Besides, knowing the historical origins or sources of the text is no substitute for learning its meaning; to discover the meaning, a text must be studied in its own terms. An equally severe difficulty comes from the other side, from those who regard the Bible as the revealed word of God. For them it is definitely a book, but not a book that can be read and interrogated like any other.
It seems rather to demand a certain prior commitment to the truth of the account, even in order to understand it. Faith, it is sometimes said, is the prerequisite to understanding. But the Hebrew Bible in fact suggests the contrary. In Deuteronomy, Moses asserts that observing the statutes and ordinances that God has commanded is Israel's "wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the people, that when they hear all these statutes shall say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" The wisdom of the Torah is said by the Torah to be accessible to everyone, at least in part.
Be this as it may, the biblical text, whether revealed or not, whether read by believers or atheists, is not self-interpreting. To understand its meaning, the hard work of exegesis and interpretation is required. The task of interpretation is complicated by the fact that the Bible, like most great books, does not explicitly provide rules for how to read it. As with the content, so with the approach, the philosophical reader is forced to find his own way.
As a result of many readings and rereadings, I now make the following "methodological" assumptions in my efforts at interpretation: First, there is a coherent order and plan to the whole, and the order of the stories is of more than chronological significance. Second, every word counts. Third, juxtapositions are important; what precedes or what follows a given sentence or story may be crucial for discovering its meaning.
It matters, for example, that the Noahide code and covenant appear as the immediate sequel to Noah's animal sacrifice tendered at the end of the Flood. It matters, too, that there are two juxtaposed and very different stories of the creation of man or of the multiplication of nations and languages.
Fourth and finally, the teachings of the text are not utterly opaque to human reason, even if God and other matters remain veiled in mystery. Though, as we shall see, the text takes a dim view of the sufficiency of human reason, it presents this critical view to human reason in a most intelligible and powerful way.
One can approach the text in a spirit of inquiry, even if one comes as a result to learn the limitations of such philosophic activity. I am well aware that this suggestion, though allowed for by the Bible, still appears to be at odds with the way recommended by the Bible. As I noted near the start, the beginning of biblical wisdom is said to be fear awe-reverence for the Lord, not open inquiry spurred by wonder. In addition, there is the great danger that hangs over all efforts at interpretation: I will find in the text not what the author intended but only what I have put there myself usually unwittingly.
For these reasons, a philosophic reading of Genesis must proceed with great modesty and caution, not to say fear and trembling. If I sometimes forget myself and seem too bold, it is only out of zeal for understanding. Moreover, I make no claim to a final or definitive reading. On the contrary, the stories are too rich, too complex, and too deep to be captured fully, once and for all.
The pursuit of wisdom, through the direct and unmediated encountering of the text, can proceed even as one is humbly mindful of the inexhaustible depths and mysteries of the text and the world it describes. As the example of Socrates reminds us, humility before mystery and knowledge of one's own ignorance are hardly at odds with a philosophic spirit. Let me try to make these remarks about reading philosophically yet humbly a bit more concrete.
When we set out to read the book of Genesis, we begin, quite properly, at the beginning.
- Beginning at Genesis;
- By The Rivers Of Babylon;
- Anatomy of a Trend.
But getting started is not as easy as it seems. For though we know where to start, we do not yet know how to proceed. To begin properly, it seems, we need prior knowledge. What kind of book are we reading? In what spirit and manner should we read? For the beginning reader, answers to these questions cannot be had in advance. They can be acquired, if at all, only as a result of reading. We are in difficulty from the start. The opening of the book only adds to our difficulty, even before we get to the first chapter. Unlike most books, it declares no title and identifies no author. The name we call it in English, Genesis, meaning "origin" or "coming into being," is simply the Greek mistranslation of the book's first, Hebrew word, ber'eshith, "in beginning," by which Hebrew name the book is known in Jewish tradition.
That tradition ascribes authorship to Moses—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are also known as the Five Books of Moses—yet nowhere in Genesis is such a claim made or even supported. We do not know whose words we are reading, and we also do not know whether it matters that we do not know whose words we are reading. When we begin to read—"In beginning God created the heavens and the earth"—we discover that the internal voice or speaker of the text—what literary critics would call "the narrator" but what I will simply call "the text"—is also nameless.
Someone is addressing us in a commanding voice, speaking about grand themes, speaking with seeming authority. But who is talking? We are not told. The voice of the text is apparently not the direct voice of God: God's speeches the text identifies and reports using the third person "And the Lord said".
But if it is not God who is speaking, our perplexity only increases; for the text begins by talking confidently about things that no human being could possibly have known from direct experience: the prehuman world and its coming into being, or creation. How, we wonder, does the speaker know what he is talking about? Why should we believe him? Is this a divinely inspired account? Is this the revealed word of God, passed to us through the prophetic voice of the text? How can we know?
On the basis of what other than prejudice—prejudgment—can we decide whether the text is speaking truly?
In the face of our ignorance before these questions, many skeptical readers will be tempted to quit right here, absent some outside evidence for the veracity of the biblical account. On the other side, some pious readers, responding to the skeptic's challenges, will argue that the text is accessible only to the faithful, those who trust that the text is indeed the revealed word of God. Let me propose a third alternative, an attitude between doubt, demanding proof in advance, and faith, comfortable that proof is unnecessary: the attitude of thoughtful engagement, of suspended disbelief, eager to learn.
I offer a biblical example of what I mean. At the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis, we readers are called to witness a crucial turning point in human history. Out of the blue, with no advance warning, a mysterious and awesome voice calls to Abraham, commanding him to take a journey—"to the land I will show you"—and promising him great rewards should he do so. Abraham, without so much as a question or a comment, immediately hearkens to the call: he promptly sets off as commanded.
If we wish to imagine ourselves in Abraham's place as he hears the commanding voice, we must forget that we know, because the biblical text explicitly tells us, that the voice calling Abraham was the voice of the Lord: "And the Lord said to Abram Abraham himself is not told who is calling him; the voice that calls does not identify itself. Although he is, for reasons we shall explore in a later chapter, open to such a call, Abraham at this moment cannot know with certainty who is speaking to him or whether the voice can deliver on its great promises.
Nevertheless, trustingly and courageously, Abraham decides to take a walk with this voice. Putting aside any possible doubts and suspicions, he embarks on a path that enables him eventually to discover just who had spoken to him and why. Readers who take up the book of Genesis without presuppositions or intermediaries find themselves in a position not unlike Abraham's: a commanding but unidentified voice is addressing us from out of the text, without warning or preparation, speaking to us right away about things for openers, the creation of the world that we human beings could not by ourselves know anything about.
To be sure, the opening words of Genesis do not command us to act. Neither can we compare ourselves to Abraham in setting, stature, or virtue. Nonetheless, we readers are being invited, as was Abraham, to proceed trustingly and courageously, without knowing yet who is speaking to us, what he might want from us, and whether or not he speaks truly.
Genesis 1 KJV - In the beginning God created the heaven - Bible Gateway
How then shall we respond? What does the call of the author of Genesis require of us readers? Not, as some might insist, a leap of faith or a commitment in advance to the truth of the biblical story, but rather, only a suspension of disbelief. Being awake and thoughtful, we cannot help but note the difficult questions regarding both our beginning and the beginning, but we will, at least for now, put them aside and plunge right in. We will suspend our doubts and suspicions and accept the book's invitation to take a walk with the biblical author keeping our eyes and ears open and our judgment keen, to be sure.
We will proceed in the hope that we might have our doubts addressed and our uncertainties resolved. If we allow ourselves to travel its narrative journey, the book may reward our openness and gain our trust. Genesis Beginning Brian M Boyce. What would you put in a bath tub That was as big as the bowels of the Earth? It was easy for God to make something To fill up the tides and the surf.
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