I'd like to illustrate with two examples of exegesis of Genesis 1 [*]. The first is taken from H. Gunkel, a critic standing in the classic Enlightenment tradition, the second from Bonhoeffer, a confessional critic with both feet in the tradition of the church.
Gunkel's commentary on Genesis was held to be a commentary of unmatched brilliance, in which he brought to bear on his interpretation the full range of ancient Near Eastern parallels. For Gunkel, chapter 1 of Genesis was a reworking from a Hebrew perspective of the Babylonian creation myth, a reworking that retained much of the mythology in a broken, vestigal form. Gunkel emphasized Israel's unique tradition, and he sought, in the spirit of German romanticism, to instill an aesthetic appreciation for the creative genius of this ancient, primitive document.
This can be contrasted with the interpretation of a young Privatdozent, not particularly well trained in Old Testament, who begins his lecture on Gensis 1-3, not with JEPD but with Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God ...” Bonhoeffer wrote:
The Bible begins with God's free affirmation, ... free revelation of himself. ... In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us ... who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without and end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end. ... The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort. (Creation and Fall, 11, 16)I'm not sure how to relate these two radically different interpretations ... What makes the difference? Is one more adequate than the other or are they both independent ways of doing two different things? Which one grapples better with the “subject matter” of Genesis 1? As Childs asks, “what caused Bonhoeffer to plunge into a new dimension of reality?”
It seems to me that the difference is one of interpretative context, rather than refined exegetical skill. One is the ancient Near East, the other is the canonical context of the church. But which context helps us grasp the Bible's substance, res, Sachverhalt best?
[*] Taken from Childs, “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change,” Theology Today 54 (1994), 200-211.