Book review: Genesis, in translation by Robert Alter

I’ve been reading Robert Alter’s lovely translation and commentary on Genesis, and my, is it good.

He does two things that I really appreciate and don’t recall from other translations.  First, his translation is very lively, in some way – he makes the people seem very immediate, and makes me want to keep on reading.  Secondly, his commentary is brilliant at pointing out connections between stories in the lives of different characters, or within the lives of single characters.  I hadn’t previously noticed the ‘everyone of importance goes down to Egypt’ motif, or the ‘everyone meets their wife by a well’ recurring theme.  And – for example – what he has to say about Jacob’s story is just fascinating.  At the start of Jacob’s story, we see him deceiving his father about his identity, by using the skin of a kid to mimic Esau’s hairier skin and Esau’s clothes to disguise his identity.  Later, he in turn is deceived by his sons, who slaughter a kid and use its blood and Joseph’s clothing to make him believe that Joseph is dead.  He is able to deceive his father because his father cannot see him – and he is deceived in the matter of a wife because Leah is disguised by darkness.  And his story is full of duos in opposition – himself versus his brother, Leah versus Rachel, the two slaves he later marries.  Alter points up these themes and patterns (far better than I have here, because I read this all about a week ago) in a way that really makes me grasp the sense of intent and purpose that went into putting together these books of the Torah, and choosing which stories should go where, and in what form.

(also, don’t ever be an elder son with urban inclinations.  This never ends well.)

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Book review: Dante’s Purgatorio, in translation by Dorothy Sayers

So. Purgatory, then. I hope this will be coherent – but I’m worried that if I wait too long to write it, I’ll be distracted by Paradise (what a lovely sentence to take out of context), and won’t be able to do it justice.

I started this book with oddly mixed feelings. My own expectation, from having read the Inferno and Dorothy Sayers’ commentaries, was that I’d really enjoy it – in fact, I’d been impatient to get through the last half dozen or so Cantos (Canti?) of Inferno, so I could find out what the next bit was like – and yet numerous people had told me that Purgatory was less interesting, and even Sayers said that many people didn’t get past Inferno (and, I might add, she had no high opinion of such people!), so I wasn’t sure how I’d like it.

But, in fact, I think I liked it more than its predecessor. Inferno was interesting, certainly, but it lacked the theological fascination of Purgatory, at least for me. Perhaps this was a product of not having been brought up Catholic – Purgatory was not a concept I knew well, so it had an extra interest for me. Also, of course, circumstances combined to make the experience of reading it strangely topical and profound – while I may joke about Australia being Purgatory, I cannot deny that something visceral and indescribable was added to my reading when I noted the smoke in the air as I read about the smoky circle of Wrath, or read about the fire in the circle of Lust near the top of the mountain straight after reading of the bushfires in the Victorian Alps, or walked out of the office into a cool change just as Dante walked through the fire into the cool of the Earthly Paradise. And while Sayers tells me, and I believe her, that Dante could not have known about the Southern Cross when he described the constellations, I couldn’t help seeing them whenever the four stars in the sky were mentioned. I can’t tell you how all this affected my understanding of the book; I can tell you, though, that I believe it is more deeply lodged in my memory as a result – experiential learning, as one might say.

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Book review: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner

I’ve just finished reading Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. This is a best-seller and something of a self-help book, two elements that would normally imbue me with distrust (self-help books, in particular, generally have the unfortunate effect of making me feel completely overwhelmed by all my flaws and incapable of changing them), but having read another of Kushner’s books and liked his take on Jewish theology very much, I thought it was worth a try.

And, actually, it’s really very good.

Basically, Kushner looks at the problem of evil: how, if God is both good and omnipotent, can evil happen? And his solution is quite simply that God is not omnipotent. Yes, he created the world (through evolution, incidentally), but he created it with rules – laws of physics, chemistry and biology – that cannot be broken. Disease, natural disasters, and human evil are all parts of this world, and God can’t change that. What God can do is help us have the strength to live and make meaning of our lives despite all of this.

This argument is both appealing and slightly disappointing. Immature as it may be to say this, I can’t help feeling that God really should be omnipotent. Isn’t that the whole point of being God? Intellectually I accept and appreciate the argument, emotionally, it doesn’t seem quite fair.

On the other hand, I really do like Kushner’s repeated emphasis on the idea that the awful things that happen to us are not intrinsically meaningful – they are not sent by God to punish or test or strengthen us. They just happen, and frankly, they are pretty awful. But we are able, as humans, to make meaning from them.

Kushner wrote this book out of the death of his 14-year-old son from a genetic condition, so he knows whereof he speaks. One of the more justly famous lines in the book occurs in the last chapter:

“I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counsellor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it. And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back.”

He does not ask us to accept the horrible things that happen as part of some cosmic pattern, or to be glad of them for the ways in which they have enriched us – we make meaning in spite of suffering, not because of it. It’s a strangely comforting view.

Kushner also commentates interestingly on the book of Job, and even more interestingly on the creation story – I particularly like his discussion of the result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He explains that the consequences of this are not about punishment for disobedience, but are in fact a metaphor for becoming human. Without this knowledge, humans are no different from animals, acting on instinct. Once we learn about good and evil, however, we are forced to make ethical choices – bearing and raising children IS more difficult, human relationships ARE complex, finding food is no longer simply about instinct, but about learning to farm, or learning a career that will provide the means to afford food, and while animals and humans both die, humans alone are aware of this throughout their lives.

I also enjoy some of his fables, particularly the one about the grieving woman who asks a holy man for a magical working that will bring her son back to life. He tells her to bring him a mustard seed from a house that has never known sorrow – naturally, no such house exists, and at each house where she asks, she hears all their tales of tragedy and misfortune, and stays to minister to them out of her grief. In the end, she forgets her quest, without realising that the search has taken the sorrow out of her life by filling it with purpose and connecting her to others who grieve.

Anyway. I can thoroughly recommend this, especially to anyone who is interested in counselling, or on theology. It is engagingly and sympathetically written, and is really a very lovely book. If its title has become a cliché, it has certainly deserved it’s notoriety, and I find myself once again wanting to read more of Kushner’s work. His approach to life is one of the most positive that I have read of.