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Book review: Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson

by
05 April 2024

John Barton reviews an approach to Genesis undaunted by the critics

MARILYNNE ROBINSON’s reputation as a prize-winning novelist (Feature, 22 March), and an accessible and profound writer on the life of the mind and the human spirit, will lead readers to expect any work of hers to live up to the recommendation on the front cover by no less than Barack Obama: “Her work defines universal truths about what it means to be human.” This expectation is entirely fulfilled. But many in the UK will be surprised that “universal truths” can be drawn out of the book of Genesis, or any book in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

In the United States, there is a wide cultural awareness of the Bible as a potential source of wisdom, though bedevilled by much two-dimensional reading that in practice treats it as a sort of instruction manual rather than as what the translators of the King James Version called “a fountain and well of truth”. Robinson’s opposition to fundamentalist assumptions, which literalistically flatten out the heights and depths of the insights expressed by the biblical writers, is no less strong for being expressed so calmly that some readers may even fail to register it.

In the UK, however, expectations of the Bible are mostly very low in any case, and the claim that Genesis is a spiritual and cultural classic text, a resource for the lives of all human beings, will cause widespread surprise even to some Christians. Yet Robinson’s gently persuasive presentation succeeds in opening up even the less attractive stories from ancient Israel’s primeval history and showing that they do often deal with what it means to be human in the presence of God — though she does not fail to recognise that Genesis, like the rest of the Old Testament, mostly draws these insights from the very particular history of Israel, not by arguing from some sort of supposedly general principles.

We are offered a guided tour of Genesis, not a verse-by-verse commentary. It pauses for us to appreciate striking features of the landscape, though sometimes rushing past the sort of knotty thickets of confusion and repetition which have so exercised biblical scholars, but might confuse or bore us if we are looking for wisdom rather than “merely historical” knowledge. Robinson’s “learning lightly worn”, however, will be apparent to those familiar with academic study of the Bible. She clearly knows a great deal about technical biblical criticism, but introduces its findings only when relevant to her own more existential project. This is an author who has assimilated much from the critics, but won’t be pushed around by them, despite expressing that resistance in the most measured and courteous way.

Readers from the critical tradition will, indeed, possibly be startled by how many very traditional ideas are, however delicately, still affirmed. Despite the rejection of fundamentalist readings (never so described), channels of communication with quite conservative Evangelicalism are kept open. Thus, the historicity of the basic story of Israel’s origins is largely affirmed or assumed, as is Moses’s authorship of much in Genesis that requires knowledge of Egyptian culture — by now a very conservative position. The essentially benign, loving character of the God of Genesis is movingly conveyed, but, at times, a less committed reader might struggle with more challenging negative aspects that she seems to blend a little too readily into a basically optimistic presentation. The warmth and humanity that shine from the work, however, are a powerful reminder that if there is a problem of evil, there is also a mystery of goodness, and it is just as salient in the Bible as its dark opposite.

An intriguingly enigmatic feature is the format of the book, different from any other work about a biblical book known to me, with neither introduction nor conclusion to explain it. Robinson simply talks the reader through the text of Genesis in short sections. Never does she use biblical chapter or verse numbers; nor are there any chapter divisions in her own exposition; so the book forms one long and unbroken discourse. Though positions that she disagrees with are presented very fairly, clearly after deep thought, their proponents are never identified by name; no other books are cited; and there are no notes or suggestions for further reading. No translation but the King James Version is quoted, even in places where the discussion is of the original Hebrew rather than of the translated text seen as an early-modern English literary classic — two things that need to be distinguished. As much as one third of the book consists simply of the King James translation of Genesis, but in a format that makes it hard to read.

All this perhaps contributes to the book’s appeal, signalling that it is not a dull academic monograph. But it also conveys an impression that it is the first real “close reading” of a biblical book, and can therefore dispense with the style and layout conventional in biblical scholarship. This claim has been a standard trope in books on the Bible “as literature”, of which, in fact, there are many, for several decades. Trying to indicate it by a novel (and, arguably, rather unhelpful) format has an unfortunate unintended effect, depriving readers of a great deal of the background help and support that they would have got from a more traditional presentation.

Reading Genesis is genuinely novel, not because it is “literary”, but because it has new things to say about the theological themes of the first book of the Bible, and says them with a beauty of style and profundity of thought which need no support from tired notions about the supposed defects of previous biblical study.

Robinson makes many brief statements that a less exciting writer would have spent pages unpacking, but which she wisely leaves, laconically, for readers to ponder for themselves. This is true of her very first sentence, “The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil,” or of this comment on the story of Joseph: “This is the irony of providence, that it is served by just those steps that are taken to defeat it.” And here is her startling critique of the idea (which to some Christians seems, mistakenly, to honour the majesty of God) that the Bible had no human authors, but only a divine one: “This is a notable instance of our having a lower opinion of ourselves than the Bible justifies.”

In these, and in many other places, we can see the scale of her contribution to biblical studies, to theology in general, and — as Mr Obama rightly says — to an understanding of what it is to be human, and to have a gracious God.


John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

Reading Genesis
Marilynne Robinson
Virago £25
(978-0-349-01874-4)
Church Times Bookshop £20


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