Sunday, July 7, 2024

#189 / Reading Genesis

I have been wending my way through the writings of Marilynne Robinson, including the entire "Gilead Series," which includes her Pulitizer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, and the three novels that follow, Home, Lila, and Jack. I began writing about Robinson's novels starting in 2020, and as I have revealed in my earlier blog postings, I didn't read the books in the order in which she published them.  

Recently, I have written about Robinson's book review, published in The Wall Street Journal, which listed her "Five Best On Faith." Robinson seems to be moving from fiction to Biblical exegesis, and I was struck by her discussion of Theologia Germanica, one of the five extremely obscure books, focused on theology, that she reviewed for The Journal.  

In reviewing Theologia Germanica, Robinson contended that the "original sin" mentioned in the Bible was not - as I think is commonly assumed - the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and took one or more bites from that "forbidden fruit." 

According to Robinson's understanding, coming from her reading of Theologia Germanica, the "original sin" was claiming the right to take anything for one's own - that is, for one's own exclusive use. That makes the story a lot more relevant for us, I think, than the more traditional reading. While few of us would claim to be in direct conversation with God, as Adam and Eve were, in the Garden - and so don't have too many chances simply to disobey a clearly and personally-delivered message from the Almighty - there is no doubt that we are each tempted, every day, to assert our individual and exclusive ownership and domininion over whatever good thing may come to our attention. 

According to John Locke, extending our personal dominion over what we want (as long as we do some work for it) is "the way it spozed to be." In Locke's view, the world advances as individuals carve out their "private property" from the common domain. Locke may have had a great deal of influence over our current political, social, and economic arrangements, but the notion he advances is not what The Book of Genesis says, as understood by Martin Luther, and as outlined in the Theologica Germanica, and as told to us by Marilynne Robinson.

At any rate, and as I reported in one of my earlier blog postings, I decided to read Robinson's most recently published book, one clearly categorized as Biblical exegesis, which Robinson has entitled, Reading Genesis. This blog posting is to provide a quick review of Robinson's latest book (and, I'd like to think, might serve as an encouragement to those who have read what I am writing here to get acquainted with Marilynne Robinson themselves).  

Before highlighting some of what Robinson says in Reading Genesis, however, let me provide you with the following link to an online guide to the Book of Genesis, featuring "10 Things You May Have Missed." Bible study is not avidly practiced, I am betting, by many of those who may be reading this blog posting. So, for those who might need a quick entry point, or reminder, the online guide to Genesis that I have just linked, above, could be helpful. Robinson's guide, which comes bound together with the text of the Book of Genesis, King James Version, is significantly more "dense," to pick an applicable adjective, but it is rewardingly so. At least, so I like to think. 

Here are some of the things that Robinson says in her book, Reading Genesis

  • The entire Bible, which of course includes Genesis, is not "a text upon which theology is based." The Bible is, itself, a work of theology. In other words, the Bible is not just a bunch of stories, at least the way Robinson understands it. "Their sequence is an articulation of a complex statement about reality." [Page 3]
  • The creation story, in Genesis, is important. Other creation stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, do not say, as Genesis does, that God created the world, ex nihilo - out of nothing - and they specifically do not say that God, having created the world, then pronounces it "Good." "In Genesis, from the first, good is intrinsic to the whole of Creation," and this makes Genesis "conceptually unlike" the other creation stories.... "The biblical vision of Creation is structured around their being no preexisting reality of any kind, an absolute difference from other myth." [Pages 12-13; 30] 
  • "Genesis acknowledges a crucial variable that is not present in the Babylonian epics - human culpability.... The centrality of humankind in the creation myth of Genesis is from the beginning an immeasurable elevation of status, made meaningful in the fact of our interacting with God even at the level of sacred history. This is unique to the Bible." [Page 19]

As Robinson presents it, the Book of Genesis is mostly the story of God's covenant with "Abraham, Issac, and Jacob," all descendents of Cain, repeatedly promising this "family," throughout its long history, that God will protect and reward the family in the same way that God protected and rewarded Cain, after Cain has committed the first recorded murder, killing his brother, Abel. 

God, clearly, does forgive Cain and his descendants their "trespasses," as Jesus, much later, advises us to forgive those who trespass against us. Cain killed his brother without any kind of plausible reason or justification, and yet God shows him "extraordinary faithfulness." 

The long genealogical view of the family of Cain reflects God's knowledge of the lives that would be spared with his life. Murderous Lamech is one, and Noah, son of Lamech, is another. And, after Noah, the whole fruitful and multiplying world. But rationalizing what God does involves the risk of losing its difficulty and otherness to human expectations. His great forgiveness of the first criminal offends people's sense of justice, unless they can find a way to read vengefulness into the tale. We are instead to learn that mercy is nearer than justice to Godliness, and that mercy can release an abundance far exceeding whatever might come of attempting to impose justice as we mortals understand the word (emphasis added). [Page 59]

To return to something said earlier in this blog posting, Robinson wants us to understand that the Book of Genesis is "a complex statement about [the nature of] reality."

For me, one message that comes through clearly is that "forgiveness" is key. 

In order for the world to work as it should, we must forgive others, but we must forgive ourselves, too. Were we able to do that, we would be liberated to live with all those others whom we have wronged, and to live and work with those who have wronged us. We would be liberated by forgiving ourselves for all of our own mistakes, and errors, and the deliberate actions we knew were wrong, even as we undertook them (or as we found out later that they were). 

It was a long time ago that I looked into this book that Robinson has now written about. By putting her book into our hands, Robinson is giving each one of us an opportunity to undertake a journey of forgiveness ourselves, and to find, when we do that, a key to understanding, and to life, that will transform us, and transform our understanding of the world that we create. 

Reading Genesis. Recommended! 

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