Genesis 1-11: Understanding the Bible’s Most Memorable Stories


August 14, 2018

Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, 1603

In Professor Jesse Rainbow’s upcoming class, “The Bible’s Primeval Story: Genesis 1-11,” we will learn about the original meanings and enduring legacies of some of the Bible’s most memorable stories—the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the great flood and Noah’s ark, and the tower of Babel. We checked in with Rainbow to find out more.
WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your class?

Rainbow: We’ll cover a relatively limited but densely filled portion of Genesis—just eleven chapters. Each session, I will lecture on one or two chapters, and each presentation will include interpretations of the stories in art history. I think it’s important to consider not only the history of interpretation that is represented in literary sources—the New Testament, rabbinic literature, the Qur’an—but also in visual art. The vast majority of people who encountered the stories of Genesis prior to the advent of printing in the 15th century did so not as readers but as hearers and as viewers of visual art. Art history can show us how people understood the stories in ways that are sometimes strikingly different than we find in contemporary and sometimes rarefied scholarly discussions.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do we have about your class topic?

Rainbow: I think that since the modernist vs. fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s, many people assume that the only interesting questions about Genesis 1-11 have to do with religion versus science, or history versus myth. And consequently, that modern scientific discoveries about the origins of humanity and the universe have rendered Genesis 1-11 irrelevant and uninteresting to everyone but religious fundamentalists. From my perspective as an academic biblical scholar, I find these stories to be—like Gilgamesh, the Greek myths, etc.—beautiful and intriguing, encapsulating a particular set of answers to some of the enduring questions of human existence.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about your class topic?

Rainbow: As prominent as figures like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah are in the Western imagination, they barely appear in the rest of the Hebrew Bible after the opening chapters of Genesis. They become huge in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, but in the Bible itself, these stories exist in the margins, occupying just 2% of the Bible. In some cases, other parts of the Bible offer radically different stories of the creation of the world, for instance. One of the intriguing puzzles of biblical scholarship is figuring out what the opening chapters of Genesis might have meant to the people who wrote and compiled the Hebrew Bible—people who opened their Bible with a set of unforgettable tales and then proceeded to say almost nothing more about them!

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Rainbow: I will lecture and present slideshows of relevant images.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table right now?

Rainbow: The Iliad, the Zhuangzi, stories of Agnon, James Scott’s Against the Grain.

Jesse Rainbow’s upcoming class, “The Bible’s Primeval Story: Genesis 1 – 11,”  starts on September 11th at 1:30. For more information, or to register, click here.