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Spring Books

In the Beginning, There Was Marilynne Robinson

Her new book, “Reading Genesis,” treats the Bible like a perfectly plotted historical novel.

What is there still to say about a text that is thousands of years old and has been translated into over 700 languages? That has been painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carved in marble, filmed on celluloid, and built in Lego? That has perplexed Kant and Kierkegaard? That has given rise to several world religions and countless books and articles and sermons, not to mention the Flood Experience, an Illinois tourist attraction where visitors can climb aboard a replica of Noah’s ark to learn more about “the chaos flooding the world today”?

Grappling with the vast cultural legacy of Genesis is a potentially infinite task, and in Reading Genesis, Marilynne Robinson doesn’t attempt it. Instead of positioning herself amid the crowded field of Genesis readers throughout the ages, she writes almost as if she is alone in the formless void that preceded the first day of Creation. For well over 200 pages, she doesn’t mention a single other modern reader of Genesis by name. Not one translator, theologian, historian, or biblical scholar from the past thousand years; not even a fellow novelist. At first, I thought she was going to make it all the way through without citing anyone since late antiquity, but then a few pages from the end she briefly mentions Melville and Shakespeare.

Reading Genesis
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $29.00

In a way, Reading Genesis can be seen as a tour de force demonstration of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura—the belief that Scripture is the only infallible authority, and any believer is equipped to read it for themselves without undue deference to external authorities or sources. There is a kind of self-reliant, unapologetic grandeur in Robinson’s declaration on the first page that the Bible “is a work of theology, not simply a primary text upon which theology is based”—in other words, the Bible interprets itself—and her subsequent assertion that the so-called books of Moses are not (as scholars believe) a patchwork of distinct, divergent source texts but instead are a stable and unified whole characterized by “a profound coherency.” These claims are neither argued for nor bolstered with sources but simply stated as truth. Like “Let there be light,” they aim to evoke illumination through the sheer creative power of a well-wrought sentence.

In another way, though, Reading Genesis is the opposite of sola scriptura in that it is literally Scripture bound to human commentary. Each copy consists of a 228-page essay by Robinson followed by the entire 112-page text of Genesis in the King James Version, a commentary to text ratio of nearly two to one. Her extended reflection on Genesis functions as a long and reverent introduction, taking on some of the sanctity of Scripture from its intimate proximity to it. Robinson is the opening act for God.

This is a role she has been preparing to play for a while. As a work of biblical commentary, Reading Genesis might be a departure from the historical novels and collections of essays that she is known for, but it is also a natural next step. Housekeeping, her first novel, is shot through with biblical allusions, and her four Gilead novels are explicitly religious, revolving around the family, friends, and spiritual musings of John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor in midcentury Iowa. Robinson herself is a lay preacher, and her essays often have a sermonic quality. As a highly acclaimed, commercially successful literary writer who identifies strongly and publicly as a Christian and whose books are suffused with religious belief, she occupies a unique place in American culture today. Her work attracts a set of audiences that seldom converge: secular or non-Christian fiction-lovers, who often read her quiet, meditative novels with something like religious reverence; mainline liberal Protestants like herself, members of a once dominant but now declining demographic increasingly sidelined since the rise of the religious right; and theologically traditional evangelicals, who find a lot to relate to in her Calvinist preoccupations and her loving depictions of Midwestern ministers.

All these readers look to Robinson for a certain kind of book that no one else provides—gracious, grave, radiant, and revelatory, with a distinctly anachronistic tinge. She has been writing semisacred texts for over 40 years, and her take on the ultimate sacred text in her tradition, the origin of it all, is fervent and expansive yet also remarkably unyielding, even dogmatic.

Beholden neither to scholars nor fundamentalists (two groups explicitly dismissed in the jacket copy), Robinson fashions a version of Genesis that fits beautifully with her own fiction. Of course, in some ways it fits so beautifully because her fiction has so clearly been written under its influence. Like Erich Auerbach in Mimesis, Robinson revels in the realism of much of the Hebrew Bible compared to other ancient tales. Its family stories are not epics, and its humans are not heroes; its primary settings are not legendary battlefields or idealized pastoral retreats but the domestic dwellings and workplaces of ordinary daily life: tents, cooking fires, watering holes. Yet its narratives are no less significant on this account. On the contrary, as Auerbach observes, “The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable”—a claim that many critics have made almost verbatim about Robinson’s novels.

But Robinson’s version of Genesis—like the patriarchal family story she tells in the Gilead books—is much milder than most versions of the Hebrew Bible. Robinson writes that “these tales of the patriarchs are notably human in scale, gentle, even domestic,” an emphasis on gentleness that sets her apart. Whereas Auerbach describes the Old Testament as obscure, abrupt, with gaps and ambiguities giving rise to a multiplicity of interpretations, Robinson is more likely to discern a quietly understated truth. She even succeeds in giving these Middle Eastern stories a hint of Midwestern flavor. I was especially struck by her repeated use of the words “tact” and “restraint” to describe the behavior of God and the patriarchs—not terms I had previously associated with them.

This placidity extends even to her accounts of the less realistic, more mythical tales of the Creation and the Flood. Robinson favorably contrasts the “infinite serenity” of the biblical Creation myth, with its calm proclamation of “let there be … and there was,” to the terror and violence of Babylonian origin stories. And instead of reading the Flood as a tale of divine anger à la The Epic of Gilgamesh, she reads it as a life-affirming second creation—an occasion when God could have ended humankind entirely but instead mercifully promised to preserve us in perpetuity. In other ancient stories, she claims, gods are “volatile, impulsive, but also needy” (a description that sounds a lot like many readers’ experience of the God of the Hebrew Bible). But in her gentle Genesis, God is good, and so is the world.

This is not to say that Robinson ignores the darkness and complexity of Genesis. On the contrary, she foregrounds it, making it central to what she sees as the purpose of Genesis and the Bible as a whole. She opens her book with a series of bold statements about the theological work that she sees the Bible—including Genesis—as doing:

The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil. This being true, it must take account of things as they are. It must acknowledge in a meaningful way the darkest aspects of the reality we experience, and it must reconcile them with the goodness of God and of Being itself against which this darkness stands out so sharply.

There is a lot to grapple with here. A resistant reader might balk at the coercive quality of “This being true,” which asserts rather than persuades, and the series of “musts” that follow. (Since when is the Bible a single unified text with one overarching theological preoccupation? Must a meditation on a famously intractable problem result in a successful reconciliation of opposites? When did we agree that God and Being itself are good? Or, for that matter, that God exists?) For some of us, it’s easy to get caught up in objections. But once disbelief is suspended, Reading Genesis can be appreciated on its own terms as a serene and stalwart statement of faith, and perhaps as a kind of ancient prequel to the Gilead novels, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as distant ancestors of the Ames family.

Robinson believes that Genesis responds to the problem of evil by subordinating evil to goodness. In her words, it “establishes a profound and essential assertion of the sacred good, making pangs and toil a secondary reality, likewise the punitive taking of life.” She sees this gracious message in the narrative sequence of the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, as well as in the stories of the patriarchs and their descendants. Her summary of the book’s message has a downright New Testament flavor: “Grace modifies law. Law cannot limit grace.”

Making the case for God, grace, and goodness with Genesis might seem like an uphill battle. John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents its retelling of the first few chapters of Genesis as an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men,” but readers often see Satan as the sympathetic breakout star of the poem. It’s often easier to root for an underdog, and an overwhelmingly powerful God will never be that. But Robinson is determined to tell biblical stories in a way that presents God in a glowing light—even the famously fraught story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah.

This story has been a stumbling block for generations of readers—a classic dramatization of the problem of evil. Why would a good God command Abraham to sacrifice his son? Why would he make Abraham go through the agonizing process of binding Isaac and laying him on the altar and raising a knife to kill him? Why torture the father; why terrorize the child? Granted, God relents before Isaac is murdered, but why is any of it necessary?

Existentially inclined readers have interpreted the story of the Binding of Isaac as a model of utter submission to divine authority, even when that authority seems inscrutable or immoral. In contrast, Robinson chooses to follow the more comfortable tradition of interpreting it as a pointed condemnation of child sacrifice that demonstrates God’s superiority to the kind of gods who would actually demand a dead child. Despite appearances, the God of Genesis is not cruel but kind—not just better than the Babylonians but more compassionate than the Carthaginians:

If the story of the binding of Isaac is cruel, the cruelty it exposes plagued the lives of those who felt compelled to sacrifice children, whether Carthaginians or those unspecified others who are mentioned among the idolators of that world. The one God, Elohim, might have mourned this suffering and chosen to correct this misapprehension of His nature and His will.

This tenderhearted God intervenes to provide not only an alternative sacrifice—the ram in the bush—but an alternative and merciful ethic: “The plain statement of the tale is that the Lord does not want the sacrifice of a child.” Zooming out to what she calls “a God’s-eye view,” Robinson focuses not on a temporarily traumatized Abraham and Isaac but on the thousands of parents and children who were “spared a profound, self-inflicted misery” of child sacrifice because of the story: “the seeming cruelty toward Abraham is compassion toward those great nations who learned from him or modeled their piety on his.”

Robinson’s interpretation here exemplifies two literary approaches to Genesis she relies on throughout her book. First, she reads Genesis as a carefully constructed “counterstatement” and corrective to nonbiblical narratives. (At times, her repeated insistence on the exceptionalism and superiority of Hebrew versus non-Hebrew texts verges on a troubling chauvinism.) And second, she reads individual stories in the context of what she calls “providential history,” an overarching view in which, for example, the enslavement of the Hebrew tribes is “divinely intended,” and slavery’s attendant sorrow and cruelty are part of a larger purpose that becomes clear only when it is told as part of a longer story, generations later:

Over time, the biblical narrative inverts the apparent meaning of the suffering.… Grueling misfortune prepares for singular favor, difficult favor, whose main product and proof might be the narratives that record and interpret this history.

Robinson’s redemptive account of predestined suffering is a standard Calvinist doctrine, but I was struck by the self-referential, self-contained, almost wholly literary quality of how she phrases it. A biblical character’s singular, difficult reward for suffering is that … they end up in the Bible! “The text itself,” she tells us, “is a gracious and divine act.”

There’s a smoothness and elegance in Robinson’s view of biblical narrative, if perhaps also a slightly claustrophobic quality. The Bible is like a perfectly plotted historical novel. Nothing is unintended; nothing is wasted; everything tends toward the same predestined end. At times, I found Robinson’s readings fascinating to watch as feats of consummate control, like dressage. Other times I wanted to cut the reins and watch the text gallop away.

Perhaps it makes sense that some of my favorite parts of the book are the rare occasions when the Sunday school voice slips a little: when Robinson casually disses Isaac as “the least interesting of all the patriarchs,” or when she gives into her unrestrained exasperation with Rebekah, whom she sees as a whiner. Robinson writes with apparent disapproval that “Rebekah, alone in Scripture, laments the discomforts of her pregnancy”; “But she was pregnant with twins!” I want to protest. I was stunned when I read, “Though the text says that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob, there is really no evidence that she loved anyone.” Robinson’s dislike of Rebekah trumps her faith in the reliability of Scripture! But not for long. Perhaps feeling she has gone too far, Robinson defensively allows that, although it might be “bad feminism” to criticize Rebekah, her role in the story was nonetheless providential, and that “should give hope to us all.”

The most frustrating parts of the book are places where Robinson is so committed to her version of Genesis that she cannot allow an iota of room for any other interpretation, no matter how urgently it is needed. This is especially evident in her reading of Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian woman who is impregnated by Abraham when her mistress, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, can’t conceive. Sarah abuses her, and she flees, but God sends her back into servitude. Later, after Sarah has her own child, Isaac, Abraham sends Hagar and her son, Ishmael, into exile in the desert where they face death alone, but God saves their lives. For decades, feminist and womanist scholars have claimed Hagar as an anti-patriarchal figure. Phyllis Trible reads her story as a “text of terror” showing the evil at the heart of the patriarchal narrative; Delores S. Williams sees it as a revelation of “the faith, hope, and struggle with which an African slave woman worked through issues of survival, surrogacy, motherhood, rape, homelessness and economic and sexual oppression.… Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.”

Without directly engaging these scholars, Robinson strenuously resists such readings, insisting that Ishmael’s conception was not rape (“this was a recognized form of surrogacy at the time, formally and properly arranged”), and that Hagar’s Egyptianness is irrelevant to her mistreatment (“there is no reason to think of Hagar’s ethnicity as stigmatizing”). “Readers can feel that Hagar is unvalued because she is a woman, a maid, a foreigner…,” Robinson writes dismissively, “but what actually matters is the value the text finds in her.” The value that the text finds in her, according to Robinson, is that she shows the laudable inclusivity of God’s covenant with Abraham: Hagar and Ishmael are part of Abraham’s family tree, proving that “it can absorb and naturalize outsiders.” In passages like these, I wondered what Reading Genesis would have been like if Robinson had allowed herself to open up her project to more secondary sources: to the attention to Genesis’s heterogeneity, history, politics, and poetics that scholarship could supply.

Ultimately, though, Robinson requires a coherently good Genesis, and in Reading Genesis that is what she delivers: a throwback text that puts on critical blinders to single-mindedly defend the much-maligned “Old Testament God.” Though it is an illuminating read for any Robinson fan, it will probably be most satisfying to readers who share her theological commitments. Others may prefer to find Genesis in her novels instead: in the fateful flood in Housekeeping; in the mark-of-Cain scar on Jack’s face in Jack; in Glory’s wistful musings about Scripture in Home:

During the years she lived alone she had read the Bible morning and evening … to remember who she was, to remember the household she came from, to induce in herself the unspecific memory of a comfort she had not really been conscious of until she left it behind.… What a strange old book it was.

Robinson’s fiction makes some space for the strangeness of Scripture, even as her biblical commentary attempts to domesticate it, offering the cold comfort of consistency in lieu of awe. But despite her best efforts, her readers may still find themselves unsettled by the cryptic power of these ancient stories. In Reading Genesis, Robinson’s voice eventually gives way to the Bible, and the “strange old book” gets the last word.