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Marilynne Robinson – Reading Genesis [Feature Review]

Reading GenesisRobinson Goes Back to the Beginning

A Feature Review of

Reading Genesis
Marilynne Robinson

Paperback: Picador, 2024
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Reviewed by Alex Joyner

Of all the angles with which Marilynne Robinson could have begun her exploration of Genesis, I didn’t anticipate a reflection on evil. I guess no one truly expects the Spanish Inquisition.

“The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil,” Robinson says at the beginning of her new book Reading Genesis. “It must acknowledge in a meaningful way the darkest aspects of the reality we experience, and it must reconcile them with the goodness of God and of Being itself against which this darkness stands out so sharply” (3).

In recognizing the Bible’s first book as the beginning of a theological work and not just primary source material, Robinson launches the reader directly into a sustained study of questions that have bedeviled Christian thinkers for centuries, primarily the coexistence of human autonomy with God’s divine ordering of salvation history. It’s a task befitting America’s favorite Calvinist—a novelist, essayist, and theologian of the first order who brings the breadth of her interests and vision to the strange and foundational collection of stories at the front of the Bible.

Genesis is notoriously rich and confounding. It begins in cosmic brilliance and ends in the churn of familial conflicts. God intervenes in odd moments and seems to disappear from the scene altogether at other times. Rules are established (“If you eat from that tree, you will die”) and seem immediately contradicted by a divine predilection toward mercy. Family members are suspicious, jealous, even murderous toward one another. They constantly put at jeopardy the divine promises of a future but somehow the sacred story makes it to a second book.

Robinson looks at the evidence and concludes that alongside God’s sovereignty there is divine purpose moving through these very human lives: 

“What is theological about watching domestic malaise and turmoil work its way through these lives? Let us say that God lets human beings be human beings, and that His will is accomplished through or despite them but is never dependent on them. The remarkable realism of the Bible, the voices it captures, the characterization it achieves, are products of an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature” (125-6).

Given all that we have learned about the sacred stories of the Ancient Near East, it’s impossible to look at biblical stories like Babel’s Tower and the Flood and not hear echoes of other cultures. What makes the Hebraic telling singular, however, is the placing of humans in the story as meaningful actors. They may be “disastrously erring and rebellious”(64-5), but they are also “made to be companions with God” (40). And when they mess things up they do it in a way that matters. “Turbulence is introduced into the Genesis Creation by human beings, and it is utterly meaningful” (39).

So Robinson, the storyteller who created such vivid, fleshed-out characters in her Gilead series, turns a practiced eye to the characters of Genesis, finding some surprising stand-outs. Cain, for instance, creates real issues for a God who has established the utter sacredness of life. Given the earth’s first family includes a murderer, how will God respond to the sin of Cain? Justice demands his death and mercy argues for forbearance. In responding as God does, the essential elements of God’s character come clear, even if they counteract human desires for a just vengeance like those meted out by our spandex superheroes. From Cain we “learn that mercy is nearer than justice to Godliness, and that mercy can release an abundance far exceeding whatever might come of attempting to impose justice as we mortals understand that word” (59).

If Cain introduces a continuing theme of God working through and despite human failure, Hagar also gets special treatment in Robinson’s reading. The enslaved Egyptian woman who is forced into the wilderness reveals dimensions of the covenant that will become more apparent through the scriptures. “The covenant is exclusive in that it is identified with a specific history and family, and inclusive in that, as is foreseen already in Genesis, it can absorb and naturalize outsiders” (92). Robinson then offers an extended parallel reading of the stories of the rescue of Hagar’s son Ishmael from death and God’s similar intervention to prevent the sacrifice for Isaac.

Robinson also gives us contrarian pictures of characters who have developed some well-worn tropes in recent biblical scholarship. Rebekah is presented with all her scheming rough edges. Jacob, who generally gets unsympathetic readings in contemporary literary readings of Genesis, does get some appreciative attention from Robinson for his trials on the way to becoming Israel. And Robinson calls out Joseph, the dreamer and magnanimous savior of his family, for coming up with a famine relief plan that effectively enslaves the majority of the Egyptian people.

Robinson offers these readings out of what she calls her “first obligation…[which is] to be faithful to the text” (197). This is a refreshing shedding of ideological lenses and a source of her continuing love for these stories. In relation to one of these figures she says, “If it is bad feminism to say that Rebekah’s liveliness and vigor turned to resentment, scheming, and manipulation, her role in this seeming disaster was providential. The very mingled characters in Genesis, in the fact of their flaws and errors, should give hope to us all” (143).

So Robinson is not going to give you a lot of intratextual analysis. She’s also not going to give you a lot of reader-friendly features. The book has no chapters and plays out as a 230 page essay followed by the text of the King James Version of Genesis—an interesting choice. The language is sturdy and beautiful, but a bit opaque for the contemporary reader.

But as someone who has lived with these stories as a preacher for years now, I am grateful for Robinson’s depth and writerly eye. Reading Genesis cements her reputation as one of our most accomplished writer-theologians. Robinson is currently working on a similar book about Exodus and hints at more Torah-oriented books in the future if her health as an octogenarian holds. We can only look forward to what may come of her plans.

Alex Joyner

Alex Joyner  is a writer and pastor serving Charlottesville First United Methodist Church  in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of several books including A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine (Englewood Review of Books, 2014). He edits the Heartlands website (www.alexjoyner.com).

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