Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gen 46 - 50: The End of the Beginning

And we come to the end of the book of Genesis. When I started this project, in July, I estimated that the project as a whole would take "at least a year." And I was right! It will definitely take at least a year!

When I tell people about this project, they often suggest -- in the cheerful, easygoing way that one suggests to someone training for a marathon that they might as well do an ultramarathon -- that I should "do the Koran." Well, the thought has crossed my mind. But for crying out loud, people! Let's make sure I'm going to live that long first!

In terms of page count, I am now 4.4% of the way into the Bible. That took me, lessee, 8 1/2 months. So, at this pace, we're looking at 16 years and change (although considerably less if I can avoid having more lamentable slumps like the one this winter.)

The End of Jacob & the End of Joseph

But I suppose that before I start dancing in the end zone, I ought to actually comment on this week's reading. The text continues in the relatively sprawling storytelling vein that I talked about last week, getting even a little maudlin in a pair of patriarch-blessing-his-sons-from-his-deathbed scenes. I will condense.

Gen 47: The entire household of Jacob -- 66 direct descendents, plus spouses, servants, hangers-on, and livestock, trundle down to the famous "land of Goshen," a chunk of pastureland in Egypt that Joseph secures for them through his buddy, the Pharaoh.

Meanwhile, Joseph continues managing Egypt's food supply in the face of ongoing famine. As the people run out of money, he trades food for their livestock. When they run out of livestock, he trades food for their land. Then, he trades food for their servitude, specifically their agreement to provide Pharaoh with 20% of their crops in perpetuity. Is he saving the people of Egypt by finding ways to keep food distribution going in a time of tremendous hardship? Or is he the most despicable kind of profiteer, taking advantage of a food crisis to strip a starving and terrified nation of its property and freedom? The people of Egypt are said to lean towards the first interpretation: "You have saved our lives," they said. "May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh." (25)

[supplementary observation: "Pharaoh" is a really difficult word to spell.]

Gen 48: Joseph brings his boys, Manasseh and Ephraim, to Jacob's deathbed. Jacob gives Ephraim the better blessing, even though Manasseh was born first. Joseph gets a little huffy about this, which is kind of unsporting from a man who has lorded it over his 10 older brothers all his life. Since Jacob, too, was a younger brother -- remember his various tricks on his own big brother, Esau, back in the day -- this is the third generation in a row in which the primary inheritance goes to the "wrong" son.

Gen 49: All twelve of Jacob's sons gather around his deathbed, and he gives them all individual blessings that reflect their personalities or predict their futures. They are an interesting set of blessings. A few seem a lot more like curses, for one thing. You don't want your dad's final message to you to be:
5 "Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence.
6 Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
7 Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.
Many are highly specific, some to the point of being surreal:
11 [Judah] will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.
That seems like a passage that would mean something really specific to the original audience, but it's kind of lost on us.

Dying, Jacob says that he wants to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, in the cave originally bought as Sarah's tomb back in Genesis 23. Remember how, in that chapter, there seemed to be a real determination to underscore as often as possible that the cave was purchased fair and square? Well, lest we forget, Jacob -- on his deathbed in Egypt -- revisits the point with his final recorded words: "the field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites." (32)

Gen 50: And in Genesis 50, Joseph lives happily ever after. He lives to 110, and gets to play with his great-great grandchildren. But Genesis ends with some foreshadowing, as Joseph reminds the family that God has promised them a large chunk of real estate up to the northeast. God will lead you back there soon, he says.


So there you have it. Genesis took us through the creation and the flood, and traced the adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The level of detail continued to increase as the chapter went on, so that we are told (for instance) far more about Joseph's relationship with his brothers than we are about God's creation of the Earth.

After the Flood, God is in fact surprisingly absent from the text, for the most part just checking in periodically to reaffirm his commitment to bless this odd and unruly family. Except for this, he is only present to occasionally dispatch those whose behavior he finds disagreeable, either individually (Er, Onan) or in the aggregate (Sodom, Gomorrah).

Regarding this smiting -- it is frustrating to be told so little about what has set God off. Stuff like this would be good to know. But we aren't told, for instance, what everybody was doing before the flood that made God so angry that he killed everyone -- except the family of Noah, the single righteous man. Noah, you will recall, celebrates his deliverance by getting drunk and knocking up his daughters. This was the most righteous man God could find? (I found it very interesting, too, that the near universal interpretation of what angered God before one of the major smitings, the Tower of Babel, is contradicted by what is actually in the text).

Finally, let's look at what Genesis had to say about my four initial questions:

1. Is God a Republican? Genesis is suprisingly free of prescriptive language. We are given very little guidance in what is or is not appropriate behavior. So, it is hard to pin a philosophy on God at this juncture.

2. Is God Good? This is the most disturbing of the questions, of course, and Genesis lends itself to disturbing answers. God curses his creation, kills on a global scale in the flood, and kills on a regional scale at Babel, Sodom, and Gomorrah. It is hard not to see this as, at best, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Is there an afterlife? Genesis -- which, significantly, includes the authorized account of the creation of all things -- makes not a single mention of an afterlife.

4. What are God's Family Values? If we are to extrapolate from the behavior of those who find his special favor, a confusing picture emerges. Sleeping with your kids (Noah) is OK, but seeing your father naked (Ham) is anathema. Pimping your wife for safe passage and profit (Abraham) is OK, but not wanting to get your brother's widow pregnant (Onan) is grounds for death. It's a confusing world in the Old Testiment.

The sacrifice of Isaac stands out as a telling moment. The message of that story could have been "stand by your family, no matter what." But instead, the message is "do what you are told, no matter what." This is not anti-family, precisely, but at a point where a strong statement in support of family values might have been made, it was not.

Next week, we put Genesis, and Egypt, behind us. Please join me and special guest Moses next Sunday evening, as Michael Reads the Bible begins the book of Exodus.


Jennifer said...

I don't have anything insightful to add, but I just want to say kudos! I'm really enjoying this. Something in your comments always makes me laugh out loud, and I'm definitely cheering you on.

You've got me really curious about the purchase of that cave in the field, by the way. Maybe I can use it in my literature & geology class this summer to show the conjunction between geological features and how the societies treat them. . . (does that sound desperate?)

Good job, you!

chuckdaddy said...

Yes, Michael, catching up today, and I too have nothing to add. Other than kudos for a first chapter well done, and delight that you have restarted the project.

Now I need to get on to Exodus

chuckdaddy said...

Yes, Michael, catching up today, and I too have nothing to add. Other than kudos for a first chapter well done, and delight that you have restarted the project.

Now I need to get on to Exodus