Reviews From Peer-Reviewed Journals:
Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard Reviewed in Review of Biblical Literature, SBL/RBL, 10/2003. Roy E. Gane, Andrews University
At first glance the subtitle of Paul Borgman’s Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard (252 pages, including selected bibliography plus subject, author, and scripture indices) looks pretentious. After all, the analyses of Genesis over hundreds of years and the plethora of recent commentaries coming at it from a variety of scholarly and popular angles, how could we not have heard the story of this biblical book? Haven’t sensitive and astute literary critics, such as Robert Alter (Genesis: Translation and Commentary [New York: Norton, 1996]), alerted us to every nuance on several levels?
Borgman delivers on his subtitle. The contribution of this English professor is to convincingly expose a web of narrative/literary connections that reveal dynamics of human and divine repetition and change within the context of a unified drama. Rather than viewing Genesis as a series of exegetical, literary, theological, or devotional bits and pieces, Borgman perceives under the surface of the whole book a powerful clarification of human experience that can transform hearers or readers by involving them in the narrative.
Development of Abraham’s partnership with God was paradigmatic. An ordinary man, Abraham’s trust in God was undermined by fear for his own skin, to the extent that he was willing to compromise his wife’s sexual purity by telling Egyptians that she was his sister. Through a series of seven encounters with God over a number of years, he progressively learned to trust God, to let go of his fear, and to seek the well-being of others, beginning with his own family and extending to people of other nations. When he trusted God enough to relinquish his own son, God confirmed the covenant promise that all nations would be blessed through him (Gen 22; compare 12:1–3). Although Jacob was less willing to let go than Abraham was, God led him through tough circumstances to the point that he agreed to give up his beloved son, Benjamin, to the uncertainty of a trip to Egypt. Joseph began as a normal, self-centered lad, but through experiencing a series of “pits”—a dry well, slavery in Egypt, and prison—he became the culminating partner with God in the book of Genesis, providing life for his family and blessing to other nations. The most impressive feature of Borgman’s book is the way in which he finds narrative/literary links between various parts of Genesis and derives their meaning within the overall drama of divine-human relationships. For example, the way in which Joseph tested his brothers echoed God’s test of Abraham and also of Jacob. Borgman writes: “What the brothers learn from Joseph’s testing is the same complex and demanding lesson that their great-grandfather Abraham learned from God: letting go of the normal and parochial ways of being in the world. The Genesis God, and Joseph,
are not inscrutable or capricious. . . . God and Joseph both want individual reorientation and a measure of reciprocity from those over whom they have power; each desires blessing for all peoples. Herein is a Joseph easily mistaken. Herein is a God we haven’t quite recognized. This is the story we haven’t heard.” (240).
Although he is an English professor, Borgman’s interpretations unobtrusively draw on rich knowledge of the Hebrew text and scholarly literature. While he does not attempt to provide definite answers to all the tough questions that he raises, he is prepared to parry scholarly opinion and make a plausible, balanced case for a minority conclusion. For example, while many exegetes view the way Joseph took the land of the Egyptians in exchange for grain and set up a 20 percent tax on future crops (Gen 47) from a modern perspective as ruthless machination for the benefit of Pharaoh, Borgman puts this policy in perspective: the Egyptians are grateful that Joseph has kept them alive; strong management can avert future disasters; a 20 percent flat tax is relatively light; and the text affirms Joseph’s concern for households and “little ones” of the Egyptians, just as he has sustained his father’s household, including the “little ones” (215–18). Thus, without resorting to circular reasoning, Borgman finds the character of Joseph at this point to be consistent with the larger picture of Joseph’s exemplary partnership with God.
To point out connections in Genesis, Borgman frequently interrupts the chronological flow of his exposition, and some chapters overlap in order to examine parts of the same stories from different angles. This could be confusing, but in addition to the clarity of his non-technical language and generally simple but often profound sentences, Borgman keeps the reader on track by means of a brief transition (in italics) at the end of each chapter of his book, which succinctly wraps up the theme(s) of the chapter and looks ahead to the next chapter. His approach inevitably generates redundancy as he looks at episodes from various directions and points out narrative echoes of God’s anchor promise to Abraham throughout Genesis. However, he maintains interest by focusing on what is new and fresh by comparison with what is past and familiar.
Some aspects of Borgman’s interpretation, such as his characterization of Isaac as passive and rather incompetent or of young Joseph as “a perfectly hateful youngster . . . a tattletale and a braggart” (238) may seem slightly exaggerated and discomfort a reader who is accustomed to holding the biblical patriarchs in reverential awe. Even more disquieting are implications for our own lives as Borgman’s Genesis draws us into its story, probes the recesses of our souls, and lays bare the same kind of ancient drive to promote ourselves at the expense of others that has cursed our world since the time of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, the accounts of the patriarchs, beset with faults and foibles as they were, engender hope that God can guide ordinary people to partnership with him for the sake of cosmic blessing.
SBL/RBL 2004, Jan Lion-Cachet, Waikanae, New Zealand, 6010
In the introduction to his book, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, Paul Borgman writes: “The promise of this guide is to help with finding the connections that provide theme and character for Genesis, “including the character of God” (14). To be able to provide it, he tries to approach the Genesis story as objectively as possible. That is only possible to a certain degree. He realizes himself that his predisposition of “God is One”may have influenced his view that the Genesis story presents a unified portrait of God (17). He also wants to “involve the readers by helping to sort out the text’s clues” (19).
Borgman (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is professor of English at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. His insight and knowledge of the art of stories bring new light to the development and interconnection of the broader Genesis story. In a fitting way he is able to make use of seminar-like discussions between his students and himself and conversations with three well-known Old Testament scholars, namely, James Ackerman, Walter Brueggemann, and Terence Fretheim. He makes extensive use of typical literature elements in the Hebrew language, such as wordplays, silences, chiasms, repetitions, discontinuities, and changes.
Borgman follows the same sequence in his discussion on Genesis as the history line of Genesis.
Chapter 1 starts off with the account of creation. The names of God feature prominently in the creation story, which leads to better understanding of the character of God. In this chapter we also recognize the start of a possible theme that Borgman will try to emphasize throughout his book. On the one hand, humans try to establish their own name and prominence in history, and it leads to sinful deeds and behavior (30, 37). On the other hand, God wants humans to be a blessing to all humanity. Borgman writes: “What God had wanted was a good world in which humans would find their highest good in a balanced partnership with one another . . . and also in partnership with God” (29).
Chapter 2 starts with God’s promise to Abram. The emphasis is placed on the way Abram experiences a radical insecurity regarding life and name (55) and his inability to be a blessing to the rest of the world (41).
Chapter 6 points out that the challenge “not to fear” is central to all the visits with God and fundamental in Abrahams plea of self-preservation for his wife and self-promotion of his interests (113).
Chapter 7, the epilogue of Abraham’s story, concludes with the way Abraham brings blessing to all people. Chapter 8 is about Jacob’s own attempts to promote himself and his fear of not having a name (140, 148).
In chapter 9 Jacob is confronted with his own deceiving ways. Chapter 10 discusses a possible reorientation of Jacob’s heart, but self-promotion at the expense of others is still part of the life of Jacob and his family.
Finally, in chapters 11-13 self-promoting interests in the life of Joseph and his brothers, as well as God’s overall purpose for his people to be a blessing to all nations, are discussed. The conclusion is that it is all too human to promote oneself at the expense of others (233), but through Abraham’s seed all nations will indeed be blessed (236).
Borgman succeeds in driving home the theme of self-promotion and the establishment of One’s own name in the lives of the patriarchs, on the one hand, and God’s overall purpose of them being a blessing to all nations, on the other hand. The way he explains the revelation embedded in the names of God helps the reader to understand more of the character of God and the reaction of people to it. His ability to prove a constant and overall theme in the history of the patriarchs helps to pull it together and to explain individual passages better. Borgman concludes that Genesis is a story “that challenges our conventional ideas about God, about human transformation, and about what constitutes the truly good life” (241).
However, his claim that this is a story “we haven’t heard before” is not proved. Hasel wrote that “historical events must be capable of being explained by antecedent historical causes and understood in terms of analogy to other historical experiencesî” (G. Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic issues in the Current Debate [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 173). In doing that, scholars were able to recognize a vast variety of possible themes in Genesis.
Borgman’s Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard was a real delight to read. The way he uses and develops the different themes helps the reader to understand the Genesis narratives from a different angle. Features in the Genesis narratives, such as visitations, wrestling, and weeping, help one to recognize a different approach by God to individuals. However, the overall picture is still kept together with one or two common themes. I would recommend this book to readers who want to enrich their insight into the Genesis narratives and their understanding of God’s ways in the lives of certain individuals.
Comments Solicited By The Publisher:
NANCY LINTON, The Oregon Extension
“From the murder of Abel by his brother Cain to the dissension between Joseph and his brothers, Paul Borgman weaves together biblical stories, previously seen as remnants, into a richly textured and provocative Genesis tapestry. Here humans embody belief and unbelief, flounder and thrive, each accompanied from start to finish by a relational God who loves them toward individual wholeness that promises healing for the world at large. Listening to texts particularly troublesome for women, Paul responds with exegesis so engaging of readers that it encourages further questions and prompts one to reread Genesis.”
STEVE NISENBAUM, Ph.D., J.D., Department Of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital And Harvard Medical School
“This book I shared right away with my rabbi, my Jewish friends and colleagues. It is at once creative, enlightening and psychologically sophisticated. Borgman’s enjoyable commentary offers astonishingly compelling narrative truths to unlock the giant riddles of Genesis. No longer is God ‘inscrutable,’ being a ‘chosen people’ an entitlement of indelible righteousness, or God’s ‘plan’ mere arbitrary triumphal tribalism. And so, it illuminates an intrinsic coherence between contemporary Christian theology and the ethical relational striving informed by precursor truths known to the historical Jew Jesus.”
WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, Columbia Theological Seminary, Author Of Genesis And Theology Of The Old Testament
“Borgman has read widely and is well rooted in the scholarly literature. His goal, however, is to make sense of the text by asking the kinds of questions that are raised by readers who have not been tamed away from the shock and puzzlement of the text. The book will interest those who have a literary sensitivity and face a literature that is theologically thick but unfamiliar. Borgman gives easy access but does not compromise the unfamiliarity and does not ‘explain’ the thickness in an easy way. Readers are invited to hear as for the first time.”
RUTH ANNE REESE, Asbury Theological Seminary
“In this book Borgman reminds us that God seeks real relationship and friendship with self-interested humanity. Such a relationship often involves change for both parties—indeed, this is one of the key points of Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard. These thoughts are pointers for understanding God and our own journey with him. This is a book well worth reading.”
THOMAS HOWARD, Author Of Christ The Tiger And The Novels Of Charles Williams
“In a prefatory note Paul Borgman remarks that Genesis has proved to be the most difficult book with which he and his literature classes have struggled over the years. If this strikes you as anomalous, then you are the one to read this book on Genesis. Borgman is a vastly astute and massively well-read critic. I have never read a book like this—and I am deeply bothered by some of it. I don’t like my suppositions haled up for remorseless scrutiny. But I do like Borgman’s lucid English prose, and his assiduity as a biblical scholar.”
JAMES S. ACKERMAN, Indiana University, Editor Of Literary Interpretations Of Biblical Narrative, Author Of Teaching The Bible As Literature
“Paul Borgman is an exciting and experienced teacher, and this book on Genesis—not your standard biblical commentary—comes from many years of dialogue in the classroom. It is a work that will prove interesting and useful both to laypersons and to college students. I highly recommend it.”
LELAND RYKEN, Wheaton College, Coeditor Of A Complete Literary Guide To The Bible And Dictionary Of Biblical Imagery
“The subtitle of Paul Borgman’s book signals the nature of his achievement, namely, the ability to look closely at an ancient text that seems elusive to a modern reader. The virtues of this beautifully written book include its willingness to wrestle with the baffling aspects of Genesis, its unobtrusive but conscientious attention to scholarship on Genesis, its systematic coverage of the entire book of Genesis, its unfolding of the richness of human experience to be found in Genesis, and the fresh slant provided by a literary approach to the text. Paul Borgman has lived closely with Genesis for twenty-five years. This book is a mature and triumphant sharing of what he has discovered.”
And Finally, A Blog Review (Richard Kew) And A Personal Email Of Thanks, From Hong Kong:
Reviewed by Richard Kew
For a reason that is best known to God and my soul, I have spent most of the last couple of years studying, restudying, and then restudying again the first two or three books of the Bible. Somehow, I found myself getting to the end of what I thought was the process and something else would come up, prodding me to dive back into the Penteteuchal waters. I began to feel like a friend, an Old Testament scholar, whose wife complained early in his ministry that he never seemed to preach from anywhere but Genesis!
Some months ago, when I thought I was ready to move on to another part of the Scriptures at long last, Paul Borgman’s book, Genesis – The Story We Haven’t Heard, arrived in the mail. At first, I tried to ignore it, but after a couple of weeks, like a Pavlovian dog, I was incapable of preventing myself from leaping once again into these particular Old Testament waters.
Borgman, a college professor of literature, has used Genesis as a primary text for one of the classes that he teaches. The fruit of that exercise is the substance of his book. His approach flies in the face of the methodology behind so much biblical scholarship in the last 150 years, for instead of breaking the text up into smaller and smaller segments that are then analyzed to death, he gets us to see and read the story as a whole – starting at the beginning and finishing at the end. Borgman challenges us to look at Genesis as a rich interweave of tales that make up the larger story of God making himself known, especially to his friend, Abraham, and Abraham and Sarah’s heirs and successors.
What Borgman does is to let the narrative speak for itself about the human condition and about God’s way of enabling transformation in the flow of human affairs. At the same time he helps us to dig beneath the mere words, uncovering rich veins for us to mine. His method, however, presses us not to lose sight of the essence of the text as we use literary, theological, and historical skills to untangle what it said to its earliest readers – and, therefore, what it is saying to us today.
There is, however, one primary organizing principle: Borgman points out that from a human point of view the whole saga from chapter one to chapter fifty is about the fundamental human need to make a name for ourselves. The first eleven chapters, he suggests, are like snapshots in an album, and they illustrate the family resemblance. “The dark truth of each character is tied to that of the others by a similarly sinister but ordinary way of being in the world. It’s all so human, so perfectly normal, this disposition to promote oneself at other’s expense. What once was – Eden’s harmony, intimacy and pleasure – is lost. With unnerving clarity, this preface illustrates the distance between the ideal and its loss” (Page 233).
What this book does is ask us to read the text and see what the text says, rather than, as we are so prone to do, importing our own ideas, presuppositions, and interpretations. I found it fascinating that there are few cross-references in this book, and there is no mention of the New Testament vision at all. That is not to say that the wider revelation is not there lurking at the back of Borgman’s mind, but he wants us to draw the connections for ourselves when we have read and understood exactly what the original narrative is saying.
I found myself, as I worked through Genesis with Borgman’s book, discovering whole layers of the story of four generations of patriarchs that I had never noticed before, as well as their interconnection – and that is not for want of looking on my part in years past. For example, after the first eleven disastrous chapters, we are introduced to Abraham, together with all his strengths and shortcomings, peculiarities and foibles. Abraham learns from God that he and his seed are to be a blessing to all peoples. Then we are shown how this promise begins to be fulfilled in the midst of human fallenness, until there is Joseph feeding the whole of the eastern Mediterranean because of the position into which he found himself thrust in Egypt, thereby being a blessing to a wider humankind than just the clan of Abraham.
As I have studied Genesis with the Bible in one hand and Borgman in the other, what has been happening is that I have been learning how to read the text in a different, perhaps more attentive, manner. I have discovered how to unpack characters, and also how to unpack those seemingly unlikely tales that suddenly are parachuted into the larger story, like that of Judah’s misconduct with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, in chapter 38, for example. What Borgman does is use the literary critic’s insight to ask why such a detail is there, and then to search within the wider tale for an answer to his question.
Borgman’s book is a delight, and I hope that he does not stop writing at this point because there is probably a great deal more he can teach us. I would hazard that as we move deeper into postmodernity, an age in which narratives are becoming substantially important, what Paul Borgman is teaching us is that we need to see what the story is actually saying rather than allowing it to come to us second-hand, transported along on some scholar or pastor or journalist’s presuppositions.
Those of us who take the Scriptural text seriously are often wooden and graceless in the way in which we handle it. As a result we miss the subtleties as well as the broad sweep of God’s message to us. I am delighted to have spent three months in his company, because I come away from Genesis this time a far richer, and I hope humbler, Christian.
Dear Prof. Borgman
I’ve finally found a book on Genesis that is fit for teaching, and devotional and academic pondering. Thanks for your “The Story We haven’t Heard” and I’m on my way to unlearn and relearn the messages in Genesis.
A Thankful Reader in Hong Kong.
Yan Wing So