A Biography of the Book of Genesis

A Biography of the Book of Genesis May 19, 2014

Princeton’s new series, Lives of Great Religious Books, has the promise of exceptional scholarship about stories worth telling. Alan Jacobs’ contribution, The Book of Common Prayer, combines his talent for excellence in prose with a knack for the telling anecdote, the fund for which with Alan seems endless. And the story of the BCP is a good one, leading us to where it is today: variations on the original theme which remains the core.

When you think of the Book of Genesis, what terms come to mind?

I’m not convinced Ronald Hendel’s The Book of Genesis measures up to the work of Jacobs, but the book has more than a few highlights. The aim of the series is to tell the “biography” of a book — its birth and development — and Hendels, a specialist in Genesis and the Pentateuch, has a great grasp of the “origin” question — where he sketches the now quite accessible hypothesis of JEDP.

The highlight of this book is his case for the rise of the figural sense of Genesis, from typical 2d Temple Judaism texts, to the demise of the figural sense, resulting in the collision of the “plain” sense with history and science. The figural sense works with four assumptions: Genesis (as God’s Word) is cryptic, relevant, perfect and divine. Examples abound where later authors find all sorts of meaning in the text (that was never there). This approach morphs into apocalyptic readings — the River of Paradise leading some to see the Temple as Paradise itself (Eden) or the glory of Adam in the Qumran community. The Platonic influence emerges in Philo, who read his dualisms onto the surface of the whole of the Pentateuch. The “plain” sense was swallowed by the higher senses of the mind and pursuit of philosophy. He sees some of this in Paul in the Jerusalem that is from above in Galatians 4:21-31.

But the singular contribution of Hendel is mapping the move from the figural as the core hermeneutic to pronouncing it dead and unacceptable.  Augustine is a bit of a bridge: what was against “evidence” (scientific) was to be read figurally, and this move by the Bishop of Hippo was later to give many readers troubles for if one removes the figural one has scientific inaccuracy or historical problems. He wasn’t a thoroughgoing allegorist however and deeply valued the plain sense.

The first voice against the figural was the Jewish hermeneut, Rashi. Scripture is not meant to hide but to reveal, and he undercuts here the commitment to the cryptic in the tradition of both Christians and Jews. Luther sided with Rashi’s method as well, though both at times dabbled in the figural. When the Platonic dualism died so did the figural; one was left with plain senses and history and facts. Luther famously said science is wrong if it affirms the heliocentric theory since the sun stood still according to the Bible. Where there is conflict, side with the Bible — so Luther (and some modern fundamentalists, about whom more will be said below).

One of the distracting elements of this book is too much focus on those who don’t matter as much (however important they are in the history of ideas), like Rabelais, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kafka (about whom Hendel goes on too long in often repetitive manner). The problem here is that others are ignored.

The rise of science undid the figural and confronted the plain sense with the facts of history and science, what Hendel will call realism. We are talking here then of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

The call was made by Spinoza who read the Bible in the most radical form of his day: facts, history, absence of supernatural, etc.. He was met by polemics, leading eventually to the American approach called fundamentalism, which trumped science with Scripture in spite of science (and itself). He obsesses with the “original text” as a form of hidden, cryptic text without one time offering solid evidence that this original text theory had that much influence on interpretations.

This is where I think Hendel makes moves that damage the value of the book: in modernity he begins with slavery and Genesis, which is a good move, but then he spends his time discussing Dickinson and Kafka and Auerbach and this sort of discussion gets omitted: the use of covenant theology in Reformation theology and beyond (to today), the narrative approaches of Alter and Sternberg, to name but two, and the near total absence of discussion of the value Genesis has in the 9 out of ten readers who read Genesis — believers. Instead, his approach is to claim the book is now seen by the enlightened as fiction and that means we learn to see it as part of our story. Realism killed the figural and therefore the plain sense as unhistorical.

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  • Slightly off topic, but does Hendel spend much time on Luther’s rejection of heliocentrism? I think it would be a mistake if he did, as Luther was making an off-hand comment about a theory that had not yet been published (notwithstanding that the passage in question is from Judges anyway). Although Luther and Melanchthon were both skeptical of heliocentric theory to the very little extent they thought about it, Lutherans generally were actually quite supportive. In fact, Georg Rheticus, who studied under Melanchthon and taught at Wittenberg, became Copernicus’ only student and organized the publication of his “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” The Lutheran relationship to science and scripture is much more complex than Luther’s one line of half-considered opposition to heliocentrism makes it seem.

  • I just wrote on Richard Simon today, who perhaps would be a better modern hermeneutical bridge for Christians today than Spinoza. But, then, as you’ve noted, it appears the story is not about Genesis’ reception history in the church but in the world at large.

  • scotmcknight

    Hendel mentions Richard Simon, but focuses on his predecessor in criticism.

  • scotmcknight

    Probably too much of it, Paul.