Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nobody gets any respect!


Everybody is disrespecting everyone else in Genesis 31 and the one getting dissed the most seems to be God. Yet, he doesn't seem to be the slightest bit upset about it. Earlier in the Bible (and later) God has shown a propensity for violence when being dissed. But not this time.
Laban has been disrespecting Jacob all this time by forcing him to stay in his employ an extra seven years than he originally planned. Now, Jacob is going to disrespect his father-in-law by skipping town without even giving the old man a chance to say goodbye to his daughter and grandkids. Meanwhile, Rachel is disrespecting her father by stealing his "household gods". The mere presence of these other "gods" is disrespectful in itself and is considered a grave sin in other parts of the Bible, but ilicits no reaction here.
At the start of the chapter, God tells Jacob to go home and that "I will be with you." But does Jacob trust that the Lord will keep him safe on his journey home? Not on your life. He flees from Laban because he thinks he won't let him go and who knows what he might do if he catches him trying to sneak away. So Jacob disses God by showing no trust in him whatsoever. And recall that earlier Jacob even made God promise to bring him home safely as part of a covenant he made. And still that isn't good enough.
And then we have this strange interaction between Laban and God after he finds out that Jacob has split. God tells Laban in a dream "not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad." Assuming that is an accurate interpretation, Laban clearly blows God off and goes ahead and says quite a bit to Jacob once he tracks him down. So God is dissed once again, and still no reaction!
But then the story ends on a happy note with Jacob and Laban making nice and everyone parts as friends. So it was just as well that God didn't lose his temper this time, but maybe the point was that he already knew that.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sex wars and striped sheep


The Biblical views on sex are confusing and hard to figure out. So much of what happens in the Old Testament is either blamed on or credited to God so that people look to the Scriptures for clues as to how they should behave. And yet, all through the Old Testament we find stories of God approving of, encouraging or otherwise not dissuading actions and behaviors that we would never tolerate today.
Genesis 30 is replete with examples of bizarre sexual behavior as the sisters Rachel and Leah get into a competition to see who can produce the most sons for their “family.”
Leah already has a headstart with four sons due to God feeling sympathy for her being the unloved first wife of Jacob. Plus she has the advantage that her sister’s womb was closed by God for reasons we can’t begin to fathom.
So we get a replay of the Sarah-Hagar conflict with the barren Rachel jealous of her older sister’s success in the child-rearing department. She complains to Jacob who angrily tells her it’s God’s fault and not his.
She then decides to make one of her maid servants, Bilhah, have sex with Jacob to produce a son for her. And unlike the Sarah-Hagar story, Rachel does not get jealous of Bilhah who promptly conceives and bears two sons. The Biblical authors don’t seem the slightest bit preturbed at the idea of slaves being forced to have sex with their masters (I think we might call that rape today) and then having to give up their children to their mistresses.
Instead, they just pile it on with Leah matching Rachel maidservant for maidservant and Jacob just hopping from one bed to the next having sex with everybody.
In the midst of all this begetting, we suddenly brake for a story about Reuben - Leah’s first born - collecting mandrake plants during the wheat harvest and then Leah using them to “hire” Jacob to have sex with her again. This is really odd because why would she have to do that? She is still one of Jacob’s wives. Why does she have to bribe Rachel in order to get Jacob to have sex with her?
Nevertheless, the ploy works and Leah becomes pregnant again and again and again.
And then, God suddenly remembers Rachel and arbitrarily decides to open her womb so that she gives birth to the next major figure in the story - Joseph.

Now Genesis 30 completely shifts gears and starts talking about sheep and goats. Jacob asks his uncle to send him back to his homeland with his wives and children. Why he needs Laban’s permission if he has completed the second seven years they had agreed to is not clear. But none-the-less, Laban resists and tells Jacob that if he stays he will give him all the spotted and striped sheep and goats in his flocks. He then tries to doublecross Jacob by having his sons cull out all the colored sheep and put them in their flocks.
But Jacob has the last laugh because he apparently knows some ancient secret as to how to get sheep and goats to bear striped and spotted offspring simply by placing in their water troughs fresh-cut poplar branches with the bark stripped off to make stripes. What is really interesting is that the authors don’t even attribute this particular miracle to God. They just act like it is Jacob being clever or something. Weird.

Love at first sight


Jacob’s introduction to Rachel in Genesis 29 is preceded by a strange encounter with a group of shepherds. We get a detailed description of a well with a large stone covering it and then a dialogue between Jacob and the shepherds that goes on for six verses before Rachel shows up in much the same way that his mother Rebeka showed up next to a well for Abraham’s nameless servant in Genesis 24.
It is almost a doublet, which is how they refer to repeated stories in the Bible, except that instead of the girl fetching the water for the boy, this time it is the other way around. After seeming to argue with the shepherds and instructing them on how to raise their sheep, Jacob suddenly jumps up and in what would seem to be a bid to impress the pretty Rachel, moves the large stone on the well and water’s his uncle’s sheep.
He then kisses her and weeps aloud. How odd must that have been for Rachel to have a stranger kiss her and start crying? But maybe that sort of thing happened all the time back then. There certainly is a lot of rending of garments and crying throughout the Old Testament.

Jacob’s uncle Laban is more than happy to see him and after about a month offers to pay wages for the work that Jacob is apparently doing for him. Jacob clearly wants his daughter’s hand in marriage, but rather than just saying so he promises to work seven years for his uncle first. Seven years!?! That’s a long courtship! Why not seven months or something more reasonable?
Then, after the seven years, which is said to have passed like it was just a few days because of his love for Rachel, Jacob the trickster gets a dose of his own medicine. His uncle tricks him into marrying his oldest daughter Leah, instead of Rachel. Damn those veils!!
So now, Jacob has to work seven more years for his uncle to get Rachel, but at least this time he doesn’t have to wait seven more years before he can jump in the sack with her. But now God intervenes and determines that because Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah he will allow the unloved one to have children while the other remains barren.
Leah then gives birth to four sons who will play big roles later on - Rueben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.

Stairway to Heaven


Having just been blessed in place of his brother Esau, Jacob is now instructed by his father to NOT marry a Canaanite woman. Rather, he is told to go to his uncle and marry one of his cousins.
So we have yet another example of the Bible encouraging behavior that we reject today. Marrying one’s cousin is considered boderline incest today. Just recall the public reaction back when rock-n-roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin. People were apalled and disgusted. Yet, this is common everyday practice in the Old Testament.
When poor, rejected Esau hears of this, he immediately runs out and marries one of his cousins too in a seeming bid to curry favor from his father. We don’t find out if this works or not, but the passage does not that the new wife is “in addition to the wives he already had.”

On his trip to find a suitable wife, Jacob has his famous ladder dream. The ladder, or stairway to heaven, has been a popular image ever since, but the story itself is kind of disappointing. Other than the basic description of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending, there is no other explanation. I mean, why do angels with wings need a ladder or stairway?
Basically, it is simply a setup for God to issue the same promise to Jacob that he has already made to Abraham and Isaac.
The next morning Jacob decides to consecrate the stone he slept on with oil and then make a vow to God. It is an interesting vow because of all the conditions he puts on it. Jacob promises to worship the Lord as his God, but only if God watches over him on his journey, makes sure he has food to eat and clothes to wear, and assures that he gets home safely in the end.
Wouldn’t we all like to make vows like that?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lie, Cheat, Steal and Be Rewarded


I don't know how anyone could read Genesis 27 and not feel sympathy for Esau who has his birthright taken away by his conniving little brother.
I guess one could say that Esau's claim to the title of elder brother was tenuous at best since he and Jacob were twins and he just happened to come out of the womb first by a few minutes.
Still, it is hard to understand why Rebekah is so intent on pushing one child over the other. I'm not sure what the lesson is that we are supposed to take away from this story if any. But I guess it makes for a good story.
A very strange story, though. What is the deal with these "blessings" and "curses." How are they enforced? Why can Isaac only give out one blessing to his children and why can't he take the blessing back when it became clear that he had been tricked into bestowing it on the wrong person?
Perhaps the only purpose is to explain why the Israelis, who trace their heritage back to Jacob, should be more blessed than the people whose roots go back to Esau.
Surely, it can't be to say that people who lie, cheat and steal will be rewarded by God.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Third Times the Charm


Here we go again! It's the Biblical version of "Take my wife, Please!" told for the THIRD time. Yes, that's right, three times we get to hear the same story - Genesis 12, 20 and now 26. Methinks the scribes and editors got a little mixed up and added this story more than once by accident.
The only difference is that this time instead of Abraham and Sara as the main characters, we have Isaac and Rebecca. But all the bit players are still the same! We still have King Abimelech from Genesis 20 back for an encore to play the role of the duped almost-adulterer, and his personal advisor Phicol revising his role as the only other person in the story with a name.
I don't think there is a clearer example than this to demonstrate that there were multiple authors of the Bible compiling tales passed down through an oral tradition.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Birth of Jacob and Esau


Abraham finally dies in Genesis 25, but not before he gets another wife and has a whole mess of kids. Just to drive home the point that the lack of kids had been all Sarah's fault, Abraham's second wife Keturah is said to have born him six more sons. If there were any daughters mixed in they were apparently not important enough to mention.
Like Sarah, Abraham blew past the 120 limit set by God and died at the ripe old age of 175.
Then we get a quick rundown of Ishmael's descendents - 12 sons and 0 daughters naturally - before getting back to he main storyline that now runs through Isaac.
Isaac's wife Rebekah becomes pregnant with twin boys who we know as Jacob and Esau. But before they are born she seeks out God to find out why they are kicking so much in the womb. God tells her that there are two nations struggling inside her and that the older one will serve the younger. I'm assuming that this revelation has a lot to do with the favoritism that Rebekah shows toward Jacob later in the story.
We get all kinds of foreshadowing in the birth story with Esau born first, but Jacob coming out grasping his brother's heel.
We will soon learn that the two boys are as different as night and day. Esau is the bold and athletic hunter, though not too bright; while Jacob is the quiet, wimpy, stay-at-home Mommy's boy who also turns out to be a schemer and a backstabber.
Almost right away we have a story of Jacob scheming to steal away Esau's birthright by bribing him with food and drink.
Personally, I think that when it comes to twins there is no such thing as an older or younger sibling. They were both born on the same day and this business about which one came out of the womb first is silly nonsense.
But then that kind of attitude wouldn't make for as good a story.

Could you repeat that again?


The Bible can be difficult to read and Genesis 24 is a good example.
It tells the story of how Rebekah was chosen to be Isaac’s wife and it is a cute story at its core, but it is told in such a convoluted and repetitive fashion that it makes one’s eyes glaze over trying to read it.
First, we are introduced to the main character of the story who doesn’t even merit a name because he is simply a slave, which is almost as bad as being a woman in the Bible.
It seems that Abraham is getting old and is concerned that his son might wind up marrying one of those despised Canaanites that he lives among. You know - those nice people who called Abraham a “prince” and tried to give him land for free to bury Sarah but were turned down flat.
Well, Abraham calls his chief servant and tells him to go back to the homeland and find Isaac a proper wife among his own people. I guess since Abraham married his half-sister, then the least Isaac can do is marry one of his cousins.
The servant swears an oath to do just that and takes 10 camels and a whole bunch of treasure (remember Abraham sent Hagar out with nothing more than a water skin) and heads off to Nahor. Once there he prays to God for guidance and determines that the first of the local townsgirls who will offer him a drink of water will be the right bride for Isaac.
Sure enough, the first girl to happen along is Rebekah and she immediately satisfies this requirement by not only offering water to the servant but also to all his camels.
That’s pretty much it, except that we get this same story in three versions told nearly back to back. First when the servant prays to God that this is what he wants to happen, secondly when it actually does happen, and third when he goes and describes everything that happened all over again to Rebekah’s father Bethuel.
Then the servant gives everyone fancy gifts including a nose-ring for Rebekah and heads back to Abraham with his prize where he no doubt relays the story for a fourth time. Fortunately, we are spared that last repetition in the text.

Death of Sarah


In Genesis 23, Sarah dies at the age of 127 (yet another example of someone breaking the 120 mark set by God in Genesis 6). I believe this is the first instance of a woman’s death to be given any notice in the Bible. We didn’t even find out how old Eve was when she died, much less Noah’s wife or any of the other nameless womenfolk in the scriptures so far.
But for Sarah we get to learn of the time and place of her death and hear about Abraham mouring her loss and then negotiating with the Hittites for a place to bury her.
These negotiations in and of themselves are quite interesting because it shows the Hittites to be very nice and reasonable people. When Abraham tells them he wants to purchase a place to bury his wife, they immediately offer him a place for free and tell him that he is “a prince” among their people.
But Abraham refuses the multiple offers of free land and insists on paying the asking price. It is unclear why this is, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that God has been telling him all along that he will eventually overthrow the Hittites and dozens of other clans and tribes and give all their land to him. Perhaps Abraham doesn’t want to feel obligated to people he is secretly plotting to undermine in the future.

The ultimate test


Now we come to one of the most famous stories about Abraham in which he is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.
I will readily admit that this is not one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I’m already turned off by all the images of animal sacrifice, so to now have God demand a human sacrifice is just one more step over the edge.
I think the only reason we even tolerate this story is that we know that it ends well. God sends an angel to intervene at the last second and spares Isaac from being put to death on the alter that Abraham built. But imagine the psychological trauma that Isaac must have gone through in that moment.
I also understand the significance of this story in the way it parallels and foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in the New Testament.
But it is still very disturbing and I don’t like to spend a lot of time dwelling on it. Why God would demand such a “test” from Abraham after everything else he has already put him through is hard to understand.
The one part of the story I do like and that works well in a narrative sense is the part where Isaac asks his father where the animal is that they are going to sacrifice and Abraham responds “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Which, of course, he does when a ram shows up immediately after the angel intercedes.
I can’t imagine that God’s promise for the umpteenth time to make Abraham’s descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” is much consolation at the end of this story.
Tagged on to the end of this chapter is a brief accounting of the sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. It would seem that the Biblical authors wanted to link some tribes to their lineage without going directly through Abraham, perhaps to give them a lesser status. Some don’t even come from Nahor’s wife, but through one of his concubines instead - a double insult it would seem.

Catching up


In Genesis 21 we get caught up on our story after the strange interlude of Genesis 20.
The long-anticipated birth of Isaac finally takes place and this makes Sara very happy. But it also makes her that much more jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and she complains once again to Abraham.
So this time Abraham sends Hagar packing - sending her off into the desert alone with just some food and a skin of water. You would think he could have spared an escort for her and her infant son.
The food and water does not last long and she is soon tired and thirsty and nearing death. So God has to intervene again sending an angel to show Hagar a well and thus save her life.
So Ishmael grows up in the Desert of Paran and eventually marries an Egyptian woman.
Meanwhile, Abraham makes a peace treaty with Abimelech, the guy who supposedly tried to bed his wife in the last chapter. They settle their differences over a well and then Abraham plants a tree to commemorate the treaty.
Things seem to be going well for Abraham, but God has one more big test for him.

Deja vu all over again


One of the criticisms I have of the Bible up to this point is that it is in bad need of an editor. There is lots of repetition and huge swaths of text that seem to be completely superfluous for today. I can understand now why Thomas Jefferson took a pair of scissors and chopped up his Bible to make his own, slimmed down version known today as the Jefferson Bible.
Genesis Chapter 20 is one of those chapters that should probably have been cut out. It is a complete retelling of the story from Genesis 12 where Abraham pretends like Sara is his sister causing a local ruler to take her as his wife and then ends up suffering the wrath of God.
But this time, instead of an Egyptian pharoah, it is “Abimelech king of Gerar” who gets caught in Abraham’s snare.
This story is quite a bit more detailed than the one in Genesis 12 and we are privvy to the interactions between Abimelech and God as the former pleads his innocence and protests the punishment God is threatening to impose.
Abimelech ends up giving Abraham “sheep and cattle and male and female slaves” as well as “a thousand shekels of silver” before sending him on his way. It sounds like Abraham and Sara have a pretty good racket going.
But what should strike anyone reading this story straight through is that Sara is supposed to be nearly 100 years old (and pregnant!) at this point in the story. Was she still so desirable at that age that everyone they came across immediately wanted to bed her and make her their wife?
Personally, I think this story got stuck in the text out of place and is simply a different version of the tale from Genesis 12 told by a different Biblical author.
And here’s the kicker: We will hear this story again before Genesis is through.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sodom and Gomorrah


The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has been foretold several times up to this point and now in Genesis 19 we finally get the payoff.
God has apparently split following his discussion with Abraham at the end of Chapter 18 and now the two angels are left to carry out the planned destruction. When they arrive at Sodom, the first person they find is Lot sitting in the gateway of the city as if he were expecting them.
Lot treats the two visitors like long-time friends insisting that they come and stay at his house so he can feed them and wash their feet. They refuse at first, but Lot is insistent and they give in.
At this point, we don't really have a clear understanding of why Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed. We've been told that the towns are wicked, but we don't know why. So the next thing that happens seems to be an over-the-top attempt by the Biblical authors to explain or give an example of this wickedness.
Suddenly we have all the men from every part of the town, both young and old, coming out and surrounding Lot's house and demanding that he send the two visitors out so that they can gang rape them.
Needless to say, this is pretty heady stuff for the Bible and it makes very little sense in a narrative fashion. Every man was there? All of them? Like they had nothing better to do than to demand gay sex from strangers?
This passage would seem to be where a lot of the bigotry and condemnation of homosexuals comes from. We've been told that Sodom is wicked and now we finally see why. They're all gay!!! And like the people from Westboro Baptist Church will tell you, "God Hates Fags!"
But one could still make the case that the real wickedness was not the homosexual act itself, but the notion of forced sex or rape. However, we then have Lot step forward to defend his house guests and in so doing manages to be every bit as despicable by modern standards as the assembled crowd of would-be rapists outside. Lot attempts to appease the crowd by offering them his two virgin daughters in place of the visiting strangers. This is just jaw-droppingly abhorrent! Raping the two strangers would be bad, surely. But raping the two daughters is an acceptable alternative??
Now perhaps by ancient standards this would not have amounted to rape, since the men would have essentially had the father's permission, and apparently the women had no say one way or the other back then. But it is still shocking by today's standards.
Of course, this isn't enough to appease the crowd and they push forward to try and forcibly take the strangers when they are suddenly struck blind by the angels. The angels then tell Lott to gather up everyone in his family and get out of the city. He can't persuade his sons in law to leave and then he hesitates so the angels forcibly drag him, his wife and two daughters out of the city. They tell Lot to flee to the mountains and to not look back, but Lot argues saying the "disaster will overtake me" if he goes to the mountains. He offers to go to a small town nearby and the angels give in.
As they flee, burning sulfur rains down on the city and Lot's wife commits the unpardonable sin of looking back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

As if all of this wasn't bad enough for Lot we have to end this dreadful chapter with a story of incest. Lot's two daughters, now deprived of their husbands and living in the mountains isolated from the rest of the world, decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him so that they can become pregnant.
Each one begets a son in this manner, one is Moab, founder of the Moabites and the other is Ben-Ammi, founder of the Ammonites. I suspect this was another effort by the Biblical authors to tie some loose tribes back to Abraham, but in a way that makes them clearly inferior to the Israelites.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Three Visitors


At this point, God has spoken directly to Abraham many times. So why here, in Genesis 18, does he choose to come down in the form of not one, but three men? It is really strange. In fact, I find this whole chapter to be strange and hard to make out.
Who are these three visitors supposed to be? Three angels? That would make sense, except that Abraham treats one of them like God himself and not one of his messengers. Or is it God in human form with a couple of angels in tow. Or maybe it is the Holy Trinity - God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
And what's the deal with God taking human form now? I thought one of the big deals of Jesus' divinity was having God become flesh and thus gaining a better understanding of what humans go through. How then is that special if God has already done it? Maybe it was the length of time Jesus was flesh - going through the entire birth, growing up, dying cycle.
In his "Guide to the Bible", Isaac Asimov notes that scholars today believe some of the source material used for the old Testament came from a polytheistic culture and that the Biblical authors tried to scrub those references out to mesh with their mono-theistic belief system. But they apparently missed some referneces or chose not to change it for other reasons.

Nevertheless, Abraham immediately recognizes that one of the men is God and insists on washing his feet and getting him something to eat. And then God makes yet another one of his pronouncements about Sarah giving Abraham an heir. Hearing this the 90-year old Sarah stifles a laugh, but not well enough to keep God from hearing it at which point God seems to take offense.
Why did Sarah laugh, God demands to know from Abraham. Sarah objects and says she did not laugh, to which God replys "Oh yes you did!"
Then Sarah says "No, I did not." And God says, "Oh, yes you did."
And Sarah says "Did not, Did not, Did not!!!" And God says "Did too, Did too, Did too!!!"
OK, so it didn't really go on like that, but it just as well could have. What was the point of that exchange?

The next part of the story is even more bizarre in my opinion. Who would have ever thought that God would need to be taught or shown how to be merciful by man? Yet, here we have Abraham pleading for God not to destroy the entire communities of Sodom and Gomorrah if he can find a certain number of "righteous" people. What if he finds 50 righteous people? Or 40? Or 30? The exchange goes on like this, back and forth, to the point where it's almost like a Monty Python sketch. But then Abraham stops at 10 righteous people. Why there? 10 is OK, but nine is not enough? That seems arbitrary.
I've just never thought of myself as being more merciful than God. It is one of the reasons why I don't believe in Hell, at least, not in the sense of eternal damnation and torment. Since I could not condemn anyone so harshly, I don't see how God could be less merciful.
But God is not very merciful in the Old Testament, and that is one of the reasons why I have such a problem with it. It's because Christ's mercy is such an integral part of my faith, that I am repelled at the idea of God not reflecting that mercy the same way.

Hitting Below the Belt


I guess it is only fair that since God earlier inflicted Eve and all womenkind with painful childbirths, that he would eventually come up with something painful for the menfolk as well. So now in Genesis 17 we have God appearing once again to Abram (now 99 years old) and going on again about how he is going to increase his numbers, blah, blah, blah.
Boy! I bet Abram is getting tired of this old refrain now with Sarai still barren and 90-plus years old.
But this time God wants to “confirm his covenant” with Abram by getting him to sacrifice something a little closer to home than a ram or a goat. He wants him to get circumcised, along with every other male in his household.
Why he wants this is not explained, but Abram readily concedes. This “covenant in the flesh” will then serve as physical proof of obedience to God and uncircumcised males will be cut off from their people for breaking the covenant.
Also, God decides suddenly to change Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. He says this is because he is going to be the father of many nations. But it is unclear why he couldn’t do that and still be called Abram.
God then finally gives a firm date (one year from now) when Sarah will bear this long-awaited child who will be named Isaac.
We will see later on in Genesis when some of Abraham’s great grandchildren use circumcision as a way to weaken their enemies prior to an attack.

The Surrogate Mom


With God promising Abram more heirs and descendants than there are stars in the sky, you can imagine the pressure that would put on his wife Sarai who is still barren.
So now in Genesis 16, Sarai takes the desperate step of offering one of her slaves, Hagar, to sleep with Abram in her place and bear him a child. The world’s first surrogate mom!
Now Abram — who is supposed to be the most faithful of men — rather than reassure Sarai that God will keep his promise, readily accepts her offer and immediately jumps in the sack with Hagar.
The result is a family drama worthy of the best soap operas today. Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai becomes jealous and Abram is caught in the middle.
Sarai thinks Hagar is becoming uppity and she complains to Abram. Abram washes his hands of the affair and throws Hagar under the bus - telling Sarai to do what she wants with the slave. So Sarai begins to mistreat Hagar to the point that she flees.
At this point, God decides to intervene and sends an angel down to find the pregnant Hagar and orders her to go back and submit herself to Sarai. This is disturbing because it comes across as a sign that God condones slavery.
As a consolation of sorts, the angel tells Hagar that her descendants will be “too numerous to count.” The angel also tells her to name the child Ishmael.
The purpose of this story seems to be to link Ishmael and the 12 tribes that descend from him back to Abram - but in a way that makes them a step below the people who will be direct descenandants of his son Isaac through Sarai.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stars (and Smoke) In His Eyes


OK, so now in Genesis 15 Abram is getting a bit antzy about God’s promise to give him an heir. His wife, Sarai, is still barren and he is already looking at having to will his estate to one of his servants - Eliezer of Damascus.
So God reassures him again and says he will have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky.
Then Abram wants reassurances about all the land that God keeps telling him will be his. To this, God responds by telling Abram to make a very specific animal sacrifice to him:

“Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

I can’t help but feel repelled by all these references to animal sacrifices. By today’s standards, such things are considered barbaric. It is hard to believe that God would have ever wanted such killings done in his honor.
It is amusing, too, to note that immediately after Noah got off the ark in Genesis 8, he built an alter and sacrificed “clean animals” as burnt offerings to God. Makes you wonder which animals got sacrificed. The unicorns? The do-do birds?
Then it goes on to say that God “smelled the pleasing aroma” and that is when he decided to never flood the earth again. Pleasing aroma!?! Yuck!! I love barbecue as much as anyone, but I can’t imagine for a moment that burnt animal flesh could ever be described as having a pleasing aroma.
Slavery, polygamy, burnt offerings and animal sacrifices.... None of these customs and practices which were common place back then would be tolerated today. We have cast all of them aside. And yet we continue to cling to other ancient misconceptions and beliefs which should also have been cast aside at the same time, such as the subjugation of women, the condemnation of homosexuals, capital punishment, corporal punishment “spare the rod...” etc.
But enough editorial comment for now... Back to the story!
Once Abram slaughters the animals, cuts them in half and sets them on fire - and driving away the vultures all the while - he falls into a deep sleep and then a thick and dreadful darkness comes over him. During this deep sleep, God gives Abram a glimpse of the future which won’t be all rosy for his descendants. Instead, they will be strangers in a land that is not their own and will be mistreated and enslaved for 400 years.
Woah! 400 years of enslavement!! What happened to becoming the father of a great nation and being the ruler over all the land that he sees? What’s up with that? Why is God first promising Abram all these great things and then saying, Oh, by the way, your people will be mistreated and abused for multiple generations?
But not to worry, God says, because at the end of those 400 years he will punish those who enslaved them and they will come out with great possessions.
So clearly this story is being written in hindsight by people who have already lived through 400 years of misery. It would be kind of like us telling our history by saying that God came down to Thomas Jefferson and told him he would be the father of a great nation, but that we would first have to go through a Civil War, Two World Wars and a Great Depression.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Abram rescues Lot


The subject matter in Genesis 14 could probably have been turned into a great movie starring Charlton Heston if it had been written better.
But the way the story is told in the Bible is both confusing and dull. Upon first reading you are bogged down by a long list of kings with hard-to-pronounce names (Amraphel, Arioch, Kedorlaomer, Tidal, Bera, Birsha, Shinab, Shemeber) from a lot of countries you’ve never heard of (Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, Goiim, Admah, Zeboiim) and a couple you have heard of (Sodom, Gomorrah) and names of tribes which you have little if any correlation for (Rephaites, Zuzites, Emites, Horites, Amalekites, Amorites).
And to make things doubly bad, the text is repetitive with the long list of names and places in verses 1-2 being repeated in verses 8-9. It’s enough to make anyone’s eyes glaze over.
But if you can make it through all that, what you find is a fun little story of rebellion, initial defeat and then ultimate victory.
Summarizing what is already a stripped-down story in the Bible, you have several groups of people who have been subjects to another king for several years when they get together and rebel. But their rebellion is squelched when the ruling king shows up with a bunch of allied armies and goes about conquering a large swath of area. But kind of like Santa Anna during the Texas revolution, the conquering king pushes too far and becomes overextended and then he makes the BIG mistake by capturing Lot and his family in Sodom which peaks the ire of Abram - God’s favored one.
So Abram sends his small band of warriors in and catches the conquering army by surprise, not unlike the way Sam Houston’s ragtag army defeated Santa Ana at San Jacinto.
Abram thus rescues Lot and frees all the other people from the ruling king. But he rejects the King of Sodom’s offer to share the spoils, foreshadowing once again that something bad will come of Sodom and its people.
There is also a first reference in Genesis 14 to a Melchizedek king of Salem (Jerusalem) who turns up later in the New Testament in the Book of Hebrews. He is referred to as “a priest of God Most High,” the first mention of a priest in the Bible, and Abram gives him a tithe, or a tenth of everything. But there are no other clues about who this person is or where he came from.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sarai and the sparcity of female characters


Up until now, women have gotten short shrift in the Bible. Sarai is only the second female character of any significance after Eve. At first, I thought she was only the second one to even have a name mentioned in the Bible. But I was wrong. If you skip back to Genesis 4 you will see that Lamech, a sixth-generation descendant from Cain, is said to have married two women - Adah and Zillah - and then it even goes on to mention that Zillah had a daughter named Naamah. But there is nothing else said about them and it is unclear why they are given names in the Bible and all other women are just listed as "wife" or "daughter", if they get mentioned at all.
One woman who really gets no respect is the wife of Noah. If you believe as the literalists do that all mankind was wiped out by the Great Flood and the human race had to start over again, then Noah's wife is essentially the second Eve. And yet, she doesn't even get a name. She is just "wife" and is largely ignored throughout the entire Noah story.
So Sarai, wife of Abram, is the first woman since Eve to get any real narrative attention in the Bible, and she will set a pattern that will be repeated over and over and over again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Abram hits the jackpot


At the end of Genesis 11 we are introduced to a new character who will become very prominent by the name of Abram. In Genesis 12 Abram hits the jackpot. For reasons that are not apparent, God reaches out and picks Abram out of the crowd to give his blessing - and oh boy, what a blessing it is!

“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Wow! One day you are a nobody, and the next you are the founder of a great nation. What did Abram do to merit this great honor? Or did merit have anything to do with it?
Of course, to receive this blessing, Abram had to leave his country, his family and give up his inheritance and go to a country that God will show him later. So I suppose that Abram’s willingness to trust God and obey these directives had something to do with the blessing, but that is not made clear.
And Abram did not go alone. He took his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, as well as all of his possessions including the “people he had acquired”, (ie. slaves) to go along on the journey.
As one who does not know Biblical geography very well, the description of Abram’s journey in Genesis 12 is confusing. First, it says they set out for the land of Canaan and traveled there. They then traveled through Canaan until they came to the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem where God appeared to Abram and told him once again that he is giving this land to his offspring (of which Abram currently has none since Sarai is described as being barren.)
Abram builds an alter on the site where God appeared, but does not stop there. Instead he travels on “toward the hills east of Bethel” where he pitched his tent somewhere between Bethel and Ai and builds another alter and “calls on the name of the Lord.” But God doesn’t appear this time and so Abram packs up the next day and continues on to Negev. But before getting there, Abram takes a detour into Egypt because there was a severe famine going on.
What happens next, based on modern sensibilities, does not reflect all that well on the founder of a great nation. It seems that Abram, fearing for his life, decides to offer his wife to the Egyptians in return for them showing him good favor. He does this by pretending that Sarai is not his wife, but rather his sister. The scheme works and because Sarai is said to be especially beautiful she is immediately given over to the pharoah to be one of his wives. In return, Abram is treated well and is given sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and, more slaves.
So things are going well as far as Abram is concerned. We don’t know what Sarai thought of the situation. But God apparently is not happy. And his response is not to punish Abram for his cowardice or his deception, but to punish the Egyptians by sending plagues on their people. Once the pharoah figures out what is going on he summons Abram and asks him “Why have you done this to me?” We get no answer from Abram before he is sent packing with all his possessions and his wife in tow.
So Abram and his entourage continued their journey to Negev. And then somehow after arriving in Negev they ended up back in the place between Bethel and Ai where he had built the first alter. (I told you it was confusing. What? Are they going in circles??).
By the time they get there, both Abram and Lot have become very wealthy with lots of livestock, gold and silver and slaves. Their herds were so large, in fact, that the land could not support them both. So Abram and Lot decide to separate on good terms. Lot goes east toward the fertile plains of Jordan and settles near Sodom, where we are told in a moment of heavy foreshadowing that the people are wicked and are sinning against God.
Meanwhile, Abram has another chat with God about how all the land he sees will belong to his offspring forever and then he picks up and goes back to the to the tree of Moreh where he built the second alter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tower of Babel


Genesis 11 opens with the well known story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, it tries to explain why people all over the world speak different languages. It seems that at some point between Noah and Abraham, the people tried to build a city with a tower that would reach up to heaven.
But rather than snickering at the impossibility of this feat, we then have God becoming seriously concerned that they might pull it off. And thus deciding that it would be a bad thing, he sets out to screw up their plans by “confusing their language” and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.
I find the quote from God to be particularly interesting:
The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
First off, that sounds like a heavenly endorsement of a one-world government. If we all cooperate and work together then nothing will be impossible for us. Wow. But for some reason God didn’t like this and takes steps to prevent it from happening.
Today, the story is seen as a warning against man becoming too arrogant and trying to be too much like God. But Biblical literalists and creationists have taken the story at face value even though it flies in the face of everything we know about linguistic history.
University of Texas Professor Robert Pennock has authored an excellent book - Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism - that shreds most of the creationist musings on this subject.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More long lineages


We next go into another long lineage of descendants of the sons of Noah - Shem, Ham and Japheth.
But first, let me go back briefly to Genesis 9 and comment on a famous passage that has long served as the Biblical underpinnings for the death penalty.
After God blesses Noah, he announces that Noah and his descendants will have dominion over the earth and all the animals and plants therein. However, without explanation, he also throws in a caveat about not eating meat that still has lifeblood in it. Is this another test like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden?
And then, almost as an afterthought, God throws in that he will also demand an accounting from any animals that take man's lifeblood. And then as an afterthought to an afterthought, he throws in that he will likewise punish any man who kills another man and then makes this pronouncement:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.”
So there you have it. Shed the blood of man and you will have your blood shed by man. Presumably then, the person who sheds your blood in payment for the first killing will be exempt from the rule, but that is not made clear. And we will see time and time again how this rule is not followed later on in the Bible.
Furthermore, I would argue that this rule is superseded by Christ in the New Testament when he stops a mob from killing a prostitute (a capital offense at the time) and later becomes a victim of a state-sponsored execution.
And speaking of not following rules, what about God’s announcement in Genesis 6:3 that he will no longer abide men living past the age of 120? Because shortly afterward we are told that Noah lived to be 950. Was he grandfathered in?
And while Noah’s children and immediate descendants don’t live as long as the immediate descendants of Adam, they don’t come anywhere close to kicking off at the 120 mark. Most live to be well into their 400s.
But we get two separate accountings of the descendants of Noah, first in Genesis 10 we get a full rundown of all the tribes and their links to the three sons, and then again in Genesis 11 with more detail we get the specific lineage that takes us from Shem to Abram. This becomes important later as we learn from the Sunday School song that “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.....”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Covenants and curses


It would have been nice if the Noah story had ended with the beautiful image of the rainbow and God’s promise to never destroy the earth again.
Unfortunately, towards the end of Genesis 9 we have this awful story of the curse of Canaan which I could very well have done without.
It seems that after getting off the ark, one of the first things Noah did was to get completely drunk, take all his clothes off and then pass out in his tent naked. Noah’s son Ham then had the bad luck to stumble upon his father in this condition. Ham’s mistake at this point, supposedly, was to go and tell his brothers what he saw. Thus forewarned, the brothers then enter the tent backwards with a blanket over their shoulders and cover their father’s nakedness without looking at him.
The next part of the story is so astoundingly appalling by today’s standards as to be nonsensical. When Noah finally awakens from his drunken stupor and learns that his son Ham saw him in that condition he reacts by cursing Ham’s son (and Noah’s grandson) Canaan.

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

So, even though Noah is the one who gets drunk and makes a complete ass of himself; and even though Ham is the one who offends Noah by seeing him in this condition, it is the innocent Canaan and all of his descendents who must suffer Noah’s wrath for all eternity.
Horrible. Just horrible.
So naturally I reject this story outright. I refuse to believe that it happened this way. I think it is a slander on poor Noah meant to explain why some people are enslaved later on in history. I think a lot of the stories in the Old Testament are parables meant to explain certain conditions that existed at the time the Bible was written.
Telling people who are slaves that they are slaves because God wills it was probably a good way to keep them in line. But I reject the idea that God ever intended for men to enslave one another.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Flood


I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with the story of Noah’s Ark. It’s a great story, no doubt, and entices people at a very early age. It is a favorite to teach children in Sunday School classes. My kids have a wall hanging showing animals coming off the ark hanging in their bedroom and they have numerous ark-related toys.
But at the same time it is a terrible story that I think puts God in a bad light. Other than being told that wickedness had spread across the world, we don’t really get what God was so upset about. What evil things did the people do to merit such harsh punishment? The Bible does not say. And why wipe out all the animals and birds too? Talk about overkill!
How are we supposed to know how to behave ourselves if we don’t know what the people did wrong? And what did Noah do that was so right? So far, obeying God seems to be the only thing on which to base personal ethics. Do what God wants - shower him with praise and appropriate sacrifices - and you might be OK. Don’t do what God wants and prepare to be harshly punished. And determining what God wanted you to do must have been difficult since at this point we have not yet had the Ten Commandments or any of the prophets.
Up to this point and immediately afterward, I find it difficult to “like” God in these stories. God comes across much of the time as being very vane, petty, egotistical, vindictive, cruel and callous. No doubt he shared many of the same characteristics of people back then as well as today.
I used to wonder about the term “God-fearing”, but it seems clear in the Old Testament days that “fear” was a big part of the reason why people chose to worship God in the first place. Not so much because they loved God, but because they were afraid of what would happen if they did not.
And while Noah and the Ark is a great story, it does not make a lot of sense in the context of what we have just read. If it took God only six days to create the earth, why is it going to take him 180 days to wipe it all out? And why go through this elaborate ordeal of building a huge boat and collecting two of every animal if God can simply create all the animals in one fell swoop all in one day like he did in Chapter 1?
Young Earth Creationists have latched on to the story of the great flood to help prop up their belief in a planet that is only 6,000 years old. By their reasoning, if one can call it that, the flood waters somehow altered things in such a way as to only make it look as if the world is billions of years old rather than just a few thousand. Nevermind that the ancient Egyptians living at the same time as when the flood was supposed to have taken place appear to have been unaffected and have no record of it. However, it is entirely reasonable to believe that there was some kind of regional flooding event upon which the Noah story is based. But whether the story of Noah was a historical reality or an entertaining parable should not be the deciding factor in one’s religious faith.
I personally believe that much if not all of the Genesis stories were just that - stories, parables and myths that taught important lessons and gave people a sense of their relationship with God. In those early days, I think people still had a very child-like perception of God that will become more mature by the time we get to the New Testament.

Sons of God


What are the Nephilim? This is new to me. At the beginning of Genesis 6, there is this bizarre and all-too brief reference to the Nephilim, also referred to as the “sons of God,” who married the “daughters of men” and had children who grew up to become the “heroes of old, men of renown.”
It sounds like the authors of the Old Testament picked that bit up straight out of Greek mythology (aka Hercules). A quick Google search reveals much speculation about what this passage meant. Some think it refers to fallen angels who mated with human females and created a race of giants and superheroes like Samson and Goliath.
The passage also says that they “were on the earth in those days—and also afterward” giving the impression that they somehow survived the flood since they are referenced again later on in the Bible. In the middle of the passage, we also have God suddenly deciding to limit the maximum age of man to 120 years, so no more Methuzalahs after that. But why did God do that and was it supposed to have something to do with the Nephilim? One can only speculate.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Long Lineage


Genesis 5 gives us a long lineage of people linking Adam through his third son Seth all the way to Noah. Why we need all this information, especially in light of the pending flood is not at all clear.
What is most interesting about the passage is the chronological ages it claims for each individual ranging from 777 years for Lamech (Noah’s father) to 969 years for the long-lived Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather).
And there was also Enoch who only lived to the tender age of 365 because he “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Yikes!!!
Biblical literalists have taken these ages at face value, added them all up, and determined that Adam and Eve lived approximately 6,000 years ago. This is what is known today as Young Earth Creationism and it presupposes that dinosaurs and humans were around at the same time since they couldn’t have been around any earlier.
Others have speculated that there was some misinterpretation in the scriptures and that months was mistranslated to read years, in which case the ages would be more reasonable with Enoch going away with God at age 30 and Methuselah living to the ripe old age of 80.
But that would also mean for the literalists that the Earth is even younger than the 6,000 years they already granted it.
But other Biblical scholars have suggested that these Old Testament chronologies were never meant to be a complete record of everyone born in every generation, but rather a quick reference that skips untold generations and focuses on key individuals throughout history.
Either way, it certainly skips over all the women. So far in the Good Book Eve is the only woman mentioned by name with the rest being dismissed as just “wife” or “daughter”.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cain and Abel


Adam raised a Cain. That's a line from a great Bruce Springsteen song. It makes the point that even Adam, the first man created by God, was unable to raise perfect children.
But why was Cain so bad? I mean, here we are not more than a page or two into the Good Book and we already have our first killing. What happened? What went wrong?
Well, it seems that the problem was jealousy over God's favor. Cain was a farmer while Abel was a rancher. And when they made their offerings to God, God decided for whatever reason to play favorites by rejecting Cain's offering of fruits and vegetables while smiling upon Abel's offering of a fatted calf.
So what are we supposed to make of that? Is God a bloodthirsty carnivore? Why did he play favorites? Was it another test? One that we would fail yet again?
Immediately after rejecting Cain's offering, God spoke to him giving him somewhat of a pep talk and warning him against sin. But what was so sinful about what Cain did? Why was his offering rejected?
But regardless of what God said, it only made Cain more angry because he next took Abel into a field and whacked him. Then, later on, when the apparently non-omnicient God finally finds out, Cain delivers one of the first classic lines from the Bible: "Am I My Brother's Keeper?"
So God lays down another harsh punishment causing him to be doubly exiled.
At this point we get to meet Cain's wife, and one might wonder where did she come from? And what about all those people that Cain is afraid will try to kill him once he is forced to wander the land?
So was Adam not really the first man if there are already all of these people out there populating the earth? Eve's third-born Seth hasn't even been announced at this point, Abel is dead and Cain is afraid of what the Others might do to him. So apparently we are not getting the full and complete story here.
But, as it turns out, we won't have to worry about these other people for long because very shortly they will all be drowned.

In the beginning...


I think everyone is familiar with the creation story in the Bible. What may surprise people, however, is that there are actually two distinct creation stories that don’t particularly agree with one another. We generally just mesh these two together and overlook the inconsistencies. But when you are trying to read the Bible straight through in the context of it being a literal document, then problems start to pop up.
The first creation story is the one that sets out the six days timeframe with man being one of the last creations on the sixth day. Up until that point, God seems to be creating things on a grand scale - all the plants one day, all the animals the next, and so on. It is not spelled out very clearly, but it seems that on the sixth day God creates a whole bunch of men and women all at once and tells them to go forth and multiply and rein over the animals of the earth.
But then when we come to Chapter 2 it’s like we hit rewind and start over. Now suddenly we are back to a barren earth with no plants and no water. And this time one of the first things God does is to make Adam out of the dust.
I’ve always thought it was interesting in the way that the creation of Adam is described, especially in light of the fundamentalist views of abortion opponents that life begins at conception. That is because God waits until after he has formed Adam’s body out of the mud and dirt before he breathes life into him. So Adam is not “alive” until after his body has been fully formed. Likewise with Eve who is made using one of Adam’s ribs. God does not breathe life into the dirt and then make Adam. Nor does he breathe life into the rib before making Eve. So, based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis story, one might assume that life begins at birth, when a child takes its first breath, and not at conception.
But back to the second creation story, we next have God placing Adam in the Garden of Eden which is then described in some detail including a whole paragraph on four rivers that converge in Eden. Then God gives Adam the tour of the garden along with the dire warning that he is NOT to eat from the tree of knowledge on pain of death. Interestingly enough, Eve is not even around at this point to hear the warning. Because the next thing that happens is God determining that Adam needs a helper to work with him while tending the garden. Here the story gets a little strange because then God goes and starts showing Adam all the animals as potential companions. It is not entirely clear to me whether God is creating the animals at this point (which would be inconsistent with the first creation story in Chapter 1) or if they were created earlier. But only after all of these animals are rejected by Adam does God decide to take a more serious step - putting Adam to sleep and then performing some kind of holy surgery to remove a rib bone which he then uses to fashion Eve.
Of course, we all know what happens next. Eve is tempted by the snake to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and then she gets Adam to do the same. The newly knowledgable Adam and Eve are immediately shamed by their nakedness and seek to hide when God comes back to the garden looking for them. (Where did God go? Isn’t he supposed to be omnicient and all-knowing?)
Once God learns that his children have disobeyed him the accusations start to fly - Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and then everyone suffers harsh, eternal punishments. The snake and all of its future progeny is forced to go legless and crawl in the dirt. Eve is cursed with painful child births. And Adam now has to toil the land and struggle to get good crops whereas before it was apparently quite easy. And they are all banished from the Garden of Eden and cast out into the rest of the world.
OK, so a few questions. If God made the world and determined that it was good, why is it considered punishment for Adam and Eve to have to go out into it?
Didn’t the snake tell the truth in that Eve would not die if she ate from the tree of knowledge? And, consequently, did God tell a lie?
Furthermore, doesn’t God share some of the responsibility for “the fall of man,” since he seems to have set the whole situation up with the forbidden fruit in the center of the garden and then by creating the crafty snake to provide the temptation? Was it a test? And why does all mankind have to suffer and not just Adam and Eve? It hardly seems fair.
But this won’t be the first time that things don’t seem to be fair in the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

Introduction

I attend University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. Recently, the sunday school class that my wife and I attend has decided to read the entire Bible from cover to cover as part of the class. So I have decided to start a blog where I can post my thoughts and comments as I attempt to pursue this reading plan with the class.

Although I have been going to church my entire life (I’m 45), I have never read the Bible in full. So this should be an interesting and educational experience.
I consider myself now, and always have, to be a Christian. But I am not what one might call a “conservative Christian” or a fundamentalist. Instead, I take a very philosophical approach to religion, refusing to be locked in to any particular church doctrines.

I am looking forward to the project and since I don’t always get to speak my mind in class, I will use this blog as an outlet where I can hash out my thoughts.