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The Book of "Genesis": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) Hardcover – October 28, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Even those who haven’t read it are familiar with its contents—stories about the creation of the world, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Noah’s ark. Collectively, these stories make up a foundational text of Western civilization that has shaped our perception of reality by offering a unique conception of God, humanity, the nature of the world, and the interrelationships of all three. Hendel’s biography of Genesis—like The Dead Sea Scrolls, opposite, part of the Lives of Great Religious Books series, begins with the birth of the book among the ancient Israelites. He then traces subsequent interpretations, both figural-allegorical and plain sense, over the centuries, examining the work of Luther, Spinoza, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kafka, among others. Though remaining a text of religious significance, Genesis is also viewed as a collection of ancient legends. Either way, Hendel’s engaging and accessible account reminds us that Genesis remains an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came. --Christopher McConnell


One of Jewish Ideas's 40 Best Jewish Books of 2012

"Hendel's engaging and accessible biography reminds us that Genesis remains 'an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came.'"--Christopher McConnell, Booklist

"Hendel does cover the story of Genesis's ancient foundations and original sense, but rightly devotes most of the book to detailing how it became so freighted with often contradictory meanings over time. His essential conclusion is that the ways in which Western culture has understood Genesis--as a literal account of events, as a figurative depiction of divine action, as a collection of folktales and tribal origin stories--'tend to correlate with the ways that people have understood reality.'"--Brian Bethune, Maclean's Magazine

"Hendel is telling the story of Genesis--not retelling stories from it. . . . [Hendel] takes things in an intriguing direction. If Genesis is the product of various strands of cultural DNA (spliced together long ago by scribes who believed the literal truth of the material they were helping to transmit, while also needing to reconcile elements that didn't quite fit together) then the book's subsequent history is, in a way, encoded in its genome. . . . [A] revelation in its own right."--Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

"If any book deserves to have a biography written about it, it is the opening to the Bible."--Economist

"The biography of Genesis turns out largely to be a history of how it has been read, and Ronald Hendel's book has much to offer people interested in history, literature and philosophy, as well as religion."--Owen Richardson, The Age

"Original and refreshing."--Arnold S. Ages, Jewish Post & Opinion

"The Book of Genesis portrays the evolving relationship between a book and readers who pursue plain and imaginative understandings, contest truth claims before science, and read contemporary realities into ancient texts. . . . Brilliant and informative . . . this volume makes a case that streamlines but does not oversimplify. . . . [A]ttractive."--Choice

"This series contains the latest scholarship about a specific subject, gives great opportunity for acquiring a limited but significant amount of knowledge, and enthuses readers to go into it in much more detail. This possibility is enhanced by the presence in the Dead Sea Scrolls volume of suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter."--Charles H. Middleburgh, Charles Middleburgh blog

"In Ronald Hendel's erudite, well-written and surprisingly sparse and entertaining The Book of Genesis: A Biography, the Bible--the Book--is treated as a written document that is living and thriving across the ages. It is essentially as its name implies the quintessential prototype of a book, and whether we take it as the Word of God, whether we agree with its ideas or not, whether we take it literally or figuratively does not diminish its importance for Western literature and civilization."--Arash's World

"This wide-ranging account tells the remarkable story of the life of Genesis like no other book."--World Book Industry

"[T]he book will appeal to those with either a detailed or very sparse knowledge of the history of a text that clearly holds an unending fascination in every age."--Martin O'Kane, Relegre-Studies in Religion and Reception

"Hendel proves himself a very skillful and competent biographer. His book is recommended to all those who would like to strike up an acquaintance with Genesis in its austere beauty and intriguing complexity. . . . The Book of Genesis: a Biography is an interesting and important work on Genesis."--Krzysztof Napora, Biblical Annals

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Product Details

  • Series: Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (October 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069114012X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691140124
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 4.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #464,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By jeff symstad on April 18, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
While I am familiar with some interpretations of the Bible, I was unaware how much those interpretations change over time. I cannot address the scholarly aspect of this book, but I think it is a great introduction into the ways the Bible, especially Genesis, has been seen and how those interpretations are related to larger cultural and historical issues. The writing is sometimes repetitive and could sometimes be a clearer. Overall, I think it is a good read that gets a person thinking.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Val on August 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found Ron Hendel's approach a great connection to what I learned in Seminary years ago , and brought up-to-date clearly and with insight. I also found this approach one that I would share with my atheistic friends. His professional research approach woudl appeal to their inquiring minds. It is a great point for discussion for believeres and non- believers - Christians and non- christians.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By bibliophile on March 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
What a disappointment. This is a scholar who tries to write in an engaging manner. What he delivers is a really lifeless piece of work. It's as if he sat down for a month and wrote a little impressionistic essay based on what he could quickly find out about the afterlife of Genesis. The major moments in the life of Genesis, especially as it shaped major cultural-political debates of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and America, are not even mentioned! Such a missed opportunity. And yes, it's frustratingly repetitive.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Bob S on December 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is not much of Genesis in this book. It barely refers to only four stories Creation, Noah's ark, Jacob's sacrifice and couple lines about genealogy chapters and only in passing. Most of the book is the history of the effect of Genesis on western society. I was hoping for more analysis of the test of Genesis and how the stories were developed. Even though the book was not what I expected, it is well written and interesting.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Harry Eagar VINE VOICE on June 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Ronald Hendel's "biography" of Genesis, the latest volume in the worthy Lives of Great Religious Books series, is good as far as it goes. Which is not nearly far enough.

He portrays the career of the scripture as a struggle to establish figural (hidden) interpretation or real (literal)readings, with real coming out on top, two ways.

The Higher Criticism (which he calls German scholarship) taught people like Hendel to read the book as if it were any other, non-scriptural text, written by humans and understandable with common methods; or the Fundamentalists, who treat it as literal but divine and therefore inerrant, so that its contradictions have to be explained away.

He attributes this outcome to Luther, Galileo and Spinoza and the like. For the first two thousand years or so, the figural, allegorical or allusive interpretation, partly Platonic, was supreme.

"Modern biblical scholarship argues that much of the history of the interpretation of Genesis is a history of error." Nevertheless, following Erich Auerbach, he finds Genesis, with its unique (for its time) approach to creation the bedrock of western culture and not Homer, the other contender.

Of course, there was no western culture at the time of writing (or editing), nor does Hendel comment on the notion that Genesis, a Semitic book, stands oddly as the foundation of western culture. So, perhaps, it does, but then how western was western culture in the period? Not very, you might think.

In fact, it seems that western culture may have been created not out of but by destroying the meaning of Genesis as its writers intended it to be.

In any event, Hendel's deeply informed sketch flies at a very abstract level, considering what literary folks thought about Genesis.
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful By M. Ricketts on January 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I found this book to be a massive disappointment. First, this book is very short and had Hendel not been extremely and needlessly repetitive it could have been shorter. He quotes numerous texts throughout his work, which is perfectly fine, except that after almost every quote of a few sentences or more he dedicates a paragraph to explaining the quote. These explanations are often unnecessary, as the quotes themselves are not that difficult to understand, and his explanations often times reuse material from the quote he just sited.

Second, Hendel provides very little insight into the original meaning of the Genesis stories. He really doesn't start explaining the interpretation of Genesis until several hundred years after the stories have been created and the book (Genesis) was edited. This lack of explanation may in part be because the original meanings of the stories have been lost in the sands of time. However, any kind of insight as to the original meanings of the stories would have been greatly appreciated.

Lastly, Hendel leaves one with the impression that in the modern world there are only two interpretations of Genesis left available to it's readers. One is the Fundamentalist reading, which goes against scientific fact, and the other is a literary interpretation, which denies the book any real religious significance. I think he intentionally leads the reader to the later of these two conclusions because he spends an exorbitant amount of time towards the end of the book focusing on the works of Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Erich Auerbach, and does not mention any kind of Biblical scholarship being done by modern Judaism, the Catholic Church, or any other non Fundamentalist bodies.

All in all I would say this book is hardly worth reading and that I wish I'd spent my money more wisely.
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