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University of Chicago Press
The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

by Leon R. Kass


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The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

As ardent debates over creationism fill the front pages of newspapers, Genesis has never been more timely. And as Leon R. Kass shows in The Beginning of Wisdom, it’s also timeless.

Examining Genesis in a philosophical light, Kass presents it not as a story of what happened long ago, but as the enduring story of humanity itself. He asserts that the first half of Genesis contains insights about human nature that “rival anything produced by the great philosophers.” Kass here reads these first stories—from Adam and Eve to the tower of Babel—as a mirror for self-discovery that reveals truths about human reason, speech, freedom, sexual desire, pride, shame, anger, and death. Taking a step further in the second half of his book, Kass explores the struggles in Genesis to launch a new way of life that addresses mankind’s morally ambiguous nature by promoting righteousness and holiness.

Even readers who don’t agree with Kass’s interpretations will find The Beginning of Wisdom acompelling book—a masterful philosophical take on one of the world’s seminal religious texts.

“Extraordinary. . . . Its analyses and hypotheses will leave no reader’s understanding of Genesis unchanged.” —New York Times

“A learned and fluent, delightfully overstuffed stroll through the Gates of Eden. . . . Mix Harold Bloom with Stephen Jay Gould and you’ll get something like Kass. A wonderfully intelligent reading of Genesis.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Throughout his book, Kass uses fruitful, fascinating techniques for getting at the heart of Genesis. . . . Innumerable times [he] makes a reader sit back and rethink what has previously been tediously familiar or baffling.”—Washington Post
“It is important to state that this is a book not merely rich, but prodigiously rich with insight. Kass is a marvelous reader, sensitive and careful. His interpretations surprise again and again with their cogency and poignancy.”—Jerusalem Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226425672
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2006
Pages: 716
Sales rank: 297,696
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Leon R. Kass, MD, is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute. A member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, he is the author or coauthor of five books, including, most recently, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics.

Read an Excerpt



This book offers a philosophic reading of the book of Genesis. Addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike, it should be of special interest to thoughtful children of skeptics, people who (like the author) now have good reason to want to see for themselves and to learn firsthand what it was and is that their parents or grandparents rejected. For though we are knowledgeable, powerful, and privileged with opportunities beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams, many of us remain psychically, morally, and spiritually adrift. This introduction aims both to clarify these claims and to invite the reader to take up a philosophic reading of the Bible.


What, you may well ask, do I mean by "philosophic" and "philosophic reading"? By "philosophic" I mean wisdom-seeking and wisdom-loving, after the literal meaning of the ancient Greek term philosophia, the love and pursuit of wisdom. Philosophy in this original sense refers not to some specialized academic subject matter (the field of philosophy) or to some finished doctrine (my philosophy of life) or to some method of reasoning and questioning practiced by card-carrying professional philosophers (the discipline of philosophy). Rather it denotes the activity of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and any of their descendants who single-mindedly and wholeheartedly — yet thoughtfully and self-critically — seek to discover the truth about the world and our place within it and to find thereby guidance for how we are to live. This book results from my efforts to read the book of Genesis in this spirit, the same spirit in which I read Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics — indeed, any great book — seeking wisdom regarding human life lived well in relation to the whole.

It is, I am well aware, unusual to read the Bible in this manner and with these aspirations, especially today. Contemporary academic prejudices tend to deny that the Bible can still serve as a vital source of human understanding and moral instruction. Since the nineteenth century most biblical scholars, interested less in the meaning and more in the sources of the text, have seen the Hebrew Bible not as a unified literary whole but as an aggregate of separate documents derived from diverse sources. They read it not as a possible source of wisdom regarding enduring human questions but as documentary evidence of the sensibilities and prejudices of an ancient people. In their view, the truths to be learned from the book are not universal and enduring truths about God and man, but merely parochial and historical truths about the beliefs of the ancient children of Israel whose book it once was. This view of the source critics is perfectly compatible with the more recent approach of many literary critics who read the Bible as literature but who do not regard literature as an aid to wisdom. They tend to be interested, for example, in finding cross-cultural comparisons between the biblical myths of the ancient Hebrews and the myths of Gilgamesh and other literary works of the ancient world, but they rarely ponder which, if any, might be closer to the truth of things. Most recently, self-proclaimed politicized scholars, distressed over the continuing authority of the book in some quarters of American society, have not been content just to historicize and relativize the text. Instead, reading it under the influence of, say, Marxist or feminist or environmentalist ideologies, they attack its apparent teachings as racist, sexist, and anthropocentric. In their view the Bible, if taken seriously, turns out to be a source not of wisdom but of dangerous error and folly.

There are, of course, serious readers of Scripture who still see it as a font of wisdom, there for the taking. I have in mind, among others, those fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews who approach the text piously and who study it reverently. Many of them engage in the hard work of exegesis and interpretation, but they usually do so not in what I am calling the reflective or philosophic spirit. They believe from the start that the text is Holy Writ and that it speaks truly. Often they brush aside textual ambiguity — say, about creation ex nihilo or about the goodness of sacrifice — and they incline to the most pious reading of any difficult passage and assign the most pious motives to all of their biblical heroes. Though they gain much of worth from their biblical study, their piety places certain obstacles in the way of a disinterested and philosophic pursuit of the truth, both about the meaning of the text and about the world the text illuminates. Such readers, too, will be suspicious of my approach, and, I hasten to add, for good reason.

The Bible, I freely acknowledge, is not a work of philosophy, ordinarily understood. Neither its manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical. Indeed, there is even good reason for saying that they are antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.1 Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another. The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy. There is, I readily admit, a reason to be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible.

According to Plato and Aristotle, philosophy begins in wonder and seeks understanding for its own sake:

For it is through wondering that human beings both now begin and at first began to philosophize, wondering in the first place at nearby perplexities, then progressing gradually to raising difficulties also about greater matters, for example, about the occurrences [or changes] of the moon, and those of the sun and stars, and about the coming-into-being of the whole. But the one who is perplexed and who wonders supposes himself to be ignorant (thus the lover of myth [philomythos] is somehow a lover of wisdom [philosophos]; for myths are composed of wonders); so that if it was in order to escape ignorance that men philosophized, it is clear that they pursued knowledge for the sake of understanding, and not for anything useful.

Wonder at perplexity provokes thought, for "all human beings by nature desire understanding." It is especially those natural wonders manifest to sight — for example, the changing phases of the moon or the wandering motions of the sun and planets through the zodiac — that prompt the search for wisdom: "for of all the senses, sight most of all makes us know something and reveals many distinctions." Philosophy, born of wonder, seeks ultimately to know the nature and being of things, as well as the reasons or causes why things are the way they are.

For the Bible, in contrast, the beginning of wisdom comes not from wonder but from awe and reverence, and the goal is not understanding for its own sake but rather a righteous and holy life. True, the Psalmist sings that "the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims His handiwork." But "the beginning of wisdom is the fear [awe; reverence] of the Lord, and good understanding comes to all who practice it." The path to wisdom and happiness lies not through wondrous sights seen by the eye but through awesome command heard by the ear:

The works of His hands are truth and justice; all his precepts are enduring. They are established for ever and ever, they are done in truth and rectitude....He has commanded His covenant for ever; holy and awful is His Name....Happy is the man that fears [reveres] the Lord, that delights greatly in His commandments.

Not the attractive, beautiful, ceaselessly circling, and seemingly imperishable heavenly bodies, but the awe-inspiring, sublime, ceaselessly demanding, and imperishable divine covenant and commandments provide the core of biblical wisdom. The wisdom of Jerusalem is not the wisdom of Athens.


Wisdom, whether biblical or philosophical, has always been in short supply, today probably more than ever. For the dominant modes of modern thought are frankly inhospitable to the pursuit of wisdom — indeed, are profoundly skeptical about the very possibility of wisdom of the sort pursued in premodern times. For this reason, the differences between the wisdom of Athens and the wisdom of Jerusalem pale by comparison with the difference between both of them and the "antiwisdoms" of modern thought. I am not speaking only or even mainly about the postmodern prejudice that there is no such thing as truth and that what we call truth is at best only cultural construction. I refer especially to the fact that even our most honored form of gaining knowledge, modern science, is profoundly skeptical about the possibility of wisdom. The doubts about the possibility of wisdom that begin with the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century have resulted, after three centuries that saw the spread of the scientific outlook and its technological fruit, in a growing need for wisdom.

Modern science emerged uniquely in the West, in important respects a recognized child of the marriage between the rational spirit of Athens and the moral spirit of Jerusalem. On the one side, in its rationalist approach — methodically to describe and predict physical change through the quantification of nature and her lawful regularities — science arose by a transformation of Greek mathematics and the ancient philosophical efforts to capture change by using numbers and figures. On the other side, in its philanthropic intent — to relieve man's estate through mastery of nature — science borrowed its humanitarian moral force from a secularized transformation of Christian charity. Modern science would use a newly constructed tree of methodical knowledge to restore to humankind the tree of life and to create on earth through technology the easy and blessed way of life associated with the mythic Garden of Eden.

Yet modern science, from the start, also broke with both its philosophic and religious ancestors, especially in abandoning the large metaphysical-theological questions and spiritual-moral concerns that preoccupied them — philosophical questions about the being or essence or causes of things, philosophical and religious concerns about the meaning of human life and how it should be lived. Indeed, science's success in describing the world depended — and still depends — precisely on its deliberate decision to avoid those big questions or, for that matter, any other question that cannot be turned into a problem admitting of methodical resolution. Precisely by eschewing the search for wisdom about what things are and mean in favor of securing knowledge of how things move and work, science has made glorious progress in uncovering some of nature's secrets and offered bounteous contributions to reducing human toil and sickness. Yet modern science and its intellectual and cultural companions have increasingly troubled the hearts of wisdom seekers, both philosophical and religious.

On the philosophical side, the findings of modern science have surely created grave difficulties for the ancient philosophical quest to live life solely by the light of reason, exercised on the natural world. For according to our science, the universe is not a cosmos, is not an integral and finite whole. The splendid heavenly bodies are not ensouled or divine, but are, like us, limited and perishable. Moreover, nature is not teleological or purposive. Beneath the surface of things, everything obeys the laws of nature, but in the world of our experience all is flux, and chance and necessity rule, indifferent to our concerns or even to our survival. On the earth, not only beings but also species come and (mostly) go, while the vast emptiness of space preserves its icy silence. For these reasons especially, nature as understood by science has nothing to teach us about human good: the descriptive laws of nature do not issue in normative Natural Law or Natural Right. In this respect above all, nature by herself does not provide us a true home. As subject to the flux as is everything else, we human beings have no fixed nature or special dignity. True, thanks to the peculiar arrangement of our cosmic dust, we have longings for truth and goodness. And unlike other beings, we can come to know our cosmic insignificance. But the truths that might make us free are beyond our reach, and the Good — or even only the human good — if there is one, cannot be known by scientific reason.

In some respects, these teachings of modern science seem not to be at variance with Scripture. The Bible might be said to share science's beliefs in the importance of history, the noneternity of the earth and the human species, and the nondivinity of nature. The Bible also recognizes the silence of the heavens and the earth regarding the human good and, therefore, emphasizes the incompetence of human reason, thinking only about nature, to find a decent and righteous way to live. These deficiencies of nature and human reason the Bible supplies by what is traditionally called revelation — a teaching for human life that, though accessible to human reason, is apparently not available to unaided human reason as it ponders the natural world. Yet, to state the obvious, modern science, according to conventional wisdom, is no friend of biblical religion. The very possibility of a natural science requires denying the possibility of "miracles," of events — like the parting of the Red Sea or the sun's standing still — that defy or suspend the iron necessity of the laws of nature. And science's specific findings have challenged numerous biblical teachings, including the account of creation, the divine origins of man, the special place of man and the earth in the universe, and the rulership of the one God as biblically described. As a consequence, many of the moral teachings of the Bible are also put in doubt — to be sure, not primarily by science or scientists but by a science-based culture whose trust in the veracity of Scripture has been undermined by the triumph of the scientific worldview. The wisdom offered by the followers of Jerusalem, no less than the wisdom sought by the descendants of Athens, appears to be increasingly out of date and irrelevant.


None of this is exactly news. We are often told that we live in secular, even postmodern, times. The old pieties, not only about God or morality but even about truth itself, no longer command our unqualified allegiance. We are too sophisticated to believe in the existence of absolute right and wrong or to make confident moral judgments. We are too worldly to submit to the genius of tradition. We are too enamored of our rights to take our bearings from what were once thought to be our duties. With science and technology pointing the way, the race for health, pleasure, and prosperity is rapidly becoming the only successful game in town.

Such, at least, is the conventional wisdom about life in the modern world, at least in the liberal democracies of the West. But this view of contemporary life must contend with certain inconvenient facts, both about our culture as a whole and about individual private life. Yes, science and technology have unquestionably yielded vast improvements in human life and will no doubt continue to do so. And modern freedom-loving political regimes friendly to scientific inquiry and technological innovation have liberated large parts of the globe from despotism and enabled a growing fraction of the human race to feel secure in life and liberty and to enjoy the pursuit of happiness. Yet we have lost our naïveté regarding the moral innocence and neutrality of technology. More important, the cultural victory of a science-based Enlightenment has proved to be but a partial success. For it has in practice and in principle weakened the moral ground — both philosophical and biblical — upon which progress was to be made. We have been increasingly deprived of firm confidence in any moral standard by which we could judge whether change was for the better or for the worse. The prominence of agnosticism, moral relativism, cynicism, and nihilism is only the most visible intellectual sign of our cultural moral predicament, a predicament made all the more worrisome given our ever-expanding technological powers to transform the globe, our own hearts and minds included. As we stand on the threshold of a new biotechnological age, armed with powers for genetic, somatic, and psychic human engineering, we feel — or should feel — the deep cultural weakness beneath our superficial technical strength. From where, precisely, are we to seek — never mind find — the wisdom we so badly need, if we are to use well and for good our awesome Promethean powers?

Few people, I admit, are personally concerned with such abstract and global concerns. But many people — including many young people, often the children of skeptics — are existentially unwilling to let science or postmodernity have the last word about the kind of world this is. For their own private existential reasons, they are looking for wisdom in their personal lives. Paradoxically, our secular society seems to be stimulating a reawakening of religious sensibilities and aspirations. In recent years, interest in religion has increased greatly in American society, and not only among evangelical Protestants, traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, practicing Muslims, and similar denominations whose traditions continue to remain strong. Unaffiliated students on college campuses are flocking to courses on religious themes and texts, looking for meaning and "spirituality." Sometimes they are led to so-called New Age religions, but often they return to examine or practice the venerable traditions of their ancestors. Adult Bible study groups are springing up across the country even among the previously indifferent, and new English translations of, and commentaries on, the Bible are produced seemingly every year. Not long ago public television aired a ten-part series of serious discussions of the book of Genesis. More and more Americans are owning up to the fact that something is missing in their lives. More and more of us are looking for spiritual direction and guidance. It seems like only yesterday that the Enlightenment overthrew the rule of religious orthodoxy, promising an earthly paradise of human fulfillment based solely on scientific reason. Yet today, the enlightened children of skeptics are discovering for themselves that man does not live — or live well — by bread alone, not even by bread and circuses, and that science's account of human life and the world is neither adequate to the subject nor satisfying to the longings of the soul.

Both the moral crisis of modern thought and the public and personal need for wisdom make urgent a reconsideration of our present beliefs and opinions and recommend a reexamination of seemingly rejected or abandoned alternatives — to be sure, considered afresh in the light of modern thought and its challenges. Friends of wisdom today must be willing to seek help from wherever it may be found. This includes, too, undertaking a serious reexamination of the Bible, considered in the light of modern science. How much damage does science — and modern thought generally — really do to the biblical teachings about human life and the human good? Can a thoughtful person today still accept or affirm the teachings of the Bible? The answer to these questions depends, of course, on what the Bible in fact says and means. On a matter of such importance, we dare not rely on hearsay. We must read it and think about it for ourselves.


The best place to start is at the beginning, with the first book of the Bible. This book, known to us as Genesis, is famously a book about beginnings: the beginning of the heavens and the earth; the beginning of human life on earth; the beginning of the Children of Israel, beginning with Father Abraham; and before, behind, and above all these temporal beginnings, the tireless and enduring beginning that is God — Creator of the world, maker of man in His own image, covenant maker with Abraham and with Israel. In addition, as a book among kindred books, Genesis is itself the beginning of the Torah, of the biblical teaching about how human beings are to live. Though it contains very little prescription and propounds very few commandments, Genesis serves as a prelude to the laws (given mainly in Exodus and Leviticus, and repeated in Deuteronomy). This it does primarily by making clear through its stories why the laws might be needed and for what sorts of human weaknesses and difficulties. For this reason especially the book of Genesis lends itself to philosophical reading, at least at the start.

True, once Abraham appears on the scene in Genesis 12, the Bible's account of "human history" acquires a unique and singular particularity, with a portion of the human race living in a special relationship with the biblical God. Such a teaching could neither be discovered nor even be countenanced by unaided philosophic reason. But the so-called universal human history of the first eleven chapters — from the creation to the tower of Babel — is different.

To be sure, these stories also describe singular figures and unique events, for example, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood. But read philosophically, they convey a universal teaching about "human nature," an anthropology in the original meaning of the term: a logos (account) of anthropos (the human being). Without using argument or philosophical language — there is no biblical Hebrew word for "nature" — the stories of these first eleven chapters nevertheless offer (among other things) a coherent anthropology that rivals anything produced by the great philosophers. To see this, we must learn to read the beginning of Genesis as offering a more than historical sense of "beginning."

On the face of it, the early chapters of Genesis appear to give an account of humankind's temporal beginnings, a history that tells the sequence of what happened at the start: first the creation of the world and humankind; then the expulsion of man and woman from Eden; then Cain and Abel; then events leading up to the flood, and so on. But these seemingly historical stories are in fact (also and especially) vehicles for conveying the timeless psychic and social elements or principles — the anthropological beginnings or roots — of human life, and in all their moral ambiguity. The stories cast powerful light, for example, on the problematic character of human reason, speech, freedom, sexual desire, the love of the beautiful, shame, guilt, anger, and man's response to mortality. The stories cast equally powerful light on the naturally vexed relations between man and woman, brother and brother, father and son, neighbor and neighbor, stranger and stranger, man and God. Adam and Eve are not just the first but also the paradigmatic man and woman. Cain and Abel are paradigmatic brothers. Babel is the quintessential city. By means of such paradigmatic stories, the beginning of Genesis shows us not so much what happened as what always happens. And by holding up a mirror in which we readers can discover in ourselves the reasons why human life is so bittersweet and why uninstructed human beings generally get it wrong, Genesis reflectively read also provides a powerful pedagogical beginning for the moral and spiritual education of the reader. As a result of what we learn from this early education, when God calls Abraham in Genesis 12 we will also be inclined to pay attention.

The educational lessons of the beginning are supplemented by the rest of the book. After the first eleven chapters expose some of the enduring psychic and social obstacles to decent and righteous living, the rest of Genesis presents beginning efforts to overcome these obstacles in the lives of the Israelite founders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families. These national beginnings are fraught with difficulties and success is hard to come by. Yet remarkably, a new human way of acting and standing in the world is established and transmitted for several generations through the education of the patriarchs, an education in which we readers may vicariously and reflectively participate.

Genesis is thus in many different ways about "what is first." It tells of the temporally first men ("history"). But more important, it shows us what is first in man, what is primordial, elemental, principal, and essential ("anthropology"). It also invites reflection on what is cosmically first and how human beings stand in relation to the whole ("ontology'), as well as on who acts well and who acts badly, who is worthy of praise and who of blame, and why ("ethics"). It introduces us to the seeds of a new nation, following a new and God-fearing way, a way that will eventually be codified in law and transmitted through political institutions and religious-cultural traditions ("politics"). And by confronting us with all these firsts, in the form of stories told with very little commentary, it begins the education of the reader who is seeking wisdom not only about what is first but also and especially about how first or best to live ("philosophy"). What I am suggesting is that Genesis is a coherent narrative that conveys a moral whole, in which the opening part prepares the philosophic reader to take seriously, when it comes, the arrival of God's new way for humankind, while the rest enables him to learn along with the patriarchs what it might offer and require of him.

A full defense of this unusual claim cannot be provided in advance; evidence regarding Genesis's narrative, moral, and pedagogical integrity can be obtained only through careful scrutiny of the entire text. But I hope that it will not spoil the reader's pleasure of discovery if I provide here a few suggestions about the overall structure and direction of the narrative, indicating also what I take to be its central concerns.

Genesis begins with a comprehensive and universal panorama of the entire cosmic whole (chapter 1), moves to naturalistic and universal portraits of human life (chapters 2-11), and concludes with the emergence of a tiny and distinctive people, bearing a new and distinctive human way on earth (chapters 12-50). Throughout, the text is concerned with this question: Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life, responsive to both the promise and the peril of the human creature, that accords with man's true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his god-like possibilities?

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we learn how cosmic order is produced out of primordial chaos by means of a progressive process of separation and distinction. At the peak of creation stands man, the one god-like creature, alone capable, thanks to his reason, of recognizing the distinctive articulated order of things. But as we learn, beginning in Genesis 2, man is also the creature — again, thanks to his reason and freedom — who is most capable of disturbing and destroying order, especially as pride in his own powers distorts his perception of the world. In a series of tales — from the primordial couple in the Garden of Eden, through the fratricide of Cain and the warring Age of Heroes leading to the Flood, to the ambitious building of the universal city of Babel — readers are shown the dangerous natural tendencies of humankind: on the one hand, toward order-destroying wildness and violence, on the other hand, toward order-transforming efforts at self-sufficiency and mastery of the given world. Against the aspiration toward man-made unity and re-creation, with its proud illusion of human autonomy, the text begins (in chapter 12) to recount a new human alternative, carried by a separated small portion of humankind yet ordered in pursuit of wholeness and holiness. The new way accepts as given the heterogeneous world of distinctive peoples but seeks to cultivate attitudes that will treat strangers justly, generously, and, ultimately, as one would treat oneself. And it recognizes human dependence on powers not of our own making and the need to align human life with the highest principle of Being. In a word, the new human way — the way of the Children of Israel, launched as a light unto the nations — is to be built on two related principles: the practice of righteousness in relations toward others, informed by the pursuit of holiness in relation to the divine. Both are grounded not in human reason or freedom but in the peculiarly human experience of awe and reverence, elicited by the mysteries of the world's order and power and especially by the voice of commanding moral authority.

Beginning with the call of Abraham (Genesis 12), the text enables us to experience the struggles to embody the ideals of righteousness and holiness in the way of life of a nascent people — beginning with one man, the founder (Abraham), moving to one household of perpetuation (Isaac and Rebekah), and flowering into one clan or tribe, on the threshold of nationhood (Jacob and his sons). Each generation faces and solves the perennial threats to survival and decency, including the intrafamilial dangers of patricide, fratricide, and incest, the international dangers of conquest, injustice, and assimilation, and the spiritual danger of idolatry. Through their trials — domestic, political, and spiritual — Abraham (the founder) and Isaac, Jacob, and Judah (the perpetuators) are educated to the work of proper patriarchy, all in the service of advancing the cause of righteousness and holiness in the world. ("The Education of the Fathers" would be a most appropriate subtitle for the book of Genesis; it was, in fact, the working title under which I first began this book.)

Yet although the focus of Genesis often centers on the household, its most important implications are cultural and political. For the new way is set off against, and can best be seen as an alternative to, important competing cultural alternatives: the heaven-gazing and heaven-worshiping Babylonians, the earth-worshiping and licentious Canaanites, and the technologically sophisticated and masterful Egyptians. As Abraham must emerge out of and against the ways of Babylonia, so the nation of Israel must emerge out of and against the ways of Egypt. Accordingly, Genesis culminates in an encounter between nascent Israel and civilized Egypt, exemplified especially in the contrast between Judah, the prudent and reverent statesman, and Joseph, the brilliant and cosmopolitan administrator. Although the full picture will not emerge until the book of Exodus, which follows next, Genesis leaves us with these clear alternatives, which represent in fact a permanent human choice: a world in which the rational mastery of nature and the pursuit of immortality leads ultimately to the enslavement of mankind under the despotic rule of one man worshiped as a god, versus a way of life in which all human beings, mindful of their limitations and standing in awe-and-fear of the Lord, can be treated as equal creatures, equally servants of the one God toward whose perfection we may strive to align our lives.


This book on Genesis, addressed to serious and thoughtful readers of whatever kind or degree of religious knowledge and practice, has three major purposes: First, to demonstrate by example a wisdom-seeking approach to the Bible that attempts to understand the text in its own terms yet tries to show how such an understanding may address us in our current situation of moral and spiritual neediness. Second, to recover in their full power the stories of Genesis as tales to live with, as stories illuminating some of the most important and enduring questions of human existence. Third, to make at least plausible the power of the Biblical approach and response to these questions, with its emphasis on righteousness, holiness, and reverence for the divine.

Great difficulties face anyone who proposes such a philosophic approach to the Bible. For it is far from clear that the Bible is a book like any other, or enough like any other, to be read and interpreted in the usual ways. Because of its place in our religious traditions, few people are prepared to approach it impartially. Even before they read it some people know — or think they know — that the Bible speaks truly, being the word of God; others know — or think they know — that, claiming to be the word of God, it in fact speaks falsely. In addition, as already noted, the academic study of the Bible has raised major methodological questions, not least about whether the Bible — and even the single book of Genesis — is in fact a coherent and integral whole. The so-called documentary hypothesis argues that what we call the Bible is in fact a latter-day compilation of disparate materials, written by different authors at different times, having different outlooks and intentions, even employing different concepts of and names for God. But even granting that the material compiled in Genesis came, to begin with, from different sources, one must still consider what intention or idea of wholeness governed the act of compilation that produced the present text. Must one assume that the redactor was some pious fool who slavishly stitched together all the available disparate stories without rhyme or reason, heedless of the contradictions between them? Or should we not rather give the redactor the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knew precisely what he was about? Could he perhaps have deliberately juxtaposed contradictory stories to enable us to discover certain contradictory aspects of the world thereby made plain? True, finding a coherent interpretation of the whole does not guarantee that one has found the biblical author's (or redactor's) own intention. But it should give pause to those who claim that the text could have no such unity. Besides, knowing the historical origins or sources of the text is no substitute for learning its meaning; to discover the meaning, a text must be studied in its own terms.

An equally severe difficulty comes from the other side, from those who regard the Bible as the revealed word of God. For them it is definitely a book, but not a book that can be read and interrogated like any other. It seems rather to demand a certain prior commitment to the truth of the account, even in order to understand it. Faith, it is sometimes said, is the prerequisite to understanding. But the Hebrew Bible in fact suggests the contrary. In Deuteronomy, Moses asserts that observing the statutes and ordinances that God has commanded is Israel's "wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the people, that when they hear all these statutes shall say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (4:6). The wisdom of the Torah is said by the Torah to be accessible to everyone, at least in part.

Be this as it may, the biblical text, whether revealed or not, whether read by believers or atheists, is not self-interpreting. To understand its meaning, the hard work of exegesis and interpretation is required. The task of interpretation is complicated by the fact that the Bible, like most great books, does not explicitly provide rules for how to read it. As with the content, so with the approach, the philosophical reader is forced to find his own way. As a result of many readings and rereadings, I now make the following "methodological" assumptions in my efforts at interpretation: First, there is a coherent order and plan to the whole, and the order of the stories is of more than chronological significance. Second, every word counts. Third, juxtapositions are important; what precedes or what follows a given sentence or story may be crucial for discovering its meaning. (It matters, for example, that the Noahide code and covenant appear as the immediate sequel to Noah's animal sacrifice tendered at the end of the Flood. It matters, too, that there are two juxtaposed and very different stories of the creation of man or of the multiplication of nations and languages.) Fourth and finally, the teachings of the text are not utterly opaque to human reason, even if God and other matters remain veiled in mystery. Though, as we shall see, the text takes a dim view of the sufficiency of human reason, it presents this critical view to human reason in a most intelligible and powerful way. One can approach the text in a spirit of inquiry, even if one comes as a result to learn the limitations of such philosophic activity.

I am well aware that this suggestion, though allowed for by the Bible, still appears to be at odds with the way recommended by the Bible. As I noted near the start, the beginning of biblical wisdom is said to be fear (awe-reverence) for the Lord, not open inquiry spurred by wonder. In addition, there is the great danger that hangs over all efforts at interpretation: I will find in the text not what the author intended but only what I have put there myself (usually unwittingly). For these reasons, a philosophic reading of Genesis must proceed with great modesty and caution, not to say fear and trembling. If I sometimes forget myself and seem too bold, it is only out of zeal for understanding. Moreover, I make no claim to a final or definitive reading. On the contrary, the stories are too rich, too complex, and too deep to be captured fully, once and for all. It is therefore possible, as I hope to demonstrate, that one can approach the book in a spirit and manner that is simultaneously naïve, philosophic, and reverent. The pursuit of wisdom, through the direct and unmediated encountering of the text, can proceed even as one is humbly mindful of the inexhaustible depths and mysteries of the text and the world it describes. As the example of Socrates reminds us, humility before mystery and knowledge of one's own ignorance are hardly at odds with a philosophic spirit.

Let me try to make these remarks about reading philosophically yet humbly a bit more concrete. When we set out to read the book of Genesis, we begin, quite properly, at the beginning. But getting started is not as easy as it seems. For though we know where to start, we do not yet know how to proceed. To begin properly, it seems, we need prior knowledge. What kind of book are we reading? In what spirit and manner should we read? For the beginning reader, answers to these questions cannot be had in advance. They can be acquired, if at all, only as a result of reading. We are in difficulty from the start.

The opening of the book only adds to our difficulty, even before we get to the first chapter. Unlike most books, it declares no title and identifies no author. The name we call it in English, Genesis, meaning "origin" or "coming into being," is simply the Greek mistranslation of the book's first, Hebrew word, ber'eshith, "in beginning," by which Hebrew name the book is known in Jewish tradition. That tradition ascribes authorship to Moses — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are also known as the Five Books of Moses — yet nowhere in Genesis is such a claim made or even supported. We do not know whose words we are reading, and we also do not know whether it matters that we do not know whose words we are reading.

When we begin to read — "In beginning God created the heavens and the earth" — we discover that the internal voice or speaker of the text — what literary critics would call "the narrator" but what I will simply call "the text" — is also nameless. Someone is addressing us in a commanding voice, speaking about grand themes, speaking with seeming authority. But who is talking? We are not told. The voice of the text is apparently not the direct voice of God: God's speeches the text identifies and reports using the third person ("And the Lord said"). But if it is not God who is speaking, our perplexity only increases; for the text begins by talking confidently about things that no human being could possibly have known from direct experience: the prehuman world and its coming into being, or creation. How, we wonder, does the speaker know what he is talking about? Why should we believe him? Is this a divinely inspired account? Is this the revealed word of God, passed to us through the prophetic voice of the text? How can we know? On the basis of what other than prejudice — prejudgment — can we decide whether the text is speaking truly?

In the face of our ignorance before these questions, many skeptical readers will be tempted to quit right here, absent some outside evidence for the veracity of the biblical account. On the other side, some pious readers, responding to the skeptic's challenges, will argue that the text is accessible only to the faithful, those who trust that the text is indeed the revealed word of God. Let me propose a third alternative, an attitude between doubt, demanding proof in advance, and faith, comfortable that proof is unnecessary: the attitude of thoughtful engagement, of suspended disbelief, eager to learn. I offer a biblical example of what I mean.

At the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis, we readers are called to witness a crucial turning point in human history. Out of the blue, with no advance warning, a mysterious and awesome voice calls to Abraham, commanding him to take a journey — "to the land I will show you" — and promising him great rewards should he do so. Abraham, without so much as a question or a comment, immediately hearkens to the call: he promptly sets off as commanded. If we wish to imagine ourselves in Abraham's place as he hears the commanding voice, we must forget that we know, because the biblical text explicitly tells us, that the voice calling Abraham was the voice of the Lord: "And the Lord said to Abram..." (12:1). Abraham himself is not told who is calling him; the voice that calls does not identify itself. Although he is, for reasons we shall explore in a later chapter, open to such a call, Abraham at this moment cannot know with certainty who is speaking to him or whether the voice can deliver on its great promises. Nevertheless, trustingly and courageously, Abraham decides to take a walk with this voice. Putting aside any possible doubts and suspicions, he embarks on a path that enables him eventually to discover just who had spoken to him and why.

Readers who take up the book of Genesis without presuppositions or intermediaries find themselves in a position not unlike Abraham's: a commanding but unidentified voice is addressing us from out of the text, without warning or preparation, speaking to us right away about things (for openers, the creation of the world) that we human beings could not by ourselves know anything about. To be sure, the opening words of Genesis do not command us to act. Neither can we compare ourselves to Abraham in setting, stature, or virtue. Nonetheless, we readers are being invited, as was Abraham, to proceed trustingly and courageously, without knowing yet who is speaking to us, what he might want from us, and whether or not he speaks truly.

How then shall we respond? What does the call of the author of Genesis require of us readers? Not, as some might insist, a leap of faith or a commitment in advance to the truth of the biblical story, but rather, only a suspension of disbelief. Being awake and thoughtful, we cannot help but note the difficult questions regarding both our beginning and the beginning, but we will, at least for now, put them aside and plunge right in. We will suspend our doubts and suspicions and accept the book's invitation to take a walk with the biblical author keeping our eyes and ears open and our judgment keen, to be sure. We will proceed in the hope that we might have our doubts addressed and our uncertainties resolved. If we allow ourselves to travel its narrative journey, the book may reward our openness and gain our trust. Who knows, we may even learn who (or Who) is speaking to us, and why.

In adopting such an attitude, we are self-consciously deciding now to decide only later, after reading and pondering, whether we think the book and its author speak truly. In making such a decision, we are according the Bible the same courtesy that we give to other books that place large obstacles before our credulity, for example, the Iliad, in which we are told, in the very first sentence, that we will hear how "the will of Zeus was accomplished." As with other books, to judge the veracity of the text we shall have to find out what kind of a text, teaching or pointing to what kind of truth, we have before us. As with other books, we shall have to read and reread many times if we are to learn from the Bible how it wants to be read.

As a result of many readings and rereadings of Genesis, I am increasingly impressed by the leanness of the text and the lacunae in the stories. Little of what we readers might like to know about an event or a character is told to us. Much of what we are told admits of a wide variety of interpretations. Rarely does the text tell us the inner thoughts and feelings of a character. Rarely does the text tell us the meaning of an event. And almost never does the text pronounce judgment on the words or deeds of any protagonist. Why this reticence? What purpose could it possibly serve?

Let me suggest that these formal features of the text are responsible for its enduring vitality and the success of its timeless pedagogical power. The book has been read by several hundred generations of readers, with each reader located in a particular time and place. Yet the compiled text remains the same, letter for letter, now as then, here as there. How can a static age-old text continue to speak to changing and always more modern readers? How can seemingly time-bound characters and stories that may possibly carry timeless insights retain their power in differing times and places and for differing types of readers? How can the text allow for every reader's historical and cultural particularity, while bringing him into contact with what might be a transhistorical and universal wisdom? It is precisely the text's sparseness, lacunae, ambiguity, reticence, and lack of editorial judgment that both permit and require the engagement of the reader. The difficulties of exegesis and interpretation force us to grapple with the text and to attempt and weigh alternative readings and judgments, always testing our opinions against the textual evidence as well as the differing interpretations and judgments of fellow readers of our own and earlier times. As a result of these efforts, the venerable stories and characters of Genesis become again and again ever young and ever fresh, taking up residence in the hearts and minds of all serious readers. By this means, each reader's imagination is furnished and enlivened and his thinking is enlarged and deepened. In the end, the concerns of the text and its characters become the concerns also of the reader. The education of the patriarchs and matriarchs can become the way to our own education.

All of us necessarily come at the text beginning from where we are, in our own time and place, equipped — but also limited — by our particular experiences of the world around us. Yet the mysteries and perplexities of the text disturb our complacent attachment to our own parochial situation and invite our active participation in a world larger than our own. We are drawn into the stories only to discover there a profundity not hitherto available to us. When we analyze, ponder, and discuss the text and when we live with its stories, the enduring text comes alive, here and now. We who live here and now are offered a chance to catch a glimpse of possibly timeless and transcendent truth about, say, man and woman, kin and strangers, man and God, or whatever matter the text has under consideration. At the same time, our need to continue grappling with the abiding ambiguities of the text teaches us, by performative experience, another timeless truth about ourselves: the truth of our own ignorance and the impossibility of ever resting comfortably with what we think we have understood. The open form of the text and its recalcitrance to final and indubitable interpretation are absolutely perfect instruments for cultivating the openness, thoughtfulness, and modesty about one's own understanding that is the hallmark of the pursuit of wisdom.


Not only in form and spirit but also in substance will seekers for wisdom be easily drawn into the world of Genesis. Despite the great distance between the nomadic culture of the ancient Promised Land and the promise-filled technological civilization of third-millennium America, we will find that Genesis takes up and considers themes and questions of paramount concern also to us — one might even say, to human beings always and everywhere. Human beings now as ever need wisdom regarding family and private life, regarding public and civic affairs, and regarding their place in and relation to the whole and their relation to the powers that be.

As were the protagonists in the world of Genesis, so are we today troubled by vexing questions of family life. Not only do we face often irreconcilable struggles between man and woman, parent and child, or sibling and sibling. We are also increasingly uncertain about the proper organization of family life, especially with regard to providing well for the rearing of children. Our inherited cultural forms in these matters are in a state of flux — evolving, if you approve, or breaking down, if you don't, into God only knows what new patterns. Reading Genesis reveals that this is hardly a new dilemma. Not only does it offer for reflection its famous tales of family struggle; read philosophically, the stories of Genesis reveal the deepest roots of these conflicts and show us why it is so hard to organize and sustain a flourishing human household.

The topics of sex and the relation between the sexes are, not surprisingly, amply considered in Genesis. Women figure prominently in many of the stories, often playing vital and even heroic roles. But Genesis is mainly about the adventures of men, and especially of the Israelite patriarchs and their male offspring. More precisely, much of Genesis is devoted to efforts at educating men in the work of fatherhood: the task of transmitting to their descendants not just life but a worthy way of life, devoted to justice and holiness and looking up to the divine. Why this emphasis? Does it represent (as current fashion believes) the sexist or patriarchal mentality of ancient Israel? Or does it reflect something closer to the reverse: a belief that men are by nature much more than women in need of education if they are to live responsibly, righteously, and well? Are men naturally drawn to domestic life and the care of those who will someday replace them? Or will they, if left to their own devices, pursue ways of life devoted to heroic quests for personal honor and glory, to power and domination, and to wealth and pleasure? Reflection about such questions is open in every time and place to prospective fathers — and mothers — who can learn vicariously along with, and through the stories of, the patriarchs.

In addition to examining private life, Genesis also explores the life of cities and civilizations, shedding light on the problems of crime and injustice, the dangers of xenophobia and abuse of strangers, and the meaning of the political aspiration to independence and self-sufficiency. Contemporary concerns over unbridled technology are anticipated in the story of Babel. Our worries about civic licentiousness are taken up in the story of Sodom. Our wish neatly to disentangle justice from revenge is challenged by the story of the rape of Dinah. Most important, the text gets us thinking about competing cultural and political visions of the best human life. For Genesis presents the emergence of nascent Israel, bearer of God's new way, in the context of three major cultural alternatives, the Babylonians, the Canaanites, and the Egyptians, each characterized by different ruling ideas, each looking up to different gods. Much can be learned about the distinctive character of the Judeo-Christian way — then and now — by thinking through the meaning of these quasi-polar alternatives. For though these ancient civilizations are long gone, their animating principles survive. Indeed, they find expression in cultural alternatives competing today for our attention and allegiance.

Biblical Egypt should be of special interest for modern Americans. For Egypt was the peak of ancient civilization, a civilization characterized by agricultural plenty, high levels of science and technology, advanced bureaucracy and public administration, and — perhaps most relevant for us — a passion for longevity and the pursuit of bodily immortality through the conquest of decay and death. Yet Egypt was also the place where women were rounded up for the ruler's harem, foreigners were held in contempt, a man was worshiped as a god, and in the end, the people's preoccupation with survival and material well-being led to their enslavement. Is Egypt, perhaps, a permanent human possibility and temptation? Is something like Egypt in our future?

Finally, the stories in Genesis address our current concern with man's relation to nature and the earth, to the other animals, and to the divine — ultimate questions in any pursuit of wisdom. For a variety of reasons — including our belief in evolution, our interest in animal welfare, and our concern for the environment — we find ourselves once again agitating the question of the difference of man and the difference it makes. Modern biology, from molecular genetics to evolutionary psychology, has raised a large challenge to the traditional belief in human distinctiveness. Deep ecologists speak with reverent awe about Gaia, our Mother Earth, almost as if she were a goddess. What does all this nature worship mean for human self-understanding and the belief that man was made in the image of God? And what follows for human life and the way we should live it? Can a "pan-naturalism" that glorifies nature and makes light of the human difference provide the ground for standards of human justice and decency? These seemingly contemporary concerns, the careful reader will find, are not foreign to the book of Genesis. To the contrary, who we are and how we stand in the world is of the utmost importance to the biblical author. Indeed, these are the questions addressed at the very beginning of the beginning, in the story of creation, to which we are now ready to turn.

Copyright © 2003 by Leon R. Kass, M.D.

Table of Contents

Preface: The Professor and the Fossil
Introduction: The Beginning of Wisdom
Part One: Dangerous Beginnings: The Uninstructed Ways - Genesis 1-11
1. Awesome Beginnings: Man, Heaven, and the Created Order
2. The Follies of Freedom and Reason: The Story of the Garden of Eden (I)
3. The Vexed Question of Man and Woman: The Story of the Garden of Eden (II)
4. Fratricide and Founding: The Twisted Roots of Civilization
5. Death, Beautiful Women, and the Heroic Temptation: The Return of Chaos and the Flood
6. Elementary Justice: Man, Animals, and the Coming of Law and Covenant
7. Paternity and Piety: Noah and His Sons
8. Babel: The Failures of Civilization
Part Two: Educating the Fathers - Genesis 12-50
Abraham (Genesis 12-25)
9. Educating the Fathers: Father Abraham
10. Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Marriage
11. Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Patriarchy
Isaac (Genesis 25-28)
12. Inheriting the Way: From Father to Son
13. The Education of Isaac: From Son to Patriarch
Jacob (Genesis 28-35)
14. The Adventures of Jacob: The Taming of the Shrewd
15. Brotherhood and Piety: Facing Esau, Seeing God
16. Politics and Piety: Jacob Becomes Israel
The Generations of Jacob: Joseph, Judah, and Their Brothers (Genesis 36-50)
17. The Generations of Jacob: The Question of Leadership
18. Joseph the Egyptian
19. Joseph and His Brothers: Estrangement and Recognition
20. Israel in Egypt: The Way Not Taken
21. Losing Joseph, Saving Israel: Jacob Preserves the Way
Epilogue: The End of the Beginning

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