Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Review 288: The Book of Genesis: A Biography

THE BOOK OF GENESIS: A Biography, by Ronald Hendel. 287 pages, Princeton, $24.95

Ronald Hendel’s “biography” of Genesis, the latest volume in the worthy Lives of Great Religious Books series, is good as far as it goes. Which is not nearly far enough.

He portrays the career of the scripture as a struggle to establish figural (hidden) interpretation or real (literal)readings, with real coming out on top, two ways.

The Higher Criticism (which he calls German scholarship) taught people like Hendel to read the book as if it were any other, non-scriptural text, written by humans and understandable with common methods; or the Fundamentalists, who treat it as literal but divine and therefore inerrant, so that its contradictions have to be explained away.

He attributes this outcome to Luther, Galileo and Spinoza and the like. For the first two thousand years or so, the figural, allegorical or allusive interpretation, partly Platonic, was supreme.

“Modern biblical scholarship argues that much of the history of the interpretation of Genesis is a history of error.” Nevertheless, following Erich Auerbach, he finds Genesis, with its unique (for its time) approach to creation the bedrock of western culture and not Homer, the other contender.

Of course, there was no western culture at the time of writing (or editing), nor does Hendel comment on the notion that Genesis, a Semitic book, stands oddly as the foundation of western culture. So, perhaps, it does, but then how western was western culture in the  period? Not very, you might think.

In fact, it seems that western culture may have been created not out of but by destroying the meaning of Genesis as its writers intended it to be.

In any event, Hendel’s deeply informed sketch flies at a very abstract level, considering what literary folks thought about Genesis.

The book has had and still has another life, more visceral, and I would argue that no marks on sheepskin have caused more misery than Genesis. Hendel entirely ignores the common or garden variety life of Genesis, as used by lawyers, priests, despots and power-mad sadists of every era (ours included), though he does mention that Bruno was burnt for dissing the conventional view of it and Galileo was threatened with torture and execution.

It would have been handsome if Hendel had at least spared a paragraph for all the victims of Genesis, since he finds space to report how Dickenson and Kafka used the book, surely among the least significant uses of Genesis in its long history.

He is no Fundie himself, quoting Professor Mark Noll (in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”) at length and approvingly, and Noll is worth quoting here, too:

“the Civil War . . . effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. [This verdict], though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.”

Need I add that, to the limited extent that the Republican Party ever acquiesced in this view, it is no longer the case?

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