So it's been a delight. The class comprised Christians, one Muslim, probably some unbelievers, and, given that it's Brooklyn College, a surprising, and disappointing, absence of Jews. But my enemy in the class was not religious faith (or its doctrinaire absence) but rather bad hermeneutics derived from psychologically realist art. Students tried to find motives for Tobias's milquetoastery (was the problem his mother, perhaps?), wondered if Nebuchadnezzar was bipolar (given that his friendliness to Daniel alternates with froth-mouthed tyranny), suggested that Job suffered from PTSD, and proposed that maybe Paul wouldn't have been so ooged out by marriage if he had found a nice girl. I suppose my problem, unusual for a literature class, was the students' over-familiarity with the material combined with their certainty that these characters were all, in a way that Iago is not, real people. All I had to do, then, was to make it strange, and to argue, repeatedly, that whether or not these people had ever existed was beside the point for what these works were trying to do.
And to give a sense of what I thought they were doing, but also in a supreme act of self-indulgence, I present below the exam I just gave. I'm proud of my baby, the first exam for the first literature class I designed all by my lonesome. There's no other reason to share, except perhaps to receive a gift in return. Why not drop off some of your exams in the comments when it's safe to do so?
The Bible as Literature: Final Exam (25 points total + some extra credit opportunities). Open Book, Open Note. You have two hours.
Identification (6 points)
Answer six of the ten questions below. The first six correct answers are worth a point a piece. Extra Credit: each additional correct answer after the first 6 is worth a half point; thus 8 points in all are possible on this section. Your answers will generally be no longer than a sentence; often, a word or two will be sufficient to get the answer correct. Precision counts.
1) How does Sampson die?
2) I used the phrase “creedal history” several times during the semester (from dictionary.com, creedal: “any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination”). What did I mean? ALTERNATELY: define 'terrestrial eschatology.'
3) In what book does the odor of burning fish liver drive out a demon?
4) Judith's song of praise recalls the hymn of victory sung by which judge?
5) What does Joseph do with his father's body?
6) What does Rachel do with Laban's household gods?
7) Where was the statue dedicated to an unknown God?
8) Which disciple puts his hands in Jesus's wounds?
9) Who is “made to eat grass like oxen” and is “bathed with the dew of heaven”?
10) Why does Paul end up going to Rome?
Short Answers (9 points) and Short Essays (10 Points)
Please read the instructions carefully. From the ten questions below, you must answer a minimum of three questions as short answers of two or three sentences and two questions as long answers that will each make an argument over several paragraphs. Each of the short answers is worth three points and each of the long answers is worth five points. Extra Credit: You may also answer up to three additional questions as short answers. Extra credit answers are worth one point each.
1) 4 Maccabees concentrates on stories in which various Jews resist a Greek ruler's attempts to make them abandon the Jewish Law. We might think, then, that the book promotes Jewish over Greek thought. Yet the work justifies and explains the Jewish Law through categories of thought clearly borrowed from Greek philosophy (e.g., 4 Maccabees 1:34-35, “Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason. For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason”). Why do you suppose 4 Maccabees “packages” the Law in this manner?
2) In the first creation story in Genesis, God creates men and women at the same time, and only after he has created animals; in the second creation story, God creates man first, then animals, and then woman. Comment on the significance of the differences between these two stories.
3) Comment on two contrasting passages in Ecclesiastes, e.g., Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, / an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it” and Ecclesiastes 3:18, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.”
4) In Job 6:21, Job replies to his three accusers, “You see my calamity, and are afraid.” If Job is correct, why do you suppose the accusers are frightened? Here you will want to consider the theme of the Book of Job as a whole.
5) First Samuel 16-17 introduce David three times. The first time, God sends the priest Samuel out to anoint a new King, and he anoints David, a shepherd; the second time, David, now described primarily as a warrior and musician, comes to Saul to help ease his bad moods; the third time (1 Samuel 17:12) introduces David yet again, and in this strain of the story, he seems to meet Saul by helping provision his brothers, who serve in Saul's army. Comment on the differences and their effect on some aspect or aspects of the story of these chapters, for example, how we understand the relationship between David and Saul.
6) The Book of Esther gives Esther a strong male associate, her uncle Mordecai, who warns her about Haman's threat against the Jews and who convinces her to risk her life by speaking to her husband. Judith, which is a revision of the Esther story, provides Uzziah, a figure who might have been a strong advisor like Mordecai. Instead, Judith dominates the story in her words, wisdom, and action. Why do you suppose Judith differs in this way from Esther?
7) In the Christian Bible, Ruth follows the Book of Judges; in the Jewish Bible, Ruth follows the Song of Solomon. What effect(s) does/do the different placement of the book have on its meaning?
8) Comment on the differing roles given to Mary and Joseph in each of the synoptic gospels: in Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “Son of Mary” and Joseph never appears; in Luke, Mary and other women dominate the narrative of the opening chapters; and in Matthew, Joseph is the dominant figure (e.g., in 2:13, an angel appears to Joseph to warn him to take the family to Egypt).
9) Compare the genealogy of opening of Matthew to the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 and comment on the significance of their differences.
10) Who do you suppose better honors the angels, Abraham or Lot? Make an argument to support your case.