How the Bible Begins Books on Genesis Study the Language and Examine the First Families of the Judeo-Christian Tradition

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Translation and Commentary By Robert Alter

Norton 324 pp., $25 The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development By Burton Visotzky Crown Publishers 211 pp., $20 Genesis: A Living Conversation By Bill Moyers Doubleday 361 pp., $29.95 Genesis: As It Is Written Contemporary Writers of our first stories Edited by David Rosenberg Harper San Francisco 212 pp., $20 In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis By Karen Armstrong Alfred A. Knopf 183 pp.,$20 The book of Genesis is the treasured beginning of both Jewish and Christian Scripture. Its narratives are familiar to religious and nonreligious men and women throughout the globe. Genesis is also a powerful presence in the Koran, the Scripture of the Islamic faith. Though about 3,000 years old, Genesis continues to be a source for both controversy and inspiration. When Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" shattered the conventional understanding of the Garden of Eden, in many respects a new era in both science and religion had begun. More than a century after Darwin, a new resurgence of spirituality has led many to reexamine the Bible. "Genesis: A Living Conversation," the public television series hosted by Bill Moyers, is a notable and recent result of this trend. Moyers drew together a group of scholars, ministers, priests, rabbis, and poets to talk, argue, and muse about Genesis. "We're in a new religious reality," he told a group gathered recently in Boston. Now, as the series is broadcast, five books have been published by participants and non-participants in "A Living Conversation." Genesis: Translation and Commentary, by Robert Alter, is the most scholarly of the new spate of Genesis books and in some respects is quite unlike the three by his conversational colleagues. Rabbi Alter opens up the world of the Bible in Hebrew, offering his perspectives in a wonderfully accessible manner. Most readers of Genesis are unacquainted with ancient Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written. It's a language utterly unlike English, with a terseness and a set of colloquialisms all its own. Although Alter's book might best serve as a reference work, it should not be placed on the shelf without reading the fascinating introduction, which explains the pitfalls confronting the would-be translator of Genesis. "Genesis: Translation and Commentary" is the result of painstaking research and analysis. The lengthy commentaries are heavy with detail. This may not be to everyone's taste, but no one can finish Alter's volume without feeling more attuned to what the authors of Genesis had in mind. This focus clarifies the ancient texts for contemporary lay readers. Is it possible, then, to find relevance with a less analytical approach to Scripture? In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis gives more personal glimpses into the incredibly vast and exciting possibilities of the Bible. It is written by Karen Armstrong, whose recent "A History of God," has become a popular history of monotheism. Armstrong, a Christian, notes that the stories of the Bible are not to be taken as literal, factual accounts of historical events. She sees the many contradictions in the Scriptures as intended to force the reader "to face up to the complexity" of existence. Yet this intriguing premise hardly serves as preparation for what takes up most of "In the Beginning" - in-depth, psychologically oriented character analysis of all the major players in Genesis, from Adam to Joseph. These studies make for interesting, if less than inspiring, reading. Certainly, the clan of Abraham can lay claim to the title of the earliest known dysfunctional family. Yet a view of Genesis as a kind of inspirational soap opera is definitely a matter of personal opinion. "In the Beginning" concludes with a new translation of Genesis, presumably by the author. The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development, by Burton Visotzky is similar to Armstrong's book in its approach. …


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