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PHOTO:  The English Bible published by England's Dover Press (1903-05), a 1932 edition of Homer's Odyssey.The 25 undergraduate and graduate students in Human Beginnings I: Genesis are about to embark upon a pilgrimage. Over the course of the fall and winter quarters, they will make their way through the Book of Genesis, 25 chapters per quarter. Led by Leon Kass, SB'58, MD'62, the group assembled in a first-floor Cobb Hall classroom will slowly progress, treating the book not as a narrow religious document, but as a philosophical text. They will read Genesis less as a record of historical beginnings, and more as a portrait of the permanent elements of human life, psychic and social. And they will search the text for pedagogical beginnings-the beginning of moral instruction for readers.

Kass, the Addie Clark Harding professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College, who's teaching the course for the eighth time, looks both scholarly and businesslike as he outlines a few assumptions. First, the book is a coherent whole. Second, the ideas presented are not "utterly opaque to reason." The third assumption-to be ignored at the students' peril-is that every word counts. "No word can be left unexamined," Kass says, giving the class a clear picture of just how closely they'll be reading for the next six months. And the final assumption? "Juxtapositions are important."

After marking out the parameters of the excavation, the class immediately starts digging into the words. Genesis unfolds as a continuous story, the professor says, with the first chapter describing the beginning of the world: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

"Why does the book begin this way?" Kass asks. But first he wants to know what the students notice about the words themselves.

For one thing, ventures a student, the reader doesn't know who's talking. Kass agrees. "A commanding and unidentified voice starts the book, speaking about things no human being could have witnessed. For the reader to continue, there must be thoughtful suspension of disbelief."

Just as we're unsure of who's speaking, another student suggests, we're also unsure what we are at "the beginning" of. A dark-haired, female graduate student points out that the accurate translation of the Hebrew is really "In beginning," with no definite article. Another woman, an undergrad sitting along the wall of the classroom, takes up the point by suggesting another way to define this beginning: "This is the beginning as far as we need to know."

Kass decides the time has come to tackle the meaning behind the words. What do the students make of the first sentence? It summarizes the first chapter, a reader says. It's a summarization of what God does, another offers. By saying that God created the heavens and the earth, Kass asks, what possibilities for the beginning of the world are eliminated?
Student after student jumps in. The first sentence denies the eternity and divinity of the universe and heavenly bodies. It rejects the idea that the world was brought into being through sexual generation. Along with that is the rejection of the idea that there were two beings involved in the world's creation.

Letting all the possibilities stand without argument, Kass moves on, noting that all the beings that are created are familiar to the world of our visible experience. But, he points out, the order of their creation doesn't quite coincide with our ordinary experience. From a corner of the room, a male student announces his discovery: the text mentions light and also day and night before the sun and moon are created. "There are plants before there is the sun," adds another student. Do these inconsistencies disturb the reader, the students wonder, or is there some rational basis for the order given that would help us grasp the principles that inform and govern the world?

And so, line by line, the class moves deeper into the beginning.-Q.J.

Found in the Translations

The Soul of the Republic

Travels with a Satirist

Ocean Reveries

The Genius of the Everyday



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