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Review of The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 by Mark Smith

Posted in Uncategorized by Joseph Kelly on December 16, 2009

Mark Smith has written a compelling piece on what has become the most well known and revered expression of creation faith in the Hebrew Bible, the creation account in Genesis 1 (though he is careful to point out that this is not the only creation story contained within the Hebrew Bible). Building off the scholarly consensus that Genesis 1 is a creation text of the sixth century written from a priestly perspective, Smith explores the significance that lies behind this priestly vision and how it functions as a part of the larger biblical witness to the creative activity of God. This volume is both an enlightening read and a helpful resource for the scholarly discussion on Genesis 1.

Because Genesis 1 does not exist in a vacuum but rather in a canon that  is replete with creation imagery, Smith begins his discussion on the “Three Models of Creation in the Bible.” He surveys the many creation texts of the Hebrew Bible and categorizes them by the most dominant feature he observes in the text: divine power, wisdom, or presence. It is the conclusion of this chapter in particular that I found most valuable. Beyond simply categorizing these different models and observing their distinct emphases, Smith explores the ways in which these models prove to be theologically advantageous, while also addressing their limitations or potential for abuse. This chapter serves as the background of Smith’s work, using the material here to help sharpen our focus of the  distinctiveness of the priestly vision of Genesis 1.

The discussion of the text of Genesis 1 is divided into two chapters (Part 1), the first addressing questions commonly asked or issues that typically arise concerning the first day of creation, the second focusing broadly on the whole week and highlighting the priestly features of the text. Smith asks the following questions in the first of these two chapters: “Does Genesis 1:1 begin in “the” Beginning?” (43-9); “Did God Make Creation from Nothing in Genesis 1:1-2?” (49-59); “Does Genesis 1 Explain the Origins of Good and Evil?” (59-64); “What is the Significance of Divine Speech in Genesis 1:3?” (64-71);  “Was the Light on Day One in Genesis 1:3 Created?” (71-9); “Why are Divine Sight, Separation, and Speech in Genesis 1:4-5 Important?” (79-82);  “Who is the Audience for the Divine Speech and Light in Genesis 1?” (82-5). These questions are not unfamiliar to pastors, parents, and Bible class teachers, and though Smith’s answers will not necessarily satisfy inquisitive minds, they will certainly provoke deep thought and reflection. In the second of these two chapters, Smith addresses the topics of time, space, humanity, and blessing before synthesizing this material and summarizing this “priestly vision.” In doing this, Smith manages to paint the big picture in a way that scholars often fail to do. Scholarly discussion around Genesis 1 is often aimed at deconstructing naïve readings of the text. What Smith provides is a thoroughly constructive theologically sensitive reading of this priestly vision of creation.

In Part 2 of his book, Smith explores some literary issues concerning Genesis 1. The first chapter in this section addresses the placement of Genesis 1 at the front of the book of Genesis and of the Hebrew Bible at large. After a brief discussion of scribal activity in the ancient world, he argues that Genesis 1 serves as both a prologue to the Pentateuch and commentary of Genesis 2 (though he is careful to qualify how the word “commentary” is to be understood given its connotations in our modern context). He understands Genesis 1 to extend the creation tradition in Israel and in certain places to transform it. In the second chapter of this section, Smith wrestles with the difficulties surrounding the classification of myth in general, and the classification of Genesis 1 as myth in particular. He reviews the scholarly discussion, those texts or characteristics generally recognized as myth or mythic, and proposes reasons both for and against classifying Genesis 1 as myth. He recognizes that how one defines myth is the primary factor in whether one is willing to so classify Genesis 1, and concludes that this issue “may ultimately depend on what credence readers are prepared to give to either the Bible or to ancient Near Eastern literature in their descriptions of reality” (159).

The book also contains an appendix, “A Very Brief Introduction to Modern Scholarly Approaches to Genesis 1.” This appendix contains a concentrated dose of names, methods, and general information that will likely prove too technical for the average reader. Smith does a relatively good job as relegating the technical aspects of the discussion to the endnotes in order to provide a smoother reading experience for those less familiar or interested in the technical issues that occupy the scholarly community. He aims for this book to be useful for both scholars and lay readers alike. For this reason, it is understandable why endnotes were chosen instead of footnotes. However, Smith’s book is 300 pages long, and 100 of these pages contain endnotes; those interested in the footnotes will wear themselves out constantly flipping back and forth. Another frustrating feature for some will be the absence of a bibliography. I understand the desire to cut costs and save space, but I do not understand why in our present digital age the publishers or authors of these books are not making the bibliographies available online. On a much different note, the overall quality of the book is very good. The spine is solid, the pages open wide, and they remain open when sat flat on a desk.

In conclusion, this was an enjoyable read (though I will confess to having not paid too much attention to the footnotes). If you are even remotely interested in Genesis 1, you owe it to yourself to make time in your schedule and room on your shelf for this book.

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5 Responses

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  1. [...] Good review by Joseph Kelly of Mark Smith’s recent book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, by Mark Smith. [...]

  2. John Hobbins said, on December 18, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Joseph,

    Thanks for a helpful review. This is definitely a book worth purchasing.

    No bibliography? End-notes rather than footnotes? I understand, but I think publishers would do well to allow those who have purchased the book to download pdf files of the same text formatted in a scholar-friendly way, with footnotes, and full (software-generated) indices.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on December 18, 2009 at 10:20 am

      Kugel did some of this in his recent work, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. His website contains an appendix, a bibliography, an errata, and even reviews. He even interacts on it with his readers! I don’t understand why it is taking so long for publishers and/or authors to recognize the value of offering this service to their customers.

  3. [...] Mark Smith’s new book in which he discusses the Priestly vision of the account. (Here is a review by Joseph Kelly–thanks John [...]

  4. Mark S. Smith said, on December 25, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the review. I appreciate it very much.
    Mark Smith


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