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....


Anonymous said...

We are always being given a framework for the reading of the Bible. Historical artifact--thank goodness all that begetting is preserved on something other than cuneiform pottery! Bible as literature--look at the broad sweep of "The Greatest Story Ever Told." But Bible as LITERAL? Come. On. Does anyone mistake literature for literal? If so, then whence poststructuralism? Does anyone mistake history for anything other than the victors doctoring the spin from surviving artifact that serve their immediate agendas? Hard to read the Bible as literal. In fact, worthless as an instructive or even interestingly suggestive document. Read literally, all that stands out is the hypocrisy. Or, in the sexual deviations and litigable possessiveness of women: "Who's Yer Daddy?"

The only way to read any of this is archetypally, as we read Greek / Roman or other myths today. Taken in that form, we can begin to see the series of inversions to which all humans are subject. Think you're pious? Stand on it too long, celebrate it, and you'll become the obvious inversion of piety, perhaps begetting Moabites with your daughter. The instruction that I take from Genesis, the creation chapter after all, is that the true SIN is to remain unchanged, to hoard.

Isn't every king in romance literature a good king only until he tries to fight change, perhaps fire some justices and load the benches with allies? (Okay, maybe it happens waaay before then, but trying to keep power is always evil). Why else would all the hoarders of treasure in caves be Gollums and Dragons? Hoarding, power, possessiveness are counterprodutive to the health of people or the world. And I would wager it's the same set of Americans who seem to have trouble equating Halliburton's Iraq war carpetbaggery and move to Dubai with treason who also have trouble figuring out the nuanced instruction of the Bible. On the face of it, this portion of Genesis might appear to tell us that killing sodomites is righteous on the same scale as pimping your wife and drunken incestuous escapades.

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Some thoughts...

1. Maybe I'm not quite understanding, but is Felipe proposing that Fundamentalists are the first sect to see the Bible as infallible truth? What about the Puritans, early Lutherans, or just some dimbulb reading it? Again, perhaps I'm missing something, but why would there need to be a testable hypotheses for someone to take every world as truth?

2. Nice title: "Good Thing All of the Sexual Deviants Have Been Wiped Out". Do people really use the story of Sodom as proof that homosexuality is wrong and not bat an eyebrow at 2 whole lines of Israelites being based on drnken incest?

3. Abram is a pimp! She's your wife man!!

michael5000 said...


Felipe does seem to be saying that. I had the same question, and have no idea what the answer is. I think one of you gentle readers need to look into the history of religious fundamentalism and report back. I'd do it, but I'm in the middle of this big project right now....