The Magazine

In the Beginning . . .

Leon Kass's Genesis.

Jun 2, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 37 • By GARY A. ANDERSON
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The Beginning of Wisdom

Reading Genesis

by Leon R. Kass

Free Press, 720 pp., $35

BREVARD CHILDS, a professor of biblical studies at Yale, used to tell his students that what they needed to read the Bible more intelligently was to become deeper people.

This bit of wisdom--that reading and character are intimately related--seems to have mostly slipped away from us in American culture. And its loss can be measured by the shock we experience when we encounter a book like Leon Kass's exploration of the Book of Genesis, "The Beginning of Wisdom," which assumes and depends upon both the high moral importance of the Bible's text and the high moral demand placed upon the Bible's readers.

Kass is best known these days as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and America's recent battles over cloning and stem-cell research offer obvious and appropriate occasions for the application of his penetrating philosophical mind and finely tuned moral compass to the pressing issues of the day.

There's some parallel to this in the purposes he intends with "The Beginning of Wisdom." As Kass states in his introduction, the title he originally proposed for the book was "The Education of the Fathers," for the bulk of his narrative concerns how the colorful stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs of ancient Israel can serve us today as teachings about the good life.

But to seek only contemporary advice in "The Beginning of Wisdom"--as though Kass were writing the upperbrow equivalent of "Management Secrets of the Bible for Today's CEOs"--is to mischaracterize the book radically. Kass has spent some twenty years reading the terse and enigmatic text of Genesis. (St. Augustine once said the best rule for understanding the Bible was to read it over and over again.) And all this hard labor has born fruit as Kass discovers, in biblical detail after biblical detail, themes of universal moral and philosophical importance.

And yet, Kass's effort frees us to ask whether the Book of Genesis is fundamentally about such universal moral and philosophical themes. That it contains these themes, and that Kass has found them, seems beyond doubt. He is a brilliant explicator of texts, an intellect of high moral seriousness, and a profound philosophical examiner of human life. But where in universal philosophy can we look to find one of the most important features of Genesis: the theological character of Israel's identity as the chosen people of God?

THE BOOK OF GENESIS divides neatly into two halves. The first, the primeval history, stretches across the first eleven chapters and tells the story of creation, the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, and concludes with the Tower of Babel. This portion of the story ends with humankind in complete disarray: Divided by language, each incipient nation is sent from Babel to establish its own culture. In contrast to every other ancient account of mankind's origins, the Bible chooses not to locate its own national perspective in the story. Whereas, say, the ancient Babylonian account of creation builds toward and concludes with the erection of the city of Babylon and its central cult site, no trace of such national chauvinism can be found in Israel's tale. The claim to land and law, which are central to the remainder of the Torah, are passed over in silence. The atmosphere of these first eleven chapters is breathtakingly universal.

Equally shocking, Kass observes, is the way in which the discovery of human culture is recounted. Unlike Mesopotamian creation accounts, the emergence of the various arts (metallurgy, music, agriculture, and midwifery) is not the result of some divine benefaction. They are tainted upon arrival, for they originate as human inventions. To make matters even worse, it is the descendants of Cain, the world's first murderer, who found the first city and put in motion the march toward progress.

Here "The Beginning of Wisdom" is truly in its element. Kass is awestruck by the Bible's unique approach to this subject and draws the proper conclusion: In the biblical worldview, the emergence of civilized life is set under a pall of suspicion. While Aristotle praised the city as "the first truly self-sufficient community," the Bible, Kass concludes, considers deeply troublesome our aspirations to self-sufficiency.