Reading Genesis: Beginnings

By Rosen, Anna Levin | The Christian Century, May 10, 2017 | Go to article overview

Reading Genesis: Beginnings


Rosen, Anna Levin, The Christian Century


Reading Genesis: Beginnings

Edited by Beth Kissileff

Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $29.95 paperback

One rabbinic teaching claims that there are 70 different faces of the Torah and instructs: "turn it, turn it, for everything is in it" (Midrash on Numbers, 13:15). At first glance, one cannot but be impressed by Beth Kissileff's broad and multifaceted collection of essays on Genesis. It includes contributions by some of the best-known Jewish thinkers, scholars, writers, and public figures--the crafters of 21st-century American Jewish culture. The diversity of topics, from game theory to neurobiology, from culinary traditions to human sexuality, presents contemporary evidence that the Bible speaks to all human knowledge.

Kissileff arranges the essays according to the order of the biblical text. The diversity of genres paired with the multiplicity of themes, characters, and ideas within Genesis creates a disjointed feeling rather than a flow. But a sense of continuity emerges as the authors of many of the essays discuss their personal relationship with the text and their perspective on writing for such a collection.

One striking example of self-awareness and commitment to craft comes from novelist Dara Horn. In her exploration of Jacob's character development, Horn critiques the study of "Bible as literature" when it secularizes the text. This mode of study is "fashionable [as] a way to teach the Torah to people who do not believe in God," but it separates the text from its deeply religious content and intent.

Using her expertise in comparative literature, Horn counters that the "literary aspects of the biblical text make its religious meaning possible" and "the written style of the biblical text itself confers moral and religious significance." She claims that the early rabbis were so strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture that they read the Torah through the lens of Homer. In so doing, Horn argues, these interpreters reduced the characters to static identities imposed as immutable qualities, obscuring the intricacies of biblical characterization. This courageous reading exposes a limitation in some of the most influential Jewish writings.

Legal scholar Geoffrey P. Miller's analysis of contracts is one of the most compelling and original discussions in this collection. Miller, who teaches at NYU Law School, shows how the language of covenant, oath, and blessing is core to the narrative and essential components of relationships in Genesis. His expertise in biblical studies ranges from taxation to the political theory of the book of Kings. In this essay, he addresses the sale of the birthright and the entanglement of Jacob, Esau, Rebecca, and Isaac through a legal-economic analysis. Regarding the dilemma of the sold birthright and misdirected blessing. Miller argues that "the act of blessing rather clearly performs the same function as the oath: it brings the deity into the transaction and establishes that the actions to be taken are intended to have and in fact do have legally binding import. …

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