Stephen K. Ray was raised in a devout and loving Baptist family. His father was a deacon and Bible teacher, and Stephen was very involved in his local Baptist church as a teacher of biblical studies. After an in-depth study of the writings of the Church Fathers, both Steve and his wife Janet entered the Catholic Church in 1994. He is the host of the popular, award-winning film series Footprints of God, on salvation history. Steve is also the author of the best-selling books Crossing the Tiber, St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary, and Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church.
His new book is a detailed—nearly 500 pages—but accessible study and commentary on Genesis. It has been praised for being “extremely readable” (John Bergsma), full of “passion, zeal, and unique insights” (Mary Healy), “outstanding” (Al Kresta), and “truly remarkable” (Tim Staple).
Ray recently corresponded with CWR while he was in the Holy Land, leading a pilgrimage there with his wife Janet.
CWR: You’ve written several books, but your first commentary was on the Gospel of John. Is your decision to write a commentary on Genesis related to that first commentary? What factored into deciding on the first book of the Bible?
Steve Ray: The short answer is “Yes”, since I consider these two books to be so foundational to everything we believe as Catholics. Both books begin with the same words—”In the beginning…”—which certainly links them together.
After converting to the Catholic Church in 1994, I was asked by our parish to teach a Bible Study since they knew I used to do so as a Protestant. I agreed, but soon found there was no available Catholic Bible Study Guides to use—so I ended up writing my own. Over the years it became the book St. John’s Gospel, A Bible Study Guide and Commentary, published by Ignatius Press in 2002.
In researching and writing that book, I realized it was largely based on Genesis and steeped in the Jewish context of the Old Testament. It seemed to me that John, in starting his gospel with the words “In the beginning…”, was hinting that if we wanted to fully understand his book, we would need to fully understand the first book starting with the same words.
The second factor in writing this study and commentary is the significance of Genesis. We can rightly say it is the foundation for the whole rest of Scripture and everything we know to be true.
Our five sense are very limited. Even with assistance of microscopes, telescopes and computers, we have no way of knowing where we came from or why. We cannot go back in time to experience or observe the beginning of the universe. We can speculate on the “how”, but the “why” is quite another matter. Before the beginning there was an Artist, a Creator—namely, God. He created the universe and mankind, and wants us to know him and have a relationship with him. He wants us to know why he created, where we came from, our purpose, why there is suffering, what his remedy is, and where we are going. These things can only be known by divine revelation.
Genesis is that divine revelation, which gives us the beginning and foundation for all other knowledge.
CWR: How would you describe your approach to this commentary? What sort of challenges does Genesis present?
Steve Ray: There is, of course, recent debate on the author and date of the writing. In the past, it was accepted that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Therefore the date and author were not questioned by the Jews before and during the time of Christ and the apostles, and by all the early Church. But, recently, there have been schools of thought that challenge all of that. I address those questions and issues.
Also: whether creation was completed in six literal days or the days are symbolic. Also, Genesis 1 has one account of creation and Genesis 2 has another account. Some say it is a contradiction or two alternative views written by different authors. I present the first as being cosmological and addressing the “big picture” whereas the second is anthropological, zooming in to the specific creation of the pinnacle: Man. They are complementary.
But that is only the first two chapters out of fifty. The whole book is a masterpiece of literature as well as being a work of sublime theological reflection and revelation.
The big division is after chapters 1-11, which are called “pre-history” as it is difficult to pinpoint specific dates. The second section starts in chapter 12 with Abraham, and here we can begin specifying dates.
Each of the two sections can be divided into four. Genesis 1-11: Creation, Fall, Flood, and Babel. Genesis 12-50: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Throughout the book, I make mention of the first time specific words are used in the Bible. For example, the first two times the word “love” is used is thrilling; they are profoundly placed in Scripture to describe the love of a father for his only begotten son and the love of a husband for his wife. Can you guess how the story of Abraham and Isaac and this word “love” is a prefiguration of future events?
CWR: Your approach to Genesis is, of course, very Catholic and very Christo-centric. What role does typology and the senses of Scripture play in your commentary?
Steve Ray: Genesis is very Christian, but there is a rich supply of commentaries, including secular and Protestants, in addition to Church documents and the writings of the Church Fathers. I also bring out the marvelous Jewish heritage by quoting rabbis and Jewish commentaries past and present. It adds to the rich tapestry of the book.
Regarding typology, the book of Genesis is full of images of Christ, the sacraments, the Church and even hints of the Trinity. This is one of the aspects I really emphasize. Enoch is assumed into heaven, laying the foundation for the future assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The flood and ark prefigure water baptism. Babel prepares us for Pentecost, and Joseph is a rich type of Jesus Christ himself.
Abraham and Isaac will surprise a lot of readers because of the account of the offering of Isaac (called the Akeda by the Jews)
The pronoun “us” as in “Let us make man in our image” is used more than once. Many have struggled with the purpose or meaning of the plural pronoun, but it seems to be an indication of the Trinity, as affirmed by many Fathers of the Church. In the first few verses we have God the Father creating through his Word (the Logos) while the Spirit is hovering over the waters.
The three visitors at the entrance of Abraham’s tent give strong hints of the Trinity, which the books discusses in some detail. Abraham addresses the three with the singular “Lord”. In what could be argued is the most most famous icon of all time, Rublev’s The Trinity pictures these three “angels” dining at Abraham’s tent.
CWR: Are there common misunderstandings or misrepresentations about Genesis that you address?
Steve Ray: Two main misunderstandings in particular. First, that Genesis is just a myth and is really not relevant to our modern world. We have moved, we are told, beyond the need for a “fairy tale”. Or we hear that God does not exist and Genesis consists of irrelevant stories of others’ religious experiences that have no importance now that science has moved us beyond needing such myths. This all is addressed in the first chapters of my book.
The second is that the Old Testament is not necessary now that we have the New Testament; and, furthermore, Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament is hard to understand, and is like slogging through a historical swamp. I think that anyone who reads my book on Genesis will realize the beauty of the words and the rich, exciting storyline, which is explained in a very personal and easy-to-understand way. It reads like a novel and is easily accessible and thrilling to the scholar and first-timer alike. I have had people say they were engrossed in the story and simply couldn’t put it down.
CWR: How did filming and producing your Footsteps of God series help or inform you on this project?
Steve Ray: One aspect of understanding a book like Genesis is to immerse yourself in the context of the writing. You have to suspend your modern mentality, so to speak, and enter the culture and world of the document. Language, lifestyle, Middle Eastern culture, and worldview are all necessary to enter the fulness of the book.
In filming the Footprints of God series over the last 25 years, we have visited all the sites mentioned in Genesis. We spent a week filming the beginning of Abraham’s life in Iraq. I climbed up the ziggurat pyramid where Abraham and family “served other gods” (Josh 24:2). People know almost nothing of Abraham’s early life in Ur before God called him. Walking through this land and in Haran in Turkey help me bring color and texture to the story. I have waded through the Jabbak River, where Jacob wrestled with God, and have entered the Dome of the Rock Shrine on Temple Mount to see and show the rock where Abraham offered his son Isaac.
Spending time in Bedouin camps, leading flocks of sheep, and milking goats help me to fill in the dots and thus help the reader enter into the real world of the Patriarchs and their way of life, all of which is important to understand the rich intricacies of the story.
CWR: You draw upon a range of works, not only by Catholic scholars, but also Protestant, Jewish, and secular authors. How do you decide on sources? Which have proven most helpful?
Steve Ray: When I approached a specific passage, I asked a hundred questions—and then researched as many sources as possible. Jewish sources were especially interesting since Genesis was a Jewish book long before Christianity came on the scene. Moses was Jewish, Jesus and the Apostles were Jewish. How did they and the subsequent rabbis understand the words and meaning of Genesis? It was quite surprising and delightful to study, and it is one of my favorite components of the book. We argued a bit with secular authors, but also gleaned a lot from good secular sources who enlighten our understandings of the culture, archaeology, and history of that period.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Steve Ray: If someone has not read Genesis with a goal of understanding all its rich and important content and stories—stories which are true, by the way—I would suggest cracking open the Bible alongside my commentary and get ready for an adventure. One of the main editors told me they had a big problem editing my book because she kept getting engrossed in the story and forgot she was editing!
This is an excellent book for Bible studies, schools, and families. Priests and deacons will find it a gold mine for homilies. It is a good read-aloud book and will be enjoyed by the whole family. I pray God uses it in the way that Al Kresta wrote about it: “May this book contribute to a renaissance of expository Bible reading, writing and preaching.”
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