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.