The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
by Leon Kass.
Free Press. 576 pp. $35.
Leon Kass’ meditation on the wisdom of Genesis is expansive, curious, fascinatingly rich and digressive. This I claim without reservation, but my next claim begins with a qualifier: to me, it is also quite maddening. I emphasize the qualification because Kass didn’t write the book for me, or people like me—that is, though Kass says that the book “is addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike,” the latter group is likely to be more comfortable with Kass’ discourse. This is not really a book for people who believe that Genesis is a sacred text with an unavoidable claim on their lives. Such people may learn much from the book, as I certainly did, but they are not its ideal audience. If we wish to discover whom this book is really written for, we might consider its title: Kass has written a primer for those who would begin the task of reading for wisdom. I must admire such a book; in the event, I find that I must also contend with it. But Kass’ generous encounter with Genesis is so thoroughly undogmatic that I doubt he would mind my contentiousness.
The most surprising thing about this book is that Kass wrote it—or so, at least, he himself thinks. After all, he is by training a physician and a biochemist, and is best known for his incisive contributions to biomedical ethics. But he has long demonstrated a wide range of intellectual interests: witness (to take but one example) the collection of essays and reflections on marriage, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, that he recently edited with his wife, Amy Kass. Still, he himself raises the question, “How does a man of medicine and science, raised in a strictly secular home without contact with Scripture, come to write a book on the Bible?” He answers, “It is a mystery, even to the author”; but he suspects “that it all comes from a late-onset, dominant—and, I fear, lethal—rabbinic gene.” This suspicion seems unwarranted, though, because Kass goes about his task in a way quite alien to traditional rabbinical commentary.
Kass’ approach to Genesis owes little or nothing to the culture of the synagogue, and almost everything to the culture of the university seminar room—specifically, at the University of Chicago, where Kass has taught for many years, and where his interest in Genesis arose. First he taught it in a core course for undergraduates; then he explored it in informal meetings at his home with his wife, a faculty colleague, and a few interested students; but, though his interest grew and grew, he was reluctant to take the next step and offer a whole class of his own on the text. “Public teachers of the book, I then thought and still think, should be either biblical scholars or knowledgeable and religiously observant keepers of the tradition—preferably both—and I was neither.” But eventually Kass came to believe that Genesis deserved to be taught in a way that neither the scholars nor the believers were likely to teach it: as a book that offers “wisdom,” a book that has “an ‘anthropology,’ an account of the human being, embedded in its account of the good life.” And if no one else at the University of Chicago was likely to teach Genesis in that spirit, he would have to be the one to do it.
Thus emerged a course, at first (in 1980) offering no college credit and populated by “handpicked students,” but later offered openly and for credit, in which Kass and his students read Genesis “philosophically, solely for meaning and understanding, in search of wisdom.” Now, in this book that has emerged from many years of discussion and reflection on the text, Kass freely admits that there is “a reason to be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible”—indeed, more than one reason. Many of today’s philosophers are likely to find Kass’ belief in “reading for wisdom” naive and superannuated; and even those who sympathize with such a quest may well suspect the philosophical quality of the biblical narrative. Kass also recognizes that scholars dedicated to the textual history of the biblical books—their origins, developments, and later editorial transformations—may be congenitally suspicious of the belief that some unified picture of wisdom can emerge from these multiply redacted texts. Then there are those believers (and others) who point out that neither the Bible’s “manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical. Indeed, there is even good reason for saying that they are antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.” Finally, Kass tips his hat to his fellow scientists, who may well be skeptical not only of his project but also and equally of all the other opponents of it. There is something rather winning about the independence and cheerfulness with which Kass acknowledges these objections—and continues on his quest wholly unperturbed by them. Twenty years of experience tells him that wisdom may indeed be found in Genesis, if one seeks it in a philosophic spirit.
What, then, does a philosophical reading of Genesis look like, at least as Kass defines it? He claims, to start, that it means “reading without presuppositions or intermediaries,” but he doesn’t mean that. He certainly does have a presupposition, and he admits it: that wisdom may be found in this text. He states quite forthrightly that “to read in the spirit of thoughtful engagement”—which for Kass is a synonym for reading philosophically, reading for wisdom—requires “suspending disbelief and seeking reasons to trust.” And he takes that position in part because of the “intermediaries” of past generations who have venerated Genesis and found reasons to trust it. In presupposing that Genesis contains value, Kass is practicing what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—he’s giving the ancestors their votes. So when he says that he wants to read Genesis “without presuppositions or intermediaries,” what he really means is that his presuppositions are revisable and his intermediaries do not possess absolute authority: he does not come to the text with faith commitments that require him to find wisdom in the text and to obey its commandments insofar as he understands them. He is a pupil of the text, but not a disciple; he does not recognize it a priori as being binding upon him.
As a pupil, Kass seeks guidance from Genesis: his approach “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.” But how can the text be shown to address us, given its temporal, spatial, and cultural distance from us? At the outset of his book, Kass suggests some of the connections: “As were the protagonists in the world of Genesis, so are we today troubled by vexing questions of family life.” “Contemporary concerns over unbridled technology are anticipated in the story of Babel.” “Biblical Egypt should be of special interest for modern Americans.” But given the distances that I mentioned, how can these connections be made to seem viable and unforced, richly appropriate comparisons rather than strained allegories?
To achieve his goal, Kass must discover a vocabulary that mediates between the biblical world and ours. He needs bridges, translators; and he finds them in the language of human problems and human self-understanding. Let me take but two among dozens of possible examples. Reflecting upon what, in accordance with most modern biblical criticism, he calls “the two creation stories” (roughly, the first and second chapters of Genesis), Kass sums up the lessons of the stories:
In short, the first story challenges the dignity of the natural objects of thought and the ground of natural reverence; the second story challenges the human inclination to try to guide human life solely by our own free will and our own human reason, exercised on the natural objects of thought.
By “natural reverence” Kass means the persistent human tendency to worship the things of the natural world: “A main teaching—perhaps the main teaching—of Genesis 1 is the nondivinity of the cosmos, and in particular of the sun, the moon, the stars.” Genesis 1 is determined to “demote the dignity of the cosmos,” and, by extension, to refute the idea of “trying to orient human life on the basis of knowledge of nature.” Similarly, the second chapter warns against intellectual and moral autonomy. Kass invites us to consider the problems that we modern humans have gotten ourselves into, collectively and personally, and to see if Genesis provides potential answers to those problems.
In a similar vein, Kass prefaces his account of the complex relationships among Noah and his sons by suggesting that the Genesis narrative wishes “to encourage the ambivalent male reader to participate vicariously in the fatherly education of the Hebrew patriarchs,” first by showing him “precisely why such an education is needed” and then by “moving him to care about whether in fact it can be obtained.” Kass explores the ways in which Noah acts both wisely and foolishly, and discerns in his sons “three fundamental human types”:
the tyrannical man or, alternatively, the man who is focused on sex and bodily pleasure [Ham]; the decent or noble man, the generous man of refined taste and sensibility [Japeth]; and the pious man, the man who takes his bearings from looking up to the divine [Shem].
And Kass suggests that we should consider these types in light of a similar typology offered by Aristotle in the Nicomachaean Ethics: the life of pleasure, the life of honor, and the life of contemplation.
If these two passages of commentary—on the creation narratives and on Noah—represent philosophical reading, then we may reasonably infer that philosophical reading strives to locate in the text whatever is universal to human experience, and to find ways of describing the particular experiences of particular people in the most broadly relevant terms possible. This requires abstracting the meaning of events from their narrative embodiment; indeed, one reflecting on Kass’ procedure might even conclude that the culturally, historically, and narrationally distinctive is the enemy of philosophy, and must be winnowed like chaff.
And might not one readily defend such an approach, at least for the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which narrate the first stage of human history, and which are populated by the common ancestors of all later human beings? After all, the protagonist of the first story is ‘adamah—“the man” or “the human.” That’s as generic as a character can get. Moreover, by the time God brings down the tower of Babel we have still not yet entered the story of Israel itself—we have not yet even met the “father of believers,” Abraham. Does not universal history warrant a universalizing mode of reading?
Perhaps. But we should never forget that the primal history of Genesis was composed, read, and interpreted by the people of Israel, and understood by them as the story of the covenant that constituted them and gave them communal life. Seen in the context of the whole of Genesis, and even more in the context of the whole Pentateuch, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are simply the prehistory of the Abrahamic covenant. It’s not merely paradoxical to say that for the Israelites Adam is important primarily because he is the ancestor of Jacob, and that in this book the particular precedes and governs the universal. That key feature of Genesis 1 that Kass rightly points to—the “demoting of the dignity of the cosmos”—only makes sense when one understands that the Israelites were surrounded by people who worshiped the sun, moon, and stars. Their creation narrative is therefore a kind of indirect polemic against Israel’s dangerous neighbors, an affirmation that the pagan gods are no more than big lights in the sky, attempts to placate which get you exactly nothing. (The unique combination of arrogance, gratitude, defensiveness, and fear that this situation produced has been imaginatively realized nowhere better than in Frederick Buechner’s beautiful novel, Son of Laughter.) Now, Kass notes just this difference, but he characterizes it merely as a “rejection of polytheism”—as though what was at stake was the choice among a range of religious options, rather than the life or death of a people; and he is more interested in seeking ways of reading the story that “address our current situation of moral and spiritual neediness.”
Kass pursues this task about as intelligently and resourcefully as it is possible to pursue it, but I worry about all the history that such an approach must skip over. I think first of the moment when Jacob, traveling between Beersheba and Haran, lays his tired head upon a stone and dreams of a great ladder with angels ascending and descending upon it. God speaks there to Jacob, and pronounces a promise rather different than the ones he had made to Abraham. To Abraham God had promised many descendants, with wealth and power for them, and had pledged to be their God always. But to Jacob He promises, “In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14, in the fine new English Standard Version). This promise would begin to be realized when Joseph lived in Egypt and brought blessing to that land; as a Christian, I believe its ultimate fulfillment comes in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But it is only once that promise works itself out, as the people of Israel bring the blessings of God’s word and God’s law into alien cultures, that the universal meaning of their sacred narratives becomes accessible to the rest of us.
From one who belongs to a covenant community, then, the appropriation of the biblical narrative must be done by historical rather than what Kass would call philosophical means. Our task is not to find a conceptual vocabulary that will allow us to build analogical bridges between the biblical text and our experience; rather, we must understand that we dwell in the same history that the people of Israel relate in the Pentateuch—a history that even the Law itself is but a part of. (As David Damrosch has written, “In its presentation of the Law within this vision of the redemptive potential of exile, Leviticus is the very heart of pentateuchal narrative.”) Genesis is not analogous to our experience; it is our experience, in its historical aspect.
If this argument is right, then Kass’ nonhistorical, analogical reading of Genesis isn’t ideal even for the first eleven chapters of Genesis; therefore we should not be surprised when the patriarchal narratives pose rather a challenge for him. As all commentators do, Kass recognizes that the book of Genesis pivots quite dramatically when, having concluded the Babel story with its fragmentation of human society, it turns to a particular man named Abram. Here is how Kass describes the change:
The failure of the city and tower of Babel brings to a close Genesis’ saga of universal human beginnings. Multiple nations arise as the necessary remedy for the proud and perilous project of humankind united. After and because of Babel, God abandons His plan to work simultaneously with the entire human race. But He in no way abandons His universal aspirations for human beings. On the contrary, He pursues the same ends but by different means. Having dispersed mankind into many nations, He now chooses one nation to carry His way as a light unto all the others, and He takes up a prominent role as that nation’s educator and guide.
It is not a description I could wholly endorse; my understanding of God does not encourage me to imagine that the whole Babel crisis caught Him by surprise and occasioned some late-night strategic revisions in the heavenly office suite. (Kass would surely reply that his reading is consonant with the text itself; to which I would counter that that could be so only if we ignore the Israelite cultural situation in which the text was produced and to which it was addressed.) But in any event, Kass recognizes the shift in the narrative and must shift his own reading strategies accordingly. One can see this shift most obviously in the headings Kass gives to sections of his commentary. In the pre-Abram sections, those headings are often generalized and abstract, in keeping with the mediating or translating method of reading that Kass favors: “The Meanings of Sexual Complementarity,” “Paternity and Piety: Noah and His Sons,” “Rational Animal, Political Animal: Speech and the City.” But after Babel, the descriptions mime the particularities of the narrative: “Abraham’s Final Trial: the Binding of Isaac,” “Pharaoh Gets the Message: Joseph Becomes Prime Minister,” and so on. Kass must alter his interpretive strategy because the patriarchal narratives are full of events and decisions that cannot be translated into any sort of hermeneutical standard notation; it’s often hard to say just what to make of them, at least in general terms, and certainly the narrative itself rarely gives us any pointers. In many cases in the second of the book’s two parts, Kass seems forced to provide a kind of summary exposition interlaced with character sketches—something far less “philosophical” than the conceptual allegories he weaves when dealing with the book’s first eleven chapters.
No passage in Genesis more notoriously resists interpretive strategies than the binding of Isaac. Indeed, it was just this story that Erich Auerbach, in his magisterial Mimesis, employed to distinguish the openness of Homeric poems from the “reticence” of Hebrew narrative, which by contrast is “fraught with background”—background that is never brought into the reader’s field of vision. When Kass reaches Abraham’s crisis he prefaces his treatment with a truly extraordinary confession:
No story in Genesis is as terrible, as powerful, as mysterious, as elusive as this one. It defies easy and confident interpretations, and despite all that I shall have to say about it, it continues to baffle me. Indeed, my approach seems even to me to be too shallow, precisely because I am attempting to be reasonable about this awesome and shocking story.
I find it fascinating that, despite this confession of “shallowness,” Kass does indeed continue to strive to “be reasonable.” We might contrast this determination with the straightforward claim of Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio (the “author” of Fear and Trembling), who throws up his hands and declares, “Abraham I do not understand, in a certain sense there is nothing I can learn from him except astonishment.” For Kierkegaard the story enacts a repudiation of anything recognizable as morality and therefore anything that could possibly be called “reasonable.” If the philosophically minded must have a term for what this story presents us with, Johannes de Silentio is willing enough to provide one: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” The reasonableness of ethics must be suspended in favor of a greater telos: trust in Yahweh and His promises—which is not a reasonable thing to do, and may not even be recognizable to philosophy as a telos. Johannes’ famous term is actually Kierkegaard’s shrewd way of pointing to the irreconcilability of philosophy with biblical narrative.
If indeed Abraham’s decision to trust Yahweh and lift the knife is definitively unreasonable, and if Kass knows—indeed, announces—that his approach to the story is “shallow,” then how could his reading possibly be justified? To defend Kass here would seem to be difficult at best; and in light of what I have written so far I would scarcely be expected to do the defending. But that is just what I hope to do. For it is this most incomprehensible episode of Genesis that brings out the best in Kass; precisely because he knows that no conceptual algebra will solve this equation, he slows the pace of his analysis and allows the story to have its own mysterious and elusive way.
Throughout his reading, Kass is acutely attentive to the story’s layers of knowledge. Isaac knows the least; Abraham knows only what he is commanded to do; we the readers know (as Abraham does not) that he is being “tested”; and God alone knows the precise purpose of the horrible test. A recognition of this epistemological complexity is itself sufficient to compel the thoughtful interpreter to avoid precipitous decisions. Above all, Kass is aware that the story’s notorious reticences (especially concerning Abraham’s thoughts and expectations) make multiple interpretations possible, and force the reader to reckon with them. Thus he enters here, more fully than elsewhere in his commentary, into the conversation about the story, quoting from a range of interpretations, even considering Michael Fishbane’s argument that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac means that he fails God’s test. In this sense Kass is more rabbinical in dealing with the binding of Isaac than he is elsewhere in the book; here he joins wholeheartedly in the endless midrashic debate about “this awesome and shocking story.”
Nevertheless, he does not follow the example of Johannes de Silentio and throw up his hands in incomprehension: though aware of the likelihood of “shallowness,” he offers a reading—his best attempt at figuring it out, at finding a way of construing the narrative’s force and purpose. He tries to see what, through this ordeal, God learns about Abraham and what Abraham learns about God. Whatever I or anyone else might think of the specifics of Kass’ reading, in the circumstances his offering of it is a gesture both humble and brave.
One could even say that in Kass’ treatment of the binding of Isaac we see the ethos of the university seminar room at its best. Though many professors fail to understand this point, the seminar room is not the place for a complete dismissal of the texts under scrutiny as patriarchal or racist or sexist or complicit in violence, or (for that matter) atheistic or blasphemous or immoral; nor is it a place for Johannes de Silentio’s position, that the story can be accepted by faith and faith alone. Rather, the seminar room occupies an intellectual demilitarized zone, where the text is confronted, wrestled with, puzzled over; where interpretations are offered, perhaps tentatively or provisionally, then debated, revised, withdrawn, or renewed. In such an environment it is vital that such texts not be explored as though understanding them is a matter of life and death; and while people of passionate commitment (to faith or unbelief) may often be frustrated by such a deliberate lowering of the interpretive stakes—certainly I have often experienced that frustration—environments that encourage such detachment are socially beneficial. There need to be discursive spaces in our society (spaces that, when functioning properly, can constitute a healthy and vibrant “public sphere”) where matters even of eternal life and death can be considered as though they were not quite that important. This is another way of saying that the Enlightenment project is not without value, even if it is deeply flawed and has never been well-realized. Kass’ struggle with the binding of Isaac is a lovely example of the humane and thoughtful intellectual exercise that that classic Enlightenment institution, the secular university seminar room, can, at its best, produce.
Recognizing this point, I am led back to my earlier claim that Kass’ book is not for people like me. It will now be clear, I hope, that by “people like me” I mean people of faith who insist that sacred texts demand to be treated as such. Kass’ commentary reminds me that a less insistent approach may bear fruit too. It is true that, as I explore the book, it is not always easy for me to keep its virtues in mind; I shudder when I read (for instance) these words in his Epilogue:
The book of Genesis is mainly concerned with this question: Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man’s true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike possibilities?
It seems to me that not a single significant word in this sentence accords with what the book of Genesis is about. Genesis, and the culture from which it emerges, doesn’t seem to me to give a damn about our “true standing in the world” and our “godlike possibilities”; rather, as far as I can tell, it is about God and what He has done, and is doing, to repair what His rebellious and arrogant creatures have broken: our relations with ourselves, with one another, with the creation, and with God Himself.
But even as I make my protest I realize that, if Kass’ language would be unrecognizable to the biblical authors, so too the language I have just employed would ring hollow and strange in the ears of most university students in America today. When reading an ancient text, especially one that makes the kinds of demands on us that Genesis makes—demands not just on our attention but also on our obedient response, on our whole lives—we have to start somewhere, and in the end I’m not sure that it matters much where. Should we begin with the contexts and assumptions of the ancient world and work our way towards the present situation? Should we begin with present forms of understanding and work our way back towards the ancient text’s lifeworld? Though we are accustomed to the idea that readers need to be governed by the right hermeneutic, in fact theory and method mean next to nothing in reading. The real question is not where we begin—not what tools we bring to the task of reading (about which we may not have as much choice as we think we do anyway)—but rather what purposes move us and what fortitude we show in pursuing them.
Leon Kass, in this book and in his classes at Chicago, is asking people to pay attention to this strange old book, to listen very carefully to hear what it might have to say to them; he is, further, suggesting to them that they need wisdom if they are to live well, and that they might find a deposit of it in these stories. Those of us who believe in the sacred power of the Bible shouldn’t worry that that power can be shut off by a faulty hermeneutic. If I suspect many of Kass’ categories and methods, I do not doubt the force of that invitation simply to read wisely. Kass himself, as he admits forthrightly at several points in his book, is still very much a wayfarer in the pages of Genesis, striving to take hold of the story and perhaps also of the God who fills its pages with His deeds, His words, His mysteries; and this teacher asks students and readers alike to strive alongside him. May he hold fast to the book until it blesses him.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.