'Genesis' II: Redactor Missing in Action

By McConnell, Frank | Commonweal, October 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

'Genesis' II: Redactor Missing in Action


McConnell, Frank, Commonweal


I have told you the good news about "Genesis: A Living Conversation" (Commonweal, October 11, 1996). The bad news is a little more complicated, but just as much a part of this rather extraordinary series.

The first problem with "Genesis" is its selection of participants. There are many distinguished and fascinating players on the team: What a pleasure to see, for instance, the reclusive John Barth, one of our grandest novelists (The Sotweed Factor, Chimera), on the show discussing the Cain and Abel story. But, for all the brilliance of his fiction, does Barth really belong here? Does the painter Hugh O'Donnell? Or the novelists Mary Gordon and Oscar Hijuelos? Or Elizabeth Swados, whose distinction is that she composed the rather sappy theme music for the series?

I'm not getting personal here (although Swados, on the show about Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, does establish a bottom line of irrelevance for the series). The point is that reading Genesis should be a part of everyone's experience; but that a conversation about Genesis should include as many truly skilled readers as possible. Too often, discussions of the day's episode - especially with the nonexperts - lead to bland ramblings that begin, "Well what the story says to me..." or "See, what I think Sarah is feeling here...." That may be very well for suburban Bible study groups, but not here. This essential text should not be masqueraded as user-friendly: that is McMidrash.

The great number of participants, of course, from four central religions, are as learned and as eloquent as one could wish. But it's bothersome to consider the names that are not on the team roster: Harold Bloom, John S. Dunne, Richard Friedman, Jack Miles, Fazlur Rahman, James Robinson - the list goes on.

And that objection is subsumed by a larger one. For a century now, responsible exegesis has been based on the fact - that's fact - that Genesis is a compilation, a sort of gumbo, of three very different and sometimes contradictory texts, called J (Yawhistic), E (Elohistic), and P (Priestly), which were stirred into the same pot around 450 B.C. by a mysterious figure - who was that masked man? - called the "Redactor." This truth in no way diminishes the authority of the text as "sacred"; to the contrary, trying to read the Bible seriously without knowing this is like trying to do physics without knowing calculus.

Nevertheless, the "documentary hypothesis," as it's called, scares the hell out of fundamentalists - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike. And "Genesis," the series, never once brings it up - although everybody involved, surely, knows better. It's TV, folks, and we don't want to alarm anybody out there who may be a fundamentalist and a PBS subscriber. Still, it's embarrassing: seven folks sit around reconciling the first creation story (God made everything in seven days) with the second (God formed man from clay in the garden), and nobody just points out that they needn't be reconciled, because they were written by two different people (the first is P, the second J) with vastly different agendas, who didn't even use the same word for - or have strictly the same concept of - "God."

This is part and parcel of the same evasiveness that informs the sequence of episodes. Why do we begin with the story of Cain and Abel ("The First Murder") and then begin at the beginning, in episode two, with the priestly creation? Because murder is a lot sexier than "Let there be light," of course: but do we need that? …

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