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1 CHAPTER 1 Playing by Different Rules Reading Genesis through Its Deferrals Genesis depicts Israel as, so to speak, arriving late to its own story. The first creation account (1:1–­ 2:4) does not take any special notice of the land of Israel, and neither the first nor the second account make any mention of the people Israel. The delayed entrance of Israel into the biblical text becomes even more striking when compared with the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish, widely considered the most relevant ancient dialogue partner for Genesis. The Enuma Elish makes plain its allegiance to the Babylonian people by articulating their special role from the very beginning. Genesis, however, depicts creation in a way that postpones a focus on Israel, presenting God’s work as universal in scope and coming before any form of election.1 The book employs other such gestures of deferral. The centrality of family in Genesis puts off a focus on “nations,” although they remain within view. The recurrence of geographical displacement delays the existence of a settled, stable community. Together, creation, family, and displacement present identity as something contingent and in progress. If (following one prominent definition) “nationality” consists especially of “the belief in the existence of a designated trans-­ local territory which 1 Cf. Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” in Brett, ed., Ethnicity and the Bible, 143–­69. 2 Belonging in Genesis ‘belongs to’ a specific trans-­tribal/clan/city-­kingdom people,”2 then Genesis anticipates, but systematically withholds, nationality from Israel. The book concludes with Israel not yet a people, not yet in its place. The book of Genesis and its placement at the head of the scriptural canon(s) suggest that Israel’s religion should not be understood as an outgrowth of its history, but rather that Israel’s history should be understood as an outgrowth of its religion. Such a shift in perspective derives from a changed approach to the text, not a reconsideration of the history. At issue is not so much what happened as how it should be understood—­ the meaning of history and not its details. The biblical depiction of Israel’s history presents the promise to Abra(ha)m as predating an Israelite people, “making the theology earlier than the people ”3 and making it necessary always to consider the people in relation to God. In biblical perspective, Israel begins not with a people and their experience, but with the call of God, and living out the identity of Israel means living into that story. The idea of Israel’s history as an outgrowth of its religion should not be discarded as naiveté. The way that Genesis subordinates national modes of conceptualizing identity to theological ones has dramatic implications for human solidarity, and for those contemporary identities that are, in various ways, Bible based. Biblical Israel functions as an important reference point for a lot of people, whether they are asking what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Christian, or what it means to be an heir of Western civilization, to name only a few examples. Reconsidering the presentation of identity in Genesis means reimagining all the identities that proceed from it. It also means revisiting ideas about ethnicity, nationality, and race, and the way in which those categories function. Genesis lacks those features moderns consider most important to community self-­ definition, making it a decidedly unsuitable starting point for a modern study of identity. Accordingly, those that do work with Genesis generally recontextualize it and import those elements from elsewhere.4 The dominant approach to academic biblical studies 2 Steven Grosby, Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient and Modern (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 46. 3 Levenson, “Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” 152. It is significant that Levenson’s perspective on Israelite identity grows from his Jewish commitment to canon. 4 It is significant that Steven Grosby has to look to the Deuteronomic literature to demonstrate Israel’s status as a nation. Even a study like Mark Brett’s Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (London: Routledge, 2000) reads Genesis through the lens of Playing by Different Rules 3 considers explaining the features of a text by reference to the experience of the people involved in its production and/or transmission as a necessary aspect of any study. Context is important, but biblical scholarship has cultivated sensitivity to the ancient context at the expense of sensitivity to the modern context from which...


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