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View Michelangelo's depictions of the Genesis stories from the Sistine Chapel !

The other side of the "Western" coin
With Genesis, we leave behind (for now) the "Greco-Roman" strand of "western tradition," from which we derive many of our ideas about art, genre, history, and science; and confront our first text from the "Judaeo-Christian" strand, from which we derive most of our ideas about ethics and cosmology.
One aspect of the Hebrew texts that creates an immediate contrast with the Greek ones is the nature of the Hebrew God: unlike the Greek Gods, "He" has no backstory, no youth, no history of struggle with previous gods (Zeus vs. the Titans) or opposing ones (Demeter vs. Hades). In fact, his only struggle is with his human creatures--and it originates not in the difficulty of establishing his cult (Dionysus), but rather in a "falling away" from his cult by humankind. The radicality of this God-concept goes some way to explaining why the Hebrew nation rapidly became incomprehensible to the other tribes/civilizations of the ancient world.

Note that although it is (like the Hymn to Demeter) a theological text, Genesis is like the Greek texts we read in that it uses narrative (rather than direct preaching or evangelizing) as the vehicle for its message. Because the text contains no outright statement about how it is to be read, its meaning can be accessed (including by theologians) ONLY through the kinds of strategies of reading and interpretation that we have been developing in this class. Pretty cool, no?

The genesis of Genesis (that is, the origins of the text) remain somewhat obscure, not to mention controversial, since the book remains a fundamental devotional text for several major religions. For what it's worth, contemporary scholarship attributes the authorship of Genesis to three main sources, each referred to by an initial letter. In chronological order, these are:
J (the author who refers to the deity as Yahweh [Jehovah]; working ca. 10th or 9th century B.C.E.
E (the author who refers to the deity as Elohim; working about a century after J)
P (thought to be a committee of Priests, who added the genealogical and legal elements to the stories set down by J and E).

Thus, for example, the first Creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4) is thought to be the work of P, as are the genealogies in Gen. 5 and the account of the Noahite Covenant in Gen. 9; whereas the remainder of the Primeval Cycle (Gen. 1-11) is thought to be the work of J. In the Patriarchal Cycle (Gen. 12-50), the bulk of the narrative is shared by J and E, with frequent interpolations by P.

Fascinating as these questions of authorship may be, however, they are essentially irrelevant for our purposes, since what we are presented with (and what has been passed down intact for at least two and a half millenia) is an integrated text--not a series of fragments. Your mission is not to speculate on the diversity of authorship evinced in the text, but rather to examine it as a working whole, whose total effect is produced by the collaboration of all its parts.

What structural devices (patterns, themes, prolepses) can you identify in Genesis? What things unify the text? What things pull it apart (fragment it)? Look for evidence of design: be careful not to explain away contradictions, interruptions ("hiccups"), etc., but rather try to integrate them into your hypotheses about design.

Pay particular attention to repetition: J. P. Fokkelman writes, "Repetition is used at practically every level of the [text], from sounds, words, and clauses to stories and groups of stories....Thus a dialectic game of identity and difference is created which challenges us to compare parallelisms at different levels and to ask questions such as: What has remained unchanged and why? What differences occur and what do they mean?" Ask yourself these questions as you read. Look out for situational rhyme (a device in which different "situations" or events are noticeably similar in structure, like rhyming words).

Can you find evidence of ring composition in Genesis? What other organizing principles obtain?

Specific questions

  1. Cain and Abel: the first ever sibling rivalry. Are there other examples in Genesis? Do they follow a pattern? Are there discrepancies? What are these stories trying to tell us? In what ways is the Cain and Abel story a continuation of Adam and Eve, and in what ways is it a fresh start?
  2. The Flood: what is accomplished by this story? How does it resonate with what went before, e.g. Gen 1-2?
  3. Babel: how does this story function here? Consider its placement. What pattern does it follow? what themes does it pick up/initiate/develop/foreshadow?
  4. Abra(ha)m: compare the 2 accounts of God's covenant with Abram, 15:1-21 and 17:1-27. What's changed in between? By the way, why Abram? What do we learn here about his character and that of God? How would you characterise their relationship? What does God promise to Abram in the first Covenant? How does Abram react? Compare the births of Ishmael (16:1-16) and Isaac (21:1- 21). Why are these children so crucial? What do their stories (and those of their mothers) reveal about how God operates, and about the complexity of his purposes? What's your impression so far of divine intervention in Genesis, as vs. what we've seen in the Greek works? Sodom (18:1-19:29): what is Abraham's role here? How about Lot? The Binding of Isaac: Compare the language of 22:2 with that of 12:1.
  5. Now is a good time to start thinking about what women mean to the Book of Genesis. When was Woman created? How do women function in subsequent stories? (Do not go for the easy answer, i.e. that women are "oppressed" or "second class citizens." These ideas may be valid but they are boring. Look instead for structural and/or thematic insights.) Any patterns? What is their relationship to God? How is it bound up with fertility? (Feel free to draw comparisons with the representation of women in the Greek works we've read.) Ex.: Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, Tamar, Dinah, Lot's daughters...
  6. Jacob: is he to be admired or condemned? Can we draw any useful parallels with Odysseus? What elements of his story (e.g., courtship at well) seem to form a pattern with other stories, and what patterns (e.g., acts of deception) seem to operate within the story itself? Look esp. at Ch. 31, an episode of unusual dramatic complexity. Any irony here? How does it work?
  7. Joseph. This story seems more self-contained than the preceding narrative: it resonates with a familiar Near Eastern genre, the "clever courtier" tale. Trace the development of Joseph's character. How does the tension (which we also saw in Greek texts) between divine purposes and human conduct get played out here? What role is played by dreams and miracles? How about divine intervention in this story?

For an artistic rendering of Genesis that is almost as paistaking as Michelangelo's, if somewhat less reverent, see the Brick Testament site. Yes, folks, it's the Bible in Lego!!

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