By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 24, 2012

8. Genesis: The Bible. Commentary

From The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode:

Introduction to the Old Testament, by Robert Alter

The Hebrew Bible that we know is an anthology. "One might imagine that religious ideology would provide the principle of selection for the anthology," and to the extent that no polytheistic or pagan texts are included, this is true.
But even within the limits of monotheistic ideology, there is a great deal of diversity in regard to political attitudes; conceptions of history, ethics, psychology, causation; views of the roles of law and cult, of priesthood and laity, Israel and the nations, even of God.... [So that] one begins to suspect that the selection was at least sometimes impelled by a desire to preserve the best of ancient Hebrew literature rather than to gather the consistent normative statements of a monotheistic party line.
It is probably more than a coincidence that the very pinnacle of ancient Hebrew poetry was reached in Job, the biblical text that is most daring and innovative in its imagination of God, man, and creation; for here as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible the literary medium is not merely a means of "conveying" doctrinal positions but an adventurous occasion for deepening doctrine through the play of literary resources, or perhaps even, at least here, for leaping beyond doctrine.
The Hebrew Bible does contain a lot of stuff that we don't usually think of as "literature," such as "genealogies, etiological tales, laws (including the most technical cultic regulations, lists of tribal borders, detailed historical itineraries)." But Alter proposes that we see these "extra-literary" components as tools for reinforcing the themes of the narrative and poetic elements. "Thus J.P. Fokkelman proposes that the abundant genealogies in Genesis are enactments of the theme of propagation and survival so central to that book."
In any case, the Hebrew Bible, though it includes some of the most extraordinary narratives and poems in the Western literary tradition, reminds us that literature is not entirely limited to story and poem, that the coldest catalogue and the driest etiology may be an effective subsidiary instrument of literary expression.
Alter sees the ancient Hebrew writers as masters of "an art of indirection," of a "narrative minimalism [that] was reinforced by their sense that stories should be told in a way that would move efficiently to the heart of the matter, never pausing to elaborate mimetic effects for their own sake." They were also alert to ambiguities in the stories they told: "ancient Hebrew narrative is ideological but not didactic."

In a conventionally didactic narrative, for example, Jacob and Esau would become simple antagonists, given that Jacob becomes Israel, "the covenanted people," and Esau becomes Edom, "one of its notorious historical adversaries."
But the story itself points toward a rather complicated balance of moral claims in the rivalry, perhaps because the writer, in fleshing out the individual characters, began to pull them free from the frame of reference of political allegory, and perhaps also because this is a kind of ideological literature that incorporates a reflex of ideological auto-critique.
Of course, as Alter acknowledges, the stories in Genesis aren't the work of a single hand, but a "stitching together" of documents by various hands, the principal ones having been designated E, J, and P (and sometimes D) by German scholars in the nineteenth century. But whoever did the "stitching," Alter says, was so skilled "that often the dividing line between redactor and author is hard to draw, or if it is drawn, does not necessarily demarcate an essential difference." In Alter's view, "the redactors exhibited a genius in creating brilliant collages out of traditional materials," and he suspects that they often didn't "hesitate to change a word, a phrase, perhaps even a whole speech or narrator's report" to achieve the consistency of theme or structure they had in mind.

Genesis, by J.P. Fokkelman

Genesis can be difficult to follow because it keeps switching "from the narrative flow to a more elevated style, that is, to the compactness of formal verse." It also constantly mixes genres:
"We meet with a colorful variety of action-directed narratives in the strictest sense, genealogical registers, catalogues, blessings and curses, protocols for the conclusion of covenants, doxological and mythological texts, etiological tales, legal directives."

It also mixes long units with short ones, and narrative reports with character speeches. "Some of the profoundest and most exciting stories are remarkably short but are found close to a long text which moves at a very relaxed pace." The intense drama of the command to Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son Issac takes up only about seventy lines. But this story is followed by "the calm flow, the epic breadth, and the poised harmony of characters, report, and speech in chapter 24, in which Abraham's servant seeks a bride for Isaac in Mesopotamia."

Sometimes the narrative flow is interrupted by other stories that don't seem directly relevant, as when the narrative about Jacob is broken by the story of the rape of Dinah and her brothers' revenge, or when the Joseph story is interrupted by the account of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. But "we can integrate these passages thematically with their context despite their superficially digressive character."

And finally, the editor seems to have insufficiently blended discrete sources, as when the story of creation, in which humankind is presented as "created in God's image" and hence "as the crown of creation," is followed by a second account in which man is portrayed as "a morally shaky being who eagerly sloughs off responsibility and whose aspirations to become God's equal in knowledge of right and wrong are realized at the price of his own fall." Added to this is the inconsistency in which the creator is called "God" in the first version, but "Lord God" in the second. "And there seems to be a contradiction between 1:27 and 2:18-23 on the origin of nature and the relation between man and woman."
Genesis is part of a grand design which unites the books of the Torah with Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in one configuration: from the creation of the world through the choosing of the people of Israel and their settlement in Canaan up to the Babylonian Captivity. Genesis contributes two building blocks to this overarching plot: the Primeval History (1-11) and the protohistory of the people of Israel, namely the period of the eponymous forefathers (in three cycles: 12-25, 25-35, and 37-50).
The genealogies provide a framework for this design: "Thus the lives of the protagonists Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph are presented within the framework of the begettings of their fathers (Terah, Isaac, and Jacob, respectively). This image of concatenation reveals the overriding concern of the entire book: life-survival-offspring-fertility-continuity."

The Hebrew word toledot, which literally means "begettings," initiates these human genealogies. But it is also used in Genesis 2:4: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth," as a conclusion to the first creation story.
The word toledot is, then, a metaphor which, approaching the boundaries of the taboo in Israel's strict sexual morals, carries the oblique suggestion that the cosmos may have originated in a sexual act of God. It becomes evident how daring a game the writer is playing when we consider the world from which Israelite belief wished to dissociate itself: a world characterized by natural religion, fertility rites, cyclical thinking, and sacred prostitution; a world in which the idea of creation as the product of divine intercourse was a commonplace.
Fertility and sexuality continue to be a crucial concern throughout Genesis. The shocked awareness of the first couple of their own nakedness is echoed in the story of Ham's sighting of the naked Noah, "in which the genitals of the father become taboo for the sons. Throughout Genesis, there is a debate over "what is or is not sexually permissible under special circumstances."
Tamar, who tricks her father-in-law into lying with her, is dramatically vindicated at the end of chapter 38; and it is by no means certain that the narrator condemns the curious case of incest in chapter 19 (where Lot's daughters ply their father with drink and become pregnant by him), even if he pokes fun at the dubious origin of the neighboring tribes Moab and Ammon.
Sexuality is sanctioned by the command "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth," and by the repeated promises to the patriarchs that their "seed" will thrive. But fertility is not enough: "offspring are not safe without a fixed habitat." So there is always a tension between the command to procreate and the promise of land for offspring. Time, too, exists as a threat: Abraham wants the heir he is promised in Chapter 12, when he is seventy-five. But he waits another twenty-five years before Isaac is born, and then God threatens to take Isaac away from him by demanding that Abraham sacrifice him. "Thus continuity is also threatened with destruction, and time itself with deprivation of purpose.... Genesis, in its thematic centering of time and space, constitutes the immovable foundation of the Torah and of the entire Hebrew Bible."

The narrative also introduces recurrent threats to continuity, including the infertility of the three matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. And while primogeniture is considered of utmost importance in these societies, it is repeatedly "subverted or handled ironically." Ishmael is Abraham's firstborn, and Esau is Isaac's, yet neither becomes the heir, "and at the end old Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasse, deliberately reverses younger and elder." The competition between older and younger children continues when "Laban exchanges Leah and Rachel behind the bridal veil at Jacob's marriage," ironically echoing Jacob's own deception of Isaac to gain his blessing: "the deceiver deceived."

The interpolated verses in Genesis serve "as crystallization points, they create moments of reflection."
The parallelism of 1:27 ("So God created in in his own image, / in the image of God created he him, / male and female created he them") suggests that humankind is only in its twofoldness the image of God, which in its turn incorporates the fundamental equality of man and woman.
(But then the second account of creation goes on to undermine this equality, by making woman a subordinate creation out of man.) 

Repetition is "an even more powerful structural instrument than poetry." Parallelisms run throughout Genesis, such as the antagonism between the brothers Jacob and Esau, which is repeated in the antagonism between Joseph and his brothers.

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