In the Beginning
"The Book of Genesis: A Biography" treats a classic religious text as if it were alive. Scott McLemee learns what it begat.
A couple of months ago it occurred to me that having a copy of the Bible on my portable reading device would be convenient, given that citations turn up in even the most secular of texts. And as William Blake wrote near the end of his life, “The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.” Which is gnomic, like most of his aphorisms, though clearly enough an encouragement to wrestle with “the book of books.”
But acquiring a classic or a public-domain book in an e-format is not so effortless as it may initially seem. Unless you find one with a fully functional table of contents, the frustration outweighs the benefits. It also helps if the text has been inspected by a copy editor at some point in the current century. Until someone invents OMR (optical meaning recognition) software, even a free digital book will seldom be worth the trouble to get. So after all due diligence, I located a good edition of the authorized translation from 1611 (better known as the King James Version) and willingly parted with 99 cents to purchase it.
When the title appeared in my Kindle queue, I saw that the slot indicating the name of the author had also been filled in: God. He has an excellent ear for English prose, to judge by the KJV, and I decided to read the whole thing from beginning to end -- my first serious engagement with the scripture in decades. Despite knowing most of the stories pretty well from childhood, the return has been an experience in constant defamiliarization. At one point, having mulled over the truly puzzling implications of Genesis 6:4 for a bit, I looked up from the screen and told my wife, “This sure is a weird book.”
The best thing about Ronald Hendel’s The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton University Press) is how thoughtfully it acknowledges that strangeness, and gives it its due. Hendel is a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Berkeley and editor of Reading Genesis: Ten Methods (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a collection of essays that I intend to start reading just as soon as this column is out of the way. His new volume appears in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, which uses the biographical mode to synthesize and popularize, at a high level, the scholarship devoted to works from a variety of spiritual traditions.
Half a dozen titles have been published so far, both on scriptural texts (e.g., The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Book of Mormon) and confessional or theological writings (most recently, Dietrich Bonhoffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison). To write the biography of a book -- portraying it as having, in effect, a personality and a career -- is a literary conceit. But it is a justified and effective one in the case of texts which seem, to a great many of their readers, almost literally alive, or at least integral to understanding life itself.
On that score, no book could be more exemplary than Genesis. “Over the generations,” Hendel writes, “the ways that people have understood Genesis tend to correlate with the ways that people have understood reality. It is not just that Genesis provides an account of the origins of reality -- which it does -- but that the kinds of meaning that people expect to find in Genesis are the same kinds that they expect to find in the outside world.”
And for good reason: “Genesis envisions a single, God-created universe in which human life is limited by the boundaries of knowledge and death. We are earth-bound, intermittently wise, often immoral, mortal creatures.” Within the first few words, the reader will encounter temptation, disobedience, sex, death, violence, and exile. It’s not necessary to believe in the historical reality of a single person named in Genesis -- nor even that God exists, let alone gets byline credit for either Genesis or the universe itself -- to recognize much of this world. De te fabula narrator. The tale is told about you.
For his part, Hendel is telling the story of Genesis – not retelling stories from it. Much like the larger book to which it is an overture, Genesis reads more like an anthology than a single composition. The opening chapters provide two not entirely compatible accounts of how God created the world and mankind. They resemble the creation myths found in Babylonian writings, which also recount a story very similar to the one about Noah and his ark.
And beginning with Chapter 11, the narrative register of Genesis shifts from extremely condensed accounts of vast events (the flood, the Tower of Babel, the birth of giants resulting from “sons of God” hooking up with earth women) to a sprawling multigenerational family saga, complete with minor characters and complicated subplots.
Internal evidence suggests that Genesis -- like the four other books of the Pentateuch, traditionally attributed to Moses -- is the work of at least three groups of writers recording stories and customs that emerged over long periods and sometimes bore only a tangential relationship to one another. Editors later integrated the texts as much as possible, but by no means seamlessly.
On this point, Hendel is not saying anything original, simply presenting a much-condensed account of a line of analysis that has been taking shape over the past 200 years or so. But then he takes things in an intriguing direction. If Genesis is the product of various strands of cultural DNA (spliced together long ago by scribes who believed the literal truth of the material they were helping to transmit, while also needing to reconcile elements that didn’t quite fit together) then the book’s subsequent history is, in a way, encoded in its genome.
Genesis is full of enigmatic passages and unfinished stories. But if a text is the word of God -- the operating assumption of most of its careful students over the most of its history -- the puzzles are meaningful. What look like imperfections are access points to hidden truth. The interpreter has work to do, at high stakes.
And so alongside the literal significance of the text there takes shape a world of supplementary meanings – allegorical, apocalyptic, neo-Platonic, and so forth. All the better for the reader of Hebrew, who could shuffle the consonants in a word around, add some vowels, and come up with something profound -- if not, by nonmystical standards, plausible.
My favorite of the examples of creative rewriting that Hendel cites is how Philo of Alexandria handled the business with Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. In Genesis 16, we learn that Sarah, being unable to conceive, “gave to her husband” Hagar, her handmaid, to be wife No. 2 and bear him a child.
While one must respect Abraham’s wisdom in not bringing up the idea himself, the whole “exchange of human livestock for breeding” aspect is pretty revolting. But Philo treats it as a Platonic lesson in the “distinction between the ‘preliminary’ sciences – which study the sensible, material world – and philosophy, which studies the higher world of pure being.”
Philo’s allegorical algebra, as explained by Hendel, proves far neater than the situation itself: “The mind (=Abraham) must first be educated in the preliminary sciences (=Hagar); only then is it ready for philosophy and true wisdom (=Sarah).” No more moral ickiness! Q.E.D.
The problem with that sort of analysis is that its creativity will never be limited by questions about the literal meaning of a text, much less doubts about whether or not it is true. In an elegantly understated chapter (another author might have blown the idea up to a book) Hendel brings together Rabelais, Martin Luther, Spinoza, and the great rabbinical commentator Rashi as examples of a countertendency. They rejected interpretive inflation – a first step toward facing questions about the literal truth, moral adequacy, or overall coherence of the text itself.
Questions raised by geology and biology would eventually become critical indeed – with fundamentalism as one product of the crisis, even as Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka found ways to inhabit the ancient book in ways that restore its true, deep otherness. “Many people don’t read Genesis anymore,” Hendel writes, “which I think is a loss – but we still fight over the meanings and consequences of the stories, and over their myriad interpretations in Western culture.” And his book documenting that truth is something of a revelation in its own right.
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