The Genesis of Ethics

The stories of Genesis mirror the moral conundra which families face in their worst and private moments. Burton L. Visotzky endorses the claim of Lawrence Kohlberg, author of ESSAYS ON MORAL DEVELOPMENT (1981), that reflection on paradigmatic stories leads to moral development. Visotzky offers commentary on the foibles and failings of several biblical generations in a most readable, generally lighthearted, and more than once irreverent take.

One might expect that the giants of Genesis would come off as heroes and heroines; and that, at the very least, God would maintain a certain divine immunity to critique. No patriarch escapes the rabbi’s knife, however, as Visotzky dissects the pieces and parts of flawed characters and lays them bare. God is exposed as a “difficult character,” sometimes abetting questionably moral behavior and at times not at all in control of the situation.

Visotzky recognizes the patriarchal bias of scripture. Because of his work with bible study groups that included women and his reading of gender-sensitive biblical scholars, he is able to hold a feminine lens to the stories and to sharpen the reader’s understanding of the ordeals of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Dinah, as they navigate the male-invested waters of the text. His interpretation that the need for a burial plot for Sarah is exploited as a business opportunity for Abraham is most poignant. The author notes the diminished role women play as the story progresses.

While the accounts are occasionally uneven—sometimes multiple interpretations of psychological state and motivation are given, while at other times only a single approach is offered—Visotzky has a keen insight into the human psyche. He explores sibling rivalry and spousal competition, avarice and expediency, vengeance and vanity. He quickens the long-dead citizens of the biblical world to demonstrate what human beings are like and to hint at what they might become.