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When the Beginning Began: Stories about God, the Creatures, and Us

When the Beginning Began: Stories about God, the Creatures, and Us

by Julius Lester, Emily Lisker (Illustrator)

“This book is astonishing, daring, compelling, and confirms Lester’s preeminence among storytellers.”—Jane Yolen

If we weren’t there, how can we really know how the world began? Could it be that God even made a mistake or two when creating the world? Using Jewish legend and his own translations from the Book of Genesis, master


“This book is astonishing, daring, compelling, and confirms Lester’s preeminence among storytellers.”—Jane Yolen

If we weren’t there, how can we really know how the world began? Could it be that God even made a mistake or two when creating the world? Using Jewish legend and his own translations from the Book of Genesis, master storyteller Julius Lester has created a collection of Bible stories like no other. Written especially for readers who might not make their way to the stories of the Bible otherwise, these tales are a welcome opening to a glorious world that will touch the spirit of all readers—no matter what religion guides them.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Kathleen Beck
Multi-talented author, scholar, and folklorist Lester has undertaken a re-imagining of the familiar Judeo-Christian stories of Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. As sources he combines his own translation of Genesis, folktales, and Midrash, the Jewish commentaries and stories that have grown up around the Biblical text. An African American convert to Judaism, Lester brings the cadence and humor of that storytelling tradition to this attempt to "play with God." The deity is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes a cloud or a ribbon of light. God is often surprised at what is created: "Just because you can make something, it does not mean that you should. God didn't know that yet." The creatures, including people, do not always act in ways God anticipated (take the Snake and the Woman, for instance). Lester intends this book as storytelling, not theology, and readers approaching it in that spirit will have a wonderful time. His vivid language-"Lion walked around like he was the Sun on four feet"-and equally vivid imagination give new life to the Creation narrative. At the same time, he assumes reader familiarity with the traditional Biblical interpretation, which may be optimistic. Those who do know the Genesis account may get a jolt; others will be moved to read it for the first time. In either case, Lester has brilliantly carried out his intention of "using the imagination to explore a Biblical text." Illus. Biblio. Source Notes. VOYA Codes: 5Q 3P M J S (Hard to imagine it being better written, Will appeal with pushing, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
School Library Journal
Gr 4-8-The continuing practice of midrash Aggadah-unrestrained narrative reflection on canonical Torah-is evidence of a living faith. Fundamentalist Christians may well be shocked by the liberties Lester takes with the God of Genesis: at various times he/she is black, female, embarrassed, uncertain, and wrong. But the point of these surprises is to make readers think afresh about the familiar stories. The reworkings stress the importance of gratitude for what we have, the role of error in the divine plan, the playfulness of creativity, the universality of human weakness, and the limitlessness of divine love. Adam's first mate, Lilith (the woman God makes from clay, in Genesis B), walks out when Adam refuses to compromise; God decides that women will have to be smarter than men. Elements from Jewish lore-the Re'em, Shamir, Ziz, Tehom, the importance of Torah-coexist with an angel called Moe the Angel of Bagels (but the cuteness quotient is tolerable). Satan is distinct from the Edenic Snake. The chapters on the Fall by themselves are worth the price of admission. In keeping with Jewish tradition, sin does not lie in disobedience but in the failure to accept responsibility; sexuality is a divine gift, a consolation for exile. In these later chapters, Lester's midrash is especially rich and thought-provoking. Lisker provides a full-page oil painting to accompany each entry; her images are as inventive and vibrant as the stories she illustrates. The source notes and bibliography are helpful.-Patricia Lothrop-Green, St. George's School, Newport, RI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Horn Book Magazine
"And who knows? Maybe God is tired of being thought of as an old man with a long white beard," suggests Lester, explaining, in a cogent introduction, that he has fused two traditions here-the "loving irreverence" of African-American storytelling and the imaginative inquiry of midrashim (Jewish stories that extend and interpret biblical texts). The resulting seventeen-story cycle-new takes on the Creation, Satan's rebellion, and Adam and "Chavah's" loss of innocence-continues in the deceptively offhand tone established in the introduction. A crow, trying to walk like a dove, succeeds only in looking "like [he] need[s] to go to the bathroom real bad"; Adam's egotistical organs argue with God about where they'll be situated in his body; the snake "carped the diem." Though such arrestingly vivid words and images may seem nonsensically beside the point, they actually lure the reader into re-envisioning biblical events with a mind open to fresh, and perhaps deeper, meanings. Disarming laughter prepares the way for creative examination of more serious themes, particularly in Lester's powerful retelling of the Fall: while Christians see it as disobedience to God's authority, Jews (Lester explains) believe Adam and Chavah's sin was failing to take responsibility for their transgression. This view leads ineluctably toward a provocative conclusion in which Adam and Chavah realize that "God played a joke on us....The world is more beautiful than the garden." Why? Because "we will now know death," and its existence makes life the more sweet. Lester prefaces chapters with his own translations from Genesis, then intertwines the biblical tales with folkloric motifs such as tricksters and pourquoi stories. Several also hinge on destructive competition (cat and mouse, moon and sun), subtly foreshadowing Satan's rift with God. As in Miriam Chaikin's Clouds of Glory (rev. 7/98), angels ("Moe," "Jennifer," etc.) serve as messengers and as God's companions; thus, the author can couch his own philo-sophical pondering as lively, colloquial debate between these angels and a God whose omniscience leaves breathing space for rational discourse. This God assumes many forms-male, female, lion, dancing ribbons of light. Emily Lisker's full-page paintings, in brilliant tropical hues, capture the stories' primal essence (and a bit of their playfulness) in bold, archetypal forms. A reverent, wise, witty, and wonderfully entertaining book, handsomely produced. In addition to the introduction and afterword, there are fine source notes and an excellent bibliography.
Kirkus Reviews
Subtitled "Stories about God, the Creatures, and Us," this is an unusual and inventive, beautifully illustrated collection of Jewish tales interpreting the creation story in the Old Testament. Lester (What a Truly Cool World, 1999, etc.) uses his imagination in exploring the meaning of biblical texts, employing humor and what he considers a "loving irreverence" in his tone. The tradition of the midrash permits him to put a special spin on the stories in order to divine their meaning. In stories such as "Sun and Moon," "The Angel of Death," "God Makes People," "God Creates Adam," and others, Lester attempts to make the sacred come alive; readers will never view the stories of the creation in the same light again after this collection. (sources, bibliography) (Folklore. 8-12)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.68(h) x 0.59(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Meet the Author

JULIUS LESTER is the author of more than twenty books for young readers. He writes and teaches in western Massachusetts.

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