J. Gerald Janzen was one of my professors at my seminary; from him I took courses in Hebrew Scripture and spirituality. A priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, he brings a pastoral sense as well as a deeply spiritual scholarship to the writing projects he undertakes, and this volume is no exception. This particular volume comes out of two decades of teaching experience. This volume is also part of the larger International Theological Commentary series, published by Eerdmans, addressing issues more toward ministers and Christian educators than other scholars, and specifically tasked with bringing theological analysis into the overall biblical criticism.
In the introduction, Janzen clearly states what this volume is by stating what it is not - this is not a word-by-word or line-by-line commentary, of which there are many. This is also not a study of sources, traditions, history, or social situation, again, of which there are countless texts. Yet all of these things play a part in the overall analysis of the text. As Janzen points out, the biblical text is more than the sum of its parts. The introduction sets the broadest context of the specific biblical text of this commentary - Genesis, chapters 12 to 50, the Abraham and Patriarch cycle - by discussing the earliest text (Genesis 1 - 11) and the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament text that follows. The beginning chapters of Genesis echo throughout the rest of Genesis. Janzen also investigates later connections with the New Testament, and Paul's writing in particular.
The story of Abraham is the beginning of salvation history - as Janzen states at the outset, this is a journey in blessing from one person, Abraham, to all the peoples, families and nations of the earth. The covenant of God to Abraham - making his descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore, the stars in the sky, through whom Abraham will be blessed, and all others will be blessed (particularly those who bless them) - is repeated several times, with similar but not always identical constructions. The blessing works by Abraham setting forth, and later to be scattered all over the world. This is set in contrast to the attempts at immortality and greatness in the preceding chapter, the construction of the tower of Babel. There, the quest was fearful and self-serving; with Abraham, the blessing is a God-inspired quest, one that goes forward into the unknown in faith.
Janzen discusses the theological significance of many of the most famous stories in the Bible - the sacrifice of Isaac, the courtship of Rebekah, the competition between Jacob and Esau, the courtship of Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his dreams, and finally the family coming to live in Egypt, with Joseph as the great friend of Pharoah. At each point, Janzen brings in connections to the rest of the biblical text, with a particular affinity for Job (Janzen has also produced a commentary on Job) and for Isaiah.
Janzen's afterword also discusses the idea of taking the biblical text as more than sum of its parts, and the dangers of picking apart the constituent components and analysing them in ways in which they were never meant to bear scrutiny, not for any particular ulterior motives, but rather because the intention was greater toward the overall building of a communal and providential identity.
The text has a selected bibliography of commentaries, monographs and articles that is useful, if now somewhat dated. There is no index (something I find annoying -- a particular shortcoming from which an increasing number of texts seem to suffer), but this is not sufficient to reduce my rating on the book an entire star. The commentary as a whole is relative short, and the narrative is smooth flowing and easy to read as passages for understanding rather than the choppier line-by-line types of commentaries, which means an interested reader could read the entire text in but a few days. However, this is a text that one will want to return to again and again, for sermon preparation, Bible study insights, and general theological reflection.