Review—Where Sin Abounds by Robert Gonzales Jr.

Robert Gonzales, Jr., Where Sin Abounds. Wipf & Stock, 2009. 310 pp. R519

Available: LootAmazon

Introduction

Does Genesis depict the patriarchs as sinless men? The author of Where Sin Abounds argues that it does not. Robert Gonzales Jr. is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament studies at Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has served as Editor of the Reformed Baptist Theological Review. He holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation which makes the book compelling both in its interaction with scholarship on the issue as well as its exegetical nature.

Summary of the Argument

Where Sin Abounds is concerned with tracing the spread of sin throughout the entire narrative of Genesis. The book is an academic work that delineates the proliferation of sin from Eden through the primeval narratives and into the patriarchs.

Chapter one considers the nature of the Fall in its covenantal context, the main characters in the Fall narrative and its subsequent effect. After creating everything from nothing, Yahweh places his vice-regent (man) in his creation and charges him to subdue the earth in loyalty. The design was that man would inherit “fullness of life as a royal grant” and join “his Creator-King in an eternal Sabbath-rest” (20). However, the Serpent enters the narrative and tempts man toward disloyalty.

The author analyses the temptation narrative in Genesis 3 and discusses its various aspects, with culmination of this exchange being the Serpent’s claim that God wants to “keep man from experiencing what is good and desirable” (33). This leads to the birth of the first human sin. In pride, man reached for “God-like prerogatives that were inappropriate for them to possess as mere creatures” (37). An inquest then ensures after the crime has been committed, and God pronounces judgement on each of the characters culpable: the Serpent, Eve and Adam. The nature of each of the judgements are discussed, with redemptive pronouncements for Adam and Eve.

Chapter two discusses the advance of sin and the curse in the primeval narratives. Cain’s murder of Abel is first analysed. It is noted that within one generation, sin has accelerated from eating the forbidden fruit to fratricide (61). God begins an inquest, and Cain’s response is filled with self-pity and lacks remorse. The evil in Cain’s heart is ominous for the state of man for the generations to follow.


The evil in Cain’s heart is ominous for the state of man for the generations to follow.


The author then focuses on the various human developments that advanced as a result of Cain’s exile from Eden. Yahweh’s flood judgment and restarting with Noah is discussed. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the nations’ advance from Noah, and God’s judgement at the Tower of Babel. The author also draws out the thematic pattern of sin—Sin, Discovery, Speech, Mitigation and Judgement—which underscores the fall, Cain’s sin and the flood is also present at the Tower.

Chapter three examines evidence of the spread of sin in the pagan societies that the patriarchs were amongst. The author discusses 1) the violations to human life and the marriage covenant (as evidenced by Abraham and Isaac’s use of the wife-sister ruse); 2) oppression and tyranny (Genesis 14); 3) the enhancing of economic potential and familial succession “pursued in disregard of God’s revealed norm” (97); 4) lust (as evidenced by Shechem); and (5) the extreme societal depravity of Sodom.

Chapter four discusses sin in the lives of the first generation of the patriarchs; Abraham, Sarah and Lot. With Abraham, the author at length discusses his delayed obedience to God’s initial call (109), his detour to Egypt (111) and the twice occurring wife-sister ruse. Lot’s steady spiritual decline is delineated, with a detailed discussion of how the Scripture shows his moral decline in a manner that amplifies the spread of sin. This is further clarified by the analysis of Abraham and Sarai’s “Fall”, relating to the episode surrounding Ishmael’s conception. The narration of this story is discussed in detail, with the clear conclusion that the author is relating the story in a manner that shows Abraham and Sarai guilty of multiple grievous sins.

Chapter five examines the spread of sin motif in the lives of Isaac, the son of promise, and Rebekah his wife. Evidence is shown that the narrator is particularly damning in how he relates the account of Isaac’s wife-sister ruse, showing Abimelech as the righteous party. The large part of the chapter’s argument centers around the occasion of Jacob’s deceit of Isaac. The author argues that Isaac is not innocent in the matter and relates evidence of Rebekah’s immorality in the episode.

Chapter six continues the same pattern of examination but this time on Esau and Jacob. Esau is shown to have irreligious tendencies, specifically with how he treated his birthright and marrying Canaanite women. Furthermore, the author examines the occasion of Jacob’s stealing the blessing and shows that Esau is not as innocent as many make him out to be. Jacob’s deceptive character and actions are also observed and concluded with the summary statement: “Jacob has unwittingly employed the Serpent’s tactics rather than God’s” (182). The way in which the dysfunctional nature of his family is emphasized by Moses is shown as further evidence of Moses’ motif in the lives of the Patriarchs.

Chapter seven turns attention to Jacobs children and the explosive nature of their sins. The selling of Joseph, Reuben’s rebellion, the “Rape of Shechem,” and Judah’s prostitute episode show the intensification of sin in the lives of God’s chosen nation.

Chapter eight discusses the nature of God’s judgements on the patriarchal family as expressed in the narrative. The author argues that the curse-sanction in Genesis 3 established general and specific punishments for humans. The author goes on to show how Yahweh’s punishments are discriminately meted out against the patriarchal family. The concluding chapter summarises the findings and presents its lessons for immediate-audience Israel as well as the church.

Is this book necessary?

Where Sin Abounds centrally tackles the question of whether Moses had a sin spread motif not only in the primeval narratives but also in the patriarchal narratives. The book has several features to commend it.


Where Sin Abounds centrally tackles the question of whether Moses had a sin spread motif not only in the primeval narratives but also in the patriarchal narratives.


First, the necessity of its central argument is well attested to not only in the initial literature-review section but also throughout the book. The author shows where the vast majority of both conservative and critical scholars are on the subject and presents clearly why this study is necessary.

Throughout the book, the author shows what scholars say to exonerate the characters in question, and he then proceeds to examine the literature to see if the author of Genesis really does present the characters as innocent. Overwhelmingly, and quite surprisingly, the author shows excellent scholars to be wanting in their assessments of the events.

For example, many scholars attempt to exonerate Abram and Isaac for their wife-sister ruse, but on each count the author walks through Moses’ use of language to show that their sins were censured. This exercise is thoroughly beneficial to the student of Genesis. It is clear that scholars must be questioned and their biases and assumptions regarding Moses’ intentions in the text must be scrutinized.

Second, the author’s focus on the original language gives gravity to the argument. The book aims to show what Moses meant to communicate in writing the passages of Genesis as he did. Accordingly, to understand Moses will require to clearly show a grasp of his language and concepts related to understanding his language. The author exhibits a strong focus on Moses’ language and this is important because a large amount of Moses’ censuring, particularly in the patriarchal narratives, occurs subtly in the original language. For example, when discussing Lot’s lingering (Gen. 19:16), the author explains the nature of the Hebrew verb stem and that it “emphasizes both a reflexive and repetitive action” (124). From this assessment, the author is able to conclude that this action betrays Lot’s repetitive weakness. Whereas such censuring would be easily skipped if read through a translation, the author pauses and concentrates on each censuring activity—however subtle it may be.


The author exhibits a strong focus on Moses’ language and this is important because a large amount of Moses’ censuring, particularly in the patriarchal narratives, occurs subtly in the original language.


Third, the author’s promotion of a similarity of motif in the primeval and patriarchal narratives simplifies the Genesis narrative. The debates about when primeval history switches off and patriarchal history begins becomes less important if the motif(s) is the same. If the spread of sin is only confined to the primeval narrative, then it is vitally important to delineate clearly where it ends. Conversely, if the spread of sin motif exists even in the patriarchal narrative where God has made amazing promises, then there is no need on the part of the interpreter to try to exonerate the patriarchs in the face of sinful actions that lead to them attaining the promises (such as Jacob). This book’s fresh focus allows for a simplification of the interpreter’s work.

Fourth, the book provides the interpreter with a clear rubric to use when defining and explaining sin in later passages throughout the entire Bible. The author spends time fundamentally defining the first human sin and early subsequent sins, and then he shows how Moses alludes to them later in the narrative. This is a fantastic model, where the interpreter sees the initial sins and sees how the narrator alludes to them as either ominous warnings of the character in question or as a clarifier for the judgement to come.


The author spends time fundamentally defining the first human sin and early subsequent sins, and then he shows how Moses alludes to them later in the narrative.


Fifth, the author’s chief proposal will encourage believers who struggle with sin. Since Moses does not hide the patriarchs’ sin, and God still honours his promises in the midst of their heinous crimes against him, believers who stumble in many ways can be encouraged to believe that God honours his word despite their sinning. Many believers might struggle relating to the patriarchs— particularly in the presence of so many commentators who exonerate them—as fellow believers who were justified by God’s decree rather than by their actions. The author brings a fresh view of the patriarchs as people with certain proclivities to sin and makes them more relatable to believers who are the same yet hold fast to God and his promises.

Sixth, the author spends enough time balancing the sin spread motif with the other recurring themes in the narrative. While the aim of the book is clear and overloading the reader with too much information might be unnecessary, there are certain sections where the author rightly balanced Moses’ emphasis on the character’s sin and Moses’ other emphases. After discussing Judah’s sin at length, for example, the author also emphasizes the focus on God still achieving his purposes through such imperfect situations. This oft-occurring balance shows a respect for the text and a discernment of all its intentions.

SOME CONCERNS

There are some negative qualities to the book, however, that are worth noting. First, the author almost negates his own point by drawing out the “Sin, Discovery, Speech, Mitigation and Judgement” pattern in the primeval narratives and then says almost nothing about it in the patriarchal narratives. There are two issues here. Foremost is, if the author’s intention is to show that the spread of sin motif continues beyond the primeval narratives, then the structure in which the spread of sin is seen in the primeval narratives must be clearly demonstrated to continue in the subsequent narrative. The author does not do this at all. Instead, the author shows the sin in the patriarchal passages and then devotes a chapter to explain the nature of judgement in the patriarchal narratives. While this is enough to show that Moses wants the reader to see that sin still spreads and Yahweh still judges in the patriarchal narratives, it is not sufficient to show that it is as primary a motif as in the primeval narratives.

Secondarily, it is worth acknowledging that the reason the author does not draw out the pattern in the patriarchal narrative might be because it would be exegetically impossible to do so. And this is precisely the problem. If the pattern is so clear in the primeval narratives, and is absent exegetically after, then does that not betray an extra sin- spread and judgement motif in the primeval narratives that is absent in the patriarchal narratives?

After reading this book, this reviewer is convinced that the sin-spread motif is very present in the patriarchal narratives, but whether its primacy is comparable to the primeval narratives is still unclear.


The author is at pains to argue that Moses does not paint the patriarchs as sinless saints who were justified because of their obedience.


Second, the author does not clearly categoriSe the difference between the function of the primeval narratives and the function of the patriarchal narratives. The primeval narrative depicts sin as spreading so that it establishes that sin has infected every man everywhere, whereas the patriarchal narrative focuses on Yahweh’s redemption work. Accordingly, Moses will focus on Yahweh’s redemption work amongst a sinful and censured people. The lack of acknowledgement of this arrangement at times leads the author to seem to say that the sin-spread motif in the patriarchal narratives functions the same as the sin-spread theme in the primeval narratives. The author emphasized continuity between the two narratives so much that it is unclear whether he sees a difference in the function of the two narratives. Although he insuperably shows the continuing of the sin spread motif, he does not clarify whether the sin spread motif in the primeval narratives is qualitatively different to its occurrence in the subsequent narratives. This is a question that that the book raises by its very nature but does not answer.

Conclusion

The author is at pains to argue that Moses does not paint the patriarchs as sinless saints who were justified because of their obedience. Many scholars, including the reformers, would agree that the patriarchs were saved by grace however their interpretations of the patriarchs’ actions betray that they think higher of them then they ought.

The present work, whilst not diminishing Yahweh’s promises, nevertheless brings forward quite strikingly Moses’ censuring of the patriarchs and shows that Yahweh is the hero of the patriarchal narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be using it whenever I work through Genesis as it provides detailed analysis of the narratives.

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