Marilynne Robinson’s Deep Dive into Genesis


The wonderful author, Marilynne Robinson, is out with a new book, Reading Genesis. This week she did a fantastic interview with Ezra Klein, about the book. They covered lots of topics including beauty, the genius of the Bible, and the astonishing nature of grace.

Here are some excerpts from that interview (MR) interspersed with my own brief comments (TR). Early in the interview they discuss beauty and how God speaks to us. Klein asks what her tradition, which is Christian and Calvinist, would say about such things.

MR: My tradition would say basically, in its classic forms, that every experience, every moment, is a question being posed to you by God. What is wanted out of this moment?

Calvin, whom I love and other people disparage without reading, says that whenever another human being confronts you, in effect, you’re being confronted by God himself. And the question is not, what is your interest in this situation, but what is God’s interest? What does He want out of it?

And I think that idea — that reality is essentially challenging you continuously, what do you understand? what do you see? what do you understand as being required of you? so on — it’s a great alertness. And the idea that basically it is God that is posing the question very much exalts all kinds of experience. That’s what I would say, to the extent that I can speak from my culture.

TR: I agree with her about Calvin. Deep, profound, and dismissed without knowing. Similar to how people today dismiss Paul and his letters in the New Testament.

She has some particularly astute and helpful comments about the Bible. Klein had noted that the humans in the Bible are not by and large heroes. Robinson speaks about Joseph in the book of Genesis who comes about as close to a hero as any, but remains a complex character.

MR: Well, it’s part of the very special genius of the Bible. It sees no one as simple. And it absorbs into itself information that complicates the movement of history. It’s extraordinary in that sense, that when you consider who was writing this and who it was written for, it would be the easiest thing in the world to make Joseph the simple, straightforward hero.

But in fact, in a way that is incredibly psychologically shrewd, it sees him as super serviceable. He’s too willing to enrich the pharaoh, as he had been, too willing to enrich Potiphar, too willing to serve the jailer as an even better jailer. It’s a recognizable human type, in a certain sense, the too-good soldier.

TR: The idea that the Bible sees no one as simple is also part of her remarks about the concept of “a chosen people.”

MR: I don’t think that the idea of chosen people ever means that they are exempt from human failure or sin or misfortune. God knows. The end of Genesis is the beginning of the enslavement in Egypt. I think they’re chosen in the sense that people that are extremely fit and resilient are chosen, not in the sense of people who are morally impeccable or anything else.

Their role is to be representative of humankind. They’re chosen in that sense. So they have the faults of humankind. And God’s dealing with them, therefore, generalizes to His dealings with the world at large.

TR: I remember being surprised when I really came to the Bible for the first time, in seminary, to discover this. I had thought of the Bible as a book of heroes, stories of the especially virtuous and faithful, and as such both boring and untrue to life. Instead, I discovered as Marilynne Robinson says, “that part of the very special genius of the Bible . . . is that it sees no one as simple.” And yet God works with, calls, and uses us complicated, imperfect people!

While I could go on with many more excerpts, we’ll wrap up with this one where Klein, again referencing the Biblical story of Joseph in Genesis, notes that Robinson makes a distinction between forgiveness and grace. He asks her to talk about that.

MR: Well, he [Joseph] embraces them as brothers. He weeps on their shoulders. He is not saying, I have taken account of your crimes against me, and I’m going to forgive you anyway, or give you amnesty anyway. He is saying, that never happened. What I interpreted as injury does not count as injury because it enabled me to save your lives, actually.

It’s a very, very beautiful image of grace that I think of having no parallel in ancient literature. To be able to look beyond the offense rather than to forgive the offense, I think, is the difference between grace and simple forgiveness.

TR: This link will give you the whole interview. Worth listening, I promise.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Who is your favorite Christian character? Mine is The Holy Ghost, the way He slithers thru keyholes. When I met Him, I implored “Your Royal Highness, err Ghostliness… if I may … after Your keyhole trick, do You watch people get undressed?”

    He let out a Godly Guffaw that shook the very fabric of the Universe. “Please! Call me ‘The’ — as all My friends do. And if you could, would you look? HAHAhahaha, I rest My case!”

    I have never met a Deity as gosh-darn friendly and as down-to-earth as The. He has told me about the crazy goings-on in Heaven …the all-night, high-stakes poker games between Jesus & the Angels (funded by — who else? — the ‘faithful’) …the bruising, knock-down fights between Billy Graham, Jim Bakker & Robert Schuller. Crazy stuff, just like The Bible itself! If only Christians, including self-promoting, self-enriching evangelical preachers, would follow in The’s mighty yet humble footsteps.


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