Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Canonical Shape of Genesis

Having outlined a case for a canonical reading of the Bible as Scripture, and then illustrated what this would mean when looking at the Pentateuch/Torah as a whole, Childs turns to the canonical shaping of the individual books. What is interesting is his attention to both synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the text. In other words, the history of traditions provides evidence of a theological intent, an intent which justifies our focus on the final form.

We start at the beginning: Genesis.

Concerning the history of tradition, Childs takes the standard critical line: separate literary sources were joined together at different historical periods. The text consists of an earlier composite strand - usually called JE - and a later source - the Priestly source. However,whereas most critical scholars devote their energy to sorting out these sources and the prehistory of tradition, Childs highlights the theological intentionality in this historical process and its ultimate outcome: the completed Book of Genesis.

Thus, it is of significance that Genesis begins with a primeval history and only in Ch. 12 does the story of Abraham begin. This involved the combination of two sources. According to the P source, there is a narrowing of interest from the universal history of mankind to focus on the one family of Abraham. According to the J source, the history of the growth of sin which culminated in the fragmentation of mankind in the tower of Babel provided the theological grounds for the election of Abraham and the future role of Israel. The effect of this combination of sources is that the election of Israel is tied inextricably to a theology of creation. Regardless of the chronological development of the book of Genesis (many date the creation narratives later than the patriarchal),

"the canonical shape of Genesis subordinated redemption to creation without divorcing the two aspects of the divine purpose with the world and his creatures. Israel was elected in the mystery of the divine will for the purpose of reconciling the world to the creator" (1972: 718).
A similar effort at canonical editing can be seen in the patriarchal narratives. Regardless of their prehistory (scholars are still divided), the theological significance of these stories has been determined by the pervasive theme of divine promise of a posterity and a land. The life of obedience is illustrated in these narratives - given long before the Law - which call for unswerving trust in the faithfulness of God. The Book of Genesis as the prelude to the actual history of the nation Israel provides a decisive commentary for the proper understanding of the Sinai covenant. God's revelation of himself to the fathers is an act of pure grace which calls forth the required stance of faithful obedience. Or, to put the issue another way,

the canonical shape which has the narrative precede the Law affords a clear check against understanding the purpose of Israel primarily in terms of the Law" (1972: 718).

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