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Peter on Reading Genesis (part I)

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.


Phil Wilson said…
Hi Peter,

I'm neither a Christian nor a Pagan nor a Quaker, but I'm impressed by your willingness to engage with the only genuine way in which we can talk of the godly - by describing how we experience the other - and am looking forward to hear what you have to say!
Yewtree said…
For a start, it's odd that there are two creation accounts in Genesis, which suggests that there are two or more writers of the book.

I totally agree with what you said about reading it for the experience of the Divine rather than as a supposed echo of the Divine, Peter.
Anonymous said…

I think it's a good challenge you've given yourself.

You write: "I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d."

This speaks my mind. For a long time I've believed that the books of the Bible--in fact all our religious language, texts and stories--tell us, not about G*d, but about how we understand our relationship with G*d. And, of course, how that understanding evolves.

I've recently finished a year and a half study of The Complete Gospels (Annotated Scholars Edition), a fresh translation of "all twenty of the known gospels from the early Christian era, offering a fuller and more fascinating picture of early Christian origins than found in the four canonical gospels alone...."

Very rewarding.

I've now begun reading Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.

From the Barnes & Noble synopsis: " Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms captures the simplicity, the physicality, and the coiled rhythmic power of the Hebrew, restoring the remarkable eloquence of these ancient poems. His learned and insightful commentary shines a light on the obscurities of the text."

Alter previously published The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.

Alter is a Jewish scholar, translating to recover the pre-Christian readings of the texts.

I share your interest in hearing the original writers' words.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow
Erik said…
I see Michael got in ahead of me with recommending Robert Alter, but I'm actually going to suggest different books by him - "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and "The Art of Biblical Poetry". These books speak to exactly what you are talking about - the written text itself, and its construction and meaning *as a text*. (He has also written "The Literary Guide to the Bible" with Frank Kermode, but I haven't read that so can't say whether it would be helpful...)
Peter Bishop said…
Thank you. As I mention in a later post, I have been a little worried that this series would come across as hostile and sarcastic. I'm gratified to find that people can see the genuine quest for understanding in what I am doing.

Robert Alter sounds like exactly the kind of resource I'm looking for. Thanks for the tip!
Anonymous said…
Hi, Peter!

The Anchor Bible is an excellent resource, although the quality of its individual volumes is uneven.

It's worth bearing in mind that most of Genesis is composed of charter myths — myths that describe how the institutions and practices that defined the culture began. Charter myths are fascinating wherever you find them (the story of how Fox told Penn to wear his sword as long as he could is a charter myth!); but from what you say here, they may not be what you're actually after.

If you're interested in the Old Testament writers' experience of the living God, allow me to suggest Samuel Terrien's book The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology (Harper & Row, 1978; Wipf & Stock, 2000). I promise it'll blow your socks off.

In any case, I look forward to hearing more of your explorations.

All the best,
Anonymous said…
Hello Peter,
I am begining to read your blogs on Genesis, starting from the beginning. One thing I noted in this initial offerings is that you want to know what the author is saying, what the author's experience of God is. What is interesting about his mode of reading the text, and I am sure you are aware of fromtheAnchor bible, is that the text has multiple authors, and later editors. so the original stories say much about God, but woven together, they represent imges of the God of Abraham and Sarah as viewed through the lens of exile, and those views represent authors who had very different interests from one another in reestablishing a community of God in exile, and later, in return form exile when identity markers were a major issue.
Later in the first century, these stories were not read accoridng to the authors intensions, but througha filter of a peopel oppressed by an empire, and who again trying to preserve an national identity under mitigating circumstances, with any number of representative voices competing against one another to establish a response to opression.
Teh text is a living one that only has meaning according to that which a community, whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan, give to it according to various filters through which the text is viewed. Fortunately, historical criticism and language arts, and other forms of textual criticism allow a reader to do this with some fairly important tools that allow us to interpret the text with some integrity (or not). I'll move on to your next blog now, and I look forward to going through them.
Peter Bishop said…
I have been really bowled over by the level of interest and depth of insight shown by the comments I've gotten on this series. It's really gratifying.

Scott, the multiple authors (and therefore, multiple viewpoints and attitudes) of the Bible is one of the things that most fascinates me about it. The questions I'm still left with at the end of reading Genesis are: How did the traditions of J and P grow to be so different? What happened to bring them together again, and led the "compiler" to merge their scriptures into the text we have today?

Thanks again to all who commented.
Anonymous said…
In re: How the traditions of J and P grew so different. It has been my impression that when the kingdom was unified by David and Solomon (insofar as it was), many rival though similar religious traditions probably were held by the differing tribes. After Solomon's time, this led to the destruction of the unified state (but that may never have been a very tight ship), and most of the tribes seceded to form the northern kingdom. When that was destroyed by the Assyrians, many of its inhabitants probably fled south (there is archaeological evidence of a population explosion in Judah at just this time), and probably took their version of the sacred writings. Some editor/redactor thereupon pieced the two together, which accounts for the "doublings," the rival versions of so many events (the creation of man, the flood, etc.) - reluctant to discard any of the holy writings, this very brilliant editor pieced them together in a patchwork that until recent centuries defied exploration.

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