• U.S.


21 minute read
David Van Biema

In the beginning, there was the Book of Genesis. And it was good. Only much later did different people begin to think of it in different ways. Steve Fintel, for instance. It is 8:30 on a sleepy Sunday morning in Metairie, Louisiana, and Fintel, a 49-year-old Eucharistic minister at St. Benilde Catholic Church, is playing Bette Midler’s 1989 hit Wind Beneath My Wings to his Sunday school class–three 11-year-old boys and one girl. “Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?” Midler sings. Fintel directs his four charges to chapter 12 of Genesis, where God tells Abraham, follow me and I will bless you and “make of you a great nation.” Says Fintel: “To me, Abraham is the person, and God is the wind.” It is a lovely image, and as Fintel teaches it, Genesis seems a lovely book. Since he has followed God’s instruction, Fintel explains, “Abraham is a hero” too.

Conservative rabbi Burton Visotzky used to share that simple, exalted view of Abraham and his immediate descendants. “I had always thought of these guys as saints,” he says. Not many people in the country are as familiar with the workings of the Bible’s first book as Visotzky, an expert in Midrash, the authoritative early rabbinical parsings of Scripture, or Torah. Yet in the late 1980s, an impending divorce led to what the rabbi describes as “a bit of a religious crisis.” Suddenly, when he read the Torah aloud in temple, the patriarchs of Genesis seemed all too familiar. Abraham and his wife Sarah bickering. Abraham appearing to endanger his marriage to get ahead in the world. Abraham and Sarah acting appallingly to their children. “The blinders fell off,” he says. “This dysfunctional family was my family in every sense of the word. But why was it in Torah? I was holding onto my chair white-knuckled so I wouldn’t run out of the room.”

Both responses to the Bible’s first book have their own validity. Both–in more sophisticated form–were on display last week, when pbs launched the most ambitious Bible-study class ever to air on nationally broadcast television: a two-month series called Genesis: A Living Conversation, with Bill Moyers as host. Each of its 10 weekly episodes features a diverse panel grappling with the majestic, infuriating work, engaging both the stupendous acts of faith that inspired Fintel and the moral and ethical zig-zags that bedeviled Rabbi Visotzky. At the same time, a batch of new books, written, for the most part, by Living Conversation panelists, amounts to a modest but unmistakable Genesis revival in American culture. Says Robert Alter, whose masterly new translation of Genesis was published last month: “Moyers has hit upon an idea whose time has come. At this moment of post-cold war confusion about where we’re going as a civilization, with all kinds of murky religious ferment, it makes sense to do some stocktaking. Let’s go back to the book that started the whole shebang.”

Can a text so old and so revered be subject to profitable re-examination? Does a work so central to Western culture need a spotlight? Genesis is widely regarded as humanity’s first, revolutionary statement of the notion that there is but one God, and no day passes when we do not touch upon its stories. Glancingly, as when we note the bitten-apple logo on our computer. Or deeply, as when we heed the words of Jesus, Luther or Freud, all of whom took up the great truths and agonizing questions set out by Hebrew scribes sometime between the 10th and 4th centuries before the advent of Christianity (and inspired by God, traditionalists believe, centuries earlier). Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer once told author David Rosenberg, “I am still learning the art of writing from the book of Genesis.” The words could have been uttered by Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky or Mario Puzo. Dozens died in Israel last month over boundaries Genesis set forth; yet the same tales appear, in somewhat altered form, in Islam’s holy text, the Koran.

Even though Adam and Eve and Noah and the Ark constitute some of the earliest building blocks of a child’s religious training, however, it is remarkable how thin most people’s Genesis knowledge is. (A quick test: Was the mark of Cain good or bad? On the simplest level, at least, it was good: God laid it on him to protect him during his exile.) True, Bible literacy as a whole is woefully low. In this instance, however, it may be because the Sunday school version of Genesis is a lot easier to handle than the real thing. And for those–arguably Moyers’ primary audience–who still understand the book as a series of tableaux, a close encounter with the original text, its spiky narrative and decidedly imperfect heroes, may prove an alarming yet exhilarating experience.

The first book of the Old Testament and of Jewish Scripture falls into two parts: primeval history (chapters 1-11); and patriarchal tales (12-50). The first part covers the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood and the Tower of Babel and establishes the basic premise of a God who acts in the history of his most problematic creation. The last three-quarters of Genesis, by contrast, is the wild and woolly saga of one family more widely perceived as historical. Exhorting Abraham to leave his father’s house and country, God offers him incalculable descendants and property. Abraham accepts, and the rest of Genesis describes his triumphs and travails and those of his son Isaac, grandson Jacob and great grandson Joseph; as they and their extended families are tested by hostile neighbors, famines, recurrent infertility and sometimes by the Deity himself. Divine intent and human ambition blur as each generation, often through painful winnowing, produces a champion to advance Israel’s destiny. The book ends with Abraham’s tiny clan blossomed into the foundations of the 12 Hebrew tribes and a brace of other nations; and the assurance that the people of the Covenant will survive, and with them, the Covenant itself.

Much of the recent popular controversy around Genesis has focused on the issue of whether the Creation should be understood literally. That debate has tended to obscure a further set of issues hinging on the character of both God and the patriarchs. More so than Jesus in the New Testament or even Jehovah in much of the rest of the Old, the Genesis God works in ways that many analysts, especially those willing to test the boundaries of conventional faith, find mysterious in the most profound and troubling sense. Jack Miles, author of the arresting God: A Biography, has written, “Much that the Bible says about him is rarely preached from the pulpit because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal.” By way of proof Miles cites the Flood in Genesis 8, wherein the Deity obliterates most of the creation he had termed “very good” only pages earlier, because of a trespass on rules that skeptics contend he has not yet stated. In chapter 22, in a passage that stands with the Book of Job as Scripture’s most wrenching enigma, he demands that Abraham sacrifice his favorite son and long-awaited heir, relenting only as the knife is poised to strike.

Then there is the behavior of the patriarchs. Writes one analyst, with some understatement: “There is often a disparity between these stories and the subsequent Judeo-Christian ethic that has been derived from them throughout the centuries.” Genesis chapter 12, as Visotzky was disagreeably reminded, seems to find Abraham allowing his wife to be taken into Pharaoh’s harem both to ensure the couple safe passage through Egypt and “so that all may go well with me.” Sarah, barren, offers her slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a kind of surrogate mother but when Hagar gets pregnant, Sarah becomes jealous and beats her (16). Lot sleeps with his daughters (19). Jacob embezzles from his brother (27). His sons, enraged at the rape of their sister, kill every man in a neighboring town (34). Much of this is unpunished by God and, indeed, seems to fulfill his larger purposes.

The unruly story lines did not go unremarked upon by early ecclesiastics trying to create systems of Scripture-based faith. St. Jerome, who translated the Word from Hebrew into Latin, grumbled that many of the narratives were “rude and repellent.” A medieval rabbi, borrowing an image from the story of Noah’s drunken disarray after the Flood (9: 21), suggested that “as dutiful children, let us cover the nakedness of our fathers in the cloak of favorable interpretation.” Something of the sort eventually occurred. The Christian church developed a set of interpretations according to which the patriarchs prefigure Christians as heroes of faith. The Jewish Midrash, although more flexible and occasionally even playful, also strove to harmonize scriptural difficulties. Both approaches were developed as aids to the believer: they worked from the assumption that God’s logic was impeccable; only man’s understanding was wanting. But readers may miss a chance to identify with the patriarchs’ vibrant humanity and to sharpen their own faith against the peculiar abrasiveness of the Biblical characters.

Visotzky sought to settle his Genesis crisis in a way that came naturally to him: through Bible study. Some time before, when Visotzky, a professor at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary, had first begun to muse about the work’s peculiarities, he had initiated in the school’s cafeteria a monthly dinner discussion dedicated to making its way through the book a chapter at a time. Instead of the academics and rabbis who were his usual conversation partners, however, he stocked the group with an interfaith roster of fiction writers, hoping they might have insight into human character if not into Midrash. “If I could make the patriarchs sacred again,” he says, “maybe I could make some sense of my own life.”

Sure enough, the authors, who included Cynthia Ozick and screenwriter-director Robert Benton, proved fascinated by Genesis and fearlessly willing to connect it with their own life. Gradually they helped Visotzky develop his own satisfying, if unorthodox, understanding of the patriarchs. God intended them not as paragons but as a paradox: badly flawed yet nonetheless blessed. It was in the struggle to “mediate this dissonance,” concluded Visotzky, that believers would achieve their own moral understanding. “It is not the narrative of Genesis that makes the work sacred,” he later wrote. “Rather, it is in the process of studying Genesis that the transformation takes place.”

Meanwhile, word of the seminar spread. A New York Times story claimed that it offered “the best conversations in New York City.” One day a former Baptist preacher from Texas dropped by. Like Visotzky, Bill Moyers was not particularly nourished by the picture of the patriarchs he had encountered in Sunday school and seminary. “The figures were drawn for moral instruction and therefore had to be flawless individuals who ought to be in stained-glass windows,” he says. Sometime after attending Visotzky’s supper, Moyers found himself sitting in his apartment at 3 a.m., having just read Genesis straight through “as if I were discovering it for the first time.” The stories spoke to difficulties with his father and to his feelings after the death of a brother; he became caught up in the saga of “heroes tinged with moral ambiguity and fallenness, yet through them some larger purposes unfolded of which they were not aware.” Moyers decided that night that “I’ve got to do this.” As television, he meant.

Yet Bill Moyers is a very different kind of believer from Steve Fintel or, for that matter, Burton Visotzky. For one thing, Moyers’ belief has an extremely well-exercised civic aspect. “What I have sought for 25 years to put on television is the conversation of democracy,” he says. Although that conversation has been eclectic, with shows ranging from the cia to the black family, Moyers is convinced that “nonsectarian, nonseparationist” religious talk is an essential component. Repeatedly, while promoting the new series, he tells audiences, “We have to decide all over again our identity as a people. Religion belongs in that discussion. We must learn how to write a new story including the deepest beliefs of people who are not like us.” Genesis, he says, provides Christians, Jews and Muslims with a unique common ground.

Moyers’ belief may also be more tormented than Visotzky’s. He has made a long personal journey from the Southern Baptist ministry into which he was ordained in 1954 to the far more liberal United Church of Christ. “I’ve had the experience of God,” he says. “But there’s a lot about God I don’t understand and a lot about faith that I wrestle with. Faith is too hard. It creates too many conflicts. I think if I myself could do it over again I’d be a man of no faith.” There are moments in his usually masterful moderation of the telecasts when that ambivalence seems to express itself more clearly than his faith.

Moyers begins each segment with a boiled-down version of the appropriate chapter and verse, narrated by an actor, either Alfre Woodard or Mandy Patinkin. Moyers limits his fellow conversationalists to seven per episode: but since Visotzky is the only guest who appears in more than two, the resulting cast comes to 39. It includes novelists like Bharati Mukherjee, John Barth and Mary Gordon; but also Bible experts, preachers, psychologists and a smattering of artists and poets. Among them are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, two Muslims, a Hindu, a Buddhist and several apparent agnostics. Yet in a choice that will reduce his audience and that inevitably changed the nature of the show’s discourse, Moyers decided not to include Christian Fundamentalists: “I called some” he says, “and they said, ‘That’s great. We’re going to talk about Creation and abortion?’ My guard went up. It would have struck people as the same discourse they’ve been hearing the last 15 years.”

With nearly a dozen clerics on board, A Living Conversation is hardly an exercise in atheism, debunking or even agnosticism. Rather it is a fascinating collection of approaches, from traditional to avant-garde, jostling around those magnificent, infuriating tales. As one panelist, author Charles Johnson, comments early on, “the problem is not a lack of meaning…it’s too much meaning.” Quite often the participants’ insights can be delightful–for example, author Gordon suggests that the irrationality of Cain’s murder of Abel epitomizes “the crisis of liberalism”–but such comments often whiz by without sufficient examination.

When the conversation does lock onto a subject, there can be fireworks. In the series’ best segment, “Apocalypse,” about the Flood, British author (and former nun) Karen Armstrong conducts a blistering twin attack. God, she maintains, is “not some nice, cozy daddy in the sky.” He is “behaving in an evil way,” effectively introducing mankind to the idea of justifiable genocide. Noah, meanwhile, is a “damaged survivor” who says no word about those drowning around him, much less tries to help them. Drinking his troubles away after reaching shore, he is enraged at being seen naked by his son Ham and invokes a curse on Ham’s son Canaan that Armstrong suggests presages the slaughter of the Canaanites later in the Bible. “You come out of the Ark…and what do you do?” Armstrong asks rhetorically. “You lay the seeds for a new holocaust.” All this is too much for Baptist minister and professor Samuel Proctor. “Sure, I wish that we could have had a story [including commentary on why Noah] didn’t ask somebody, “Would you like to come in and join us?'” he responds. But “that’s not the point at all. The point is that humans can use their freedom in such a way as to make God sick and tired. God said, ‘It grieves my heart. Bam! We’re going to start all over again.’ And,” Proctor admonishes, if his fellow panelists “don’t hurry up and get to the bow in the cloud and the new beginning, you’ve missed the main story of the story.”

There are moments that recapitulate the kind of personal identification that went on in Visotzky’s group, as when the group discusses Jacob, the wildly ambitious, God-haunted wanderer who hoodwinks Esau and goes on to wrestle a mysterious adversary, emerging with a limp and a blessing. Artist Hugh O’Donnell recalls the bloody brawl he had with his farmer father before the older man laughed and said, “You’re all right,” and accepted his son’s calling. And Moyers himself speaks up. “At 40,” says the man who started his career in the public eye as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary, “I did more wounding than I was wounded–parents, brother, wife, children. At 60, I’m wounded. Once you are wounded, you don’t want to wound anymore. You want to heal.”

When it was all over and she was back in London, says Armstrong, she was so stimulated by the Genesis stories that she wrote a book. In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (Knopf) is a brief survey of the tales through the prism of Armstrong’s strongly held views about God’s ultimate unknowability and the folly of some current denominations in second-guessing him. It joins the works of other Moyers panelists that collectively illustrate the rabbinic adage “Turn it, turn it, everything is in it.” Two are new translations: Alter’s (Norton) and a more selective and idiosyncratic effort by Buddhist Stephen Mitchell (HarperCollins). Visotzky, in his The Genesis of Ethics (Crown), not only honors the moral insights he gained through his conversations but displays a psychologist’s (or novelist’s) ability to see the patriarchal dramas through the eyes of each participant, seldom condemning and usually illuminating. Panelist Naomi Rosenblatt is a psychotherapist, and her Wrestling with Angels (Delta, with co-author Joshua Horwitz) features the subheadings “When Children Become Hostage to Their Parents’ Marriage” (Jacob, Esau, Isaac, Rebekah) and “Setting Limits on Self-love” (Joseph).

David Rosenberg has been engaging Genesis publically for some time, but declined to be on the Moyers show. In Genesis: As It Is Written (HarperSanFrancisco), his collection of essays by writers and poets, he contends that contemporary authors are better qualified than Bible experts to explicate what he sees primarily as a secular masterpiece. Indeed, both Phillip Lopate’s disconcerting contribution about playing Abraham in an Abraham-Sarah-Pharaoh triangle and David Mamet’s Freudian riff on the Flood make for enjoyable reading. But Rosenberg’s thesis is sorely tested by The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (Image), a wonderful book by Living Conversation participant and Orthodox Midrash expert Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Her chapter on the Flood beats Mamet’s hands down.

The question, of course, is who will buy these books? And who will shun them because of their connection to a show some may see as apostasy? Doug Donaldson, who is selling the videotape of the Moyers shows for educational and home-video markets, says pre-broadcast sales have been “doing gangbusters,” with one major exception: traditional religious distributors. Some sense of why may be gleaned from Roberta Hestenes, an academician and Presbyterian pastor and one of Moyers’ guests. Although quick to say she “thoroughly enjoyed” her experience on the show, she found the conversations were missing something: “I wondered about the God dimension of the stories.” Her panel dwelled on the tales’ human characters and on their structure–on everything, in fact, but the Being she understands as their center. “It was a postmodernist conversation,” she suggests. “It probably is not very reflective of faith as it is lived out by the majority of adherents.”

In fact, for millions of Americans, many of the issues raised in Genesis: A Living Conversation will be no issues at all. Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews are well aware of the moral flaws of the book’s human characters. But since they regard the entire book as the saga of God putting humanity on trial rather than the reverse, these imperfections will not challenge faith. Nor would they have perturbed the work’s original audience, maintains Southern Baptist professor Kenneth Mathews, an Old Testament scholar at Alabama’s Samford University who has just published his own commentary, Genesis 1-11. “Moses’ Israel would come to read the opening chapters through their eyes of faith and experience,” he says. “If one is disinclined to surrender to God, one is inclined to read the text in the light of our own ‘culture.'” Concludes Mathews: “Are we submitting to the picture of God in Scripture? Or are we putting ourselves over Scripture and rewriting it in terms of our own preferences?” Similar sentiments have been expressed by Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy of New York’s Yeshiva University and Moyers panelist and Catholic priest-professor Alexander Di Lella.

And yet there are many in America who will accept only a God who approaches them, or can be approached, within the context of their own culture. And there are others of traditional faith who will forgive Moyers’ lack of orthodoxy for the opportunity he provides to mine for Scriptural treasure. A Living Conversation, Moyers says, “is aimed at anyone who finds these subjects and this kind of conversation worth their time,” and he thinks that number is growing. “I find in my own life and in the lives of other people a yearning for an authentic experience. This series may pass without notice, but there is something out there that it ratifies.”

The enthusiastic response to his pre-broadcast promotion of the show would seem to support that observation. In Port Jervis, New York, an art gallery has opened an exhibit of Genesis scenes, while a nearby cancer center is using the series to foster communication between patients and their families. Between them, Women of Reform Judaism and United Methodist Women have sent out thousands of study guides on how to replicate the television discussion. In Kansas City, Missouri, Shepherd’s Centers of America, serving older adults in 26 states, is scheduling discussion groups with a target population of 1 million. All told, Moyers will issue 130,000 guides, while interfaith groups encourage discussions of the show–and of the Bible.

In Baltimore, Maryland, 27 congregations–Jewish, Christian, white and black–have enlisted 10 or more lay members each to join discussion of the Living Conversation. Members of the Conservative synagogue Chizuk Amuno will mix with parishioners of Saint Matthew Catholic Church, with its 40% minority membership. Saint Matthew’s Father Joseph Muth says he is seeking “an opportunity for folks to see across church and racial lines through discussing these basic stories.” Chizuk Amuno’s Rabbi Richard Camras concurs. “Everybody sees [the stories] as sacred,” he says; their power derives in part from their subject matter, the “jealousy, sibling rivalry, wanting to strike out at your neighbor, the things we face every day.”

Visotzky would smile. Perhaps more so than Moyers, he is, from personal experience, the Living Conversation’s true believer. His initial group has spawned a successor, run by a colleague. He himself has moderated shorter programs with executives and a variety of others. Next week he will remarry: members of the original conversations will attend the wedding. The point, he says, “isn’t so much about belief as about whether you’re willing to take the risk of study. Study leads to conversation, and conversation leads to community, and that’s what we’re desperate for.”

“If people watch the series,” he notes, “at some point they’re going to say, ‘Is that really in there?’ And they’re going to look at a Bible. And they’re going to be dumbfounded how it speaks to their own life.” He feels no need to try to predict “whether this will make them march to the churches and the synagogues, or merely recognize that here is a classic of Western literature. That’s almost incidental,” Visotzky contends. “The Bible can pretty well speak for itself.”

–Reported by Jyl Benson/Metairie, Ratu Kamlani and Susanne Washburn/New York and Richard N. Ostling with Moyers

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com