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Marvin Wilson's Foreword to the Birth and Rebirth through Genesis: The Timeless Theological Conversation

It is a personal delight to write this Foreword to Birth and Rebirth through Genesis. I have had the pleasure of knowing Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel for more than a decade. During this time we have spent dozens of hours discussing Torah together. In particular, I have greatly enjoyed my many conversations with Rabbi Samuel over his manuscript as he was finalizing his commentary and completing his edits. These interactions were always respectful as each would listen to the point being raised by the other. For me, a Christian professor of Hebrew Bible for more than four decades, each discussion with Rabbi Samuel proved stimulating, enlightening and very enriching. Personally, I became invigorated through these discussions as we would exchange exegetical comments, examine parallel passages, and compare and contrast classic and contemporary perspectives on the Torah.

One of the strengths of this commentary is the way it handles difficult and theologically diffuse passages. On most controversial passages, Rabbi Samuel presents alternative ways of understanding the text, thus allowing the reader to evaluate options and choose. In our personal discussions over the manuscript, our mutual respect for each other as well as our joint high regard for the text of Scripture always made these discussions very worthwhile and enjoyable learning experiences to me, as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

I believe that all who carefully read this book are in for a deeply rewarding experience. A study of the text and commentary of Birth and Rebirth through Genesis will contribute greatly to an understanding of the rich and diverse fabric of biblical narrative and provide an appreciation for its creative application to the problems of the modern world. In making the above observation, however, I am reminded there is yet a deeper point to be made, one powerfully illustrated by the following Hasidic story. Once, a relatively young talmid (disciple), with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, came up to his Rebbe. The disciple excitingly exclaimed, “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that I have gone through the Talmud three times!” Sitting back and stroking his white beard, the Rebbe replied, “My son, the question is not how many times you have gone through the Talmud, but how many times the Talmud has gone through you.”

Rabbi Samuel’s work, Birth and Rebirth through Genesis, provides a valuable tool for both Jew and Christian to help the student grasp and retain the meaning of the Torah. The commentary is lucidly written and its various indexes make it very “user friendly” as a tool for research. This work will enable any serious student, in the words of the Mishnah, to be more like “a sponge” type of learner so he “soaks up everything” rather than “the funnel” type who “takes in at this end and lets out at the other” (Avot 5:15). Any neophyte of biblical literature quickly knows the early chapters of Genesis are no place for “speed reading” the biblical text. Readers need all the assistance they can get to grasp what the text is saying and how it may be understood so that it will “stick.” Here Rabbi Samuel and his “educator’s eye” provides for the reader a highly effective source of study by locating key themes and sub themes, and by breaking the text down and analyzing it so its meaning can be readily “soaked up.”

In addition to our friendship, Rabbi Samuel and I share much in common. Professionally, each of us is trained in Hebraic and Semitic sources, and each of us has a high appreciation of the Torah as the Word of God. We have each been mutually enriched by our discussions of the Torah and Hebraic heritage. Yet, at the end of the day, on a personal level, each of us comes to the Book of Genesis through a slightly different set of lenses or theological grid. Rabbi Samuel approaches this material from his Jewish perspective and I from through my Christian orientation and world view. Birth and Rebirth through Genesis is a Jewish theological commentary, yet one which connects the Jewish world to the Christian world, and the Christian world to the Jewish world.

One of the things I like most about this work is the fact it is a work from which both Jews and Christians can read with much profit. Specifically, in this commentary, Christians will especially appreciate the sensitive, thoughtful and respectful manner in which Rabbi Samuel engages Christian scholarship. The verse by verse discussions in this manuscript on Genesis indicate a willingness to listen and weigh carefully what Jewish and Christian scholarship are saying, a tremendous service which helps to clarify and expand the discussion on this “Book of Beginnings” so that it might be of optimum value to both Jewish and Christian readership. An important underlying premise of this book –one which I greatly celebrate– is that Christians can learn from Jews and Jews from Christians.

Birth and Rebirth through Genesis is sure to have considerable appeal as an academic text in both colleges and seminaries for courses on the Jewish Scriptures, Pentateuch, science and the Bible, and comparative biblical theology. Rabbi Samuel’s scholarly, exegetical treatment of the biblical text is enhanced on many pages by the addition of nuanced discussions of key theological expressions and by various word studies of important Hebrew and Greek terms. Much to the surprise of many Jews and Christians, Judaism is much more than the history of a civilization and the survival of a people; Judaism also possesses a venerable theology. In this volume, Rabbi Samuel goes into considerable detail to show why.

A useful and striking example of how the author demonstrates his scholarly acumen is in his treatment of the controversial and much debated third chapter of Genesis. While Genesis 3 and the “fall into sin” is one of the most theologically pivotal chapters in all of Scripture for Christians, this chapter is frequently not given adequate examination or extensive discussion in Jewish theological works. Rabbi Samuel, however, gives a rather lengthy and nuanced treatment of the topic of original sin, the nature of human nature, and the importance of the Augustinian and Pelagian debate. Rabbi Samuel’s theological discussion clearly shows the points of convergence between Christianity and Judaism as well as the points of divergence. The rabbi concludes that at the end of the day, “mother and daughter” are close, but different religions. One of the important features of Rabbi’s Samuel’s work, however, is that he shows that neither Judaism nor Christianity is monolithic. Each tradition has theological diversity that must be acknowledged and clarified. One of the most important arguments for Christian-Jewish relations is that the encounter often exposes stereotypes, caricatures and half-truths concerning the other. For two thousand years Genesis 3 has largely remained a watershed of theological dissidence between Christians and Jews. In Birth and Rebirth through Genesis, however, Rabbi Samuel astutely points out that the differences of interpretation within Judaism and Christianity are much more variegated than most people of faith realize.

The Torah is the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity, and the Book of Genesis the port of entry into the Torah. Torah is teaching, guidance or direction for living. Genesis is a book of “firsts” in Scripture. Among the more notable “firsts” are the creation of the first human pair (Adam and Eve), the first commandment (“be fruitful and increase”), the first moral failure (the disobedience of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden), the break with pagan idolatry and beginnings of an elect covenantal family (Abraham). Furthermore, the opening chapters of Genesis connect Jew and Christian to many of the key questions related to human existence including the sanctity of life (man made in the divine image), sexuality, “earth keeping,” good and evil, free will, capital punishment, linguistic diversity and more. Christians will especially appreciate the discussion of these and other topics in Birth and Rebirth in Genesis because Christians tend to spend more time in the Prophets and Psalms than they do in the Torah.

The genius of Birth and Rebirth through Genesis is the fact it combines lexical, exegetical, theological and ethical insights into a holistic medley. Rabbi Samuel assists his readers through many valuable excursuses interlarded throughout his discussion of the text of Genesis. These “mini essays” often apply, illustrate, or rationally interact with the findings of science, literature, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, world religion and other disciplines. This work is scholarly, yet accessible. The author is not simply interested in perpetuating the “scholarly consensus du jour” but is interested in exploring the meaning of the biblical text through interaction with ancient and modern writers. Christians will especially appreciate the numerous insights of medieval Jewish scholars not found in most Christian commentaries on Genesis. Jews, on the other hand, will come to appreciate much of the discussion found in classic and modern Christian commentators on Genesis.

In a masterful way, Rabbi Samuel shows how the text of Genesis is intended to create a dialogue with the reader that leads to action. In a profound sense, Birth and Rebirth in Genesis is an intergenerational theological conversation. Readers can interact with the biblical characters as they learn to “listen” to the biblical text. These characters such as Adam, Eve, Cain and Noah are lives to be continued, not simply names to be contemplated. The conversation continues with us, the readers and interpreters. Ancient Israel had a relationship with the Torah but that relationship remains alive and continues with each new generation with its own responsibility to creatively interact anew with the text.

The important starting point of a dynamic process of understanding is the intended meaning of the biblical author. The authors of Scripture indeed give us an inspired text. The text, however, must always point beyond itself; it must not be worshipped. Such lends itself to bibliolatry. Rather the text was written so that humans may vicariously enter into the dialogue and respond accordingly to the divine message. No one single interpreter “controls” the text for all time. Rather there is a dynamic fluidity to the text necessitated and brought about by an unending conversation between the reader and text. Collectively, the people of God have a major responsibility in seeing that the text does not be treated as static or as a sacred relic. Rather, the biblical text is a divinely charged living word capable of illuminating each new generation of readers as they actively engage it, not passively inherit it.

In this age of maturing Christian-Jewish dialogue, Birth and Rebirth in Genesis illustrates the necessity and vitality of the exchange of Jewish and Christian perspectives on the text. The biblical text is an ancient tapestry with many interwoven strands of thought. Each new generation, however, examines and reexamines that ancient word so that new light might break forth to further illumine the path stretching before us. Rabbi Samuel shows why, in this 21st century, serious biblical scholarship cannot be isolated or self-contained. Jews and Christians must understand and respect their own theological uniqueness and distinctiveness. Rabbi Samuel, however, also shows the necessity of Jews hearing serious Christian reflections and commentaries on Genesis, and Christians hearing those scholarly Jewish voices representative of the original “People of the Book.”

Birth and Rebirth through Genesis is a book for Jews and Christians. Genesis is one of the many gifts of Jewish people to Christians. But the coin of interfaith has two sides. In his commentary, Rabbi Samuel is interested in pointing out the other side of that coin. Indeed, he skillfully shows how certain thoughtful Christian reflection over many centuries on the Hebrew text of Genesis is one of the potential—yet largely undiscovered—gifts of Christians to Jews.

May this significant work of Rabbi Samuel show the importance of the spirit of reciprocity for this generation of biblical scholarship. May it be a “listening generation” such as the creation of this theological commentary of Rabbi Samuel displays, namely by listening sincerely, sympathetically and appreciatively to the biblical text, by listening to the rich variety of commentators past and present on the text, and by listening to one’s partner in interfaith dialogue about the text.

Marvin R. Wilson, Ph.D.

Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies

Gordon College

Wenham, MA