In the beginning

I am more and more fascinated by the book of Genesis, and I have just found a guide that has added much to that allure.

It’s Karen Armstrong’s book, ‘In the beginning,’ which was published 25 years ago. It is less well-known than many of her other works, but for me, it’s her best.

It takes a narrative, psychological approach to the text, and the result is a cornucopia of spiritual insights.

Armstrong takes the stories related in Genesis very seriously. That may sound odd, but many writers and scholars don’t. So many books written about the scriptures use the stories therein as stepping stones to other destinations. It might be doctrine, a historical point, or, as I will elaborate on shortly, a favourite theme.

Armstrong resists that tendency and dwells in the stories, discerning much that would otherwise remain opaque.

The results are both unsettling and engaging.

Jacob is a case in point.

I have long been drawn to Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestling at the river Jabbok. The text spoke to me of the importance of struggling in faith, wrestling with God. It had a generic appeal, applicable to anyone and everyone.

As Armstrong points out, this narrative is not generic at all. It’s particular. It’s about the struggle for power between Jacob and his brother Esau. It concerns sibling rivalry and the haunting dimensions of an injustice perpetrated years before. (Jacob had defrauded Esau of his birthright.)

The story implies that, at some level of his being, Jacob knew he had to meet Esau and make amends. This meeting risked another, with himself in order to face his own destructive lust for power.

The prospect of meeting Esau was freighted with anxiety, the second, even more so.

In Gen. 32, it is unclear who Jacob wrestled with. Was it a human, was it God, was it himself? We are not told. Further, we are cautioned against resolving the blurring of boundaries between these three possibilities. They are meant to intersect.

Of note, while Jacob did wrestle at the river Jabbok and Esau forgave him, his later life indicated that he had not learnt enough from those experiences. Armstrong writes, ‘It is neither riches nor offspring which yield a sense of the divine but the attempt to integrate the self.’

To receive God’s blessing is not the wonderfully happy moment most construe it as.

It requires meetings with the darker side of self. Jacob could not sustain that.

The reason God blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to enable them to bless others. Jacob didn’t; he was more of a curse.

Armstrong brings the context of this well-known account to the foreground and gently reinterprets it. The results are sobering, and they left me fruitfully perplexed.

I had lost sight of the context in my desire to make the account speak to a general theme.

How rich the narrative and its context are, and how readily we jump across them to something that we presume is more substantial.

There are several books on my bookshelf that I could never throw out. ‘In the Beginning’ has now been added to that select few.