Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gen 25:12 - 30 -- Patriarchal Attitudes


After Abraham, the action in Genesis follows his son Isaac only very briefly before moving on to his grandson, Jacob. Isaac's role seems mostly to be a prop in other people's stories. At the beginning of his life, he is the beloved son that Abraham almost, but not quite, has to kill. At the end of his life, he is going to be deceived by his slippery son. The romantic journey in search of his wife is conducted, as we saw last week, not by him but by his nameless servant.

Everything else about Isaac is covered in Genesis 26, and it is the now recognizable business-as-usual for a local leader in this time and place. Neighbors are befriended or antagonized, stakes are pulled up and moved when the neighborhood gets unfriendly, and an occasional conversation is held with God in which he promises anew that he intends for this family to become very large indeed, and to hold title to truly impressive land tracts. There are also some interesting squabbles over wells that remind us that all of this is taking place in a desert, where water rights are critical.

And, not surprisingly, there is an episode where Isaac makes Rebekah, his wife, claim to be his sister. In this case, however, she does not get farmed out to the local king, and in fact they eventually get found out due to an indiscreet Public Display of Affection. So in his marriage, as in other aspects of his life, Isaac seems perhaps a little happier than his dad or his son. Maybe being the obscure one isn't so bad.

I haven't been able to find a good image of Isaac where he isn't either a boy trussed up for slaughter, which I've already used, or an old man about to be deceived on his deathbed, which I'm about to use. So, here's a picture of the pioneering science fiction author Isaac Asimov.


Jacob is another major Old Testament character who gives me issues. Are we expected to think well of these guys? Are they supposed to be moral exemplars? Because Jacob is definitely not the kind of guy you would want to buy a car from. He is tricky and deceitful, pulling off three major scams during the section of his life covered by this week's reading.

The first is the famous "birthright for a mess of pottage" episode. Jacob's twin brother Esau, who is elder by a few seconds, comes home from a long hike in the bush. He is extremely hungry -- he says he is about to die (25:32) -- and asks if he can share the lentil stew that Jacob is making. Jacob makes a deal: he'll share his lunch, on the condition that Esau give up his birthright. Esau gives in, and there is a suggestion that he is the bad guy of the story, a fool who has shown contempt for his station in life. We are perhaps supposed to admire Jacob's shrewdness, but it's tough for a naive reader like myself not to think badly on a man who won't lift his finger to feed his hungry brother without exacting an enormous price.

The years pass. As Isaac is on his deathbed, Jacob takes the opportunity to punk Esau again. (He's egged on by his mom, who is scandalized that Esau married a local girl instead hooking up with one of his first cousins like a respectible person). He impersonates his brother before their dying father, who is tricked and bestows his blessing on the wrong son. Once given, this kind of blessing apparently just can't be taken back, and even though Isaac and Esau figure out Jacob's duplicity almost immediately there is nothing to be done for it. Jacob ends up having stolen not only Esau's birthright, but his destiny as well. He'll get riches, nations, and people bowing down to him, while Esau only gets to live by the sword and serve [his] brother. (27:40)

In the third episode, Jacob moves on to swindle his father-in-law, Laban. Having arranged that he will be given all of the striped or mottled lifestock in Laban's herds, he makes charms out of tree limbs, stripping away bark so that they look striped and mottled. He has the best of the beasts mate in the presence of these charms, and their offspring come out striped and mottled. Eventually, he ends up walking away with all of Laban's best animals. I'm not sure if I could make this trick work, myself. Nor does it make me feel like Jacob is a patriarch I'd want to do much business with.

Good Old-Fashioned Family Values

To be fair, Jacob has a legitimate grudge against Laban, who is not only his father-in-law but also his father-in-law. And, of course, his uncle. Let me explain. Rather than marry outside of the family like his uncouth brother, Jacob goes off to seek a bride at the compound of uncle (great uncle, really) Laban. There, he falls in love with the lovely in form (29:17) Rachel, and agrees to put in seven years of labor in exchange for her hand in marriage. But after seven years, Laban pulls a bait-and-switch of his own and offers the near-sighted (and apparently less lovely in form) Leah, Rachel's big sister. "If you take this one and put in another seven years, though, you can have them both" offers Laban, so in the fullness of time Jacob has both of the two sisters as wives.

Family life in Jacob's household has its share of complications. Jacob doesn't like Leah, but she gets pregnant first. "Surely my husband will love me now," she says when her first son is born(29:32), but like many an unhappy young mother soon finds out otherwise. Nevertheless, she bears him three more sons, giving each of them names that are basically Hebrew puns for "I wish my husband thought of me as more than a contemptable vessel for his progeny."

Meanwhile, Rachel has not produced any bundles of joy and is getting jealous. She has an idea: "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family." (30:3) So, Jacob goes along with this, and another son (Dan) is born. And Jacob goes along with this again, and another son is born. Rachel (unlike her great-aunt Sarah in similar circumstances) is delighted, and thumbs her nose gleefully at her big sister. Bilhah's feelings about the arrangement are not recorded.

Now it's Leah's turn to be jealous, so she thrusts HER maidservant at Jacob with a knowing look, and two more sons are cranked out.

Then, Leah's son brings her some mandrakes. Rachel wants some of them.

15 But [Leah] said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" "Very well," Rachel said, "he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes."
16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night.
Another son results. You really have to feel for poor, deluded, squinty Leah. This time, she says, my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons. (30:20) Yeah, sure he will.

Eventually, even Rachel manages to produce a son, at which point by my count the household consists of one man, two wives, two very special handmaids, eleven sons, and a daughter.

Discussion questions:
  • Who all is covered by Jacob's work-based health plan? What if he lives in Masschusetts?
  • Your maid has, according to your instructions, borne two children by your husband. What is an appropriate tip?
  • If your partner traded your sexual services for some mandrake plants, would this have any impact on your self esteem? Explain.
  • When inviting this family to a formal occasion, should you provide seating for 3 adults plus children, or 5 adults plus children?

Heaven.... I'm in Heaven....

One last detail. At Genesis 28:12, Jacob has a vision of heaven -- in fact, a stairway to heaven. It is described as a habitation of God and angels. However, there is no mention of it being a place of the afterlife, which means that 30 chapters into the Bible, there has still been no mention of the idea of life after death.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gen 22- 25:11 -- Finishing Up With Abraham

Abraham is definitely the star of the show so far. By the time we finish up tonight, the chapters of Genesis thus far will be apportioned like so:

Creation: 2 chapters
Fall of Man: 3 chapters
Noah and the Flood: 4 chapters
Begetting: 2 chapters
Abraham: 13 chapters!
So, counting by sheer real estate on the page, tonight we're looking at the golden years of the man who is 6 1/2 times more important than creation! We'll proceed chapter by chapter, starting with what many people think of as one of the most disturbing episodes in the Bible.

Gen. 22: Abraham and Isaac

Abraham is apparently just going about his daily business when God gets his attention and gives him some tough instructions: Take your son, your only son, Isaac, who you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about (2). So Abraham prepares to do just that, hiking three days with his boy to the designated spot. Isaac is a perceptive lad, and asks a question that I imagine is one of the first recorded instances of dramatic irony: "The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (7) Which is a great line, because the "lamb" is..... ah, never mind. It's not funny if I have to explain it.

Abraham trusses up Isaac and puts him on the alter, and actually picks up the knife to kill him before God tells him to hold up: Do not lay a hand on the boy.... Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. (12) At this point, they notice an unfortunate ram has stumbled upon the scene, and it becomes the replacement sacrifice animal as Isaac rubs his wrists, laughs nervously, and says "great joke, Dad, you really had me going."

The point of this story is of course to illustrate Abraham's total devotion to God, and the virtue of his willingness to sacrifice the one thing in life most dear to him in subjegation to God. It is, indeed, one of the first episodes in the Bible with a clear moral lesson to it, which is: Do Like Abraham! Whatever God Says, Do It Immediately and With No Questions.

There are two things that make this story so uncomfortable to We Moderns, I think, and the first one is of course that for God to command someone to kill their child just seems pretty messed up. Really, really messed up, in fact. Like, comprehensively messed up. This may be a cultural thing in part; we've been long blessed with an extremely low infant mortality rate, and we are likely as protective of children as any society anywhere, ever. But still.

Secondly, the idea of testing someone without their knowledge seems awfully disempowering and passive-aggressive (God would never have got this one by the Human Subjects Committee). OK, he's God, so he doesn't have to be polite. But there's a certain arbitrary nature to the test that is disturbing. Abraham wins the day by exhibiting the virtue of complete obediance to God. But, you can easily imagine an alternative story where Abraham exhibits the virtue of dedication to family and posterity by refusing to sacrifice Isaac, and God saying "Yep, you were right to refuse, for no man who murders his offspring is fit to live." In a sense, Abraham succeeds by guessing correctly what God really wants him to do, which is not an easy trick given that God is asking him to perform an abomination. And that -- the sense that Abraham really just makes a lucky guess -- kind of undercuts the moral message of the episode. But maybe that's just me.

Gen. 23: Let's Buy a Cave!

From one of the most emotionally fraught of the Bible stories, we move on to one of the most obscure. Sarah dies at 127, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. (2)

After this florid display of emotion, which I have reprinted in its entirety, we get to the important stuff: how to acquire the rights to a good place to bury her? Abraham talks to the Hittites, and they don't think there will be a problem finding a good spot for sale. Abraham asks them if they'll talk to a local strongman, Ephron, about it. They say "sure, no problem." Then, Abraham goes to town and meets Ephron, who says "you know what, I'll just give you the spot you want." "No no no," says Abraham, "I do want that spot, but I want to pay for it." And Ephron is all, like, "OK, if that makes you feel better, how about four hundred shekels?" And Abraham is, like, "that sounds good."

This story goes on and on, occupying as much text as the sacrifice of Isaac (or a good three times as much text as the Tower of Babel), and you can not but wonder why we need to know this much about Abraham's real estate hagglings. From the historical perspective, one notes that the story is quite specific about the fact that the land was legally transferred. The parcel, it's noted very preciselyin both verses 17-18 and then again in verse 20, "was deeded to Abraham." In terms of a religious or moral lesson, however, I'm hard pressed to take anything from this except perhaps the benefits of pre-need funeral planning.

Genesis 24: Romance Amongst the Ancients

Back to a coherent story line for the longest book of the Bible so far, in which we go on a long journey with Abraham's most senior and trusted servant. He is called "the servant," and is charged by Abraham with finding a wife for Isaac. But, the local girls in Canaan are right out. What Abraham wants is for Isaac to marry a nice girl from among his cousins back in Nahor. [Involuntary modern interjection: Icky! We are glad to note, though, that those nice second cousins, the daughters of Lot, aren't ever nominated as possibilities.]

The servant takes the long trip to Nahor, parks by the village well, and tells God that he'll regard the first girl to offer water to his camels as The One for Isaac. Happily, the first girl along offers water to the camels, and it turns out that she is very desirable bride material indeed, being Rebekah, another of Isaac's second cousins. The servant goes to her parent's home, and, in a passage which I have to say leaves a bit to be desired literarily, tells them about his mission, trip, and encounter with Rebekah in almost the exact language in which the events themselves were originally described. Is there an echo in here?

The parents, desparate perhaps to shut their long-winded visitor up, say "she can leave in ten days!" but the servant says, "nope, gotta leave now," and since Rebekah is a real sport about it -- I will go (58), she says, in a nicely understated way -- they send her off with their blessing.
After the long trip back to Canaan, they meet Isaac. Then the servant told Isaac all he had done (66), but we are fortunately spared yet another blow-by-blow. Isaac and Rebekah move into Sarah's old tent -- she became his wife, and he loved her. (67) So that's how it worked, apparently, before online dating and all that.

Gen 25: The Death of Abraham

Abraham eventually lives until 175 years until, as the King James version puts it, he gave up the ghost. (8) He is buried with Sarah, which has the advantage of not requiring another round of real estate wrangling. We're not told, though, how his second wife felt about it. The second wife is Keturah, whose name appears only twice and in conjunction with the six sons she bore Abraham and their various illustrious decendants. Whether or not she ever had to go through the "tell them you're my sister!" routine is not mentioned either. In any event, it seems like she gets very short shrift indeed next to Sarah, which is why I encourage any of you reading who might have a daughter on the way to consider naming her "Keturah." It's pretty enough, and way underused.

Thanks for reading, my friends. See you next week.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Gen: 17 - 21: More Fun With Abraham

I've been listening to a series of lectures on the history of human ideas by a surprisingly British bloke named Felipe Fernández-Armesto. According to Dr. F-A, religious fundamentalism is a 20th-Century idea, originating in the theology department of Princeton University in the 1910s as a means of putting religion on a scientific basis. The reasoning seems to be that if you were going to have testable theological hypotheses, you needed to have an objective point to start from, and declaring scripture as infallible was a means of rendering it objective. Everything else that has happened with Christian fundamentalism since, Dr. F-A implies, is the result of that idea escaping the lab.

Now, that idea is pretty darn interesting in its own right, but it also casts an interesting light on the current project. In a way, what I've been trying to do here is think like a fundamentalist. What if the Bible IS the infalable truth, every last word of it? What does that imply about God, the world, and the fine art of being human?
Or, perhaps, what does it say about fundamentalists that they are willing to hitch their wagon to the idea that the Bible is the infalable truth, every last word of it? My feeling this far, I'd have to admit, is that you would be worshipping a God of very inconsistent behavior, and who was far from having the best interests of humanity at heart. Moreover, you would be basing your faith essentially on a scrapbook, a text that provides remarkably little in the way of narrative or practical guidance.

I'm embarassed to admit this much arrogance, but here goes: when I hear someone profess the literal truth of the Bible, I always think to myself, "fibber!" There is just too much of the Bible that is random, incoherent, mean-spirited, and internally inconsistent, not even to mention inconsistent with the conservative Christian lifestyle as it is usually practiced, for anyone NOT to take it with a least a few grains of salt. Against this rather bland idea, fundamentalists have always manifested a faith-of-our-fathers mystique, the tacit notion that they are simply humble believers in the footsteps of countless generations of humble believers before them. It is an interesting turning of the tables to contemplate that perhaps those countless generations, at least in the few hundred years when literate laypeople had access to scripture, actually regarded the Bible with a good deal of reverence but also with a dash of salt to taste.

Genesis 17

After the covenant-fest of last week's reading, it shouldn't have surprised me that Genesis 17 is all about another covenent. This one is, you might say, the unkindest covenent of all -- circumcision. God changes Abram's name to Abraham (a-ha!), gives him rights to the land of Canaan, and sets him up as the head of a line of monarchs. In return, every male in his household or in the household of his descendents needs to undergo circumcision. Born into the family, or bought as a slave -- this, it is spelled out, doesn't matter. Everybody gets circumcised. Why? it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (17:11) Why that and not, say, a distinctive haircut? Not addressed.

Let's take a quick look at part of that covenant:

7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.
Next to this, in the handwriting of my younger self, is written "polytheism?" And I agree with the younger me that God's wording here does not seem that of an infinite, universal, and singular god. To say "I am going to be the God of you and your ancestors" raises the question of whether the speaker missed the memo about monotheism. Unless other peoples had other gods, why would it make sense to specify "I going to be YOUR god"? But perhaps I am splitting hairs. Let's move on.

Abraham can sire a line of kings because Sarai, now renamed Sarah, is going to bear him a son at age 90. Ishmael, his son by Sarah's maid, doesn't count, but Abraham persuades God to let him be the father of nations, too.

Sodom and Gomorrah

We are told only vaguely that Sodom and Gomorrah are really nasty places, but indeed the inhabitants don't come across as people you'd want to hang out with. Two angels having dropped in on Lot, Abraham's nephew who lived in town, a ruckus ensues:

4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them."
Lot knows how to treat a guest, but his problem-solving is a little unsettling for the modern reader.

6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof."
Subsequently, you will remember, the cities of the plain and all who live in them are destroyed by a rain of burning sulfer. You will also recall the story of Lot's wife, who made the mistake of looking back at the destruction. This turns out to be another of the hypercompressed Old Testament tales. I remember it from Sunday school as a matter of someone who had been warned multiple times in no uncertain terms against looking back wrestling with their faith in God, failing in the spirit, and giving into temptation. There was a definite message, in this telling, that Lot's wife pretty much deserved to be a piller of salt, since she just wasn't willing to listen to God's instructions.

Well, maybe. But here are the relevant lines, in full. At 19:17, one of the angels says "Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" Two paragraphs of negotiation about where the family should flee to follow. Then, the destruction of the cities, and the stark sentence: 26 But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. So, any speculation about WHY Lot's wife got the treatment, or whether she deserved it, is really very much on thin ice. It certainly doesn't seem like she got a terribly detailed warning.

Good Thing All of the Sexual Deviants Have Been Wiped Out

So it's just Lot and his two daughters, refugees from Sodom living in a cave in the hills.

31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let's get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father." 33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night I lay with my father. Let's get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so we can preserve our family line through our father." 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Is it just me, or does this little story make Ham's treatment by Noah seem a little excessive? Oh, incidentally, a footnote indicates that Moab "sounds like the Hebrew for 'from father'." Isn't that a nice family touch?

In Genesis 20, meanwhile -- Abraham, ever the pragmatist, lets another king hook up with poor Sarah under the pretext that she's his sister. Despite the fact that she is 90 years old at this point, darned if the gambit doesn't work again, and Abraham comes out of the bargain with sheep, cattle, male slaves, female slaves, plus a thousand shekels of silver (roughly $5200 at the current market rate for silver, but keep in mind that the cost of living was much lower and there was no cable bill).

It is maybe belaboring the obvious to point out that the Bible is pretty baffling as a guide to moral behavior in these passages. The vague nastiness of Sodom and Gommorah are obviously frowned on very severely indeed -- but, our heroes, who are apparently supposed to be models of righteousness, are involved in some pretty explicit nastiness of their own. What's the take-home lesson supposed to be here?

Until next week....

Monday, March 05, 2007

Gen 12-16: I Assume this Abram Guy is "Abraham."

When I left off at the end of Genesis 11 last week, I didn't realize I was at a major turning point. The next heading was "The Call of Abram" -- I'm assuming that "Abram" is the same name as "Abraham" -- and I assumed that the narrative would continue in the hyper-compressed fashion that I've described in the last few entries.

In fact, there's an abrupt change as soon as Abram is on stage. The text opens up, and we start to get a considerable amount of detail, some supporting characters, and a coherent flow of events. Many of the events, mind you, seem pretty arbitrary to modern ears -- e.g. why is there all of a sudden a war between the four kings and the five kings in 14:8 to 14:12? Don't you usually need a pretext for a war? [space here for your cynical comments.]

On the other hand, sometimes you can get a glimpse of real live humanity, thinking the same way that you might, and that is kind of new and exciting. In 13:5 to 13:13, Abraham and his brother Lot decide to go their separate ways, because their respective entourages are getting too big and the herdsmen are quarreling. And you think: "yeah! they were worried about overgrazing, and realized that together they were a more concentrated grazing enterprise than the land could support." Or, after Abram gets his wife Sarai's maid pregnant, Sarai is pretty pissed at the maid, even though the whole thing was her own idea. And you think, "yeah, that rings true. She'd still be pissed."

These five chapters follow Abram for years of wanderings, before God gives Abraham and his descendents all of the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates. (15:18) [Note to Israeli nationalists: Think Bigger.] This is actually the third and grandest of three land-granting covenants God makes with Abram in this section [the historical interpreter of the Bible on my left shoulder keeps saying, "man, three covenants! They REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to get their claim to the land established]. It is also the most gruesome, capped by an apparition of a floating firepot and torch that glides between chunks of a cow, a goat, and a sheep that Abram had earlier killed, cut in half, and laid out in a symetrical pattern. [Note to wedding planners: this adds a nice touch of solemnity to any ceremony.]

The family values of Abram are not entirely squeaky-clean by modern standards. In addition to the business with the maid, which if I remember right will become important later, Sarai also has this episode to think back on as she reminisces about married life:

12:10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."

14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.

This largesse -- let us be frank: the loot he gleaned from pimping his wife to the pharoah -- seems to be the basis of Abram's rise as a promenent man in political and economic life, if I'm reading this and subsequent verses right. So, when Sarai flashes some fairly serious 'tude in Gen. 16, I am disinclined to judge her harshly.

Much happens. There's a long journey, the episode in Egypt, a return journey, the split with Lot, a war, a mission to rescue Lot after he gets kidnapped, some diplomatic talks with other local kings, three big covenants, and the goings-on with the maid -- there is quite a bit going on in these five chapters. But, at the rate we've been charging through the Great Bible Storys up to this point, I thought we were going to have the sacrifice of Issac in Genesis 12 and be on to the next item by Genesis 13. Abram is clearly an important figure to merit this much text; I confess I hadn't realized just HOW important he is. I guess its a symptom of my irredeemable moderness that I wish I could find him a little more likeable.

Until next week, my friends.