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Reading Genesis presents a panoramic view of the most vital ways that Genesis is approached in modern scholarship. Essays by ten eminent scholars cover the perspectives of literature, gender, memory, sources, theology, and the reception of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity. Each contribution addresses the history and rationale of the method, insightfully explores particular texts of Genesis, and deepens the interpretive gain of the method in question. These ways of reading Genesis, which include its classic past readings, map out a pluralistic model for understanding Genesis in - and for - the modern age.
Memory, wrote Augustine in his Confessions, is “the present of things past.” The past exists only in our present memories and is mediated by places, objects, texts, and customs. As individuals, our past selves and relationships persist only to the extent that we remember them. However, individual memories also can be of events that never happened or that did not happen in quite the way we remember them. Memories recall the past in a way that re-creates the past, foregrounding and embellishing certain parts and suppressing others. No one has total recall; our memories are always partial, meaning that they are both incomplete and biased, colored in various ways. Memory is unreliable, but it is also the foundation of our sense of self.
Cultures also have what we can call memories. Often, these are memories of the formative past when an ancestral group underwent crucial transitions. Children are initiated into cultural memories as part of the process of acculturation, and these shared memories comprise an essential ingredient and causal agent of group identity. The shared memories of a culture are subject to the same types of changes as individual memory. They are a blend of historical details and imaginative embellishments, blending and crystallizing differently according to the concerns and experiences of each generation.
This book attempts to do something new and old in biblical interpretation. The new involves three moves: (1) charting methods of reading Genesis that have become vital in recent years, including literary criticism, cultural memory, the history of sexuality, and inner-biblical interpretation; (2) renewing the practice of several older methods that retain their vitality, including source criticism and theology; and (3) expanding the horizons of the study of Genesis to encompass the reception and transformation of Genesis in Western culture, including rabbinic and patristic interpretation, translation, and modern literature. The family of methods presented in this book focuses on ways of reading Genesis and on ways of reading influential past readings of Genesis. To put it differently, we are engaged in studying a text and its effects in Western culture. This combination of perspectives is relatively new in biblical studies and represents a proposal about how Genesis can be read (and reread) in the university and the modern world.
At the same time, this book is a throwback to an older era – let us call it a pre-postmodern era – when texts were believed to have meanings and when it was the task of the interpreter to discuss those meanings with intelligence and insight. Each contributor to this volume practices what Nietzsche called “the incomparable art of reading well,” which involves a commitment to the notion that texts and their interpretations are worth grappling with in our work and lives. This theoretical empiricism, which can have many flavors and intensities, necessarily includes an appreciation of the interdependence of various approaches to the text – including the historical, literary, philosophical, anthropological, and theological. It involves a pragmatic openness to multiple converging and diverging paths of study for the simple reason that, as Wittgenstein says, “[I]t is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways.” There is no single authoritative – or authoritarian – method of reading Genesis.
In her groundbreaking study of gender, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir evokes the story of the creation of woman in Genesis 2 as a primary text whose impact on Western perceptions of gender relations cannot be overlooked. Beauvoir writes:
Eve was not fashioned at the same time as the man; she was not fabricated from a different substance, nor of the same clay as was used to model Adam: she was taken from the flank of the first male. Not even her birth was independent; God did not spontaneously choose to create her as an end in herself.…She was destined by Him for man; it was to rescue Adam from loneliness that He gave her to him, in her mate was her origin and her purpose; she was his complement on the order of the inessential.
Beauvoir's renowned claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – the formulation that became the very base for the definition of “gender” as a social construct – turns out to be particularly relevant to the “birth” of the first woman. Eve's birth is by no means a natural event, innocent of cultural presuppositions regarding the role of woman. She is subjected to God and to Adam, shaped as the perfect Other whose very purpose is to serve as “dream incarnate,” to enable the first man to define himself as Subject within the realm of the essential.