This evening I scattered a bin full of two-year old compost around our garden. It was some of the darkest and richest soil I have ever seen, and I am sure that it will produce some very happy plants; not to mention sustenance for a number of fat worms. But there is more to soil than what it does for plants. In Sacred Sense (2015) William P. Brown describes it as the origin of gender distinctions. In his commentary on Genesis 2:7, he writes, “the word for “ground” (adamah) in Hebrew looks like a feminine form of adam, and therein lies the first significant gender distinction in the story: “ground” (grammatically feminine in Hebrew) and “human” (grammatically masculine in Hebrew). The masculine is created from the feminine, both sharing common ground. The adam is fashioned from the adamah, the human from the fertile humus.” The wordplay goes even further when Eve emerges later in the chapter: “It is from the creation of the woman (ishshah) that the adam finally becomes a “man” (ish). The first time that the adam is referred to as a “man” in the Hebrew is in Genesis 2:23. Only then is the adam truly a “he,” the direct result of the woman’s creation. God’s surgical procedure, in other words, marks the mutual engendering of humanity. … Call it the splitting of the adam.”
This short book is divided into sixteen chapters, each of which riffs on a short Bible passage or sometimes on a single verse. Brown’s interpretations are consistently surprising and delightful. He goes out of his way to take the reader by surprise, using close exegesis and cutting-edge scholarship to shed new light on well-known passages. What is most exciting about Brown’s methodology though, is the fact that he is clearly engaging with the Bible in community. Time and again he footnotes friends, colleagues, and members of his Bible study group whose insights or turns of phrase have given him new ways of approaching these texts. Having spent enough time in the ivory tower, this renowned professor of the Old Testament is comfortable learning from and thinking together with lay people. Appropriately, the book is full of awe at the sacredness and mystery of God. When he thinks about Moses encountering the burning bush on Mount Horeb, Brown comments: “He is on “holy ground” and thus must remove his sandals. A shepherd’s sandals carry dirt, including sheep dung, evidently not allowed on sacred soil. But by taking off his sandals, Moses becomes intimately in touch with the divine and, consequently, grounded in a new calling. What is it like to touch holiness between one’s toes, to feel the sacred soil beneath one’s bare feet? Tingly, electrifying, soothing? However it must have felt, Moses stands exposed before God, in touch with God, and becomes contaminated with holiness.” Brown wants his readers to thrill at the mysterium tremendum that appears in the Bible time and again, making us hungry to experience it for ourselves.
Brown engages both with what the Scriptures do say and with the gaps that leave so much space open for wonder and conjecture. “Call me a bewildered biblical scholar,” he writes, “but I truly wonder what on earth Jesus said to these two on the road to Emmaus.” The Bible tells us that “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), which drives Brown crazy: “What was his hermeneutical approach, his preferred reading strategy, his narrative arc? Did he begin “in the beginning” or start somewhere else? What was it exactly that made the disciples’ hearts “burn” within them?” He is very happy to speculate about things he doesn’t know. Fascinated by the fact that Mark’s gospel has no Christmas or Resurrection stories, Brown re-reads the whole gospel in light of this fact. He concludes that “Mark’s Gospel is the Gospel of fear. … On the wide spectrum of wonder, the earliest evangelist prefers the extreme, fearful end when it comes to encountering Jesus.” He notes that “people are “astounded” or “spellbound” at Jesus’ teaching (1:22; 6:12; 11:18; 12:17). They are “amazed” at his miracles, including exorcisms (1:27; 5:19) and healings (2:12; 5:42). Pilate is “amazed” at Jesus’ silence (15:5). Amazement turns to fear as the disciples witness Jesus stilling the storm (4:40-41), walking on water (6:50), and being transfigured (9:6).” The empty tomb evokes fear and awe in the same way, leaving the women astonished and confused about what happened to Jesus, and wondering whether the various echoes of Psalm 22 which Mark includes in his account of the crucifixion will also include the psalmist’s final song of praise to a God who has saved him from his agonies.
Having begun his book in the garden of Eden, it is appropriate that Brown also ends it in a garden. “It is no coincidence,” he writes, “that Mary Magdalene (mis)took Jesus as the gardener in John’s account of the resurrection. An understandable mistake or no mistake at all. … By recognizing Jesus as the gardener, Mary takes us back also to the creation of Adam, fashioned out of the “dust of the ground” as a piece of pottery and animated by God’s breath.” He then launches into an epic recapitulation of the entire sweep of Biblical history, bringing us back to a sense of wonder at the power, majesty, and unspeakable beauty that God has woven into the story of His relationship with creation.
I would like to thank Catholic Library World for providing me with a review copy of this book. You can read another of my reviews of it in their forthcoming issue.