The Torah, John Grisham and the Mall

At first glance, verse 22 in Genesis, chapter 18, doesn't seem all that important.

God has just told Abraham Sodom and Gomorrah are in big trouble. Then a strange clause in verse 22 notes that "Abraham remained standing before the Lord." It appears, says a footnote in a major new commentary on Genesis, that the nomad who would become a patriarch briefly struggles with himself, debating whether it is possible to change God's mind.

"Abraham can't decide whether to be silent or to argue with God," said novelist and playwright Chaim Potok, the project's literary editor. "Finally, he decides not to walk away and he begins to argue with God. . It's just a pause. But in that pause, something happens that changes everything. It's a moment that defines an individual. It defines a story, it defines a people, it defines a culture, it transforms everything. Abraham changes and, thus, we change."

It would be wonderful, said Potok, if more readers dug into these kinds of tomes to uncover the riches buried between the lines. However, the events and stories covered in the Jewish Publication Society's Torah Commentary are now part of our cultural air. Those who watch the evil Darth Vader struggle to rediscover his conscience, or who agonize along with the latest flawed protagonist in a John Grisham morality tale, are traveling in the footsteps of Abraham and other biblical characters.

"The basic assumptions of our popular culture -- even Star Wars or John Grisham's novels -- are built on the images and the themes and the great truths of these narratives," said Potok, who is best known for novels such as "The Chosen" and plays such as "Sins of the Father." "The big ideas, the big symbols, filter down into the popular culture and into our lives. Without Genesis, you can't have a Grisham."

However, it's unlikely that copies of scholar Nahum Sarna's massive, but surprisingly accessible, commentaries on Genesis and Exodus will appear anytime soon in airport book racks, or find a niche on shopping mall shelves next to the wisdom of television talk-show stars. But there are times, stressed Potok, when "life presses us up against the wall" and all kinds of people feel the need to take another look at unfiltered, archetypal texts.

One of the defining characteristics of what historians call "modernity" was that "modern" people automatically distrusted ancient texts and stories. There were religious answers to life's questions and then there were scientific, or "real," answers. Now, people are talking about "post-modernism" and one of its central tenets is that science doesn't have all of the answers. People who no longer believe that science is God often hunt for God elsewhere.

"What this has done is level the playing field and made the great narratives of literature, philosophy and religion as valid as any of those so-called 'modern' narratives -- such as science -- in terms of giving meaning to life," said Potok. "It turns out that the answers to life's big questions may not be in the bottom of a test tube. . They may even be found in the pages of a book."

Meanwhile, the clock is racing toward a new millennium. On a less apocalyptic level, many post-modern people have concluded that it's impossible to find meaning without regaining a sense of family and community. For millions raised in homes that were, to one degree or another, Jewish or Christian, this means coming to terms with the Bible -- the ultimate multigenerational family narrative. If they approach these texts with an open mind and an active imagination, they may be surprised, said Potok.

"This isn't Star Wars. It's not that kind of fun. But at the same time, these narratives do move right along. You could even say -- in movie terms -- that there is a lot of jump cutting from scene to scene and from theme to theme. You have murders, dysfunctional families, flights from danger, great battles, close calls, broken promises, brothers betraying brothers, redemption and love. And everything happens very fast."