Book review: In the Beginning

by Karen Armstrong

★★★★★

This is not a new book, but it’s one I enjoyed and want to share. It’s short, especially so when half the book is a reprint of the text of Genesis, which, surely, no one reads.

This is the story of the Bible’s first book, raw and unchurched. Karen introduces us one by one to the characters and their stories, making no effort to turn them into saints, for they are nothing like the impossibly and depressingly flawless characters we met in Sunday School. Throughout, the authors of Genesis remind us that we can expect no clear-cut answers. We wrestle with the text, measuring its inconsistent doctrines and contradictory lessons, as we struggle to grasp the character of God. How can God be omnipotent, but powerless to control his creation? How can God be benevolent but a killer; wise but arbitrary; just but partial and unfair; omniscient but ignorant of human yearning?

Let me tell one story to set the tone of the book.

Jacob and Esau were twin brothers destined to conflict from the moment they emerged from the womb; Esau, first, to claim the coveted birthright, but not for Jacob’s lack of trying, who followed with his hand grasping his brother’s heel. As adults, the day came when the two would meet, and Jacob feared the meeting, for he had stolen his brother’s birthright through deception.

Jacob didn’t sleep the night before. Instead, says the Bible, he wrestled all night with a stranger, and became aware only at the end of the match that he had been fighting with God. Jacob brushed with the divine, and no two people experience God the same way. Was it real, or was it a dream? Psychologists speak of the “dream work” that we all accomplish at night at some profound level of our being, which enables us to look at issues that our conscious, daytime self finds impossible to face. Perhaps in some deep reach of his memory, Jacob recalled his wrestling match with Esau in the womb, as he internally prepared for his meeting with his brother in the morning.

Transformed and enlightened, Jacob set off at daybreak to meet his brother face to face.

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