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In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis [Paperback]

Karen Armstrong
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct 1997
"KAREN ARMSTRONG IS A GENIUS."
--A. N. Wilson

As the foundation stone of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, The Book of Genesis unfolds some of the most arresting stories of world literature--the Creation; Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; the sacrifice of Isaac. Yet the meaning of Genesis remains enigmatic. In this fascinating volume, Karen Armstrong, author of the highly acclaimed bestseller A History of God, brilliantly illuminates the mysteries and profundities of this mystifying work.

"A lyrical chronicle of one woman's wrestling with Genesis that can serve as a guide to others . . . As notable for its scholarship as it is for its honesty and vulnerability."
--Publishers Weekly

"Armstrong can simplify complex ideas, but she is never simplistic."
--The New York Times Book Review

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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (Oct 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345406044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345406040
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14.2 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,138,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Karen Armstrong is one of the world's leading commentators on religious affairs. She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun in the 1960s, but then left her teaching order in 1969 to read English at St Anne's College, Oxford. In 1982, she became a full time writer and broadcaster. She is a best-selling author of over 15 books. An accomplished writer and passionate campaigner for religious liberty, Armstrong has addressed members of the United States Congress and the Senate and has participated in the World Economic Forum.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By Pieter Uys HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In The Beginning is an illuminating introduction into the foundation narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Armstrong explores the complex human relationships in Genesis, depicting the fathers of the faith as multifaceted characters.
The author maintains that Genesis is not a moral text, that it deals with separation rather than sin, and claims that the book's message is that integration and wholeness can only be achieved by the individual coming to terms with her/his own nature. The stories of Genesis have a timeless quality because they speak to parts of the spirit that remain hidden to us, exerting a compelling fascination.
A reading of this book suggests why psychoanalysis began as a predominantly Jewish discipline. Long before modern psychology, the authors of ancient Israel had already started to investigate the unmapped territories of the human heart and mind. They considered the struggle with the emotions and with the past as the theatre of the religious quest.
By seeking reconciliation with those who have hurt them in the past and by attempting to resolve inner conflicts, people would attain the harmony and peace that characterises the sacred. Because the authors of Genesis were dealing with such difficult matters, they provided very few exact teachings or simple messages, no clear theology and no shared consensus.
Even though Genesis has played such an important role in shaping the Judeo-Christian tradition, the book is often challenging to our religious preconceptions. Armstrong's work is always thought provoking and this book is no exception. In The Beginning concludes with a helpful bibliography and index.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
In this short book Karen Armstrong sheds more light on the meaning and continuing relevance of the book of Genesis than many authors have done in far longer works. In a series of short chapters she discusses the vividly drawn men and women who, with their very human mixtures of strengths and weaknesses, people these remarkable stories. She sees Genesis as the story of God's withdrawal from an intimate involvement in his creation and of the human response to the dilemmas of living in the complex world he has left us. This book makes it abundantly clear why the Hebrew Bible continues to fascinate both believers and non-believers; it will send you back to the book of Genesis with renewed interest.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
129 of 136 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A standout... 25 Nov 2002
By Alex Nichols, author of Shadow Rock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Karen Armstrong's "In the Beginning" came to me at the tail end of a two year study of Christianity. I looked at its dustjacket (a reproduction of Adam from the Sistine Chapel) with indifference, and decided to read it only because it was brief. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. For one thing, Armstrong is a lyrical writer -- as a copyeditor, I truly marveled at her sentences for both their clarity and poetry. For another, in this book she does something many clerics and scholars have failed to do: successfully apply meaning to the garbled message of Genesis.
She states her case pretty early on: there is no way to get a coherant understanding of God from reading Genesis. He is utterly contradictory -- creative and all-powerful in one story; vengeful and capricious in the next. This paradox has befuddled many of reader. I, for one, had come to think of Genesis as typical of the flawed meaninglessness of the Bible. But Armstrong has me reconsidering my conclusion. It seems clear, she says, that all the characters in Genesis have to endure afflictions and unfairness. Whether they are favored in God's eyes or not, their lives are difficult. A relationship with God doesn't spare them difficulties -- instead the meaning in their lives is derived in part by making it through their difficulties with their faith intact.
I really enjoyed this book. Just when I had grown tired of a subject, a new author has revived familiar terrain with a fresh perspective. I look forward to reading Armstrong's other books.
56 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars nice work, not up to her usual standard 8 July 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a brief running commentary on Genesis (the entire NRSV text of Genesis is included). The main point is that Genesis does not aim so much to explain how the world and the Israelite race began, which is not a very important question from a practical point of view. It aims more to describe why we dont experience God as a tangible first-hand reality. (This _is_ an important practical question: why should a God we never directly experience be relevant to important life decisions?).
The main story of Genesis, according to Armstrong, is one of a God who progressively distances himself from the human race. He walks and talks with Adam, Noah and Abraham, but Jacob only wrestles with him as a stranger in the night, and Joseph never experiences him directly, not even in his famous dreams. Armstrong is careful to point out that no adequate explanation is given for this distancing in Genesis, forcing readers to grapple with the issue on their own. One possible resolution that Armstrong seems to suggest---walking and talking with God may just be unnecessary overhead, he will take care of one as long as one plays by his rules (=Joseph). She does not seem to approve of the standard Catholic explanation of original sin.
Armstrong quickly takes care of fundamentalists by pointing out that there are two different and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, so that the editors who put Genesis together were obviously not fundamentalists. (They believed that both accounts were equally inspired, in which case the inspiration obviously did not refer to the literal truth of the accounts, but to deeper meanings). She also points out briefly that the historical details of Genesis are usually wrong--it is full of anachronisms.
Armstrong does not try however to reconstruct the true history of the events that Genesis describes. She spends most of the book speculating on the psychology of the protagonists (including God) as revealed in the Genesis story. In doing this, she is scathingly critical of nearly everyone. Noah is castigated as a drunkard and child abuser, Abraham as a bad father (because he rejected Ishmael and traumatized Isaac for life by nearly killing him), Isaac as an all-round loser, and Joseph as an arrogant ___. Jacob receives an especially bad press, mainly because of his bad treatment of his senior wife Leah and his cold indifference to his daughter's rape. God is not spared! Armstrong points out, with ruthless logic, that his behavior in Genesis can be judged as incompetent, unfair and even evil.
Bottom-line: while Armstrong's scholarship and logic are as always superb, it is important to remember that she is presenting an openly subjective and speculative analysis, with which the reader is free to agree or disagree. However, no reader can come away from this book without a better understanding of Genesis. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the Bible, whether as a devout believer (Jew or Christian or Muslim) or as a curious agnostic.
66 of 74 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Genesis with no mention of the Nephilim!? Bah! 5 Feb 2001
By Joel Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"In the Beginning" takes a modern look at the teachings of the book that starts it all, Genesis. I suspect that the read should be enjoyable to the believers and unbelievers alike. ( believers, excluding fundamentalists who are offended when anyone suggests anything less than orthodox about Yahweh ) In the earlier portions of Armstrong's work, she hits the nail right on the head about why people misinterpret this book. (and all of scripture for that matter) They treat scripture as a "holy encyclopedia" as she put it. They think that every word in Genesis is literal, and that evolutionary biology is gravely mistaken. Karen reminds us that, "The true meaning of scripture can never be wholly comprised in a literal reading of the text, since that text points beyond itself to a reality which cannot adequately be expressed in words and concepts. " (pp. 5) And that, "Our authors are not interested in historical accuracy." (pp. 7) We might regard a 'myth' as an untruth, but in the premodern world it was regarded as a psychological form charting the inner world. Her commentary's main focus is on the nature of religion, and God himself. She looks at it then and now, and brings up the difference in portrayal as given in the book of Genesis and modern Christian theology. She purports to show God as arbitrary, big emphasis on this, and unpredictable. Not only this but that the Genesis authors are inconsistent when writing about God, we can't fully understand the divine. She compares what "faith" was in that day, how a true religious life was lived, and the emphasis of all the great religions, kindness to others. You should try this work if you would like to open up to an alternate perspective on the God of the Israelites, and his intervention in human antiquity.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating and insightful 2 Dec 2000
By Eric Westra - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
As a biblical scholar and as an author who has also taken a long look at the book of Genesis (Eric Westra, "A New Beginning", 2000), I am well aware of the complexities and subtle nuances found within the text of Genesis. I was very impressed with Armstrong's firm grasp of the biblical text with all of its complexities, while at the same time never coming across as being pedantic, obtuse, or closed-minded. Armstrong opened my mind to things I had not previously considered. To anyone interested in probing the layers of meaning that can be found beyond a simple reading of Genesis, I highly recommend this book.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New perspectives on Judeo-Christian foundation narratve 6 Mar 2003
By Pieter Uys - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Karen Armstrong provides an enlightening introduction into the foundation narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition. She analyses the complex human relationships in Genesis, depicting the fathers of the faith as multifaceted characters. The author maintains that Genesis is not a moral text, that it deals with separation rather than sin, and claims that the book's message is that integration and wholeness can only be achieved by the individual coming to terms with her/his own nature. The stories of Genesis have a timeless quality because they speak to parts of the spirit that remain hidden to us, yet they exert a compelling fascination. A reading of this book suggests why psychoanalysis began as a predominantly Jewish discipline. Long before modern psychology, the authors of ancient Israel had already started to investigate the unmapped territories of the human heart and mind. They considered the struggle with the emotions and with the past as the theatre of the religious quest. By seeking reconciliation with those who have hurt them in the past and by attempting to resolve inner conflicts, people would attain the harmony and peace that characterises the sacred. Because the authors of Genesis were dealing with such difficult matters, they provided very few exact teachings or simple messages, no clear theology and no shared consensus. Even though Genesis has played such an important role in shaping the Judeo-Christian tradition, the book can often challenge our religious preconceptions and like all human reflections on the divine, it cannot adequately express the often confusing reality to which it directs our focus. Armstrong's work is always thought provoking and this book is no exception. In The Beginning concludes with a helpful bibliography and index.
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