The Book of Genesis: A Biography by Ronald Hendel

Seems like ages since I featured a work of nonfiction. Don’t worry, just because I’ve been reading a lot of international fiction of late doesn’t mean I’ve lost my love of nonfiction. I’ve also been reading some nonfiction. One those books, The Book of Genesis: A Biography

Once I began reading it, I found this a deceptively sophisticated book. As I suspected, Hendel began by assessing the book of Genesis within the context of modern scholarship – you know, all that stuff having to do with the ancient E, J, D and P sources. From there Hendel chronicled how Genesis as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible has been interpreted by the great minds of Western thought, starting with the Greek-influenced Neoplatonists like Philo of Alexandria (and arguably to some degree St. Paul), the figurative interpreters of the Middle Ages like St. Augustine and the eventual backlash centuries later with the rise of more literal interpreters like Rashi and Luther. (By the 16th century, as more Europeans gained access to printed vernacular Bibles, public opinion turned against this medieval-era practice of Biblical interpretation. According to Hendel, proof of this popular contempt can be found in the ribald and satirical words of Francois Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.) With the rise of modern world bringing us the theory of evolution, critical Biblical scholarship and a greater understanding the earth’s advanced age, such literal interpretations of Genesis started to fall out of favor. (Hundreds of years earlier, the discoveries of the New World and the heliocentric solar system helped begin the erosion of the antiquated version of Biblical literalism.) Lastly, with the rug of literalism pulled out from under it, literary artists like Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka would mine Genesis for its artistic value.

Dry at times and maybe a tad repetitive, nevertheless Hendel’s book covers a lot ground. I found his approach insightful and above all, erudite. If it’s anything  like the others in Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, I can’t wait to read them all.

4 thoughts on “The Book of Genesis: A Biography by Ronald Hendel

  1. It does seem like it would be a wee bit too dry for my tastes, but one of the other titles you mentioned – The Harlot by the Side of the Road – does sound really interesting. I was very religious growing up and read the Bible all the way through at least twice, including the stories featuring violence and sexual exploitation. Judges is like the Dark Ages in the Old Testament tale of Israel.


  2. Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. This does sound like a bit of a challenge to read, but covers a lot of material I know little about but remain interested in. Thanks!


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