In her latest book, Reading Genesis, Marilynne Robinson insists that modern readers have largely misunderstood the literary and theological significance of the Bible.

Among the most salient causes of this misunderstanding, she argues, is our tendency to read ancient texts through modern categories—history, myth, fiction, nonfiction—that do not map neatly onto ancient literature. The result is a never-ending and mostly unnecessary debate between those who approach Genesis as a catalog of events and those who read it as mythic pastiche, pieced together from various ancient sources.

We get a feel for Robinson’s impatience with this debate in her characterization of the factions warring over Noah’s flood: “One side in the controversy is rebuilding the ark to demonstrate its seaworthiness, or tramping up Ararat looking for its wreckage. The other sees the story as cribbed and fraudulent.” Both sides, Robinson concludes, are led astray by the same impulse to judge the veracity of Genesis on the basis of how closely it conforms to historical events.

In fact, as she argues at the outset, “the Bible is a work of theology, not simply a primary text upon which theology is based.” The implication for modern readers of Genesis is that when we focus primarily on the historicity of the Flood account, for example, we tend to ignore the arrangement of Genesis as a work of literature designed to grapple with theological questions.

Arranged with artistry

This is not to say that Robinson doubts whether all the events represented in Genesis took place or that she fails to consider its compositional history. The goal of Genesis, in her estimation, is not to offer a play-by-play of primeval events but to give a theological account of who God is, who we are, and how we should live together in light of that theology. In Robinson’s estimation, then, the book’s literary structure is of utmost importance to its interpretation.

By literary, I do not mean that she treats the Bible as somehow comparable to a novel or any other contemporary form of literature. I mean that she is interested in the composition and final form of the biblical text, in the way it has been arranged with artistry to communicate theological truths about God, humans, and the world.

This literary approach makes sense given Robinson’s status as a modern master of the novel and the essay. Her novels have earned numerous honors, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her erudite essays on subjects ranging from theology and science to politics and history have made her a stalwart contributor to some of the nation’s most storied periodicals, religious and otherwise. Literary structure is her craft, and she is deeply attuned to how the arrangement of Genesis asks us to read it in certain ways to the exclusion of others.

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While Robinson’s emphasis on literary craft might seem to place her in the camp of those who regard Genesis as merely human in its authorship, she harbors no compunction about the fact that Genesis is, at least in part, a more-than-human text.

The accounts we find in the Bible “are really far too tough-minded to be the products of ordinary this-worldly calculation,” she points out. “I am content to believe,” she notes, “that certain early Hebrews, under the influence of Moses and still pondering the faithfulness of God that they saw in the liberation from bondage, were inspired with a true insight into His nature.”

For Robinson, the fact that the Scriptures are shaped by both divine and human hands presents no contradiction. As she observes, “the Bible itself indicates no anxiety about association with human minds, words, lives, and passions.” This lack of anxiety—palpable in her prose—is among the most important dispositions of Robinson’s reading that Christians might seek to emulate. She is not apologetic about the things that many modern readers find threatening to the Bible’s relevance, reliability, and authority.

Perhaps the most potent of these perceived threats is scholarly inquiry into the provenance and composition of Genesis.

Whether engaging the Documentary Hypothesis (the theory that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are stitched together from disparate traditions) or comparisons between Genesis and other ancient Near Eastern texts, Robinson maintains that Genesis is a unique and ingenious literary creation composed by humans, inspired by God, and designed to convey the truth about God and his world. Far from being fearful of comparisons with other ancient texts, Robinson contends that Genesis is most obviously unique at these points of contact.

Robinson argues that resonances between Genesis and ancient Near Eastern stories such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh or Enuma Elish constitute the best proofs of the Bible’s—and its God’s—exceptional nature. This claim is central to her reading and repeated throughout the book: “The Genesis stories, rather than adopting or appropriating them, instead engage the literatures to which they are often compared, accepting an image or a term but transforming its meaning within a shared language of thought.”

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Comparing Genesis with other ancient creation accounts, she maintains that “the biblical way of telling the story of Creation differs from ambient narratives precisely at the points of their likeness.” Contrasting Noah’s flood with Gilgamesh’s, she insists that “these two stories differ crucially at their points of similarity.”

Again and again, Robinson demonstrates how theological insights into God’s character are clearest at these points of comparison. The Babylonian notion that humans exist to make offerings to Marduk, for instance, makes the Hebrew God so radically unique. As Robinson states, God is distinct “in His having not a use” for human beings, “but instead a mysterious, benign intention for them.”

Unlike the Babylonian gods, who are revealed to be numerous, capricious, and needy, Genesis gives us a God who is one, purposeful, and infinitely gracious. This graciousness, in Robinson’s reading, turns out to be central to the theology of Genesis. The book’s literary structure brings us back to it repeatedly, from God’s forgiveness of Cain to the second chance extended to humans after the Flood to the many redemptions of Abraham and his descendants.

Along the way, God’s image-bearers pick up on this divine predilection for compassion and learn to forgive one another. Esau absolves his brother Jacob. Joseph pardons his brothers. Genesis shows that God’s graciousness to us and our need to be gracious to one another cannot be overstated. It establishes mercy as foundational to Israel’s way of life as the people come up out of Egypt and build their own society.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it turns out, is not like any of the other ancient gods at all—which means that those who would follow him will be set apart from the rest of the world as well.

Robinson’s reading of the ancestral history that begins with Abraham in Genesis 12 and ends with the death of Joseph in Genesis 50 traces the purposes of this God in the lives of Abraham’s descendants and, notably, in the lives of those not descended from the first patriarch. The book’s theological emphasis on mercy and forgiveness thus extends to all people. God calls to himself a chosen people, but he also rescues Hagar and Ishmael and works through Melchizedek, Abimelech, and others who come from outside the line of Abraham.

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God is repeatedly shown to be the God of all people, and Robinson’s focus on the literary arrangement of Genesis reveals that God has had a plan for all people from the beginning.

Purposeful answers

The great strength of Robinson’s literary approach to the Bible is that it focuses our attention on how a book like Genesis invites us into lifelong reflection on the nature of God and his plans for us. It may seem, occasionally, that Robinson sidesteps concerns raised by biblical scholars, but her approach fits the design of the text, which was careful and purposeful in answering the questions of ancient readers.

Modern Christians will benefit from spending a few hours with a book that does not treat the Bible as a “primitive attempt to explain things that reason and science would in the course of time make a true and sufficient account of.” And we might especially learn something from Robinson’s characterization of Genesis as an attempt to give a true account of God’s people in light of their convictions about who God is.

Unlike many histories that seek to romanticize and vilify their subjects, Genesis offers unsparing portrayals of some of its most celebrated heroes and generous portrayals of some of its most dastardly villains. It suggests that we might be better prepared to know God if we take seriously the psalmist’s plea for God to search our own hearts and to see ourselves as he sees us. Genesis, in this respect, is truly incomparable.

Matthew Mullins is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is the author Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures and Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction.

Reading Genesis
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Reading Genesis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date
March 12, 2024
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