Reviews for Beginning of Wisdom : Reading Genesis


Booklist Monthly Selections - # 2 March 2003
/*Starred Review*/ Unlike the many devout readers who approach the Bible to find salvation, unlike even the secular scholars who take up the Bible to advance linguistic and historical understanding, Kass comes to Genesis in pursuit of philosophical wisdom. And he finds it. As a distinguished researcher in molecular biology and bioethics, Kass well understands how modern science has rendered untenable many traditional readings of the holy book. But he also recognizes how scientific expertise has created dilemmas demanding anew the kind of moral insights that generations have gleaned from Scripture. And though he demurs as to its divine inspiration, Kass finds in Genesis a richly rewarding narrative challenging readers to explore the promise and peril of human life. Unfolding a unified series of pedagogical investigations (developed over two decades of teaching the text at the University of Chicago), Kass guides readers in profound reflections on natural and human origins: How did Eden's forbidden fruit deliver Adam and Eve to death yet simultaneously endow them with spiritual freedom? How did the failure of the Tower of Babel expose the limits of civilization--including our own? Kass must ask different questions once Abraham appears (in Genesis 12), for his covenantal relationship with deity transcends philosophic reasoning. Yet in limning the rise of the Israelite nation, Kass probes the meaning--and contemporary significance--of a communal commitment to reverence and justice. Readers unattached to church or synagogue may be surprised at how much the Bible still has to teach them. ((Reviewed March 15, 2003)) Copyright 2003 Booklist Reviews

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Kirkus Reviews 2003 February #2
A learned and fluent, delightfully overstuffed stroll through the Gates of Eden."It was all because of Darwin," writes Kass (Committee on Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago), that he came to study the biblical book of Genesis, in which the earth is created, populated, depopulated, and scourged in various awful ways. Blending science with philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other disciplines--but with only a smattering of theology as such--Kass turns to some of the big questions that science cannot or does not care to answer, as well as to a few ticklish other matters: "How, we wonder, does the speaker know what he is talking about? Why should we believe him? . . . On the basis of what other than prejudice--prejudgment--can we decide whether the text is speaking truly?" Kass provides no firm answers (how could he?), but he grapples nobly with the notoriously difficult text from first words ("In beginning," he translates, eschewing the definite article, "God ['elohim] created the heavens and the earth") to last ("the very last word of Genesis is ‘in Egypt' [bemitsrayim]"), commenting, elucidating, and arguing along the way. Kass, now chairman of the President's Bioethics Committee, is inclined to a generous view of human and divine nature, though his Garden--a place that appeals to "beings with an uncomplicated, innocent attachment to their own survival and ease"--conceals plenty of Darwinian thorns. On the matter of Cain and Abel, for example, he ventures, "readers recoil from considering the possibility that enmity--yes, enmity to the point of fratricide--might be the natural condition of brothers," while among the other matters Jacob must wrestle with, Kass has it, is "nature's indifference to human merit." But all those big questions and problems, Kass concludes, resolve into an overarching one, the real subject of Genesis: "Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man's true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike abilities?" Hmmm.Mix Harold Bloom with Stephen Jay Gould, and you'll get something like Kass. A wonderfully intelligent reading of Genesis--and surely worthy of sequels, a fat volume for each branch of the Pentateuch.Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club/History Book Club alternate selection Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved

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Library Journal Reviews 2003 April #2
A scientist and chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Kass (Univ. of Chicago) sees Genesis as a text that offers wisdom about the nature of man and how we ought to live, while it also calls for interpretation, reflection, and judgment. In the tradition of Jack Miles's well-received God: A Biography-that is, a reading of the Bible that seeks to bring a fresh eye to the story-Kass presents many enlightening insights, the result of his attempts to understand the text on its own terms and relating it to contemporary concerns, especially tradition and parenthood. While not everyone will agree with his interpretations, which tend to the conservative, Kass offers much to be pondered by thoughtful readers, both academics and, especially, educated laypeople. Those seeking a more historical-critical study should consult the Anchor Bible volume by E.A. Speiser, although now somewhat out of date, or Nahum Sarna's volume in the "JPS Torah" commentary series. Highly recommended for larger libraries; essential for church and seminary libraries.-Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Publishers Weekly Review 2003 April #2
Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, offers yet another reading of the Bible's first book, contributing little that is new to the academic study of Genesis. For the past 20 years, Kass has offered a seminar on Genesis in which he and his students at the University of Chicago read it as a philosophical classic in the same way one would read Plato or Nietzsche. Thus, Genesis "shows us what is first in man (`anthropology'). It also invites reflection on what is cosmically first and how human beings stand in relation to the whole (`ontology')." From this philosophical perspective, we learn from the Noah story, for example, that humanity enjoys special standing not only because of its reason and freedom but also because it exercises those qualities in legislating morality. For Kass, the story of Abraham and Isaac illustrates children learning that their parents were right all along about certain moral principles. While his approach might seem unique, it yields little that is original or provocative. Many commentators before Kass, for instance, have asserted that the primeval couple in the garden gained moral self-consciousness from their act of disobedience to God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In addition, the academic tone and sometimes thick, impenetrable prose ("The open form of the text and its recalcitrance to final and indubitable interpretation...") limit this book's effectiveness and value. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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