About the author Jose Luis Borges, translator Andrew Hurley writes that “Borges makes it unmistakably clear that every translation is a ‘version,’ not the translation…but a are thousands of interpretations—and no wonder, since, as James Kugel puts it, “The Bible says little openly.” This is not to say that Genesis is unwelcoming—on the contrary. But it does require seriousness of intent. I once heard a young man tell of his experience with a T’ai Chi master in Beijing, how it had taken three years of showing up most every morning, whatever the weather, before the master would regard him as a serious student. The Torah has been spoken of in the same light—Prove yourself willing to return and, in time, it will begin to reveal its secrets. That may sound strange, as if the “it” I’m referring to is a living thing, yet my experience of the last three years with Genesis has been that Genesis is alive with subtle meanings. As a theology student, I spent considerable time building a relationship with Genesis but, handicapped by the arrogance and inexperience of youth, I did most of the talking and little listening. Forty years later, I’ve learned the truth of Camus’ declaration that “There are places where the mind dies so that a truth which is its very denial may be born,” and finally know Genesis to be one of those places. I’ve attempted to change my relationship with Genesis, to be quiet and let it, the text, speak as I listen. I’ve come to trust it, to have “faith” in it, the same sort of reliance I’ll have on a friend who over time has proven his faithfulness—which, you’ll remember, is the ancient meaning of the word, and defined the relationship between Abraham and Yahweh.
Some of Genesis’ speaking has come through the work of modern biblical scholars, men and women who have spent their lifetimes in study, though I’ve kept in mind Harold Bloom’s caution, here worth repeating, that, “perspective governs our response to everything we read, but most crucially with the Bible. Learning from scholars, whether Christian or Jewish, one still questions their conditioning, which too frequently overdetermines their presentation.” While I’ve used sources with a clear religious agenda, those in whom I’ve put most of my faith are those without an agenda beyond the integrity of their work. They don’t ask me to believe this or that, and, in fact, don’t seem to care if I believe them or not.
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In the introduction, I stated that the ethical and spiritual DNA of Genesis is embedded in the foundations of Western civilization, shaping our awareness of who we are as a people and as individuals, the religious and nonreligious alike, and invited you to consider whether its ancient stories resonated with your own. In considering my approach, I was particularly interested in readers who find themselves in the middle of the modern debate between religious fundamentalists and the new atheists, the marginally religious to the non-religious who may sense those genetic markers, who are curious about those stories and characters, but want neither to be saved by religion nor saved from it. How does one provide a way into these stories that neither discourages nor requires a religious point of view—that, in fact, does not require the reader to believe in anything beyond his or her own experience of being human? The answer was to take it entirely as story and metaphor, the characters as ancient reflections of ourselves, their stories, our stories, mirrors in which to see our best and worst selves—different clothing, certainly, and language, and customs, yet at the level of the human, just as greedy and generous as we are, as gullible and crafty, as moronic and brilliant, as cowardly and brave.
Certainly the four generations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph represent a generational variance that we’d recognize as entirely modern. Abraham, the Patriarch’s patriarch, is the terrifying, distant father who sees only the vision, and proves himself willing to do whatever the vision requires. Beyond his role as “Son of the Great Man,” the enigmatic Isaac seems to act in ways that always end in a question mark: Was he Abraham’s and Yahweh’s victim? Was he the clever manipulator masking himself as a doddering old fool? Ultimately, he strikes me as a quiet man carrying at least the scar of a traumatic event, if not the open, unhealed, Arthurian wound. Young Jacob is made of pure mercenary ambition, the sort of amphibian soul at the center of every modern political financial scandal. The older Jacob does grow into the role of patriarch, though like his father and grandfather he is a lousy father, ignoring his older sons, slathering affection and indulgences on the two youngest. Joseph is different from them all, and especially from Abraham and Jacob. Where they had the itch for more, the Joseph we meet in the beginning of his story seems to have everything he wants. His forebears’ troubles— Pharaoh’s and Abimelich’s fury at Abraham; Esau’s and Laban’s fury at Jacob—arose from well-laid plans that they themselves had initiated. But Joseph’s troubles begin with Joseph being Joseph. While his forebears’ skills lie in guile, in the con, in the clever manipulation of others, Joseph’s lie in an extraordinary ability to adapt his gifts to the difficult situations in which he finds himself.
The women of the Bible are smart, at times diabolically clever, and through their own machinations provide the means by which the narrative moves forward. Without them the narrative would simply stop—even though, in that culture, they were “only” women, considered property, not even second-class citizens. It’s as if J and P* were playing same sort of joke on their own patriarchal culture that Beaumarchais played on the French aristocracy in “The Marriage of Figaro,” especially in the way the men go about in their assumed self importance while the women, especially Sarah and Rebekah manipulate events.
Even in its full depiction of a vanished world and its fully rendered human characters, Genesis does not portray every possible human challenge and metamorphosis. But it has more than I, and perhaps you, might have imagined.
* see Introduction, this website
iKugel, Traditions of the Bible, p. 179.
iiAlbert Camus, “The Wind at Djimila,” Lyrical and Critical Essays, Philip Thody, ed., Ellen Conroy Kennedy, trans., Vintage Books, New York, 1968, p. 73. Epilogue
iiiHarold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh, Riverhead Books, New York, 2005, p.173.