'Reading Genesis: Beginnings': a treasure trove of modern interpretations
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
"Reading Genesis" edited by Beth Kissileff.
University of St. Thomas
Editor Beth Kissileff.
By Rebecca I. Denova
I once had in my office a New Yorker cartoon that pictured Abraham looking up at the sky and asking, “You want us to cut off our what?” Odd stories in Genesis have consistently raised difficult questions: If God is all knowing, didn’t he know that Adam and Eve would sin? Why did God command Abraham to kill his son? Why didn’t Abraham say “No!” How did Jacob become a patriarch when he appears to be such a shady character? Did Joseph really forgive his brothers? Such questions are the focus of a new collection of essays that applies modern social scientific theory, psychological analysis and literary-criticism to the age-old stories that describe the origins of our culture in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
"READING GENESIS: BEGINNINGS"
Edited by Beth Kissileff Bloomsbury / T&T Clark ($29.95).
Beth Kissileff, the Pittsburgh-based editor of “Reading Genesis: Beginnings,” is a writer and journalist who teaches Hebrew Bible, Jewish Studies and literature at various colleges. As explained in the introduction, even as a child the stories in Genesis bothered her until she later attended a lecture by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in Jerusalem. Ms. Zornberg analyzed the text of Exodus 38:8 (on women’s mirrors contributing to the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness) with reference to Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “Zornberg taught me that literature, psychoanalysis and literary theory can illuminate the biblical text. When she brought in Yeats or Blake or a line from George Eliot, it resonated with the biblical text and gave the ancient words startling new ramifications and connections.”
Among the contributors to the collection are Alan Dershowitz (contracts), Dr. Ruth Westheimer (sexuality), novelists Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Lot’s wife) and Dara Horn (Jacob), literary critics Ilan Stavans (Babel) and Sander Gilman (Abraham and Isaac), and poets Alicia Suskin Ostriker (Sarah and Hagar) and Jacqueline Osherow (Judah). The book opens with a chapter on “game theory” by Steven Brams, with God as a major player against humans. Joan Nathan discusses the importance and symbolism of food and drink in Genesis — plenty vs. famine and the abuse of alcohol (e.g., Jacob’s pot of stew, the plot device that elevates Joseph, Noah’s drunkenness, Lot’s daughters).
Many of the chapters begin with a review of the issues that were interpreted by ancient and medieval rabbis and codified in the Talmud. The same questions that bother us were just as problematic throughout the history of interpretation of the biblical texts. The rabbinical material will be new to many readers, but it also enlightens us on the multi-valent meaning of the text. Younger readers may not appreciate the many references to the problems of modern Jewish identity (or nods to the films of Woody Allen), but the overall angst of identity formation in the stories is relevant to any group in any age.
As a historian, I would have enjoyed more analysis of the historical context behind the writing of Genesis. These stories were passed down through the generations, so they must have meant something to the ancient Israelites and reconstructing that culture may or may not eliminate some of the problems in the narrative.
Caveat emptor: In many of the chapters, God is analyzed with the same psychological and behavioral theory as the human actors, and thus God “gets off the hook” — He acts and responds as a human. Modern theories are always anachronistic and proper psychoanalysis requires dialogue, and thus God qua God remains unapproachable. But the real focus of the collection is on the complicated relationships among God’s creatures rather than on the Creator himself.
It is in this analysis of the human actors trying to understand God (and each other) that modern readers are able to identify with similar problems. “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” offers a gateway into a treasure trove of stories and characters that have influenced Western culture through religion, art and literature. With modern tools of analysis, these stories can still guide our exploration of human nature. While ancient, the biblical text offers insight not only to our relationship with God but also to each other in God’s divine plan.
Rebecca I. Denova is a lecturer in early Christianity at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Correction (posted Feb. 25): This review has been updated to correct the spelling of the last name of Steven Brams, who contributed one of the book’s essays.
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