Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In the Beginning

In the Beginning
© 1981 Isaac Asimov
496 pages

Please note that my copy of In the Beginning was in large print, so the page count is very much inflated. Adjusted for fontsize, the actual size of the book should be about 240 pages. (Courtesy of Amazon.)

I'm growing perilously close to exhausting my local library's Isaac Asimov holdings, but I shall keep the flame aglow for as long as I can. Asimov wrote in his Asimov's Guide to the Bible that he had enjoyed writing in-depth commentaries on the first books of the Bible and would have gleefully continued to do so had he the time and his publisher the faith that there were enough people willing to buy them -- but the two had neither, and so Asimov settled for writing his bigger guide and leaving only a few books of the Judeo-Christian bible with extended commentary. In the Beginning is one such book, and it concerns (as you may guess) the book of Genesis. More specifically, it concerns the first eleven chapters of Genesis -- from "In the beginning" to Yahweh telling Abraham, "Hey, go over there."

The book offers verse-by-verse commentary, although Asimov will often group verses together for the sake of readability. It was slow reading at first, as he slowly dissected every word of the first verse, examining the scientific account of the beginnings of the universe and comparing it to the words of Genesis. The first parts of the book offer a lot of comparison between the opening verses of Genesis and the scientific account of cosmological development and biological development. Asimov's information is a little dated twenty or so years in the future, but perfectly up to date for his time -- or so I would imagine.

Once Earth is created, the book got a lot more interesting for me, as Asimov spends more time writing on comparative myth, legends, primitive histories, language, comparative symbolism, and all sorts of things of interest to a student of the social sciences like myself.The flood prompts more scientific comparison, but not as much as I'd expected. Although I've read Asimov's Guide to the Bible, there was much more detail here and I did learn quite a bit. (Asimov's explanation for why Creation took six days was particularly helpful: he delves into the history of the standard "week" and its introduction into Hebrew culture.) I don't know that the writing style itself is worth commenting on: it's Asimov -- of course it was enjoyable. Even so, I will say on or two things. I found Asimov's approach to be fairly professional: he writes well, and he keeps judgments to a minimum -- enough to make an orthodox student think, perhaps, but not enough to offend him or her to the point of closing their mind further. Here is an example of some commentary (with intersource comparison).

9. These are the generations of Noah: (200) Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. [...].

200. Here we have a new introduction, which might better be translated, "Following is the story of Noah." The reason for the introduction is that we now switch to the P-document which carries on the tale from the end of Chapter 5. In fact, the story of the Flood, which follows, is to be found in both the P-document and the J-document, each telling it characteristically. The P-document is full of numbers and details, while the J-document concentrates on drama. The Biblical editors, finding the tale in both documents, included both, interweaving the P-document and the J-document in an attempt to tell a single story. Actually, they managed to introduce repetitions and self-contradictions.*

This is worth the read if you can find it.

* page 326, large-print edition

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