Peter on Reading Genesis (part I)

Peter on Reading Genesis (part I) July 22, 2008

Part I: A freaky little book

Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

I have begun a serious re-reading of the Bible. It’s been a while. I stopped being Christian rather precipitously about 25 years ago, and even back then, I was focused almost entirely on the Gospels. This time around I’m starting with Genesis.
Cat favors the King James translation. She’s an English teacher, so the archaisms of the language don’t bother her and she likes the way the KJV can really make the poetry sing. Back when I was Christian, I read Good News For Modern Man in high school and then took a liking to the Jerusalem Bible when I was in college, and eventually took a year of ancient Greek, hoping to read the Gospels in the original.
I don’t remember more than half a dozen words of Greek now, and anyway it’s the Hebrew Scriptures I’m interested in this time. So I’ve decided to take off the gloves and go for the Anchor Bible. They give you about a page and a half of the actual text, followed by a couple of pages of footnotes (mostly about the meanings of specific words in Hebrew) and then about three pages of commentary about what we know of the history of the text—when and where it was written and then rewritten, as well as the parallels with other Mesopotamian texts (like the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the ways that it does and does not correspond with the archaeological record.
Unlike Cat, I’m not reading the Bible for poetry. I want to know what it says. I think I’m a pretty unusual reader of the Bible in that I find myself reading it as a writer, and what I want most to understand in the Bible is the mindset and the experiences of its writers. I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d. That distinction is important, because so many readers of the Bible bring to it a crushing burden of pious preconceptions. Modern Christian (and Jewish) understandings of G*d grew out of traditions that changed and developed over time, and these traditions left Biblical texts like breadcrumbs along the path. But those texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted since, so thoroughly and so often, that it’s very hard for a modern reader even to hear the writers’ original words over the heckling of later critics from St. Paul through Thomas Aquinas and right on up through Jerry Falwell and his ilk.
As a writer, my prejudice is: Let the writers say what they meant to say. Agree with it or disagree, but don’t try to warp it or twist it or rewrite it to your own liking, because that, let me tell you, is the most violent, the most discouraging thing you can do to a writer.
And I’ve got to say, reading Genesis on its own terms, it’s a freaky little book. More on that next time.

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