Reading from the beginning: Genesis 101

It has become fashionable to stand over old books we have read like flattened opposing boxers laid out on a canvas. Down with their sexual politics! Down with their backward and casual racism! Down with there (insert objectionable feature here)! We raise our hands in the air like people who had just laid out our oppressor. We are free of the past and all its silly books. With the book of Genesis, even Christians have learnt to stand over it and lecture it for its backward sexual views, race views, and pre-scientific views. 

These questions must, of course, be asked. But it is my observation that they have not helped us hear old books very well - and we may well be boxing a straw man in the face, and chasing a figment of our imagination around the ring.

So let's go back to the beginning of reading to begin to read the bibles' account of the beginning - Genesis. 

Let me suggest three very simple keys to reading, and to reading Genesis. They sound boring, but are sound. They are original audience, secondary audience & genre. I told you they would sound boring. But they may help us be better listeners first, and sort out our politics second.


Who first read Genesis? A good question. Just imagine receiving those words 'In the beginning' on a scrap of papyrus and being the first person to voice those words? You have to stand amazed at the thought. Well, someone was that person who first stood amazed.

Moses is said to have written Genesis (with Exodus-Deuteronomy) and if he did, we can know something about the original audience. If it is so (and I can argue it was) then we reasonably imagine the motley tribes of Israel as the receivers as they travel somewhere between the Red Sea and Canaan - in the forty year period of wandering about lost in the big sandbox of the Middle East.

It is unusual for contemporary readers to bother with what matters to other people. But ask yourself - if you had just exited Egypt as a motley bunch of ill-formed ex-slaves, with little national identity and a whole history of hurt - if you were wandering for decades in wastelands being told you had a promise and seeing sand - if you were preparing to enter a land unseen to be your home - what would t be like to get these words?

This has to be a good question, if we care about the text, and if we care about other people. 

It's good listening. It's good reading. It's empathetic. It does not, however, work on TV as a blood-sport. So I get why we love to rip ancient people to shreds and leave them on the mat. Perhaps we ought also love picking them up for a good conversation?


Most books have first readers and then other readers. Other people end up picking them up off a bookshelf in a holiday house somewhere and filling a rainy afternoon with them. Or in our case, other people en up with it in the library we call the bible with some other better-thumbed books we love called 'Matthew' or 'Mark' or something. What's this 'Genesis' thing then?

Well, Genesis was actually written with an eye to other readers. It has an original audience, and expects a secondary audience...and more audiences beyond.

For a start, Genesis 1-11 gives an account of nations who are not the Jews. It is pretty interesting reading for a Moabite, or a Canaanite, or an Egyptian. We should ask what it would be like to read it as a Whatever-ite too. These were contemporary secondary readers. Some even suggest Moses was writing, under God, with an active conversation going with opposing world-views of creation. It's worth considering.

But Genesis also expects us to pick it up. It starts with a single ancestor and details branches of the family tree in a way that asks any following human twig to wonder what its' back end is fixed too and what bit of wood went before it. It declares itself an account of the 'heavens and earth' (2:4), to just one neighbourhood. Jews and non-Jews 3500 years later were picking it up and finding reflections of themselves there. Jesus, for example, does this in Matt 8:4; Mark 12:26; Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44; and John 1:17; 7:22.

Clearly we should read it as a book firstly about others, but secondly and just as significantly, about us.


French words mostly mystify me. 'Croissant' means a delicious pastry. 'Pain au chocolat' describes a different delicious pastry. 'Genre' describes the difference between two delicious pastries. Or books. Or movies. 

Genesis belongs to the genre of Hebrew historical narrative. It threads its narratives around geneaologies - or 'family trees'. Just like we do when we talk about our families over past generations. This is its genre. 

It does not belong to the genre of technical scientific writing. For us to neatly oppose 'Genesis' tp 'Science' is as unsophisticated an act as declaring that a croissant and a Pain au Chocolat can never exist on the same plate. They can, I've seen it with my own eyes at the French bakery at the Junction. At least, they do until I buy one of them and eat it. 

Buy both. Each both. Buy Genesis and consume it. Buy Stephen Hawking, or Brian Cox, or whoever you like and consume them too. 

In a slightly crude but useful way, let us describe the benefits of the genre difference like this: the technical science genre answers the 'How?' question. The Hebrew historical narrative genre is much more interested in the 'Who?' and 'Why?' questions. 


I studied reading at a significantly-high level at university. I did very little there but read books, beer-labels and talk about reading books in close proximity to beer labels. It was very rigorous academic work. But I left uni unable to read a book without laying it out on the mat and declaring myself the winner. Dumb. 

I learnt to read very differently in the presence of the bible - a book so obviously difficult and complex that I had to shut up for a while and make sure I knew what was saying on its own terms. This is just good listening. It's empathetic. 

Politics and punching-bags can only come after, or you are boxing shadows.