Transcript of MIPodcast #17

MIPodcast #17

The life of Genesis, with Ronald Hendel

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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It’s one of the most easily recognizable opening lines from any literary work, the Book of Genesis, a book that’s been interpreted in countless ways over the thousands of years of its existence. In this episode we’re speaking with an expert on the Book of Genesis. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute Podcast’s ongoing series on the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. Ronald Hendel wrote the biography for Genesis. He’s a highly-acclaimed professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. He is also working on a project to produce a new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible. In this episode Hendel offers a portrait of Genesis, its life, and the history of its interpretation. He writes, “A text’s afterlife inevitably affects ones reading of it today.”

Thanks for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. As always, please take a moment to rate the show on iTunes and recommend it to your friends. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me, Blair Hodges, at



BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Dr. Hendel. The book we’re talking about today is your biography of the Book of Genesis. I thought we’d begin by talking a little bit about your academic background that led you to this particular project, and maybe a little bit about your religious background as well.

RONALD HENDEL: Okay. Well, I’m a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California-Berkeley. I have a PhD in Biblical History and Northwest Semitic Philology from Harvard University, so my approach is very academic. It’s very much from a humanities based perspective. It’s the kind of discourse that goes on in the university. What I’m trying to do in this book is to expand the traditional academic focus on the Hebrew Bible, to expand it to include its history of reception, its history of interpretation. The text itself has a life and that life is not confined to the ancient world. That life takes on all sorts of different forms as people have interpreted it over what I call the lifetime of the book up to the present.

HODGES: How did you come to be selected to do this particular volume? Were you contacted by the publisher?

HENDEL: Yeah. I’ve written a number of books and articles on the Book of Genesis and I think somebody was asked to do this book and they said no, they don’t want to do it, but you should ask Hendel. So it’s a hand-me-down. But people know that I work on Genesis.

HODGES: Right. I mean you’re also chief editor of what used to be called the Oxford Hebrew Bible. Did they rename that recently?

HENDEL: Yeah, we left Oxford University Press so that we could do some more adventurous things in our electronic version. So now we’re with the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the main scholarly society in the field of biblical studies. So it will be called The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition. The books will be published by the SBL and the electronic version will be free and open access and housed on their servers.


HODGES: One of the cool things about your book is the art that was selected for this book. Can you kind of describe it and talk about where the art came from for your book?

HENDEL: Yeah. Well the publisher said, “You can have some artwork,” and I said, “Well, gosh, I hadn’t thought about that.” I realized that I have a close friend who’s a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of California-San Diego; his name is Bill Propp. He’s one of the world’s experts on the Book of Exodus, but he also is an artist. So I said this is someone who would be a perfect person because he would understand what I’m doing in the book but he would also make these beautiful black and white line drawings, these beautiful prints that illustrate the themes, the ideas, in a creative way. He just did these magnificent ink drawings that are at the head of each of the chapters. Each of them have a little quote from Genesis below it or from one of the interpretations of Genesis that his artwork is exploring.

HODGES: They’re very stark. It’s just really beautiful black and white art.

HENDEL: He did a gorgeous job. They’re very moving. It’s very moving artwork in and of itself.


HODGES: My next question actually kind of gets to the heart of the overall series in which your book is situated. It’s the Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series and you tackle this metaphor of doing a biography of a book in your introduction. In what sense do you think we can say that a book is alive, is like a living thing?

HENDEL: Well the Book of Genesis I think is a really prime example of a book whose life changes, it grows, it takes different directions, and so the metaphor of something that’s alive I think is quite nice for this book. It has an original context, original authors, audience, and so forth, but it grows in various ways in Western civilization in Judaism, in Christianity, in secular culture, and so the idea that it has a life, it’s really a metaphor for the fact that it lives in Western culture in various ways. So to trace that life and the twists and turns that it takes really is a story about the life of Western culture.

HODGES: I thought it was interesting that it seemed that you were saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the book itself is given life in the relationship that it has to its readers. It’s almost as though the book really can’t be alive unless it’s being engaged by other living people.

HENDEL: Well it’s a little bit like if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen? Well it certainly really happened but it didn’t have any relationship to people if no one was there to hear it. So the idea that the book has a life but that life is only in the people who hear it, it makes a certain amount of sense.

So the book has its own reality, just like the tree falling in the forest has its own reality, but the real story is how it affects people, and how its affect on people has changed over time and how people bring different things to their understanding of the book, how the way people understand the world is influenced by the way they understand this book, and vice versa, the way that people understand the book influences the way they understand the world. So the metaphor of life of a book that has a biography is I think a critical metaphor because it allows you to connect all sorts of things that you otherwise might not see the connections of.

HODGES: Are there any limitations to that metaphor do you think that are constrained? As you went through the project did you bump up against any unexpected walls thinking of it in terms of a living thing?

HENDEL: That’s a good question. The only part that’s difficult to wrestle with, which I continually did, I think throughout the whole book, is that there is something real about the book itself. There are words on the page, there are sentences, there are discourses, and so there’s a kind of sense of the reality of these words on the page. There are various times in the life of the book where people read the words more closely and so there are times when there are more engaged or what I call realistic readings of the book, and there are times when people take more, what we might say, liberties or more imaginative approaches to the book. There’s a kind of dialectic. It goes back and forth. So there’s a kind of realism in the book itself that continually makes it claim, such that when interpretations go too far away there’s often kind of a pendulum swing back to reading the book in kind of a realistic sense. So I would say there’s a kind of pendulum swing between realistic readings of the book and figural readings of the book. And that tension, that dichotomy, is part I would say of the life of the book.


HODGES: Okay. And we’ll expand on that kind of as we go, because that gets at the heart of your overall interpretation as I understand it. But before you do, let’s talk for a second about why Genesis is even still around. This is a book that is very old, and it’s still a very important text to many different cultures. So Erich Auerbach—is that how you say that scholar’s name?

HENDEL: Yes, yes.

HODGES: Okay, so Erich Auerbach is a great literary scholar. I was introduced to his work in grad school. He has this arresting description of Genesis to account for its ongoing relevance. I really like this. “The book tells stories,” he says, “but these stories are fraught with background.” They’re fraught with background. There are so many loose ends or unstated details, or just unstated assumptions in these stories that the text virtually kind of begs readers to fill in the details, to fill in the blank. So what do you think about Auerbach’s conclusions?

HENDEL: Well as you know my book is based on what I call a kind of Auerbachian plot. Auerbach’s book is called Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature and he begins with Genesis and he also begins with the Homeric epics with The Odyssey and compares the way that reality is represented in Genesis and in The Odyssey in their literary styles and he makes an important point about Genesis having this open weave quality that is fraught with background. This backgrounded quality draws you in to fill in that background. So it’s a book that requires you to interpret it. It’s a book that draws you into it and in a sense doesn’t let go. This really is the template for my whole book. This is why the book has been so centrally important and continues to be so. Because it’s a book that makes its claim on us and its literary style does that. That’s what this “fraught with background” quality is.

Auerbach also talks about how there is a kind of realism in the stylistic representation of reality in Genesis. It’s a low-style, he calls it, it’s not a flowery style. It’s simple, it’s terse, it’s allusive, it’s very much concerned with ambiguities of character, of paradoxes of character, of the relationship between God and humans, which is never simple, it’s always complicated, ambiguous, and it’s part of that quality that draws you in. So he describes this psychological realism in Genesis as really one of the basic holes of literary representation throughout Western culture.

So in this sense the style and the conceptuality of Genesis undergirds all of Western literature since then. So in a sense when we’re reading for example modern novels that present things in a realistic way and explore the ambiguities of character, the conflicts and ambiguities in human existence, human relationships, religion, and so forth. He would say that all goes back to Genesis. So in a very deep way, much of what we have in our culture, the way we think about things, the way we represent things, really is rooted in Genesis. So in some very deep ways we are indebted to Genesis and we’re dealing with Genesis even where we don’t realize that we are. So this is part of the life of Genesis. The life of Genesis is around us in places we don’t even think that it’s there.


HODGES: I think that view also accounts for the fact that there’ve been so many different interpretations of it, different readings of it. One of the quotes from the book here you say, “The ways that people perceive Genesis both shape and reflect their perception of reality.” You kind of mentioned that just a moment ago, this idea that people are shaped by Genesis, but they also help shape Genesis the way that they read it by their own common assumptions in life. Is that accurate to say?

HENDEL: Yeah. Well one can see that even in the world today. There are people for whom Genesis is their charter, their constitution, for understanding everything. There are people, let’s say the radical atheists, whose anti-religion position is entirely constituted by criticizing the Book of Genesis. So they’re still deeply engaged with the Book of Genesis, even when they’re rejecting it. So Genesis is still the conversation partner. Even people who don’t want it to be the conversation partner, it is the conversation partner. So Genesis is still shaping the way we think about things and the way we think about things shapes the way we talk to and interpret the Book of Genesis. It’s still so central in our cultural wars, things that are going on in congress, things that are going in the public schools, there’s hardly a civic debate that we have today that the Book of Genesis isn’t in some ways one of the interlocutors.

HODGES: So different generations kind of bring their own concerns to the text and then those concerns kind of help shape the story that they get, or the way they read the story, that helps to account for this incredible range of different interpretations that Genesis has had that you trace throughout the book. So the question is why care about the past interpretations then, if every generation kind of brings its own concerns to the text and can play with the text or learn from the text? So why dig up those past stories that other people have interpreted?

HENDEL: Let me return to the metaphor of a biography. If you’re trying to understand the life of a person, let’s say George Washington was the first president of the United States, but if you want to understand George Washington you read a biography about him. The way that he was shaped from his early life flows into his mature achievements. So I think similarly for when one is interpreting the Book of Genesis… here’s the point. When one is interpreting the book in many ways you’re inevitably recapitulating ways of interpretation that have already been done.

So again we’re influenced not only by the Book of Genesis, but I think more importantly we’re also influenced by previous interpretations of the Book of Genesis. So if we want to be aware of our relationship to this book, which you don’t have to be aware of your relationship to this book, but if one wants to be informed about your relationship to this book, then you have to go and look at the previous interpretations that are still circulating in one level or another and still influencing us.


HODGES: So modern scholarship in biblical criticism can help do that and what I want to focus on here is that a lot of biblical criticism is intent on accessing the original life world in which the text was originally recorded or conceived of, back in its original setting. That can help us get a grip on what the text was supposed to mean to its original recipients and how it was supposed to function in that culture. The trouble seems to be that subsequent interpretations have sometimes strayed from that original intent, sometimes don’t even remember anything about that original intent, like was it supposed to be some sort of liturgy? Or was it supposed to be this actual accurate history of how the world was created and this sort of thing? So how do you respond to that issue, given that your book focuses a lot on these subsequent interpretations? It seems to me that you find a lot of value, even in interpretations that stray from that original intent.

HENDEL: Yes. Well this is the dichotomy I’ve talked about. What the words on the page actually say. Let me say to understand that, first of all you have to understand the language that they’re written in, and to understand Biblical Hebrew you have to understand a lot about the original culture because words have meanings, they have nuances, that a person from a different culture won’t pick up unless you really learn the original language and the thought world in which those words and sentences circulated. So the work of historical scholarship is crucial if one wants to understand the words on the page, what they actually say in the most detailed and reflective sense.

Now the task doesn’t end there however because, as I’ve suggested, the impact of the book is not entirely constituted by what it meant in Iron Age Israel. Clearly the impact of the book largely consists of how the book has had its life within Western civilization. So when one wants to relate those two aspects to each other, what the words actually say, and how those words themselves have been taken in different ways. I want to suggest that you can’t entirely escape the details of the text itself. So in this respect the original intent continually comes back and asserts itself because this interpreter or that interpreter will all of a sudden say, “No, what you said is ungrammatical.” So things like grammar, semantics, allusions to other texts, even ancient Near Eastern backgrounds, these things allow us to see how the text is in a sense exerting its force on us in the way that Auerbach talks about. So that never disappears. It can ebb and flow in different ways, but it never disappears.

So I think the historical scholarship is crucial if one wants to understand the words on the page and how those words on the page continue to exert its force on us, even if someone is doing a very figural interpretation. So it’s part of that ebb and flow, this pendulum swing between realism and figuralism. The realism always is there. The tree always is there in the forest, even if no one is listening.


HODGES: Another quote from the book, you say that when readers try to go beyond the literal sense of the text, we may err but sometimes splendidly. So you might err splendidly, you say, right?


HODGES: Can you err like non-splendidly too?

HENDEL: Oh absolutely.

HODGES: How do you decide what’s a splendid err and what’s not?

HENDEL: Well let me just give some examples. For example, platonic interpretation of the Bible. In the Greek period this was begun by Philo of Alexandria, who was a Jewish scholar in Alexandria in the first century A.D. and was taken up into Christian theology by people like Origin and other Christian church fathers. Platonic interpretation is a way of kind of harmonizing the biblical stories with Greek philosophy.

So for example, let me put it this way, reinterpreting the idea of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs with the Greek term “logos,” which means “wisdom,” it means “word,” and it also takes on these mystical meaning about a kind of preexisting spirit that both is God and is not God. Well you see those ideas flowing in the Gospel of John, in the prologue of the Gospel of John. So this is not a correct interpretation of the Hebrew Bible concept of wisdom, but by linking the biblical concept with the platonic concept and then linking this idea of wisdom back with Genesis 1, you have a new complicated concept that in its own way is, of course, magnificent.


HODGES: Okay. I want to take a different bite of the apple here, now that we’ve laid this preliminary groundwork. So let’s talk about the genesis of Genesis specifically, the beginning of the text. Most listeners of the show are probably fairly familiar with the stories in Genesis, but they might be surprised at all the things that are packed into this first book in the canon. They might not remember there’s the creation, the Garden of Eden, the flood, the ark, the Tower of Babel, the call of Abraham, Jacob’s son Joseph and his famous coat, and all these stories. These are all packed into Genesis, so there are all these stories. But what do scholars say about the origins of all these stories being put together this way?

HENDEL: Well scholars have looked at how the Bible was put together, how the Bible was written. It’s obviously a complicated text. What we see is that first of all there are all sorts of traditions about creation and antiquity in ancient Near Eastern religious traditions and some of these are drawn upon in the Book of Genesis in various ways. The flood story, for example, we have old Babylonian versions of it in the Atrahasis myth and in the Gilgamesh epic, so in some cases you can actually see an old story being transformed in one way or another. We have stories of creation in Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology and also in Greek mythology you have an initial state of chaos that’s often depicted as a watery-dark chaos and then the gods create the universe out of these primordial materials.

In Genesis 1 you see a text that is drawing on these old concepts and rethinking them, recrystallizing them, in a kind of systematic way, that shows continuity with these older themes, but also transformations. For example it’s just a single god that’s creating the universe and he’s creating the universe in almost a kind of material way. God stands apart from the universe and creates it in the way that it’s almost like the enlightenment sense of God creating an infinitely complex watch that continues to run and run and run so that there’s a new conception of creation and even a new conception of the world and nature that’s in Genesis 1. Yet at the same time we see continuity, we see themes, motifs that are drawn upon from older Near Eastern materials. So there’s a relationship in which the Book of Genesis is born, again going back to this metaphor of a life, it’s born in the kind of womb of the ancient Near East but it’s a unique child, it’s a unique individual.

Secondly, we can tell that the Book of Genesis consists of different written sources that have been secondarily edited together. So some of the complexity of the book derives from the fact that this chapter was written by this person and that chapter was written by a different person and those two people didn’t know each other and in the present context those two stories in Genesis don’t seem to really know each other.


HODGES: Do you have an example of that? What do scholars point to as an example of something that seems like two different stories sort of put together?

HENDEL: Well the prime example are the two creation stories. The creation story in Genesis 1 is this magnificent divine watchmaker kind of idea. He says, “Let there be light” and there was light and humans are created last as the pinnacle of creation as the image of God who rule over all the other animals on earth. Then you have the Garden of Eden story, which pretty much begins over again. It says, “On the day that God created heaven and earth…” It starts again. It has a different order of creation. The man is created first, Adam is created first, whereas in the first story he was created last. Then the animals are created, and then Eve is created out of his rib.

So you can see there’s a different sequence of events, and even different concepts of what humans are for. In the Garden of Eden story Adam is created and he’s put into the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it. So essentially he’s created to be God’s divine gardener. He’s a workingman. It’s a pretty nice job to have to tend paradise, but then because of certain transgressions that he and his wife do, they’re cast out of the garden and then he has to be a normal farmer, which is a much harder job to do in the semi-arid climate of the Middle East. So even the concept of what humans are created to be is different in the two creation stories. So they’re different not only in details but also in the conceptuality behind them.

HODGES: So with that in mind when you’re looking at Genesis in its original context scholars can see influences that come from other cultures at the time and Genesis is sort of reshaping those and doing its own thing with those stories—

HENDEL: And there are multiple stories by multiple authors.


HODGES: Right, and you see these put together. How did the text then function, like why was it written then originally? How did it function in that original culture? Is it fair to say that the way that it would be read or understood or listened to probably in that original context would be like a realism type of a reading? Did they think that this was an actual history, that God really did it in these ways?

HENDEL: Yeah, I think we have to think that people heard these stories as authoritative stories about the past, that this is how the world came into being. Now let me say that gets complicated when you put these different stories together. So if you had two stories of the creation of the world which one is true and which one isn’t? So just by juxtaposing those stories you essentially have to interpret them in a way that they can be harmonious. So this is part of the way that the very birth of the book itself creates this requirement of interpretation and really of intense interpretation, so you can see the two creation stories as complimentary.

So you can see for example the Garden of Eden story as a flashback onto day six of creation, which is the standard approach of most early interpreters and yet there are other interpretations that are stimulated by this too. For example I mentioned Philo of Alexandria, he’s integrating Genesis with his understanding of Greek philosophy. So he says that humans created in the Genesis 1 story who were made in the image of God are different than Adam and Eve in the second story who were created, well he’s created from the dust of the soil and then she’s created from his rib. He says those are two different entities. He says the first humans created in the image of God are ideal forms of humans that live in this invisible higher spiritual world and that then God creates Adam out of earthly substance, so that’s the material Adam who is a kind of earthly material manifestation of this ideal concept of what humans are that was created in Genesis 1.

So we have the ideal human and the material human and this exemplifies the kind of platonic duality where ideas and concepts all have an invisible absolute timeless form in an unseen higher world and then a transitory material manifestation on earth. So the complexity of the story stimulates him in a way that creates harmony between the stories between the tensions between the stories but he solves it by integrating this platonic, this dualistic, platonic philosophy with it.

HODGES: You point out in the book that those sort of tensions were detected even earlier than Philo. First of all around when was Philo doing his interpretations?

HENDEL: He’s first century A.D.


HODGES: Okay, so you point out that actually Genesis sort of enters the public domain from the beginning, especially once it was compiled, as being in need of interpretation. The Old Testament itself it shows this in Nehemiah, right?

HENDEL: Yes. So when Ezra comes back from Babylonian exile and it says that he brings the book of the Torah of Moses with him, and he sets up shop in Jerusalem, the people gather in the square, and he reads this to them all day long. They haven’t heard it before and they cry, they’re so moved by hearing this book. But it also says that around him were helpers who were interpreting the book for the audience. Now we’re not really sure what that means. It could mean that they’re actually translating it into Aramaic, which might have been the vernacular tongue of the people at the time, and they couldn’t understand Biblical Hebrew. But it also could mean that they’re both translating and explaining, filling in the gaps as it were. So in one way or another interpretation accompanies the life of the Bible from its very public publishing, from its public coming into being.


HODGES: Then you talk about these four assumptions that sort of grew up around the text, of the Hebrew Bible. These four assumptions that the text is cryptic, relevant, perfect, and divine. Can you talk about how those bear on people’s reading of Genesis?

HENDEL: This is something that I draw from James Kugel and his wonderful book The Bible as it Was. He talks about how in the latter part of the second temple period in early classical Judaism in early Christianity people are already reading the Bible with these assumptions built in that the book is, as you said, perfect, cryptic, divine, relevant. These are some of the things that drive these interpretations. For example, why would you think that the Bible is cryptic? Well one of the reasons that you would think that is because if you read it closely there are these frictions; there are these seeming conflicts between stories. There are also lots of unanswered obscurities in many of the stories themselves. Some of these are simply odd grammatical forms that were forgotten and regarded as strange in a later period.

So for all sorts of reasons there are obscurities in the book and so the idea developed that these obscurities, these seeming contradictions, these seeming tensions, are themselves a kind of red flag that says there are obscure cryptic meanings hidden here, and it’s the job of the interpreter to dive in and explore these hidden, cryptic meanings which then make sense of things in the text that otherwise don’t make sense. So this is a very powerful form of interpretation and essentially it’s a way of saying that the book makes sense, even in places where it doesn’t.

So for example for Philo of Alexandria when he reads that God planted a garden in Eden he says, “No that can’t possibly be true,” because for his concept of God, omniscient, omnipresent, abstract, this is a God who doesn’t get his hands dirty and plant a garden. He says this is an anthropomorphic depiction of God that’s not true, so that means he has to dig deeper and say, “Well what does this signify?” If it’s not true that God actually plants gardens or let’s say has emotions or walks around in the garden in the late afternoon, if those things can’t be true then what is true? So he has to look at those things and interpret them in a figural, in an imaginative, in a platonic way, to find the deeper truths that it’s hidden in.


HODGES: So this is the rise of like figural reading of the text?

HENDEL: So this is the rise of the figural reading of the text and in a sense it’s a way of making the sense consistently true, profound, educational, inspiration, and relevant for the present by saying where it seems odd or difficult there’s deeper hidden meanings there that make this difficult text in fact even more profound than the stuff around it.

HODGES: So earlier you mentioned the way that platonic thought sort of shifted people’s understanding of Genesis. This is when people brought platonic ideas to the text and for example I think Philo would count in there, right? Where he read these two different creation stories as one depicting a more creation in the ideal realm and then a more solid creation. So he’s bringing Plato into the book and that affects the way the text has been read since then. There’s another context that you point to that arose, the apocalyptic context that was brought to the text. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HENDEL: Yeah. Well this is a hugely important point of view that also arises through the latter part of the second temple period where people start reading the Bible again as a cryptic text, but for the apocalyptic readers the hidden quality is not so much about higher philosophical truths as it would be for a platonic reader, but the meaning is about the future and the end of days. The rise of apocalyptic interpretation has to do with the wider growth of this worldview where the obscure things in the Bible are cryptic. But in this respect the hidden meanings are not so much about higher philosophical realities but really are cryptic signs or foreshadowing that point toward the future, that point toward the end of time, the redemption, the Messiah, and so forth. So an example of course would be in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, where he’s consistently reading things in the Old Testament as foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. So there’s a way in which this key of reading the Old Testament as a repository of secrets about the end of time, this becomes a very strong method of interpretation and it’s applied to Genesis as well.

For example the picture of paradise is reinterpreted as not just something that happened in the beginning of time but also a glimpse of what the existence of the end of time will be like, that we’ll be going back to the Garden of Eden, we’ll be going back to paradise. These images of the future Garden of Eden where the righteous will go at the time of the great judgment, we see these ideas already in the third century B.C. in the Book of Enoch which is one of the most influential books that nobody knows about because it didn’t make it into the Bible, these ideas are very strongly in the Dead Sea Scrolls where the group’s teacher, called the Teacher of Righteousness, he is said to be the one to whom God told the secrets that are there in the books of the Bible. So that you have an inspired interpreter that can interpret what those secrets are in the biblical text, and those secrets end up being about the end of time, the time of the great redemption, the war between the children of light and the children of darkness, the coming of the Messiah, and so forth. So this will bring back a return to paradise. So those are the kinds of ways that Genesis flows into these apocalyptic mysteries.


HODGES: So you kind of have the early text as interpreted in a realist fashion, you have the rise of figural interpretations, where Genesis is mingled with platonic philosophy, with apocalyptic views of history, and then you trace a shift back toward a more literal reading, this is around the fifth century with Augustine, right?

HENDEL: Well Augustine, yeah, Augustine was one of the great thinkers in Christian tradition. He wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to say yes to it’s figural, yes to it’s telling the story of the city of God in this platonic world up above, while we live in the city of man below, but he wanted it to be both. He wanted to have a kind of platonic meaning, a higher meaning, but he also wanted it to be historically true. So he said you can’t separate those two. So he developed the idea that the stories are all historically accurate, that you know God did plant a garden, but at the same time those historical events themselves have a figural content so that reality itself, the events that are told in the Bible, have a figural meaning, so they’re not just historical. They’re not just actual events or actual creatures, but every event, every tree, every rock, has higher spiritual meanings to it. So he kind of combines the figural and the realistic interpretation in a very interesting kind of synthesis where they both signify each other.

Now the real return to realism, I would say, occurs in Judaism with Rashi, who’s a really important medieval interpreter—


HODGES: That’s around the twelfth century, right?

HENDEL: That’s in the twelfth century. He said, “I have to read the text very closely and understand the text in its context,” so the meaning of a word or a sentence has to be constrained by the larger paragraphs, or larger stories that it’s in. So he did a critique of a traditional rabbinic interpretation. He said, “There’s lots of wisdom in there, there’s lots of sermons, but only some of the traditional rabbinic interpretations actually relate to the plain sense of the text.”

So his idea was that you had to read the plain sense of the text in a realistic way, and only then can you jump off and do these other figural exercises, but he says those are just embroidery, they’re not the real essential meaning. So he’s separating the figural from the plain sense of the words themselves. He’s also very influenced by Jewish grammarians who were really understanding the working of Hebrew grammar, much more concretely. So it’s a much closer reading of the text. Now his influence flows directly to Martin Luther. So Martin Luther takes this to the next step.


HODGES: So this is the sixteenth century then?

HENDEL: This is in the sixteenth century. So this is the beginning of the Protestant reformation and he took this idea and he made it a very powerful tool in the Protestant reformation itself. He says all of these figural interpretations, particularly these allegorical interpretations, he says they’re a bunch of hooey. And he says quite nicely that the Catholic Church promulgates these figural interpretations in order to justify their own power.

HODGES: And I think “hooey” was like a direct quote, right? Like that was the actual—

HENDEL: Oh he was a hilarious guy. He says, “When I was a monk I used to do allegorical interpretations. I could do an allegorical interpretation of a piss pie,” he said. So when he had his awakening and decided to do the Protestant reformation he said the figural interpretation is just a con job by the Catholic Church.

HODGES: So he saw their method of interpretation as being a means by which religion could sort of constrain the lives of individual believers, kind of a thing?

HENDEL: Exactly. So he’s seeing it in a way of manifesting the power of the church, that these imaginative interpretations he said are just a con job by the church to manipulate people, to impose their power of interpretation, and their political and economic authority onto people. He used this then as a wedge to say that first of all, if these figural interpretations are a bunch of hooey, then therefore you don’t need a church hierarchy. You don’t need a pope, you don’t need priests, you don’t need cardinals. Every believer can be his own priest. Every believer can read the Bible on their own and understand the plain sense of the Bible. So he’s taking this language of the plain sense of the Bible and saying this is the real sense, and it’s the sense that anyone individually can read and understand. The message of salvation is simple. This is one of his weapons against the Catholic Church, and it was his most powerful weapon.


HODGES: So looking at those four assumptions that Kugel talked about, one of the chief ones that Martin Luther seemed to be going after then was the cryptic one. But when you start questioning those original ways of reading, cryptic, relevant, perfect, divine, you know, they all kind of come up for grabs at that point when you start poking at any one of them you could start poking at any number of them. That’s sort of what the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are bringing, which you trace out. One of them that is really interesting is you locate parody. Parodies of Genesis appear around this time, right?

HENDEL: Yes. So you have someone like Rabelais who is a Catholic, a very learned Catholic humanist, he was a monk. And yet he as a learned man… well part of the Renaissance is going back to the sources, and learning the original languages. This also flows into Martin Luther’s critique of figural interpretation, that when you read the Greek or Hebrew original a lot of these elaborate interpretations do seem like they’re not really resting on any foundation. So Rabelais wrote this hilarious book about Gargantua and Pantagruel and he makes fun of learned priests prattling on about the Bible. He makes fun of the Bible itself, which is a very strange attitude. He says in the beginning of his book, he says, “This book itself is a figural interpretation. It should be read in a figural way.” In his preface he’s actually making fun of people who do that.

So it’s one of the funniest books ever written. One of the things he makes fun of is the pretentions of priests and he makes fun of some of the stories in the Bible, but he does it so effectively that you can’t help but laugh with him. He was actually a favorite of some of the popes because he was just so hilarious. So the old ways of interpretation become an object of humor, and this is one of the ways it shows that these old ways don’t really have legs anymore. When someone is fodder for the comics on TV nowadays you know that they don’t have much to stand on. This happened with various types of biblical interpretation in this period.


HODGES: We also see the rise here of new scientific worldviews, which challenge the account of the world’s creation and of nature. So what are some of the ways that modern science played into the life of Genesis?

HENDEL: Well this period of the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, this is also the time of the rise of science. All of these things are connected with each other, having a more realistic view of the Bible and reading it for its plain sense in a kind of detailed, patient, you know, quasi-scientific way, is also how people are reading nature at this time. So at this time people are saying well rocks and trees and flowers don’t have extra spiritual qualities. They’re just natural things. There’s a kind of demystifying of various aspects of everyday life. There’s critique of magic, of astrology, of things like that, so there’s a sense in which there’s kind of rising realism in many avenues of thought.

So when you have someone like Galileo he takes this, someone else invented the telescope, he made a better one and then he had the clever idea of pointing it up at night and all of a sudden he sees the moon, and the moon is not a perfect object anymore, it’s got like holes in it, it’s got craters. Then he looks up at Jupiter and he sees there are moons going around Jupiter. Now these are real details that he’s seeing that no one has seen before and they have real implications for our understanding of reality. For example if there’s moons orbiting Jupiter that means that not everything revolves around the earth.

HODGES: As is depicted in Genesis, right?

HENDEL: As is depicted, well—

HODGES: Well I guess they don’t touch on that. But Genesis does have the earth sort of in the center and then there’s this sort of firmament up above where there’s like water and—

HENDEL: Yes. So the picture that we have in Genesis 1 is that—

HODGES: It’s like a snow globe.

HENDEL: Yeah. The firmament, that word really explains what the Hebrew says, is something that’s firm. It’s a solid body. So it is like a snow globe or a dome stadium and God sets the sun and moon and the stars in this firmament, yeah, in this dome in the sky. So it is essentially a geocentric picture where the sun and the moon and the stars are set in the sky and they revolve around us. There are other things in the Bible that talk about the sun coming up and then going up and then returning back to where it started again. So this is the normal picture, you know, before Galileo. This is what everybody believed. And I still actually believe it myself because I see the sun coming up in the east and it goes down in the west and then it goes somewhere and then it comes back in the east the next day. So this is the world of human perception that is depicted. Without a telescope and someone as smart as Galileo and Copernicus you couldn’t figure it out otherwise.


HODGES: But you talk about the idea of accommodation right? What’s interesting about Galileo is he wasn’t this guy who discovered science and then said, “Well get rid of this, I don’t know this Bible. I don’t need religion.” I mean he had a run-in obviously with the Catholic Church at the time but he maintained a certain regard for the Bible and you talk about accommodation as the way. What is that?

HENDEL: Yes, yes. Well, there’s two things. First of all, Galileo was a pious Catholic. He had no concept that he was undermining anything. He held to the older ideas of Augustine, that science and the Bible can’t contradict each other because they’re both true. If there’s a seeming contradiction then you have to interpret the Bible in a figural way, in a cryptic way. So Galileo is actually a more traditional figure in Christian interpretation than his inquisitors were on the Catholic inquisition that found him guilty of suspicion of heresy.

So he was accommodating the Bible with science by saying that we should read the Bible in this figurative way and it was the church that was saying no, you have to read the Bible for the plain sense. So they essentially had been convinced that what Martin Luther was saying was right, you have to read the Bible for the plain sense, and the plain sense of the Bible does seem to depict the geocentric universe. So they said here science does conflict with the Bible and therefore science is wrong. So they really set up the structure, the template, for modern fundamentalism.


HODGES: Let’s go on to that. So in the nineteenth century you have the rise of fundamentalism. There are some theologians from Princeton Seminary who wanted to defend the Bible as being fully literal. They’d say all the affirmations of a scientific nature in the Bible are to be construed as literally true, and this sort of thing. George Marsden has said that these types of thinkers seem to be anti-modern in the sense that they sort of reject scientific perspectives, but he also says in some respects they’re strikingly modern. What’s he referring to there?

HENDEL: Oh and he’s absolutely right. What we see in modern fundamentalism in America as it’s formed in the late 1800s and these people at Princeton Theological Seminary were sort of the intellectual leaders of this movement. They are reacting to the problems raised by modernity and so in a very strong sense they are one of the phenomena of modernity insofar as they’re reacting against it. Interestingly the way they’re reacting against the validity of science let’s say, it started out that the problem was geology–

HODGES: The age of the earth, right? So it’s older than the six thousand years that Ussher sort of established.

HENDEL: Right. So if the earth is millions of years old and the universe is billions of years old then you know there seems to be a contradiction there. Then it becomes astronomy is a problem, then finally biology is a problem, with Darwin. So if people are descended from monkeys then Genesis 1 can’t be true. Or if any species change, if species themselves evolve, then this account of creation in Genesis 1 contradicts that. But particularly the rubber hits the road with the creation of humans. If humans evolve from other species then you’re not created on day six in the image of God, and so forth.

One of the things that these critics of modern science, these early fundamentalists, are doing, is they’re thinking in a very scientific way. What they’re saying is that the Bible is a series of scientific propositions, and these propositions are necessarily correct. The way they talk about it is the way that science talks about data. So the way they’re thinking is a very, very modern scientific mode of thought, but they’re using the scientific thought by, they end up saying the Bible is more scientific than science. So science is wrong. Science is just opinions and so forth, but the Bible is really systematic science. So this is a way that we can see that fundamentalism is a distinctively modern phenomena. Augustine wasn’t talking in this way. Martin Luther wasn’t talking in this way. So they’re talking in a scientific way about the Bible being truer than science, but their whole idiom is distinctively modern.

HODGES: And that’s just one of these, again, another way of reading Genesis. We talked about in the beginning the assumptions that the readers bring to the text can shape the text as much as the readers think the texts shape their lives. It’s a reciprocal relationship.

HENDEL: It’s a circle. It’s an interpretive or hermeneutic circle that we’re always embedded in. Yeah. So this is paradoxical but fundamentalism is fundamentally a modern phenomenon.

HODGES: Which I think a lot of fundamentalists would say, “What?” They believe they’re sort of countering the ill effects of modernism, right? Pushing back. But they actually buy into all those assumptions in the way they frame it.

HENDEL: Exactly, exactly. So it’s ironic. It’s a very ironic thing. So when you see the history of it, it just shows to you how people don’t really realize how they’re being influenced by past categories, but they take as timelessly true, but these categories are actually very recent categories.


HODGES: One example that I’ll zoom in on is let’s take Noah’s ark for example. It’s the story that seems to depict this flood, people assume it’s global, people search for evidence for that, and I’m interested about how within Judaism, you have a Jewish background of sorts, I’m interested in how Jews today read the text. I assume that there’s many different ways of reading that story. Do a lot of practicing Jews believe that there was like a historical event where the entire earth was flooded or do they read it more figuratively? What’s the general sense there?

HENDEL: Well in Judaism there is really as broad a range of interpretations of something like the flood story as there is in Christianity. So there are Jewish fundamentalists that would be completely on board with… Who am I thinking of? Anybody who’s on the far right of fundamentalist Christianity today. Jerry Falwell, for example.

HODGES: Ken Ham or something?

HENDEL: Yeah. Ken Ham, Jerry Falwell, all those people. There are ultra-orthodox Jews that take every word of the Bible as true in a historical sense. But they tend also to read it in various mystical and figurative senses as well. In some ways they’re almost more like Augustine, where they see it as historically true but also with cryptic spiritual means. Then there’s just a wide range. The mainstream Jewish synagogues have the same range as the mainstream Christian churches and then there’s very liberal and secular Jewish communities that read it as literature or as the works of an ancient culture that don’t have any relevance for us today. So this is just a massive range of diversity of opinion in Judaism that really mirrors the diversity of views in Christianity.


HODGES: So that takes us back then to a main question I hope we kind of explored throughout the episode and that’s why read Genesis today. You write that people today can read Genesis passionately and critically even with their contemporary understanding of science and the world. You write that Genesis is a magnificent work of literature, which still has the capacity to inspire. So what’s your advice to readers of Genesis today?

HENDEL: Well I would say that in a sense we’re all readers of Genesis, whether we know it or not. So in some respects to be aware of that is to be more self aware and that in the life of the Book of Genesis it has been taken in many different ways. What I tell to my students is that we want to read the text very closely because, and this goes back to what you were talking about with Erich Auerbach, that it really is a magnificent piece of writing.

To really read it closely and understand the nuances of the text itself is to be inspired by what really is a magnificent work of what I would say human thought, as a secular person, but it is thought that not only is the magnificent work of religious literature from an ancient culture, but it’s still part of us. So whether we acknowledge it or not, it informs our concepts of ourselves, our concepts of the universe, our concept of what reality is about. So in that respect our concept of reality and our reading of the Book of Genesis are still related to each other. So in a sense just becoming aware of that makes you a more self-aware person.


HODGES: And you kind of talk about yourself as a secular person sort of approaches the text in that way. As you teach the text to students have you found students who are more religiously inclined to be unsettled by the types of things that you talk about as you teach the text of Genesis or do you have ways of engaging with people who maybe take a more literal reading of Genesis? What kind of negotiations go on in the classroom as you have a mix of people who are secular, have a mix of people who are religiously devout, and anywhere in between?

HENDEL: Yeah. Well this is one of the very interesting things about teaching the Bible is that people have strong feelings about it in all sorts of different ways. I think that people tend to be receptive to the idea of reading the text closely. That if you respect the book, if you take the course, it means you are interested in some level in reading the text and understanding it. If you are looking at the text, looking at its nuances, looking at how it really is magnificent work of writing, that engages people no matter where they’re coming from. So we have very productive discussions and exciting explorations of this material. People come from different places, but when you explore the intricacies of this text in a detailed, focused way that has its own reality and its own reward. So it raises questions for devout people, but those questions are questions that should be raised. It makes people more sophisticated religious thinkers.


HODGES: One more quick question in tandem with that. Do you have a preferred translation of it? Especially that sort of draws out the literary qualities. Do you have one that you recommend?

HENDEL: Yeah. When I’m just teaching the Book of Genesis I always use Robert Alter’s translation. It’s by far the best English translation and also in his footnotes he brings out some of the nuances that you can’t really reproduce in translation. That’s the kind of model of reading the text very closely for its literary texture. This is what Alter is able to do in his translation. This just shows you the nuances, the subtleties, the complications, that in a sense saying that it’s literature doesn’t mean that it’s anti-religious, doesn’t mean this is an anti-religious way of reading.

HODGES: Right.

HENDEL: It’s simply a way of reading to understand the book at a deeper level and then you can do with that what you wish.

HODGES: Yeah, you’ll notice different details than you’ve noticed before, you’ll notice instances of plot and characterization and setting and mood and conflict.

HENDEL: Yeah, and the deeper conceptuality behind the stories is all carried by the details. This all goes back to what you were talking about with Auerbach, that it’s a very tersely written text. It’s fraught with background. So to see what that background is and how you’re being guided to see these complications, these ambiguities, these conceptual problems, the text is really doing that. It draws you in, as Auerbach says, and doesn’t let you go. This is the magic of the book.

HODGES: That’s Dr. Ronald Hendel. He’s the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California-Berkley. He is the author of a book from Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. It’s the biography of the Book of Genesis. He’s also working on a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with the Society for Biblical Literature. Thanks a lot for joining us today.

HENDEL: My pleasure.