This Is a Testament


The cover of Reading Genesis

“IN THE BEGINNING God created the heaven and the earth.” You have to admit it’s a hell of an opening line. “When I think there was a day when a human first wrote those words,” Marilynne Robinson says, “I am filled with awe.” And that, for better and worse, is the kind of book Reading Genesis is—Robinson muses through Genesis, telling you what she thinks, getting filled with awe. It’s a book-length reading response. But it’s a reading response by Marilynne Robinson, who has written a few of the finest novels in English, so I’ll take it.

Of course, she’s not really thinking of the day when a human first wrote those words—those particular words were written in the sixteenth century. They’re the opening of the King James Version of Genesis, very slightly adapted from the 1560 Geneva Bible. (The KJV Genesis is provided in its entirety at the end of Robinson’s book.) Of the Hebrew book of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah, Robinson has not much to say. She writes, as she tells us up front, as a Christian, about the most authoritative Christian translation of Bereshit. There is a long history of admirable Christian writing about Genesis. But Robinson aims to read the text freed from the encumbrance of familiar interpretations, and she is too steeped in Christianity to entirely succeed.

Robinson’s essay proceeds casually. She assumes the reader’s acquaintance with the text, quoting little, with no citations or notes. Her method is to read the familiar stories—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers—against the grain of their most common interpretations. She tries to come to the text with fresh eyes, without assumptions, as if she had not lived with this strange narrative since childhood. As if she were its first reader. And although she can’t quite pull this off, the virtue of Reading Genesis is that Robinson (not always intentionally) forces even those well acquainted with the Bible to see how much of our understanding of it has been shaped by received readings.

I first encountered Robinson’s work in The Death of Adam, a book of essays, which is an unusual entry point. The woman wrote Housekeeping, for God’s sake. I am at best a reluctant reader of contemporary fiction (I was recently reminded why by the encomiums heaped on the late Cormac McCarthy, the H. P. Lovecraft of Oswald Spenglers). But The Death of Adam was weird enough—a defense of Calvinism!—to send me to Gilead, Robinson’s second novel, published twenty-four years after Housekeeping. I think this epistolary account of the life of the Reverend John Ames, Congregationalist pastor in a small town in Iowa, superior in every way to its fan-favorite predecessor, which I read next. I’ve since decided that everyone is either a Housekeeping person or a Gilead person, even if they’ve never read either. 

In Gilead and its three companion novels—Home, Lila, Jack—Robinson peers into the dumb black heart of American Christianity and finds its many small gold flecks. Here is the eponymous Lila, wife of the Reverend Ames, in the third installment of the Gilead series, shaking her head over the cruel, ridiculous notion of hell: “Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place.” 

Empathy pervades the novels, while Robinson’s critical work has become increasingly brittle, culminating, in a 2018 essay on her friend Barack Obama, in a repugnant attack on those who “condemn drone warfare or the encroachments of national security, never proposing better options than these painful choices, which by comparison with others on offer, clearly spare lives.” Obama’s drone program failed to spare the lives of hundreds of civilians, including more than a hundred children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a recent interview published in the New York Times, she calls President Biden “a gift of God.” Biden is currently arming the Israeli military that has killed over 12,000 Palestinian children since last October.

Reading Genesis is, blessedly, closer in spirit to the novels than the other nonfiction, perhaps because Genesis is a book about how lost we are and how little we know. Robinson tells us that “the story” of chapters fifteen through seventeen “knows utterly more than Abram and Sarai can know.” And again: “The story knows what the reader or hearer does and doesn’t know.” Partly this is just a way of saying that the characters and readers of the story are not privy to information that the narrator (or God himself) will unfold in time. But it also rebukes the assumption that we know what these “stories” mean, that they cannot surprise us by revealing aspects of themselves that cast them in unsuspected shades. The text is wiser than we are, a sphere confronting the planar surfaces of our reading.

This often takes the form of a reminder of what the text does not say. Thus, of the nature of the mark or sign that protects Cain from avengers we are told nothing. “For all we know, it could have made him disarmingly beautiful.” Or consider Noah, spared from the waters to be established within God’s covenant. That covenant includes the requirement that whoever spills another’s blood will have his blood spilled. Robinson reads this divine sanction of retribution, which seems hard to square with Yahweh’s leniency toward Cain and others, as “a sad concession to the human penchant for violence.” He sees how we are, and he can’t just go around flooding the world all the time, so he makes a few grudging allowances.

Rembrandt, The Angel preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, ca.1634-35, chalk and wash on paper, 7 3/4" × 5 3/4". Image: Wikicommons/The British Museum [[PD-US]].
Rembrandt, The Angel preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, ca.1634-35, chalk and wash on paper, 7 3/4" × 5 3/4". Image: Wikicommons/The British Museum [[PD-US]].

Or consider Isaac, “the least interesting of all the patriarchs.” The story of the binding of Isaac—God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”—might be the most difficult in all the Bible to square with God’s supposed goodness. Sure, he spares the boy in the end, but not before conducting hardcore psychological warfare. I’ve always seen the tale as a test, not of Abraham and Isaac but of the reader: if you can read it without concluding that Abraham should have told God to go fuck himself, there’s something wrong with you.

Robinson has found an elegant way around this, which might amount to special pleading, but which nevertheless bears the weight of a problem that has been worked through. “It is surely reasonable,” she notes, “to assume that we are not always the Bible’s primary audience.” Here she flirts with historicism, arguing that the story could be didactic, intended as a lesson that child sacrifice—which some contemporaries of the Hebrews, worshippers of Moloch, seem to have practiced—is neither necessary nor efficacious. If child sacrifice was observed in the ancient Near East, it would be nice to know that your god will never require the blood of your children. The point of the story is thus not “Abraham’s patient obedience” but the “dramatizing of child sacrifice” as “something shocking and transgressive, rejected by God.” Not that this interpretation would be of much comfort to Abraham or Isaac, whose thoughts and feelings, Robinson reminds us, we do not know. “Nothing,” at any rate, “distracts from the unspeakable imminent act.” 

For Robinson, these famous tales constitute “a study in the fact that people see what they want to see, even in Holy Scripture, whose presumed authority should encourage careful reading.” She sums up her critical method thus: “I am assuming, always, that there is a point of view of the text, that these stories have been considered together, seriously and reverently and in the light of experience, that their antiquity does not mean they are naïve.” She sets her capaciousness as a reader against a putative “tendency in biblical scholarship to treat these stories as if they are too primitive to arise from or to sustain a context in light of which they can be interpreted.” 

Indeed, she dismisses such scholarship per se, without actually engaging or even quoting any of it. It’s true that academic work on the Bible can get quite weedy: the University of Arizona’s Bible and Interpretation site informs me that “it is somewhat interesting that we should find the periphrasis with wehayah + participle and also a following lqr’t in only these two chapters in Samuel.” (Only somewhat?) But Robinson’s invective is a bit lazy. Has she read, say, Thomas Römer’s The Invention of God, with its thesis that the Hebrew Bible contains traces of an earlier Israelite polytheism that only gradually evolved into the monotheistic worship of Yahweh? At one point, Robinson says that “the great figures of Scripture are not at all Homeric. They do not absorb the energies of the narrative into themselves.” She surely knows she is paraphrasing Erich Auerbach’s famous argument in Mimesis. But Auerbach is not mentioned. Nor, in her discussion of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac, is Kierkegaard’s authoritative reading of this terrible story, Fear and Trembling; nor Kafka, for that matter, whose parable “Abraham” anticipates some of Robinson’s own observations. Reading Genesis, at Robinson’s level, involves having read influential readings of Genesis, but she has nothing to say about them.

No one can shed all her assumptions, for no one can be aware of them all. For example, Robinson points out that, when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, they do not die, as Yahweh had told them they would. “Satan was right to reassure them,” she concludes. It’s remarkable that so egregious a sentence made it past a fact-checker. The serpent in the garden is not Satan. Satan doesn’t show up in the Hebrew Bible until the Book of Numbers, and it is only in the New Testament that he starts to sort of resemble the malevolent figure of horror movies and black metal. (Nowhere in scripture is he said to be the ruler of hell.) The snake is identified with Satan only in later Christian tradition.

As noted above, Reading Genesis is not really about the Hebrew book of Bereshit. Jesus is mentioned five times in the first twenty pages. Robinson is candid about this, writing that she will illustrate “points about the Hebrew Bible with instances from the New Testament” because “it is relevant to interpretation that this aspect of the older text is sustained in the newer one despite all the time and cultural change that stands [sic] between them.” Is it also relevant to interpretation that Robinson comes out of the Calvinist tradition of Protestantism, which has its own ideas about Genesis? She has written eloquently elsewhere of the Geneva Bible, the beautiful predecessor of the King James. Geneva was the Bible of Shakespeare and Donne, of the Mayflower, of early America. Its theological presuppositions are printed in the very margins of the text, as annotations of an overtly Puritan and Calvinist character. The note to the serpent’s first appearance in Genesis reads, “God suffered Satan to make the serpent his instrument and to speak in him.” 

Furthermore, Reading Genesis is a product of Western Christian learning. Robinson tacitly assumes points of theology that would raise eyebrows in the Eastern churches. She also contradicts herself (we all do; this is one of the themes of the Hebrew Bible). When God comes to destroy Sodom, Abraham gets him to agree to spare the city if even ten righteous men are found there. Robinson says that this agreement “elicits a scriptural statement about the nature of God—not that He would spare the righteous in punishing sinners but that He would instead spare sinners in protecting the righteous. His care for the good exceeds His readiness to punish evil.”

But ten righteous men are not to be found, so God destroys Sodom, after removing Lot and his family. Robinson then argues that, though it is “a real question” whether “Lot should be considered righteous,” the question is moot, since the Lord whisked him and his out of harm’s way. Huh? True, God agreed to spare the city only if ten righteous were found, not nine or five or two. But if Lot and his family were in fact righteous, and God removed them and destroyed the city anyway, then he plainly spared the righteous in punishing sinners, the opposite of what Robinson claims. She points out that Lot’s pretty sketchy—he offers his virgin daughters to a mob and later impregnates them. But his righteousness is either a real question or it isn’t.

For Robinson, the God of Genesis is good, as the text declares. This is what distinguishes him, for her, from the gods of Babylon, who “were volatile, impulsive, but also needy.” And, um, Yahweh isn’t? Throughout the Hebrew Bible he is at times spiteful, hysterical, irrational, hypocritical, and downright murderous—in a word, human. He sics bears on children and wipes out cities. He creates humanity then drowns the world when we get too out of hand, as if our existence weren’t his fault in the first place. As my students concluded the last time I taught the Bible, Yahweh needs a good therapist.

But this is as much as to say that there is no single Yahweh in the Bible. The text was produced by various hands over centuries; inconsistencies and contradictions abound, as they do also in the New Testament. Robinson doesn’t gloss over this question, but I think it deserves more consideration than she allows. “I have dwelt on this sequence of stories,” she writes, “exploring the ways in which the faithfulness of God is manifest in the world of fallen humankind.” And though she acknowledges that “it is not always obvious that God does love humankind as such,” she quickly allows that “this is, of course, a human view of the matter.” 

Well, sure. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” But I think of poor Job, of poor Isaac, of the poor world in general, and I am not sure that a little more skepticism about God’s faithfulness might not be called for in a book of this sort. This may seem a rather banal point, but it is one that Robinson shies from, almost as if she were reluctant to look too closely into the question, afraid of what she might read there.

Reading Genesis is not for everyone. Ronald Hendel’s The Book of Genesis: A Biography is much better as a general introduction, though his prose is far dimmer than Robinson’s. And I must note that there are two kinds of reader who are mostly beneath Robinson’s notice: the literalists—who believe that, for instance, there was a real Noah who built a real ark (“Moreover,” Origen wrote scathingly in the third century, “we find that God is said to stroll in the garden in the afternoon and Adam to hide under a tree”)—and the smug illiterates of Darwinian scientism. Such readers are incapable of appreciating that “the Bible does not exist to explain away mysteries and complexities but to reveal and explore them with a respect and restraint that resists conclusion.” We all succumb, at times, to the temptation to leap to conclusions where we should respect complexity—that is one of the lessons of Genesis’s many misunderstandings and confusions.

Indeed, Robinson dwells on stories that hinge on misinterpretation—wives taken for sisters, sons for elder sons, angels for men, brothers for strangers—as if to suggest that the recurrence of themes of deception, of things not being what they seem, is a key to exegesis, a guide to how to read the Bible. Do not assume that you know what these stories are saying. As readers, we are more like blind Isaac than cunning Jacob. “Sustaining paradox,” Robinson says, “is the genius of the text.” 

She twice draws attention to broken or unfinished sentences. The first, Genesis 3:22, is not broken in the original (to which, as far as I can tell, Robert Alter is the best guide in English), but the second, from 25:22, is revealing. Isaac’s wife Rebekah is carrying twins that war within her womb. Robinson writes:

Rebekah’s voice is heard in her distress at the miseries of her pregnancy: “If it be so, why am I thus?” In the Hebrew, her sentence is unfinished. The word live is normally supplied in translations—Why do I live? But the break, as if her feelings exceed her power of expression, seems in character. 

Alter translates Rebekah’s cry as “Then why me?” and adds that “her words might even be construed as a broken-off sentence: Then why am I . . . ?” 

All this puts me in mind of a famous broken-off sentence in American literature:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning — —

Genesis is the story of a seemingly endlessly delayed fine morning, “Time is implicated,” Robinson says, “in the idea of a covenant or a promise. Destiny will be fulfilled, loyalty will be maintained, into a future unlike all the misery and unhappiness that must intervene between now and then.” But then again, one of the Bible’s great themes is that “disappointment is a very familiar turn in human affairs.”

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection Walkman (Penguin, 2021) and other books.