No One Has Ever Read Genesis Like This

READING GENESIS, by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s “Reading Genesis” is a writer’s book, not a scholar’s; it has no footnotes. Its power lies in the particular reading it gives us of one of the world’s foundational texts, which is also one of the foundations of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s mind and faith. We want to know what Robinson thinks of Genesis for the same reason we’d want to know what Tolstoy thought of it.

There are the specific judgments she’s going to make, but there is also the fascination of seeing what happens when she applies the sensibility that made the novels “Gilead” and “Housekeeping” directly to the Scripture that, millenniums ago, in a genre of writing very different from realistic fiction, inaugurated the vocabulary of faith that her imagination draws on today.

A woman pins up a bedsheet to dry in the wind in “Housekeeping,” and “the throes of the thing were as gleeful and strong as if spirit were dancing in its cerements.” The closeness of spirit to wind, the conviction that there is a pulsing life in the world that can make even dead things get up and boogie: All that begins in Genesis, genealogically speaking. The spirit of God moves on the face of the waters, and eventually, far off in Idaho, the novelist’s bedsheets stir.

But the surprising thing about “Reading Genesis,” given that it’s by a writer who can make even nonbelievers feel the presence of the thing they disbelieve, is that it is hardly interested in the numinous. The sublimity of the Creation story, the strangeness of Jacob wrestling with an angel (or maybe God himself), Abraham’s fearful vision of darkness — all of these are here, but briefly, sideshows to her main focus, which is on Genesis as a close-up account of one human clan. This is a chronicle, made extraordinary by the chroniclers’ assurance “that out of the inconceivable assertion of power from which everything has emerged and will emerge there came a small family of herdsmen who were of singular interest to the Creator.”

The Bible, Robinson says in her very first sentence, is a “theodicy,” a justification of the ways of God. And Genesis’ part in that, in her view, is a demonstration of how human freedom can coexist with divine foreknowledge, with a covenanted plan. The descendants of Adam and Eve wander, murder, screw up, get drunk immediately after their most impressive actions, cheat one another out of blessings, engage in a spot of polyamory and then viciously regret it, do harm on the grand scale while doing good on the local one. (Robinson points out, which most commentators do not, that Joseph, while reconciling with his brothers, also contrives to enslave the entire population of Egypt for the pharaoh.) Yet all the while, the faithfulness of God nudges the actions of these fallible people along the path toward law, justice and mercy.

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