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  • Timothy Larsen

Marilynne Robinson in the World of the Patriarchs

Timothy Larsen reviews Marilynne Robinson's Reading Genesis

Marilynne Robinson is the author of five novels, Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), Lilia (2014), and Jack (2020).  Her novels have garnered numerous prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and until her retirement, Robinson was a professor in the storied Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  In 2012, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by her admirer and friend, President Barak Obama. Robinson is also a Christian who has been quietly attending to her Bible for many years.  Reading Genesis (2024) is the fruit of that discipline.


Robinson reads Genesis reverently, discerning that it is uniquely sacred, a work by human authors whom the Spirit of God moved upon.  In other words, Robinson reads scripture in the way that Christians have always read it.  Yet she is also very aware that such approaches are sometimes deemed to be uncritical, unscientific, and untenable in our modern world.

Marilynne Robinson, Reading Genesis, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often identified as mythological. For that section, Robinson takes pains to reject a fashionable view that the biblical narrative is just a cheap knock-off of older Babylonian literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish. Such critical accounts are sometimes even written as if the Israelite people had nothing original or insightful to add to the discussion.  (It is as if the Babylonians were the Beatles, while the books of Moses have to settle for being the Monkees.) Of course, the Genesis account was written in conscious awareness of those older texts, but “the transformation in the meaning of the story from one telling to the next, Babylonian to Hebrew, is a study in how biblical thought can suffuse material originally foreign to it.”  While a certain kind of critical scholar emphasizes the similarities, Robinson is thunderstruck by the differences: “This is an understanding of God and humanity that has no equivalent in other literatures.”

Robinson also reads Genesis in the light of the entire Bible, including even the writings of the apostles and their co-laborers.  Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is a particular point of reference.  Once again, Robinson is willfully defying those who insist that this is unacceptable: “I will once more scandalize scholarly norms by looking to the New Testament for help in understanding this.”  These excursions can be powerful.  Robinson finds the forgiving of debts to be a recurring theme in Genesis, and this leads on to a forceful meditation on the need to translate this word literally in the Lord’s Prayer:

To forgive a trespasser might cost nothing.  . . . On the other hand, to forgive a debt means first of all to abandon the expectation of repayment of money or goods, at a cost that could be substantial.  This sounds more like Jesus.  . . . To me the word trespass seems like an accommodation to the world.

Robinson is not only able to speak authoritatively about the contents of the entire canon, but sometimes even in striking ways that I, who have quietly been reading my Bible for decades, have never thought of or heard before. For instance, “Putting aside brief and cryptic mentions of Nimrod, the only hunter in the Bible is Esau.”  She observes that Sarah is “the only woman in the Bible to have her age at death recorded,” and that “Rebekah, alone in Scripture, laments the discomforts of her pregnancy.”  I have previously remarked that Robinson is a theologian of grace, and now I can also add that she is a biblical theologian.

But there is the fact that some readers object to parts of Genesis for being “stories that seem far too ugly to be in the Bible.”  Robinson’s retort is that for the Bible to speak to our world it has to be set in it, acknowledging the reality of the worst evils that can befall us. Moreover, while a certain kind of pious reader tries to make excuses for some of the dubious and downright immoral actions of the patriarchs, Robinson insists that these unvarnished portraits renowned to Genesis’  credit: “The Hebrew Bible does not romanticize the history of the people who create it . . . It is as if America had told itself the truth about the Cherokee removal . . . History is so much a matter of distortion and omission that dealing in truth feels like a breach of etiquette.” The sins of God’s people serve to teach a central theological point of the book: the covenant is secure because it is based on God’s steadfastness, not ours.

The character of Jacob can serve as a case study for illustrating Robinson’s astute readings of holy scripture.  Jacob wickedly pretends to be Esau, deceives his own father, and brazenly robs his twin brother of his rightful blessing.  Robinson sees the heartbreak in the moment, even for the successful conniver:

Jacob, in the course of this shameful deception of his dying father, hears his father praising Esau, expressing love for him, loving the thought of his open, vigorous life, those ways in which Esau is unlike Jacob.  And he learns or is reminded that his father distrusts him, Jacob.

He has harmed his brother in such a grievous way that there is no possible restitution that could ever set it right. Jacob goes into exile and now has the sibling switcheroo played on him, discovering too late that he has married the wrong sister.  He flees from his father-in-law and sets “his face toward the mount Gilead.”  Later, Jacob wrestles with a man at night, and won’t let him go unless he blesses him. The man declares that Jacob’s name is now Israel. This is the blessing: he has finally been released from his constant awareness of himself as a despicable usurper. Esau greets him warmly, and magnanimously refuses the gifts his brother offers: “His debt cannot be repaid, but it can be forgiven. This is the economics of grace.”

Later in his life, Jacob’s ten oldest sons are tending his flocks “near Shechem.”  The father is ill at ease.  These sons had once committed a horrific massacre at Shechem, making them targets for retaliation.  Jacob sends his beloved son Joseph to check up on them.  The brothers sell Joseph into slavery.  They pour goat’s blood on his coat in order to create the illusion that he was killed by a wild animal:

This conspiracy after the fact would have been apparent to Jacob.  Since the presumed death of Joseph, he would have noticed a grim bond among them, stronger than loyalty, that excluded him.  And he would not have been able to put aside the bitter knowledge that sons can deceive their fathers.

And so one more sordid deception was added to the growing list.  Yet: “Providence is active in all this, perhaps itself the ultimate trickster.”

A certain kind of person (thanks to the antisemitic legacy of Marcion’s theology) objects to “the God of the Old Testament,” deeming said deity to be repulsively prone to wrath and violence.  Robinson does not share this view. Genesis is about forgoing vengeance, about forgiveness. The first recorded act of violence is when Cain killed his brother Abel.  One might think that God’s response would be a furious insistence upon the principle of a life for a life, but that is not the story at all. The Lord not only lets Cain live, but he warns the rest of the world that they are not allowed to kill him either. Cain is the father of a distinguished line, including the most saintly character in the whole book, Enoch. What is the lesson we are meant to learn from this?  “That mercy is nearer than justice to Godliness.” There are a lot of family conflicts in Genesis, and the text’s genealogies and insistence that everyone descends from Adam and then Noah is a reminder that even our enemies are family. Abraham is not being chosen so that others can be slighted, but rather so that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Genesis ends with Joseph reconciling with and providing for the very brothers who had so cruelly sold him into slavery.  He generously observes that their actions played a part in God’s salvific plan:

Elevating these events, bitter as they are in themselves, to the level of divine providence lifts them beyond the reciprocities of injury and revenge, beyond the reach of justice as we morals understand that word.  . . . This is not a pardon.  It is grace.

Forgiveness can work wonders beyond all calculation, and Robinson the Sunday school teacher drives the point home for us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

Robinson is one of America’s most respected literary authors and, in this book, she makes a compelling case that the book of Genesis is a great classic of world literature. It does not belong only to Jews, or Christians, or religiously-inclined people. It belongs to humanity.  Like all true classics, it speaks in profound and resonant ways to the deepest questions of the human condition, pondering suffering, tragedy, family, love, injustice, and forgiveness. It can be returned to again and again in delight, wonder, and meditation. I am keen to read more biblical commentaries written by the author of Gilead. I hope that Reading Genesis is just the beginning.


Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois, an Honorary Fellow in the School of Divinity, Edinburgh University, and President Elect of the American Society of Church History.  He has written eight books, including John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life, and edited a dozen volumes, including Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson.




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