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This article is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

Singing a New Song Gabriel Josipovici

It is difficult for us to grasp the sense of shock the opening of Genesis would have conveyed to its first hearers and readers. We are so familiar with its contents and cadences that it strikes us as perfectly natural, a kind of `given'. But while the Ancient Near East was familiar with creation myths, and a number of narratives of such creations have come down to us, from Ugarit and Egypt and elsewhere, these were always in verse, and they always entailed ferocious battles between the gods until one emerged as the supreme deity. By contrast the quiet, regulated prose of the biblical account, in which God speaks and the orderly world of light and dark, sea and land, beasts, birds and fish comes into being, is shocking in its very restraint and dignity.

This does not last, of course, but the use of prose does,and, as scholars like Cassuto and Alter have demonstrated, it is not an arbitrary choice but intimately bound up with the unique Hebrew conception of a single creator God, to whom all is subservient, including the chaotic sea and even death itself, but whose relation to mankind, and in particular to his chosen people, the Israelites, is that of a loving father, protective, yet just; slow to anger yet tolerating no dissimulation and no evasion of responsibility.

Given this central place of prose and of simple consequential narration, the next big shock to the reader or hearer would have ...

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