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Tragedy In Genesis Essay, Research Paper
People tend to view tragedy in cataclysmic and catastrophic terms. Every night on the news we hear murders, assassinations and bombings referred to as Atragedies.@ Tragedy need not be an event which affects the community at large. Rather, any event which teaches an important lesson to a specific person or a group of people can be viewed as a type of tragedy. While the Greek tragedies focused upon the catastrophic nature of tragedy, The Biblical Book of Genesis provides the reader with another tragic paradigm. Genesis describes tragic events which are neither catastrophic nor transforming. In fact, according to the Genesetic paradigm, tragedy need not end in death.
Before entering into a detailed discussion of Genesis, we must attempt to define the term tragedy itself. Walter Kaufmann defines tragedy in an almost scientific kind of way. To him, every tragedy must fit into exactly the same mold in precisely the same fashion. He writes:
tragedy is (1) a form of a literature that (2) presents a symbolic action as performed by actors and (3) moves into the center immense human suffering (4) in such a way that it brings to our minds our own forgotten and repressed sorrows as well as those of our kin and humanity (5) releasing us with some sense (a) that suffering is universal- not a mere accident in our experience, (b) that courage and endurance in suffering or nobility in despair are admirable- not ridiculous- and usually also ( c) that fates worse than our own can be experienced as exhilarating
Kaufmann=s definition precludes seeing the notion of tragedy through a wider lens. His definition is all encompassing and requires many factors in order to be considered a tragedy. To him, very few writings are true tragedies. A tragedy must end in death (Aimmense human suffering@) for it to be included within the canon of tragedy. Seemingly, tragedy could not occur within the mundane as Kaufmann emphasizes that it must be a form of literature and performed by actors. Without suffering, a work of literature cannot be considered tragedy.
Kaufmann=s definition was shaped by the works of Sophocles and Euripides. Although there were three primary tragedy writers in antiquity, Kaufmann does not seem to be able to cope with alternative modes of tragedy as expressed by Aeschylus. Instead of accepting the concept of dual definitions or paradigms of tragedy, Kaufmann remains myopic in his view. He writes: AAeschylus was, compared with Sophocles and Euripides, the most optimistic; he alone had the sublime confidence that by rightly employing their reason men could avoid catastrophes. His world view was, by modern standards, anti-tragic; and yet he created tragedy.@ Kaufmann does not come to the logical realization that both Sophocles and Aeschylus are tragic in different ways. Instead of acknowledging that his definition might be too constraining and specific, he rejects the fact that Aeschylus wrote tragedy. By stating that Ayet he created tragedy,@ Kaufmann shows a glimpse of hesitance on the validity of his own definition of tragedy. However, he reaffirms his convictions in writing that Aany realistic notion of tragic drama must start from the fact of catastrophe. Tragedies end badly.@
Kaufmann is not alone in his view that tragedy must end badly. A noted biblical scholar has vociferated:
At some point in tragedy, a catastrophe occurs. Disaster does not have to be the final wordY but it usually breaks the hero, who dares to defy the universe. If they are not already exceptional people, rulers or leaders, tragic heroes are made exceptional by their experienceY Often a tragic hero responds to disaster and unleashes more disaster.
While Exum generally agrees with Kaufmann, she leaves some leeway in her interpretation of tragedy. Usually catastrophe occurs, but it is possible to have tragedy without catastrophe. While her comments regarding tragic biblical heroes is true throughout a majority of the characters in the Old Testament, Genesis is replete with examples of tragic heroes which do not suffer catastrophe.
Kenneth Benne presents a more moderate portrayal of tragedy than either Kaufmann or Exum. He portrays tragedy not as a work of literature, but rather, as life itself. One must be educated through tragedy and through the tragic. He opines that Aeducation must seek and use ways to induce in people a recognition and acceptance that we are living in a time of crisisY we cannot without help from each other become sensitive to the whole train of suffering to ourselves and others which follows from our decisions and action. Education must help to create such sensitivity.@ People must be educated to be caring and considerate human beings. Since the world is in a constant state of crisis, every person must learn to view tragedy within the mundane. Instead of seeing themselves through the acting of actors, people begin to see themselves in relation to other people within the larger world . Tragedy can no longer be viewed in perfectly defined terms. Instead, significant learning lessons supplant any previous conception of tragedy. Benne instructs his readers to see the tragic within day to day life. Benne states almost poetically that Aan age of crisis is an age of winter. Yet men who live in an age of winter must realize their humanity appropriately to such an age, if at all, for that is the only age in which they can learn to be men.@ Benne further expands our conception of tragedy in opining that the best learning opportunities occur when a nation or a people is in despair. He has expanded our definition of tragedy to include all trying life experiences without limiting tragedy to catastrophe in particular.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines tragedy from various perspectives including both the catastrophic and non catastrophic paradigms of tragedy. American Heritage is more in consonance with Benne than with Kaufmann. Instead of limiting tragedy, the Dictionary expands tragedy to include both literary works and life experiences. Tragedy is defined as:
(1) A dramatic or literary work depicting a protagonist engaged in a morally significant struggle ending in ruin or profound disappointment (A) A classical verse drama in which a noble protagonist is brought to ruin essentially as a consequence of an extreme quality that is both his greatness and his downfall. (B) A renaissance or modern dramas like the classical model in representing terrible struggle and calamity but freer in style and choice of protagonist. ( C) YSeriously treats of calamitous events and has an unhappy but meaningful ending
This definition allows for dual understanding of tragedy. Unlike Kaufmann who is very particular in his definition, the American heritage allows for a more wide-ranging view of tragedy. In fact, Genesis incorporates the classical definition of Kaufmann with the more expansive conceptions of Benne and American Heritage.
The Book of Genesis can be viewed as one immense tragedy with numerous acts or as several shorter tragedies, each with its own moral lesson. In many ways, it makes more sense to view the Book in terms of separate and distinct tragedies. However, these >acts@ need not end in death, , destruction and doom. Apart from the beginning chapters of Genesis, catastrophic tragedy is not the focus. Rather, the protagonists within Genesis learn from life experiences, shared trials and tribulations and from the environment around them. Kaufmann would portray Genesis as tragedy averted. Benne, however, could see the episodes of the Book as tragedy in and of themselves. To Benne, any education derived from living a Alife of crisis= is tragedy!! In a way, Benne is the best exemplar of the Genesetic paradigm .
A survey of the Book of Genesis will reveal that every protagonist encounters trials and tribulations, learns from his mistakes or misgivings and grows stronger because of them. Hence, each character experiences tragedy in the sense that after trying times, each person starts his life anew- rejuvenated with vigor, reinfused with purpose and endowed with the will to re- create. Rebirth can happen without death. A person need not die to become renewed. Each character in Genesis must take the fall in order to elevate himself. In essence, the Fall is a symbolic death, and in that sense, even the alternative perception of tragedy can incorporate the theme of death and destruction without actually experiencing catastrophe. Simply stated, every Atragedy@ in Genesis must have four basic elements: (1) the sin- the protagonist and other characters experience Apersonal catastrophe.@ (2) the fall- the character receives a specific punishment for the transgression that he has committed (3)banishment or feeling alone- the character has time to think of his actions and the consequences which may ensue (4)Despair followed by hope- out of the burning embers comes a new light, a rebirth, a reassessment of values and concerns.
The Book of Genesis begins with the episode concerning the Garden of Eden. We will view this as our first tragedy. In this case, all characters in the Aplay@ experience individual sins and individual consequences. Often forgotten in the recounting of the Garden of Eden is that Cain was not the only one who transgressed. Adam and Eve also transgress by not heeding God=s warning not to eat from the tree of life. While Eve blames Adam and Adam pins blame on the snake, ultimately both must take responsibility for their own actions and suffer the consequences. Even the snake is punished for his actions. It would seem that this tragedy ends in the classic sense, namely, through catastrophic consequences. However, when read carefully and critically, it becomes apparent that Abel=s murder is not the focal point of this tragedy. If that were the case, Abel=s death would be at the conclusion of the story of Adam and Eve. However, the play continues on for some time after the murder.
Each character receives an individualized punishment. The snake is consigned to Aslither on his belly and eat dust the remainder of his days.@ Eve will have trouble Agiving birth and sorrow will follow her.@ God sentences Adam and states: Athe land is cursed for youY With the sweat of your brow you will eat bread .@ All these punishments relate to the necessity to work for one=s necessities. Before the Aoriginal sin@, life was very easy for human and beast alike. Humans and animals must put in the effort only after Athe Fall.@ These punishments are significant, but certainly not catastrophic, cataclysmic or destructive in nature. Cain=s punishment seems to be the most puzzling. He, in fact, murdered his brother in cold blood. One would expect him to be punished with death at the hands of God. However, he is told that Ayou are to be cursed in this landY You shall be a nomad in the land.@ In response, Cain retorts that Athe burden of my sin is too heavy to endure.@ To Cain, banishment is worse than death itself. Death may be painful, but at least it is quick. Cain is subjected to perpetual banishment, a punishment which will constantly remind Cain of his transgressions. Although Adam and Eve are also banished from the way of life in the garden, they are on Aprobation@ while Cain is a Alifer.@
After transcribing the punishment for each character, the bible emphasizes that Eve then gave birth to other children. It is significant that birth occurred immediately after death. Abel was killed and another child is brought into this world to replace Abel. However, there is more significance to birth than might be readily apparent. This birth represents new beginnings, a new statement of purpose. Adam and Eve are given another chance to contribute to mankind. Out of despair comes hope.
It would seem that the tragedy could have ended here. However, a Asecond act@ attempts to connect the Garden of Eden with the story of Noah. It almost appears as if these two episodes were created as different plays which could be combined into a trilogy (as was done in Ancient Greece.) At the end of the first Atragedy@ (ending in the middle of chapter six of Genesis), the Bible records that AGod regretted that he had created man in the land and God was saddened. God said: I will eradicate man which I have created from the face of this earth as well as animals, reptiles and poultry, for I have regretted that I have made them.@ It would seem that this section ends like Sophocles and Euripides, with major catastrophe and tragedy. This statement attributed to God would seem to be the most tragic thing that could be said. Total destruction of the world would certainly qualify as tragedy in the classic sense of the word. However, this statement of destruction does not conclude this play. The last line of the Edenic tragedy is ANoah found favor in the eyes of God.@ Again, hope follows despair. All salient elements of the Genesetic paradigm are abundantly clear. The sin is followed by a punishment which leads to banishment and ultimately rebirth and starting over. After giving the humans which were created a second chance to redeem themselves, God desires to accord Himself the same opportunity. However, by Afinding favor with Noah,@ universal destruction is averted. Some would say that the Garden of Eden was a tragedy averted. Yet, it can be demonstrated that this episode is a tragedy in and of itself.
The next tragedy in the saga is entitled the Deluge. After ending the last tragedy with hope, God immediately alerts Noah that AI am going to destroy the land due to the bad people.@ He instructs Noah to build an ark so that he and his family will be saved from the universal destruction which will transue. God desires to erase the world and re-create it. The flood will bring utter destruction and catastrophe upon the entire world, employing tragedy in its classic sense. Following the deluge, one of the most profound verses in Bible is recorded. The flood was learning experience for both God and Noah. Noah gains a new understanding of the power of the almighty and his ability to follow through on his word. However, God, too, learns from this incident. The Bible recounts that after the flood, God reached the conclusion that AI will no longer curse the land due to (the transgressions) of man for man is naturally bad from his childhood and I will (also) cease to afflict all living things which I have created.@ Not coincidentally, Noah is commanded at this time to Abe fruitful and multiplied and fill the earth.@ The earth had been completely destroyed, yet Noah is commanded to replenish it. Rebirth has occurred on the heels of a major tragedy. In essence, God=s promise not to destroy again is also an assurance that tragedy need not be catastrophic in order to be truly tragic. In fact, the deluge is the only classic tragedy which occurs in the book of Genesis. God realizes that he need not inflict catastrophe in order to teach people a lesson. This promise is further solidified through the symbolism of the rainbow. It is written: AI will establish my covenant with you and no longer shall people be killed (lit. uprooted) through flood waters and there shall never again be cataclysmic floods to destroy the earth.@
This second play of the trilogy also has a brief second act as was seen in the Edenic play. After the flood, Noah starts to work the land as he did before. However, since everything was decimated he decides that the first order of agricultural business is to plant a vineyard. This leads to him making wine, becoming inebriated and cohabiting with his daughters. One of his sons discreetly covers his father while the other mocks his father. Ultimately, Noah=s punishment is that the children born from these illicit relationships would become enemies of the Jews. Again, Noah sins, is punished and is able to rise again from the midst of destruction to transform himself back to a role model figure. Within this play, the Genesetic factors are still extant, namely, people sinning, punishments inflicted, learning from the consequences and rebirth.
The third play of the trilogy , The Tower of Babel, is, by far, the shortest and the least tragic (in the classic sense) of them all. Viewed from another perspective, this same episode can be viewed as some sort of comedy. While no catastrophic event occurs, much can be gleaned and learned from the story of the tower of Babel. The people of the period decided that they would erect a monument that would reach up to the heavens. Just like with Abel, it might be expected that God would take action and kill the transgressors directly. However, He realizes that much more can be gained by using punishment to teach important moral lessons. The consequences of their actions are that Aone nation and one language for everyone (was their intention) and now they will not have the opportunity to perform that which they intended to fulfill.@ Consequently, God gives them a dose of their own medicine and Acalls this place Bavel for thereGod scattered the languages of the land and from their they become dispersed across the world.@ Yet again, the people sin, the people are punished and the nation starts anew. The building of the tower was the culmination of the era of the flood. By scattering the people to the four corners of the earth, re-creation took place another time. The whole purpose of a tragedy is to bring one thing to an end and, just as quickly, to begin another endeavor. The dispersion of the people and the mangling of the languages need not be viewed as a negative consequence. Rather, one can view this episode as another learning experience in the trials and tribulations of society. This Apunishment@ forced nations to develop and languages to be created. Just like the banishment from the Garden of Eden led to a period of human growth, so too, the scattering of the people led to a period of growth. The tower of Babel is a fitting conclusion to the primary trilogy of Genesis. The Garden of Eden carefully and methodically delineated the factors which define the Genesetic paradigm. The Deluge demonstrates how catastrophic tragedy can be and promises never to return to the catastrophic model of tragedy again. The Tower culminates the paradigm of non-cataclysmic tragedy by demonstrating how negative action might lead to positive accomplishments.
It can be said, however, that Genesis is comprised of two distinct trilogies: the first dealing with history from Adam through the end of the generation of the Deluge and the second dealing with the trials and tribulations of the three forefathers and their families. Yet, the second trilogy still adheres to the same model of the Genesetic tragedy. In the second trilogy, the following factors recur within each play: (1)famine-unlike the first trilogy, the protagonist need not commit a specific sin to get punished. Instead of being punished the protagonist must pass certain tests of faith. (2) banishment- either the protagonist or another character must leave his home and cause strife within the remainder of the family. (3)Potential tragedy- each protagonist is faced with some very difficult situations in which classic tragedy (i.e. death) might occur. (4) protagonist saved, others suffer- while the protagonist always averts death, others die but are not the focus of the episode.
The first tragedy, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac: Not So Perfect Together, can be viewed as a paradigm for trials and tribulations. In fact, the medieval rabbis have stated that Abraham had to pass ten different tests throughout his lifetime. When act one opens, we find Abraham at the opening of his tent welcoming guests. Shortly thereafter, a famine strikes Canaan and Abraham must flee to Egypt. After remaining in Egypt for some time, the King accuses Athe foreigner@ of inflicting major illness upon the Egyptians and banishes Abraham from the land. After leaving Egypt, God promises much wealth and land to Abraham and his descendants. Yet again, out of despair comes hope.
Abraham has passed this primary challenge of faith. Upon returning to Canaan, Abraham demonstrates his abilities as a negotiator in Sodom. God wants to decimate the entire city. Abraham, knowing that God would not want to go back on his promise of never inflicting massive catastrophe ever again, asks God: Aare you going to kill the righteous with the wicked?@ Furthermore, Abraham gets God to agree that A(he) will not destroy the entire city on the merit of ten righteous people.@ Abraham is successful in getting the number reduced to five. Ultimately, the city is destroyed, but the righteous are not killed. Hence, while the city experiences catastrophic tragedy, the protagonists experience minimal tragedy. Since the episode focuses upon Abraham and Lot, this Atragedy@ is not catastrophic and hence, not a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. Yet, after being saved, Lot experienced personal tragedy on two occasions. While fleeing the destruction, his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt as she did not heed the warning not to look back. Additionally, Lot becomes inebriated and has two children with his daughters. Just like with Noah, these children became the haters of the Israelites generations later. As with Noah, Lot must learn lessons from life experiences. He must experience non-catastrophic tragedy in order to learn life lessons. It is important to note that Lot is not killed for his infidelity. Rather, God feels that a person will learn more from a situation when he faces the consequences and moves on from the situation.
Act two of the first tragedy comprises the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar from Abraham=s home. This could have been a tragedy for both Abraham as well as Ishmael and Hagar. The two travelers had to go through the hot desert with no water to drink. When death was immanent for Ishmael and there is almost no hope left, AGod listened to the cry of the child@ and Aopens (Hagar=s) eyes in order to see a well. She went and filled up the jug and gave her son to drink.@ The oasis saved Ishmael from certain death. It also was able to strengthen his faith. He experienced thirst, banishment, then salvation. He, like the other characters, was able to avert death by having faith and desiring to live.
Act three, not coincidentally, involves Abraham=s other son, Isaac. It was not bad enough that Ishmael, although viewed as wicked within Abraham=s family, almost die. The death of any child would be a tragedy. However, if Isaac were to die, that would be the most devastating tragedy which could befall Abraham. Therefore, God commands Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him. While Abraham questioned God=s judgment in Sodom, he is not so vain at this juncture. Instead, he listens to everything God tells him. Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac and commit the ultimate tragedy. He ties his son down to the altar and is just about to slit his throat when God sends a ram in place of Isaac. This episode could have been a catastrophe. However, as in other situations, it is decided at the last moment not to cause catastrophic tragedy, but rather merely tragedy within the mundane. Not coincidentally, the first play ends with a the birth of ten children to Abraham and Hagar and the birth of Rebecca, Isaac=s future spouse. Triumph comes out of tragedy. The ultimate conclusion to the Genesetic tragedy must be the notion of rebirth. From the midst of destruction comes the building of the future. As is typical in Genesis, tragedy ends on a positive note and not an unhappy one. While catastrophe has not occurred, the >actors@ as well as the Aaudience@ has learned an immense amount from these averted tragedies and hence, should be called tragedies in and of themselves.
The second play of the trilogy, Isaac: the passive One, focuses upon Isaac as the protagonist. He, like Abraham, must experience a famine. As the Bible states: >there was a famine besides the famine that occurred in the time of Abraham.@ Clearly, there is a very deliberate linkage of the second play to the first play. Isaac is also banished by the King of the land. However, this banishment leads to the acquiring of several hundred water wells. One would expect banishment to result in doom, death and destruction, especially in the midst of a famine. Yet, positive consequences come out of negative actions. Act one ends on the positive note that Isaac is able to sustain himself in the midst of famine and drought.
Unfortunately, in act two, Isaac is getting old and his days are numbered. Jacob dresses up like Esau and gets a blessing from Isaac. When Esau comes for his blessing, Isaac tells him that he gave the blessings intended for Esau to Jacob. Esau is devastated. To him, this was the ultimate tragedy, namely, not getting the inheritance as the primogenitor. While Esau is obviously not killed, he feels as if he had a dagger through his heart. He felt betrayed. Again, tragedy has been averted. Act three begins with the banishment of Jacob from his father=s house. Esau is alleged to have said that Athe days of mourning for my father are near and I will kill my brother, Jacob.@ Rebecca, in fear that Esau=s dream would come to fruition, instructs Jacob to flee. Tragedy has not only been averted; out of despair comes hope and rejuvenation. In fleeing, Jacob left his family in order to find a wife and to establish the scions of the tribes of Israel. This tragedy also has a happy ending when the brothers reconcile their differences and achieve amity in chapter 35. Again, a potential catastrophe has been averted and the second tragedy of the trilogy ends in an upbeat note as well.
The last play in the trilogy, Jacob=s Tragedies, is by far the most tragic, from both the classical and modern sense of the word. Jacob experiences tragedy in the form of death and tragedy as an educational experience. Jacob experiences many travails throughout his life which immensely test his mettle. Act one opens with Jacob working in the house of Laben. He had made an agreement with Laben that if he were to work seven years, Laben would give Rachel his daughter, to Jacob as a wife. On the day of the wedding, Laben pulls a switch and gives Jacob his other daughter instead of Rachel. Undaunted by this setback, Jacob works another seven years to gain the woman whom he loves and cherishes most. It would seem that this incident, while not resulting in death, could lead to his spiritual death as he would be bereft of the woman whom he loved. Yet, immediately after leaving Laben=s house with his two wives, the Bible records the birth of a majority of the twelve sons of Jacob. Ultimately, these children will become the tribes of Israel. Yet again, positive consequences come out of negative actions. However, this tranquility does not last for long. As the group is travelling, the quintessential tragedy occurs to Jacob. This is much more than a learning experience or a tragedy averted. Rather, unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob experiences tragedy in the catastrophic form, namely, the death of his beloved Rachel. However, at the same time that she expires, Benjamin is born. Out of despair comes hope. Out of destruction comes regeneration and rebirth. Even after the loss of his wife, Jacob learns that he must continue and go beyond the tragedy. Hence, the tragedy of death can be both cataclysmic and rejuvenating simultaneously. In fact, after this personal tragedy, the Bible records a comprehensive lineage which seems to be extraneous. Chapter thirty five ends with the death of Isaac and, without missing a beat, chapter thirty six begins with generational charts in order to minimize the amount of catastrophic impact which death has.
Act two delves into the story of Joseph. Interestingly enough, this is the only place within the entire Book of Genesis in which the term tragedy itself appears. From the outset, Jacob favors Joseph over the rest of his many children. The other sons are jealous and harbor a hatred for their brother. At one point, they plot to Akill@ Joseph, place him in a pit and commission to have him kidnapped. However, the brothers do not really kill their brother. Rather, they take his multicolored tunic, dip it in blood and bring it to their father. If Rachel=s death was tragic, Joseph=s Adeath@ is the most tragic thing that could have happened to Jacob. Jacob responds to the news by Atearing his clothing, placing a sack across his loins and mourning for his son many days. All of the siblings attempted to comfort their father, but he would not be comforted. He said: I will go to my grave a mourner.@ It would seem that catastrophic tragedy has befallen the house of Jacob. However, the Aaudience@ is aware of certain factors which are not apparent to Jacob. Jacob really believes that his son is dead. At the same time that Jacob feels immense loss, Joseph is blessed with wealth and power in Egypt. As in all other Genesetic plays, positive experiences stem out of negative actions. The brothers had intended Joseph to be sold into slavery and he rises to become the Viceroy of the land. In fact, the Bible states that: AGod was with Joseph and he became a successful person in the house of the Egyptian.@
Act three opens with the meeting of Joseph and his brothers. They are accused of smuggling goods out of the country and are brought in front of the Viceroy. Since several years had passed and Joseph had matured, they did not recognize him. He asked them if they had any other brothers at home.
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