SBC Life Articles

Reading Genesis Again — For the First Time

What does the Book of Beginnings mean for people of faith today? Bill Moyers presented his "Genesis A Living Conversation" on PBS television last fall. As the title indicates, each of its ten programs centered on a lively discussion among academics and artists on a selected story in Genesis. It was "living" as the panel members related the biblical story to their own experiences of faith and work.

It is a sign of continuing religious vitality that PBS gave ten hours to a discussion of the Bible's first book. Despite the plunge of moral standards in American popular culture, our nation remains a very religious one and something of a revival of religious interest may be underway. The irony is that the American public has become increasingly illiterate about the Bible.

Genesis, of course, is ideally suited for multicultural dialogue since it is honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Also, Genesis' creation and family accounts have been common subjects for the arts. It is a tribute to the captivating character of Genesis that such interest continues. The rich complexity of the accounts in Genesis made for energetic conversation and occasional debate.

Moyers' guests represented diverse ethnic and religious traditions, including Islam and Hindu, as well as those who were not religious. Conservative Christians and prominent cults, such as Mormons were under-represented.

Although the evangelical voice was heard, some programs had no such representation, while in others it was drowned by the preponderance of non-evangelicals. Tolerance and inclusion were celebrated as the Talmudic, the Koranic, and the feminist perspectives were all welcomed. The distinctively New Testament understanding of early Genesis was seldom offered. At one point a Christian panelist was chided for such an observation, upon which the panelist quickly retreated. This is not simply to say that there was hostility to the New Testament viewpoint but that its distinctive claims were not as aggressively presented as were others. The cross of Jesus Christ was cited in a discussion on suffering, but its meaning was lost in the trite observation that all religious traditions include the virtue of suffering.

The panel members showed that the popular "reader-response" mode of interpretation has triumphed among the intelligentsia in our culture. What this story or that story meant "to me," as the
panelists repeated, was most prominent. Feminist understandings, post-holocaust readings, and liberation-style views were given. Occasionally, a sober-minded scholar would strive to set the story in the larger theological framework of Genesis or Pentateuch.

Many members spoke as though the early accounts were historical and as a consequence some of the stories' features posed problems for them, such as how God could allow Cain to murder innocent Abel. Parable and allegorical readings were presented as well; the garden story, for example, was viewed as an allegory about growing up sexually and moving away from home. Sometimes appeal to "religious story" was made to ease tensions in the story where some 'improper" view of God or society was presented. The submission of Eve was considered a cultural commentary, certainly not prescriptive or revelational. Repeated attention to the "patriarchal" character of the narratives generated anxiety about what could be salvaged from the stories for today's faith.

Strikingly, the actions of God in early Genesis were a source of perplexity for the participants. It was informing to hear honest, albeit pointed, assessments of God by moderns. Sometimes, they bordered on blasphemy, as when God's anger at the flood was deemed "evil." For many, the depiction of God in early Genesis was a maturation process with God "growing up" in His relationship to creation. Dispute over the Lord's culpability for the flood was central to the flood episode, entitled "Apocalypse." God smelling Noah's sacrifice showed the Lord to be indifferent to human suffering. God is said to have treated Abraham cruelly in the test of sacrificing Isaac.

Morality also played an important role for the respondents to Genesis. Cain worshipped the Lord but was rejected by God for no apparent reason. Abel did what was right, but to what end? And what is to be made of the trickster Jacob?

Special attention on the stories/characters proved entertaining. Noah was viewed by one as a "mindless" character who acted like a "wimp" unwilling to intercede in behalf of the world's peoples. Another panelist presented the traditional perspective, saying Noah's silence was a mark of obedience in the narrative. Abraham came under close scrutiny Was he a sympathetic character uprooted from his family to follow God, or was he a self-interested figure zealous only for riches? In the binding of Isaac, the child was "abused" and he becomes a "disabled" adult emotionally. No, says the Muslim panelist, Isaac was a prophet who also surrendered to the will of God.

Moyers remarked in one episode's introduction, "the farther we go into Genesis in the series of conversations the closer we get to home." It became transparent that one goal Moyers had for the series was a modem appropriation of the stories for today's personal and social concerns. Sprinkled throughout the segments were questions about what can be learned from Genesis and how one's faith is influenced. The rejection of Esau speaks to the "marginalized peoples" of our times. Joseph's rise over obstacles is a message to young people today. Another panelist took Joseph's story about Potiphar's wife as misogynistic (holding hatred for women). The Sarah-Hagar tension is a commentary on racism. Joseph, like immigrants today, learned how to live in a different cultural pattern as he was both Hebrew and Egyptian.

Observations made by the panelists probably struck many viewers as wholly new. These stories, which many first heard in childhood, are being said to take on new social content. This leaves the wrong impression about biblical literature. The Bible is not a repository of potential sociological commentary. It is a revelatory word which must be interpreted in its own setting with the author's theological purposes foremost in mind. Only then can its message be appropriately applied to the reader's life.

Moreover, the eclectic character of the discussion gave a wrong impression about the authenticity of such interpretations. Although there was debate among the participants, and at times pointed disagreement, there was a mood of tolerance which may have suggested that any interpretation is a valid interpretation. The discussion's bizarre inclusiveness is an example of why modern Christian interpretation must consider the 2,000-year tradition of the church. The interpretation of the Bible, despite some serious differences, has been remarkably constant in Christian history.

Overall, the series provided the viewer a window on American religious thought as it is commonly found in the arena of modern academic and cultural life. Multicultural, multiracial interpretations of the Bible are here to stay, and traditional interpretations, whether Islamic or Christian, are subjected to sociological litmus tests. In the final session, a question was raised which may well be the question asked in the decade to come: "How do you read this text and hear a revelation from God?" The question conveys both a skepticism about the text and a serious search for a word from God.

Let us be about answering this question with intellectual integrity and committed zeal.

    About the Author

  • Kenneth Mathews