Performing (texts from) Genesis: Massacre at Shechem

I have again been most impressed by many of the performances of texts from Genesis prepared by my students. I will post some here, they are selected mainly by who (among those I ask) gives permission.

Steve Allen, based over in Aussie, produced this video of Gen 34, which leaves this enigmatic and troubling story enigmatic and troubling while still (I think) helping viewers to really “get” the passage better.


Gen 1-11 and a new (to me) blog

Jim West mentioned a new (to me) Olt Testament blog Matthieu Richelle. Among Mattieu’s posts is an English abstract The Literary Structure of Genesis 1-11 of an interesting paper (in French) on the structure of Gen 1-11:

Mattieu Richelle, “La structure littéraire de l’Histoire Primitive (Gn 1.1-11.26) dans son état final”, BN 151 (2011) 3-22.

Since I am just reaching Gen 3 in the course I am teaching this is either brilliant of terrible timing. Brilliant since I can point my students to Richelle’s ideas, terrible because I will hardly have time to read the article before they have assimilated the abstract ;)

Bible Dictionary entry: Genesis

I am helping with the Tyndale House Scripture Tools for Every Person project. My particular interest is the Bible encyclopedia component. To produce it we are usually editing and updating old copyright free dictionary articles. But some words just need rewriting completely :(

“Genesis” is one such. Most of the old dictionaries seemed to spend almost all their words arguing about the documentary hypothesis, and hardly talk about the book at all. So I am having to try to write a brief article on the topic more or less from scratch.

  • Does the draft below contain the information you think it should?
  • Is it accurate?
  • What is missing?
  • Could it be organised or expressed better?

(The target audience is wide and largely uneducated in terms of biblical or theological studies, but likely to be Christians of one sort or another seeking information to help them understand the Bible better.)


(jen’-e-sis) The first book of the Pentateuch (“Five Books”) ascribed to Moses. It contains the story of humanity from creation to the emergence of Israel as a people in Canaan and Egypt. The name “Genesis” is the Greek for “generations” in the phrase which divides the book into sections: “These are the generations of..” (Gen.2.4; 5.1; 6.9; 10.1; 11.27; 25.12, 19; 36.1; 37.2). Genealogy lists are found mainly in Gen.5, 10-11 & 36.

* Gen.1-5  Creation of the world and humans; the first sin.
* Gen.6-11 Noah and the Flood. The creation of nations and Babel.
* Gen.12-19  Abraham’s call and covenant. Melchizadek and Sodom.
* Gen.20-24  Sarah & Hagar; Isaac & Ishmael; Rebekah.
* Gen.25-36  Esau and Jacob; Rachel and Leah; Dinah; Edom
* Gen.37-50  Joseph sent to Egypt and all of Israel join him.

The story is presented in a framework of, and with a focus on, family lines. Family words (son, father, descendants…) are particularly frequent and the inheritance of God’s promise is a thread that ties sections and stories together. Another theme, human sinfulness redeemed by divine forbearance and providence, also serves to unite the book.

Genesis is closely linked into the story of Israel that begins in Ex.1 and continues to the end of Kings. The book also serves as background or foundation for much that follows in the whole of Scripture. The stories of the flood (Gen.6-9) and the patriarchs (Gen.12-50) are echoed in song (e.g. in Psalms) and the preaching of the prophets, The accounts of Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Melkisedek, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekeh, Jacob, Rachel, & Joseph are all used by the authors of the New Testament. Creation and the human sinfulness that follows (Gen.1-2 and 3-4) provide a necessary foundation to understand much of the theology expressed in both Old and New Testaments.

There is some evidence that this is an edited work, for example Gen.1 & 5 share key words and phrases and an interest in orderliness and factual information while Gen.2-4 are more vivid and lively and impressionistic. Such impressions lead some scholars to distinguish at least two strands in the book. Other scholars emphasise the unity of purpose and teaching which implies a single author and fits with the traditional view.

The Ethics of Animal Testing and being Carnivorous

Fattening beef, commercial "farming" (photo from Animal farm Life)

I was recently asked about the ethics of animal testing. While I’m aware that it is a very contentious issue for “animal rights activists” it is not one I have thought much about. Though, since I grow animals to eat, I am closer existentially to that related issue than someone who gets their meat from the supermarket.

It seems to me there are some simple principles that provide guidance:

  • God made animals so we have a general responsibility to care for them like for the rest of creation (see Gen 1)
  • God explicitly allowed the use of animals for human benefit including killing them to eat (see Gen 9:3) n.b. I’d see this extending to the next line…
  • Research and testing which is of other great benefit for humans should also therefore be considered within God’s will.

We have a duty to care for God's creation - including other creatures we use for food.

This leads to the tentative conclusions:

  1. We have the right to use animals for our benefit. (This is an extension, but a small one of the permission to eat them in Gen 9:3. Testing products for safety would (to my mind) fall under this category.
  2. We have a responsibility to care for them, and so the testing should not be cruel nor unnecessary.
I suspect that in NZ the Government and the SPCA ensure testing is not cruel and is “necessary”. So, cautiously, I am in favour of animal testing.
OTOH, especially now that I am involved in rearing animals for meat, it seems to me that much that today goes by the name of “farming” is unnecessarily cruel and therefore ethically indefensible. To keep animals penned up in small areas to make human food cheaper or more tender is wrong. Much pork and chicken and some beef (not so much in NZ where most is free range grass fed) transgresses the criterion of care.

Review copies

If you would like a review copy of the print version of my new book:

Tim Bulkeley, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition (Signs) Auckland: Archer Press, 2011 ISBN: 978-1468091373

Please contact me, please say both where you expect to publish the review (blogs are quite acceptable though a full review rather than a short note would be good) and when you are expect to write it. There are no conditions and you should be as critical as you normally would.

Biblical marriages

A popular infographic claims to present interesting, even shocking, information about “biblical marriage”. This biblical marriage infographic is unhelpful.

Biblical marriage infographic

Facebook does not seen good at giving attributions, so I don’t know who produced biblical marriage infographic, if it was you write to me and I’ll gladly attribute it :)

I’ve seen several people, including Rowland Crowcher, post this “infographic” on Facebook. Since I’ve spoken quite a bit on “Family in the Bible”, and am due to speak to a leaders group from the NZ Christian Network on the “Theology of Marriage” really soon it makes me hopping mad!

In one sense the graphic is “true”. The Bible does present all these, and more (some arguably worse) patterns of marriage. It is also true that God chose to work in and through many of these. Just looking at Abraham (the “father” of the three monotheistic religions) or Jacob (aka “Israel”) makes it clear that God does not turn aside from some convoluted and perverse human arrangements in choosing who to use as a channel of grace.

But, do any of these represent “a biblical view of marriage”. Hell no! It is time for some stakes in the ground. In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage). This passage, and the teaching of Jesus and Paul make some basics clear:

  • was ordained by God
  • is the union of a man and a woman
    • produces and nurtures the next generation
    • provides necessary partnership

However, in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the “biblical” marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.

See some of my earlier posts for background to this one:

I am aware that some people will understand what I have written in the very short and angry post as endorsing particular views on the currently hot and vexed topic of “Gay marriages”. It does. Gay marriage is perhaps an oxymoron if marriage the partnership of a man and a woman, and is intended to produce as well as nurture the next generation. However, the view endorsed above says nothing about either Civil Unions, or about the possibility of blessing (or even solemnising) them in churches. As far as I am concerned that seem to be separate issues, and ones on which my view of marriage does not entail any particular position. I wish that we (Christians of all stripes, marriage activists of every opinion, and especially the authorities of both states and churches) would just sit back and separate the two things and issues.

Two ways to read: suspension of disbelief

Until more complex theories of aerodynamics were developed accepting the possibility of "the flight of the bumblebee" required a suspension of disbelief - Photo by by stuant63

Yesterday I was asked: If Noah lived before the law was revealed to Moses, how did he know how to distinguish “clean” and “unclean” animals?

It is still holiday time (it’s the summer in NZ, though with all the rain and cold in recent weeks you wouldn’t believe it) so my answer was less full than it ought to have been:

Hmm… on Noah, Moses and the animals, there are two likely lines for an answer (a) the story of Noah is being told after the delivery of the law and so the telling reflects those categories; (b) there was perhaps a cultural practice of distinguishing clean and unclean animals even before the law was revealed to Moses (as there was already such a practice of not eating pork).

Of course the short simple answer is “we really don’t know” but people don’t like that one ;)

But it’s not as simple as that1 behind any attempt to answer such a question lie two fundamentally different ways to read.

One way looks at the text from the outside, and reads as a “critic”. For a couple of centuries, in academic biblical studies, the most frequent way to thus “objectify”2 the text has been to examine it historically to see where it came from and how it got to us. Such an approach noticing that there seems to be a “continuity error” here suggests that the text was written at some time later than the events described, and uses this and other signs to work out when and by whom. We could objectify the text in other ways, by examining it as an example of a particular genre or class of texts, against its sociological background…

The other way enters the “world” of the text, and reads it from the inside. This is to behave like a “reader” for this is how we read novels and other stories, indeed it is how we read physics textbooks too ;) In the case of Noah’s distinction my second answer (though it depends on a historical hypothesis and so perhaps looks like the same kind of answer as the first) tends in this direction. It is asking how we might explain this, not as a continuity error (the critic’s approach), but within Noah’s world (a readerly approach).

The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi took a different readerly approach he explained it thus:

Of all the clean animals: that are destined to be clean for Israel. We learn [from here] that Noah studied the Torah. (From

Each basic direction of reading offers several different options or styles. But the basic question facing a reader of any text whether to read as critic or as reader. “Readers” must offer the text a willing suspension of disbelief3 Indeed the idea of a need to suspend disbelief can be helpful in thinking about the reading (as opposed to the criticism) of all narrative. For in a laboratory report also there are elements of the narration of the experiment that are omitted, or poorly described, where the reader must suspend disbelief. Despite the variety of both critical and readerly approaches, and despite the fact that they can even share approaches (as above either can examine the text historically), on the suspension of disbelief they differ fundamentally.

[Incidentally,4 Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair has a really interesting meditation for Purim on “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief“.]

  1. Except the last answer, because we really do not know ;) []
  2. Make into the object of study and examination. []
  3. The phrase is Coleridge’s from the Biographia Literaria of 1817, to explain how readers might approach the fantastic or supernatural elements in his work, but has been widely used in thinking about how readers can read many sorts of fiction. (( JRR Tolkein has also nuanced it speaking about “secondary belief” based on an inner consistency to the reality described in the narrative. But that’s getting too complicated for a short blog post ;) []
  4. Though not at all a HT ;) []

Biblical understandings of human gender: Part Five: Corresponding

Bookends (photo by Kevin Grocki, and in honour of Jim West)

In previous posts in this series I have been critical of Wayne Grudem’s interpretations of Gen 1-3:

It is pleasant therefore to write a post in which we largely agree.

The KJV rendered the last word in  Gen 2:18 knegdo as “meet for him” giving rise to the neologism “helpmeet” to describe women and their role with respect to men. The KJV translators did not create this neologism, they merely placed together the two words “help” and “meet” meaning “appropriate”, thus (as we’ll see) accurately rendering the Hebrew. The new conjoint word “helpmeet” was however in use before the end of the 17th century, and rewritten as “helpmate” in the next century.1

The misappropriation of the KJV’s “help meet” to present a subservient role for women has led to a backlash, which Grudem’s book presents as typified by Aída Besançon Spencer’s claims in her 1989 work Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Spenser (a New Testament scholar who ought therefore to have known better) translated “I will make for him a helper as if in front of him“. Then she leaped from this over-literal monstrosity to claim that “[f]ront or visible seems to suggest superiority or equality” the second is clearly true of any sensible rendering of the phrase, the first is evidently false, as Grudem notes.2

But on the other hand, and again as Grudem recognises knegdo does mean “corresponding to” and so implies equality and complementarity (i.e. mutuality) rather than some hierachy. In the second half of this sentence Grudem and I begin to part company, but since the reasons concern our understanding of “helper” ‘ezer rather than “meet” I’ll save that discussion for another post.

While it is true that knegdo is a rare construction found only in this chapter the core of the expression neged meaning beside or in front of, so here over-literally something like “as beside him” the implication of “corresponding to him” or “fitting for him” is fairly clear and the choice of all commonly accepted Bible translations in English.

The conclusion of this post is that knegdo means corresponding and implies that men and women are both equal and complementary (in the sense that we can fill out what the other lacks). It is in how these two truths can be held together without one in practice denying the other that the complexity of our topic lies. My next post on “helper” ‘ezer will begin to explore some aspects of this.

Spencer, Aída Besançon. Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Baker Academic, 1989, 23-25.


  1. See Oxford Dictionaries Online. []
  2. Her appeal to nagid prince or leader to support her claims is disingenuous from a NT scholar, as Grudem notes.  []