The last few months I have been co-"teaching" a Sunday school class in Genesis. While digging into the text myself, I consulted a few commentaries-- a couple of which I had picked up for almost nothing at a local library sale. I haven't found a great stand-alone commentary on Genesis. My preferred New Testament commentaries are the Baker Exegetical Commentaries, which I find both work the passage and are fair to a wide range of previous scholarship and can almost stand alone. Perspectives on Genesis vary so widely that it's hard to go with just one, like the Gospels, you need overlapping perspectives to get a better idea of the true/complete picture. I really need to read various theories on the compilation of the text, but I doubt I will reach anything conclusive. In addition to the commentaries, I read Bruce Feiler's Abraham, a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a history of translating the Epic and other Akkadian and Babylonian works, and the Genesis-related material in Paul Johnson's History of the Jews. I used an ESV with Strong's Concordance and D.A. Carson's new Zondervan NIV Study Bible for further insight (less helpful than you might expect). Also the Carson-edited 21st Century Commentary and Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for overviews. (The Carson commentary and the Study Bible have some really liberal/problematic comments that I might have to write about later.)
Below are the commentaries I used in the order I recommend them:
Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis
Allen P. Ross is an Episcopalian minister and theologian.
This is a great book for students. Each pericope begins with a theological overview, then shows an outline tree of the text, then an extended comment on exegeting the text in a few major points. The extended discussion includes highlighting Hebrew terms and offering others' ideas. Each pericope contains an extensive bibliography. I found Ross reprints quotes most often from Dods, Skinner, Brueggemann, von Rad, and Kidner. In addition, the book contains several appendices that hold thoughts on Genesis 1:1-3, the Hebrew word "create," the term "to visit," and other notes.
While I appreciate the focus on digging into what the text meant to the original audience, the downside is that he largely ignores any Christology and biblical theology. While exegeting each text for a Christian audience he mostly draws on themes about God and leaving Jesus absent. The best commentaries on Genesis are found in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, and these are completely ignored. You can read Jesus between the lines, but he's largely explicitly absent until the end of Genesis as Ross is wrapping up looking forward to the Exodus. Where he inserts Christological thoughts, it's quoting the commentaries of others.
Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
Brueggemann is a United Church of Christ theologian who has published a host of works on Genesis. He is more eloquent in his wording and enthusiasm. He follows the promise of seed as the theme of the text, and includes Christian interpretations of passages. This allows him to show how our expectation of salvation is similar to the expectation of the promise of Abraham. He sometimes delves much deeper into Hebrew and its historic interpretation than Ross, and draws slightly more heavily on parallels to other Mesopotamian texts. In some cases, he gets carried away.
Example, in Genesis 49:
"But the narrative would not have our heads turned by the Egyptian honor. He does not die an Egyptian. He does not want to die an Egyptian. He most fears he will be buried in the wrong place as a son of the empire (v. 5). Both his acts, the binding of his heirs (chapter 48) and the provision for burial (49:28-33), are militantly Israelite acts. They reject and resist any accommodation to Egypt. The acts are intended to place the narrative and the family squarely in the current of the promise."
He opens the Joseph story with Romans 8:28-31 and looks at Paul's interpretations first.
"Christian interpretation of our Genesis text (when juxtaposed with that of Gal. 4) has two tasks: (a) to be clear that the Genesis narrative does not contain all of this typology but (b) that our Christian tradition has now chosen a certain lens through which to view the narrative. The test for the expositor is not to insist on the "original" meanings of the narrative, but to find the ways in which interpretation illuminates our human lot in the context of the gospel."
On Jacob's election, he maintains a good balance of Hebrew audience and Christian:
"Read with excessively Christian eyes, the temptation is to be too christological. Read with Jewish eyes, the temptation may be to be excessively Israelite."
Brueggemann also seems to assume the Documentary Hypothesis more than Ross, who only mentions the viewpoints on certain passages. He also skips over other important points in chasing his themes. He doesn't make a coherent outline of the text, and this book is not as well-referenced as the Ross commentary.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Genesis Volumes I, II.
Kudos to the editors who compile these from dozens of ancient sources. The breadth of sources is amazing and the authors provide an introduction explaining the brief biography and context of the writer, if known. I have appreciated their work in both commentaries on The Gospel of Mark and now Genesis (a 2-volume work). Each passage is reprinted with a one-sentence summary of the major thought each of the ancient fathers had on the passage, and then the selected reprinting of their comments. We've been using The Gospel Project curriculum to walk through Genesis, and it incorporates quotes from this into its weekly lessons; it quotes pretty selectively. Many thoughts are too embarrassing to reprint in curriculum today, and the works have limited use outside their context.
It is interesting to read the thoughts from the writings and early sermons of early Christians, but early Christian thought was mostly/heavily allegorical through the 6th century. Augustine, Ambrose and Chrysostom are quoted probably the most heavily, Augustine more toward the beginning. Augustine's City of God is most known for his Genesis as allegory through a Christian lens, he finds more connections between Noah's Ark and Jesus than other commentators have dared. It's sometimes hard to dilineate between biblical theology and exegetical fallacy.
Ambrose, while a hero of biblical Christian orthodoxy, is also of the Alexandrian allegorical school. Ambrose claims that Benjamin is a type of the Apostle Paul, with the other brothers the other disciples. The 75 who go to Egypt represent the "number of forgiveness."
"Chrysostom preached 67 homilies on Genesis in the year 389, while he was a priest at Antioch, explaining the book verse by verse," as such he appears in about every section. Rather than an allegorical bent, Chrysostom is encouraging his congregation to imitate the morals of the characters in Genesis. Joseph, for example, sets an example to young believers to heed Paul's advice to Timothy not to let anyone look down on their youth. I learned from this work that Chrysostom baptised people naked, as a figure of returning to the innocence of Eden. (You don't hear that mentioned much these days.)
The book is interesting to see what early theology looked like. Augustine did not read much Greek, much less Hebrew, and most of the authors were unfamiliar with ancient Canaanite custom, writing from Gentile contexts. As such, the book is somewhat helpful in exegesis but not much. They have some apt observations on some passages, particularly dealing with suffering as many churches were, and illustrating where Christians living in the first few centuries can take inspiration from the faith of God's chosen people in Genesis.
I was unaware of Kass' biography until writing this review. It is the most interesting of the commentators.
Kass' work is the work of one man who thinks he's quite smart, trying to decipher and interpret myth for a modern reader. He is trying to find what themes in Genesis endure throughout the story of mankind. "These stories are so powerful, not because they tell us what happened, but because they tell us what always happens."
Like the Robert Alter translation below (which Kass often cites approvingly), it is essentially one man's take on Genesis. Kass is attempting to cast a "philosophical light" on the text by reading it in a historical-critical fashion but either ignores or misses major points that others point out, or reaches very far for certain conclusions that he stretches any credulity. He stretches too far to fit the text ino his modern, Western philosophy. He misses the forest because of the trees. At some points, he includes items his students have "discovered" in papers they wrote for him, which would seem as insightful as someone telling you what the weather was like if you never bothered to look outside yourself.
Still, there is some value in a book like this. Kass is attempting to explore the philosophies underlying the Scripture. What do Genesis 3 and 34 teach us about the relationship between the sexes? What does the commentary from the descendents of Cain to the fall of Babel tell us about civilization and cities? How might this text have influenced later Jews and Greeks and their later philosophies? While Ross and Brueggemann mention or cite some of the more critical works on Genesis, Kass actually explores their ideas. He gives some interesting information about Akkadian and Babylonian works in the first 10 chapters, for example. But, like the Brueggemann work he gets carried away in his own thoughts. Read other commentaries on Genesis to see what Kass misses, you'll wonder how he could write so much yet miss the obvious.
Genesis: Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter
Alter is a Hebrew professor at UC Berkeley. This is one man's translation of Genesis. You can read other translations to see how committees reached different ways of translating it, perhaps Alter felt rejected and needed to go it alone. Each page contains footnotes on key words and brief comments on ideas, mostly parallel ideas in other ancient texts. Several other commentaries (like Ross) deal with the Hebrew words individually, citing others as sources. Alter tries to go it alone, as though the ideas were all his own expertise. Pretty audacious work, I don't recommend it as a stand-alone commentary.