[Second in a series of articles aimed at our ‘A Level’ students, addressing gaps in their general and literary knowledge. Read the previous article, On Dante’s Inferno, here]
‘Good morning [big smile]!
In the Christmas season, who do you think is the greatest gift-giver of them all?’
(this happened to me a few weeks back)
No – don’t slam the door ! I’m genuinely not here to convert you. But if there’s just one text that has gifted the most sources of inspiration and allusion to our Western literary tradition, it’s probably the Old Testament Book of Genesis. Estimates vary, but its very strong messages on obedience and patriarchy have been influencing society for about 3,000 years.
This would be the book to choose alongside Shakespeare’s Complete Works when looking for the most influential literary works.
Genesis runs from the creation of the Earth through to the enslavement of the Jewish people by the Egyptians (Moses will eventually lead them out, in Exodus). Not a long or difficult read; approached with an enquiring mind, it is exciting and infinitely applicable to your A Level texts. I can only give you highlights and prompts in a short article; go read it! Let’s take an objective look at some key stories:
The Garden of Eden: an idyllic place of innocence, prepared by God for Adam and Eve, who were then cast out (see below).
Significance: gardens throughout literature, but perhaps especially Maud
The Temptation, and Fall of Man: Eve famously gives in to the Devil’s suggestions (Satan adopting snake form) to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (generally regarded as the apple: an euphemism for recreational, rather than procreative, sex.) Adam and Eve were told to ‘be fruitful, and multiply’ – but not to have ‘knowledge’ of each other just for fun. They’re found out, banished from Eden (to the East, Steinbeck fans take note), and the patriarchal myth of women as weak-willed, unintelligent (yet paradoxically sly) temptresses is born. Adam is specifically chastised for listening to his wife!
Significance: Hard to overestimate this one. Almost any text that contains elements of patriarchal inequality or female sexuality. Maud, definitely. Edward II; Hamlet. Steinbeck, as above. This might also be one of the earliest Christian adaptations of the Promethean mythology, where man is punished for assuming the knowledge of the Gods.
Cain and Abel: both sons of Adam and Eve make offerings to God, but Cain’s is half-hearted. In a jealous fit, he murders his younger brother, Abel, afterwards (pointlessly) lying – to an omniscient God – about it. God places ‘the mark of Cain’ on the killer, cursing him. He also says that anyone killing Cain – presumably in revenge – will be punished sevenfold.
Significance: Hamlet, naturally. Think of Claudius’ ‘O my offence is rank’ speech. But also, is Hamlet deterred from revenge by this passage? Maudsters might consider the murder of Maud’s brother – in fact, any murder of a close relative or acquaintance falls here – in Literature, the term ‘brother’ can be very loose. Consider also the punishment for the murderers of kin in Dante’s Inferno. (December issue) This fraternal jealousy repeats later in Genesis: Joseph (yes, and his technicolor dreamcoat)
Noah, the Ark, and the Flood: remember that whilst Christ’s teachings are forgiveness, Patience, and turning the other cheek, the Old Testament God was vengeful and angry. Appalled by mankind’s general wickedness, God decides to issue the ultimate detention – like a teacher faced with an entire class who hadn’t done their homework. Noah is given advanced notice, collecting his family, building an ark, and samples of every animal. Once earth has been ‘cleansed’, the dove finds an olive branch, symbolising God’s promise of peace and to never repeat this apocalyptic punishment. Perhaps ironically, Noah repays this by planting a vineyard and getting embarrassingly drunk and naked in front of his sons …
Significance: arks, olive branches, doves, appear everywhere. Any apocalypse we create or deserve for you dystopians. The rainbow, symbolising God’s forgiveness. There’s even an urban myth that unicorns died out because Noah couldn’t find a male and female. Noah channels the idea of the chosen few being saved. Again, we might think of this in terms of social control, obedience, etc. Students of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam dystopian trilogy will recognise the idea of the Flood.
The Tower of Babel: in another tale of man’s pride, similar to the Promethean ideas suggested above, man decides to build a skyscraper to reach God. Suddenly, they’re all speaking different languages, thanks to God: the project fails in chaos.
Significance: another lesson to man not to subvert the Great Chain of Being?
The Handmaid: Yup, it’s in here – the patriarchal desperation for an heir leads Abram/Abraham to sleep with his wife’s servant. The handmaid appears several times after this, usually in terms of keeping the tribe fertile.
Significance: Not only to Atwood readers, but to anyone considering how far back the insatiable urge for an heir, especially a male one, goes. Budding Marxist critics, and Feminists, think this through …
The best book of Genesis resource I’ve found is:
Don’t forget that this version was commissioned and written during Shakespeare’s lifetime, too …