The Book of "Genesis": A Biography

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Overview

"This is an illuminating account, broad in historical scope and rich in interdisciplinary perspective, of the varied life that the book of Genesis has lived through almost three millennia. The writing is lucid and engaging, and the story of the multifarious receptions of this seminal text is deeply instructive."—Robert Alter, author of The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry

"The book of Genesis has had one of the most intriguingly complex lives of all biblical texts. Superbly interweaving many different readings of Genesis, from the allegorical and scientific to the historical and literary, Ronald Hendel covers diverse moments of reception, such as Galileo's writings, Darwin's theory of evolution, the American Civil War, and Kafka's parables. Each chapter is a gem in its own right—and together they create a spellbinding narrative."—Ilana Pardes, author of Melville's Bibles

"Ron Hendel moves easily from classic scholarship on the life that Genesis lived in its biblical birth family to his personal favorites among the biblical book's innumerable afterlives: Rashi and Luther, of course, but also Rabelais, Kafka, and Naguib Mahfouz—a lively lot of lives, in short, with something for everyone."—Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

"This brilliant book is not only about Genesis but also the history of biblical interpretation. It is extremely learned, but it wears its learning lightly. This is great stuff, and there is nothing else like it."—John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School

"This is a wonderful book. Hendel displays his gifts as a teacher, writing in a tone that readers will find accessible and entertaining."—David Carr, Union Theological Seminary

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Bible's first book is the focus of this contribution by Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley, to Princeton's Lives of Great Religious Books series. The premise of a "biography" of Genesis is especially fitting. More than any other book, Genesis has a long history of both development and influence. Its life has been rich, and it's not dead yet. In a brief and eminently readable book, the author covers well-traveled ground in the first two chapters, discussing a diversity of sources in Genesis and its relationship to other ancient Near Eastern literature. Readers familiar with this basic information will find reward in reading on. Hendel shows a pendulum swing between realism and "figuralism" over the centuries, noting historical methods of interpretation from allegorical to literal, from ancient gnostics to modern fundamentalists, illustrated by specific examples. A book such as this cannot hope to cover everything, and is uneven in its attentions. Nevertheless, there is a little something for everyone here. (Nov.)
Inside Higher Ed.
Hendel is telling the story of Genesis—not retelling stories from it. . . . [Hendel] takes things in an intriguing direction. If Genesis is the product of various strands of cultural DNA (spliced together long ago by scribes who believed the literal truth of the material they were helping to transmit, while also needing to reconcile elements that didn't quite fit together) then the book's subsequent history is, in a way, encoded in its genome. . . . [A] revelation in its own right.
— Scott McLemee
Inside Higher Ed...
Hendel is telling the story of Genesis—not retelling stories from it. . . . [Hendel] takes things in an intriguing direction. If Genesis is the product of various strands of cultural DNA (spliced together long ago by scribes who believed the literal truth of the material they were helping to transmit, while also needing to reconcile elements that didn't quite fit together) then the book's subsequent history is, in a way, encoded in its genome. . . . [A] revelation in its own right.
— Scott McLemee
Booklist - Christopher McConnell
Hendel's engaging and accessible biography reminds us that Genesis remains 'an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came.'
Maclean's Magazine - Brian Bethune
Hendel does cover the story of Genesis's ancient foundations and original sense, but rightly devotes most of the book to detailing how it became so freighted with often contradictory meanings over time. His essential conclusion is that the ways in which Western culture has understood Genesis—as a literal account of events, as a figurative depiction of divine action, as a collection of folktales and tribal origin stories—'tend to correlate with the ways that people have understood reality.'
Inside Higher Ed - Scott McLemee
Hendel is telling the story of Genesis—not retelling stories from it. . . . [Hendel] takes things in an intriguing direction. If Genesis is the product of various strands of cultural DNA (spliced together long ago by scribes who believed the literal truth of the material they were helping to transmit, while also needing to reconcile elements that didn't quite fit together) then the book's subsequent history is, in a way, encoded in its genome. . . . [A] revelation in its own right.
Economist
If any book deserves to have a biography written about it, it is the opening to the Bible.
The Age - Owen Richardson
The biography of Genesis turns out largely to be a history of how it has been read, and Ronald Hendel's book has much to offer people interested in history, literature and philosophy, as well as religion.
Jewish Post & Opinion - Arnold S. Ages
Original and refreshing.
Choice
The Book of Genesis portrays the evolving relationship between a book and readers who pursue plain and imaginative understandings, contest truth claims before science, and read contemporary realities into ancient texts. . . . Brilliant and informative . . . this volume makes a case that streamlines but does not oversimplify. . . . [A]ttractive . . .
From the Publisher
"This wide-ranging account tells the remarkable story of the life of Genesis like no other book."—
World Book Industry

Booklist
Hendel's engaging and accessible biography reminds us that Genesis remains 'an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came.'
— Christopher McConnell
Maclean's Magazine
Hendel does cover the story of Genesis's ancient foundations and original sense, but rightly devotes most of the book to detailing how it became so freighted with often contradictory meanings over time. His essential conclusion is that the ways in which Western culture has understood Genesis—as a literal account of events, as a figurative depiction of divine action, as a collection of folktales and tribal origin stories—'tend to correlate with the ways that people have understood reality.'
— Brian Bethune
Library Journal
Hendel (Norma & Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible & Jewish Studies, Univ. of California, Berkeley) traces the impact of the book of Genesis on science, literature, politics, society, and religion. The author sets the tone with a short overview of the J, P, and E sources, expounds on the traditional "four assumptions" of early biblical interpretation, then outlines the differences between the apocalyptical and the Platonic interpretations of Genesis. He continues by weaving a narrative of this ancient text's influence on how society viewed the world and, in turn, how some major thinkers shaped future interpretations of Genesis. Hendel supports his argument by relating the experiences of Luther, Galileo, Spinoza, Darwin, Kafka, Dickinson, and others. He also illustrates the influence of Genesis on the American Civil War, abolitionists, and the work of philologist Erich Auerbach. VERDICT Clearly written and well organized, this is a thought-provoking account of an ancient text's effect on the people who helped shape the course of history. Although intended for a general audience, this will also be welcomed by academics.—Jacqueline Parascandola, Columbia Univ. Libs., New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691140124
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2012
  • Series: Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 486,857
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 3.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the editor in chief of "The Oxford Hebrew Bible" and the author of "Remembering Abraham" and "Reading Genesis".

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction - The Life of Genesis 1
Chapter 1 - The Genesis of Genesis 14
Chapter 2 - The Rise of the Figural Sense 45
Chapter 3 - Apocalyptic Secrets 63
Chapter 4 - Platonic Worlds 83
Chapter 5 - Between the Figure and the Real 109
Chapter 6 - Genesis and Science: From the Beginning to Fundamentalism 145
Chapter 7 - Modern Times 196
Afterword - Stories of Our Alley 242
Timeline 247
Notes 249
Index of Citations 269
General Index 271

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