Rabbi Robert Daum, in an overview of Genesis, gave licence to explore the hidden meanings that we impart to the text as we read it. Ronald Hendel in his book The Book of Genesis: A Biography notes that the bible has an “afterlife” – though composed and rewritten over hundreds of years, its interpretative life is what gives it meaning and currency for all cultures. This interpretative life, though perhaps a literary conceit, allows us to seriously consider competing versions of the text of Genesis (such as that found in the Dead Seas scrolls); oral versions versus written versions; and verbatim reproduction versus performance of the text by an interpreter. As an apocalyptic text describing a time beyond our own or a neo-Platonic book describing a place very different from our world, Daum says the book reflects our human desires to return the world to an Edenic state. No literalist reading of these cryptic words – permanently relevant, perfect and complete, and divine in origin – could compete.
Thus, in Genesis we find two creation stories, plus others in Psalms and Job. Woman is created either out of an androgynous being, or out of soil. Different personal names for God are used in close proximity without explanation. In Gen 1:2 our word “the deep” (tehom) is also proper name of an ancient Mesopotamian deity (Tiamaat) in an attempt to supplant the chaos of the manifold pantheon with the one true God. So too the sun and moon as “lights” disempowers the sun-god and moon-goddess myths prevalent at the time. Ruach embodies God’s enigmatic character as wind, breath or spirit depending on context. When Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel, the text continues to refer to him thereafter as Jacob. This is not just sloppy editing or a fetishistic attachment to tradition – it’s a deliberate ambiguity to draw us into the text and have us embrace its wideness. Name changes, contradictory versions of important moments, rewriting history in two different chapters – all these give us a sense of the richness and mystery of the book, and we must train ourselves to read carefully to get the full benefit of it. [AP]