The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
The Beginning of Wisdom is a hugely learned book that, like Genesis itself, falls naturally into two sections. The first shows how the universal history described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, from creation to the tower of Babel, conveys, in the words of Leon Kass, "a coherent anthropology" -- a general teaching about human nature -- that "rivals anything produced by the great philosophers." Serving also as a mirror for the reader's self-discovery, these stories offer profound insights into the problematic character of human reason, speech, freedom, sexual desire, the love of the beautiful, pride, shame, anger, guilt, and death. Something as seemingly innocuous as the monotonous recounting of the ten generations from Adam to Noah yields a powerful lesson in the way in which humanity encounters its own mortality. In the story of the tower of Babel are deep understandings of the ambiguous power of speech, reason, and the arts; the hazards of unity and aloneness; the meaning of the city and its quest for self-sufficiency; and man's desire for fame, immortality, and apotheosis -- and the disasters these necessarily cause. Against this background of human failure, Part Two of The Beginning of Wisdom explores the struggles to launch a new human way, informed by the special Abrahamic covenant with the divine, that might address the problems and avoid the disasters of humankind's natural propensities. Close, eloquent, and brilliant readings of the lives and educations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's sons reveal eternal wisdom about marriage, parenting, brotherhood, education, justice, political and moral leadership, and of course the ultimate question: How to live a good life? Connecting the two "parts" is the book's overarching philosophical and pedagogical structure: how understanding the dangers and accepting the limits of human powers can open the door to a superior way of life, not only for a solitary man of virtue but for an entire community -- a life devoted to righteousness and holiness. This extraordinary book finally shows Genesis as a coherent whole, beginning with the creation of the natural world and ending with the creation of a nation that hearkens to the awe-inspiring summons to godliness.
A unique and ambitious commentary, a remarkably readable literary exegesis and philosophical companion, The Beginning of Wisdom is one of the most important books in decades on perhaps the most important -- and surely the most frequently read -- book of all time.
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. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. *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. Bryce ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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- Free Press / Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (May 20, 2003)
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