Princeton University Press is publishing a series of books about books: Lives of Great Religious Books. Among the first batch is (perhaps predictably) The Book of Genesis: A Biography. And, though brief, it is excellent. (See a good review of the book here.)
Having traced the book's 'biography' from its textual and literary-contextual origins, Ronald Hendel takes us on a journey through apocalypticism, Platonic worlds, the figuralism of Dante and Rashi, the 'realism of Luther, the science of Copernicus and Galileo through to Spinoza, Darwin and Fundamentalism, the literary explorations of Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka to Erich Auerbach. And his concluding sentence?
We live on the far side of tradition… In our exile, we can read Genesis as it is now – an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came. (p.241)
In fact, Hendel has done more than concoct a narrative thread; he has fitted the book of Genesis into a brief history of biblical hermeneutics as they are shaped by the wider intellectual, religious and social movements of history. En route he places an implicit question mark over those who assume that the biblical text is self-evident in meaning – that is to say, without reference to the unarticulated assumptions we bring to our reading of it. (Which might usefully be considered by those orchestratedly bombarding bishops like me this week with their – remarkably identical and sometimes offensively expressed – views on bishops and the Pilling Report. The phrase “the plain meaning of Scripture” is used with what used to be called 'gay abandon'.)
There are points where I would wish to quibble with what I think are wrong or generalised observations, but these are hardly worth noting in a book which is clearly and vividly written for a general-interest audience. And there are statements that concisely say what might usefully be expanded on grounds of interest and importance. For example, on 'translation':
The Platonic flavor of Creation in the Greek [Septuagint] Genesis does not mean that it is a bad translation, but simply that it is a translation. All translations mingle the concepts and categories of the source language with those of the target language. The words and the ideas of Genesis take on Greek color because they are now written in Greek. The Septuagint became the standard Scripture for Greek-speaking Jews and for most Christians, including all the writers of the New Testament. And this means that Genesis described, for them and their descendants, a Platonic world. (p.90)
Now, you have to read on to see how the language itself, as well as the impact of the act of translation, shapes – and is shaped by – an assumed world view.
I would love to have read some reference to Robert Crumb's cartoon version of Genesis! But, reading this book did remind me of Alan of Lille's great aphorism: “God is the intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” (p.115)