Genesis Reading Questions

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Our reading assignments for the next two weeks are as follows:

3/11 Monday: Genesis 1-11

6/11 Thursday: 12-25

10/11 Monday: 26-37

13/11 Thursday: 38-50

 Chapters 1-11

1.) Robert Alter’s translation of the beginning reads, “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

The King James Version, in contrast, reads “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

What are the different senses of temporality in the two translations?

2.) What powers do divine, human and serpentine languages have in the first three chapters?

3.) In what ways does the text present binary oppositions as the structuring principle of the narrative?

4.) What is the relationship between narrative (storytelling) and creation (speech)?

5.) For many readers, Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-25 form two separate but related narrative units. Most importantly, the divine creator is called “the Lord God” (YHWH ’Elohim) instead of ’Elohim. What differences are there in the two accounts?

6.) Cattle and crawling things are repeated in the text. Why?

7.) From 2:11 to 2:16, the text zooms in to geographical description (chorography) with much precision and local details. This seems different from the previous cosmic vantage point. What do you make of the differing perspective?

8.) Blessings, commandments, naming, curses, persuasion: what can language do and not do?

9.) Gender. Discuss.

10.) Note Alter’s commentary and his attention to the word plays and puns in the Hebrew. How do his explanations help us understand the original text? What features of the Hebrew language can we notice?

11.) Human beings are said to be made in the image of God. Yet God and the Lord God seem to have human characteristics. What are they?

12.) “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness” “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. . .” Comment on the use of the first person plural in these passages.

13.) a.) Why did the Lord favor Abel and not Cain’s offerings? b.) What is an offering? “Sin” is mentioned for the first time in 3:7. c.) What significance is it that the first murderer is the founder of the first city? d.) What relationship is there between violence and civic institutions? e.) What significance is there at Abel is a “herder of sheep” and Cain a “tiller of the soil”? f.) What significance is there that the Lord favors the younger brother over the older one?

14.) In 4:22—Jubal “the first who play on the lyre and pipe” and Tubal-cain, “who forged every tool of copper and iron” are brothers from different mothers (but the same father.) What’s the significance of this?

15.) What is the significance of the genealogy in Chapters 4 & 5?

16.) Does God/ the Lord/ the Lord God ever change his mind? When and where and why?

17.) 6:18--“And I will sent up a covenant with you” What is a covenant? How does the God bless Noah and his sons? In what ways are his commandants a modification of what was stipulated in the Creation story? How does the relationship between humans and the animals change? Humans and nature?

18.) Why does Noah become drunk?

19.) How does the biblical narrative explain the diversity and confusion of language? In what ways is the story of Babel supremely ironic? What linguistic parallels do you see in human and divine speech? In what ways is the desire to build something a reaction to the fear of the memory of the Flood? What is the relationship between architecture and language? What does it mean to ”make us a name”? What are the different glosses and etymology of the name “Babel” (see footnote 3, p. 47)?

20.) What are the different narrative styles, poetic tropes, rhetorical strategies of the text? Is the authorial voice consistent or does it vary? At what moments is it poetry and prose?

Jason, the Greek Righteous Man

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Does Jason really think of himself as a righteous man or does he acknowledge that he has treated Medea immorally but is just giving excuses to justify his actions. Jason seems to truly believe that he has not done something unethical or dishonorable. In fact, Jason believes that he has made the right choice for the family; therefore, he should be considered a righteous man. Jason has his own legitimations for his decisions. He justifies by saying that he makes decisions in an attempt to bring good to the whole family, not for his own greed or benefit. The reason he has abandoned Medea and had an affair with a foreign wife is that he “wish[es] to preserve [Medea] and breed a royal progeny to be brothers to the children [he] has now, sure defense to [his family]” (78).
His claim may sound unsubstantiated and ridiculous, but considering the Greek society back then and the different role expectation the society had for different genders, Jason’s belief seems allowable at that time at least.
Obviously, Jason is taking advantage of the role given for him as the male and the father of the household. At that time, the society’s expectation for Greek male was to be in charge of the household and is someone who is responsible for taking care of the whole family by working outside, whereas Greek women were supposed to meddle with household affairs. By saying that he has made the decision in order to protect Medea and his kids, he separates his private feeling and says his “real” reason behind his action as if he has sacrificed for the family as a leader of this family. He’s implying that Medea as a woman cannot understand the grand reason behind his actions. Jason’s effort to be considered as a righteous man/husband/father continues when he is willing to economically help Medea. In addition, contrary to Medea who often goes melodramatic and emotional, Jason manages to keep his tone monotonous and calm, feeling no guilt at all, presumably showing the different stigmas attached to males and females at that time.

Whose tragedy is it anyway?

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Medea could be understood as an anti-hero- her tragic fall the burning passion with which she loved Jason and then exacted her revenge. Initially portrayed as a wronged and helpless wife, her pride upon being scorned soon comes to the forefront. Hints into her psyche via moving monologues reveal her inner turmoil and the creates a foreboding sense of madness. This dreaded inevitability evokes a sense of both pity and horror in readers as they watch her commit the final deed. It is her tragedy, because it was her agency.

The conflicting identities she holds highlights her status as an anti-hero. As a woman she enters the heroic domain by being central to the Jason's progress. Asserting this during the angry exchange with him, she repeats "I saved", "I killed" showing she is the drive behind his success and that "[He] has certainly got from [her] more than [he] gave". Consequently as she moves closer and closer toward the tragic end, hesitation and inner turmoil is overridden by the fact that only "a weak woman even to admit to [her] mind these soft arguments". The overwhelming and recurring need to be strong is an aspect of her character that jumps out at readers and no doubt also the Greeks public viewing the play. In addition she is a foreigner and barbarian. The frightful betrayal with which she trades her home in for the new polity is never forgotten in the play and referenced often, including in her the exchange with Creon. As a supermotral, Medea is respected but always feared and kept at arm's length. She is a wanderer in the land of Greek mortals whose fate has been bound to Jason and when he breaks that promise, she laments she has lost everything. This duality of character makes Medea both cruel and pitiable, despised and venerated.

The general introduction also shows the setting in which Euripides crafted this play. He creates heroes who "[decay] and [disintegrate]", evoking a constant "sense of defeat and disappointment". A character like Medea would have been the underrepresented woman, the displaced barbarian, and the betrayed wife. In this sense, the tragedy is not only hers, but that of the Greek polity and its citizens. It reveals a deep disenchantment with the time, for Euripides "believed in a world he disliked".

Psychotic or pushed beyond what she could bear

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She’s a psychotic killer. She killed her own children. She’s a murderer. Or is she just a victim of her own eros (intimate, passionate love) for Jason? She kills her own brother, incurring her father’s wrath and then proceeds to manipulate Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, causing her and Jason to be exiled to Corinth. Medea sacrifices her entire being, giving up her identity and her homeland out of her love for Jason. Her sacrifice is only met with betrayal as she watches her beloved husband break their sacred union to marry the daughter of Creon.

Medea describes herself as being “deserted, a refugee [and being] thought nothing of” (255-256) in this foreign land of Corinth. Think about it for a second, she betrays her family and uproots herself from her homeland into a totally unknown landscape, only to be completely disregarded by the only sense of familiarity that she has in a foreign landscape – her husband Jason. Medea laments that there is “no sorrow above the loss of a native land” and that there is “Neither city nor friend” to “[pity] you when you [suffer]” (654-655), something that she describes as “The worst of sufferings” (656). Is she then, not justified in wanting to exact vengeance upon Jason for subjecting her to this great suffering? After all, her husband has pushed her into the “full force of the storm of hate” (278) through his actions.

Her decision to kill her children is also not one that is purely out of vengeance and her hatred for Jason, but also in the rational recognition that her action of exacting revenge upon Jason will have severe implications on the future of her children within Corinth. She cries out to the chorus that there is “none who can give [her children] safety” (793) once she exacts her revenge upon Jason. Medea also recognizes that she will “suffer twice as much of pain myself” (1047) in killing her children, but she deems it as the ONLY way in which she will be able to exact the same degree of suffering that she endured upon her husband. In killing her own children, she rationalises that she would rather do it herself than to allow them to be "slain by another hand less kindly to them" (1239); envisioning her act as some form of mercy killing. At the point before killing her children, she comforts herself with the thought that her children will never find happiness “here in this world” because “What is here your father took.” (1074) Ouch. Neither does Medea attempt to absolve herself from her act of vengeance, rather she describes her act as one of the “the greatest evils” (1080) as it is borne out of fury.

Is Medea merely a victim of circumstances beyond her control? – her own eros for Jason, Jason’s actions and the fact that she can never return to her homeland and regain any semblance of comfort through familiarity. Or are her actions entirely reprehensible because of the nature of her act? – killing her very own flesh and blood to exact vengeance. Is the chorus then supposed to function as the moral voice of reason and in turn project its own beliefs upon the audience of the play?

On a side note, if you are above 21 (the movie is rated R21), you really should watch the movie “gone girl”, the story has SO MANY PARALLELS to Medea. Basically, it can be regarded as the modern day Medea and it’s SOOOO GOOD.

Vengeance Above Everything

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Every time Medea interacts with a male in the play, she seems to have a personal goal in mind, and she uses her cunning to achieve those ends. It starts with Jason, where she angrily says, “Do you think that I would ever have fawned on that man / Unless I had some end to gain or profit in it?” (368-369). I doubt Medea actually never loved Jason, since she killed her father and brother, helped him steal the golden fleece, and forever left her home country behind.

Instead, she may have been so in love with him getting to have him as her husband was a profit in itself. She also ends up taking such drastic steps after he marries another woman that it is unlikely she never felt anything for him. As the saying goes, amantes sunt amentes. Her statement does seem to explain her motives, if she is driven only by what she wants – to hurt Jason. And we see this with other men in the play as well.

Creon banishes Medea partly because he fears what plots she is planning. Medea responds, however, saying that really she is not that clever to begin with, and she would never harm a king. He doesn’t buy it. She pleads with him for just one day before she must leave to set up arrangements for her children, and he grants her this while admitting, “Even now I know that I am making a mistake,” (350). The moment Creon leaves, however, she begins plotting the King’s, his daughter’s, and Jason’s deaths. She invokes her own children in an attempt to get what she wants, which is revenge.

Later when talking to Aegeus, again Medea seems act disregarding any relationship for her own desire. Aegeus is introduced as an old friend of Medea, and she uses this for her own advantage. Pretending to fear what will happen to her after she is banished, she begs for Aegeus to allow her safe lodging in his kingdom, and he agrees. Immediately after the conversation, she reveals this is her ‘escape’ plan after committing her crimes.

This leaves the question of is there anything Medea values more than herself, including her desires, in her quest for vengeance? Clearly she is willing to go incredibly far, by killing her own children, but at the heart of her action is a conflict between her desire for vengeance and for her own well being. And in fact, it seems as though she has no gain or profit from all of her actions, as we see, since she ends up alone and even more hopeless at the play’s end. So perhaps it is her thirst for vengeance that drives all of her actions throughout the play.

 

Translation Controversies

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Here are just some of the references in my edition of Medea that involve the gods. This is just to show the differences in themes that arise due to differences in translations! Thought it might be interesting to just skim through some of these dialogues.

  1. Context: Nurse tries to console Medea

‘Don’t kill yourself with grief. Trust in Zeus. His justice is the way to settle scores’

  1. Context: Medea cries out to the gods to punish Jason for breaking an oath

‘Themis and Artemis, brave goddesses, enforce those vows – or let me see Jason and his princess buried’

  1. Context: Nurse emphasising Medea’s cries

‘Did you hear her terrible prayers? How she begs Themis and Zeus the guardian of oaths to revenge the broken vows?’

  1. Context: When Medea is devising a scheme to seek revenge

‘Hecate, dearest of my household gods, by your dark magic I will repay the pain and ridicule’

‘I must be Medea, Hecate’s servant, artist of potions and spells of guile.’

  1. Context: Jason responds back to Medea’s curses.

‘Remember, the gods can still make life worse for you’

  1. Context: Reason Aegeus gives for being childless.

‘I think by a god’s curse’

  1. Context: Medea while setting out the final plan

‘But the gods will assist me. Jason will pay for mistreating me’

Schizo Medea

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Medea does have deliberate knowledge of her deeds. She undergoes lots of scheming and imagining the deaths of her enemies and their consequences. However, just because she have deliberate knowledge of her deeds, it doesn’t make her sane.

Medea resembles a schizophrenic by having abnormal social behavior. She acknowledges that she is angry and that her rage is overtaking her rational mind - “I know indeed what evil I intend to do, But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury” (p. 96).

In a way, Medea is less sane because she undergoes all her mental processes justifying her actions. “To stay here, and in this I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies - father, the girl, and my husband. I have many ways of death which I might suit to them. And do not know, friends, which one to take in hand: whether to set fire underneath their bridal mansion, or sharpen a sword and thrust it to the heart, stealing into the palace where the bed is made” (p. 72). Medea has a very calculating mind, and she is constantly calculating the way to hurt her enemies the most - “in [her] plotting and scheming leave nothing untried of all those things which [she] knows” (p. 72). This makes me feel that she’s a sociopath. Normal people won’t be able to think about killing others in so much detail, in so many ways as well. The fact that in the end, she kills her own children because she deems that that would hurt Jason the most,

- “You loved them, and killed them. “To make you feel pain.” (1399-400) -

shows that she doesn’t have the same bonds that most mothers would share with their children. Even her regrets about her children doesn’t reflect her love for them but rather her regrets for herself involving them. “Those pains I had in the bearing of [the children]…, [they] would look after me in old age, and when I died would deck me well with [their] own hands” (1033-5).

Medea also talks about herself in third person which I personally find quite alarming. She says “Ah, come, Medea, in your plotting and scheming leave nothing untried of all those things which you know” (p. 72). When she says “What is more, you were born a woman. And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, are of every evil of cleverest of contrivers”, she seems to be trying to convince herself to do the evil acts. She also tries to convince herself by making Jason the bad person. She says “do you think that I would ever have fawned on that man unless I had some end to gain or profit in it?” (368-9). This line suggests that it was a marriage of convenience but one must acknowledge that this is only from her perspective now, she could be trying to convince himself that he is so completely terrible that there is no way she could have ever loved him.

MUCH MORE THAN PROVIDING THE CONTEXT

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Part of the nurse’s opening speech function is, as any Greek Drama prologue, to provide the audience with the necessary context. We learn about how Medea, in her “passionate love for Jason” (ln.8), fled from her native land (Iolocus) and convinced Pelia’s daughters to “kill their father”. As a result of her actions, both she and Jason were exiled to the “lands of Corinth”.  There, Jason married the king’s daughter.

But the prologue accomplishes much more than merely locating the story in time and space, since the Athenian audience would have already known that story. Most importantly, its purpose is to generate sympathy for Medea. The nurse is clearly sympathetic to Medea, as she emphasizes the extent to which Medea is emotionally shocked by Jason’s betrayal. Medea is so saddened that she “wastes away every moment of the day in tears” and even “lies without food” (ln.20). In contrast, Jason is portrayed as an evil misogynistic man who “deserted his own children and his mistress” (ln.17). This victim – oppressor dichotomy presented by the nurse’s speech inclines the reader to feel sympathy for Medea – even though, objectively, one might think that her acts are unjust and morally questionable.

Finally, the speech foreshadows the tragic events that are about to unfold. The nurse’s speech builds up dramatic tension as she expresses her fears that Medea, consumed by her anger, might “think of some dreadful thing” (ln.37). As we soon discover, she hits the nail on the head.

Contradictions: Representing the Underrepresented

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The Medea explores the conflicting perspectives of two lovers, and how these in turn lead to tragedy for them both. For Medea herself, the tragedy comes in the form of losing faith in her husband, and the retrospective realisation that she has also lost her family and country as a result. For Jason, the tragedy comes in the form of losing both of his wives and his children when he was supposedly acting in their interest. The perspectives, shown through the dialogue of both Medea and Jason in the play, interplay to affect the opinion of the audience as to who is “right” in this argument, or even whether such a judgement is possible.

Medea, being the focus of this narrative, dominates our perspective on her world and situation. This play is unique in its portrayal of the underrepresented female voice, supported in turn by the chorus of the play. Thus it can often seem as though Medea’s perspective is the most justified or even that she is in the “right”, as we naturally sympathise with her from our insight into her suffering. However, as is mentioned in the introduction, we cannot be sure whether Medea’s descriptions of Jason’s intentions is accurate, nor can we be sure that Jason is lying when he says that his actions were all “in [Medea’s] best interests and the children's” (550)

Medea invokes great sympathy from the audience in her soliloquy describing how “women are the most unfortunate creatures” (231) as “there is no easy escape/ For a woman…/ She arrives among new modes of behavior and manners.” (236-8) Her emotional language and detailed description of how she was “wronged in the matter of love” (265), and her emphasis on how she has “lost [her] own country” (35), build up her terrible plight. The repetition of these descriptions in such emotive language throughout the play acts to draw the audience onto Medea’s “side” of the argument. Ironically, though this play gives voice to women as oppressed figures in society, it simultaneously blocks out most of the voices of any men involved in the plot.

Jason’s voice, when it is sporadically heard, seems to tell a contradictory story of his reasons for leaving Medea. “It was not…that [Jason]/ Grew tired of [Medea’s] bed…/ But…that [their family] might live well,/ And not be short of anything.” (555-60) Jason insists that Medea is wrong, and is persistent in his argument throughout the play. While his argument may seem weak in the face of Medea’s constant emotional bombardments, it is difficult to know who is really telling the truth. Medea describes Jason as a “clever speaker” (585), and Medea too is described as “a clever woman” (285). “Clever” is meant in the sense of the Greek sophos, meaning devious or cunning, and so the audience can be unsure who is simply lying to deceive and who is genuine at many points in this play.

Tragedy!...

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When the feeling's gone and you can't go on
It's tragedy!
When the morning cries and you don't know why
It's hard to bear!
With no-one to love you you're
goin' nowhere!

Much like the Bee Gees song I quoted above, it is pretty unclear whose tragedy it is in Medea. Based on the title, it would appear that it is the titular character who is meeting her tragic fate, and that is true to a certain extent. After all, Medea did betray her father, kill her brother, and trick other characters into killing their father, all in the name of assisting the man she loved. In return, she essentially gets cheated on for the sake of attaining status in a new city. What could be more tragic than thinking that the only solution to a problem is to kill your children (and after getting them to commit a dastardly act)?

However, looking at Medea as solely the tragedy of its titular character would not be doing justice to the the other characters who undergo suffering too. What about the children who die at the hands of a figure whom they trust, and through no fault of their own? What about Jason, who seemingly married a second wife with good intentions in his heart, only to see his new wife, father-in-law and two children killed at the hands of his scorned wife?

Speaking of tragedy, Euripides was supposed to have written 92 plays in his lifetime, but won first prize in drama competitions for only five of them. He chose a voluntary exile in old age after being sentenced to death for acting as a corrupting influence, before supposedly being killed in an attack by rabid dogs. If you write enough tragedies...