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The Book of Genesis, regardless of our faith, is something with which almost all of us in the Western world are familiar—a foundational work of our culture we have read and, we believe, understood. After all, its language, despite its remarkable elegance, is simple. Its powerful sentences are short. And its messages glisten with clarity.

Or do they?

Is it possible that the understanding of the Book of Genesis we’ve all grown up with isn’t as complete as we’d like to believe? That its deceptively simple sentences and surface appearance hide from contemporary readers a purposeful and intricate structure designed to let its depth and detail and implication resonate with the readers and listeners of its own time? That we are overlooking, despite all of our modern sensibilities as readers, many of the astonishingly sophisticated literary devices and techniques used by the author—or, indeed, authors—of this beautiful work?

Professor Gary A. Rendsburg, who chairs the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, thinks so. And in the 24 lectures of The Book of Genesis he offers the tools needed to change our perceptions, showing us how we might read, hear, think about—and feel—its words as an ancient Hebrew would have, allowing us to gain a new appreciation of “one of the most remarkable literary compositions from the ancient world,” as Professor Rendsburg says, the book with which both Jews and Christians alike begin their Bible.

Uncover New Meanings in Familiar Language

His approach to the Book of Genesis is one you may never have experienced before—a detailed, line-by-line literary parsing that gently probes its language, exploring how and why its effects were achieved; what its author—or authors—was saying; and revealing, between those lines, more information than most of us have ever dreamed was there.

As a noted scholar whose major interests include the literature of the Bible, the history of ancient Israel, the development of the Hebrew language, and the relationship between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel, Professor Rendsburg is an ideal choice for introducing what will be, for many, a new way of reading, as well as a wealth of fresh insights.

Among those insights, you’ll learn:

  • The reasons the Book of Genesis has not one but two creation stories, and the very different messages they contain
  • The many contradictions (real or apparent) that appear in the book’s pages, and the hints they offer about the book’s authorship
  • The repeated appearances of barren women and younger sons in its stories and what these motifs stand for
  • The remarkably ordered large-scale narrative structure devised by the author (or authors) of the Book of Genesis to embody and convey its theological meaning.

Although this is clearly a course whose emphasis is literary, with detailed analysis dominating, Professor Rendsburg is ever mindful that the Book of Genesis remains, for many, a theological pillar underpinning religious faith. And he is both respectful of that reality and aware of it in an even broader context.

“In [the] first 11 chapters of Genesis, we see a universal story, a universal perspective, describing the relationship between God and humanity in general. Characters like Adam and Noah are not Israelites, per se; they represent all of humankind. …

“This perhaps is the greatest lesson that we should learn from our course. The Bible is the record of the relationship between God and man—but the focus remains tenaciously on man.

“We follow mankind, through the early heroes of the Book of Genesis, in their attempt to find meaning in life; and we, as readers of the Bible, gain from that experience, extracting the lessons of their lives, and hopefully, finding meaning in our own lives.”

The World of Genesis

And literary analysis is far from the only perspective Professor Rendsburg draws on. Throughout the lectures he surrounds his intense attention to the text with historical, social, and archeological context, always conveying the world in which Genesis was read and listened to, so that each journey into the deepest subtleties of language enables us to look outward as well, shaping what might have been “only” a literature course into much more.

Our close reading into this masterpiece of Hebraic literature becomes our gateway to a deeper understanding of the literatures of Babylon, Egypt, and Ugarit to which it is compared.

Our understanding of historical context allows us to follow conjectures as to where and when Abraham, the first of Israel’s three great patriarchs—along with Isaac and Jacob—lived.

The lines of Joseph carry us into the world of Egypt, its royal courts, and even its funerary rituals of mummification.

Again and again, this course will surprise you as it shifts its focus from the nuance of language to educate, surprise, and sometimes even shock:

You’ll learn the attractions and pitfalls of the “JEDP” theory—the name given to the standard or documentary hypothesis of how the five books of the Torah, or Pentateuch, were compiled from four separate sources, J, E, D, and P—a theory developed by a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen in the second half of the 19th century.

Earlier beliefs had seen this grouping as the revealed word of God before biblical scholars in the Enlightenment began a new effort to explain its many textual difficulties as a product of divergent sources. Professor Rendsburg takes the scholarly debate another step, by highlighting textual difficulties for the JEDP theory itself, and endeavors instead to read the Book of Genesis as a literary whole.

An Amateur Makes a Discovery for the Ages

You’ll learn how the parallels between the Biblical story of the Flood and the version presented in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered in the late 19th century by a gifted amateur, a banknote engraver named George Smith. He had learned to read the Akkadian language of ancient Babylon and had volunteered to translate the cuneiform tablets being unearthed in Iraq and sent to the British Museum in London. It was there that Smith discovered the epic’s Tablet XI and its account of the Flood.

And you’ll learn about the extraordinary and difficult history of translating the Bible—which was originally written, of course, in Hebrew—into other languages.

Professor Rendsburg explains that the first translation of the Bible was a Greek translation produced in the 3rd century B.C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt. Known as the Septuagint, and abbreviated as “LXX,” it enabled many Jews of the Diaspora (their dispersal into lands outside of Israel), who had lost fluency in their ancient language, to read and understand the Scriptures.

According to legend, the name of the translation derives from rounding off the number of Jewish scholars—six each from the original 12 tribes of Israel, for a total of 72—gathered in Alexandria by King Ptolemy II to provide the translation for the Great Library of Alexandria.

But other translation efforts did not go as smoothly.

Translating the Bible into English, for example, was opposed by the Church, which insisted on using only the Vulgate, or Latin translation, and forbade any translations into the vernacular. When Englishman John Wycliff produced such a forbidden translation in the 14th century, he was condemned by the Church and his books ordered burned. When another Englishman, William Tyndale, produced another English translation in the early part of the 16th century, he was condemned as a heretic by both the Catholic Church and the newly established Church of England and forced to flee to Germany. He was eventually captured by the authorities in Belgium and burned at the stake in 1536.

Yet even disturbing stories like this one never overshadow the impression left by the course’s attention to the words of Genesis, which, even in translation, continually offer us fascinating glimpses of authorial mastery.

Thoughtful, engaging, and often deeply moving, The Book of Genesis offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this foundational work—not only of theology, but of literature —as never before. No matter how many times you may have read its lines, or the perspective from which you have approached them, you will almost certainly never experience them the same way again.

Visit Book of Genesis (The Great Courses) to read more...

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