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How the Bible Begins

Books on Genesis study the language and examine the first families of the Judeo-Christian tradition


Translation and Commentary By Robert Alter

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324 pp., $25

The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development

By Burton Visotzky

Crown Publishers

211 pp., $20

Genesis: A Living Conversation

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By Bill Moyers


361 pp., $29.95

Genesis: As It Is Written

Contemporary Writers of our first stories

Edited by David Rosenberg

Harper San Francisco

212 pp., $20

In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis

By Karen Armstrong

Alfred A. Knopf

183 pp.,$20

The book of Genesis is the treasured beginning of both Jewish and Christian Scripture. Its narratives are familiar to religious and nonreligious men and women throughout the globe. Genesis is also a powerful presence in the Koran, the Scripture of the Islamic faith.

Though about 3,000 years old, Genesis continues to be a source for both controversy and inspiration. When Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" shattered the conventional understanding of the Garden of Eden, in many respects a new era in both science and religion had begun.

More than a century after Darwin, a new resurgence of spirituality has led many to reexamine the Bible. "Genesis: A Living Conversation," the public television series hosted by Bill Moyers, is a notable and recent result of this trend.

Moyers drew together a group of scholars, ministers, priests, rabbis, and poets to talk, argue, and muse about Genesis. "We're in a new religious reality," he told a group gathered recently in Boston. Now, as the series is broadcast, five books have been published by participants and non-participants in "A Living Conversation."

Genesis: Translation and Commentary, by Robert Alter, is the most scholarly of the new spate of Genesis books and in some respects is quite unlike the three by his conversational colleagues.

Rabbi Alter opens up the world of the Bible in Hebrew, offering his perspectives in a wonderfully accessible manner. Most readers of Genesis are unacquainted with ancient Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written. It's a language utterly unlike English, with a terseness and a set of colloquialisms all its own.

Although Alter's book might best serve as a reference work, it should not be placed on the shelf without reading the fascinating introduction, which explains the pitfalls confronting the would-be translator of Genesis.

"Genesis: Translation and Commentary" is the result of painstaking research and analysis. The lengthy commentaries are heavy with detail. This may not be to everyone's taste, but no one can finish Alter's volume without feeling more attuned to what the authors of Genesis had in mind. This focus clarifies the ancient texts for contemporary lay readers.

Is it possible, then, to find relevance with a less analytical approach to Scripture? In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis gives more personal glimpses into the incredibly vast and exciting possibilities of the Bible. It is written by Karen Armstrong, whose recent "A History of God," has become a popular history of monotheism. Armstrong, a Christian, notes that the stories of the Bible are not to be taken as literal, factual accounts of historical events. She sees the many contradictions in the Scriptures as intended to force the reader "to face up to the complexity" of existence.

Yet this intriguing premise hardly serves as preparation for what takes up most of "In the Beginning" - in-depth, psychologically oriented character analysis of all the major players in Genesis, from Adam to Joseph. These studies make for interesting, if less than inspiring, reading.

Certainly, the clan of Abraham can lay claim to the title of the earliest known dysfunctional family. Yet a view of Genesis as a kind of inspirational soap opera is definitely a matter of personal opinion. "In the Beginning" concludes with a new translation of Genesis, presumably by the author.

The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development, by Burton Visotzky is similar to Armstrong's book in its approach. But its tone is entirely different.

Rabbi Visotzky's Genesis Seminars at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which have attracted businessmen, novelists, and clergymen, served as the inspiration for the Moyers television series. So it's not surprising that although Visotzky takes the "soap opera" approach to Genesis, his work has an easy openness about it. There is plenty of room for alternative, even opposing, views.

"The Genesis of Ethics" takes its cue from the midrash tradition (ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Scriptures) of Judaism, which utilizes discussion as the steppingstone to new insights. Visotzky does not analyze the entire book of Genesis, but uses selected chapters that center on the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Clearly none of the three presents a model for ethical behavior - but, somehow, this shows that there is hope for mankind.

Is this fact inspiring? If not, "The Genesis of Ethics," though interesting and certainly thought-provoking, may not quite live up to its title.

Genesis: A Living Conversation lists Bill Moyers as the author. Actually, the book consists of transcriptions of the conversations that were used in the television series.

Armstrong, Alter, Visotzky, and many others discuss Genesis with Moyers, who masterfully draws out insights from his distinguished colleagues. The conversations are intriguing and engaging. Readers may find themselves arguing with the participants, or nodding in agreement.

Though the discussions are certainly a glorious intellectual feast, they provide rather sparse spiritual fare. It is possible to lose the essentially religious message of Genesis in a fascinating (or is it bewildering?) analysis of the Scripture's levels of meaning (some levels of which its authors surely never intended).

This possibility comes strongly to mind when reading Genesis: As It Is Written, edited by David Rosenberg.

The book is apparently a response to the Moyers series by a group of individuals who were not invited to participate. Rosenberg states: "By mirroring their ancient counterparts, our imaginative writers today surpass the conventional commentators. The latter, such as those chosen for Bill Moyers's "Genesis" TV series, are wedded to ideas about the text that keep the original authors from memory."

These assertions might lead the reader to believe that this anthology is a striking contrast to the Armstrong or Visotzky books. Yet "As It Is Written" seems to mesh perfectly with the observations of Moyers and his colleagues. However, Rosenberg's essayists are some of the finest writers in America, and the result is imaginative, engrossing, and colorful prose.

Nearly all the authors of "As It Is Written," are writers of fiction, and as a result the book lacks balance. Not surprisingly, these immensely gifted writers use the ancient stories as a platform to spin tales of their own.

There doesn't appear to be any deep consideration of historical issues, and the religious or spiritual aspects of Genesis remain sadly untouched. Also, readers might find the essayists' not infrequent references to their own works gratuitous and slightly annoying.

Perhaps the lesson of these books is more modest than monumental. The inspirations won from Genesis are not easily captured in conversation or by the printed word. Deep study of the Bible is more often a solitary than a social experience. As Moyers himself remarks, "I marvel at the power of these stories and have never tired of them...."

This rewarding collection of books gives the reader the unique opportunity both to "participate" in lively discussion and to quietly ponder the Scriptures. The power of these stories is sometimes glorious, often strengthening, and ultimately, intensely personal.

*Judy Huenneke, an archivist, lives in Cambridge, Mass.

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