Book review: Reading Genesis, by Marilynne Robinson

In this sincere and very intelligent response to the book of Genesis, Marilynne Robinson is excellent on the surprisingness of God, writes Stuart Kelly

The simplest questions are often the most difficult to answer. This is not just one of the themes of Marilynne Robinson’s new work, but applies directly to it: what kind of a book is this? What genre is it? In a way, the description beneath the ISBN is both true and useless: “religion”.

It is probably easier to describe what it is not. It is not fiction, even though Robinson’s fiction – Housekeeping and then the interlinked quartet of Gilead, Home, Lila and Jack – are amongst the most subtle and luminous of religious fictions. Although one reviewer, slightly impishly called it – I paraphrase – a sermon only not boring, it is not really a sermon, not least because sermons normally explicate a short text and this reading takes on the whole of the book of Genesis. It is longer than an essay, it is mostly impersonal and not at all like a memoir, and it is not a work of literary criticism: it is less concerned with the how of the text than the why and wherefore of it. The best I can say is that it is a sincere and very intelligent reader’s response to Genesis and asks us how we should respond to it.

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Genesis is one of the books that one does not need to have read to “know” about. Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Flood are common currency. It has been told and retold in great art: Paradise Lost, the Sistine Chapel, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, or even in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Many will say that Genesis itself is a reworking, a point which Robinson admits. But she is unafraid to look at the book itself, and its context, as a whole, and the experience is remarvelling, to coin a word.

Biblical criticism has a long history of comparative studies. Robinson does not flinch from this, and I would meekly admit that reading books like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough contributed a great deal to me wandering from faith. The Sumerians, Akkadians and Mesopotamians had a great flood, Hinduism has the manvantara-sandhya, the Greeks had Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Ojibwe have Nanabozho. Irving Finkel has written a superb book, The Ark Before Noah. Robinson is far more interested in the points of divergence than the points of similarity throughout this reading, and to my mind this is a much less reductive form of interpretation. One good example is the creation itself. Genesis has humanity made from dust and breath; in the Inuma Elish, man is made from mud and the blood of a deity, and made as a menial servant. Adam and Eve are provided with food by contrast. Likewise, the Flood is sent not because of humanity’s wickedness, but because they are making a heck of a racket.

I should mention that another book, Heresy by Catherine Nixey, takes the polar opposite approach, outlining the many other Messianic, Son of God figures, and the other, apocryphal Jesus narratives. It is an entertaining and insightful book, but Robinson is deep by comparison. Nixey, for example, cites the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and Jesus shaping birds out of clay and making them real, but jibs at pointing out that this story is also later in the Qur’an (Surah Al-Ma’idah, 110). Robinson is alert to how, in the current political climate, it is uncomfortable to say the very least to think about sections such as Genesis 34, when the sons of Jacob massacre the Shechemites after forcing them to circumcise themselves, “viciously and cynically abusing” the covenant.

Robinson has a double approach to many of the problematic stories. The first is to insist that, if Genesis were a jingoistic paean, it would probably have drawn a discrete veil over Lot sleeping with his daughters, Noah getting pie-eyed, the genocidal attack on the Shechemites or the disturbing fact that, though the Lord may have brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, it was Joseph who introduced the practice of corvée labour. The second is a reiteration of God in the Book of Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”. Robinson is excellent on the surprisingness of God. Cain is spared, not killed. The message is that man might break his promises but God keeps his. As a Scottish Presbyterian, I delighted that Robinson prefers “forgive us our debts” to “trespasses”. Debts can be cancelled. As she writes, Joseph’s brothers “go unpunished… That is not a pardon. It is grace”. If you think you know the Bible, start here.

Reading Genesis, by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, £25