof who has been around since the sixties (his classic The Secular City was published in 1965). The first chapter is devoted to Genesis. He offers some helpful perspectives to go beyond simply plodding though chapter by chapter, verse by verse, trying to follow what is going on or being said. Here are four approaches to shape one’s reading.
Historical Criticism. Like most non-LDS religion professors, Cox relates the shock of entering his first year of graduate studies and encountering the documentary hypothesis (what he calls the “multiple-source hypothesis”). His Evangelical background did not prepare him for the idea that the Bible was written by different authors with different views. He worked through J, E, D, and P. He eventually determined that
the multiple-source theory did help explain why there are different accounts not just of the creation, but also of the flood, God’s promise to Abraham, and the moving drama of Hagar and Ishmael. … Little by little I decided that recognizing Genesis as the work of many hands did not diminish its spiritual significance. It deepened it.
Here’s an interesting question. Do LDS students who follow this or a similar course of study hit the same sort of faith hurdle in graduate school or seminary? (I mean real seminary, not LDS youth seminary.) My impression is no, but readers who have had the experience can weigh in. Biblical inerrancy is not an article of faith among Mormons. In fact, Article of Faith 8 affirms that the Bible has been improperly transmitted down through the years and is now flawed. One could even imagine that such an exposure to the messy real story of how the Bible came to be would reaffirm an LDS understanding rather than challenge it. The most readable introduction to the documentary hypothesis is Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (Summit Books, 1987).
Narrative Approach. Rather than chopping the text up into chunks contributed by different sources or traditions, this method takes the final text as given and asks what it is doing, what it is saying, and how it is doing and saying it. Whether a section of text was written by a single author or pieced together by a final editor, it did after all take a final form, the one that we actually read and the moves us or inspires us or puzzles us. The classic book by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Belknap Press, 1990), popularized this approach. There is just more going on in any book or chapter than is evident from a straightforward reading, even with a study bible. After reading the book’s chapter on Genesis, I’ve never read Jacob’s night encounter with an angel in Genesis 32 the same.
Rhetorical Criticism. Sort of developed out of the narrative approach, with a little more attention to particular authors and arguments and styles of persuasion. “This is also an especially helpful approach, because it enables us to see not only that the different writers of the Bible differed with each other, but also that the argued against each other.” Recently, Grant Hardy employed this approach in his Understanding the Book of Mormon (OUP, 2010). Recall that back in 2011 we did a roundtable and 12 Questions interview with Grant on his book. If you liked that book and found it enlightening, you are acknowledging the power of this approach.
Effect History. “How has this text been used, applied, or deployed in the centuries since it was written? … What difference has it made?” This also goes under the title “reception history,” and we likewise have a good example of this approach for the Book of Mormon, Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon (OUP, 2003).
Note the title to this post is “Reading Genesis,” not “Teaching Genesis” (my prior post). I’m not suggesting these approaches should be adopted by lesson manuals or be employed by teachers. That’s just too much to expect in the Age of Correlation. But you probably owe it to yourself to elevate your own study and understanding of the Bible. Feel free to note in the comments other approaches and other texts that have enhanced your own reading of Genesis, the Bible, or LDS scriptures.