The best way to study a book of the Bible is to read it in a language that is not your mother tongue. It will make a familiar book strange and wonderful again. It will increase the chances that you read it with new eyes. The effect is reinforced by reading commentary thereto in the same language. In the case of the book of Genesis, an excellent path consists of working through it in Hebrew alongside commentary in Hebrew. Another path: think Genesis through in Greek with Greek commentary and French super-commentary. Another: read it in Latin side by side with Latin commentary.
The advantages are enormous. Languages are gateways to worlds of meaning. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin open cognitive doors to the symbols and semantic structures of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Each language beckons, to the one who has ears to hear: “I can open your eyes / Take you wonder by wonder / Over, sideways and under / On a magic carpet ride.” [Disingenuous explanation for my quotation of this song: I have a 7 year old daughter who loves to belt it out.]
Another avenue of study: read the book of Genesis in one of the languages of modern scholarship along with commentary produced in that language. Unless your mother tongue is German, the obvious choice is to read Genesis in German along with commentary in German. Modern Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Italian, however, are also excellent choices. If you are looking for ways to improve your German, go here; your French, go here; your Italian, go here.
There is much to be said for pursuing the above paths. But if you desire to read the book of Genesis for all it’s worth, apart from and even in tension with its history of reception in Judaism and Christianity, you cannot do better than approach it through literary and historical methods. Historical methods are plural; they include text criticism, source criticism, form or genre criticism, and tradition criticism; they have in common a commitment to uncovering the meaning the text would have had, at the intersection of author and reader, relative to a trajectory extending into the past and toward the future from the standpoint of the “present” of the text.
Literary methods involve giving the text a close reading, (1) blinkered or (2) intertextual in terms of larger textual corpora. That is difficult to do without reading the texts in the languages in which they were written.
It is typical of interpreters attuned to the melody of the text as it stands to downplay elements of dissonance in that melody. Literary critics often content themselves with a diplomatic gesture of recognition that dissonant elements exist, only to move on and concentrate on concordant features alone. It is not unusual for final-form enthusiasts to speak ill of research that has sought to recover the history of composition of what almost everyone understands, in the case of the book of Genesis, to be a multi-stranded composition.
In symmetrical fashion, source critics have tended to regard the final form of the text as little more than a disheveled heap of ruins beneath which they discover gold and diamonds.
The best historical critics do not reduce the text as it stands to a means for reconstructing its precursors. The best literary critics do not ignore the multi-stranded profile of the text as we know it, any more than a fair description of a historical monument would fail to point out monumental features that evidence phases and renovations.
Even so, the field of Hebrew Bible remains dominated by unilateral scholarship of one kind or the other. Von Rad on the other hand is the foremost example of a multi-disciplinary interpreter of the final form of Genesis. He combined historical, literary, and theological sensibilities in the act of interpretation.
Even though their scholarship suffers from the shortcomings outlined above to varying degrees, from a literary point of view, I recommend Alonso-Schökel, Alter, Cassuto, Fokkelman, Perry and Sternberg, and Wenham. Perry and Sternberg combine literary and theological sensibilities; for that very reason some appreciate their work, and others steer away from it. From the point of view of straight-up historical methods, I recommend Skinner, Westermann, and Hendel. From a sachliche, theological point of view, I recommend Crüsemann, Ebach, and Levenson. [I have not yet read Moberly, so I cannot yet recommend his work.] The book of Genesis is shot through with God-speak. Any treatment of it that does not seek to grasp the sense in which the good, the true, and the beautiful come together but also part company in its pages, can hope to do it justice,
Many people are looking for a biblical theology which bears a close resemblance to the systematic theology of the tradition they espouse. There is no such thing. A truly biblical theology / soteriology / anthropology looks quite different from – I cite three examples for which I have great respect – traditional Jewish theology, traditional Eastern Christian theology, and Reformation theology. If someone tells you differently, they are feeding you a line. In my next post, a select list of commentaries and monographs in the languages mentioned above, with scholarship in English thrown in for good measure.