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Walter Brueggemann

Wise Beginnings, Surprising Endings

Genesis: the rest of the story

The new ferment in Scripture study concerns the polyvalence of the text, a rich variety of methods of interpretation, and a plurality of interpretive voices, each of which reflects and speaks from a particular context. The loser in the new enterprise, of course, is the historical-critical hegemony that dominated scholarship for a long while and that managed for the most part to hold together critical perspective and a "soft" theological sensibility that in fact lived uneasily with critical perspectives. In three recent books on Genesis, the new approaches to Scripture are on full and powerful display. While these writers differ sharply from one another, all three clearly reject the older critical reading of Genesis that was largely preoccupied either with source analysis or with Ancient Near Eastern parallels. Neither of these issues is given more than passing attention in these books, indicating the profound shift that has taken place in interpretive perspective. On offer here are three quite distinctive presentations of Genesis that rarely linger over critical issues but that proceed by eager, imaginative participation in the ongoing interpretive process.

In Genesis: The Story We Haven't Heard, Paul Borgman of Gordon College has written, as a teacher, an accessible introductory overview designed for students like his own. A professor of English, Borgman is interested in the character and power of storytelling, and he takes the Genesis texts as stories on their own terms.

By noting recurring patterns that make for good pedagogical usage, Borgman seeks to get beyond the fragmenting of the text that is as much a feature of routine Sunday worship as it is of historical-critical method. Thus:

  • The discussion of Abraham and Sarah is organized around the "seven visits" that God makes to them;

  • Jacob is presented in terms of "three mirrors" that reflect his ambiguous, dubious character through other characters in their shady or problematic dealings with him: Laban, Leah, and Rachel, and eventually the contentious birth of children. In each case of struggle, deception adds to the complexity of the narrative;

  • Joseph is portrayed through "three descents": into the pit at the hands of his brothers, into Egypt, and into the prison house. This motif permits Borgman to portray the Joseph narrative as a comedy with good outcomes that override the descents. The whole is a fine entry into the dramatic flavor of the narrative.

The book by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, is a remarkable tour de force. An ethicist deeply rooted in classical philosophy, connected to the American Enterprise Institute, and currently chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, Kass brings to his task an immense erudition, including a capacity for the Hebrew text. As an outsider to Scripture study, he clearly writes from a perspective very different from the usual critical consensus. The outcome of his work is a close reading that pays acute attention to the nuances of the text and that sees inside the text, most often in powerfully disclosing ways, occasionally in overly ponderous statement. Kass of course eschews the usual critical questions of literary sources and cultural parallels, though in the case of the flood narrative, he cannot resist an extended contrast of the narrative to that of the Gilgamesh Epic. For the most part, his readings are fresh and quite independent. He disregards most of the critical community, completely lacking I believe reference to Christian scholarship and relying most consistently on the work of Robert Sachs, with some reference to other Jewish scholars, including Sarna and Cassuto. Just as prominent here, moreover, are his references to the classical philosophic tradition, with recurring citations of Kant, Descartes, and Rousseau. Thus Kass is able to bring to bear upon the text a set of lenses from his own expertise with which most readers of Genesis, scholarly and ecclesial, are less familiar.

Kass is a remarkably "strong reader," which means that he has the capacity to compel the text to yield meanings congruent with his own particular frame of reference. Among the most remarkable of his contributions is his discussion of the flood narrative and its aftermath. He finds the flood to be a credible punishment on the part of a God whose rule is not under threat, and who punishes and rewards according to the moral condition of Noah and his wicked contemporaries. The narrative reflects "the Bible's dim view of the goodness and adequacy of human artfulness." The narrative vouches for "an acquired human commitment to righteousness and the perpetuation of life on earth," a commitment that is contrasted, in the narrative, to "the natural human aspiration to apotheosis through heroic deed." This judgment is followed, in a consideration of Genesis 9:1-17, with the establishment of "the first law for all mankind" in the Noachide law, "the founding document of the new world order" that yields, in sequence, law and covenant. It is clear that Kass's own intellectual background permits a reading quite outside the conventional in Genesis studies.

A second strong reading that I find compelling is Kass's presentation of Joseph as suffering "irreversible Egyptianization," so that Joseph signs on to the usurpatious policies of Pharaoh at the expense of his own people. Kass offers a powerful contrast between son Joseph and father Jacob, who in great dignity and strength refuses, unlike his overly eager son, to concede anything to Pharaoh.

Of course a strong reader may also offer "strong misreadings." In my judgment, one such "misread" occurs when Kass situates the Abraham narrative under the rubric of the "education" of Abraham, a theme that recurs as well for the later ancestors. This accent seems an imposition of Kass's program in a way that invites the reader to miss a great deal of the life-or-death disjunction in the narrative, a kind of disjunctiveness that is typically Jewish but that hardly fits with what Kass seems to mean by "education." In a similar way, the extended discussion of "eros" on the basis of Jacob's initial attraction to Rachel seems to me greatly overstated in the service of an Aristotelian agenda. None of that, however, distracts, for the delight of reading Kass is to see this powerful interpretive mind at work.

As the title of the book indicates, Kass is here in pursuit of "wisdom," by which I think he means access into truth that can be received and trusted by reasonable people, without reference to a specific theological conviction. In this he succeeds impressively, showing the ways in which the Genesis narratives can be a powerful resource for reflective minds. Along the way this agenda causes a shortchanging of important theological accents in the narrative, as for example, Kass's skepticism about the theme of providence in the Joseph narrative. But then, Kass certainly knows that his book cannot do everything. What it is able to do is rich, splendid, and generative, itself a "genesis" for ongoing interpretation.

Unlike Borgman and Kass, Gary Anderson offers a discussion that is limited to Genesis 1-3, a study that is remarkable in its reach—not least in its recovery of early readings of the text. In The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination, Anderson, recently gone to Notre Dame, takes up these chapters by reference to the Life of Adam and Eve, an ancient post-biblical document much used by Christians in the early centuries of the church. (Anderson offers a translation of the document in an appendix.) Anderson's concern is to study the way in which early Christian interpreters made use of the Genesis text "in conformity with an evolving interpretive tradition." That interpretive tradition was rooted in Judaism, as Anderson respectfully acknowledges; his focus, however, is upon the Christian practice of interpretation, which moves in quite distinctive and imaginative directions.

It is a primary thrust of the book to insist that the Genesis narratives are too terse and underdeveloped to be taken by themselves; they require ongoing work in an interpretive community. Given that premise, Anderson then proposes that taken canonically, the Genesis narratives must be read in terms of their ending, a culmination—in Christian practice—in Christology and with particular reference to Mary, who is the new Eve. The assumption of the book then is "canonical" in a most expansive sense, an insistence that the text must be read in a faith community and with respect for "the domain of the Creed as much as the territory of the dispassionate literary historian." The outcome is a canonical reading through the imagination of the early church, a reading that is so daring as to make even the erudite canonical approach of Brevard Childs seem timid and anemic.

The richness of Anderson's theological sensibility is everywhere apparent. In his reflection on the expulsion from the garden, a powerful case is made, based on early Christian interpretation, that the expulsion is not punishment but "a form of rehabilitation." Indeed, "God's intent is not to get even but to instruct and transform." Thus Anderson shows how this early Christian reading accented the truth of God's graciousness even in such an act of judgment. He makes a suggestive connection of this moment of expulsion from the garden to the narrative of Daniel 4 and the reclamation of Nebuchadnezzar through the deconstruction of the king's hubris.

The book teems with amazing and suggestive detail. Two other points in context are noteworthy. First, Anderson's primary points of reference include Michaelangelo and Milton, indicating the full richness of the interpretive tradition. Indeed, in the latter case Anderson proposes that Milton's plot in Paradise Lost derives directly from the Life of Adam and Eve. Second, Anderson reports that he himself has become a Roman Catholic. I believe that the author's context itself is important in this book. Just as Kass's Jewishness is subtly at work in his book, what comes through here is Anderson's warm commitment to the Church, with reference, for example, to an affirmation of Mary, his appreciation of Lent, and his recognition of the value and validity of celibacy in the practice of faith. Since all our scholarship is self-disclosing, the author's readiness for such self-disclosure invites careful and continuing study in which faith leads learning in provocative and imaginative ways.

Each of these books is an important reflection upon the current state of Scripture interpretation; each takes up a particular angle of vision and reminds us that any such interpretive offer is partial and contextual. Together they exhibit the expansive potential of the Genesis text. Kass ponders beginnings wherein the reader comes to wisdom. Anderson explores endings that illuminate the purpose of the beginning. Borgman shows how the stories cohere into patterns of meaning.

It strikes this reviewer as most important that these books move quickly beyond the characteristic categories of 20th century-criticism. Borgman, in his centrist approach, is less explicit about context. Kass yields a quite Jewish reading that culminates in appreciation of a community committed to holiness. Anderson's reading is powerfully Christian (Catholic!) in his comprehension of the old and deep tradition. The sum of these books invites critical reflection on the older presuppositions of scholarship, especially concerning (a) source analysis and the question of authority and (b) cultural parallels and the issue of distinctiveness, issues that became a huge battleground over the relation of faith and criticism. The new directions suggest an important unlearning in the field. Critical scholars may unlearn the deep focus on criticism for the sake of the text itself. Resisters to criticism may unlearn the vigorous energy used to defeat criticism. Both critics and resisters might rather turn to the text itself and find common ground there.

These books are especially important in Old Testament studies at a moment when the mostly British "minimalists" have exhaustingly sought to dismiss the text as "historically" unreliable. As these books make clear, such an obsession with "history" as propels the "minimalists" is hardly worth the effort. The text does not depend upon "history" nearly as much as it depends upon serious readers who both take the reading tradition of faith seriously and move on imaginatively. It is a splendid time to be a serious, imaginative reader!

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Among his many books is a volume on Genesis in the Interpretation series (Westminster John Knox Press).

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