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Thoughts on Genesis as Literature
By John R. Coats
Author of Original Sinners: Why Genesis Still Matters


We tell our lives in stories made of fact and fable. The former skims along the surface to report in the language of who, what, when, and where; it is not required to look below the data. The latter issues reports of the same life, but in data found elsewhere, and in another language. The former was unknown to our deep field ancestors. Their media for preserving and passing the essence of a culture between generations was only the language of fable, tales of creation, of gods, of heroes and heroines - - epics that both teller and listener knew to be mythic. Genesis is a pastiche of such stories, and from so deep in our human past that the book, as we have it, is a retelling, memories of ancient tales told by old men and women. But is it literature?

First, another question, "Why bother with literature at all?" Harold Bloom writes that, "A prime reason we should read is to strengthen the self." Okay, but strengthen what about the self? In high school and university, I read many of the classics, but mostly without enjoyment. In my pre-literature adult life- - clergyman, trainer and speaker for an international foundation, management consultant- - like so many others, I read little that did not directly impact my work. In the eighties, I bought day-planner-sized synopses of the classics and of the hot new business books. A tidbit of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or even Proust with the right client- - that is, one I was certain had not read the book- - could take me one notch closer to a new contract. While I'd learned early on how the biblical stories can be used as mirrors in which to see the self with greater clarity, I didn't suspect that this stuff called "literature" might offer something more than an opportunity to score points by pretending to know what was between their covers.

Then the literature bug sank its teeth, and I discovered that a deep reading of most any serious work can, and without warning, suddenly become a reflecting pool in which the reader sees himself. Whether he likes it or not, and to a greater or lesser extent, the behavior, attitudes, and motives displayed by its characters are his own. By providing insight into self, into the larger human condition, this mirroring offers an opportunity to "get out of the sensible world . . . [to] feel parts of the soul awakening that had never been awake before . . . [to] rise at last above all this stuff, the accidental, the merely phenomenal, the wastefully and randomly human, and be fit to enter higher worlds." If giving access to these "higher worlds" is one of the marks of literature, then, beneath the layers of doctrinal varnish, Genesis more than makes the cut.

The other characteristics of literature are there, as well: A plot (sort of) with plenty of nuance and surprise, fully drawn characters (the lack of physical detail calls on the reader's imagination), narrative drive, and, at the end, a sense of completion. In contrast to the Bible's reputation for dreariness, once the reader steps back from the habit of regarding the text through the gauze of centuries-old doctrinal filters, the characters in Genesis emerge into the light as participants, however fictive, in a world that did exist. They love, hate, are jealous, betray one another, disappoint one another, experience death and grief. One character even laughs - - out loud, no less. The rest of the comedy, of which there is an abundance, is subtle, embedded in the burlesque of human behavior, and available only to the reader who brings a sense of humor, a love of eye-rolling irony, and at least some affection for human beings and their endless capacity for screwing up their lives.

Genesis comes with oddities you won't find in modern literature. For one, it is not the work of a single hand, divine or otherwise, but of several unknown authors from different traditions whose work was woven into a single narrative about 2500 B.C.E. A second oddity, an outgrowth of the first, is that the reader encounters different versions of the same story. For instance, the first four chapters contain two separate accounts of the creation - - chapter 1.1-2.4a, written by the source designated as "Priestly" (P), and Genesis 2.4b - 4.24, written by the "Jahwist" (J) - - each of these with a separate idea about the nature of the divine. A third oddity is that so many of us were taught to regard the Bible as history, its characters as people who'd once lived. From there, a shift in perspective is required before the reader can see Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, et al., not as historical characters but as literary creations, mythic expressions, characters in an ancient, archetypal, fable.

Finally, the question, "Does it belong in a literature curriculum?" Whatever attitude one might have about the proper place of the Bible in society, the shaping effect of Genesis on our literary canon has been significant. To name but a few, without the "J" source, there'd be no second creation story with its Garden of Eden, without which there'd be no Paradise Lost in which Milton re-imagined the "Fall", no Paradiso for Dante to journey toward, thus no Divine Comedy to inspire Shakespeare. Nor would there be a Yahweh to influence the Bard's vision of Lear, no serpent on which to model Claudius, "the serpent" in Hamlet, and perhaps the arch-villain Iago whose whisperings into Othello's ear end in tragedy. And there'd be no Adam and Eve to inspire Mark Twain's funny, outrageous The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Like the proto-tale of Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel is a story of fratricide without which there would be no East of Eden, what Steinbeck considered his magnum opus. In my own book, Original Sinners, Why Genesis Still Matters, I likened the dilemma of Bigger in Richard Wright's Native Son to that of Cain. Kafka wrote four midrashic reflections on the Tower of Babel, and his Amerika, writes Robert Alter, was a "fantastic fusion of Genesis and Exodus with a contemporary New York and Oklahoma."  In his essay "The Story of Abraham and Sarah," Philip Lopate likens the restless wonderings of Port Moresby, in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky with the wanderings of Abraham, the patriarch who also put his wife in harm's way- - twice! Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers is the retelling of the last thirteen chapters of Genesis. Then there are T.S Eliot's "The Waste Land," William Golding's Lord of the Flies and The Spire, John Donne's "Twickenham Garden," Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and, with a twist, Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, in which the serpent symbolizes goodness.

So, yes, Genesis belongs. Without it, any survey of Western or world literature would be not only incomplete, but impoverished. Moreover, if Harold Bloom is correct, and "the purpose of reading is to strengthen the self," and if that strength is to be gathered through deeper understanding of oneself and one's fellow human beings, then this ancient book that has so influenced our culture, with its array of human characters so rife with imperfection, is an absolute must.


© 2010 John R. Coats, author of Original Sinners: Why Genesis Still Matters