Reading Genesis: Ten Methods

Reading Genesis: Ten Methods

Edited by Ronald Hendel

New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010, 244 pp.
$85 (hardcover), $27.99 (paperback)
Reviewed by Kent Harold Richards

The Nietzsche Epigram to this 230-page collection of essays on Genesis speaks about the necessity of reading “slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.” If after reading these essays you are not convinced of the merits of carefully, thoughtfully and openly reading Biblical texts, then you will know that there is little reason to turn to this sparkling array of stories in Bereshit (Genesis) that have occupied these writers and others with “unpredictable yield.”

Hendel succinctly introduces the volume by giving it context. He defines the use of method since it is used in the subtitle of the volume. Method is a “way of proceeding.” Taken in this broad perspective, method is an opening. The term is often heard and used to constrain or to control. These essays clearly open the door widely to Genesis.

The ten readers of Genesis begin with Robert Alter who gives a brief background to literary approaches and then in the second half of the essay unfolds the Jacob story. Hendel reads the cultural memory perspectives focusing on slightly different dimensions of the Jacob story, specifically Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10–20). Robert S. Kawashima addresses sources and redaction. He makes a strong and creative case that awareness of the literary sources obscured by time and their redaction is necessary in order to lovingly interpret those first chapters of Genesis. Hendel along with Chana Kronfeld and Ilana Pardes reflect on gender and sexuality in Genesis. After some background on gender studies, the piece focuses on the Sodom and Gomorrah story and its impact. Inner-biblical interpretation and a careful look at condemning and justifying Jacob become the focus of Yair Zakovitch’s essay. Dina Stein looks at rabbinic interpretation and the art of midrash especially as it relates to the selfreflective Abraham. The interpretation of early Christian readers is developed by Richard A. Layton taking off from the call and migration of Abraham. Naomi Seidman approaches the issue of translation by a look at several texts including the Tower of Babel. She provocatively and rightly sees the tensions between translation as loss and translation as “movement through time.” The effects of Genesis in modern literature are dealt with by Ilana Pardes. She focuses on Melville’s Moby Dick and the attempt to reinvent the Bible in an American context. John J. Collins concludes the essays with a focus on contemporary theology by using Genesis 22 (the binding of Isaac). He appeals to the interpreter to not apologetically smooth out the reading of the Bible but to show the way it genuinely deserves our pointed questioning as it pointedly questions us.

The volume concludes with a Biblical citations index and general index. Both of these make the volume useful for studying on your own or for a course on Genesis. It would be an excellent supplement for courses dealing with interpretation since it discusses approaches and gives examples of the way the approaches enrich an understanding of the Bible.

Familiarity with the content of Genesis and basic knowledge of the traditional critical approaches will be helpful to the reader. I would not recommend it as an introduction to Genesis since it does not serve as any kind of roadmap. However, anyone modestly familiar with Genesis will find the byways it traverses enlightening and refreshing.

Kent Harold Richards is executive director emeritus of the Society of Biblical Literature.

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