Reading Genesis

  • By Marilynne Robinson
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 352 pp.

An inspired reconsideration of the Old Testament’s opener.

Reading Genesis

Marilynne Robinson hardly needed to take on a new genre for her next writing project. She could’ve rested on her laurels after her novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, or after President Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal in 2012. Instead, the intervening years have been the contemplative fictioneer’s most productive: novels, short stories, philosophical and theological essays, think pieces, and reportage. And she has garnered prestigious awards for nearly all of it.

Yet some Robinson devotees may raise an eyebrow when they hear of Reading Genesis. What exactly is this book, they might ask. A Bible commentary informed by literary theory? Does some philosophical theology lead the reader through the pages by the nose? Or, God forbid, should we brace ourselves for something orthodox?

The answer to all these questions is yes…and not at all. Reading Genesis certainly analyzes the biblical text, but it’s unlike any commentary you’ll encounter. To be sure, Robinson has read widely in Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern literature. She knows and appreciates the influential Documentary Hypothesis, which sees the first books of the Old Testament as woven together from several different sources — even if she deplores the use of that hypothesis to avoid the text as it has come down to us. The politics of that age rarely stray from her peripheral vision.

But boiling down Reading Genesis to intertextual and grammatical awareness or theological box-checking misses what is distinctive about this deep and sagacious work. In the book’s first sentence, Robinson writes, “The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil.” It’s a sentence that will alarm not a few readers. From another writer, one might then expect metaphysical proofs, old-sounding talk of predestination, or Leibnizian claims that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Robinson offers none of these things. Instead, she watches as the characters of the Bible develop in all their weird, human complexity and as God works to bring humanity toward ends that, from the perspective of the characters themselves, are utterly inscrutable. Confidence of the sort Alexander Pope had when he wrote in An Essay on Man that “whatever is, is right” has no place in Reading Genesis. But providence most certainly does. It comes onstage surreptitiously even as Robinson considers the ways the narrative weaves together each character’s personal tragedies, penchant for violence, utter confusion about God, and faithful endurance. But she never fails to point it out. In fact, she believes, in Genesis, providence is the undercurrent that, in spite of appearances, determines the direction of the whole narrative river.

Reading Genesis is not the sort of book that ties up every loose end. Nor does it whitewash Israel’s history; Robinson’s careful attention to the narrative doesn’t allow for that sort of orthodoxy. In fact, biblical borrowings from The Epic of Gilgamesh inform her reading of the Noah story, and for her, the similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and the Babylonian creation myth known as the Enuma Elisha are what bring out the theological force in the text. Likewise, as she moves through Genesis, Robinson has recourse to the Homeric gods and Canaanite theology, underscoring just how different Yahweh was from the gods of other nations.

Yet it’s when Robinson approaches Abraham, Hagar, Abimelech, and Jacob as a novelist — that is, as someone who knows how a good story works — that she’s at her best. In doing so, she sometimes cannot help but attend to Genesis’ anthropology: the “overwhelming power” of humanity, our high place in creation relative to the theologies of neighboring peoples, and the claim that we are the “image of God.”  

In the end, however, the narrative is primarily about God, and only then humanity. Robinson’s interpretative lens reflects this. She shows how Yahweh’s patience and even gentleness with humankind show up in the wake of Cain’s and Lamech’s violence; His anger when children are harmed comes into view in Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac; and providence ends up looking like “the ultimate trickster” in the twisted narrative of Jacob and Esau.

The Jewish, Christian, or Muslim reader knows the providential end of the narrative’s bizarre twists and turns. That the characters themselves do not, though, seems to be part of the point. “Providence can become visible in retrospect,” Robinson writes. In fact, as in the stories about Joseph, providence “is served by just those steps that are taken to defeat it.”

Few who are unfamiliar with the Bible will pick up Reading Genesis, but it should be said anyway: Robinson takes for granted that the reader knows these stories. She rarely offers the gist of a passage before diving deep into theological and literary waters. Those who’ve never waded into the tales of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and others may well find themselves frustrated. Further, Robinson herself is a Reformed Christian; Jews and Muslims will notice interpretations here that run counter to their readings of the sacred text.

Of course, Robinson is 80 years old, and she can write whatever she wishes. She doesn’t need everyone to be her target audience. Nonetheless, one senses that the impact of this strange and beautiful book will be deep and wide.

Joel Looper is the author of Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land without Reformation.

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