Ancient Israel 2021: Paper No. 1
Due: Wednesday, October 6, in class (HARD COPY)
The goal of the first paper is to get you thinking for yourselves about primary evidence, the actual material from the ancient world, without resorting to anyone else’s opinion, well-informed or otherwise. I do not want you to look for or cite ANY sources. DO NOT LOOK FOR HELP ON THE INTERNET. Instead, you must read carefully, make interpretive observations in response to these instructions, and develop an argument solely from the primary evidence of the text.
With our focus on primary evidence, your goal here is to develop an original, fresh interpretation of your own by rigorous interaction with the material itself, always maintaining a dialogue between apt observation and intelligent interrogation with the right questions. In the past, I have presented both biblical and non-biblical writing related to a shared question. This year, in search of a fresh project with broad interest, I have chosen only a single biblical text, which makes more urgent the need to treat it with great sensitivity and caution. The text is Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. It is not an eye-witness report but rather a reflection on life by evoking a time unimaginably distant from the writer and audience, when the people of Judah were embodied in a single ancestor by that name. The paper demands a critical investigation of this source to see what it may tell us about the setting of that writer and that audience, understood especially as assumed in the text. Do not bring anything to this analysis except what can be argued from this one biblical text as evidence – a method that will level differences in familiarity with the Bible or Genesis.
For this course, it is essential to combine originality with analytical precision. The originality comes with the insight of your observations, seeing what others may not and why what you see matters to larger questions; and these interpretive questions are equally matters of creativity, considering what is illuminating and important. The analytical precision means gathering evidence systematically, considering every piece of information that could have a bearing on the questions at hand; the questions themselves must be cast in terms that suit the material and the problem; and you must build a convincing argument for what you have discovered and concluded by addressing every element that has a bearing on your interpretation. You cannot leave logical loose ends and still be convincing.
Your specific task is to explain how the ancient audience is meant to understand Tamar as a key player in shaping the identity of the Judah people, with particular attention to her role as a woman.
Although everyone prepares a paper differently, your research should incorporate the following elements.
1. Consider the setting in Genesis, before Israel was a people in its own land, and when it is presented as a family of brothers under one father Jacob. The Judah and Tamar story is embedded in the middle of the Joseph story that starts in ch.37, without evident connection to what immediately precedes or follows. Accepting that Judah is a son of Jacob (Gen 29:34-35), read ch.38 on its own. What elements of the story reflect the interest in origins? Keep in mind that this text is about the people of Judah as a whole. What is it saying in these terms?
2. Think about the structure of the Genesis 38 text: try outlining it. What are the large units that make up its main parts? What is the most effective way of defining these, to yield the most insight about the story’s impact? Every part of the story matters, even if some strike you more strongly. There is a reason for including every detail.
3. Who are the main characters in Genesis 38, and why is each one important? Somehow the whole thing revolves around Judah and Tamar, one identified with a people known to the author and audience, the other a woman with no significance beyond this text. Get a sense of these two in relation to each other and to the minor players.
4. Work systematically through every piece of evidence for Tamar. What are the basic facts (in textual terms) about her identity, what she does, how she is portrayed? How was the audience meant to view her in broader terms? She does something clearly outside of accepted behavior and yet evades punishment. How do you evaluate the interplay of conventional expectation and the ability to break from convention? Build a picture of Tamar’s personality. Is she meant as a model? Is she to be admired?
5. Do you understand the odd marriage expectations at the start? Working only from this text, construct your own definition of the envisioned marriage rules. The story then uses this to place Judah and Tamar in a certain light. Why have the story go through this twisted plot? There is no comparable tale in the Bible!
6. So far as this all comes around to Judah, whose name is central to the audience’s own setting, how do you evaluate every aspect of what he does and says? In the end, do you think this text was written by a member of the people of Judah? (It could have come from the rival people of Israel, the other kingdom.) Whoever wrote the story, it casts not just the man but the people of Judah in a certain light: is it sympathetic?
7. Think about the social world on view throughout. What do you learn about families and about women in particular? Be careful. Define both the structures within which women live and the way Tamar works within those structures. Does the story offer explicit social expectations or simply assume them? Look for specific evidence.
Writing the paper
The paper is to be 6 PAGES LONG, double spaced, to be handed in as hard copy. You should have no bibliography, since your only source is the text of Genesis 38. If we can tell you are using any outside source, we will hold it against you.
The paper should be organized to explain Tamar’s centrality to Genesis 38 in two dimensions: as the foil for Judah, the ancestor of the people known to the audience, and perhaps the audience’s own primary identity; and as a woman who operates at the margins of accepted female behavior and yet is not condemned. You should work through all the research tasks listed above, but the paper itself should follow your own most important conclusions. For every main point, make sure to present specific evidence for your ideas – evidence from the text. It is important that you account for both elements of the story: the portrayal of Judah as the name known to all as part of current identities; and the weight of Tamar as a character known only to this one tale and yet shaping what is thought of the ancestor Judah by who she is and what she does as a woman.
Good papers can be measured by more than one virtue, and there is no grading template for necessary elements. The following are indications of quality:
a) Demonstration of careful reading and observation, noticing details that are not obvious and connecting them to the large questions raised by the project.
b) Proposal of insightful conclusions supported by a combination of specific evidence and precise reasoning. Cite your evidence.
c) Sensitivity to the text as a text, accounting for every part of it in your conclusions about Judah and Tamar; there should not be major gaps, even as your emphasis will depend on your interpretation of the material.
d) Awareness of the difference between the issues faced by the writer and the audience and the setting portrayed in a time when the whole people were represented by a single ancestor.
e) Clarity of writing, both in terms of organization and sentence by sentence.
When citing biblical texts as evidence, use the following format:
Genesis 38 (the whole chapter)
Gen 38:1-3 (verses 1-3)
Gen 38:1 (verse 1)
vv 1-3 (verses 1-3)
v 1 (verse 1)
When mentioning the book as a whole, write out the name “Genesis.”
Ancient Israel 2021: Paper No. 1 Due: Wednesday, October 6, in class (HARD COPY)
Ancient Israel 2021: Paper No. 1
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