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    And It Was Good

    Marilynne Robinson’s Reading Genesis finds a story unique in ancient literature, one that is also key to interpreting the rest of scripture.

    By Philip D. Bunn

    March 5, 2024

    Reading Genesis | Marilynne Robinson | Farrar, Straus, & Giroux | 352 pages | March 12, 2024

    Marilynne Robinson is a writer who requires little introduction. Her novels Housekeeping and Gilead, at this point certifiable classics, are staples in recommended reading lists. It’s relatively uncontroversial to say that Robinson is one of our greatest living writers. Her nonfiction writing, which many find less accessible, also has much to commend it. She has produced masterful essay collections on a range of subjects from the personal to the political to the theological. Her latest, Reading Genesis, is a remarkable interpretation of the first book of the Bible that demonstrates her literary mind, her scholarly competence, and the importance of her faith. In this ambitious work, Robinson focuses on Genesis specifically, but as she demonstrates, this is a book about Genesis as an interpretive key to the whole of Christian scripture, demonstrating God’s love, goodness, and care for creation and especially humankind, the creatures made in his image.

    Robinson unabashedly takes stances that will draw ire from some serious historical-critical scholars. For one, she believes Genesis to be scripture, inspired by God and delivered through Moses’ authorship. At the same time, she takes stances that might offend some fundamentalist readers. For example, she admits a broader scope of literary influences on the text than many such readers accept, and displays indifference to the historicity of events such as the Exodus.

    While Reading Genesis is not a work of apologetics, Robinson does very clearly argue for the distinctiveness of the narrative of Genesis among other Ancient Near East origin stories. She agrees with certain critical scholars who see in Genesis the explicit influence of other Ancient Near East creation myths and flood stories. She herself sees no problem with this influence; it is no mark against Genesis that it bears the influence of the culture in which it was written. In fact, she sees in Genesis the marks of an author, Moses, who is steeped in both Hebrew and Egyptian learning, aware of these other traditions, and willing to provide a divinely inspired counterpoint to them.

    “The gods of the Enuma Elish” – a Babylonian creation myth – “suffer hunger, terror, and loss of sleep,” Robinson writes, and they create through acts of cosmic violence, constructing earth and sky and rivers and seas out of corpses and carnage. The contrast to the God of scripture could not be more poignant: “Against this background of ambient myth, to say that God is the good creator of a good creation is not a trivial statement. The insistence of Genesis on this point, even the mention of goodness as an attribute of the creation, is unique to Genesis.” This unique character outlined at the beginning of the work sets the stage for the rest of Robinson’s interpretation: “In Genesis, from the first, good is intrinsic to the whole of creation. So in this very important respect the literatures are conceptually unlike. The Hebrew writers were not simply appropriating prevailing myths. They had weighty, human-centered concerns of their own, concerns entirely unique to them.” It is God’s care for his creation, but particularly the humans made in his image, that is central to both Genesis and Robinson’s interpretation of it: “Why do human beings exist? The God of Genesis is unique in his having not a use, but instead a mysterious, benign intention for them.” This comparison that leads to an irreconcilable contrast is carried forward into Robinson’s treatment of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical flood narrative, demonstrating her grasp of the subtleties of both texts.

    Robinson unabashedly takes stances that will draw ire from some serious historical-critical scholars.

    But it is later in Reading Genesis, in Robinson’s interpretation of the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, that we find one of the most interesting and potentially troubling parts of the text. In Robinson’s account, the story is, in part, a pointed repudiation of the practice of child sacrifice. That is, it is a reference to the fact that other religious people in the Ancient Near East and North Africa, particularly in Carthage, thought their gods demanded of them the sacrifice of their children for blessing, while the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not: “If the story of the binding of Isaac is cruel, the cruelty it exposes plagued the lives of those who felt compelled to sacrifice children, whether Carthaginians or those unspecified others who are mentioned among the idolaters of that world…. The idea of child sacrifice seems to have been felt as a temptation, perhaps because it might have been thought to have a special efficacy. What could show more devotion than the gift of what is most beautiful, most precious, to oneself?” If this is a constant temptation of those who surround Israel, it is one repudiated by the God of scripture, who “asks for justice rather than sacrifice” and, Robinson suggests, “tolerates sacrifice rather than requiring it.” So, as Robinson summarizes, this is “a reading that sees in the dramatizing of child sacrifice something shocking and transgressive, rejected by God, rather than one more proof of Abraham’s patient obedience.”

    But this emphasis on the repudiation of child sacrifice seems to minimize the role that the story plays in the broader Christian redemptive story, that Abraham as a father is not to sacrifice his son, but that God the Father will offer his Son as a sacrifice. When God provides a ram in the story, many Christian readers take this as a figure representing Christ, a substitution for the life of Isaac that God demanded. But in Robinson’s telling, the ram receives only a brief mention, as a parallel to the well of water that Hagar sees in her distress after being put out of Abraham’s household: as Hagar was tempted to put away her son to die but was miraculously saved by a well of water, Abraham takes the knife to kill Isaac and is miraculously prevented. The substitution of the ram for Isaac, the act of sacrifice that concludes the tale, is glossed over.

    And so it may be that, as Jessica Hooten Wilson argues in her essay comparing and contrasting Robinson and Flannery O’Connor, Robinson’s literature is somewhat stripped of the sacrificial elements of Christianity. “The problem that I continue to have with Robinson’s fiction is that the cross looks so clean and empty in her work,” Wilson explains. “Robinson focuses so much on human beings’ capacity for love that she neglects our penchant for evil…. As she writes in her essays, she chooses to emphasize Jesus’ great love for us exhibited in the cross, rather than the idea of sacrifice or atonement. Perhaps I am too much of a sinner to be satisfied with that depiction of the cross.” One need not believe in the Reformed formulation of penal substitutionary atonement to believe in the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Some may find in this part of Robinson’s book yet another example of the theological foibles with which Wilson takes issue. Others will counter that Robinson, herself famously and publicly Reformed, does not shy away from depicting sin and abuse in her fiction and find those instances no less devastating than O’Connor’s, even if less graphic and explicit.

    Robinson’s approach to the text of Genesis displays admirable attempts to do justice to both the reality of her faith and the reality of the text, for as she concludes, “I am as intent on magnifying the Lord as if I were a painter or a composer, but my first obligation in commenting on the text is to be faithful to the text.” Genesis becomes, in her treatment, a means of grappling with the continued reality of the image of God in man and the continued acknowledgement that life on this earth brings hardship, but a hardship of a productive and creative kind. Out of Israel’s captivity in Egypt, for example, come laws “based on compassionate identification with the most vulnerable,” which are “vanishingly rare, in antiquity and in every subsequent era.” Out of the hardships displayed in the Fall, the flood, and the lives of the patriarchs springs God’s providential salvation today. Though this text will draw warranted criticism from secular scholars and Bible literalists, it commends itself to readers who hope to see these sweeping testimonies of God’s goodness in human history as the beautiful, and true, stories that they are.

    Contributed By PhilipDBunn Philip D. Bunn

    Philip D. Bunn is a Lyceum Visiting Scholar at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, where he teaches political theory and Great Books.

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