A Supreme Fiction


Illustration by William Propp

by Ronald Hendel

Wallace Stevens used to write about “the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment.” Some of his best poetry takes steps toward a supreme fiction, conjuring a sense of clarity through its oblique modernist verse. It occurred to me that Genesis is such a supreme fiction, or perhaps it is the supreme fiction in western culture, which begat many others. For thousands of years this book has been the mirror or lamp that reveals what reality consists of – regarding the nature of human existence, the cosmos and God. Or, to put it differently: the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

But, it has done so in different ways over its long life in western culture. In the Israel of the Iron Age, it was a compendium of what people already knew, the traditional stories that were handed down from grandparents and tribal elders. Yet the authors of Genesis gave these old stories – some of them closely related to older Babylonian or Canaanite stories – new twists and revisions. The two stories of creation, for instance, seem to argue with each other about the origin and meaning of human existence, and even about the character of God. These internal frictions in the final combined text generated a need for considerable interpretive work by later interpreters. The book is not simple, and so requires complex readings.

Some early interpreters drew their interpretive keys from apocalypticism (expectations of the end-time), while others found the key in Greek philosophy (usually varieties of Platonism). The New Testament features both keys, in which Christ is the apocalyptic key and Logos (wisdom) is the Platonic. Some early Christian fathers went to the desert to recreate a perfect life in Eden, much as the Dead Sea Scroll community had done previously. The Gnostics read Genesis antithetically, proposing that the God of creation was a malicious fake, who did not know that higher and better gods had created him.

The snake, they said, was wiser, revealing to humans the true path to knowledge.

By the time of the Renaissance (both the twelfth-century Renaissance and the later better-known one), the symbolic meanings of Genesis had proliferated nearly past the point of comprehension. Two of the greatest readers of Genesis – Rashi and Luther – criticized these symbolic interpretations and gave priority to the plain (or grammatical) sense of the book. Symbolic readings were, in their view, only for sermons or homilies. At the same time that scholars, explorers and scientists were discovering the empirical materiality of the Book of Nature, these interpreters turned their focus to the sharp details of the Book of God. This new view, however, had an unintended consequence, making possible the emerging clash between these two Books. The trial of Galileo made the clash between science and the Bible explicit. Shortly after, Spinoza advanced his heretical argument that the so-called “Book of God” was really a book of men, and should be studied by the same principles as the study of nature.

The modern world is still working through these clashes. Darwinian biology, biblical scholarship and fundamentalism were siblings born in the nineteenth century, and their conflict still perseveres. In the meantime, the idea that Genesis is largely a fiction has had ramifications in politics, such as the abolition of slavery and the struggle for woman’s rights. Genesis begat modern supreme fictions in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Franz Kafka’s parables and other literary marvels.

Genesis has long exerted its revelatory force as a supreme fiction. Yet, it may seem anachronistic to call it that, since the recognition of its fictive quality is so much a characteristic of modernity. In pre-modern times – and still today among many – it was (and is) a supreme non-fiction. Perhaps the contrast of fiction versus non-fiction draws an illusory line. I prefer to describe Genesis as a work of magical realism. In any case, the life of Genesis persists, since it continues to live in our cultural and religious imagination. Our lives are still entwined in its life, whether we are believers or not.

About the Author:

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many articles and books, including Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible and The Book of Genesis: A Biography. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Hebrew Bible (a new critical edition) and is an occasional columnist for the Biblical Archaeology Review.