This piece originally appears as the Introduction chapter of Eden and Afterward, Mbird’s latest publication, which looks at Genesis through the lenses of literary commentary, theology, and everyday life. Contents include Adam, Abel, Noah, Babel, Abram, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Leah, Tamar, and Joseph.
There’s an old story of a Jewish rabbi who once attempted to heal a blind man. After rubbing saliva in the man’s eyes and laying hands on him, the rabbi asked if the cure had worked. “I can see people,” the man ventured, “but they look like trees, walking.” Then, as the account of this healing in the book of Mark puts it, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
The most obvious way to look at the healing is as a partially botched job, the first time around, like when a character in the Harry Potter books tries to transfigure someone into a cat, but only succeeds in giving their human target whiskers and a tail. But the man’s fuzzy, only partially restored vision works as a potent metaphor for the way we view the world around us. We see other people through the lenses of expectations and grudges, biases and resentments. Or perhaps our lens is rose-colored, like the immovable love a parent has for a child.
These resentments and biases and blind spots impair our ability to live. The way we see the world deeply affects our ability to love and feel loved, to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Sin and self-justification often blind us to the way things truly are, and in so doing they damage our relationships with others and with God. Reconciliation in those relationships, giving and receiving mercy, and learning to love lie at the core of our desires as humans. These desires are frustrated by our blindness, so we pray, like another blind man, “My teacher, let me see again” (Mk 10:51).
Stories captivate us because the good ones sharpen our vision. They teach us about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. Good stories can be revisited over and over, throughout one’s entire life, and there is always more to see, more to take away. A good story’s reserve of truth is inexhaustible, because stories describe our ineffable human experience; we see the meanings of our lives and the things that happen to us blurrily—they appear like trees, walking. So as a story’s various images and characters and meanings come into focus ever more sharply, they simultaneously reveal how much meaning continues to elude us.
The stories contained in the book of Genesis are, at worst, brilliant bits of cultural mythology that endure, like the Greek myths, because they express an unspeakable something which lies near the essence of human experience. On the lowest estimation, Genesis has earned its place alongside such literary masterpieces as The Iliad, The Odyssey, or Othello. Like those works, Genesis has exercised an enduring power to shape one of the world’s oldest and most rich cultures, Judaism, to say nothing of its ongoing influence today. But on the highest estimation, Genesis presents something even greater: an exploration of the relationship between God and human beings, a work which cannot lead us astray because it is an authoritative revelation by God himself.
At its lowest common denominator, which is world-class literature, Genesis can be examined for how it works as a story, for its deep reservoir of truth about humanity and, just possibly, God. It can be appreciated by anyone as great literature, and yet it always resists being read as just great literature. To the three world religions which hold it in highest esteem, whenever we examine the literary merits of Genesis—just as we would with Faulkner or Hemingway—the book subtly prods us toward reading it as something more than just good literature. So although this companion to Genesis will focus upon the stories’ symbols, motifs, emotions and characters, the human experience distilled into these narratives will constantly raise new questions, questions of providence and blessing and judgment.
At the heart of these questions lies God’s relationship with Israel and, by extension, the way he relates to us today. But we must start with human experience, just as Christianity started with a series of concrete, grounded events, which doctrine then described. So the stories here must come before our ideas about them, must be allowed to shape those ideas rather than vice-versa. They ask us to imagine their sights, sounds and scents, placing us in their characters’ shoes and asking us to feel their emotions. When the Bible chooses to speak about God through story, imagination and empathy come first, and analysis comes second.
Both imagination and analysis present certain roadblocks. That is, we cannot fully empathize with the characters; we cannot fully enter into the times and places and situations in which these stories are set. With a book like Genesis, the stories of which are veiled by religious disputes, encrusted with over-familiarity, and often taken for granted, sometimes the story first asks us to register its strangeness, its otherness. No commentary has yet explained everything that happens in Genesis, just as no individual reader of the Bible or other great literature will fail to uncover new meanings with every re-reading. Often, the strangeness of the Bible does not ask us to sharpen our vision of the people who look like trees, but rather to admit they are blurry, to recognize our vision is still foggy and stilted.
Any literary criticism, especially of sacred Scripture, must be flawed for two reasons. First, and most fundamentally, plain words can never explain away a story or substitute for it. At most, they can provide a poor approximation of the irreducible truths of experience, and for this reason, literary analysis at its best does not explain a story so much as provide an entry into it. Ideally, reflection and analysis lead someone to go back to the story and see its images more vividly, to feel its strangeness and mystery ever more acutely.
This is especially true with religious stories, because if plain meaning could substitute for experience, religion would be a mere set of propositions, a list of truths God wanted to reveal in bullet-point fashion. Worse, we would have a God of bare, denuded truth alone, one whose operation in history is meaningful only insofar as it teaches an idea. God’s operation in history is of course revelatory, but this revelation itself testifies to God with us, taking action in the world for our benefit. And analysis should not decode part of a story and leave a mysterious remainder, as if better criticism might leave less to be explained. Instead, if the analysis is good, it heightens the mystery at every turn.
A second problem is bias, in this case a viewpoint drawing upon Christian theology. Any viewpoint, even at the most basic level, is limited. If I want to see a shoebox, it is impossible to look at it as a whole. I can see three sides at a time at most, and the others are hidden from me. Literary interpretation is no different; we can only see one angle at any given time, and we must do our best to infer the whole from the particular part we focus on. This may sometimes be limiting, but it can also be freeing: since we cannot ever know except “in part,” as a first-century reader of Genesis once said (1 Cor 13:12), we can look forward to an inexhaustible reservoir of angles and vantage points and meanings, and this “part” can only acquire more depth the more we read. The Bible’s figures will always appear blurry, like trees, but the focus may sharpen over time.
This companion to the stories of Genesis focuses on God’s gradual, messy, and often convoluted redemption of fallen humanity in history, and this focus imposes a few limits. Creation is omitted because, while it sets the stage for the drama, the relatably human saga begins with the serpent, who provides a sort of “big bang” to the story which kicks off the drama of redemption and the emergence of the human world as we now know it. I cannot relate to Adam or Eve before the temptation, but at the moment of the Fall, we see ourselves in them. There are some stories which could easily be included, but are not: for example, the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dina. Much of what’s left out is chronology, which works to give the story a grounded, historical feel, to give the nation of Israel a sacred genealogy, and to break up the stories, giving them distance when distance is needed, and immediacy—implying a closer link with the preceding story—when immediacy is needed.
In any companion which is not a line-by-line commentary, some selection is necessary, and this is just one of many lenses which may allow the trees to look slightly more like people, once we turn away from the analysis and back to the story’s primal vision. This turning-back is hopefully the end result of any analysis, so references to the stories themselves are included.
Our entry into the story—the long, old story of fallen human beings and God’s presence with them—starts with the figure of Adam, who has one foot planted in an idyllic past and another raised up, hesitant, but inexorably stepping down into the confused drama of history. With that strange, mysterious transition from God’s ideal world and into ours, the story of redemptive history begins. We pray with Mark’s blind man, “My teacher, let me see again.”