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  • The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
  • Laurence A. Turner
The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, by Leon R. Kass. New York: Free Press, 2003. 700 pp. $35.00.

If evidence were needed for the profundity of the book of Genesis, it may be found in the unceasing flood of volumes which seek to plumb its depths. Contemporary scholarship now interacts with biblical texts in ways undreamed of a mere generation ago. More conventional interpreters sometimes look askance at such innovations, but Kass's volume, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, provides much food for thought on how this ancient text may speak to a contemporary readership.

There are numerous exegetical, historical, and theological readings of Genesis which approach the text with divergent presuppositions and which arrive at multifarious and often mutually exclusive conclusions. Kass's approach is to investigate Genesis from a philosophical perspective, that is to say, to approach it with the expectation that it will speak to those who wish to acquire the wisdom necessary to live an enlightened life in the 21st century. The moral perspective of Genesis, and how this challenges much that is crass in western (American) culture, is a major thread woven by Kass throughout his book. Yet this is no pious moralistic homily addressed to the faithful by an author expounding the authority of the Bible as Scripture. Kass is neither a biblical scholar nor an active participant in a community of faith. He writes as a distinguished bio-ethicist from a secular Jewish perspective. In several places Kass himself expresses surprise that a person from his background should have engaged with Genesis in the first place, and even more amazingly, have been won over by its moral vision.

At 700 pages this is a long book. Its length is a testament to how significant and enriching Kass considers Genesis to be. However, its size makes it impossible to provide more than a broad view of its content. Essentially the book takes a holistic, final-form approach to Genesis, arguing for its total coherence, in which "every word counts" and "juxtapositions are important" (p. 14). Kass's presuppositions soon become obvious. This is an essentially "modernist" interpretation, yet which at the same time conveys a deep skepticism about the values of modern culture—its technological strengths merely mask its deep weaknesses. He frequently dismisses postmodernism (e.g., p. 243). More than once he vigorously attacks feminist hermeneutics. He accuses "some contemporary feminists" of reading "thoughtlessly and tendentiously" because like most of the rest of their society "they do not reflect, philosophically" (pp. 112–113). At the same time, however, he shows sensitivity to gender issues and attempts to show how Genesis argues against male domination (e.g., p. [End Page 161] 115). As well as broad brush strokes there is detailed engagement with the text. For example, he provides a comparison of the verbs used in the creation and flood narratives (p. 231), examples of paranomasia in Gen. 32 (p. 450), and the precise etymology of "Israel" and its implications (p. 460). However, all of the above is already present in the literature. Does this volume merit a place on bookshelves or in library catalogues already over-crowded with works on Genesis?

As a biblical exegete rather than philosopher myself, I must admit to some skepticism on first picking up The Beginning of Wisdom. The Bible continues to attract educated non-specialists who run riot with exotic theories based on a surface reading of the text that might be entertaining if only they were not taken so seriously. My fears soon abated as I made my way through Kass's lucid, and in places profound argument. I came to the book with a detailed knowledge of the content and history of interpretation of Genesis. I learned little new about the content of Genesis, but my mind was sent racing in many a creative direction by Kass's suggestive philosophical paradigm. Again, as an exegete with a rather more concrete frame of mind than the average philosopher, I would like to have had more specific examples as pegs on which to hang his theoretical suggestions. For example, perhaps it is true...


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