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.


Jennifer said...


I never realized that the Bible (Genesis, at least) should be classified as one of the great comic literary works until I had your translation and commentary. I think if you ever get tired of coordinating volunteers, you can take this on the road. You'd be a big hit!

Re: the Isaac story--
there's a Xena episode where it's not really God talking to the father figure but a passed-over (no pun intended; you haven't got there yet) and pissed off son with some good special effects who gives the directions to kill the Isaac character.

I know a number of people who set out to read the entire Bible when they were kids and who gave up when they hit that story. (That's where Brian gave up when trying to read Rafe a kid's Bible once--apparently, explaining to your son why Abraham was just doing what he was supposed to when he wanted to kill his boy is one of the tougher sells in life.)

And, I suppose you know, re: Noah & his boys (this goes back a ways) that there's an exegetical tradition of some standing that the kid didn't just SEE his father naked but sexually assaulted him. Apparently "seeing somebody naked" was a euphemism for something a little more explicit.

michael5000 said...

@Jennifer -- The story of Brian and Rafe is a great illustration of the problem that people have with Abraham and Isaac. I expect a lot of parents have called a Bible-study project to an early halt at that point. Knowing the principles in this particular instance, it kind of choked me up for some reason.