Getting to grips with Genesis

roelant savery Noah's Ark
Roelant Savery, Noah’s Ark
Karoly Patko Adam and Eve
Karoly Patko Adam and Eve

The start of semester 1 is fast approaching here at Auckland University and teaching staff everywhere are getting busy preparing their lectures. The past few days, I’ve been getting organized for one of my undergraduate courses, which focuses on the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis is a fantastic biblical book to look at in depth with students and one of my favourite to teach – using the tools of literary criticism, I read the text together with the class, pausing at particular narrative scenes to allow us to focus on them in more detail, discussing what we think of the plot, the characters, and the possible origins and purpose of these stories. The students are never bored, in my experience, and thoroughly enjoy probing and pondering what’s going on in this rollercoaster of a narrative. There’s more sex, action and drama than even the raciest soap opera; we read about the miraculous, the unbelievable, the cataclysmic, and the plain old bizarre. We encounter loads of marvellous characters, who come across as so very human – who express emotions that we can recognize, who react in ways that we can at least understand, if not explicitly condone. There are no absolute saints in Genesis – rather, the characters are shown to us flaws and all. Even that most venerated figure Noah gets into a bit of bother after, quite understandably, drinking rather a lot of wine following all the stress of that flood. Meanwhile, Abraham and Jacob – the founding fathers of the Israelite people – are depicted as far from perfect, acting rashly, treating others harshly, being deceitful and underhand, and manipulating kith and kin to further their own ends.

Chagall cain et abel
Marc Chagall, Cain et Abel

Genesis is a book that I think explores the human condition in all its fullness and frailty; in particular, its ancient authors seem at pains to articulate the complex and at times incomprehensible relationship that exists  between humanity and the divine. In my opinion, they do this incredibly well.

Course name: Theology 210/310 Genesis

Course textbook: Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996.