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An elegant, joyful, gentle book: Reading Genesis

Hand holding magnifying glass over an old Bible opened to the famous first chapter of Genesis. This translation is King James, which is public domain. Picture: iStock

Paul Barker 

Marilynne Robinson. Reading Genesis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024. 

30 April 2024

“There is more beauty than our eyes can bear, precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm.”  

So wrote the elderly John Ames, a pastor coming to the end of his life, to his son in the glorious, Pulitzer winning novel, Gilead. Now its renowned author, Marilynne Robinson, has sought to honour the precious beauty of Genesis, the opening book of the Bible. She succeeds. 

As the Psalmist delights in the law of the Lord, so Robinson delights in the first book of the law or torah. Hers is not an academic commentary, indeed not really a commentary at any level. Nor is this merely a literary guide written by this retired professor of English and creative writing. Nor is this a devotional book for daily readings. Robinson wants her readers to appreciate, but even more, delight in Genesis, its message of faith in a fallen and messy world. 

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Robinson see Genesis as literature, teasing out its writing with respect and reverence. She knows about myths, and history, and ancient Babylonian and other texts and understands the worldviews into which Genesis was written. She is hostage to no particular theory of authorship but recognises the significance of Moses in Genesis’s evolution to sacred text. She doesn’t ignore hard texts, the deceit and betrayal, the family dysfunctions in the descendants of Abraham.  

If anything characterises the style of Reading Genesis it is respectful musing and questions, as if Robinson is holding a precious and beautiful diamond and twisting it and angling it for different rays of light. 

Her book is written for anyone, and everyone. Whether people of faith or otherwise, Robinson commends a reflective reading and pondering of this most significant book. She writes so elegantly, so gently, winsome and never adversarial. She writes of Genesis 1:1, “When I think there was a day when a human hand wrote those words, I am filled with awe.” I had never stopped and thought in awe. On the question of where did all the other people come from, of whom Cain is afraid, she writes, “the story is about something important enough to justify a departure from a standard of realism that is impressive over against comparable Babylonian or Egyptian or Greek stories.” 

She comments that the “extreme compression of biblical narrative is achieved in part by the setting or framing of its stories to invite comparisons among them”. Throughout her book, Robinson shines light on the interlacing of stories, the patterns, so-called repetitions, and comparisons, in ways to open our eyes and ears and see wondrous things in God’s word. On Genesis 15 she speaks of God exulting in his power to create, humans as numerous as the stars of heaven. My heart was warmed with joyful reflection as I for the first time imagined God’s joy showing Abram the night sky. 

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For Robinson, the biblical text is not naïve and we must not fall into traps of considering it so, rather approaching the text seriously and reverently. She sees the text as a “gracious and divine act”, something remarkable that demands our honour and attention. Referring to Jacob’s flight to Laban, “the text has a sense of humour”. Indeed it does. 

She warns us: “The habit of reading Scripture piecemeal, whether for preaching or for the purposes of scholarly argument, or because it is considered to have its full meaning in isolated phrases or verses or episodes, is so deeply engrained that the larger structures of the text, its strategies of characterization, its arguments, can be completely overlooked.” So Reading Genesis is one continuous reflection on Genesis, for 230 pages, with no chapter breaks or biblical chapter and verse numbers. She is expounding a text, a book as a whole, and expects us to read it alongside her. 

Robinson takes Scripture to be sacred and is commending that to us. What an elegant, joyful and gentle book, that warms my heart and moves me to honour the beauty and preciousness of Genesis more. 

Bishop Paul Barker, Jumbunna Episcopate, has taught Old Testament in several seminaries for 35 years. 

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