Belonging in Genesis

Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation

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Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , March
     2016.
     179 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781602587472.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The book of Genesis has proved both popular and fruitful in recent years for those wishing to probe biblical notions of identity and otherness. Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi has added to this ongoing discussion with an engaging and thought-provoking study on identity formation in Genesis, offering a reading of this biblical book which challenges notions of identity that many contemporary readers bring to the text.

In chapter 1, Mbuvi begins by noting that “Genesis lacks those features moderns consider most important to community self-definition, making it a decidedly unsuitable starting point for a modern study of identity” (2). Because of this, scholars have tended to import notions of identity to the book based primarily around theories concerning the production or transmission of the text, often tied to assumptions about Israelite history and nationhood. What is often taken for granted in these reconstructions, Mbuvi suggests, is the “common sense” of the reading community, and the various presuppositions rooted in modern notions of identity which permeate such readings. As such, she argues that “it becomes necessary to combine biblical interpretation with consideration of the reading community and its governing logic” (4). This notion is unpacked in the following chapter, where Mbuvi uses the work of Erich Auerbach—and in particular his reading of a twelfth century French play about Adam and Eve, Mystère d’Adam—to demonstrate how Eurocentric (and in this case modern, Western, and androcentric) assumptions have come to function as common sense. In this light, the Bible (and retellings of it) come to reinforce, rather than challenge, cultural norms.

As a way of coming at these issues from a different angle, Mbuvi points in chapter 3 to contemporary research into “family storytelling” as a potentially useful resource for thinking about Genesis: “By conveying the family’s understanding of itself and of the world, family stories create and perpetuate family culture.… Families do not simply exist; they must continually be constructed and reconstructed. Family storytelling performs this essential creative work” (34-35). Genesis contains many markers of family storytelling, including a focus on lineage and descent. Mbuvi contends that a focus on family storytelling, as opposed to approaches focused on nationalistic identity, can help cultivate sensitivities “that can be used to decolonize the biblical text, laying bare the unstated assumptions of Eurocentric approaches and facilitating the emergence of a YHWH-centric reading of Genesis” (42).

The chapters which follow bring these various thoughts to bear on the text of Genesis, beginning with a look at genealogies in chapter 4. Focusing in particular on the early chapters of Genesis, including the use of genealogical language in the creation and flood accounts, Mbuvi notes that Genesis “links all creation in a kinship network, providing the most inclusive foundation possible for Israel’s identity. The family’s story does not begin with the call of Abram (Abraham) in chapter 12, but with the creation of the heavens and the earth. Far from interrupting that story, genealogies are an integral part of the way in which it is told” (67).

In chapter 5, Mbuvi turns her attention to Genesis 10-11. Here she challenges modern conceptions of race and the influence of these notions on readings of Genesis, juxtaposing the structured notion of a “social ladder” with the more organic idea of a family tree. She suggests that “Biblical genealogy enables a more nuanced view of identity than offered by ‘modern racial nationalism.’ It contains the possibility for ‘complex differentiation,’” a recognition “that a person’s social status does not depend on one criterion alone, but rather reflects the interplay of several” (93-94).

The final chapter moves to the stories of the ancestors (Genesis 12-50). Focusing on Isaac and Ishmael along with Hagar and Sarah, Mbuvi pushes back against the idea that these stories represent only vertical relationships of otherness which result primarily in conflict, suggesting that Genesis “does not construct its family of focus through such neat dichotomies of inside and outside. Its family tree assigns great important to connections across lateral relationships of difference” (109). Among other things, Mbuvi questions rigid distinctions between elect and non-elect, concluding that “Genesis depicts God both drawing lines and blurring them” (136).

Mbuvi has produced an engaging and challenging exploration of Genesis, one that focuses on often neglected aspects of Genesis (such as genealogies), while also challenging deeply embedded assumptions of Western readers. Though relatively brief, the study covers much ground, probing notions of identity in light of race, gender, ethnicity, and colonialism. However, Mbuvi engages these issues with an eye toward a constructive reading of the text, pushing back against approaches which assume Genesis must be read as narrow-minded and ethnocentric, and arguing instead that the book offers more fluid and inclusive understandings of identity than is often assumed. Taken together, Mbuvi challenges readers to reassess the portrayal of identity formation in Genesis, while also destabilizing modern notions of identity and thus offering readers a chance to rethink their own identities in light of a more complex understanding of this foundational text.

The brevity of the volume does have its drawbacks, including the fact that it does not engage with material which has explored similar identity-focused issues in Genesis, particularly that from the past decade. This quibble notwithstanding, Mbuvi’s incisive engagement with Genesis is one which will be of interest not only to readers of Genesis, but also to those who are concerned with how these ancient texts might be read in light of increasingly complex issues of identity in the contemporary world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradford Anderson is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda Mbuvi received her Ph.D. from Duke University. She specializes in the Hebrew Bible and questions of identity and community.

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