world literature

| May 20, 2015
Essay Assignment

Please write a three to four-page essay (750-1,000 words) in response to one of the following prompts:

(1) Please discuss how an episode from the Old Testament is or is not like the Odyssey. Suggested biblical episodes include the story of Jacob, the story of Joseph, or the story of David. (You may refer to more than one episode if you wish. For example, one episode may be more like the Odyssey than another). Is the narrative structure of biblical episode more like that of an epic such as the Odyssey or more like that of a short story or novel you are familiar with?

(2) Please compare one or more Old Testament biblical “heroes” with Odysseus. How are they alike? How are they different? What role does each hero play in the society in which the hero is represented. You can take more standard heroes (like Jacob, Joseph, or David) or heroes that display other kinds of heroism (like Abraham, Job, or Jonah).

(3) Please compare the societies and world-views represented in the Odyssey and in the portions of the Old Testament in the packet. What does it mean to live a good life in each work? How is group identity defined in each work and how significant is that identity? Are there distinctions made between group identities within one or both of the works?

Whatever prompt you respond to, please limit your discussion to the Old Testament and to the Old Testament heroes we have studied. If you wish to discuss Jacob in passages I have omitted (for example, his sojourn with Laban, Genesis 29-31) or David in passages from Samuel 1 & 2 that I have omitted, you may. But do NOT write about characters (like Moses, or Samson, or Jezebel) that we have not read at all as a class. Do NOT write about the New Testament. I don’t want anyone discussing Jesus, Peter, or Paul as a “hero.”

Support any assertion or generalization you make with specific evidence from the texts we have read. Avoid bringing externally derived ideas (such as you might have learned in synagogue, church, or mosque) into your essay. This is a literature course. Focus on the words before you.

Essays in literature courses can be pretty tricky, because there is seldom a single “right” thesis or even a “best” thesis. There are, however, better and worse essays. The better essays have a clearly stated thesis, supported by a well-organized argument, illustrated by specific references to the text or texts in question. Thus, it is not enough to “respond to the prompt”; you must also justify your response. When there are (as there will often be) more than one good response to a prompt, the credit you receive will depend not so much on which response you choose as on how well you justify your response.

Essays in literature courses are generally “open-ended.” Any of the prompts above could be responded to more deeply in 10 or 15 pages. So use the space you have (3-4 pages) as effectively as you can, bearing in mind that an essay isn’t judged on how many words it contains, but how much information and analysis it packs into those words.

Short Sample Essays

The following brief essays are much shorter than the one you will write, but they illustrate some of principles I have described above.

A passage from the King James Version of the Bible, Genesis 4:1-15:

And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bare Cain and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time, it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering, but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and unto thee shall be its desire, and thou shalt rule over it. And Cain talked with Abel his brother, and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is thy brother? And Cain said, I know not: Am I my brothers keeper? And the LORD said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brothers blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brothers blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength. A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth, and from thy face shall I be hid, and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth, and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

Question: Why does Cain kill Abel?

Sample Brief Essays

None of the following “sample answers” is necessarily the “correct” one. Indeed, they represent very different approaches to the text (psychological, adversative, economic) and provide very different kinds of responses to the question. What they share is a clearly stated thesis and a focused argument which draws on specific references to the text for support.

1. Cain kills Abel because he wants to show that he is still bigger and stronger than his younger brother. Both brothers made offerings to God, but Abel’s was better, and so God “respected” it. Cain’s offering was not as good, so God did not respect it. Cain can’t accept the idea that his younger brother is better than he is, especially since there is no one else around that he could feel superior to. (It was just Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel at that point.) The reason “sin lieth at the door” when you don’t do well (are inferior) is that you are tempted to do anything, even something sinful, to escape the feeling of inferiority. The only way Cain could prove he was better than Abel was to show that, whatever God thought of their offerings, Cain was the strong one. If Abel’s so great, why is he dead? When Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he is probably thinking, “Yes, I am–I kept him in his place!”

2. God goads Cain into killing Abel just to keep humankind divided and thus dependent upon Him. God had already punished Adam and Eve for gaining knowledge, and he expelled them from Eden so they couldn’t eat from the tree of life and become immortal. When Adam and Eve started having children, God was afraid that they might work together so well that they could do without Him. So when Cain and Abel made offerings to Him, God inspired bad blood between them by accepting one offering and not the other–for no good reason, at least none that he explains to Cain. Cain falls into the trap and kills Abel. God pretends to be shocked and uses this as an excuse to expel Cain “from the face of the earth.” Even though God later seems to show mercy by giving Cain a mark of protection, He has divided Cain from the rest of the clan. After the Flood, when human beings work together to build the Tower of Babel, God again divides them, this time by giving them different languages. Divide and conquer!

3. The story of Cain and Abel warns of the dangers of cut-throat economic competition: Cain kills his brother to protect his source of income. We don’t know much about the two brothers–just that Cain, the older brother, was a “tiller of the ground,” while Abel was “a keeper of sheep.” When it came time to make an offering to God, each brought a sample of his produce: Cain brought the “fruit of the ground”; Abel, the “firstlings of his flock.” The economic rivalry of the established farmer with the nomadic shepherd is emphasized by God’s preferring one product over the other. Sheep are famous for being destructive grazers and might have been squeezing Cain’s farmland and ruining his crops. When God asks him where Abel is, Cain echoes the earlier description of Abel as a “keeper of sheep” by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain probably thought this was fair enough: if Abel couldn’t keep his sheep out of Cain’s fields, Cain would keep Abel out of his face. But Abel’s blood cries up to God “from the ground,” the ground on which Cain grew his crops. God thus chooses a fittingly economic punishment for Cain: the earth that he contaminated with his brother’s blood will no longer give him good crops.

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