Reading the Bible: Genesis

By Rebecca Curtin

A few months ago I blogged about my decision to read the whole Bible. It has been slow going as I suspected that it would be. And, I confess that I’ve stretched the definition of “daily” as I conduct what was initially intended to be daily scripture study. More truthfully, every few days I read a few chapters, and, I am sad to confess, I have only just finished Genesis.

However, on a more positive note, I have found in this reading of Genesis a new spiritual and literary discipline. This time I read Genesis with attention. I studied the passages with fantastic lists of descendants determined to construct some sort of family tree for the families of Shem, Ishmael and Esau. In this, I was not very successful. I’m afraid I will never be able to answer off the top of my head who the father of Bela, King of Edom is. The Bible is exhausting to read, and it is especially exhausting to follow simultaneously the text and the editor’s notes with philological and historical details.

I have also found that genuine scripture study cannot be performed without equal parts reading to meditation. Some of this meditation is involuntary: I often found myself staring into space, contemplating words I had just read. I slowly and methodically turned the most foreign sounding of place names over in my mouth: Gerar, Mamre, Jegar-sahadutha.

In meditation I found myself carried along – sometimes away – by those images that appear frequently. I contemplated the significance of wells, water, stars, and sand. The well especially struck me as a type of B.C.E. bar – a place where people finalize contracts, seal pacts, and pick up partners (particularly younger female cousins) while you and your camels can enjoy a good drink. Ok, maybe the well was not completely like a bar. But, water in the desert could be as intoxicating as alcohol, if more essential to life. It was a precious commodity, refreshing in a way that perhaps we of Brita-filtered readily available H2O cannot understand.

And, there are so many good female characters here, too, if sometimes much of their attention is taken with by the competitive birthing of sons. In Genesis we meet desperate, lost, and jealous women, as well as strong, wise, and brave women. (And often all these traits appear in the same woman.) These women endure their husbands’ follies: Abraham lets the Egyptians steal his wife twice to save his own life. Women like Rachel endure the pain both of childbirth and of barrenness. They survive exile, rape, and abuse, which sometimes comes at the hands of other women. They exhibit at once very little control over their own fates (Rebekah is destined to marry Isaac because she is the one who waters his servant’s camels) and remarkable control over significant events (Rebekah devises a plan to help her favored son win his father’s blessing).

Many books have been written about the women of Genesis, both in fiction and in academia, and I am afraid that I cannot offer much that is novel. But, in this, my most recent encounter with the women of Genesis, I was reminded of the complex worlds in which these women moved and of the complications modern women face as we continue to attempt to navigate our own worlds. Sorrow, jealousy, and anger are at one time or another felt by us all. Our drugs are arguably better, but childbirth is still painful. Rape continues to be an issue everywhere. But, with these women we can also experience the beautiful moments: the rainbow after heavy rain, the joy of a child’s birth, and the cool, clean, taste of water.

Rebecca Curtin earned her Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2008. She is about to begin Exodus, her favorite book.

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