Honors | The Book of Genesis and its Reworking in Western Culture
H203 | 0013 | Ackerman, J


When you compare the stories of Homer with the stories in the Book of
Genesis, you will be struck by the sharp contrast. In Homer everything is
"up front;" the scene is clearly depicted before your eyes--the background
of all the characters, their actions, their thoughts, their extended
dialogues with one another. One scene leads smoothly into the next. In
short, little is left to the imagination: Homer lays it all out before you
and pulls you into the brightly lit action on centerfront stage. In the
Book of Genesis, however, much is left unsaid; vast areas of the story are
shrouded in mystery. Why the forbidden fruit, and why forbid "knowledge of
good and evil" anyway? Whence the serpent--the "wisest of all God's
creatures?" Why divine favor for Abel's sacrifice rather than Cain's? What
the feelings of Abraham, when commanded to kill his son Isaac as an
offering to the Lord? And why not reach up to God by building the Tower of
Babel? The Book of Genesis says so little; but it suggests so much. In
short, the biblical writer is appealing to your imagination, inviting you
to fill in the gaps in the story and to make the connections between one
story and another. Not only has the Hebrew Bible become a normative text
for Jews and Christians, but all three Western religious faiths derive
many of their values and perspectives from the very earliest books,
especially Genesis and Exodus.

The stories of Genesis are attempting to probe ancient Israel's
understanding of the human condition: man's relationship to woman, their
relationship to God and the animal world. Humans are portrayed as
wanderers, marked by God, separated from human community (Cain) and as
wanderers, chosen by God, called to re-establish human community
(Abraham). They laugh and are mocked, test and are tested, rape and are
seduced, deceive and are deceived, aspire and are crushed, believe and
turn away, suffer and prevail; yet somehow, beyond and within this
multi-colored tapestry, the writer portrays the mysterious hand of a deity
working through all things to achieve his ends. Because the Genesis
stories are shrouded in mystery, because they probe the human condition,
they have had the effect of finely wrought gems that have refracted
different patterns of light to artistic imaginations throughout the ages.

In this course we will look closely at the stories in Genesis--whence they
came, how they are told, why they are so arranged. At the same time we
will examine how some of these key stories have been re-interpreted in
modern literature and art--by artists such as Annie Dillard, Dylan Thomas,
D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Mann, John
Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, Dali, Duerer, Dore, Chagall, etc.

There will be no examinations or research papers in the course. Students
will write four 5-6 page papers--two on biblical texts, and two on modern
literary texts or art works. The grade will be based on the papers, as
well as each student's participation in all other aspects of class
interaction.