Over the last several years, the Book of Genesis has been the subject of a near-freakish concentration of attention in books, magazines, and television programs aimed at a general audience. For all their surface diversity, is there an underlying pattern to these works? And what do they have to tell us that is of lasting import?
In the view of medieval rabbis, the Bible is a book by God about man. What it offers its readers is the divine perspective on human affairs, a perspective made complex by the powerful reflexes of God's indefatigable hesed love—affection, jealous protectiveness, an insistence on accountability coupled with demands for justice and righteousness. This turbulence of love's expression—and an uncompromising moral realism—inevitably lends to the divine viewpoint an ironic slant.
For the same rabbinic tradition, works of synthetic reflection and commentary on Scripture (such as Christians are inclined to call "theology") are books by men about God. However earnest or intelligent, they are of a lesser order. A sense of irony, we might add, is not their natural mode.
Later, especially in post-Enlightenment times and among those most affected by a rationalistic world-view, Scripture itself
came to be viewed as books by men about God. At last, in our own century most explicitly, came the natural consequence of this generic displacement—the evidently comforting assertion that Scripture was really just a collection of books by men (especially patriarchal men) about men. In this new canon there is scarcely any room for irony at all.
I draw attention to this evolution in part to caution against an overly eager appreciation for the mere fact that there has been a recent outpouring of books of commentary and translation of Genesis. At the same time, I think Christians have a lot to learn from several of these volumes.
The first thing to learn, perhaps, is that with the possible exception of the published version of Bill Moyers's pbs series (Genesis: A Living Conversation, an interfaith dialogue), all of the books in question represent a vigor of interest in Genesis among Jews rather than Christians. Eight of the books are by Jewish scholars: one rabbi, two professional academics, an independent scholar, and three lay Bible teachers; one of these contains chapters by an additional 20 Jewish fiction writers and poets. The remaining book has for its author an ex-nun and ex-Catholic, Karen Armstrong (author of The Gospel According to Women and A History of God), who just happens to teach at a rabbinical training college in London, England. Even Moyers's project, as he admits, would not exist without the guiding inspiration of Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky (whose The Genesis of Ethics is reviewed here), and it would have been impossibly poorer without the contributions of Naomi H. Rosenblatt (Wrestling with Angels), Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (The Beginnings of Desire: Reflections on Genesis), Robert Alter (Genesis: A Translation and Commentary), and, to a lesser degree, Karen Armstrong and Stephen Mitchell (Genesis: A New Translation of the Classical Biblical Stories). Only Peter Pitzele (Our Fathers' Wells), the dissident contributions collected by David Rosenberg (Genesis As It Is Written), and Jonathan Kirsch (The Harlot by the Side of the Road), among those reviewed here, were not part of the celebrated Moyers "conversations."
The "explosion" of interest in Genesis is thus evidently a Jewish phenomenon. What may be less apparent on the surface is just how "antirabbinic" much of it is. Though each of these books in its own way is rich in the lived experience of Jewishness, and most have centrally to do with the question of Jewish identity, most are also at pains to express a sturdy resistance to the methods and the pieties of the commentaries that have shaped the tradition of Jewish interpretation of Torah. The resistance, moreover, has several dimensions as well as degrees of intensity.
Among a majority of these authors, there is embarrassment at the pieties of rabbinic Midrash, in which sometimes a convoluted or acrobatic maneuver must be executed to preserve the heroic reputation of a character the text of Genesis represents as complex, even of dubious motive. These present writers are not much taken by the injunction of the medieval rabbi who wrote: "As dutiful children, let us consider the nakedness of our fathers with the cloak of a favorable interpretation."
The self-serving deviousness by which Abraham hopes to save his skin by delivering up Sarah to the harem of Pharaoh is a case in point. While traditional Midrash is at pains to construct internarrative devices by which her integrity is preserved, writers like Pitzele, Rosenblatt, Hirsch, and Visotsky are more inclined to ponder both the moral dubiety by which Abraham saves his neck and turns a tidy profit or to speculate on Sarah's sense of betrayal in Egypt and the inevitable compromise of intimacy in their marriage. Does this perhaps lie behind her failure to conceive? Or is it Abraham's doddering impotency? But if so, why was he so willing to accept, without resistance, the proffering of young Hagar? Are there other motives prompting Sarah's jealousy than Hagar's insouciance alone? And why, given that rabbinic commentators are at pains to stress Hagar's status as slave or "handmaid" (she was presumably part of the booty Abraham received as cover-up money from Pharaoh), does the Genesis narrative itself insist upon calling her, just as Sarah, "wife" (Heb. ishah, Gen. 16:3)? Is it not after all only realistic to regard Abraham (as I heard Thomas Howard once say) as a "greasy and lustily polygamous Levantine sheik"? Admittedly, other questions are eschewed as much in these books as in rabbinic commentary: for example, why is the first and only covenant God makes directly with a woman (in Genesis) made with Hagar, the "rejected"? But you get the point.
The claim of several of these writers (Zornberg notably excepted) is, as Visotsky puts it, that "midrash and magisterium can serve to obscure the biblical text as much as they elucidate it." Visotsky's own thesis, in fact, is that "the very dissonance between peshat [the actual narrative] and derash [the commentaries] is what makes genesis [sic] so attractive." In other words, disclosing the complicity of generations of those whose purpose had been to construct a sanitized religious identity is a chief source of satisfaction for those whose purpose it is to recover the peshat for an identity unarguably now less tidy. The temptation is to irreverence, to a breaching of the fence around the Torah. As Lore Segal has it in her lively essay in Rosenberg's volume, "The rabbis and I have different agendas: They want to exculpate the bad behavior of our own. I like pointing it out. To me it looks as if the foreigners behaved rather better than our father Abraham."
Unsurprisingly, the traditional preoccupations of modern biblical scholars are not of much more interest to these authors than the practices of medieval rabbis. With the exception of Stephen Mitchell, whose general pretentiousness includes an ostentatious waving about of the Documentary Hypothesis, and Armstrong, who engages in a certain amount of professionally obligatory genuflection to jedp, none professes to find in the form-critical scholarship of the twentieth century more than an irritant to the intelligent reader. Even Rosenberg, who coauthored with Harold Bloom The Book of J (a reconstruction of an "original" source for Genesis and Exodus supposed to be written by a woman), lets the sleeping dogs lie.
Alter, whose linguistic and textual scholarship is easily the most distinguished of the lot, is at pains to inform his readers that "in fact all the details of the Documentary Hypothesis are continually and often quite vehemently debated," that efforts, for example, to distinguish stylistically between J and E "have been quite unconvincing." And indeed it is true enough, as he also says, that at least in part as a result (though not, I would add, by any means exclusively as a result), many younger scholars, "showing signs of restlessness with source criticism, have been exploring other approaches—literary, anthropological, sociological, and so forth—to the Bible." One imagines that evangelical Christian scholars of a generation ago (e.g., Meredith Kline, Treaty of the Great King) would be pleasantly surprised by these developments.
But not, I suspect, entirely relieved. The shift of focus represented by this remarkable return to beginnings is far from a general return to theological "fundamentalism." Or to what they thought of as a "high view of Scripture." Mitchell, for example, routinely excises what he takes to be "insertions by the redactor" in his translation, relegating these matters (peshat or not) to his notes. In this way he sanitizes his text (in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson) by removing some awkward divine interventions. The text thus has less likelihood of being mistaken for revelatory discourse. The effect, it seems, is a kind of modernist version of the rabbi's piety, and a good deal less respectable.
In the Moyers discussions, only Marianne Meye Thompson of Fuller Theological Seminary scrupled to query Mitchell's desire for a narrative in which "God's character isn't even involved." She insists that the narrative as it stands shows, in fact, an acceptance on God's part of the characters as they stand: "warts and all, God chooses and works through and with them. That seems to be the writer's point. He doesn't need to make the characters look better." Good for Meye Thompson.
Yet for somewhat different reasons, "warts and all" is just the kind of reading of Genesis toward which most of these recent authors are drawn. To get at their reasons for going back to the psychological and moral realism of the Genesis narrative, it helps to place the subcultural phenomenon these volumes represent in the perspective afforded by the recent rise of Bible study among the secular, urban elite.
Burton Visotsky is a key figure for the entire group of writers involved in the current Genesis saga. It was his enormously successful Bible-study "conversations" about Genesis conducted in boardrooms on Madison Avenue for industrial magnates, Wall Street brokers, and big-name lawyers that first attracted Bill Moyers's attention. By then Visotsky's Bible studies had already attracted the attention of several others as well—writers, psychotherapists, and editors, Southern Baptists, lapsed Catholics, Orthodox and secular Jews. Visotsky had been conducting such "boardroom" seminars for years; an earlier version had been featured on CBC radio and on Canadian public television as well as on NBC, and had twice been written up in the New York Times. Moyers was thus tapping into and effectively exploiting an already highly visible phenomenon.
Moreover, Visotsky was not the only luminous success in conducting Bible studies in high places. Naomi Rosenblatt has for over 20 years done more or less the same thing, from Wall Street to weekly sessions in the U.S. Congress. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg conducts similar weekly lectures in Jerusalem. And Peter Pitzele, who now teaches at Hebrew Union College and Union Theological Seminary, is well known for the "psychodrama" therapy he conducts with the aid of Bible stories for stressed-out business and professional people.
Aside from the professional psychotherapists Rosenblatt, Pitzele, and, in Moyers's conversations, Norman J. Cohen (Self, Struggle and Change: The Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and their Healing Insights [Jewish Lights, 1995]) and Carol Gilligan, Visotsky is also engaged in the provision of a kind of therapy. Pitzele is perhaps most alarming in the extravagance of his "acting out" sessions and psychodrama; the ever-amusing Visotsky, a bit more reserved in his own invitation to respondents to express their "personal involvement in Genesis narrative," says, "I have had enough experience watching my friend Peter Pitzele use biblical narratives as the texts for psychodrama to know that given the thin patina of Genesis narrative, everyone's neuroses just come pouring out." Indeed. Pitzele's book is fascinating in its own macabre way, but perhaps best taken after a sturdy dose of what your mother kept under the sink for medicinal purposes.
Therapy for dysfunctional families is, of course, a much larger industry than the production of Genesis commentaries. But as even the conversations in Moyers's collection already suggest, it is one which all too readily buys out biblical criticism as a branch or "niche" market. Rosenblatt has made a career out of it, redressing the antipatriarchal polemic represented, for example, by feminists like Armstrong and shifting the focus to "family values" and "family conflict," in which one sees that "despite the decidedly patriarchal perspective of Genesis, both the highest and lowest human traits are equally distributed between its women and men." For Rosenblatt, as for Visotsky, "the matriarchs are as important as the patriarchs, though they often work behind the scenes to steer the destinies of their families."
Not much of this seems like revelation, although Pitzele's plaintive attempts to merge insights from his experience in the men's movement into a sensitive New Age reimagination of patriarchy may strike some readers as revelatory in yet another sense of the term. O tempora, o mores.
It is remarkable how many of these authors found their way back to Genesis via an extended sojourn with the Vedas, Upani shads, and Buddhism. Mitchell, Rosenberg, Armstrong, Rosenblatt, Pitzele, several of Moyers's interlocutors, and even Visotsky all cite such sources approvingly, suggesting just how pervasive is the gnostic element in postmodern religious syncretism. Accordingly, there is little patience for the biblical concept of sin. For Armstong, the concept of original sin is purely an invention of that guilt-ridden African, Augustine of Hippo: the Bible itself "does not dwell as obsessively on this 'orginal sin,' " and "Jewish tradition has a more pragmatic attitude toward sin, regarding it as an unfortunate fact of life."
For Rosenblatt similarly, on Genesis 3, "we will find no mention of the word 'sin' in this story. No Satan. No fall. No apple. There is confusion and shame but no tears of remorse." Now here is a biblical lesson with a lot of potential (isn't it nice to know that we no longer have to say we are sorry?). Piety without the misery of repentance. Hmmm. Where have we heard this before?
In this way, the warts and naked miscreance of the characters of Genesis not only require no cloak to cover them, they no longer prompt attention to any other obligations attendant upon "dutiful children." Instead, we may envision our moral development as simply an engaging elevation of consciousness concerning the "complexity of human motives" and, well, accepting the inevitable messiness attendant upon the facts of life.
"Piety," as Rabbi Visotsky understands it, "is but a means to an end. It is not a series of actions or even attitudes displayed in a community—those are ritual." Moral action may—or may not—be piety. Teaching morality "is also piety," and if hard questions and cynicism lead to the same end (humans behaving a little better toward each other), then they, too, may be construed as piety. By the same token, the process of reading biblical narratives for their possibilities of human insight and the "elevation" of consciousness is piety, though to whom this piety is being directed is not, for modesty's sake, made explicit.
As you can probably tell, gentle reader, much in this stack of beautifully packaged tomes strikes me, after extended consideration, as dross—even dreck. But there is a little real gold here, too, and I want to point it out plainly.
Visotsky's book, for all its clever evasiveness of the central questions of revelation, textual authority, and, in consequence, accountability and the fear of God, I still recommend for several reasons. Not the least of its virtues, it is both masterfully and humorously written, entertaining on almost every page. Second, it offers moments of genuine and generalizable insight. Third, Visotsky is the actual genius loci behind Moyers's more visible entertainment, and generally more instructive as to why such encounters work. Finally, in this connection, Visotsky has developed an approach to engaging Bible study from busy people that deserves to be reflected upon by evangelical Chris tians—who of all people seem to be lagging badly behind in the battle to restore to Scripture the lively riches of its power as a text that can be read for both pleasure and moral profit.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg likewise deserves our attention. Here is a Bible teacher par excellence. She can make masterful use of rabbinic tradition while holding a contemporary audience enthralled. She is scholarly, she respects the best things in the tradition, and she loves the text for what it says about God even more than for what it says about us. She strikes me as a gem and, spiritually speaking, the best rabbi of the lot.
Except, perhaps, for Robert Alter, whose intelligence and magnificent sensitivity to biblical Hebrew I have come to respect, even revere. No serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, the First Covenant, can afford to neglect Alter's work. True, he is like many an accomplished literary scholar today, more than a little self-possessed. But he is possessed by the power of the Text too, and what it says and how it says it matters far more to him than the social acceptance of his trendy peers or the fashionably therapeutic preoccupations of popular temporizers. His Genesis is a text with power to change the mind—even, perhaps, to change a stony heart.
In the introduction to his new translation of Genesis, Alter rightly, it seems to me, berates the welter of contemporary English translations of the Hebrew Bible for "a shaky sense of English" such as has, despite the creditable training in Hebrew of the translators, "placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive experience of the Bible in its original language."
Despite the comparative weakness in knowledge of Hebrew of its own committee of translators, the King James translation, says Alter, is vastly superior to its successors and remains "the closest approach for its English readers to the original." In this Alter agrees not only with Gerald Hammond, an eminent British authority on the subject of Bible translation, but also with the bulk of Jewish writers who have had anything to say on the subject, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Arthur Miller to Chaim Potok. It seems to me substantially the case, as David Rosenberg also argues in the introduction to his own volume, that "current attempts to dislodge the authority of the King James Version of the Bible, by new translators on the left and new simplifiers on the right," have succeeded to the unhappy degree that there is no text left of common cultural authority.
Rosenberg thinks thus it is writers themselves (Jewish or Gentile overwhelmingly still prefer, as they always have, the KJV) who "must come to the rescue." Alter thinks it is gifted Hebraists who actually understand Hebrew poetics who must come to the rescue. But he would agree with Rosenberg that to this point the KJV is "the only writerly translation we have—for the King James is the only one in which a reader can believe that great writers were at work." For Alter, what kills modern English biblical translation (including that sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society) is "avoidance of the metaphorical":
The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible.
If you doubt this point of view, I challenge you to move directly from the Hebrew text of Isaiah to the translators of the NIV, NEB, or NRSV—and then turn back to the KJV. Never mind the few lexical bloopers; no other English translation carries the authority and literary power of the scriptural "voice" half so effectively as the KJV.
Alter's own translation of Genesis—careful, philologically and rhetorically exact—I find as faithful and compelling as Mitchell's is not. Alter's prefatory essay and commentary, with seasoned critical reasoning and superbly integrated theological and literary analysis, make this an invaluable volume for the serious reader of Scripture. What he is able to show us in this translation is how the insistent parataxis of biblical Hebrew, and the additive character of parallel clauses linked by and (the vaw consecutive) is not an accident of the language to be regularized to prevalent English hypotaxis, in which (especially in academic English) subordinate clauses and complex sentences predominate. Parataxis, he insists, is "the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative" because it mirrors precisely the way Hebrew writers saw the world as "linked events … artfully ordered."
It is too easy for modern translators to forget that "in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect or ideolect." Biblical Hebrew was a literary language, distinct from everyday vernacular. This does not mean it was elite discourse or that it was abstract. It did not, for all its separateness, have a "lofty style," nor was it "ornate and euphemistic," however contradictory that seems to us. It was, Alter says, "a formal literary language, but also, paradoxically, a plainspoken one."
One sees here why the KJV translators strike Hebraists of the caliber of Alter as so much better attuned. The plain language of the KJV was understandable by the plowboy, even though it bears in its tenor, syntax, and phrasing a rhetoric of public discourse such as no plowboy could, without imitation, hope to achieve. The KJV, like the Hebrew Bible, was a text created for the dignities of a public, communal reading, and it commanded respect.
Alter has much to say about the particular evidence for such a judgment, all of it worth reading. The Hebrew Bible, unlike many of its English translations, does not suffer from a single, monochromatic style (even the KJV is guilty to some degree here). Yet all its modern translators, he argues, "have shown a deaf ear to diction, acting as though the only important considerations in reading a literary text were lexical values and grammatical structures, while the English terms chosen could be promiscuously borrowed from boardroom or bedroom or scholar's word-hoard, with little regard to the tonality and connotation the words carried with them from their native linguistic habitat."
Alter's own translation is successful on all these points, sty-listically almost as satisfying as the KJV, and preserving the dignified tone of biblical discourse. It eschews banality without abandoning plain words. Familiar echoes of the KJV, without the infelicities of the NKJV, are apparent:
And Abram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all he had, and Lot together with him, to the Negeb. And Abram was heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold. And he went on by stages from the Negeb up to Bethel, to the place where his tent had been before, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar he had made the first time, and Abram invoked there the name of the Lord. (Gen. 13:14)
With so much in the way of more telecastable entertainment in the majority of these volumes, from tabloid sensationalism (Kirsch) through Dr. Ruth therapy to Oprah Winfrey and Moyers himself (Rosenberg, Rosenblatt, Pitzele), it may seem an oddity to choose a faithful translation and conservative midrashic commentary as the pick of the pack. But they are. Alter's and Zornberg's Genesis take us back to the beginning, in such a way as to restore to the text its voice, its freshness, and its spiritual power. What more could we ask?
David Lyle Jeffrey is professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, guest professor at Peking University, and lecturer at Augustine College, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He served as general editor of A Dic tionary of the Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Eerdmans).
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