I’ve read two books on Genesis this week, both of them thought-provoking, both instructive. But the second one, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible by Peter Enns and Jared Byas gave me repeated, “Wow” moments. Note: it’s only available as an e-book – it’s one of the first books I’ve read “cover-to-cover” on my kindle fire.
I’ve been reading Genesis for over three decades, and over the past ten years have read it repeatedly in Hebrew since it’s such a natural place to start with first year Hebrew students that I’m blessed to tutor now and then. So let’s just say, I’m no stranger to its pages.
For years I have felt myself mourning over its ancient and earthy hues and narrative being turned into a quasi-religious/scientific battleground. I understand the reasons why. Worldview is a huge issue for all of us, and Genesis is all about framing a very definitive worldview. Yet somehow I have increasingly felt that Evangelicals in particular have followed critics up the wrong tree in trying to prove that Genesis does fit within the framework of modern scientific rationalism and thereby, ironically, betrayed the very worldview that Genesis would frame for us.
Let’s just call that a growing hunch.
Enns and Byas in Genesis for Normal People let us see this monumental ancient tome (visions of Kubrick’s monolith now) with ancient eyes and in doing so provide a proverbial “bang-up” job of summarizing the contents and storyline of the book, providing readers with a wonderful orientation with which to explore it further (now visions of Fifield’s “pups” in Prometheus). I was afraid the book would be too elemental. So nice to be so wrong.
Enns and Byas state the primary thesis of the book beautifully:
Part of the task of reading Genesis as a story is to learn to read Genesis through ancient eyes, rather than modern ones….When we stop using Genesis as an argument, a textbook, or a code of conduct, and begin to see it as an ancient story – with memorable characters, twists and turns, ups and downs, accomplishments and mistakes – we find it fresh, deep and more true and relevant than we might expect….But in order to see Genesis through ancient eyes, we have to admit that our modern eyes might get in the way. So this [book] is eye surgery. It is meant to help us suspend our twenty-first-century gaze and allow us to enter a new way of looking at the world….If it is written by and to the Israelites, we need to see it from their point of view. If we are going to understand this story we have to suspend our twenty-first-century views of the universe, science and history, and enter their world. If their world seems strange to you, just try it on and wear it for a few minutes, even if it makes you feel a little insecure. Because what we find is that this new, strange way of seeing the opening of Genesis would make perfect sense in the ancient world.
This is precisely what Enns and Byas do very effectively: they help take you into another world, this ancient Hebrew, Babylonian world, and let you see it, feel it – and if you allow yourself to, to begin to sense its rhythms. Not only does it help you to understand and appreciate that ancient world, but stepping back it makes our own seem much more clearer, the colors and rhythms unexpectedly richer. And that is the ultimate point of Genesis from my experience with it. We can get so lost in debating science and religion that we miss the point of the whole book – which is to offer us a panoramic view of the origin of all things culminating in a particular family whose story embraces and impacts the story of us all.
Whatever your view of Genesis and the rest of the Bible, Genesis for Normal People will not be a waste of time. It will help fit you with ancient eyes that not only help you see Genesis more perceptively, but that just might help you better perceive our own modern landscapes.
Take and read.