A Critical Theology of Genesis

The Non-Absolute God

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Itzhak Benyamini
Radical Theologies and Philosophies
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     2016.
     159 pages.
     $97.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137595089.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Critical Theology of Genesis: The Non-Absolute God is an English-language translation of a Hebrew monograph by Itzhak Benyamini that offers theological commentary on Genesis 1-22. Benyamini’s analysis reflects and responds to the influences of medieval Jewish scholarship (Rashi, Nachmanides), modern Western philosophy (Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas), psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan), and modern Jewish thought (Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Nehama Leibowitz). 

Of the themes that emerge in Benyamini’s analysis of the biblical text, three are particularly prominent. The first is his application of the Hegelian identification of the Other. Benyamini emphasizes this in his analysis of Creation. According to Benyamini, in the act of creating the world, God created himself—due to the fact that the creation of the world was an act of differentiation, distinguishing God’s self from the Other (i.e., Creation). Benyamini finds that this theme of primordial differentiation continues through the biblical text by means of a series of distinctions between a subject and its Other. For example, Eve is the Other to Adam; Canaan is the Other to Israel.

Building upon this, a second prominent theme is the sexualizing of the earth. Benyamini portrays God as a masculine figure, sexually entangled with the feminine earth. His description of God’s interaction with the earth is highly anthropomorphic, depicting the “phallic act” of God’s fertilization of the maternal earth, which initially is in a womblike state, lacking “the paternal fertilizing seed” (25). In this way, his analysis is reminiscent of the relationship between Ouranos and Gaia in Hesiod’s Theogony. Particularly interesting is the manner in which Benyamini applies these concepts to demonstrate a pattern of abusing offspring in his treatment of Noah’s drunkenness. According to Benyamini, God is superior to the earth and yet, maintains a harsh and envious relationship with it. The earth is subsequently superior to Noah, yet it abuses Noah, intoxicating him with its wine. Noah is superior to Ham, whom he injures with his curse. This creates a reverberating pattern of abuse in which superiors injure their subaltern parties.

A third important theme within Benyamini’s analysis is the centrality of laughing within the Abraham story. Not only does Benyamini emphasize the laughing of Abraham (Gen 17:17), Sarah (Gen 18:12-15), women neighbors (Gen 21:5-6), and Ishmael (Gen 21:9), but amidst all of this laughter Benyamini contends that, ultimately, the one who laughs is God. Benyamini portrays God as a “joker” (135), engaging in mockery and “black humor” (137). Through the semantic connection between “laughing” and Isaac’s name, the laughter threads cohesion throughout the Abrahamic narrative, culminating in God’s instructions to Abraham on the sacrifice Isaac. In his assessment of Genesis 22, Benyamini rejects the reading previously championed by Kierkegaard and countless others which view Abraham as a model of submissiveness. On the contrary, Benyamini reads Abraham as a cunning figure contending with a mocking God whose instructions to sacrifice Isaac constitutes a dark joke.

Overall, Benyamini’s handling of Genesis 1-22 certainly has merits. Hegelian philosophy and psychoanalysis has much to offer the field of biblical studies, and although some scholars have begun to apply them to biblical analysis, there remains far more work to be done. In this capacity, Benyamini’s approach to Genesis is quite welcome and promising. In addition, few could challenge the fact that Benyamini presents a daringly fresh take on Genesis 1-22, describing a God who is intimately entangled with his creation. Benyamini’s depiction of YHWH as a sexualized, mocking joker, envious of the earth is worthy of consideration—whether or not one finds it compelling.

However, despite some of the strengths of Benyamini’s treatment of Genesis 1-22, the book is riddled with problems. First, Benyamini continuously engages in speculation that goes well beyond the evidence contained within the biblical texts. Some of this takes the form of unfounded assertions, such as his claim that God did not create the rivers of Eden, but rather they existed before creation. At times, Benyamini participates in psychological speculation, such as his suggestion that God created the world out of boredom and for His own self-amusement. Benyamini’s claim that the noisiness of Sodom and Gomorrah disturbs God’s rest, and it is this disruption that God finds distasteful in those cities, which seems to impose Enuma Elish upon the biblical text. Moreover, Benyamini’s unfounded claim that Abraham briefly waited for God to intervene before sacrificing Isaac, and thereafter “rushes to seize the ram, to slaughter it quickly” appears to add temporal elements—delay, then haste—to the text in order to accommodate Benyamini’s characterization of God and Abraham.

A second problem with the book is that, although the idea of crafting an analysis of a part of the Book of Genesis based upon the conceptual frameworks of thinkers such as Hegel and Lacan is a promising premise, Benyamini’s utilization of them is often too thin to be helpful. Benyamini is especially fond of labeling various entities as the Other, but his analysis rarely goes further than that. The book lacks proper synthesis in demonstrating how Hegelian and Lacanian thought enhances Benyamini’s interpretation of the biblical text.

The third major problem—and by far the greatest problem with this book—is its failure to engage scholarship. This book has no bibliography; it has no footnotes. The only notes that it features are occasional interspersed “supplements” marked by asterisks. The book includes references to a handful of thinkers without any proper citation. Instead of a bibliography, Benyamini offers a two-page section entitled “Books in the Background,” in which he lists some of the contributors who have impacted his outlook on the biblical text. Yet, even this is merely a collection of references to authors without including any proper citations of their works. Moreover, Benyamini occasionally attempts feeble attacks upon source criticism and redaction criticism that only expose the weakness of his grasp of these disciplines. It is hard for Benyamini to make a compelling case against these critical methods when, by failing to engage with the necessary scholarship, it is not clear to the reader that Benyamini has read and understood the major works of these disciplines. 

Unfortunately, the deficiencies of this book, especially its failure to engage modern biblical scholarship, greatly limit its usefulness. Some—such as those interested in provocative theologies or those working closely on the role of Isaac in the Abraham narrative—will benefit from Benyamini’s commentary—however, those readers interested in a scholarly analysis of Genesis would be better served by other works.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Craig Evan Anderson received his doctorate in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2011, and is currently an Independent Researcher.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Itzhak Benyamini teaches at University of Haifa, and at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Israel. He is also the editor of Resling publishing house and the author of a number of books, including Narcissist Universalism: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul's Epistles (2012).

Keywords: 

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