In The Beginning

RAPE, INCEST, MURDER, ADULTERY, JEALOUSY, GREED, betrayal--this is the stuff of tabloid journalism. It is also the stuff of Genesis, the first and best-known book of the Bible. Trouble is, most Americans know Genesis only from the sanitized ""Bible stories'' they read as children; few have bothered to study the actual texts. But the Bible is a book written by adults, for adults. And, like all great literature, Genesis yields its subtle complexities only to the mature mind and imagination. Its cast of characters is rich: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob--two by two they have entered the ark of Western consciousness.

Archetypes, yes, but they are also ancestors, family familiars whose twisted lives and troubled relationships mirror the human condition. Above all, there is God, a character in his own right, acting and reacting, creating and destroying, blessing and condemning--a deity, it sometimes seems, who doesn't always know his own mind.

Last week devout Jews around the world began their annual cycle of Torah reading, starting with Genesis. This week millions of others--Christians, disconnected Jews, Americans of all religions and none--will take up the same text. It's all part of an extraordinary promotion on behalf of a new, 10-part PBS series, ""Genesis: A Living Conversation,'' with Bill Moyers hosting small groups of scholars, writers and other intellectuals in hourlong discussions of the Bible's first book. Not incidentally, more than a dozen new books on Genesis, including two fresh translations, will hit the nation's bookstores. Already, more than 100,000 copies of a 177-page PBS guide to the series have been distributed by WNET. Building on techniques he developed for his series on alternative medicine and poetry, Moyers and his ""outreach'' staff are promoting ""Genesis study groups'' across the nation. ""My hope is that this series will become part of the resurgence of democratic conversation,'' Moyers says.

He's working in fertile soil. According to Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow, there already are 900,000 Bible-study groups in the United States with 15 million to 20 million members. But the Genesis project hopes to attract an even wider circle of participants. Backed by 327 interfaith councils throughout the nation, local religious leaders in places like Chicago, New Haven and the Quad Cities are encouraging Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and even Muslim congregations to pair up for dialogue on Genesis. Through its 100 regional offices, the Shepherd's Centers of America, a national senior-citizens group, has set a goal of engaging 1 million people in Genesis study around Sunday-night potluck suppers and other venues. There are similar plans in offices, dens and jails around the country. PBS has established a Web site ( for those who prefer their Bible digital. When it comes to promotion, God is indeed in the details.

For journalist Moyers, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, the Genesis series is a journey home of sorts. After doing a series on religious symbolism with the late Joseph Campbell and examining world religions with Houston Smith, Moyers returns here to his roots. Baptists are strong believers in ""soul competency''--the idea that each individual is equipped by the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible for him- or herself. But in this series, Moyers freely adopts the rabbinic model of group study, seeking to tease contemporary meaning out of the ancient Torah. His mentor is Rabbi Burton Visotzky, professor of midrash (from the Hebrew root for to search) at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the pioneer in leading Genesis seminars with groups of businessmen, artists and writers. For Visotzky, anyone can do midrash, and group discussion is in itself a ""tool for moral development.''

The sweep of Genesis is bold, the canvas vast. A mix of myth and legend shaped by several hands, the sacred story begins before time, with God majestically bringing order out of primordial chaos. Once Adam (the human) and Eve (the mother of all living) are banished from paradise (original harmony), they enter a kind of prehistory of the human race with the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. At length the focus narrows into the sagas of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their--by any standard--dysfunctional families. At the close, readers have been hurled through 2,400 years of history, as reckoned by Biblical genealogies, until coming to rest with Joseph's mummified body lying in a coffin, an exile in Egypt. A millennium or so later, scholars estimate, during the monarchies of David and Solomon, anonymous ""redactors'' turned these oral tales into the written Hebrew Bible.

The advent of Genesis comes at a curious time in the nation's religious life. Denominational loyalties are disappearing. Seminaries float theories that once would have been blasphemous. Fundamentalism has renewed its hold on a portion of the culture. Americans still proclaim their belief in God, but divine authority is hardly absolute. On top of that, current literary theory holds that texts are determined more by the reader than by the writing. In the hands of moderns, then, Genesis and the Bible become a game preserve for intellectual pursuits. The psychologist finds family strife; the poet sees wordplay; the feminist speaks for the Bible's silent women; the moralist can question ancient absolutes.

At its best, the Moyers series demonstrates all these trends. And in the process shows how unfamiliar the Bible becomes when sophisticated readers wrestle like Jacob and the angel directly with the text. In arguing--not always politely--among themselves they bring the Book of Genesis back to life. Take Adam and Eve. Ever since Augustine, Christians have understood their eating of the forbidden fruit as the ""original sin'' that established the need for Christ's redemptive death. But the text says nothing about sin. What, then, does the story mean, and who is to blame for what?

Naomi Rosenblatt, a psychotherapist who leads Bible discussions on Capitol Hill, reads the story as ""an allegory about growing up and leaving Eden--leaving home.'' If that is true, says poet Stephen Mitchell, whose new translation of Genesis is shaped by Taoist and other Asian philosophies, then God is a terrible parent. ""This is a jealous, bungling, punitive god, not the god we can love with all our heart and all our soul,'' he asserts. Princeton University Scripture scholar Elaine Pagels, who is partial to Gnostic spirituality, agrees: ""He's jealous of the species he's made, and he's punitive, and he seems to be deficient of understanding.''

Shifting the focus to the serpent, Moyers suggests that it symbolizes Eve's ""awakening sexuality.'' Rosenblatt concurs. Eve heeds the serpent, she says, because ""she's curious to know about the life force--sexual knowledge. Through the basic universal sexual experience, we learn about life.'' This reminds Mitchell that the serpent is a symbol of wisdom in Kundalini yoga, and this, he suggests, is the wisdom Eve was after. But Leon Kass, a professor of science and ethics at the University of Chicago, discerns an altogether different meaning in the Temptation story. On his reading, the serpent undermines God's authority and ""suggests new and attractive possibilities'' to the First Woman. She bites. Adam follows, and what they taste is not the first fruits of human freedom but rather the harder lesson of the consequence of making the wrong choice. ""It can become a habit, an addiction,'' says Marianne Meye Thompson, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. ""You lose the freedom to choose well.''

One of the purposes of the PBS series is to make Genesis a common ground where all of Abraham's spiritual offspring--Jews, Christians and Muslims--can meet. Ideally, argues Rabbi Visotzky, participants should temporarily set aside what their own religious tradition makes of the Bible's first book in order to address the text without doctrinal preconceptions. But as the televised conversations make clear, these different theological understandings are what make many of the exchanges illuminating.

In the harrowing story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, Christians see in the son whom Abraham prepares for sacrifice a foreshadowing of Jesus, the sacrificial son of God. Jews see in the binding of Isaac on the altar atop Mount Moriah a personification of their own experience as God's suffering chosen people. For Muslims, explains Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, Abraham's son is a prophet no less than his father and no less ready to submit to God's radical test of faith. ""If faith is being tested here,'' Visotzky responds sharply, ""it's a kind of faith I don't want to subscribe to.'' And P. K. McCary, the author of an Old Testament storybook aimed at black youth, dismisses the whole Biblical episode as an exercise in patriarchal machismo. ""I don't think God would have asked the same of [Abraham's wife] Sarah,'' she says, ""knowing what her answer would be.''

Indeed, throughout the Moyers conversations, God's character is repeatedly called into question. As Ruth Bottigheimer, a professor of comparative literature at the State University of New York, points out in her new book on the history of Bibles for children, ""God's anger was gradually edited out of children's Bibles'' during the 18th century. So were all the savage sins, especially those involving sex, which prompted that anger. As a result, she argues, God's character was transformed from a demanding, inscrutable and even vengeful deity into a benign educator of humanity. What's remarkable about the commentators assembled by Moyers is how many of them invoke this sentimental deity against the hard-edged Hebrew original.

In a discussion of Noah and the Flood, what seems like straightforward punishment for a world turned radically evil becomes an occasion for rejecting a God who would resort to such an extreme measure. Karen Armstrong, the British author of one new interpretation of Genesis, blames God for ""behaving in an evil way.'' He destroys not only sinners but also ""animals who haven't done anything wrong at all.'' Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan nods in vigorous agreement. She convicts God of setting a dangerous precedent for the modern Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Even the last righteous man, Noah, comes in for condemnation from Armstrong. His crime? Failing to warn his neighbors of the approaching rains. Even Oskar Schindler, the group notes, had his list. Fortunately, Genesis is the first, not the last, word on God's dealings with humankind. If the PBS series does nothing else, it may encourage a renewed engagement with a text that forms--with the works of the ancient Greeks--the double helix of Western self-understanding. Part of that self-knowledge is the realization that God does indeed play favorites, and that those he chooses as bearers of his promises are as deeply flawed as ourselves.

Unfortunately, Moyers's 10-part series reveals more about the participants than it does about Genesis. With a little nudging from the host, we hear of this rabbi's divorce, that minister's bout with surgery, this scholar's near suicide, that ex-nun's rejection of hell. And Oprah is nowhere in sight. Feminist rage against patriarchal religion is on full display. So are the strategies of feminist Biblical retrieval. In almost every segment there is an effort to imagine what the silent women of Genesis might have said or thought. But as one woman scholar finally complains, there is a difference between interpretation and ""ventriloquism.''

Conversely, too little tolerance is allowed for the insights of scholarship. Time and again, those who know and teach the Hebrew Bible plead in vain for staying with the text. Little effort is made to explain how and why the diverse stories found their particular literary forms, or how those forms shape the Biblical material and message. As one participant remarks, Genesis is not a collection of ""short stories.'' Moreover, Hebrew is a complex language, as Robert Alter shows in his splendid new translation. Through plays on repeated words and images, one story bleeds into another, sending echoes across the entire landscape of the Bible's first book.

Has Moyers done a public service by discussing Genesis in extended conversation? Yes: this is real adult entertainment. But he encourages too much free association and self-confession for a series that wants us to be serious about the Bible. If this is midrash, call me Ishmael.

SEEING THAT HUMANKIND HAD TURNED EVIL, God regretted his creation and determined to destroy all but Noah and his family. Does this story present a vindictive God no modern can still embrace? Did Noah have duty to warn his neighbors? Is this really about the guilt pangs of survivorship?

AT THE END OF GENESIS'S LONGEST STORY, JOESPH forgives his brothers who had abandoned him in a pit. But at his death he remains an exile in Egypt. The Bible is full of dysfunctional families. Is that comforting--God will bless even the imperfect--o r an alarming description of the true human condition? Or both?

HE WAS THE FIRST BORN OF HUMAN, THE FIRST religious man and the first killer. what are modern readers to make of Cain, who murdered his brother, Abel? That's the sort of issue that resonates through the book of Genesis, a text meant for adults but too often read only by children. Some highlights:

CHAPTER 1: God creates the world in six days and rests on Sabbath.

CHAPTER 2-3: Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are later expelled from Eden.

CHAPTER 4: Cain slays his younger brother, Abel, then asks, famously, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

CHAPTER 6-9: Noah, his family and lots of animals survive the flood that covers the earth.

CHAPTER 11: Humans build Tower of Babel. God scatters them and creates different languages.

CHAPTER 17: God makes a covenant with Abraham to make him the father of nations.

CHAPTER 18-19: Despite Abraham's pleas God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, unable to find 10 just men.

CHAPTER 22: God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Issac. Abraham prepares to obey but Issac is spared.

CHAPTER 25: For some stew, Esau, son of Issac, sells his birthright to his twin brother, Jacob.

CHAPTER 27: To receive his father's blessing, Jacob dons goatskins to impersonate Esau.

CHAPTER 32: Jacob encounters an "angel" and they wrestle. The angel renames Jacob Israel.

CHAPTER 37: Joesph, Jacob's favorite child, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.

CHAPTER 41: In Egypt, Joesph correctly interprets Pharaoh's dreams and rises to power.

CHAPTER 43-46: Joesph is reunited with his brothers and father after they come to Egypt seeking food.

CHAPTER 47-50: The 12 tribes of Israel settle in Egypt. Jacob and Joesph die. The exodus is prophesied.