Discovering Genesis

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By: Iain Provan

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So the book of Genesis itself famously begins, by addressing three important questions: Did the universe begin? Are we living in a creation, or something else? Who created? We realize immediately that the scale of this story is going to be large, and that the questions it tries to answer are going to be enormous.

Why do we encounter the world as an ordered place in which life flourishes? Where do human beings fit into the story? How are we to live? Why is there evil in the world, and why is there suffering? How does God act in creation to rescue it from evil and suffering? How do Abraham and Sarah and their immediate descendants fit into that plan? They are mostly the kinds of questions that human beings have always asked about the nature of reality, and still do – and not a few, in the course of the centuries that have intervened between the composition of Genesis and the present moment, have found the answers that the book has offered them compelling. This is no doubt why Genesis is still so widely read, when so much other ancient literature is not.

In my recently-published Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception I not only explore further how Genesis presents its questions and answers, but also the different ways in which Bible-readers through time have engaged with them – how they have “received” this book. I begin with two chapters (two and three) devoted to “strategies for reading” Genesis, tracking the reception-history of the book from its earliest examples (prior to AD 476) down to the present. The earliest readers of Genesis, both Jews and Christians, read the book as Scripture. Many of them were interested in what we might call nowadays a “literal” or “historical” meaning – the meaning that we might imagine, after reading the text, the original author intended to communicate.

Yet because both sets of readers understood the Pentateuch as comprising a unified, self-consistent, and divinely communicated text that revealed truth and exhorted virtue, they were also much inclined – especially where coherence was under threat, either within Scripture or between Scripture and other recognized guides as to what should be believed and practiced – to move beyond the literal sense to other levels of meaning.

Medieval readers of Genesis followed and developed these different lines of interpretation. With the rise of modernity, however – influenced on the Christian side by the Protestant Reformation – we find a growing commitment to the literal (historical) sense alone, and the rise of numerous influential reading “methods” designed to bring scientific precision to the task (source, form, redaction, and rhetorical criticism). In due course these methods have been both supplemented and challenged in by others, such as structuralism and poststructuralism, and narrative, social-scientific, feminist, and canonical criticism.

People have been reading the book of Genesis for a very long time, and in all sorts of ways. The question that arises for those who stand now at the far end of this long line of readers is, how ought we to read it? In chapter four I offer an explicit proposal. It begins with the suggestion that if the history of the reading of Genesis has taught us anything, it is that the literal sense of the text is of primary importance in understanding what the book has to say, and that this literal sense is intrinsically bound up with the historical, social, and religious context in which it first came to be. Therefore, we must attempt to locate Genesis in its time and place. Chapter four is devoted, therefore, to reading the book in the context of the period of ancient history in which it likely arrived at its final form: the sixth century BC, or shortly thereafter. What was “the world of Genesis” that the text both implies and also addresses, and how is the message of Genesis clarified when we understand that context?

These larger-scale inquiries into the interpretation of Genesis both historically and in the present completed, in the remainder of Discovering Genesis I examine in turn each of the “acts” of the Genesis drama, offering a close reading of the text, highlighting key interpretative issues, and weaving in (selectively) consideration of how that part of Genesis has been read historically. One feature in particular about this section of my book that will appeal to scholars and lay-readers alike is the frequent description of how the reception-history of Genesis is reflected in culture at large – in art, and music, and literature, and architecture.

Albrecht Dürer - The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) (Wikimedia Commons)

John Milton, Paradis Lost (Christ's College Cambridge)

Pondering the beauty of the world as first created by God in chapter five, for example, I note the way in which a particular emphasis in the early interpretive literature on the original beauty of the human form is developed in much later art in the West – for example, in Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504), in which the primal couple appear in nearly symmetrical, idealized poses. In chapter six, I discuss the way in which Christian tradition finds a two-fold victory of Christ over evil in Genesis 3:15, and how this is referenced again and again in later literature – perhaps most famously in Paradise Lost by the English Puritan writer John Milton (1667). In chapter nine, discussing Abraham’s encounter in Genesis 18 with three mysterious strangers, I note how in the Christian East these three were often represented artistically as a prefiguration of the Trinity (most famously in the fifteenth century icon of the Russian artist Andrei Rublev, c. 1360-1430), although Augustine in the West understood them as angels – as did the Jewish artist Marc Chagall in his Abraham and the Three Angels (1966).

Chapter ten tracks the evolution of the interpretation of the Jacob story as concerning “insiders” and “outsiders” through allegorical drama like the twelfth-century Ordo de Ysaac et Rebecca et Filiis Eorum (Esau as the Jews and Jacob as the Christians), and literature like Nicholas Udall’s The Historie of Jacob and Esau (1557–58: Jacob as the righteous Protestant and Esau as the pagan Roman Catholic). All such texts build on earlier Jewish and Christian reading that “clean up” the portrait of Jacob in the biblical text, making Jacob simply a saint and Esau simply a sinner. It is only with the Enlightenment that we see a general shift away from regarding Jacob in such a favorable light.

Andrey Rubley (Wikimedia Commons)

Marc Chagall, Abraham and Three Angels (Wikimedia Commons)

Arguably, no part of Genesis has inspired more subsequent cultural activity than the Joseph story (discussed in my chapter eleven), which as late as the middle of the twentieth century was still capable of filling three of Thomas Mann’s four large volumes on Joseph and his Brothers. Joseph has also inspired at least one great oratorio (Handel’s Joseph and his Brethren, 1743), and a considerable amount of art – including paintings of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife by both Tintoretto (1555) and Rembrandt (1655).

Thomas Mann, Joseph und Seine Brüde

Rembrandt, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (Art Bible)

Even though it is Judah who emerges in Genesis 37-50 as the more important of the two brothers, inheriting Joseph’s dream and becoming the one to whom all the other brothers bow down, in the reception-history of these chapters there is no question about who comes out on top – the one to whom the cultural and intellectual “sun and moon and eleven stars” defer (Gen. 37:9). It is clearly Joseph.

Iain Provan is Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College.



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