When Marilynne Robinson Reads Genesis

This new mono-God is fiercely interventionist, and he seems to possess a plan that his dim-sighted human creations can barely make out. He banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because, in disobeying his orders not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become godlike. Of the two brothers Cain and Abel, God mysteriously likes Abel but has no affection for Cain. Human wickedness is so disappointing to this God that he destroys the earth, saves Noah and his family, and then promises never to do anything like that again. This God knows the future: he tells Abraham that his people are going to suffer four hundred years of enslavement in Egypt. He chooses the wily trickster Jacob, anointing Jacob as Israel itself, passing over poor stiffed Esau. Notoriously, he orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of faith, lifts the command at the last second, and then doubles his blessings: Because you were willing to sacrifice your heir, the angel of the Lord tells Abraham, I will give you many heirs. Not to mention the business with foreskins, demanded by God like genital loot, the spoils of victory, so many scalps.

Reading Genesis from inside rather than outside these theological presumptions seems an interesting experiment: it would involve properly crediting both the humanity and the divinity of these strange tales. At her best, Robinson is masterly at this hybrid task. In the early pages of the book, she lays out the lines and the limits of her system. Genesis was written by human beings; this concession seems, to some believers, to circumscribe the text’s sacredness, but, as she nicely puts it, the Bible itself appears to have no anxiety on this score, since it names the authorship of many of its books, “a notable instance of our having a lower opinion of ourselves than the Bible justifies.” We should not have a low opinion of ourselves, she argues, for if Genesis tells us anything it is that we are exalted beings, created in God’s image. It further tells us that God is goodness itself, and that he created a universe he considered good. The human adventures and episodes that follow God’s creation of the world dramatize how “a flawed and alienated creature at the center of it all” managed to make such a mess of things. Robinson isn’t especially interested in the historical actuality of events like the expulsion from Eden, the flood, or the Tower of Babel. They are closer to a set of allegories about the nature of reality. In this sense, “the Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil,” because it is constantly trying to reconcile the darker sides of humanity with God’s goodness, and the original goodness of being.

Again, there is nothing theologically eccentric about any of this. Like many Christians, Robinson sees Genesis, and, by extension, the Bible, as a tale of protected errancy. We sinfully swerved away from God’s “first intention,” and the writers of Genesis are extremely interested in all our subsequent avarice, aggression, rebelliousness, and sexual deviancy. In order to be free and autonomous beings, we had to be allowed by God to be capable of such errancy. But we are ultimately protected by “the faith that He has a greater, embracing intention that cannot fail.” Robinson sees evidence that the Bible writers were fixated on God’s goodness in the way that this story of the flood differs from superficially similar Babylonian legends, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish. In her view, the Babylonian myths have no interest in the goodness of creation and feature gods with no interest in human beings as moral actors. The Enuma Elish myth concludes that humans exist only to make offerings to the gods. By contrast, the God of Genesis “is unique in His having not a use but instead a mysterious benign intention” for human beings.

As she sorts through the Genesis stories, Robinson notes how often God chooses the younger son over the natural heir—Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers—or the prodigal over the righteous. As Robinson observes, Jacob is a very unlikely beneficiary of God’s blessing. His behavior is ignoble, and he doesn’t always know what high purpose he is being put to, but the story is written with an understanding that in the long run his faith, and the faith of his people, will be vindicated. This is “providence working itself out.” As Robinson notes, the story had to go this way because Jacob has a foreordained task in becoming one of the patriarchs of Israel. If Jacob had been less envious of his elder brother, or if Esau had been less entitled, Jacob’s story would never have entered what Robinson calls “sacred history.” But, as it is, the story reminds us that “the covenant is not contingent upon human virtue, even human intention. It is sustained by the will of God, which is so strong and steadfast that it can allow space within Providence for people to be who they are, for humanity to be what it is.”

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Robinson often makes an eloquent case for the specialness of this new kind of God and the unusual interest, solicitude, and high-handed love he displays to his creations. But perils attend her kind of piety. You soon become aware of Robinson skewing everything in favor of this strange God. There is an austere final judgment or a hard kernel lurking inside each of her apparently gentle evaluations.

Noah’s flood: well, yes, God destroys the world, but in the end he “solicitously preserves a human family,” and the covenant he makes with Noah when the waters subside affirms God’s forbearance and loyalty. The destruction of Sodom: yes, Abraham appears to bargain with God, asking whether the Lord would spare the city if it contained just ten righteous men. But in the end there was clearly something evil going on inside its walls, and the ultimate fate of Sodom “indicates that there were not ten righteous men, nor even one.” O.K., then! Cain and Abel: well, God curses Cain for killing his brother, and sends him wandering in exile, but in the end Robinson thinks God shows “great leniency” toward Cain in granting him such estimable descendants. The four hundred years in Egypt: rough, of course, but “even the enslavement is providential.” Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: well, the sacrifice was never going to happen, for three reasons. First, the parable exists to tell us that God is not interested in human sacrifice. (Though isn’t the whole command-and-remand thing a torturous way of demonstrating this admirable preference?) Second, Isaac has to survive, in order to go on to lead his people and fulfill his role in “providential history.” And, third, from Abraham’s great devotion we get to learn about the importance of humble faith: “So the seeming cruelty to Abraham is compassion toward those great nations who learned from him or modelled their piety on his.” What Abraham as a figure “means,” Robinson says, is that “the Lord has an intention for the world that is to be realized through history.”

One problem with Providence is that it is always in danger of turning story into parable. Of course, once any human story has been written down, it is complete and ordained, but tales and novels wisely proceed as if the opposite is the case. If the story could never have been otherwise, it is not quite a story. Robinson concedes that there is no meaningful “if” involved in these tales. “I could conceive of another Abraham,” sly Kafka wrote, but Robinson is not really permitted to do so. What can be said about story must also be said about history. If history is providential, it becomes historical parable. We know the end in advance. The four hundred years in Egypt have no intrinsic meaning, because “even the enslavement is providential.” The same could be said, according to this logic, of the Holocaust. Providence functions as the ultimate answer to all troublesome questions about evil and pain: trust the plan, and its final revelation. At one point, while discussing Jacob, Robinson pauses to reflect that it’s not so strange that humans and their foibles are at the center of these sacred stories. After all, “love and grief,” she says, are, “in this infinite Creation, things of the kind we share with God.” Then this: “That they exist at all can only be proof of a tender solicitude.” That love and grief exist at all, she means, is owing to God. Which further means: that we exist at all is owing to God. He is the author, and the stories of our very lives are a magnificent and utterly unearned gift.

Officially, Robinson understands Genesis to have been written by human beings. In effect, since free story is hemmed by unfree Providence, and all stories are God’s, she reads the Bible as Scripture (a word she always capitalizes)—as revelation. So, in turn, you learn to read her book in a spirit of wary doubleness. There is an official text and a shadow text. In the official text, there’s nothing out of order about a commentator writing such things as: “the Lord has an intention for the world that is to be realized through history.” Or: “It is not always obvious that God does love humankind as such or that He should, but this is, of course, a human view of the matter.” Such glosses are merely the patient commentator doing her best to see things from the world view of the Bible itself.

But at some point the shadow text extends its ghostly hand, and you realize that Robinson is not merely paraphrasing the text’s sacred premises; she is sermonizing about an actual God and his actual Providence. She is not only speaking of God but for God. That last quoted sentence is an odd one. It isn’t obvious, Robinson says, that the God of Genesis does love us—but then, she qualifies, this is a rather limited, “human view” of the matter. The oddity here is not theological but literary. One is, after all, reading a book by a modern novelist about a collection of human stories. And what else could the Bible be except a series of writings that reflect “a human view of the matter”? In the Bible, there is literally no other “view of the matter” except the human one.

It is, in truth, very hard to remember, if one has been brought up in a religious tradition of any kind, that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not God himself but a collection of human approximations and reckonings and inspired fictions. I have spent much of my life hating the God who replies to Job, the God who bullies and blusters out of the whirlwind, when calm rationality should remind me that this God speaks words written by a human or group of humans. From a literary point of view, it makes no more sense to hate this God than to hate King Lear. In both cases, human beings, writing with an ardor and an inspiration that indeed seem sacred, went to the edge of the knowable. And, in both cases, these writers use words and characters to bring back the great treasures of their literary pilgrimages. It is an extraordinary thing that a human being saw fit to describe the creation of the world from the point of view of God himself. I share Robinson’s reverence for the endeavor. But the tale is itself a creation.

Remembering this literary createdness—pinching ourselves from time to time with good, strong secular fingers—what do we find in Genesis? Perhaps we don’t find the good God of Robinson’s piety but a God ably described by Jack Miles as “maximally powerful and minimally kind.” Robinson sees only forbearance and tender solicitude in the God who makes covenants with Noah and Abraham and Jacob, but the deity who promises to make a great nation for his chosen patriarchs adds, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you.” The God of the Israelites is working out the terms of his particular protection racket, and the Israelites respond accordingly. “Because” and “if” are the watchwords here. Because you were willing to sacrifice your heir, God tells Abraham, I will grant you many heirs. If God protects me and gives me food and clothes, Jacob says, “then the Lord shall be my God.” This mutual choosing produces the warrior god of the Book of Exodus, the divine general who leads his people out of Egypt and who will tell them how to wage war (exterminating the Canaanites, for instance). There are, of course, the Ten Commandments and the moral law. But there is also God’s law of divine caprice and favoritism: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Far from obviously being good, the God of the Hebrew Bible comes up short, morally. Once we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are witnessing God himself in action, his shortcomings are of the greatest interest, since these inadequacies must enact the moral critique of the people who created him on the page. In place of Robinson’s placid reading of the destruction of Sodom—they must have deserved it—we see Abraham reminding God that the moral thing to do would be to spare the city, perhaps not only on account of the righteous but, by implication, as a mercy to the sinners, too. Before Plato activated his famous dilemma in the Euthyphro—is an action right because it is commanded by the gods, or do the gods command it because it is right?—Abraham teases God in like fashion, reminding him that an objective morality exists, and reminding us that this God may not be its possessor: “Far be it from you to do such a thing. . . . Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Book of Job stages a similar struggle. As Slavoj Žižek has often argued, it is not Job who is on trial but Job who puts God on trial, and it is hard to see how God wins his case. Some Christians maintain that without God there is no objective grounding to our morality. Without him, anything is permitted. Robinson has herself implied as much. But Abraham and Job do appear to have an intuitive sense of moral action, one distinct from God’s. Anyway, if the Bible is properly thought of as a human text, then all of its moral discussion is human, and one can quite easily ground oneself in a morality that is both perfectly Biblical and perfectly Godless—since God, in the Bible at least, is a literary creation. The Hebrew verb “to love” first appears in Genesis as an attribute not of God but of humans. Take your son, your only son, Isaac, God tells Abraham, “whom you love,” and . . . murder him. Whom would you rather be fathered by, Job or Yahweh?

Return to Robinson’s beautiful phrase “the law of completion.” Her version of Calvinism is a humane anti-humanism. We are at the center of existence, but we are also so helplessly indebted to God’s charity that we are but creatures of his much greater centrality. We are autonomous moral agents, but everything we do is providentially planned. We are exalted beings, but utterly debased at the same time.

John Calvin, so admired by Robinson yet to most reasonable observers a rather nasty piece of work, liked to call humans “worms.” If God wanted to destroy the whole of mankind, Calvin says, he would be justified by our sinfulness. What do we bring from our mother’s womb, he asks in a sermon, except sin? One of his collaborators, the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, describes us all as “children of death”—a self-inflicted death from which Christ, of course, came to rescue us.

Robinson’s Calvinism holds out an earnest optimism about what awaits us in the afterlife, alongside a deep pessimism about our terrible brokenness here on earth. The pessimism and the optimism are inseparable. From such tremendous errancy, tremendous protection will be required. After all, Calvin adds, when God looks at us he can see only what is hateful about us. The true miracle, it seems to me, is not to be found in the pages of Robinson’s new book or in the pages of Genesis. It is hiding in plain sight elsewhere. It is that Marilynne Robinson, loaded up with the severe paradoxes of her religious tradition, is a novelist at all. But she is, and a great novelist, too. This is one miracle that, having seen it with my own eyes, I’ll happily believe in. ♦

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