Michael's Reviews > Genesis: Commentary

Genesis by Robert Alter
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's review
Jan 27, 2011

really liked it
Read in January, 2011

Although I am using this edition to write the review, I would strongly recommend reading a modern translation, not the beautiful but ornate, antiquated King James text. The best modern translation that I could find is the New International Version of the Bible. So why focus only on the book of Genesis? Because it holds such a high percentage of the well-known Biblical stories; because it is the beginning and sets up so much of the rest of the Judeo-Christian tradition; and because it is probably the easiest piece of scriptural literature for a reader to understand, sympathize with, and enjoy. The human nature on display in these stories is so recognizable; the psychology so modern. And the motivations are mixed, deeply mixed. Virtue and vice are not easily separated in the actions of the characters. Deception is often rewarded; violence is sometimes praised; justice is not necessarily equal. Survival, from the physical and human hardships, is highly regarded as an end in its own right.

Some of the stories in the novella-length (86 pages in the NIV) book that have stayed with me include that of Lot's daughters, who, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the termination of their mother, think they and their father, hiding together in the mountains, are the last people left on earth. So the daughters conclude they must seduce their father in order to keep the human race alive. How often does that one get read in church liturgy?

Or the manner in which Jacob receives his father Isaac's crucial blessing, over his older (and thus by tradition more deserving) brother Esau. It is the legal key to inheritance and status, but it is also a cruel deathbed deception, connived in with his mother Rebekah. Or the amusing anecdote of how Rebekah complains that her in-laws, from Esau's marriage to a local Canaanite, are getting on her last nerve, making her life "not worth living." At the same time, Esau's desolation at having lost his father's blessing, as much from the emotional side as from the legal considerations, provokes great sympathy.

Of course, there are the well-known episodes, like Jacob's dream of the stairway to heaven; Noah and the flood; and the lengthy saga of Joseph, sold into slavery by his older brothers, the sons of Jacob, only to rise in time to become Pharaoh's right-hand man. This became the genesis of Thomas Mann's tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, which has been re-translated in recent years in a highly praised edition.

It is striking to read the opening pages of Genesis, of course, as it explains the origins of the universe. There are details in there, of the "formless, empty" Earth, the darkness, and later the separation of the "expanses," which seemed to me not only sophisticated, but quite compatible with at least some aspects of how scientists describe a "Big Bang" origination.

It is a shame that the secularization of modern Western culture has allowed so many to dismiss this text from their acquaintance without much of a second thought. It's a great story, simply but powerfully told.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Rosana (new)

Rosana Have you read The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb? It is very true the text. Also, The Harper Collins Study Bible is a great companion reading.

Michael Thank you, Capitu. [Whaat? You are speaking to me?] I noticed the R Crumb version when I was locating a Genesis-only edition to cite. I had no idea he had ever taken this one on, and can't quite imagine what he might do with it. But it sure does reinforce the notion of the power of this particular text, it strikes me. I don't have that Harper Collins book, but I do have the Oxford reference, which I occasionally dip into. We read Genesis aloud, week by week, in a group. This made for great discussions, needless to say. Coming back to Biblical literature in mid-life has been both a powerful and also an illuminating experience for me. It's a bit presumptuous to say, but my impression remains that a lot of people don't know how much they are missing if they avoid this great Western text.

Vittorio Felaco "scriptural literature" I find this construct rather odd!

I do know what you mean and I find that interpretation inconsistent withe the concept of literature.

Michael I don't know what you mean, but you are certainly entitled to your opinion.

Vittorio Felaco Michael, I detect a bit of resentment over my insignificant comment! I was simply pointing out that "scriptural literature" can only be "writing about writing," something I would think is a tautology of sorts that has little meaning.

I question the very idea of calling some writings "scripture" as if they had not been written but come to us through some divine intervention. If I remember correctly, Moses had to return to Mount Sinai to regain a copy of the Ten Commandments... but that is additional proof of the human construction of the story. I am not afraid of giving scriptures their full dignity... the super-human characteristics instead take away from its validity.

The writing of mankind has an incredible range as does our 100,000 plus years of spoken language acquisition. If we were to measure that language acquisition on the basis of a 24 hour clock, I am told that writing would have started at 11:10 PM... that is how recently we have started to write. It does not surprise me that we did our best to give the new invention some dignity by ascribing to it the value of "scriptures"... a marketing device we have carried over the years.

I too know what you mean... but I was simply making a silly remark about the way most of us express ourselves... no insult was meant!

Michael What I mean is, you are entitled to your opinion! : )

message 7: by Vittorio (last edited Dec 17, 2013 06:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Vittorio Felaco I never doubted that I was entitled to my opinion!

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