Reading Genesis

"Anyone who desires to rediscover the beauty, complexity, humanity, and revelation within the words of Genesis would do well to allow [Marilyn] Robinson to be their guide," writes Darin Nettleton.

Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages | Published March 12, 2024

In Reading Genesis, famed novelist Marilynne Robinson offers an alternative to the narrow, often cynical commentaries that result from modern critical methods. Instead, Robinson engages with Scripture as a credulous and curious reader, drawing on multiple approaches to illuminate, clarify and challenge the sacred text.

Robinson reads both synchronically and diachronically. Synchronically, Robinson attends to the plot of Genesis, noting varied literary devices, character development, ironic reversals and other features specific to its time. Diachronically, she brings the later writings of Scripture, even as late as the New Testament, to bear on her understanding of Genesis; for example, she allows Jesus’ teachings on debt from Matthew 6 to inform the debt Jacob attempts to settle with Esau and ultimately, the debt we have before our God. Robinson also highlights context where pertinent, whether that of ancient Near Eastern literature or our own modern, particularly Western sensibilities. A particularly illuminating section involves Robinson carefully reading the flood recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh to contrast that Babylonian epic with Noah and his mighty ark. Unafraid of the notion that Scripture engages with literary contemporaries, Robinson convincingly demonstrates how the flood narrative found in Genesis repudiates the Babylonian worldview while advancing a more complex, unique, and compelling vision of its own.

And yet, while juggling multiple perspectives, Robinson never allows the extraneous to overwhelm the essential. Whether considering translation decisions, drawing comparisons to Egyptian stories, or engaging with the repetition and parallelism scattered across the first book of the Bible, the reader is never allowed to lose sight of the story itself, the literary wonder that is Genesis. And Robinson never allows the story of Genesis to become “merely” literature but always a story that uniquely reveals its ultimate subject, the Lord God Almighty.

Lacking a subject index, scriptural index, or even chapters, Reading Genesis is not an easy reference for sermon or lesson preparation. In fact, to approach this work like a commentary misses the crux of Robinson’s aim. Robinson in fact names piecemeal, pre-portioned engagement with Scripture – as many of us do on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening – as contributing to the inability to read Genesis well. By offering her commentary as a kind of novel itself, she invites us to return to viewing Genesis as literature, built out of rich character development, rising tension, unexpected revelations and thematic connections all of which come to light only when held together as a single work.

There are myriad ways the words of Scripture can lose their mystery and majesty. Modern Western defaults, namely incredulity and suspicion, can alienate us from the Word of God, but so can tired familiarity. Anyone who desires to rediscover the beauty, complexity, humanity,and revelation within the words of Genesis would do well to allow Robinson to be their guide.

It is not surprising that a novelist reads Scripture like a novel, and invites us to do so as well. Through the tender, exacting eyes of Robinson, Genesis’ power to reveal the mystery of God as we follow these humble nomadic shepherds through their strife and foolishness, breaks through like the dawn of the first day – good, and very good.

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