Friday, October 26, 2012

Ronald Hendel's "The Book of 'Genesis': A Biography"

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the editor in chief of The Oxford Hebrew Bible and the author of Remembering Abraham and Reading Genesis.

Hendel applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Book of "Genesis": A Biography, and reported the following:
With some trepidation I turn to page 99, not knowing what I’ll find. The page begins with a quote within a quote: “‘I am God and no other god exists except me,’ since he is ignorant of the place from which his strength had come.” This strange quote is from the Secret Revelation of John, which is an ancient Gnostic retelling of the Genesis creation story. In this daring – and soon to be declared heretical – new revelation, the God who creates the world is an ignorant and evil god, who is unaware of the existence of other – and higher – gods. (His misguided statement is actually a paraphrase of the First Commandment.) Page 99 explains: “In other words, Yaldabaoth is the God of the Bible, but in the Gnostic revision he is a weak and deceived God, since he does not know the perfect God. The luminous and perfect God is in the world above, a Platonic world of pure understanding.” After the ignorant God creates an earthly Adam, the perfect God above creates an antidote to earthly ignorance: “Then the high God above has mercy on Adam, and sends him ‘luminous Thought,’ who is the ideal form of Eve.” This luminous Eve is the revealer of wisdom, who teaches the “knowledge of good and evil” to humans in order to liberate them from the material world.

Well, it seems that page 99 takes us directly into the drama of the life of Genesis, as the Gnostic seers reimagine Genesis through their understanding of the burdens of the world and the possibilities of transcendence. By the way, this Gnostic text is one of the famous “Gnostic Gospels” found in the Egyptian desert in 1945, so this chapter in the life of Genesis is a relatively recent discovery. I don’t think they teach you this stuff at Sunday school.

This page is a good sample of the book, which addresses the ways that the book of Genesis has lived and changed in the western religious imagination, starting with the writing of the biblical books and ending with modern times – with the uneasy relationship of Genesis and science, literary reinterpretations of Genesis (by Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and others), and the turn to reading Genesis as literature. The book is in a series called “Lives of Great Religious Books.”
Learn more about The Book of "Genesis" at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue