Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass

The core of a creation story is "Why? Why was the world created this way and what does that tell us about how to live in it?" What did the gods want from humanity? A creation story is like a blueprint or constitution, it contains the premise of the story people of that particular culture will enact with their lives. - j. Snodgrass, Genesis and the Rise of Civilization

My senior year of college, I wrote a research project in order to earn honors in my Religion major. I had taken an interest in the theology and writing of John Calvin earlier in my career there, and by the time I was set to start this paper was becoming more intrigued by the work of Karl Barth. To further both of these interests simultaneously, I decided that my paper would compare and contrast their views in a few major areas, drawing mainly from the magnum opus of each: the Institutes for Calvin, and Church Dogmatics for Barth. I even had the grand idea that I would write the paper as if the two of them could somehow be transported to a room across time and space and have a series of conversations with each other.

All things considered, Calvin and Barth are not incredibly far off from one another. While there are differences between them, they are considered to be in the same Reformed ballpark. Contrasting either of them with Luther, Wesley, Ignatius, Tillich, Altizer, and a host of others would have made for a more stark dynamic and probably for a more interesting paper. But this was my interest at the time, and I wanted to see it through.

In retrospect, however, I presented more of a contrast than perhaps was actually there. If you read my paper, I paint Calvin as this staunch conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist. There are undertones to his side of the dialogue that I made to sound rigid and even angry. On the other hand, Barth comes off as the more gentle and thoughtful progressive who tempers himself and his conversation partner. Clearly, my subconscious self wrote, this guy had come such a long way from the days of his predecessor.

It wasn't until later that I could read back over this and notice how I'd set up the dialogue in this way. Not only that, but I could see how the dynamic that I'd constructed between the two was a direct reflection of my own spiritual journey. I'd set up Calvin to represent not only my own earlier, more conservative self, but the viewpoint still taken by some with whom I'd had some conflict after moving away from that stance. In turn, I'd used Barth to represent the new space I was beginning to occupy, which was softer, at least further to the middle, and even a little battle-worn. Careful readers could probably notice the way I'd presented the personality and worldview of each, but it would take some extra work to learn the story behind why I wrote it in that way.

In Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, j. Snodgrass works carefully and deliberately through the first book of the Bible to seek the story behind the story. His working thesis is that these tales of creation and destruction, of wandering nomads and established cities, of individuals, couples, and families, represent the journey of a people, or of competing sets of people, who are trying to make sense of themselves, their relationships with other tribes and nations, and their understanding of God. Through the stories of Genesis, he argues, we can see bits and pieces of how the civilization that produced them understood themselves and their place in the world.

For instance, Snodgrass presents the brothers Cain and Abel as two archetypes. On the one hand is Cain, the farmer, the one who undertakes the work of established agriculture, which would have been associated with a more ordered society. On the other hand is Abel, the herdsman who tends flocks; who would have been more of a nomad, leading his animals wherever there was food and wherever he could find for himself as well. Of course, the end of the story is Cain killing Abel after Abel's sacrifice is deemed acceptable by God while Cain's is rejected. This story is not only about the further tragedy of a post-Eden existence, but the writer or writers in some sense also had in the back of their mind the tension between the city agriculturalists and the rugged wanderers out in the wilderness.

This sort of approach to these stories complicates the traditional "documentary hypothesis," which is the view that mainly four writers, identified by the initials JEDP, authored the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. J, the author traditionally held to have written the Cain and Abel story, for instance, would have written his material during the heights of Israel's monarchy when things were relatively peaceful. Could it be that he saw some tension play out between established methods of farming and outlying groups of wanderers, and that influenced how he told his parts of the narrative? The result would have been that he was offering commentary that God grieved this conflict, and even went so far as to favor the nomads. What does this mean for our reading of such a story?

Snodgrass pulls from a wide variety of sources in this commentary. On one page you'll find a footnote citing Midrash or noted Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann, and on the next you'll find a citation of Isaac Asimov. He pulls from history, anthropology, sociology, Jewish tradition, Biblical scholarship, and so many other sources to piece together the possibility that there is a subtext to these stories; a running commentary on what life was like at the time of their composition that the authors had varying degrees of awareness that they were offering.

If nothing else, I found this book incredibly thought-provoking. Snodgrass' approach is mainly one of reading the resulting text rather than spending too much time wondering who wrote which particular piece, although he does make nominal use of those theories. His chief concern is the story as it is, as well as the story underneath. The result is that he is able to bring out details of the text that many may not consider, resulting in a fresh and richer look at these passages that feels brand new.

The layout of the book is like any basic Biblical commentary: a few verses, followed by analysis. It makes for easy reference if one wants to read up on any particular story. Rather than present the material as overarching concepts interspersed with a few verses to back up his points, Snodgrass undertakes to tackle the whole book of Genesis, lingering with each piece, until all has been dissected. The result is a new take on familiar stories and theories as he wonders out loud about the many more stories contained in this book that a basic reading may be able to notice.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)