IntroductionThe ancient period stretches from the beginnings of civilization thousands of years ago to the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476. Among the many civilizations that produced literature during this period were the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Although the many differences among these and other cultures make it difficult to identify a dominant philosophy or literary style of this period, we can see a few general patterns. For example, many ancient works--including the Hebrew Bible, the Greek Odyssey, and the Roman Aeneid--feature larger-than-life protagonists in epic struggles.
The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, a collection of writings sacred to both Jews and Christians. Known as the Old Testament to Christians, the Hebrew Bible consists of about 40 books written in the Hebrew language thousands of years ago and tells the story of early Jewish people, including Abraham, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, David, and Job, emphasizing their covenant with God. Centuries after the composition of the Hebrew Bible, the work of Jesus, himself a Jew, led to the development of a new religion, Christianity. After Jesus's death, a number of writers composed several new books, which came to be known as the New Testament. This collection, written primarily in Greek, focuses on the life, death, and teachings of Jesus, as well as the early days of Christianity. Thus, the Christian Bible consists of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
While the Bible is of obvious religious value to millions of Jews and Christians, it also is perhaps the most important work of literature produced by Western civilization. It has shaped the outlooks and thus the works of many great writers, and it shows up in the form of allusions in their works. Furthermore, it is a great work of literature in its own right, packed with interesting characters, complex themes, and stylistic flourishes.
Study Questions and Exercises
Ben and Starlet address a structural aspect of the Book of Genesis in their essays on whether it is a narrative or a collection of narratives. Actually, Starlet, I think you are addressing a slightly different question: "Is the Bible a narrative or a collection of narratives?" Both pieces of literature--the individual Book of Genesis and the entire Bible, of which Genesis is the first part--present a similar problem. On the one hand, they appear as single units and, in some cases, have characters or themes that provide a sense of unity. Furthermore, as Ben points out, the writers of the Book of Genesis frequently use the conjunction "and," which also provides a sense of continuity. On the other hand, both books really comprise several discrete stories. The Book of Genesis, for example, tells the stories of the earth's creation, of Adam and Eve's original sin, of the Great Flood, of Joseph's life in Egypt, and several others. The entire Bible contains many other stories, including those of Moses, Job, Jonah, David, and other characters.
In their essays, Susan, Andy, and Stephanie provide excellent introductions to the question of whether to interpret the Bible literally or figuratively. As Susan's and Stephanie's definitions show, the two ways of reading are quite different. As we think about this question of how to interpret the Bible, we should examine the motivation and consequence of each approach. On the one hand, we might be motivated to read the Bible literally if we prefer to think of it as an instruction book--that is, a guide to how we should lead our lives. Since figurative language requires leaps of imagination, it can be imprecise and ambiguous, leaving us wondering what exactly we are supposed to do. For this reason, you may not see much figurative language--that is, metaphors, similes, personification, and so on--in your computer instruction manuals. As Vonti shows in her essay, some material in the Bible does seem to invite literal interpretation. On the other hand, if we think of the Bible as a piece of literature--"the greatest story ever told," as my daughter's video on Noah's ark puts it--then we tolerate, even expect figurative language in it. Indeed, if we agree with Andy that parts of it are meant to be allegorical, then we must read it figuratively because allegory by definition requires using things to stand for other things. While it can be imprecise, figurative language also can bring a subject to life. By relating things we may not understand to things that we know quite well, figures of speech such as similes and metaphors place the mysterious into our realm of understanding. Thus, when Jacob says that his son Dan "shall be a serpent by the way" (Gen. 49:17), we understand that Dan may act like a serpent and not that he literally will grow fangs and scales. I doubt that even the most literal interpreter of the Bible would argue that we must take this passage literally. In fact, because figurative language often can demystify a subject for us, it sometimes does play an effective role in giving instructions. Consider the terms we use for various components of the Internet: "chat rooms," "bulletin boards," "frames," and so on. Even if you think of the Bible as an instruction manual, then, you may want to leave some room for figurative language. The tricky part, though, is determining which portions to interpret literally and which parts to read figuratively. Making those decisions is part of the difficult task of interpreting the Bible.
Becky's, Katherine's, and Crystal's essays on the term "parable" are relevant to this discussion. They effectively define this term and suggest that it can help people to understand a concept. Note, however, that Jesus actually gives a different reason for using parables. When the disciples ask him why he speaks in parables, he says: "'Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand"'" (Matt. 13: 11-13). In other words, as Crystal explains, Jesus does not explain things in clear, literal terms for the masses because they have not been granted the right to know the mysteries of heaven; instead of explaining things, as he does for the disciples, he speaks in code.
Several of you wrote some useful essays on the characters in the Book of Genesis and Book of Matthew. You will learn a lot from reading one another's profiles of God, Abraham, Jacob, the Pharisees, and others. Eileen did an especially nice job of summarizing the lives of Noah and Isaac, even referring to specific passages that describe key incidents in their lives. Sherby even went outside the Book of Genesis to draw her profile of Satan. Allow me to make just a few additional observations. First, we should note how very little the writers of the Book of Genesis actually tell us about these men and women. Except for a few references to a woman's beauty, we find hardly any information about physical traits. We also rarely get a glimpse of a character's thoughts. Thus, we learn that Cain was "wroth" and that "his countenance fell" (Gen. 4:5) after God neglects his offering, but we never learn exactly what he thought. There is no "internal monologue" of the type we will see in Iago's and Othello's soliloquies in Shakespeare's play _Othello_, which we will read later this semester. As a result, we have to fill in the blanks often when we are interpreting the characters in the Book of Genesis, as indeed Theo and Misty do well in their analyses of Noah, Cain, and Abel. While it may leave us feeling frustrated or even disoriented, this withholding of information has advantages. For one, it in some ways makes reading the Book of Genesis more like living our ordinary lives, where we rarely have the luxury of entering a person's mind and reading his or her motivation. Also, the lack of details makes the Book of Genesis somewhat mysterious. Like someone wandering through a dark forest illuminated by starlight, we must make our way despite having only glimpses of our surroundings. Nevertheless, if we make the effort, we will discover that, as Deane insightfully notes in her essay on the book's realism, the characters are very life-like, especially in their emotions. One exception to the pattern of sparse character description is the characterization of God. As Jennifer shows in her excellent essay on God's character, we actually learn a fair amount about God's personality from the several descriptions of his words, thoughts, and deeds. By the way, I agree with Jennifer that God comes across as harsh in the Book of Genesis--certainly harsher than the loving God that I think some modern Christians are accustomed to conceiving. Along these same lines, I think Jesus comes across as somewhat tough in the Book of Matthew, where he frequently warns and scolds people, sometimes referring to them as "ye of little faith" (6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8).
Another observation I want to make is that the characters in the Book
of Genesis are human; that is, they are not larger-than-life characters
who always do the right thing. As MJ points out, Jacob comes across
as envious and self-serving. Joseph's brothers fail even to show
brotherly love for him. Adam and Eve break the one rule God gives
them. A lesson that we can draw from their depictions, I think, is
that humans make mistakes. Indeed, even leading figures such as these
people have serious flaws in their personalities. We see this theme
of flawed human nature again in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus's trusted
friend Peter denies him three times. Finally, I want to respond to
Monica's assessment of the Pharisees. I agree that we are supposed
to see these individuals as negative characters, but I have to wonder how
much of our response to them is really a response to the text and how much
is a response to our own intuitive feelings about Jesus and his role in
the New Testament. In other words, I wonder whether we tend to see
the Pharisees in a negative light only because we know that Jesus is the
protagonist and assume that any opposition to him must be the antagonist.
Finally, Nancy provided an insightful analysis of the various translations of the Bible. While most of the material that we are studying this semester was written in English, works such as the Book of Genesis, the Book of Matthew, and _Inferno_ have been translated from their original languages into English. We should always bear in mind that such translations can make significant differences in how we interpret a work, as Nancy's essay effectively demonstrates.
Written by Mark Canada, Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Pembroke