On the Interpretation of Genesis

"On the Interpretation of Genesis," Revue francaise d'anthropologie, Vol. 21, No. 2 (January - March 1981).


I want to begin with the remark that I am not a biblical scholar; I am a political scientist specializing in political theory. Political theory is frequently said to be concerned with the values of the Western world. These values, as is well known, are partly of biblical and partly of Greek origin. The political theorist must, therefore, have an inkling of the agreement as well as the disagreement between the biblical and the Greek heritage. Everyone working in my field has to rely most of the time on what biblical scholars or classical scholars tell him about the Bible on the one hand, and Greek thought on the other. Still, I thought it would be defensible if I were to try to see whether I could not understand something of the Bible without relying entirely on what the authorities both contemporary and traditional tell me. I began with the beginning because this choice seems to me to be least arbitrary. I have been asked to speak here about Genesis—or rather about the beginning of Genesis. The context of a series of lectures on the “Works of the Mind” raises immediately a very grave question. Works of the mind are works of the human mind. Is the Bible a work of the human mind? Is it not the work of God? The work of God, of the divine mind?

The latter view was generally accepted in former ages. We have to reflect on this alternative approach to the Bible, because this alternative is decisive as to the way in which we will read the Bible. If  the Bible is a work of the human mind, it has to be read like any other book-like Homer, like Plato, like Shakespeare—with respect but also with willingness to argue with the author, to disagree with him, to criticize him. If the Bible is the work of God, it has to be read in an entirely different spirit than the way in which we must read the human books. The Bible has to be read in a spirit of pious submission, of reverent hearing. According to this view, only a believing and pious man can understand the Bible—the substance of the Bible. According to the view which prevails today, the unbeliever, provided he is a man of the necessary experience or sensitivity, can understand the Bible as well as the believer.