Monday, October 31, 2005

What shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? (Gen 34)

The SAB has nothing to say about chapter 33, and I don't think I do either. It's a pretty straightforward and nice reunion story of Jacob and his brother Esau. Chapter 34, however, has a lot of scandal in it that a lot could be said about.

This chapter is the story of Dinah, Jacob's only mentioned daughter. A short time after moving back to the promised land, Dinah gets taken away by Shechem, a member of a local royal family, and he has sex with her. The story doesn't seem to make it particualrly clear whether or not it's consensual sex; he may have kidnapped and raped her, or it may have been something more like eloping. Given the fact that women weren't treated with too much respect in those days, and Dinah's brothers don't seem to be angry at her specifically, I'd venture to guess that it wasn't consensual sex. Also, the wording of verses three and four seem to me to indicate that his desire to have any sort of long-term relationship with her came after the sex.

The two families get together and try to work out the terms of whether and how the two should be married. Jacob seems to be trying his best to be quiet and calm about it, but his sons are pretty ticked off. They insist that Shechem and all of his people (the Hivites, I guess?) have to be circumcised in order to be acceptable. While indeed, as the SAB says, this may be a case of intolerance against gentiles, it may also be that they're setting demands on Shechem that they don't expect him to be able to fulfill, so that when he says "No," they can have an excuse to say, "See? He doesn't really love her! Let's kill him!" At least, the overall story seems to point to this as a strong possibility.

But they agree, and do it! It almost sounds like that very same afternoon, the whole city goes out to the gate and undergoes this rather uncomfortable procedure. Now if circumcision was what the sons of Israel really wanted, then this should have been a happy ending right here, pretty much. Instead, a couple days later, when all these men are lying around in pain, and perhaps drunk (I probably would be!), Simeon and Levi come and kill them all. They take all their possessions, livestock, and women, and go back home, taking their sister with them.

Now, this sounds like a terrible thing, and in fact, the Bible does very little to dissuade someone of that. Jacob rebukes them, and they seem to not care at all, because their sister's honor was damaged. I'm not sure why the SAB claims, "To the author of Genesis, rape is clearly a crime against the honor of men rather than against a woman." It may indeed be so that this is the case for Simeon and Levi, and for the author of Genesis, but frankly, I don't see that it's "clearly" the case. I could see this going either way.

In any case, a lot of people here have failed to make the right moral decision, and the Bible does not condone any of what happens in this chapter.

Friday, October 28, 2005

He had power over the angel, and prevailed (Gen 32)

More weirdness today in the life of Jacob; this guy just had some odd things happen to him, didn't he?

So when Jacob gets near home, he remembers that his brother wants him dead, and he starts to get nervous. He sends a few messengers ahead to tell his brother that he's coming back, and the messengers return with the news that Esau is riding out to meet Jacob with 400 men. Although the Bible doesn't say if Jacob said anything in response, I imagine if he did, it was something like, "Oh crap, I'm a dead man." He decides the thing to do is divide up everything he has (perhaps including his family) in to two equal groups, and if Esau starts attacking one of the groups, the other one is to run away quickly in hopes that they'd be spared.

Then he prays to God to save him from his brother's wrath, and comes up with another plan. He sends out a number of servants in groups with large amounts of livestock of various types, and he tells each group that when they meet Esau's party, they are to tell him that the livestock is a gift. Hoping that having these gifts go before him will make him more safe, he's willing to finally send his family at the rear, but he himself hesitates alone on the far side of the river. And here's where the really weird stuff starts.

It says Jacob is alone, but then it says, in the very same sentence, that he wrestles with another man. They fight to a standstill, and the man somehow manages to dislocate Jacob's hip, but Jacob still won't give in. The guy essentially says, "Look, we've been fighting all night, and we're not getting anywhere. Why don't you just give up?" Jacob insists on being blessed by this guy before letting go.

The guy (who may be God; Jacob seems to think so) asks Jacob his name. Whether God or not, I don't think this person is really asking for info, he's using the question as a segue into giving Jacob the new name of "Israel". Jacob asks for the man's name, but he refuses to give it. Weird.

Now, I'm not really clear on why it's a big issue (maybe it's just a little one?) but the SAB points out quite rightly that despite what verse 28 says, Jacob actually is still called Jacob by many people after this incident, including God. The reason I don't think it's an issue is because sometimes people change their names, and yet are still called by their old names. My mother, for instance, is known by many people as Mrs. Gardner because that was the surname of my stepfather, and she was married to him for a little over ten years. People who meet her for the first time after knowing me sometimes assume she is Mrs. Brucker, however, she goes by her maiden name. When she went back to her maiden name, she said she didn't want to be known as Mrs. Gardner anymore, but since so many people knew her by that name, she is still called that by many people to this day, and doesn't bother to correct them as far as I know. Jacob's name may have been changed, but it's not unreasonable to call him Jacob still, and not only do people call him that, but in the future, the nation of Israel would occasionally be called "Jacob" as well. Okay, yes, the verse actually says, "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob," but I'm just not clear on why this should disturb my confidence in the Bible.

Is this guy God, though? While Jacob says so according to the KJV and pretty much all the other translations I'm familiar with, there remains some ambiguity in this strange tale. The word translated "God" in these verses is elohim, a strange Hebrew word that, while often translated as "God", is actually plural in form. I may have mentioned it before, but here I think it's worth delving deeper into it. The KJV usually translates this word as "God", but also sometimes uses "god" or "goddess" if the context warrants it, a few times "judge", and once, "angels". Basically it's a word that expresses the concept of a powerful being. It may be possible that Jacob is wrestling with an angel, a prophet, or even some sort of demonic being. I think Jews tend to favor the idea that it's an angel, but I'm not at all certain about that. Many Christians do view this as being God, usually particularly an appearance of a pre-incarnate Christ. One might rightly wonder if indeed this is God, how is Jacob able to wrestle him to a standstill? It's a mystery to me.

Whatever the true nature of this confrontation, there is almost certainly a level at which this is all having symbolic significance. Jacob has spent his whole life, from before birth even, wrestling with his brother, his father, his father-in law, his wives, and even the occasional inanimate object, and now, he is wrestling with his fear and his faith in God. In the end, he is triumphant, and crosses the river to accept his fate and place his future in the hand of God.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go (Gen 31)

Did I ever make a commitment to do this blog each and every weekday? I can't remember, but I seem to recall thinking so at least in my mind. I certainly don't have to post constantly, but if I can't at least get out a couple a week, I'm likely to lose what little readership I have, not to mention being lax in the duty I set before myself to use this as a daily Bible study of sorts. In any case, after a very busy week, I'm dropping in today to do at least a short one. While chapter 31 isn't short itself, the SAB has little to say about it. It's another strange story in the saga that is Jacob's life, but nothing contradictory or supernaturally bizarre other than a retouching on items from the last few chapters.

Anyway, in this chapter, we see Jacob noticing that Laban's not as happy with having Jacob around as he used to be, so Jacob decides it's time to leave his father-in-law before something bad happens. Also, he apparently has a dream in which God confirms it's time to go, so he grabs all his stuff and all his family (the nature of which I discussed much previously), and takes off back home to Canaan.

For some reason that is never fully explained (especially since Laban seems to be a believer in the God of the Bible) Laban has some idols in the house that Rachel steals. Maybe she wants to take them away to worship them, maybe she thinks she's serving God by sort of purifying her father's house, maybe the things were worth some money, but we never really get told. There may be something symbolic in the fact that later Rachel hides them under her seat and keeps her saddlebags from being searched by claiming to be unclean due to her period. I couldn't say whether this is Rachel intentionally being ironic, or the author of the story being ironic, but the Bible is fond of mixing sexual and spiritual metaphors, and, well... These were things that God didn't want men to touch for his own reasons. There may also be a bit of comedy in the fact that Laban's "gods" are rendered powerless by a woman sitting on them.

Laban in any case is upset that Jacob tried to sneak away as though he were kidnapping his daughters, and in coming after Jacob, seems to hint that he wants to have harsh words with him, but doesn't feel he can since God told him not to in a dream. Of course, he still wants his household gods back, but can't seem to find them. Jacob, knowing nothing about it, probably feels he's being wrongfully accused.

Laban and Jacob make a covenant, so that they can depart on good terms, as neither of them fully trusts the other. They make a pile of stones to commemorate the event, which they each call "witness pile" in their own language. Yes, it's okay to make an oath, but I personally won't make an oath that I'll have new post tomorrow although I'll try.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Am not I better to thee than ten sons? (Gen 30)

So, the baby wars are on.

Leah's got four children, and Rachel has none, and Rachel's apparently flipping out about it. The SAB notes, "Rachel considers herself worthless if she cannot produce children for her husband." While it's unfortunate, I think it's clear that it's a cultural thing, perhaps particularly in the ancient Middle East, that a woman did indeed consider a great deal of her self- worth to be measured by the number of offspring she could produce for her husband, especially male offspring. In any case, she starts getting angry at Jacob because she doesn't have any children, and Jacob's technically true but perhaps more than a little insensitive response is, "Hey, it's not like it's my fault, is it?" (But then again, maybe it is his fault?)

So Rachel comes up with the same solution Sarah did; she offers her handmaiden Bilhah to her husband. As Rachel notes, culturally the child would be considered to be hers for however these sorts of things work. This makes me wonder sometimes why Sarah got so bent out of shape over the same arrangement, especially since it was her own idea. Rachel seems to have no problem with it.

So Rachel gets two sons out of this deal, but this just leads Leah to get jealous again, so she offers up her handmaid Zilpah, who proceeds to also have two sons. While the SAB says that daughters never seem to come out of these unions, there is of course a daughter born in verse 21. Perhaps the intention of this claim is that no daughters come of these surrogate mothering arrangements. Maybe, maybe not. I wonder at times whether there may have been daughters that simply are not mentioned. Call it sexist if you will (and I might not argue), but the Bible rarely mentions daughters unless they're important to the plot, and Dinah is central to a story that comes up a few chapters from now.

Back to the action, Reuben, Leah's oldest, finds some mandrakes and gives them to his mother. Mandrakes are herbs that apparently have been considered by some to be either an aphrodisiac or they magically make you fertile, I can't remember which it is, maybe both. Now neither of these women is having children right now, so they both want to get their hands on these things, but Leah has them. So Rachel makes a bargain and says that Leah gets to sleep with Jacob if she gives her the mandrakes. But so much for the power of mandrakes, because it's Leah who ends up having another son, two of them, actually, and the only mentioned daughter. Finally after all this, Rachel gives birth to Joseph herself.

Now Jacob decides enough time has passed, and he tells his uncle/father-in-law that he wants to go back home. Laban, however, seems somewhat unwilling to let him go, saying that he knows God is blessing him for the sake of Jacob. The SAB notes that the phrase used in verse 27 probably is referring to divination of some sort on Laban's part, and I think that's probably correct. The Hebrew word behind the phrase is almost never translated the same way twice in the KJV, and most other choices by the translators reflect a concept of discerning by a spiritual method. He could be speaking figuratively as many modern Christians do (although they may not mean to be speaking figuratively) when they say, "God was telling me..." when something goes their way. Whatever the case may be, I'm not sure what the problem is here.

Jacob apparently cuts a deal and says that he will stay a while longer, but he wants to have a share among the flocks. He says he will take the sheep and cattle and goats that have certain characteristics, and leave the rest. This sounds fine to Laban, so he grants it. Then, another one of the stranger parts of the Bible: Jacob proceeds to perform some weird trick with the sheep where he shows them certain colors when they come to drink water, and they conceive and have offspring that are the desired color Jacob wants. Why this works, I have no idea. It certainly isn't the case that an animal's colors will be determined by the colors its parents were looking at when they were conceived. Genetics just doesn't work that way. The only thing I can imagine is that somehow these colored poplar rods have an aphrodisiac effect on the livestock, and when Jacob sees the right ones together that will produce the offspring he wants...? Who knows? I've never heard of anyone explaining what this is supposed to mean, other than the possibility that Jacob has a stupid idea that God, since He wanted to bless Jacob, makes work through a miracle. If that were really the case, though, I think the Bible would tell, as most miracles are clearly indicated within the text.

You win this round, SAB... ; )

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters (Gen 29)

This is probably one of the strangest love stories in the Bible, if not ever, anywhere.

Jacob comes to the land of his uncle Laban. Note that he is repeatedly referred to as his "mother's brother", but the description of the familial relation is referred to fluidly in general. At least one time Laban calls Jacob his "brother". I think I resolved the specific relationship between Laban and Jacob in yesterday's post, and discussed previously that "brother" often figuratively means "relative" or "close friend" and "father" and "son" are respectively used to mean "ancestor" and "descendant".

Shortly after Jacob gets there, he sees his cousin Rachel, who is apparently really hot, and it's love at first sight. So he helps her water her father's sheep, gives her a kiss, and then meets his uncle. His uncle is excited to meet him (apparently, it seems, because he sees an opportunity to milk this kid for cheap labor) and offers him an ongoing job helping with the livestock. Jacob asks to be paid by marrying Laban's daughter.

Now, Laban has two daughters, Leah and Rachel. While Rachel is supposedly pretty hot, the best the Bible can say about Leah is that she is "tender eyed". (Actually, it's not really clear whether this is a compliment or not.) Jacob wants Rachel, and agrees to work seven years to earn her hand. Laban tricks Jacob and after he works for seven years, he gives him Leah instead. I guess Jacob is too drunk on his wedding night to notice or something, since he doesn't even notice until morning. Jacob ends up having to serve another seven years to pay for Rachel, whom he loves enough to do so.

The SAB has a lot of notes on this story as to its general goofiness and bizarre quality, but once again, it's not clear what the actual objection is. Yes, Laban is being dishonest. Yes, this is something that from our modern standards (and even to some extent the standards of the day) is pretty twisted and shocking on both a business and sexual level. Yes, while polygamy is wrong, Jacob ends up with two (or four if you count Zilpah and Bilhah) wives. All of this leads to a number of problems that begin at the tail end of this chapter. This in no way means that the Bible is setting up this situation as an example that anyone is meant to follow, so I'm not sure the point of the objections, if indeed they are objections. Perhaps, as someone told me (maybe it was Steve Wells himself) the point here is that there are stories far less salacious that Christians would be horrified to find that their children were reading. I don't think this story is appropriate for children.

Yet, in the midst of this, children do come! The baby wars between Rachel and Leah start here, when God causes Leah to have children, and Rachel to be barren. Leah has four sons and names them: Reuben = "behold a son"; Simeon = "heard"; Levi = "joined to"; Judah = "praised". Apparently, Leah is hoping that having children will make her more loved by her husband, but it's never made clear whether this actually works.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods (Gen 28)

Okay, chapter 28 has some more meat to it, although many of these questions are fairly easy to address.

First, the SAB notes as "intolerance" the fact that Isaac didn't want his son to marry a Canaanite woman. This may indeed be intolerance, but it's intolerance with a point. Even people who dislike intolerance tend to be intolerant of intolerant people. In this case, it was very likely the point that Isaac felt all of the local women were too pagan to be suitable for his sons, and was afraid these women would turn his heart from serving God. Apparently, the land of Abraham's youth is still considered a better place to get a wife, although I'm never too sure why.

Jacob goes off to his uncle Laban (Rebekah's brother) to look for a wife. This is a convoluted family tree by this time (Abraham marries his sister, Isaac marries his double-first cousin once removed, and Jacob is heading towards marrying his first cousin/double-second cousin once removed), so I had to sketch it out to track who was who and answer the question of who Laban's actual father is. It's Bethuel. Yes, the next chapter calls him the "son of Nahor", but (and I think I covered this before, but it's certainly not a little-known concept) saying that X is the son of Y is often simply a way of saying Y is an ancestor of X, not necessarily directly. Nahor is Laban's grandfather, and I'm speculating that the reason Jacob calls Laban the "son of Nahor" is that he's choosing a more prominent member of that family or perhaps accentuating the more distant relation that nonetheless is traced through only males by way of Abraham.

After Jacob is sent away, Esau gets married to yet another wife. No, this is not okay; it's wrong on numerous levels. Esau is going against his parents' wishes to marry this woman, he's already got wives, and he seems to be doing it to get some sort of reaction from his parents. As I said before, Esau is not set up as an example of good morality.

Jacob has a dream along the way, and he sees a ladder going up to Heaven, and God reiterates the promises He gave to Jacob's father and grandfather. Did this promise come true? Maybe, it depends on how you read it. He calls the place Bethel or "House of God", which he does again many chapters later. The SAB sees this as absurd, suggesting "I guess the name didn't take the first time." It's funny, because I suggested that as a slight possibility in the case of Beersheba, but here, I'm fairly sure that's exactly what happened. Sometimes it's not clear what the full details of a story are; I, like many no doubt, have a tendency to envision the patriarchs wandering lonely through the desert, but forget that they had a rich possession of livestock and servants. In this case, though, that lonely picture seems fitting. If Jacob was traveling with an entourage, would he be using a rock as a pillow? I think Jacob was traveling alone with the clothes on his back, and at this time he originally calls the place Bethel, there's nobody there. The name didn't stick, because only Jacob knew it for over a decade.

As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated (Gen 27)

Ah, I have a wireless connection and a lull in the meeting that may not last, I'll pop in here for a moment to deal with a chapter I am surprised to see having so few SAB notes. There does seem to be an affinity for pointing out the personal foibles of Biblical characters in the SAB, and this is a prime example for many of that sort of thing, although not all Bible readers see this story the same way.

Short synopsis: Isaac gets old, decides he's going to bless Esau, Rebekah tells Jacob and encourages him to trick his father into giving the blessing to him instead.

Jacob, one may note, never objects because it might be wrong to deceive his father, but only because he's not quite convinced he can pull it off. Either Jacob has no conscience about the matter, or perhaps he might think he's doing the right thing. Note that back in chapter 25, both before and after Jacob is born, there is indication that Jacob is destined to get the best of his brother. I'm not sure whether that so much makes it right for him to trick his father, nor whether it had to be that way for God's plan to work out, but there it is. Furthermore, I have heard it said that aside from the morality of Jacob's deception, Isaac was doing the wrong thing to base his decision of which son to bless based on his own preference rather than God's. Add to that the fact that Isaac obviously knows something is up in verse 22, and is hesitant. (Also in verse 35, he figures it out awfully quickly.) Perhaps Isaac knows what's right, and what's God's will, but... I don't know, this is an odd story, and I almost wish the SAB had more to say so I could respond more directly.

Both Jacob and Esau seem to believe they are the rightful owners of this blessing. Jacob's response to hearing it would go to his brother is to work to set things right. Esau's response is to plot to kill Jacob. This, along with the story at the end of chapter 25 shows the difference in the character of these brothers. Jacob may be tricky, but he isn't a violent or vengeful man. Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that Esau turns out so bad, but he is what he is in the end.

So, in a similar turn of events to his father, Jacob goes away to his cousins' land to find a wife, and out of the reach of his brother.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Three days agone I fell sick (Taking about a week off)

Sorry for few updates this week, I've been sick, overworked, and preparing for a business trip which will also keep me out of this most of next week. (No, I'm not here, but the thought is enticing.) I'd suggest that anyone who on the off chance might actually be missing my ranting might go check out the discussion boards at the SAB; I recently started some discussions here and here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

They returned into the land of the Philistines (Gen 26)

The Bible does not say that Isaac visited the king of the Philistines "in the days of Abraham", it says that he visited them at a time "beside...the days of Abraham", but the point still stands about the anachronism of Philistines in this time period. I think I already touched on this topic, but I can't find it, so I'll have to brave the possibility of repetition. The thing to remember is that when the Bible writers write about certain things, sometimes they're writing hundreds of years after the events, so they use terms that are anachronistic. There's a certain area of the Middle East that eventually comes to be known as the land of the Philistines, so if a person living in a time when Philistines lived in that area wrote about it, they might call those people Philistines even though the label was technically wrong, just because it makes it easier for the "contemporary" reader to understand. For instance, I might say that before Europeans came to the area where I grew up, the area was the territory of one of the most powerful Californian tribes, the Pomo. This is essentially correct even though the area would not be called "California" for hundreds of years after the Pomo were at the height of their power.

God "appears" to Isaac and tells him to stay in that land like his father. I already touched on the subject of God being "seen" in a previous post, but while not mentioned in the SAB I have to admit that it occurs to me at this point that I'm a little perplexed as to why God cares where exactly Isaac stays since he never gives him any land.

Now, Isaac goes to Gerar, and we largely see a replay of what happened to his father there. It's almost one of those things that a Bible critic might take as a mistakenly-placed story that only belonged in one of their lives and not the other, if not for the fact that the Bible actually admits that this is a similar story, but assures the reader it's a different one. This time, it doesn't go so far as someone taking Rebekah away from Isaac, but instead, the king catches Isaac and Rebekah making out in public. Isaac is not recorded to make any excuses like "Well, by 'sister' I meant 'cousin' really..." It's hard to say whether Rebekah was not as hot as Sarah, or Abimelech knew from what had happened last time (probably to his father) that this family was to be handled carefully, because God seems to like them despite their being pathological liars.

Many of the other issues in this chapter have been covered before, such as slavery, the naming of Beersheba, and polygamy, the last of which deserves the added note here that virtually nothing Esau does is set up as a good example.

This leaves only the issue of Bashemath's parentage. Honestly, there are a number of different ways that one could explain it away, but in the end, it's probably an actual error of some sort. It's a matter of personal taste whether or not a person wants to view the Bible as completely free of errors such as this one that really aren't of significance, or whether or not such errors are troubling. Did a scribe get it wrong, or did Esau have two wives with the same name? Or maybe there was another group of "Hittites" that were descended from Ishmael? As for me today, I'm tired and don't really care that much. Maybe I'll revisit it in chapter 36 if I feel ambitious a couple weeks from now.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Behold, twins were in her womb (Gen 25)

Ah, Genesis 25, the chapter that most clearly demonstrates the non-linear style of storytelling that's used throughout the Bible, and especially in the book of Genesis. (Not to mention a bit of very interesting storytelling in its own right.) In fact, I was reading the commentary in Robert Alter's translation of Genesis, and he notes at the end of chapter 24 that some scholars believe that Abraham may have died before Isaac was married, and that the actual death of Abraham may have occurred while Eliezer was off looking for Isaac's bride.

Anyway, Abraham takes another "wife" after Sarah dies, named Keturah. I put "wife" in quotes because, as the SAB points out, it's not really quite clear whether she's truly considered a wife. A verse from 1Chronicles is quoted, but really, you only need to scan down to verse six, where one can easily assume (as I do) that the term "concubines" refers to Keturah and Hagar. So it might be worth asking what Keturah's status is to some people, although personally I'd suspect that the line separating "wife" and "concubine" is not exactly well-defined. A simple answer might be to point out that, as in many languages, the Hebrew word for "wife" and "woman" is the same. In verse one here, as well as back in 16:3 with Hagar, this could have been translated simply as "woman" and made sense, but perhaps the KJV translators (along with most others) didn't like the idea of Abraham having sex with a woman who was not his proper wife. A more complicated answer might be to consider that the writers of the parts of the Bible that mention this woman might have particular points to make at different times, and so used terms that would accentuate their points. Although Keturah was indeed a "wife" by any normal standard, when we drop down a few verses and the author decides to call her a "concubine", he's trying to make a clear distinction between Sarah and the other two women in Abraham's life. Particularly the relation they have to the promises of God and the land of Canaan.

So Abraham has at least six more children after Sarah is gone, and each of them is sent away from the place where Abraham lives, so that they won't be in the way of Isaac growing up and being prosperous. While I covered most of the objections to this story back in chapter 13, I might as well hit on them just lightly again. Abraham is able to have more children easily because the infertility problem was Sarah's. As far as I'm aware, in fact, while women have menopause, men never stop being fertile, although they certainly may have other problems that would impede them from conceiving. In a sense, there is a viewpoint theologically that nobody has any children ever without God's help, but that's an extreme viewpoint. These other children may not be considered legitimate children if indeed Keturah was a "concubine", I'm not sure. However the point I said back in chapter 13 was that every time Isaac is referred to as Abraham's "only" son, it refers to a time frame before he has any children with Keturah, so the existence of these children has no bearing on the question of how many children Abraham had. Oh, and furthermore on the subject of time frame, I don't know anyone who considers it polygamy to marry another wife after your first wife dies.

Abraham dies at 175, an impressive age, but certainly not impossible. Ishmael comes back from wherever he's living to help Isaac bury their father, so apparently they're getting along okay, perhaps in a large part due to them not having to live together. A short synopsis is given of Ishmael's life and children, who become a powerful nation in their own right as Israel will in the future. Ishmael also lives to an impressive age.

Rebekah turns out to be barren, which the SAB labels as absurd, but doesn't explain why. Perhaps it's the fact that she seems to be in a long line of infertile wives? I don't know what the SAB's getting at, but as I think I said before (and I don't remember where it was if I did) I think that God is putting some odd control on the biological clocks of the matriarchs to make the timing just right for the period the nation of Israel spends in Egypt. Who knows? Maybe infertility was just a problem in that time and place?

Rebekah does eventually get pregnant though, and actually, her infertility is an odd footnote, because it's just for one verse of the story, and we don't know how long in time it was. She only gives birth once, though, and it's twins. More interesting names here; the older one is Esau or "hairy", while Jacob is "heel grasper". Imagine your child being born and you notice that she has a funny nose, so you say to your spouse, "Hey Honey, let's name her 'Schnozia', don't you think?"

Obviously not identical twins, Esau is a big burly hairy man who loves hunting, while Jacob is a bit of a momma's boy (literally) who likes to hang out at home and cook. Their parents play favorites, and apparently, so does God. Despite the note on the SAB, the Bible does not in any place that I am aware of say that Rebekah hated Esau, she just liked Jacob better. In part, it may have been the prophecy she was given about them. Throughout the story of these boys' lives, Isaac keeps trying to make Esau the better one, but God and their mother keep trying to manipulate things to put Jacob in front, because despite not being as manly as his father might like him to be, Jacob is the more morally upright of the two (which says a lot, since he's no angel). We get the first hint of it in the end of the chapter when he sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. Not exactly the shining example.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. (Gen 24)

So after Sarah is dead, Isaac must be nearly 40 by this time, and yet he hasn't married yet. What's he waiting for? Apparently, his father has some misgivings about his son marrying one of the local Canaanite women, a fact that the SAB labels as "Intolerance". This is easy to address on a factual level, but difficult on other levels, as people have different views on whether this sort of thing is acceptable. The Canaanites were pretty much pagans, and Abraham wasn't going to let his son take a pagan wife. There are numerous stories in the Bible of Israelite men marrying pagans and being led astray to wrong religious practices. No doubt this comes from the fact that most of us men find our sexual desires to be one of the most powerful forces in our life, and sexuality is something that is closely mingled with spirituality on numerous levels. I suppose one could say it's intolerant, but from a Judeo-Christian point of view, there are some sorts of intolerance that are not only acceptable, but good. Really, most people are intolerant about something; in our modern highly-tolerant culture, there are a lot of people who are intolerant towards intolerance!

So, Abraham admits that he's not likely to live too much longer, and to deal with the matter of his son still being unmarried, he makes Eliezer swear that he will get Isaac a bride from among his family back in his homeland. This is a very interesting oath, as Eliezer is asked to "put his hand under the thigh of Abraham," which--as the SAB points out--is likely to be a euphemism for holding Abraham's genitals. Apparently, this was a surprisingly common way for a man to take an oath in those days, and in this case, as the oath is concerned with the carrying on of Abraham's offspring, it seems symbolically appropriate. (As for the moral value of swearing an oath, I discussed it at the end of this post.) Eliezer seems concerned that he might not be able to just run off and get a wife like that, and suggests that he bring Isaac with him, but Abraham insists that Isaac is not to go back, and tells Eliezer if he can't work it out, then he's not bound by the oath any more.

Now when Eliezer gets to where he's supposed to go, and he prays to God that a very specific sign will be given to him, which comes to pass. This sign of Rebekah giving water to Eliezer's camels is actually a fairly significant one, as a camel drinks a lot of water, and for someone to give water to ten camels "until they have done drinking" is quite a task. In addition to being an answer to Eliezer's prayer, it shows that Rebekah is a strong, healthy woman with a kind heart. She's also noted to be attractive, which the SAB puts some icons next to, but essentially no comment, so I don't know what the issue is there.

So Eliezer, being convinced that Rebekah is the woman that God wants Isaac to marry, gets introduced to her family (Isaac's cousins), brags a lot about how many slaves Abraham has (I discussed the morality of slavery here), and gives Rebekah some gold bracelets and an "earring". I didn't realize that the KJV translated this "earring". Most other translations, probably because of the wording of verse 47 ("put the earring upon her face") translate the jewelry given to her as "nose ring". I've always thought it was odd with the popularity of nose rings these days that I never hear of anyone in modern times giving a nose ring as an engagement ring. It sounds cute to me.

Eliezer takes some time to recap for these folks everything that's happened to Abraham, excessive repetition being for better or worse a common Biblical narrative device. At the end, Rebekah's family agrees that Isaac would be a good husband and that it seems to be God's will for her to go, so he showers them all with gifts and insists he return the very next morning. Sort of a neat and unexpected thing happens here in the midst of a lot of stuff that sounds rather sexist: Eliezer wants to go at once, her parents want her to wait a few days so they can see her off, and in the end they let her make the decision. She decides to go, and the rest is history.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Nay; but I will verily buy it for the full price (Gen 23)

Deciding to myself that I'd rather not do more than one chapter per post may not have been a good thing when there were bound to be chapters like this one with no notes to reply to. Or maybe it's a good thing that I can have some nice short posts, or at least would if I didn't ramble like this whenever I get a nice short one.

I've got a lot of questions I'd like to ask anyone who's bothering to read this, in hopes that people might actually leave comments. Should I limit myself to a single chapter for ease of organization? Are these posts too long, too short, or just right? Once I finish Genesis, should I just go on to Exodus, or should I skip around a bit? (I am of course not looking forward to Leviticus, as that's a rather tedious book.)

But anyway, there's still a few things I could say about chapter 23, and so I will. As I said somewhere before, Sarah is unusual in the Bible due to what most would consider sexism in being one of only two women whose age is given, and the only woman whose age at death is given. Like all the men whose lifespans are numbered in these pages, she lives a long life, dying at 127. (The original Hebrew does something a bit odd that's not translated by most English translations, actually; a literal translation is something like, "And was the life of Sarah hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah.") I wonder if it might have been extra-tough for Abraham to lose her. It's hard enough for someone to lose a spouse, I'm sure, but as Sarah was his half-sister, and he was ten years older than her, he probably knew her for her entire life.

In the midst of his mourning, Abraham goes to some nearby people and asks them to give him some land where he can bury Sarah. They tell him that he can just ask and anyone would be willing to sell some land to him, so he asks this guy Ephron. Now it gets a little weird, because Ephron at first says he'll just give the land to Abraham, but Abraham insists on paying a full price. So Ephron, shortly after saying he'll give it as a gift, tells Abraham the price is four hundred shekels. This whole exchange is very odd. Abraham tells Ephron that all he wants is "the cave...which is in the end of his field" indicating that he's not looking for land, and that there is no reason for him to even need part of the field to walk through, since the cave is at the end of the field. Ephron then insists that Abraham take the whole field, and asks an incredibly exorbitant price for it. (Jeremiah bought a field for less than twenty shekels.) So Abraham's getting ripped off, but in a strangely roundabout manner.

Something about history that my own Bible notes but the SAB does not is that fact that a "shekel" is commonly a kind of coin used in the Middle East in ancient times, but coinage wasn't invented for hundreds of years later. In this context, though, it seems pretty clear that the term is being used as a measurement of weight. There are a lot of terms in the Bible of which people have questioned the historical authenticity, but often they're just referring to another similar concept.

See you tomorrow for a somewhat more exciting chapter...

Monday, October 03, 2005

He gave his only begotten Son (Gen 22)

You know, I gotta hand it to the SAB for thoroughness. While sometimes I think the criticisms go overboard, it's clear to me that it's because Wells is trying to make sure he covers all the angles. There are a few things pointed out in this chapter that I'm not sure I've ever thought of. Of course, you can't read this chapter without seeing the issue of human sacrifice, that's obvious, but there are a few minor, but important points brought up here.

Off the top, something that can often be a sticking point for some is the issue of whether God "tempts" people. James says that God does not tempt people, but there a re a few places where it sure seems like it's happening, particularly here, where the KJV says outright that Abraham was being tempted. One of the very difficult things that the Bible reader has to deal with is vague language. The Hebrew word that is translated here as "did tempt" has a variety of meanings, and in fact, the KJV is more likely to translate the word "prove" than "tempt". I actually would love to know why the KJV translators chose "tempt" in this particular case, as every other instance of translating this word as "tempt" it refers to testing God. Perhaps the idea behind the word is making an unfair demand of someone to see if they'll follow through, because that certainly seems to fit with the idea behind this story. In any case, Abraham is being tested by God, not provoked into choosing wrong, but provoked into choosing right.

So the test is that Abraham is told by God to take his only son, Isaac, and give him as a sacrifice on a nearby mountain. Now, God is not generally in the practice of asking for human sacrifices; in fact I'd say this is the only time He orders it (I realize the SAB gives other examples of things that seem to be saying this, but I'll deal with those as I come to them), and there's something that should be quite notable about it. He doesn't have Abraham actually go through with it. No, it was just a test, not a real sacrifice.

Should Abraham have gone through with it? I mean, obviously not once God said not to, but should Abraham have just said, "God, I don't think this is right, and I won't do it!" Well, I'd definitely tell anyone who thought God was telling them to kill someone to go see a doctor and make sure they're on the right meds, but if indeed it was God talking to Abraham, then Abraham did the right thing to obey. While it may seem heartless, there are a few things to consider. If you look at Hebrews 11:17-19, you see that Abraham remembered God promising Isaac would prosper and have children, so Abraham knew that whatever was going on, this wasn't the end of Isaac. As a child reading this story, I always assumed Abraham knew God would call it off, but the passage I quoted in the N.T. there says that Abraham assumed God would bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham knows that he has to obey God, and that if he does, God will make everything turn out alright. Note that Abraham says to his servants that he will be coming back with his son.

There are some interesting bits of symbolism here, both for the Jewish faith and the Christian one. It's believed by Jews that the place that all of this happened was right near where the Temple would actually be built. Christians also believe this, and in particular are also interested in the symbolism of Isaac being a prefiguring of Christ, carrying wood (like the cross) to the place where he is eventually going to be offered as a sacrifice. Isaac is not completely clueless here, either. While most people seem to read this story as Abraham taking a little boy up to the mountain, it is traditionally thought that Isaac is probably in his early thirties. When Abraham, a 130-year-old man ties up his 30-year-old son and places him on the altar, he must have been a willing, if confused participant. The best bit of interesting symbolism is in the wording of the KJV translation, which unfortunately is not likely supported well by the original Hebrew: "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering." The ambiguity of this statement in English is rather suggestive of Jesus' death centuries later.

After God calls the whole thing off, though, he then says, "Now I know that thou fearest God..."I have to admit this is very odd wording for a God who supposedly knows everything, and assumedly only asked Abraham to do this because He knew Abraham would be willing, but wouldn't actually go through with it. I tend to think that God tests people for their own benefit, because He knows the strength of their character, and wants to give them insight into themselves that they would not have without the testing. In such a case though, it seems it would make more sense to say something like, "Now I see..." since He already knew, but this was the first time it was visibly shown. There is some ambiguity in the Hebrew word, and I'd like to suggest that it could be rendered "perceive", but I'd hate to put myself in a very unpopular position: I can't find any widely-accepted English translation that doesn't translate that word into "I know". Of course, knowing now doesn't mean He didn't before, but it sure sounds like God was almost holding His breath waiting to see how this would turn out, doesn't it? I just don't know what that's all about.

I also don't know what the deal is with the claim in Exodus 6:3 that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob didn't know God's name, YHWH. Not only does Abraham use it here, but he used it in 14:22, 24:3, and 24:7, and Jacob uses it in various verses, the first of which is 27:20, in conversation with Isaac. Perhaps by the time I get to Exodus 6:3, I'll have an idea what that passage might be saying, because it does appear to be wrong taken at face value.

So God once again swore to bless Abraham and his descendants, and yes, God swore "by and to himself." And why not?