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Jerusalem and Athens.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, by Leon Kass, New York: Free Press, 2003. 700 pp.

Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, by Thomas Pangle, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 285 pp.

ALTHOUGH THESE BOOKS are written by two scholars usually lumped together as representatives of the Straussian school, they are profoundly different books. Kass's magnum opus will still be studied decades from now. Pangle's may well be forgotten immediately after the reviews. Kass's commentary on Genesis is almost sui generis. The only contemporary works that approach it in depth and seriousness are the books by Robert Alter (1) and Robert Sacks, (2) who, like Kass, read the Bible in a wisdom-seeking spirit. The most relevant comparisons are the great medieval commentators like the frequently cited Rashi. More explicitly than either Sacks or Alter, however, Kass's book is both wisdom-seeking and written by a person of faith. Kass marvels at the profundity of the biblical text, and he is filled with wonder at how he has come from a position of secular Darwinism to accept that there are truths "I think I have only discovered with the Bible's help."

Kass rejects both the post-enlightenment desire to historicize and the ultra-pious tendency to overlook or evade textual problems. In true orthodox fashion his book is initially divided into two large though unequal sections. The first section treats the "prehistory" of the world up to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. This part includes Creation, the story of the Garden and the Fall, the rivalry between Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Noahide covenant, and Babel. The second large section treats the four great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, with chapter lengths corresponding to the biblical text. The first section is entitled "Dangerous Beginnings: The Uninstructed Ways," and the second is called "Educating the Fathers."

A more intriguing division, however, comes from the centrality and the length of the chapters. There are twenty-one chapters. The longest and central chapter treats the last part of Abraham's story, from the military conflict in Canaan, to the story of Lot, and especially the Aqedha or binding of Isaac. This chapter is given the deeply unfashionable title, "Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Patriarchy." There is a companion chapter on educating Abraham for marriage, which comes just before this, and a first chapter on Abraham. The most important education is thus directed toward Abraham's fatherhood or patriarchy--both as father of his own progeny and as patriarch of a people.

That an education is required is seen immediately in the call to Abraham in Genesis 12. The call both shows forth the divine command and entices Abraham with temporal glory: he will found a "great nation, acquire a great name, and the families of the earth will be blessed because of him." Abraham may well end up among the blessed, but God's appeal is more direct and earthly. Abraham is almost immediately entwined in war and intrigue, as the Promised Land is both occupied and fought over by others. Abraham's military victory seems to ensure his place in the Land, though a vision of his people's captivity tempers this assurance. Abraham's most passionate need, however, is for a son, lest a servant wind up as heir. Though Sarah is aged, God promises an heir.

Kass argues that at the heart of the story of Abraham's covenantal founding is the tension between human and divine justice, and here there are two moments of instruction. The first is a lesson in human or political justice, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God engages in a remarkably direct verbal exchange with Abraham about the fate of wicked cities. Abraham speaks up forthrightly, challenging God even before God can offer his proposal. Abraham's plea is for human justice, for punishing only the wicked. Though this appears to be the principle on which Abraham operates, his actual proposal is really only the reverse of what he assumes God's plan to be. Where Abraham supposes God to condemn the righteous with the wicked, Abraham proposes to save the wicked along with the righteous. Abraham is first concerned about persons as distinct from cities, and one person in one city in particular: his nephew Lot, who is a resident of Sodom.

Abraham wants to be sure that divine justice is sufficiently like human justice to be the ground of political justice as such. God listens to Abraham's inquiry and subtly leads him to think more about the whole and less about the individual. Abraham's focus is on individuals--fifty, forty-five, forty, etc. God brings the conversation back to the whole. He will save the whole city, not just individuals. This thinking more broadly than ties of kinship is immediately born witness to in the behavior of Lot. The kinsman for whom Abraham is "bold indeed" to speak up to God is shown as willing to sacrifice the virtue of his daughters so that strangers will not be sodomized. The principle for which Abraham stood--punishment only for the unjust--may be a central principle of justice, but its application to specific individuals is as ambiguous as is human nature.

Abraham has learned that God respects the need for human justice and its concern for individuals. However, the covenant with Abraham was not that he would be a righteous man but that he would be the founder of a nation. Such a founder requires thinking beyond personal ties or individual merit. Thus we come to the binding of Isaac.

Unlike Pangle, whose rationalistic reading denudes the story, and unlike Kierkegaard, who sees the story only as an opposition of faith against reason, Kass makes this episode comprehensible as a final lesson for Abraham. God's initial call to Abraham appealed to his desire for glory. Now the vessel of that glorious nationhood must be sacrificed to show Abraham that while the covenant may be significant, fear or awe of the Lord and faith in His word are primary. Though only a request and not a command, Abraham does exactly as he is asked. His response in action shows a willingness to give up the near and dear on behalf of founding a nation on divine principles, not on human ties and desires. Abraham has been taught that a true founding requires a patriarch who is willing to sacrifice his personal paternity to the source of all fatherhood.

For Kass, Genesis is fundamentally about the founding of a nation based on fear of the Lord marked both inwardly and outwardly by a covenant. Kass reads the text for the wisdom he believes it contains, but he obviously draws out contestable meanings from his encounter. Modern readers will be put off by his reading of "man and woman" as complementary but not interchangeable, by his admiration for the biblical teaching of sexual shame, and by his failure to proclaim Abraham a hero after the fashion of Prometheus for talking back to God. While Kass admits that his readings are the fruit of a long encounter, he nowhere claims it to be definitive.

Many modern readers will furthermore dissent at a fundamental level. They will deny that Genesis has anything important to teach us--except perhaps to those of us who need fables. The very revelatory character of the text to which Kass admits a conviction is rejected by enlightenment reason. Kass begins from the standpoint that the text is revelatory (not inerrant or self-sufficient) of a God who is neither the God of the philosophers nor a being fully comprehensible by philosophy. This God cannot be fully grasped by reason alone. Yet for all that, God enters into a relation with man that renews the human soul. The account of this foundational relation, Genesis, forces us to a series of inquiries that enrich us both spiritually and philosophically.

Thomas Pangle's book, by contrast, is a thoroughly unsatisfying confrontation between what he views as "political philosophy" (by which he means ancient political philosophy) and "the God of Abraham" (by which he means biblical religion supposedly as seen in Genesis). Pangle structures this encounter as a contest, but his allegiance to "philosophy" is apparent on every page. Pangle's work is not a reading of the text as a whole, but rather a discussion of a series of questions that might be drawn from an encounter with the text. By treating the text in such a fashion, he ignores just the structural complexities and richness of suggestive answers raised by Kass. The inquisitorial nature of the inquiry is illuminated by the use of extensive footnotes and by their character. Almost one third of the pages is given over to footnotes, with a collection of references and quotations from a vast array of sources. In addition to classical sources, he uses modern historical-critical scholarship such as seen in Claus Westermann and Gerhard von Rad.

These footnotes constitute an enormous critical apparatus. Their purpose, however, is not obvious. At one level they represent a display of faux erudition. But there are deeper implications that point to a clear break with Kass and the tradition he represents. If Pangle's fundamental goal is to comprehend the biblical alternative to classical thought, then why does such a comprehension of the text require references to over eighty disparate authors? If the text of Genesis requires Christian theologians to comprehend it, then why not explicate their teaching in the body of his text? Pangle's own magisterial translation of Plato's Laws required no such immense set of references. It would appear that unlike Plato and pace Kass, Genesis does not constitute a great and comprehensive text with a coherent teaching. Rather, the text may be viewed, in Pangle's words, as an amalgam of literary sources that have been brought together by "divine mystery" or, just as likely, by "humbly bewildered human equivocation and incompetence." If the latter is the case, then recent scholars like Westermann and Childs have as much to teach us about the Bible as the Bible does itself.

If the point of Pangle's book is a true textual engagement, then the unwieldy references are beside the point. If the point is merely a series of questions which are raised by the text, then the quotations should be replaced by one's own philosophical speculations. Two examples suffice. First, Pangle expresses a preference for the position of the ancient philosophers regarding the eternity of matter, which he places in opposition to the biblical account of creation. On this question one might think with the text, as does Kass, or one might contest the question. Pangle apparently takes the latter route. But if so, a contest that ignores the most recent natural science (i.e., big bang cosmology), when it supports the biblical account, must be understood as incomplete. Secondly, Pangle questions the notion of divine omnipotence. He rightly points out that the Bible is not a philosophic text. As such, however, the jargon of the philosophers--"omnipotence," "omniscience"--is not biblical language. In this discussion, Pangle quotes from a number of previous writers such as Montesquieu, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and even Augustine. The implication seems to be that God is not absolutely omnipotent, whatever such a claim might mean. But this point appears only dimly. What is omitted is any attempt at careful philosophical analysis. Precisely what does omnipotence mean? And then precisely what are the limits of omnipotence, if any? Are the limits logical? (God cannot make a square circle because logic prevents comprehension of such a thing?) Are the limits ontological? (Is there another, rival principle which God cannot eliminate?) Are the limits characterological? (God could lie but never would.) What are we to make of a book which challenges revealed religion on the basis of philosophy and then ignores philosophy's own discourse on divine things?

The incomplete character of Pangle's book is mirrored in a seriously unreflective allegiance to philosophy in the supposed encounter between Jerusalem and Athens. Here, there is a sort of disdain for the life of faith reminiscent of Nietzsche--together with a concern for the "usefulness" of faith for the unphilosophic reminiscent of Hegel's teaching that religion is most charitably understood as a sort of philosophy for the masses. Pangle argues that God and creation must be understood as existing within a structure of physical and moral law which stands apart from God and which thus provides the ground of the philosopher's comprehension of the whole, including God. As such, the man or woman of piety can know only part of the whole, whereas the philosopher can comprehend the very nature of God's action as structured by law. God's action is ruled by natural necessity in terms of which alone God must act. There is, for Pangle, a standard of "goodness" that is recognized or discovered--but not created--by God. The reference is to Genesis: e.g., "God saw that the light was good." But if God is truly the Creator the Bible proclaims Him to be, how would He recognize a created thing as good except by seeing it as embodying His standard and not creation's? On Pangle's account, God appears to be a handyman merely following the orders of nature; He is not a Creator.

It is just here, however, that Pangle's unreflective allegiance to philosophy is most obvious. The philosopher's aspiration is said to be toward a comprehensive account of the whole. If we grant the philosopher his aspiration, his faithlessness becomes incoherent. For the philosopher assumes that the whole is a rationally comprehensible cosmos which the mind can grasp in the understanding. Is this not, however, a faith in both nature and reason for which reason as such is incapable of accounting? Reason assumes its ground, it cannot justify it. On the deepest reflection, does not philosophy become possible only within the ambit of faith?

The final way of seeing Pangle's position and its problems is in his final chapter entitled "Kierkegaard's Challenge," a confrontation with Kierkegaard's account of the binding of Isaac as presented in Fear and Trembling. Pangle regards Kierkegaard's presentation of the "knight of faith," i.e., Abraham on Mt. Moriah, as the exemplar of the religious alternative he rejects. But his reading of Kierkegaard is limited and his response unconvincing. Pangle has confronted Kierkegaard only through Fear and Trembling, a work that presupposes the foundational critique of the sufficiency of philosophy in Philosophical Fragments (and its completion in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript). For Kierkegaard, all human knowing is suspect or limited precisely because we cannot obtain certainty within the limits of creation. The foundation of complete knowing is incarnational. The eternal becomes temporal out of pure love, and the human knower finds himself "grasped" by the eternal in a moment of existential recognition. After such a moment, for Kierkegaard, Abraham's response becomes entirely comprehensible as an absolute trust in God, whom one experiences as trustworthy.

Pangle rejects the Abrahamic position without confronting the epistemic teaching that Kierkegaard presents as a means to comprehend it. His retort is simply to assert that the binding is absurd to philosophy. Pangle's response amounts to an enlightenment demand for "evidence" (his word) that any believer has actually followed Kierkegaard's absolute faith. The demand is pointless. Believers recognize such a demand as one that fails to acknowledge the corruption at the heart of everything human. Pangle's follow-up is merely ad hominum: since Kierkegaard himself did not fully live up to his teaching, we may reject what he taught. Pangle's position is equivalent to the claim that since Christians do not completely live the life they proclaim, their proclamation of truth may be rejected. One could also say that since we have no evidence that anyone has ever lived the completely Socratic life, the teaching of Socrates may be ignored.

In the end, Pangle misses the most crucial question. This is the question that philosophy itself must ignore in its own questioning but which the Bible presents to us fully. The first question in the Bible is not humankind's question about God or Creation. Rather, it is God's question to man, to Adam just after he has sinned: "Where are you?" Faith's answer, like Abraham's, is "Here I am." Such an answer is, perhaps, the beginning of the wisdom that all of us--philosophers or not--seek.

1. Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York, 1997). 2. Robert Sacks, Commentary on Genesis (Lewiston, 1991).

RICHARD SHERLOCK is Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
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Title Annotation:The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis; Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham
Author:Sherlock, Richard
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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