Discussion Questions for Robert Alter's Genesis: Translation and Commentary
1. What purpose/function do “creation” or “origin” stories serve in a given culture? (For this question, you might be wise to consider that “creation” and “origin” stories do not merely occur in sacred texts, but rather that many different types of texts—for example, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species or even Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality—offer up “origin” stories.)
2. One critic has noted that within Christianity, the book of Genesis has been interpreted “as the prefiguration of certain cardinal Christian beliefs” (“Book of Genesis” @ Wikipedia). What are some of those “cardinal Christian beliefs” that are recorded in and emphasized through the Book of Genesis? And what do such beliefs reveal about the nature, role, and extent of “faith” in the Judeo-Christian tradition?
3. What do you make of the preoccupation with procreation, “seed,” and lineage throughout the Genesis narratives? What does this preoccupation reveal about Christianity?
4. How are readers encouraged to view the relationship between the nation-state and religion in the book of Genesis? In what ways is the view of the relationship between nation and religion similar to and different from this view in The Handmaid’s Tale? And/or the view of the relationship between nation and religion in Reagan’s America?
5. Much is made in the book of Genesis of the fear that believers should have for God. What exactly is “fear” in the Biblical sense? And what role does it play within “faith”? Fear, too, occupies an important role in Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead. In what ways is “fear” used in both similar and different ways in Biblical narrative and Atwood’s novel? What point do you think Atwood might be making by drawing these lines of relation in how “fear” functions?
6. Chapter 16 (as well as later chapters) of the book of Genesis offers, for some of Margaret Atwood’s characters, “justification” for the Republic of Gilead and the establishment of a system of handmaids for barren women. In what ways does the Republic of Gilead represent an “accurate” interpretation of Scripture? A mis-interpretation of Scripture? (Or, perhaps a more appropriate question is what type of “interpretation” to the Biblical story is taken in Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead? And what does that approach reveal about, for example, totalitarian governments?) What do you think Atwood is saying about Scripture? About faith? And about the role of women within either or both?
7. In Chapter 18 of the book of Genesis, God asks Abraham, “Is anything beyond the Lord?” (79)—a statement that, in some important ways, seems to sum up the image of God that we are being asked to accept and the relationship between God and true believers. Explain the meaning and significance of this line in relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
8. Traditionally, literature and sacred texts are cast as in some ways diametrically opposed genres of writing. First, consider the generic parameters of each type of text (making perhaps specific references to The Handmaid’s Tale as literature and the Alter translation of Genesis as sacred text). Then, consider the relationships between literature and sacred texts. In what ways are the two similar? In what ways are they different?
9. In what ways does (Does?) the act/process of translation impact the meaning, the “history,” and/or the “status” of sacred texts? In what ways does (Does?) the act/process of translation impact faith?
10. What is faith? In what ways is (Is?) “faith” a great idea? In what ways does (Does?) faith offer a useful frame through which to view ourselves, the worlds in which we exist, the people to whom we relate, etc.? In what ways is (Is?) faith a way of organizing/producing knowledge? An epistemology (i.e., a theory regarding how we know what we know)? An ideology (i.e., a worldview)?
11. What similarities (in interpretation, in methodology, in attitude, etc.) do you see among Collins’ view of Reagan’s America, Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future, and Alter’s translation/interpretation of the book of Genesis? In other words, in what ways do (Do?) these three texts speak to one another?