I have loved the book of Genesis in the way I might love a crazy alcoholic uncle who ruins Thanksgivings. But since reading Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, I have begun to enjoy this uncle’s company again. He’s still crazy, but it’s a more of a Yoda-when-he-first-meets-Luke kind of crazy.
Like the author, this is the book I wished for after reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael when I was 19. But unlike me, Thomas J. Snodgrass went ahead and wrote it. Ishmael had suggested that the Adam/Eve and Cain/Abel stories could have begun as parables told by post-Ice-Age hunter-gatherer-shepherds, parables about the weirdos next door who had begun experimenting with agriculture.
Snodgrass develops a vision of Genesis as a continuation of that story. Specifically, he presents “the Primeval History of 1-11 as a parable for the rise and fall of empires, and the Patriarchal History of 12-50 as an overture to a post-empire experiment to reestablish tribalism in Canaan.” Domination and oppression are essential pieces of the thing we know as “civilization,” and Bronze Age Palestine represented an insurrection against it, a kind of experiment in less oppressive ways for humans to organize themselves.
The people who became the Israelites had a lot of inspirational stories to draw from. Think DUCK DYNASTY with sheep:
- Abraham, the wife-swapping mercenary who dropped out of life in the Big City back East, living off the grid with his ol’ lady, hearing voices telling him to kill his only son.
- Jacob, the slimy, double-crossing, no-good illegal immigrant from the North who had to fight the Canaanite deity El just to cross the border, earning him his new name—“Israel,” the one who struggles with El.
- Joseph, the dreamer from the West who, with nothing but dreams (plus a lot of pluck and grit and good old-fashioned gumption), rises from slave to vice-president of Egypt.
- That big group of slaves who escaped from Egypt right under Pharaoh’s nose, and somehow lived to tell the tale.
And most inspirational of all—the idea that there was a deity behind it all, a god named Yahweh who cared about the nobodies, the rebels, the loners, the drop-outs. And the strange idea that somehow this Yahweh was a bigger deal than all the other gods combined. This Yahweh had some novel ideas about how humans might organize themselves—ways of living that might seem less crazy to those old hunter-gatherers, ways of living beyond that old curse.
Genesis and the Rise of Civilization is a mix of solid scholarship and informed speculation, and I appreciate the way Snodgrass always let me know when he switched from one to the other. I don’t buy all of his speculations, but it’s been a long time since a book gave me so many new ideas to chew on. And for a book about ancient texts, it’s a surprisingly funny and enjoyable read.
Drawing heavily on Source Theory without being heavy about it, the author paints a cogent picture of a Tribal Revolution called Israel. That particular revolution eventually let itself succumb to monarchy and imperialism, but there are rumors that the real revolution never really ended. That this revolution may in fact be the last best hope for 21st century humans who are tired of building other people’s pyramids.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.