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7 CHAPTER 2 (Un)conventional Genesis Two Ways of Reading Identity and the Divine Word In “Odysseus’ Scar” Erich Auerbach identifies a defining characteristic of biblical literature. He writes, “far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, [the biblical narrative] seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history .”1 In his view the Homeric poems situate themselves within an externally existing history and make no claims upon other, parallel histories . They provide a diversion, taking place in a story world that may be visited by the reader without impinging on his or her real world. In contrast, the Bible sets itself up as the center of all history, starting “with the beginning of time, with the creation of the world” and ending “with the Last Days.”2 Since the Bible’s “universal history” claims to provide the overarching structure into which everything must fit, Auerbach therefore concludes that “interpretation in a determined direction becomes a general method of comprehending reality.”3 In other words, 1 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (trans. Willard R. Trask; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953; repr., 2003), 15. 2 Auerbach, Mimesis, 16. 3 Auerbach, Mimesis, 16. 8 Belonging in Genesis understanding the world begins not with laws of nature or unconditioned premises of thought, but rather with biblical interpretation.4 A problem begins to emerge here, one that will haunt the rest of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality inWestern Literature. Auerbach has described the Bible as presenting a “universal history” spanning the creation of the world to the last days. It quite naturally follows that “everything else that happens in the world can only be conceived as an element in this sequence; into it everything that is known about the world . . . must be fitted as an ingredient of the divine plan.” However, in the course of articulating this, Auerbach corrects himself and specifies, “at least everything that touches upon the history of the Jews.”5 On the one hand, he recognizes the Bible’s scope as unrelentingly universal, but on the other hand, he also recognizes its stubbornly particular focus on (the people who eventually became) the Jews. The Bible refuses to allow for any reality outside its own, so that all people must find their place in its history, yet it assigns pride of place unmistakably to Israel. Accordingly, the Bible pushes its readers to find a way to articulate themselves in relation to biblical Israel and connect their stories to Israel’s own. This problem emerges more forcefully in relation to the next chapter of Mimesis to be discussed here, in which Auerbach moves into a more direct examination of the Bible’s impact on the West. Considered together, these two chapters illustrate a fundamental contrast: readers have long observed that, rather than abiding by externally established norms, the Bible creates its own conceptual framework that renders all human realities contingent, including communal identity; however, the currently regnant scholarly approach to the Bible interprets the text in accordance with a preexisting conceptual framework that corresponds to and enacts a certain understanding of communal identity. The Scandal of Sacred Literature Coming just a few chapters after “Odysseus’ Scar,” “Adam and Eve” might be expected to provide an extended example of the Bible overcoming its readers’ reality. However, the latter chapter reveals a Bible more inclined to reflect its readers’ reality back to them and imbue it 4 Susan A. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 28–­ 30. 5 Auerbach, Mimesis, 16. (Un)conventional Genesis 9 with divine sanction.6 This transformation reflects the different undertakings of the two chapters: in “Odysseus’ Scar” Auerbach examines the Bible itself, while in “Adam and Eve” he examines the Bible as mediated to later Western audiences in a twelfth-­ century French Christmas play. The domineering Bible of “Odysseus’ Scar” is made to negotiate with its readers’ reality in “Adam and Eve” so that the two realities confer authority upon one another as they become ever more indissolubly linked. “Adam and Eve” teems with contradiction between Auerbach’s articulations of biblical and Christian theological principles and of the operations of the texts that mediate the Bible to a popular audience. That this tension goes unremarked reveals Auerbach’s own investment in the...


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