The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis book by Leon Kass reviewed by Margaret Fox

In The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, Leon Kass looks at the first book of the Bible to find out just what makes it eternally relevant. He addresses especially the “children of skeptics” looking to rediscover why all but their most recent predecessors found these stories so compelling, and people frustrated with the inability of science to give a definitive answer about what the good life really is. His target audience may also include students puzzled that their own ability to recognize literary allusions to Cain and Abel does not deter them from squabbling with younger siblings over who gets the car. Tracing the Biblical account of the generations of Adam through Joseph, Kass interprets the book with what he calls a “wisdom-seeking” spirit, constantly asking what it has to say about the human condition and how one should live.

Kass’s interpretation of the creation account exemplifies the benefits of his strategy. Read literally, Kass argues, Genesis shows God creating human beings twice. First in 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Then, in Genesis 2, God forms man from dust and only later makes woman from his rib. Unlike much current biblical scholarship, he is uninterested in proving that the two stories arise from different sources or traditions, compiled by an anonymous later editor. One of Kass’s basic premises is that he will interpret the text as a coherent whole regardless of its historical background. On the other hand, he does not claim that the text is the indubitable word of the Holy Spirit, and he does not ignore problematic logical inconsistencies; unlike some fundamentalist readers, Kass does not simply try to explain the second creation story as a mere amplification of the first. Read philosophically, Kass argues, the two accounts have distinct moral functions. The first story reveals that the universe, God’s creation, is not itself divine, discouraging the natural human tendency to worship nature. In the second, we learn of the dangers inherent in our freedom and reason as man causes his own expulsion from Eden.

In the rest of his book, Kass examines the outcome of this situation: unable to find guidance in the natural world or in their own wisdom, Adam’s descendents must gradually learn to revere God. What follows is a comprehensive and engaging trek from Eden to Egypt in the company of primordial humans and patriarchs. Kass finds a turning point in Genesis 11, when God topples the tower of Babel, and divides his own book into two parts accordingly. In the first half of his book, Kass conducts an anthropological analysis of the Bible’s account of the universal history of mankind. After God disperses the builders of Babel, the text narrows its focus to Abraham and his descendants, whom God has selected for his covenant. Kass shifts his attention to the emerging patriarchy, examining God’s education of fathers and sons (and, occasionally, wives and sisters) as necessary to the pre-political development of the nation that will eventually receive the law at Sinai. Throughout, Kass illuminates Genesis’s viewpoints on freedom and reason, sex and marriage, arts and agriculture, justice and the law, and man’s relationship to God.

The book, largely inspired by a seminar Kass taught for twenty years at the University of Chicago, contains almost as many questions as it does answers. Kass does not claim that his analysis is definitive; for him, the approach is just as important as the resulting interpretation. Still, readers should be aware that he will not reject a biblical claim solely on the grounds that it violates current concepts of political correctness. For example, the institution of marriage is essential; each generation must produce heirs in order to perpetuate the tradition. Gender roles, Kass argues, are not a cultural construction but rather a necessary outcome of biological differences between men and women. This is not to say, however, that women must play a subordinate role. God may tell Eve that Adam is to rule over her, but he later commands Abraham to “hearken unto” his wife, Sarah, when she demands the expulsion of her stepson, Ishmael. Man and woman are created unequal in the Garden of Eden, but God proceeds to teach the patriarchs to respect their wives as partners in the process of producing and raising inheritors of the covenant.

Kass’s in-depth interpretation is made possible by his extreme attention to detail. Sometimes, however, his methodological assumption that every word counts tends to bog down his pace. At 666 pages, numerological joking aside, Kass’s book may try the patience of a lay reader interested in a philosophical introduction. For example, Genesis describes Adam’s naming of the animals in one verse; Kass takes five pages. On the other hand, Kass’s close reading results in compelling discoveries. From Genesis 5, an account of the generations of Adam that most readers would be inclined to skim, Kass answers a troubling question about the flood: what made humans act up so badly that God’s only recourse was to destroy almost all of them and start anew? Kass guesses that a frenzy of immoral behavior commenced when Adam died after producing nine generations of offspring. The now sizable population, suddenly forced to take their own deaths seriously, sought to immortalize their names through heroic exploits displeasing to God. Here, Kass’s attention to detail pays off in an insight not readily available to anyone who reads Genesis 5 without a calculator at hand.

After the flood recedes, Noah’s sons begin to repopulate the earth, but several generations later people once again take action that displeases God. This time, they seek to make a name for themselves not through heroism but through architecture: they build the tower of Babel. Here, Kass’s argument for the relevance of Genesis to our modern lives is at its strongest. Like the citizens of Babel, we are a civilized, settled people with a universal language in mathematics. Though we have not literally attempted to reach heaven from earth by building a tower, we do attempt to pursue happiness through technology in other forms. A wisdom-seeking reading of Genesis ends up revealing the limitations of human reason: God ultimately topples the tower. Kass argues that Genesis, with its emphasis on family life and reverence for God, encourages the modern reader to search for the good life outside of science.