Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Leon Kass on Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

In The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, bioethicist Leon Kass explores the philosophical and ethical dimensions of Genesis. He does this as a medical doctor committed to engaging the wisdom of the text, holding it close, and teaching it to one's children as a defense against the "antiwisdoms" of modernity (p. 4). He explores the Genesis text as a coherent whole and wastes no time teasing out sources. His approach is to gain practical wisdom for our lives today and his method, while called "philosophical" is dependent upon psychological insights as well as spiritual insights from the Talmud.

Kass hopes with this book to help the Jewish “children of skeptics” to understand why their predecessors found Genesis compelling and illuminating. By shifting the conversation to what he calls “wisdom-seeking”, Kass avoids the view of many skeptics that science has proven Scripture to be false. He is critical of how science abandoned "the large metaphysical-theological questions and spiritual-moral concerns that preoccupied" its ancestors (p. 5).

Kass is not interested in a politically correct interpretation. For example, he argues that male and female gender roles are not a cultural construct but an expression of real biological differences. Concerning homosex and incest, he holds up the story of Sodom, explaining: "This city's special band of injustice is, in fact, epitomized in its own sexual perversions: the acts of sodomy (practiced by the citizens) and the acts of incest (later practiced by Lot's daughters on their father)" (p. 329).

Kass explores the Genesis text as a coherent whole and wastes no time teasing out "sources". His approach is to gain practical wisdom for our lives today and his method, while called "philosophical" is more dependent upon psychological insights than upon spiritual insights that come from observing the repetition of patterns.

Kass sees the patterns in Genesis and explains that Genesis speaks not about "what happened, but what always happens" (pp. 10, 54). He sees the parallels between Joseph and Solomon, for example, and he maintains that Genesis is "instructional narrative" (p. 79). Both Joseph and Solomon married women of the royal court of Egypt and both men embody wisdom in the Old Testament.

The Serpent

Kass' method is evident at the start where he discusses the distinct purposes of the two creation accounts. The first story (Gen. 1) reveals that God's creation, while good, is not to be worshiped. The second story (Genesis 2-3) speaks of the dangers inherent in human freedom and reason. The discussion stresses ethics more than metaphysics, therefore the reality signaled by the serpent is less significant than the question of human freedom, will and rationality.

The serpent for Kass represents the "sibilant and seductive" voice of human reason (p. 80). He never considers that the serpent, while a creature able to communicate like Man, may represent forbidden occult activities. Instead the serpent speaks "as unaided reason naturally does" (note, p. 81). He is correct that "There is no textual basis for identifying the serpent with Satan."

Kass sees the organization of Genesis as hinging on the destruction of the Tower of Babel (symbol of the limits of human reason) and the calling of Abraham. From this point, the stage is set for the eventual emergence of the nation of Israel from the pre-political world of Abraham's ancestors to the law given at Sinai. Kass seems unaware of the evidence that places Abraham's ancestors in the Afro-Asiatic Dominion with its sophisticated social structures and political networks.

Another weakness of the book is Kass' designation of Abraham as Terah's first-born son. This is factually wrong. Analysis of the kinship pattern shown in Genesis 4 and 5 reveals that Abraham was Terah's youngest son. Terah's had 2 wives. By his half-sister wife (daughter of Nahor) he had Nahor, the first-born son, and then Abraham. By his patrilineal parallel cousin wife (daughter of Haran) Terah had Haran, the first-born son, and Sarah. Sarah and Abraham had the same father but different mothers, as Abraham explains to Abimelech in Genesis 20:12. Kass has missed the distinctive bride's naming prerogative among Abraham's people. (It seems a curious omission since he takes 5 pages to address Noah's naming prerogative.)

Casting Abraham as Terah's first-born son causes Kass to miss one of the most significant ethical dilemmas posed by Genesis: the conflict between brothers and their tribes over the question of who should rule. Two tribal areas compete for the right to be known as Jacob’s final resting place. One is Hebron in Judah, and the other is Shechem in Israel. These competing tribal claims point to conflicts between brothers. Kass states that the rivalry becomes greatest when sons seek to establish neolocal residence (p. 447). However, the custom of rulers among Abraham's people was for ruling first-born sons to stay with the fathers. These rulers inherited the territories of their fathers by maintaining 2 wives on a north-south axis.

The recurring theme of fraternal conflict involves Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. The archtypical example is between Cain and Abel, which results in bloodshed. The conflict between brothers (indeed between all classes of people) finds promise of resolution in Messiah, who is traced through David, the shepherd chosen to rule over Israel though he was Jesse's youngest son.

Kass often refers to numerological symbolism and one notes that the book has exactly 666 pages. I loved that he did this. He is sending a message that there is still much more to be said. Clearly, Kass does not claim this expansive volume to be exhaustive. It is however, influential. In his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony makes frequent reference to Kass book.


Canon Tallis said...

While totally accepting of the theme of fraternal strife, I was caught by the business of not teasing out sources in Genesis. I remember from a fair number of years ago a large computor study of the Hebrew text which the author of the study claimed eliminated the idea of several sources for the book. His conclusion was that there was a single author and no more.
This brought to mind C. S. Lewis's claim that critics seemed never to understand the relationship between a writer and his work. According to him, they, in judging his own writing, saw hugh conflicts in works which all but wrote themselves and the opposite with works with which he had struggled. The question I would ask is do we know for what purpose it was written. What did the writer intend for us to do with it after he had finished writing it? That is the question which I want to see answered.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I appreciate that Kass doesn't take a source critical approach in his book, yet it is evident that he assumes some conclusions of source criticism.

It is interesting that you should mention CS Lewis because I recently finished 3 of his books: Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Problem of Pain. I can imagine his amusement were people to view these works as having different sources because they are very different. Now that I've read his Narnia Chronicles twice and these books I can see that Lewis has expressed himself cogently and consistently.

The question of the purpose of Genesis requires first addressing who the author might be. I believe that the Author is God and His scribe was attached to the House of David. Such is the perfection of the narrative and pattern.

As to the purpose, God wants us to see His love and hesed embodied in Christ. Consider how Joseph's brothers resented his closeness to their father and abused him. So the Jews resented the Beloved Son and abused Him. If we read Genesis as if it has nothing to do with Messiah, we miss a great deal. In fact, we miss everything that is ultimately important in Genesis. The Church Fathers understood this.