A decade ago, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote a book entitled"Chutzpah." Dershowitz was then best known for his defenseof alleged wife-killer Claus von Bulow, but "Chutzpah," a paean to Jewish self-assertiveness, won him a new reputation, the one he enjoys now: public nudnick. The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier summed up Dershowitz's attitude, deliciously if unfairly, with a paraphrase of the "Merchant of Venice": "If you bleed us, are we not pricks?"

Dershowitz's latest book, "The Genesis of Justice" (Warner Books, 320 pages), is in its own way a celebration of chutzpah. It is Dershowitz's attempt at midrash, the form of Biblical interpretation that the rabbis began to develop during the Second Temple period in Jerusalem (520 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) and that remains a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship today. While many conservativeChristians demand a literal reading of the Bible, even the most orthodoxJews consider the human interpretation of Scripture a sacred project.History, philosophy, etymology, and even numerology may be used to wringnew drops of meaning from Scripture. The most sophisticated midrashim, orinterpretations, require knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic, as well asconsiderable erudition; but Dershowitz believes that the general feel ofJewish Biblical criticism can be made accessible to all.

And Dershowitz believes that he is the man to bring midrash to the masses."One of my uncles has traced our family name," he writes, "and believes thatit derives from the Hebrew word doresh or drash, whichmeans 'to seek interpretations,' and is the [etymological] root of'midrash.'"

The pleasant surprise is that this neophyte midrashist succeeds. Afterdiscussing his heredity, Dershowitz sets a better course, treating theGenesis stories, from Cain's murder of Abel to Joseph's deception of hisbrothers, in 10 brisk, savvy, and entertaining chapters. His technique isdeferential, drawing on Louis Ginzberg's 1909 omnibus "The Legends of theJews," modern scholars like James Kugel and Isadore Twersky, noted sageslike Maimonides and Kook, and occasional forays into the originalmidrashic commentaries of the early diasporic rabbis (post-68 C.E. orthereabouts). Like the gifted teacher that he surely is, Dershowitz leadshis lectors on a tour of the most common and storied arguments

God brings Abraham to the brink of murdering Isaac--"What kind of Godwould ask such a thing of a father?" Dershowitz demands in chapter 6. Noneof his answers is new, but his synthesis of viewpoints from Talmudic sages,Kierkegaard, and the contemporary scholar Jon Levenson provides a rich,textured map of how Jewish thought is born, grown, and wrought. WhenDershowitz does chime in with his own voice, his question is poignant, andpertinent: "Where did Abraham get the right to sacrifice Sarah's only andlast child....?" We can debate the akedah, the binding of Isaac, foreons before ever awakening to the other crime that Abraham is committing--the one against his wife. Dershowitz is keen in such matters.

He is generally content to let the experts speak, and to intrude gentlyand occasionally. When he oversteps, it is often as not in the cause offar-flung allusions. Dershowitz is a whore of intertextuality, hawking hispop-culture references cheaply and promiscuously. The quotations fromPhilip Roth and Kafka, the lyrics from Bob Dylan, the history lesson inthe Rosenberg execution: Sometimes these analogies and comparisons makethe point, and sometimes they distract from it.

There are other problems, notable the lax proofreading. The book ispockmarked with lapses in spelling, style errors, and plain silly typos.But Dershowitz deftly moves from the small, academic questions to broaderlegal theorizing, taking us for a fascinating ride. His relation of Dina'srape to the question of collective guilt--why must all the rapist'skinsmen die?--is deft, and in this case Dershowitz's parallels to recentcourt decisions and modern feminism work.

The chapter of Tamar's prostitution is both survey of midrash and primer onsituational ethics. "The traditional commentators," Dershowitz writes,"justify [her selling herself to Yehuda] as necessary to fulfill the woman'simperative of motherhood, especially when" she is destined to be a matriarchof God's chosen people. In the ensuing discussion, Dershowitz's book doesits job, teaching about the old midrashim and making them speak clearlytoday.

After discussing 10 Genesis episodes, Dershowitz concludes with threechapters that set forth a theory of legal etiology. "Viewing Genesis as abook about the development of justice before the existence of a formalizedlegal system," he writes, "helps to explain why the narrative is so muchabout crime, sin, deception, revenge, punishment, and other bad actions."

Genesis is the story of a people and God beset by injustice, strugglingtogether toward a fair legal code. Early on, God is a poor jurist,threatening consequences without carrying through (Adam is not killed foreating of the fruit, as had been promised), letting the wicked go free(Cain), and blessing the wayward (Lot's incestuous daughters).

Over time andseveral covenants, He and his people learn their lessons and begincodifying laws, balancing justice with mercy, certainty with fallibility.And so we get the Ten Commandments.