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Have you had the experience where someone comes to you with a problem and then you say, “Let’s start from the beginning?” Well, we have a lot of problems in this life and in this world. So why don’t we start from the beginning. And what can be more of a beginning than Genesis? Let’s do that with today’s book Dr Johnson. He will guide us through Genesis chapter 1 – 11.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today’s book is from Logos’ Free book of the Month for April 2021. The book we are reviewing today is a book from the commentary series, Transformative Word. The title of the book is “Universal Story: Genesis 1-11” by Dru Johnson. The Reverend Dr. Johnson teaches biblical literature, theology and biblical interpretation at the King’s College in New York City.
He has a colorful background as it says here: Before academia, he served two years active duty and five years in the reserves of the U.S. Air Force-involved in counter-narcotics operations in the Amazon basin of Colombia from 1993-98.
None of that is related to this book, but I thought his counter narcotics operations a world far away from Genesis 1 – 11.
The Outlandish Scope
Now, why does he title this book “Universal Story”? I’m going to explain using his words and it’s a long paragraph.
Genesis 1–11 is outlandish in its scope. The opening chapters parade stories of humanity intertwined with the most intriguing subjects we still wrestle with today: the beginning of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, family, sex, deceit, death, murder, mass murder, ecology, agriculture, urbanization, and more. No topic seems to escape the sweeping narratives of Israel’s initial history. This early history is the story of humanity, but also the story of “all creatures of our God and King,” as Saint Francis once put it. It is the story of astronomers, entomologists, cartographers, historians, and social workers because it seeks to explain place, history, and the lineage of every human endeavor. It is the story of stories, because it is a story about how all of these things came to be the way the Hebrews knew them to be, and the way we know them today. In other words, all stories about life and reality in this universe are in some way subsumed under the early history of Israel’s Scripture.
So you can see that he makes a very sweeping case that we need to understand Genesis 1 to 11 in order to understand everything else around us. This book is structured with chapter one as the introduction of which I just quoted at length. In chapter two you will learn why it’s 1 to 11 and not 1 to 10 or 1 to 12 because of the way the book of Genesis is written. And in the same chapter two you will also see how what we believe in and what we know of the Christian faith from the New Testament, Old Testament can all be traced to Genesis And after that, in chapters 3-7, these five chapters explains Genesis 1 – 11. Now there are 11 Genesis chapters, but he doesn’t divide them equally into these five chapters. There’s one chapter for Genesis 1, one chapter for Genesis 2, one chapter for Genesis 3-4. One chapter for genesis 5-9 and one chapter for Genesis 10-11. If you’re keeping track, that means the emphasis of the book is on chapters one and two. And understanding chapter one and 2 of Genesis is foundational to understanding the remaining chapters.
So after explaining Genesis 1 to 11, Dr Johnson has two chapters which explains what we have just learned in connection with science and ethics today. And the book wraps up with a conclusion and recommended reading.
The Missing Chapter
The attentive listener would have noticed that we have a missing chapter. I said in the beginning that this book is part of a series, the “Transformative Word” series. And what is this series about? We don’t have the typical introduction by the editor of the series or a chapter just describing what is the series about. It’s not in this book, it’s not in Amazon and I could only read about this series in Logos, the website. This is what it says.
God’s Word is transformative. It is this conviction which gives the Transformative Word series its name and its unique character. Series Editor Craig G. Bartholomew has worked alongside authors from around the world to identify a key theme in each book of the Bible, and each volume provides careful biblical exegesis centered on that gripping theme.
Later it continues:
The result is an engaging, accessible thematic exploration of Scripture, poised to offer you new and refreshing insights. The Transformative Word volumes were designed to pair with your favorite commentary, to enrich your study with a thematic as well as exegetical perspective.
What all that means is that this book is not meant to replace a very rigorous academic, technical or full commentary. It’s designed to be read alongside another commentary. So that explains why this book is so short. It’s a commentary which is only 128 pages. You see just like Faithlife, Logos has a free book every month. I have committed myself to review a Faithlife book every month but I don’t dare to do that for Logos because the Logos free book is a thick and academic commentary. I just don’t have the time and maybe even the ability to review those type of commentaries. But that’s what makes April’s free book different, it’s only 128 pages. So I thought why not give it a read and I’m glad I did.
I Don’t Like Commentaries
Now some of us listening may be put off by commentaries and you say and you think: “I’m not a preacher, pastor, scholar or theologian. I’m not even the overachieving Bible study leader who really studies the Bible before he leads. So I don’t think I want to listen.”
But wait, wait, don’t go yet. When you hear my story, you might want to hear the rest of the review. So this is how my story goes.
In the first two years of my Christian life, I wanted to understand more about the Bible. I went to the church library, I took a book. It was a commentary on Genesis. I read it and it was hard going. I understood the words but the discussion on the Hebrew language, other manuscripts and other Ancient Near East sources just confused me. I felt like I was in the middle of a discussion that has been ongoing for awhile amongst very smart people and I was just not one of those smart people. Because of that I didn’t touch commentaries.
Some years later I met a brother in Christ. He saw that I love reading and he asked me to read commentaries and I said “No, no, no”. I tried and it didn’t work. He said there are different types of commentaries and what I read was an academic commentary really meant more for those who do research or scholarship rather than for the layperson.
He suggested I read 1 Kings by Dale Ralph Davis, so I did. And I’m so happy I did. It was a funny book, insightful. It made me think. It made me understand what 1 Kings was about. And so I really gained from reading commentaries after that.
Dru Johnson’s Universal Story reminds me of those easy to read commentaries. It’s one of the easiest commentaries to get into.
Reading Genesis For New Insights
Let me put it to you this way. If the book of Genesis is a national park, it is a national park that you have visited very often. Sunday School teachers around the world have guided young children to color the skies as God created the heavens and the earth. And many Sunday School children sit enraptured when the teacher tells them about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve and the Serpent. Who has not heard those stories before? You have already read those chapters. These are very familiar stories to you. So you might ask why read a commentary on something that you are so familiar with.
Well, the difference here is the tour guide. This is not your Sunday School teacher and God bless him or her for their service to all of us. The tour guide in this book is Dr Johnson. And he leads you through those familiar points in Genesis 1-11 and he avoids those pits. He tells us about those places where you have creationists and evolutionists and how they have argued and so on, but he doesn’t make us stay there. Instead he allows us to get a broad understanding and he moves on.
Then at some point he would just stop and ask that you take a look at that tree. Remember, we’re in a national park. All right. So there’s a tree over there, it’s a tree you have walked past dozens of times. But now he points it out to you and say, “Do you see that bird? It’s a rare bird and its nest is there on that branch.”
And you look at it and you wonder, “I walked past this tree dozens of times, but I’ve never noticed that amazing and beautiful bird. Or the nest that is on that branch.”
What I’m trying to describe here is the wonderful feeling we get. What the series editor meant by new and refreshing insights. How Dr Johnson does this is by asking interesting questions.
What Exactly Went Wrong in Eden?
Let me give you an example. In chapter five, there is this section where he asks what exactly went wrong in Eden. Was it when the woman listened to the serpent? Or was it when she hinted at an extra command onto God’s command? Was it when she lusted for the wisdom of the fruit? Was it when she took it? Or when she ate it? Or when the man who was standing there the whole time ate the fruit. Now, many of us we understand the story of the Eden and we understand the Fall came about because the two ate the fruit. But here he asked what exactly went wrong. He makes a very interesting point. He asks us to read Genesis 3:17. In this passage, it says that God, God said to the man, “because you listened to the voice of your wife”. So Dr Johnson says that the problem, God’s diagnosis of the problem, was that the man listened to the wrong voice.
So that was a perspective I’ve never considered before. It was not really the eating. What really prompted everything according to God in Scripture, is the man listened to the wrong voice.
Now, another question that I never pondered before was, did the serpent lie? I always thought the answer was yes, or at least he told a half truth. But here, Dr Johnson claims that the serpent spoke the truth. This is how he explains it. I quote:
The serpent predicted three things: 1) they would not die in that day, 2) their eyes would be opened, and 3) they would be “like God” knowing good and evil.
Dr Johnson then shows that after eating the fruit, they did not die in that day. So the serpent did speak truth. Number two, the scripture also says that their eyes were both opened and they knew that they were naked. So The Serpent did not lie, the eyes did open. And the third thing was that they would be like God. In Genesis 3:22, God said, “Behold the man has become like one of us knowing good and evil.” So Dr Johnson writes:
Everything the serpent said came to fruition precisely as he said. What does this mean? If nothing else, we learn that just because someone has authoritative knowledge, does not mean that we should listen to them.
This is an insight which I’ve never considered before and I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that being authoritative, knowing what is really true is enough for us to follow. But here we see that we can have two authoritative voice: the authoritative voice of God and the authoritative voice of Satan. Where what Satan says is also true, but in this case we should not follow him.
Every chapter has this type of insights where he shows us something that I’m not familiar with. Under his capable hands, Genesis 1-11 becomes new and refreshing. Every chapter ends with the suggested reading. We have a Bible passages to read alongside. And there are also questions.
Now if you’re looking to this book as a bible study book, something to bring to your small group, it can be that book. The only thing I would caution is that some bible study books are more directed meaning you can find the answer in the Bible or in the book that you’re reading. That’s not true for this book. In this book, the questions are very reflective. It’s very open ended. So it’s not as guided.
You will not find the answers to the question in the bible or in the book. For example, the questions for the chapter I just explained is: “How do the stories we tell create voices we listen to? How can we learn to critique these voices with the voice of scripture?”
It’s very reflective. It is something that there is no firm answer to. I find it very engaging and you could have many good discussions but I just want to tell you that you will not find the answer in the Bible or in this book.
Asking Different Questions
Now after explaining Genesis 1-11, he has these two chapters where he deals with science and ethics today. Many will come to a commentary on Genesis to get answers to those type of questions: Young Earth, evolution, sexual ethics. If you’re looking for a definitive, deep and wide study to get a conclusion that you can bring to your next debate or get some points that you can bash the other fellow with, this is not the book for you. I would say you probably want to get books written by Ken Ham or others like him. Apologists who are really debating and answering these tough questions.
Universal story by Dru Johnson doesn’t repeat many of the arguments for or against those topics. Instead, he asks different questions. For example, on evolution, he says this:
The term “evolution” has many uses and layers. By “evolution” I mean the explanation of the current biological diversity based on principles of survival of the fittest, scarcity of resources, and propagation. These three principles are meant to explain how humankind rose to rule the world. These same principles that became the dominant force in biology for the next 150 years bear strong resemblance to the concerns of the biblical creation stories.
Now, if you don’t understand all the biological stuff, don’t worry. The point I want to make over here is that he says that the principles that concern biology in terms of evolution are the same or similar concerns that has been stated in the Biblical creation stories. He makes a case of how survival of the fittest, scarcity of resources and propagation are mentioned within the Biblical creation stories.
As I was reading, I was not sure whether I agree or not agree, but I thought it was very interesting. There are some people who say that science and the bible is basically explaining the same thing in different ways. So whatever tensions that exist, actually, all those tensions can be explained as different ways of looking.
Dr Johnson, I think, correctly perceives it. That’s not exactly true. There are some cases where it is describing the same thing, but in some cases it is two worldviews clashing. And Dr Johnson here makes the case that we need to have a biblical understanding of these topics. Otherwise, if we use the scientific way of interpreting the world, we would abandon the biblical perspective. So he makes that case well. He’s not one of those people who say that we are all saying the same thing but in different ways. He makes a strong case for the biblical point of view.
More Books From the Series
Looking at book recommendations. Normally, I would maybe suggest books by Dr Johnson or maybe some books on Genesis. But today I’m going to do something a bit different. I’m going to suggest that you consider getting some books from the Transformative Word commentary series. The reason why I say this is: it’s different, it’s as they say, an unique character. It’s easy to read. It’s not a 750 page commitment to pick up one of these books.
Because of Universal Story: Genesis 1-11, I bought a few more of the series. I bought Habakkuk, Daniel and Hebrews. Because it’s April. Let me explain. Each of those books that I just mentioned would cost you $5.99 in Amazon for the Kindle copy. And I know prices in Amazon fluctuates, but that’s the price that I see today.
Now if you’re going to get the four books that I mentioned from Amazon, you’re going to be looking at $24. Now, if you were to get it from Logos in April, you’re gonna get all those four books: You’re gonna get Genesis 1-11 by Dru Johnson, Habakkuk by Heath Thomas, Daniel by Barbara Lai and Hebrews by Adrio Konig. You’re gonna get all four of these four books for $7 and minus a few cents.
$24 in Amazon, $7 in Logos. So I got it all for $7. I would say that this book, Universal Story by Dru Johnson to be worth the full price. It’s really an enjoyable read and insightful. So if you want to get those books I suggest you get them in April.
I Like Commentaries
Before I finish my review, I just want to mention that I looked at the final chapter where there is this further reading, reading recommendations. We have commentaries and under academic commentaries I see Gorden Wenham’s Word Biblical Commentary. Guess what? That’s the book I picked up so many years ago in my church library. That is the book that made me nearly give up on commentaries because it was just too difficult for me to understand. But it’s not that it was a bad book. It was just a book that was too advanced for me at that time.
This is why I appreciate books like Universal Story by Dru Johnson because it makes it so much more accessible. It makes it easy. And we understand that it doesn’t take a scholar or professor or theologian to understand what the Bible says. You can explain things in a way that ordinary people can understand. And you understand not just from a cognitive, like I know something new, but also how it helps you grow as a Christian. Which voice are you listening to today? Do you put too much emphasis on what is authoritative, not realizing that what is authoritative may not be the right voice to listen to.
This book is very good. It’s accessible. It asks good questions. It packs a punch in 128 pages. It’s like a featherweight knocking down other heavyweights. This is a Reading and Readers review of Universal Story: Genesis 1-11 by Dr Dru Johnson.
The Universal Podcaster’s Appeal
Before you go, I want to tell you another universal story. And this is the universal appeal that all podcasters everywhere has asked for since the genesis, the beginning of podcasting. And that appeal is this: If you like this podcast, please subscribe, review or visit the website. The website for this podcast is readingandreaders.com. And I just want to say that this episode, episode five, concludes the five reviews for the launch of this Reading and Readers podcast. The next episode, episode six, will not be a book review. It will be a behind the scenes episode on how reading and readers came to be, it’s genesis so to speak, and how it works and where this podcast is heading. So if you’re interested in that, check out the next episode. Thank you very much for listening.
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