Genesis and the Rise of Civilization


Hearing T.J. Snodgrass speak was one of my personal highlights from last year’s Wild Goose Festival. Afterwards I read his book Turning the Tables: Farming and Feeding in the Gospels and enthusiastically recommended it on this blog.

So when the folks at Speakeasy gave me the opportunity to review his book Genesis and the Rise of Civilization I was happy to take them up on the offer. They provided me with a free copy of the book, but I am under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

Snodgrass’s book is a fascinating journey through Genesis. Part biblical commentary, part history, and part cultural anthropology, readers should find this book interesting and engrossing, regardless of whatever attitudes and beliefs about Genesis and the Bible they bring to it. Written in an engaging first person style, Snodgrass’s uncommon combination of wit and scholarship had me alternately scribbling notes in the margins and laughing out loud. I found it hard to put down. Whatever else may be said about it, it is not dull.

Snodgrass confronts the text without being burdened or circumscribed by doctrine or some pre-existing limitations on where his journey can take him.  His approach to it is scholarly, but easily accessible to a lay audience.

Snodgrass uses Midrash to reveal how rabbinic commentators though the centuries have dealt with the stories, while overlaying on the entire book his thesis that all of Genesis can be seen as a sort of parable relating to the substitution of nomadic hunter-gatherer society with agriculturally based “civilization.” He locates the Genesis stories within the cultures out of which they originated and discusses them in the context of how the rise of agriculture/civilization displaced traditional nomadic hunter/gatherer societies. Snodgrass sees in the first 11 chapters of Genesis what is essentially “a parable of the rise and fall of empires,” and in the remainder of it “an overture to a post-empire experiment to reestablish tribalism in Caanan” (p. 283).

I found his attempts to determine the ancient origins of the stories particularly fascinating. Snodgrass sees within what we now know as Genesis the stories of ancient people uniting under the banner of YHWH, a god of liberation, to oppose the Caananite high-god El (and the kings and authorities who represented him).  Centuries later, he argues, fundamentalist monotheists blended the stories and traditions (among other things merging YHWH and El into a single deity), editing them into a text that legitimized and promoted monarchy and priesthood.  Snodgrass attempts to untangle the stories, and to locate within them evidence of the social upheavals within which they arose. Whether the reader finds his arguments convincing or not, only the most stubbornly dogmatic will fail to find them interesting and thought-provoking.

I give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up.  But be forewarned that no one should expect to agree with everything in it.  In fact, it’s a pretty good idea to be prepared to disagree with some of it.  While it would have benefited from more careful editing, that is a mere quibble. If given the opportunity, this book will breathe new life into these Bible stories, perhaps enabling readers to appreciate them in fresh and interesting ways.

For a sense of Snograss’s style, check out this short video.  You’ll find probably find yourself laughing out loud, and wondering whether preachers are allowed to say things like that in church. Hat tip to Jim Erwin who put this video in his review, leading me to do likewise.