Can there be anything new to say about Genesis, the most widely read and studied book in the Bible? Beth Kissileff gathers essays that offer a multitude of original angles from which to examine the first book of the Pentateuch in a new collection featuring contributions from poets, fiction writers, Bible scholars, business ethics professors, lawyers, and economic theorists, among others, who bring their own areas of expertise to their readings of the text.
Like any anthology, some entries might strike the reader as more interesting than others, but the collection as a whole presents so much variety, in both style and content, that any reader can benefit from its offerings. Chapters range from close literary readings of Biblical passages to more sustained examinations of themes pertinent to Genesis — such as the chapter that begins with a brief discussion of Cain’s murder of Abel, then devotes the rest of its pages to reviewing the history of bloodlust throughout human history — to poetic and whimsical meditations, like Rebecca Goldstein’s cleverly titled “Looking Back at Lot’s Wife (Genesis 19)” about leaving the context of one’s upbringing
The best chapters present a balance between the authors’ field of expertise and the uncovering of new insights into the text itself. To cite two examples: Moses L. Pava, the dean of Yeshiva University’s business school, offers a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers through the examination of the concept of “ethical entrepreneurship,” concluding that despite what some traditional interpreters have suggested, “Joseph and his brothers are not experts at forgiveness and repentance. Rather they are ethical entrepreneurs, more or less successful, breaking new ground, and winging it as best as they can.” Seth Greenberg, a retired professor of psychology, offers a similarly insightful chapter which surveys stories of “facial recognition” in Genesis through the prism of contemporary discussions of the outlawing of burkas as well as the development of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies. Kissileff’s own chapter, in which she compares the figures of Rebecca and Esther through the idea of having the ability to author one’s own story, is another highlight of the volume.
Overall Kissileff does a wonderful job of soliciting contributions for this work from both major and less well-known writers, although one wonders why she included so many chapters (roughly half the book) reprinted from earlier works, and the book would certainly have benefited from more careful editing.
The anthology concludes with a fascinating discussion of Jacob’s death through a comparison with modern end-of-life testimonials. Like the words spoken before death and preserved by loved ones for generations, the Bible itself has been passed down from its original reception throughout the ages. As long as works like Reading Genesis continue to be produced, the ability of the Bible to speak to us vibrantly even today will not soon be lost.
Visiting Scribe: Beth Kissileff
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.