THE GENESIS OF PERFECTION: ADAM AND EVE IN JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN IMAGINATIONWritten by Gary A. Anderson Reviewed By Nathan MacDonald
The story of Adam and Eve is one of the most evocative narratives in OT Its power to provoke the imagination today is still present, despite its deceptive simplicity. In different contexts, elements that are present in the story nurture new reflections. Or rather, it is the absences or subtle disjunctions that stimulate readers—the silence on Adam’s navel is an example that has proved particularly resonant in modern times.
These aporias in Genesis 2–3 are the starting point for Anderson’s journey through the history of interpretation. No dry, systematic exposition of that history, Anderson moves between The Life of Adam and Eve, Milton, Paul, the Rabbis, Michelangelo and many others to address the questions that Genesis leaves unanswered. Why did the serpent tempt Adam and Eve? Where and how did Adam know Eve? Who was at fault? Why were Adam and Eve given garments of flesh? Why did God not ask the serpent about his motive? Anderson uses these questions to take his readers into the broader story of salvation as conceived in pre-modern Judaism and Christianity and into many significant questions of faith and piety.
There are wonderful discussions of the character of God, the controversy about free-will, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the role of penitence in the life of faith. Particularly instructive are Anderson’s consideration of Eve and sexuality. He shows that the association of Eve with the Fall in later interpretation was not necessarily sexist, but was sometimes used to make her into a suitable counterpart for Mary. The discussion of sexuality examines Augustine’s views of sex and the power of sexual desire in the context of his understanding of the problem of free-will. Though such discussions may seem to move a long distance from the Garden of Eden, Anderson is careful not only to bring it back, but also to show the centrality of the larger story of salvation for Jewish and Christian readers. In this way he carefully outlines the differences between the appropriations of Genesis 2–3 by church and synagogue, but also shows their essential congruence.
Gary Anderson has left Jewish and Christian readers indebted to him. His book is a gem. Beautifully and engagingly written, it is entirely suitable for the general reader. The texts that receive sustained discussion are found in appendices, along with short critical notes and further reading for each chapter. There is also a seven-page glossary, a chronological table and twenty-one illustrations and diagrams, some in colour. Anderson’s learning is worn lightly, but the evidence of prolonged engagement with the relevant texts is found on every page. The discussions of theological and spiritual issues are extremely helpful and (how often do you get to say this about a book on OT?) edifying. My only regret is Anderson’s decision to begin with a phallic interpretation of Eve’s finger in Michelangelo’s depiction of the temptation in the Sistine chapel. It is not that I necessarily find his argument that Michelangelo is drawing a link between Eve, the mother of all mankind, and Mary, the mother of Christ, unconvincing. I only fear that some readers may put the book down after the first few pages believing the character of the book is different from what it is. This would be a great pity, especially given Anderson’s wise discussion of sexuality and the power of sexual desire. Such an expression of regret does not detract from praise for a book that should be bought, read and distributed to as many friends as possible (theologians and non-theologians).
St Andrews University