The challenges of teaching Genesis

This term, I started off my course (Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology) with the entirety of the book of Genesis. While it seems like an obvious choice in so many respects, it’s also an odd fit. First, there are many ways in which it only really makes sense if you already know at least the vague outlines of Exodus and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Torah — but that’s the kind of common cultural knowledge that I have found (much to my surprise and disappointment) I can never presuppose, even in the kind of well-read student that Shimer attracts.

Without knowing about the rest of the Torah, Genesis seems weirdly incomplete and perhaps even misleading. Only the barest outlines of something like Israelite religion are visible, most notably something like henotheism and of course the rite of circumcision (which appears on the scene most vividly when it is used as a weapon of war following the rape of Dinah). The first eleven chapters are fragmentary and confusing, and while the dominant figures of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph lend a certain coherence to the rest of the book, my students had difficulty coming to any firm conclusions about what the authors/compilers of Genesis wanted us to think about God. Does God value something like morality, or simply obedience, for instance? How does the universal scope of the primieval history mesh with the narrow focus of the patriarchal narratives? How can we reconcile the seemingly “human” God who intervenes in a hands-on way and seems to change his mind with the more transcendent God of the Joseph story, who works through a kind of mysterious providence?

There’s also something very Christian about starting from Genesis. Christian theologians have focused much more attention on the story of creation and fall than Jewish thinkers have, and when reading the story of Abraham’s sacrifice, the Christian language of “faith” was ready-to-hand for most of the students, whether they were believers or not. This is to a certain extent understandable and even useful, given that our focus in terms of “theology” is precisely Christian theology — and I pointed out in the very first class session that there is something appropriate about this, since Christianity has the most bizarrely complex system of speculative theology of any major world religion and the Christian practice of theology thus serves as a paradigm for recognizing whether other religions “have theology.”

With that focus in mind, reading the first book of the Bible and recognizing the strangeness and apparent heterogeneity of the text could be a useful exercise in itself, insofar as it highlights the necessary interpretive leap from “Scripture” to “theology.” Yet it seems perverse to read the Hebrew Bible primarily in terms of Christian theology, even if it’s from the negative perspective of calling into question some of its presuppositions.

One solution might be to include readings from Exodus, which I (somewhat belatedly) found out was an option. I’m strongly considering doing that next time. But I wonder if a more productive route might be to point to the ways that the patriarchal narratives get at a fundamental aspect of the Jewish experience, if not of the Jewish “religion” — namely, the experience of diaspora, and of a God who, uniquely among those of other neighbors, travels around with them.

From that perspective, ending the book with Joseph, which in the context of the whole Torah seems to be primarily a narrative set-up for Exodus, provides a paradigm of the ideology of exile as defined by Jeremiah: be a model citizen where you are (to the extent compatible with loyalty to God) and seek the good of the land. It also shows a way to think of God’s promise of Abraham being fulfilled that goes beyond a narrow focus on the “promised land”: God has made Israel a great nation, since Jacob/Israel himself can meet the great Pharaoh as an equal and receive a state funeral, and he has definitely blessed all nations through Israel insofar as Joseph’s shrewd (and to modern eyes, horrifically ruthless) management saves Egypt and the surrounding nations from ruin during the extended famine. This fulfillment also challenges Christian presuppositions, which would have us wait for God to “bless all nations” until Christ comes to supercede Israel.

The difficulty, of course, is how to bring all that out in an almost exclusively discussion-based format. I tried to point out these issues on an ad hoc basis, but it seems to me that those kinds of remarks don’t stick with them. My real power to shape the discussion comes from putting forward the first question of the class. Perhaps it’s as simple as reviewing God’s promise to Abraham on the day that we study the Joseph story and then asking them whether or how the story shows God’s promise being fulfilled already — and then letting them work it out for themselves.

8 thoughts on “The challenges of teaching Genesis

  1. “But I wonder if a more productive route might be to point to the ways that the patriarchal narratives get at a fundamental aspect of the Jewish experience, if not of the Jewish “religion” — namely, the experience of diaspora, and of a God who, uniquely among those of other neighbors, travels around with them.” (and what follows)

    Bingo. (Post)exilic composition for the win. At which point it becomes about ethics — so maybe a pedagogy point would be to push the questions toward what it means in the text to be people of this God. Including failures!

  2. Since Judaism is never simply the Bible, but the Bible as read through Talmud and tradition, there would be something incomplete and even misleading, or anyway Christian in perspective, even if Exodus were included. But reading Genesis on its own from a Jewish perspective is still provocative: what exactly is the religion of the Jews-to-be between Abraham and Moses? Is there such a thing as pre-Mosaic Judaism? Levinas, btw, though he doesn’t use the word diapsora, reads the story of Abraham as you do, Adam, at least as I remember. He contrasts the one-way journey of Abraham to the circuitous round trip of Odysseus as a way of distinguishing ethics from ontology. In “The Trace of the Other”? I think so.

  3. Genesis does occupy a really strange position. In a way, it’s the least “Jewish” in terms of lacking the familiar trappings of the law, etc., but its experience seems much more prototypically “Jewish” than the Deuteronomistic history, for instance. I think it actually provides an interesting resource for secular Jewish identity, insofar as it presents God’s promise as something that’s not primarily about what we’d recognize as “religion.”

  4. I have often wished that I could read Genesis, and the entire Bible, with fresh eyes. Growing up Catholic, I found it difficult to separate what I had learned about the Bible from what was actually in the text itself. The closest I came was discussing passages from the Bible in Integrative Studies 5 where about half my class had grown up with very little Christian education.

  5. Jessa, Robert Alter’s Bible translations are a great way to get a fresh look. When I was reading his Genesis this summer in preparation for class, it felt completely new to me — and I not only grew up Christian, but also did a PhD in theology. I highly recommend his translation.

  6. I agree, Adam. A good friend of mine from high school days used to say he wanted to be a Jew as Abraham was, and that’s long stuck with me. Judaism without the law: it manages to be both alien and familiar.

  7. Very nice summation of Agamben’s project–thanks for the link! It occurs to me, reading this, that the equation of covenant with messianism brings this version of Abrahamic Judaism into closer alignment with Christianity, which is to say renders it a little less strange. In Genesis there is a covenant without law but also without messiah (for that matter, there’s no messiah in the Pentateuch as a whole–one of the ways Judaism is more than the Bible), and that’s part of the appeal of imagining or trying to imagine what the religion of the patriarchs might have been.

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