The Book of Genesis is nothing new to me.The stories contained within it have been told to me for as long as I can remember, first as a preschooler in Sunday School. and later throughout 13 years of Catholic education. These continuous retellings left little room for interpretation; we were told the story, why it was important and what it meant. This information was drilled into my mind so thoroughly that I never had any doubt that the way I had been told the tales was the only truth. Being asked to examine the Book of Genesis from an objective standpoint, and to discover meaning, connections and themes was something I never considered and found very difficult to do.

It was not because I was I was deeply religiously connected to the stories that this essay was so hard to write for me, but rather the challenge of looking at things from a new standpoint and delving deeper into texts I had for so long thought I knew. I realised that over the many years of hearing the stories, I had begun to not think of them as part of a book, but rather as commonplace tales that everyone just knows. It was extremely difficult for me push past this immediate recognition and regurgitation of Genesis, and to come up with arguments to support ideas and thoughts that conflicted so bizarrely with what I thought I knew about this book.

The chance to explore this text with a new perspective has allowed me to see the possibilities that arise from looking at old stories in a new light, and how allowing myself to let go of preconceived notions can open many new areas of thought.

Meeting Myths

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)


This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.

On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.

Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.

If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will.  If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.

So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.

Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.

Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.

All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.

Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.


For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see:

Inaugural post!

Oh, I’m in university now. Shit just got real.

The buzz of first and second week having passed, we are now settled in our class routines (more or less), and my procrastination has already begun… though I’ve managed to keep it at bay for the most part. I have this thing where I’ll start studying/reading something, and then knowing I’ve already started gives me a false sense of security… next thing I know, I’m in class and haven’t finished!

I’m getting there though.. The diligence with which I tackled Kant’s interpretation of Genesis impressed me. I had to dissect each and every paragraph to make sense of his mumbo-jumbo, and I still haven’t finished. As I write this, I’m reminded of the blogs that Arts One students are expected to write… (I was originally writing this in a Word document, as part of my usual personal ramblings) Looks like I’ll be procrastinating even more by creating one. Good thing I have a little experience with WordPress! The web designer in me would normally spend time designing my own look for this blog, but I think this pre-made theme will do just fine.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”

One of my favourite passages of all time is Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Putting my love of cats aside, I like to think of “we’re all mad here” as my motto. I think we’ve all got to be a little mad to enroll in Arts One. After all, one could lose their sanity trying to answer all the big questions of the universe! But if you let go a little and think outside of the box (which I hope we can agree requires some degree of madness), it can prove to be an enlightening experience for all. The fact that we’re doing Arts One, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill schedule, shows that we want more out of first year than lectures, which, arguably, could drive some people mad. If you don’t like my use of the word “mad”, think of it like this:


Not that this was my intention, but I might as well tie this all in to what we’re actually studying! (aka putting more effort into a semi-optional blog than my actual homework)

There’s a fine line between madness and brilliance, and it seems to me that God treads this line a little. Of course, to define God as either mad or brilliant is to reject the idea that he is perfect, because the former traits imply that his reasoning ability varies. We can see this after the Great Flood, when he speaks to Noah.

And the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

Yeah, shoot me, I prefer the King James version. Much more poetic.

This apparently all-knowing God seems to regret what he did. So much for being perfect! Also, if he is so perfect, how could he be capable of such emotions in the first place? After all, he expresses (what appears to be) much wrath when he discovers that Adam and Eve had eaten what he had explicitly forbidden them. But I guess it would make for a very dull story if God was akin to a robot, and even a robot’s “perfection” is limited by the capabilities of its maker… aaaaaand I’d better stop that train of thought before I go all Star Trek on you guys!

Let us suppose God is perfect. Then he would have known exactly what would happen with his first humans and the tree of knowledge.  He also placed that tree within their reach, so it’s not like he tried to stop them from approaching it. And since he created these pseudo-human beings, he must have programmed them with the ability to reason. Why would he give them that option if not because he intended for them to take it? Was he curious what they would do? But curiosity contradicts perfection. It seems that any attempt to explain God’s actions contradicts his very being, since one shouldn’t need to explain what is perfect.

I’m gonna give myself a headache if I go on like this, and descend into the very madness I had described earlier! Gotta love Arts one.

On a lighter note, why on earth does almost every verse start with “and” ? And the waters returned… And the ark rested… And the waters decreased…

It’s all really repetitive. Is it because these stories were supposed to be passed on orally? That would make sense, since when telling someone a story, we tend string all of our sentences with “and”.

Tamar and Recognition

This week, I am going to breathe life into the myth of Judah and Tamar, as told in Genesis. Kant, in our other reading for this week, attempts to examine what the early chapters of the Genesis story have to tell us about our past, and about what is valuable in humanity. In the same spirit, I want to examine this tale from Chapter 38.

We are told in Chapter 38 of Genesis a short story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. She is wed to Judah’s first-born son, Er, who promptly dies. (Being a first-born in Genesis carries its own unique risks worthy of a blog post devoted only to that topic, but I digress.) After Er dies, Judah weds Tamar to his next son, Onan, who also dies. Judah has, at this point, only one son left, Shelah. But Shelah is not yet of marriageable age. So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house, promising to wed her to Shelah when Shelah is old enough. This is a promise that, apparently, Judah fails to keep. We are told that Tamar “saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)

Tamar is in a disgraced position. She has been widowed twice, has no children, and has now been sent back to her father’s house. Our translation of the text comments on this disgrace in a footnote, and speculates that this may be, in part, due to Tamar’s own silence. She does not protest Judah’s decision to send her back to her father’s and she does not speak of the ways in which Onan incurred God’s wrath and may have been responsible for his own death. Indeed in this story the first instance in which Tamar speaks is after she has been sent to her father’s. Then, upon seeing Shelah achieve manhood and still be denied to her as a husband, Tamar not only speak but also acts.

She removes her widow’s clothing and dresses like a prostitute. Judah, happening upon Tamar at a crossroads, takes her for a prostitute and asks to lie with her. She agrees, but only if he will pay her a kid from his flock. Obviously he does not have his flock on hand, and so in lieu of payment he gives her his seal and cord (essentially his legal identification). Tamar conceives a child from this encounter, and then discards the prostitute costume and dresses as a widow again.

It comes to Judah’s attention that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He is incensed that she would become pregnant when she is promised to Shelah and in mourning for his other two sons. He commands that she be burned to death and “out she was taken” (presumably for the sentence to be carried out). (Genesis 38:25). But Tamar produces the seal, and Judah realizes that the child is his. His response to this unveiling of the prostitute’s identity is intriguing. Upon realizing that he paid to lay with his daughter-in-law, and that the child she carries is his, Judah says “She is more right than I, for have I not failed to give her Shelah, my son?” (Genesis 38:26)

I find this interesting, because Tamar gains recognition as an individual (rather than just being a pawn passed from son to son, and from Judah’s house to her father’s house) by acting outside of the laws and norms laid out by the story. Judah gives her to first one son, and then another. But it is when she gives herself in payment for coin that Tamar gains recognition. If her silence does condemn her to disgrace, oddly her disgraceful act of concealing her identity and having sex with her father-in-law raises her up again.

It seems the more Tamar goes along with the plan that others have for her life, the more disgrace befalls her. However, once she speaks and acts, she gains recognition. But I’m curious to investigate how she speaks and acts. Because she does so explicitly by breaking societal norms (as evident by Judah’s quick decision to condemn her to death). Why doesn’t she simply confront Judah and ask him to wed her to his third son (if that’s what she wants) or explain that the death of his second son was Onan’s own doing?

We aren’t told why Tamar chooses to act as she does. So allow me to speculate. I’m not a religious studies scholar, and certainly no scholar of the Bible. So what I offer is a tentative suggestion. Perhaps Tamar cannot gain recognition within the social structure before her. Perhaps she remains silent because there is no space within the norms for Tamar to speak. There is no apporpriate avenue for her to gain recognition from her father-in-law. She is, then, finally driven to speak and act in ways that are non-normative, since the normative ways leave her no recourse.

In this way, Tamar could be a symbol for the struggles we might all face as we attempt to speak and seek recognition from those in power, especially when the norms of our society deny us a voice. She stands for a hopeful tale whereby acting outside of the norms of society (when there is no other way to have one’s voice heard) is rewarded rather than punished. But, as with many stories in Genesis we are left unsure of what the reward will be. We know that Judah recognizes Tamar (perhaps for the first time) as a human being with feelings, and rights, who has been hurt, shamed and wronged by his actions. He acknowledges this, and withdraws his harsh punishment as a result. But we are left to imagine what follows. Does he mend his ways? Or does he view his decision to cancel her death sentence as sufficient to make amends? How long does this recognition last?