Take & Read: Old Testament

Four new books about biblical texts and their reception

My students are regularly surprised to find that the Bible doesn’t say or mean what they thought it did. So why, they wonder, did I think that? When I started teaching 15 years ago, I would offer up some vaguely conceived responses about the undue influence of Augustine or American fundamentalists before quickly shuttling the class back to focus on the text in its cultural-historical context. Now that reception-oriented approaches to biblical texts are coming into their own, conversations about texts and their afterlives have become far livelier.

In Encountering Eve’s Afterlives: A New Reception Critical Approach to Genesis 2–4 (Oxford University Press), Holly Morse begins with the observation that in the popular imagination, Eve is a temptress and the original source of sin and death. She then argues that this negative reading emerges from the dominant Western strand of reception history, which focuses almost exclusively on the themes of transgression and sexuality. Repeatedly using these two themes as the frame to read the text means that these (and only these) elements of Genesis 2–4 get amplified, embellished, and subconsciously reproduced. Morse wants to “explode” this frame in order to bring our awareness to other frames and themes, namely, those of knowledge and motherhood.

To appreciate Eve as a subversive wise woman, Morse introduces the reader to Shamhat, the mediator of culture in the Epic of Gilgamesh; writes about Gnostic portrayals of Eve as a carrier of spiritual knowledge and salvation; and looks to the feminist writer Angela Carter, whose readings of Eve highlight her courageous pursuit of knowledge as a challenge to patriarchal repression. To see Eve as a source of life, Morse turns our gaze to images that emphasize her identity as a mother (with all the pain and promise that maternal identity entails). This nuanced frame deconstructs the myth of women as sources and objects of sexual temptation.