Amos 3-4: Disciplinary Strategies

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In Amos 1-2, it was easy to see a structure. I had noted at the time that Amos seemed to be drawing the Samarians in with some bravado about how terrible foreign nations are, then drawing ever closer until he dropped the bomb: indicting Samaria itself.

I see a few similar rhetorical tactics in Amos 3-4, but they are shorter. I’m getting the impression that the book of Amos is a collection of arguments/prophecies, rather than something that would have been meant as a complete treatise.

Most of Amos 3-4 is told as if it were the direct words of Gods (“spoken against you” – Amos 3:1), though with periodic speech tags in case anyone forgets.

Amos 3 begins by identifying Israel as a chosen people (or “family,” as they are called here). As Collins points out, “this should be good news.” Instead, however, it is because God has only known (in the biblical sense) Israel that the nation will be punished. “Election only means greater responsibility” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).

A Rhetorical Questioning

Amos 3:3-8 contains a series of rhetorical questions, culminating with the argument that God is the agent of Samaria’s suffering. The questions themselves are ones of obviousness, along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

They start off rather unrelated to the point being made: Do two people walk together unless they have, at some point, met each other? Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? (While I typically think of lions as being savannah dwellers, the Asiatic lion can, apparently, live in forests, and would have been the lion Amos was most familiar with.)

The questions inch closer to the point: Can a trumpet be blown in a city without making the people afraid?

And, finally: Can evil befall a city without it being God’s doing?

After the questions, we are told that God does not act without revealing it to the prophets (Amos 3:7). This, then, leads into:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

This is clearly a call back to Amos 1:2, but also reinforces the argument. God causes evil => God lets the prophets know when he does so => I have heard God tell me so, and am therefore compelled to tell you.

See the Oppression!

The reader is bidden to witness the tumult and oppression in Samaria. Clearly, Amos is one of them SJWs, because this injustice is prompting punishment from God.

The imagery is striking: Just as a shepherd might pull a few body parts out of a lion’s mouth, so will some small minority of Israelites be rescued from Samaria’s fate (Amos 3:12). The implication is clear – you may survive what’s coming, but you won’t be whole.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

Special mention is made of the altars at Bethel, whose horns will be cut off. These would be Jeroboam’s altars, built in 1 Kgs 12:25-33.

God will also destroy all the fancy houses, including the houses of ivory. An ivory house is mentioned in 1 Kgs 22:39, which my study Bible identifies as a Samarian palace “decorated with carved ivory inlay and containing furniture so decorated.” (It seems that some of these ivory inlays have survived.)

The listing of the palaces that will be destroyed concludes with “and the great houses shall come to an end” (Amos 3:15), which seems to be another example of a pun on the word “house” (which can mean both a physical structure and a dynasty). One of the more elaborate examples of these came in 1 Chron. 17:1-15, where David and God keep offering to build houses for each other, variously meaning palaces, dynasties, and temples.

Amos then turns his attention to the women of Samaria, whom he calls “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Bashan, it seems, was a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that they are basically being called “fat cows.”

The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.

Next come the cultic practices, as God, via Amos, invites the Samarians to keep sinning at Bethel and Gilgal (both associated with prophets in 2 Kgs 2:1-2). They are invited to keep bringing their sacrifices and tithes, and to “publish them” as they so love to do (Amos 4:5).

The mention of the shrines made me wonder if it was a Deuteronomistic criticism of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple. However, what follows makes it seem more like the criticism is of the pomp and circumstance, and the publicity of it all. It rang similar to Matthew 6:5, calling out the public display of pious peacocking as hypocrisy.

Collins points to another possibility, that ritual “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the serve of God, but actually an impediment to it. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 158).

Expecting A Different Result

There have been portions of tonight’s reading that I’ve appreciated (the mentions of social justice, the condemnation of religious hypocrisy), and parts that have made me gag (the overt patriarchy of Amos’s condemnation of wives who presume). But the second half of Amos 4 is just plain silly.

In it, God lists all the punishments he’s given Samaria, ending each with, “yet you did not return to me.”

See, I’m a parent. I don’t go with the whole punishment thing as a general rule because the concept is rather silly. Most of what we read as “misbehaviour” actually turns out to be age-appropriate responses to asking too much from itty-bitty people. When I adjust my expectations and plan ahead for the unavoidable, nearly all “disciplinary” issues disappear. What remains can almost always be dealt with through teaching.

Punishments usually end up being counter productive, because punishing a child for age-appropriate behaviours doesn’t actually fix the problems. All it does is either break the child so they become unable to cope and meet their own needs, or it fosters an adversarial relationship that will then require parents to maintain constant vigilance in order to maintain the family hierarchy. Neither of which sounds like a positive outcome to me.

So here we have a God who sees the same behaviours repeated over and over again, and responds every time with punishments. And even though these punishments are clearly not working, he doggedly sticks to this one strategy while wringing his hands because it never ever works.

It reads like bad comedy.

The punishments themselves are:

  • Giving the people clean teeth and lack of bread;
  • Withholding rain when it was still 3 months before the harvest;
  • Arbitrarily withering some fields and not others;
  • Smiting with blight and mildew, laying waste to gardens and vineyards, devouring fig and olive trees with locusts;
  • Sending a pestilence (in the manner of Egypt);
  • Slaying Samaria’s young men with the sword and carrying away its horses;
  • Making the stench of Samaria’s camps go up their nostrils (I do believe this is scatological);
  • And overthrowing bits of Samaria, “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Amos 4:11 – you may notice the POV break here).

I just happened to be reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, and I came on the following relevant passage, given the mention of the harvest:

Before the time of the harvest, rich and poor alike waited. The Mediterranean is notorious for the variability of its harvests, due to unstable climatic conditions. The carefully tended fields were menaced by flattening cloudbursts, by random scything by hailstorms, and by the perpetual menace of prolonged drought (along its eastern and southern shores) and of “dry” winters (winters without snow and thus without moisture) in the plateaus of its hinterlands, notably in Anatolia. “Harvest shocks” caused by unforeseen shortfalls in the crops were the norm. In all areas except Egypt, yields could vary by over 50 percent from year to year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, wealth was widely thought of as lying in the hands of the gods. A good harvest was the smile of God or of the gods spreading across an obedient landscape. In 311, one of the last pagan emperors (the eastern emperor Maximin Daia) informed the citizens of Tyre that his persecution of the Christians had pleased the gods. The weather itself had changed for the better:

“Let them look at the standing crops already flourishing with waving heads in the broad fields, and at the meadows, glittering with plants and flowers, in response to abundant rains and to the restored mildness and softness of the atmosphere.” (p.12)

After all of that, though, the sermon just sort of… fizzles. Because all these punishments haven’t worked, God will send more. “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Then it derails entirely, telling us that he who makes mountains and creates wind is the God of hosts. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels that the passage seems odd in this spot, and the authenticity of Amos 4:13 is questioned, mostly because “the passages are abrupt in their context” (New Bible Commentary, p.728).

Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.

Deuteronomy 29-30: The sealing of the covenant

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In these two chapters, Moses concludes his treatise. Once again, he summarizes the journey so far and the sorts of awesome works God has used to demonstrate his power, including the fact that they’ve been wandering in the desert for forty years without their clothes or sandals wearing out. Personally, I’d say that might be more indicative of losing a couple calendars, time warps, accidentally entering the Fey lands, or perhaps a testament to the quality of pre-WalMartization clothing.

There’s another mention of conquering lands from King Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, giving their lands to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.

Coming to the present, the people are gathered at Mount Horeb to swear to the covenant, which will be binding not only on them, but also those who are not present (I assume he means the descendants).

A Poisonous Root

Moses reminds the people to beware of anyone who approaches the covenant without full commitment, “lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18).

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Further, no one should think that simply agreeing to the covenant is enough, that they’ve done their good deed, and can then continue to “walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deut. 29:19).

This is actually quite a good point and something that made me rather cynical when I worked for not-for-profits. Generally, people in my sector (at least in my corner of the sector) earned less than their for-profit or public sector doubles. I noticed that a lot of my co-workers, particularly the higher ups, seemed to think that they were earning their brownie points by working in the sector, so they didn’t have to do other little acts of kindness – like treat the people at the bottom of the totem pole with respect and fairness, or not steal people’s labelled lunches from the common refrigerator (seriously, what is someone making $100K+ doing stealing the lunch of someone who makes under $30K??).

It reminds me a bit of the famous compassion study.

Anyways, point is that I do like that Moses makes clear that simply making a big show of faith is not enough, commitment must be demonstrated by action.

I also find it notable that Moses tells the whole congregation to “beware” of those who are this way (and though I haven’t mentioned it, this includes people who might worship other gods, not just hypocrites). In doing so, it becomes the whole community’s responsibility to be on the lookout for evil or lapsing. Obviously, this isn’t something I like at all. I am all for an individual being held accountable for his stated beliefs, but all the stuff we’ve been getting about worship and the relationship with God being a communal action makes me very nervous – particularly as someone who is of a minority belief in my geographical area.

Then there’s a passage I’m a bit confused about. In Deut. 29:29, Moses says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

According to David Plotz, the distinction being made is between an individual’s private thoughts and his outward actions:

The Israelites don’t believe in thought crime! The community must punish public wrongdoing. But God will take care of private sin and bad thoughts. This is, you could argue, the first right to privacy.

My study Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to see this at all:

The secret things refer to the divine wisdom beyond man’s ken; the revealed things are the teachings set forth in Deuteronomy. (p.254)

Which I take to mean a distinction between the mysteries of spirituality and that which God has revealed to his people. I’m not sure that I understand how this interpretation is supposed to fit in the context, and I’m inclined to take Plotz’s interpretation.

More Carrots, More Sticks

Unable to help himself, it seems, Moses returns with the carrot and the stick. Follow all the commandments and everything will be completely, utterly, stupendously awesome. Interestingly, the description of how awesome it will be in Deut. 30:1-10 seems to presuppose a people in exile, rather than a people coming into awesome for the first time.

Remember, God made the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bring their descendants to greatness. Never was it assumed that they were great at the time (and with only ~70 people heading down into Egypt and the slavery that followed, they could hardly be considered to be as numerous as the stars!). Then there was slavery, then there was walking in the desert for forty years eating nothing but manna and poisoned quail. There’s no call for all this “return” and “restore” language.

This passage also doesn’t describe a whole people moving from one place to another. The language suggests a scattering – “if your outcasts are in the uttermost part of heaven” – and a calling back – “from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will fetch you” (Deut. 30:4).

And there’s there obligatory “if you don’t follow the commandments” threats. Namely, that Israel will be pulverized so bad that they’ll resemble Soddom and Gomorrah, or Admah and Zeboim.

I had to look up the latter two because I couldn’t recall a destruction of any Admah or Zeboim. If my Google-fu can be trusted, my memory was correct. The cities have come into the narrative twice, but in very different contexts:

  1. Gen. 10:19 – They are used as geographical markers to describe the borders of Canaan.
  2. Gen. 14:2 – They are on Sodom and Gomorrah’s side in the totally contextless and very confusing battle against Chedorlaomer.

But apparently there exists some alternative tradition in which they are also named among the destroyed cities.

Look, I’ve made it easy for you

Closing up, Moses argues that the people now have the Law, it’s been given to them. It isn’t far off in heaven or across the sea, it’s not inaccessible. Therefore, there is only the choice to either follow it or not, with no excuse not to. “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15).

Which makes perfect sense from a Hebrew, “chosen people” perspective, but I wonder how Christians view this passage given how many people have lived and died with the Law literally being across the sea and totally inaccessible. From the perspective of a missionary religion, this passage is much more difficult.

I do know that there’s been some wrangling to make sins “not count” for people who had never been in contact with “the right religion” and therefore had no ability to make an informed choice. I would also include in that lot people who grew up with their own religions – such as some of my Muslim friends – and who would therefore have heard of Christianity in a very different context (when they finally did).

Also, has Moses even read the ordinances? Most of them aren’t too bad, but one thing I hear often from devout Jews is that keeping them is extremely hard, especially if you add in the difficulty of even knowing what they are some of the time (like the extent that the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk should be applied, or how to understand the prohibition against making others work on the Sabbath in a modern context). To reduce it to a simple matter of choice isn’t exactly honest.

There’s also some conflating of Moses and God in this passage. In telling the people to follow the Law, Moses says: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deut. 30:11). Is Moses merely describing his role as the relater of the laws, or is there really some conflation?

Genesis 19: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

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Lot offers his daughters to the crowd, Lot leaves the city, the destruction of Sodom by Francois Maitre c.1475-1480

Lot offers his daughters to the crowd, Lot leaves the city, the destruction of Sodom by Francois Maitre c.1475-1480

In Chapter 18, we were told of three men who spoke in unison and were called “Lord.” These three men were heading towards Sodom to see if it was worthy of destruction. We’re now told that “the two angels came to Sodom” (Gen. 19:1). So God(s) has turned into angels, and three have become two. No word on what happened.

So these two angels get to Sodom and find Lot hanging out by the gates of the city. No word on why he would just be sitting at the city gates. He’s just there because it’s important that he be the one to meet the angels first. Plot critical, and all that.

Like Abraham, Lot plays the good host and invites the angels to spend the night with him. They resist, saying that they would prefer to spend the night in the street, but Lot manages to convince him that his house is a bit better than the street.

What’s for dinner? Rape.

Once the angels are in Lot’s house, every man (young and old) comes to Lot’s house and asks him to produce his two guests so that they can have sex with them. This passage is traditionally interpreted to be about rape, but I think the citizens of Sodom are just really friendly.

In any case, Lot takes his duties as a host a little too seriously and offers his virgin daughters for the crowd to rape. That’s right, his daughters. Not himself – the only person he has any real authority to give to someone for sex. No, his daughters. I’m sure they’re real happy to have a dad like that.

Luckily for the girls, the crowd wants none of this. They’ve already decided to have some angel-butt and no substitutes will suffice.

Lot is spared

The crowd presses in on Lot, but the angels grab him and pull him back into the house. Once in safety, they explain to him that they are here to destroy the city (but first, they blind all the men outside – not to worry, though. They won’t have to spend much time blind).

Lot tells his sons-in-law – not yet wed, they “were to marry his daughters” (Gen. 19:14) – to flee the city, but they assume he’s just pulling a prank and ignore him. So the angels tell Lot to just grab his wife and two daughters and forget the rest of the family. Lot “lingers” (Gen. 19:16), so the angels grab him and his family and pull them out of the city.

We aren’t told why Lot would linger once told that the entire city is about to be destroyed, but I would hope it has something to do with the family he’s leaving behind.

Pillar of salt

The angels warn Lot not to look back or stop anywhere in the valley. “Flee to the hills, lest you be consumed” (Gen. 19:17). I’ve found a couple sources saying that this story may be a “Just So” interpretation of a natural disaster. For example, my study bible says that this story is “a memory of a catastrophe in remote times when seismic activity and the explosion of subterranean gases changed the face of the area.” Another source explains it as earthquakes interacting with the bitumen in the area to produce the effect of “fire and brimstone,” tying the pillar of salt to a salt floe thrown up from the nearby Dead Sea.

Lot refuses to go into the hills “lest the disaster overtake me, and I die” (Gen. 19:19). Oh ye of little faith. Honestly, if the angels of God come to you and tell you that they are saving you, but you must run for the hills, you run for the hills. That’s just what you do. These are angels, for cripes’ sake! I think they would know if you’re likely to make it to the hills or not…

But this doesn’t occur to anyone, and the angels agree to spare Lot even though he’s running to the nearby city, Zoar, instead.

“Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomor’rah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Gen. 19:24-25). Lot’s wife looks behind her and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Why spare Lot?

We’re given God’s reason for sparing Lot. “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Gen. 19:29).

Despite being awkwardly phrased, it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. When Abraham asked “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25) he didn’t reach God. Rather, this is just an extension of God’s special treatment of Abraham, as we saw in Chapter 18, where he decides to tell Abraham what he’s going to do to Sodom “seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation” (Gen. 18:18). Lot was not saved for being a good man, but for being a relative and friend of Abraham.

Why destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

Three obvious possibilities present themselves from the text:

  1. Because of the homosexuality exhibited by the male residents of Sodom (and, certainly, this is the interpretation that’s gotten the most traction).
  2. Because of the attempted rape.
  3. Because the residents of Sodom are ignoring the rules of hospitality.

Ebonmuse, over at Daylight Atheism, has another suggestion. He’s found a passage that occurs later in the Old Testament that provides an explanation for Sodom’s destruction:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
–Ezekiel 16:49

He makes the (rather amusing) point that the term “sodomy” should not, then, be applicable to homosexual acts (or non-vaginal intercourse). Rather, all those televangelist and mega-church pastors are the real sodomites!

In any case, there’s a legitimate moral objection to this story. God has promised that if he found 10 people in Sodom who were not sinners, he would spare the city. He then went on his way to check the city out and assess the moral worth of its residents. But then, he destroyed the city having encountered only the male residents!

Were all the women also sinners? What about the children? What about the fetuses? This is a city we’re talking about. There’s a fairly good chance that at least ten women were pregnant at the time. Are we to understand that those fetuses were immoral? Or is the implication that fetuses are not persons? Neither explanation should provide the Christian with much comfort…

Dan Barker has this to say about the episode: “God did change his mind about the minimum number of good people required to prevent the slaughter, but he went ahead and murdered all the inhabitants of Sodom anyway, including all of the “unrighteous” children, babies and foetuses. It appears that Abraham was more moral than his god…” (Godless, p. 162).

Drunkenness and Incest

After Lot argued with the angels that he was too afraid to go into the hills and would prefer to go to Zoar instead, we get this: “Now Lot went up out of Zo’ar, and dwelt in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zo’ar” (Gen. 19:30). This book is really ridiculous sometimes…

Once Lot is settled in a cave with his daughters, his daughters decide to have sex with him. Really.

They want to have sex with Lot because “there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth” (Gen. 19:31) and they want to “preserve offspring” (Gen. 19:32). We’re not told why no man would want them. I can only assume that it’s because they had fiancés, but it seems rather cruel that two women would never be allowed/able to marry just because they were once promised to someone who has since died.

I’ve often heard this story as an example of sin, a condemnation of incest. But I wonder what was going on with those two women to make them desperate enough to sleep with their father. Now that they’ve been rendered unmarriageable by their culture’s ridiculous customs, with the pressure still on them to be the “bearers” of their family line, they must have felt like they were backed into a corner. After all, we’re told that Lot is old (Gen. 19:31), and probably won’t be around too much longer. At least if they have sons now, those sons might grow up and be able to support them once their father dies.

This is all speculation based on my very superficial understanding of the culture in that time and place, of course. Maybe they were just randy.

Either way, they get their father so drunk that, for two nights in a row, he “did not know when she lay down or when she arose” (Gen. 19:33). That’s very drunk. And I have to say that people don’t get that drunk through trickery. At some point, generally well before you pass out, you realize that something isn’t right. I can only assume, therefore, that Lot is a dirty old drunk just like Noah.

The eldest daughter has a son named Moab, who is the ancestor of the Moabites, and the younger daughter has a son named Ben-ammi, who is the ancestor of the Ammonites.

Genesis 18: Abraham argues with God

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Abraham and the three angels by Gustave Doré 1865

Abraham and the three angels by Gustave Doré 1865

Abraham is having his midday siesta when he sees three men approaching. He jumps up to greet them and asks them to stay while he fetches them some food and water. They accept his invitation.

These three men, of course, are God.

I’m not joking. All three of them are God. They speak all at once, so we get lines like: “So they said, ‘Do as you have said'” (Gen. 18:5). It’s like that throughout the whole exchange.

I didn’t see this in my reading, but my study bible says that, at the beginning of the encounter, Abraham doesn’t know that these three guys are God. So when he serves them, he’s not just being a sycophant, but rather he’s modelling proper hospitality. I really don’t know where this reading comes from, though, since Abraham has no “ah ha!” moment. He just gets God(s) some food and then they have a chat in which it is very clear that Abraham knows whom he’s talking to.

In any case God(s) tell him that they will visit again in the spring and Sarah will have had a son. Sarah laughs because it’s oh-so-funny that she’s really old and even post-menopausal – or, as the Bible puts it, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen. 18:11). No one seems to realize that pregnancy and labour are extremely hard on even a young body in the peak of health and that Sarah, if she survives the experience at all, is in for a world of pain. No, the appropriate response is not laughter.

Oh yes, and she calls having a child at her age the “pleasure” (Gen. 18:12). I think I might have guessed that this woman was childless even if we hadn’t already been bludgeoned with that little biographical detail.

Then we get a little throwaway comment about God(s) getting offended that Sarah laughs because he interprets it to mean that she doesn’t think he’s powerful enough to make it happen, and Sarah denies having laughed “for she was afraid” (Gen. 18:15). There’s a guest who doesn’t deserve a second invitation!

Down to business

God(s) wonder if they should hide from Abraham what they are about to do, but then decide that they should tell him because he “shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him” (Gen. 18:18). Good a reason as any, I suppose.

They tell him that there’s been a big outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, so they’re going to see if the things they’ve been told are true. Seriously. “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know” (Gen. 18:21). So much for omniscience.

Then things get interesting. Abraham challenges God(s), asking him again and again if he would spare the city if a smaller and smaller number of righteous people were found there. We start with 50 and end up with 10, and each time God(s) agree that he would spare the city if that number of cool people were there.

This is rather interesting because it’s a reversal of communal responsibility. We saw this in the garden of Eden, where the sin of two specific individuals leads God to curse all men and women. But here, we have the opposite – Abraham is arguing that the righteousness of the few might save the community. We’re eighteen chapters in to the Good Book and this is the first thing that might possibly deserve the label.

Before we move on, I want to quote Abraham’s central argument. He says to God: “Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:26).

One of the main criticisms I’ve seen levelled against Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion is that he has no right to judge God because God is the judge. So when Dawkins lists the atrocities of the Bible, revulsion is the wrong reaction. He should, instead, be edified by God’s amazing power, or some such nonsense. And yet here, right here, Abraham is able to so perfectly capture what Dawkins is getting at. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

As Dan Barker writes in Godless: “If the basis for morality rests with a single entity, then what makes that entity accountable? What makes God moral?” (p. 162).

Aside from that, some have questioned why Abraham presumes to argue with God, and why God bothers to listen to a mortal dude. This, according to Victor Matthews, comes back to the rules of hospitality that I mentioned earlier. Since the visitors have accepted Abraham’s offer of a meal, they are bound by a host/guest contract, which “put[s] the patriarch on a more equal footing with God. Men who eat together in peace and enjoy each other’s hospitality can thus be said to be equals” (Manners & Customs, p.42). This becomes an important piece of contextualization once we get into a discussion of what, exactly, is the sin that Sodom and Gomorrah have committed.

Genesis 14: The Rescue of Lot

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In this chapter, we get the first of the Old Testament’s many wars. It reads like a list of names (which it is), so it manages to be both terribly confusing and terribly boring. I had to read it over a couple names before I could make any sense of what was going on.

The Battle

The attackers:

  • Amraphel, king of Shinar
  • Arioch, king of Ellasar
  • Chedorlaomer, king of Elam
  • Tidal, king of Goi’im (the King James Version identifies him instead as the “king of nations”)

The attackees:

  • Bera, king of Sodom
  • Birsha, king of Gomorrah
  • Shinab, king of Admah
  • Shemeber, king of Zeboi’im
  • The king of Bela (also called Zoar)

For twelve years, the attackees served Chedorlaomer, but they rebelled in the thirteenth year. I would have assumed that this refers to some sort of tribute paying arrangement, and that the rebel cities banded together and refused to pay. My study bible, however, says that “the object of the invasion may have been to secure the trade routes to Egypt and southern Arabia.” A Christian source I found online says that it has to do with the people of Sodom being the descendants of Canaan, and therefore condemned to slavery. The rebellion therefore has to do with them attempting “to shake of the yoke.”

Another year passes, and then Chedorlaomer and his allies “came and subdued” (Gen. 14:5) the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim (or Emin, as they are called in the KJV) in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in Mount Seir. Once they were done with this subduing, they turned around and “came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh)” (Gen. 14:7) and set to work subduing the Amalekites and the Amorites.

This is when our rebel kings head out to fight Chedorlaomer and his allies. They meet in the Valley of Siddim and promptly lose. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, so the enemy took their stuff. They also captured Lot, “and his goods” (Gen. 14:12). It’s important that we keep track of Lot’s goods, apparently.

Rescuing Lot

Someone escapes from the battlefield and tells Abram about Lot’s capture. Abram gets his allies, Mamre the Amorite and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner. We’re told that Abram only had 318 men, which is very small for an army. This would make their win very impressive, except that it doesn’t say how many men Abram’s allies had.

“Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot” (Gen. 14:16). Rescue the goods first, then your kinsmen. Awesome.

Priest of God Most High

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

When Abram returns with his spoils of war, he’s met by the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, king of Salem (or Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Melchizedek serves bread and wine, and then blesses Abram. As a reward, Abram gives him “a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:20). What’s “everything,” exactly? The stuff that had been plundered by the invaders? Is that really Abram’s to give away?

The king of Sodom tells Abram that he only wants his people back, and Abram can keep all their possessions. This is rather uncharacteristic for “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13). But Abram refuses, saying that he’s “sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich'” (Gen. 14:22-23). Bit rude, honestly.

He does let Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol take their share of Sodom’s stuff.

Incidentally, I found some rather interesting stuff on Melchizedek while I was looking up this chapter. Apparently, there’s a whole lot of Christians out there who think that he’s a pre-incarnation of Jesus!

Genesis 13: The Burden of Possession

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Despite the fact that he was “afflicted […] with great plagues” (Gen. 12:17) because Abram lied to him, Pharaoh let him leave with all his possessions (possessions that, I remind you, Abram gained by forcing his wife into prostitution). So when Abram left Egypt and headed back toward Canaan, he “was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Gen. 13:2). Lot, too, apparently did well for himself. He’s coming along with his “flocks and herds and tents” (Gen. 13:5).

Disagreement between the shepherds of Abram and Lot by Gerard Jollain 1670

Disagreement between the shepherds of Abram and Lot by Gerard Jollain 1670

But being so wealthy has its share of problems. When Abram and Lot get to Bethel (where Abram had built an altar before going on into Egypt), they find that the land cannot support so many “flocks and herds and tents” (Gen. 13:5). You know you have a lot of tents when you can’t fit all of them in a large plot of land. “Their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (Gen. 13:6).

This starts to cause strife between their herdsmen, so Abram proposes that they go their separate ways. Lot “chose for himself all the Jordan valley” and “moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Gen. 13:11, 12). Unfortunately for him, “the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13), but more about that later.

After Lot leaves, Abram pitches his tent in the land of Canaan, which God promises he will give to him and his descendants “for ever” (Gen. 13:16). This is rather confusing since, as we know, the land that was then known as Canaan has only belonged to Hebrews for a few spurts a couple times in history. In addition, says God, Abram will have as many descendants as there is dust on the earth (Gen. 13:16).

Abram dutifully builds an altar to the God who just lied to him.

Genesis 10: Genealogy – The Sons of Noah

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This is another one of those boring genealogy chapters. In this one, we’re told that the three sons of Noah went off into their own territories, coming up with their own languages. I found it interesting as I was reading that this seemed such a “Just So…” story, explaining the origins of all people. But the problem with that is that “all people” seems to refer exclusively to the regions of the Middle East. Which of the brothers is the ancestor of the Mayans?

The Sons of Japheth

  • Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.
  • Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah.
  • Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

The sons of Japheth became “the coastland peoples” (Gen. 10:5), which my study bible says would make their political centre in Asia Minor, “the former territory of the Hittites.”

The Sons of Ham

  • Ham: Cush, Egypt*, Phut, and Canaan.
  • Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabtechah.*
  • Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.
  • Egypt: Ludim, An’amim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim, and Caphtorim.
  • Canaan: Sidon and Heth. He is the ancestor of the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaze, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboi’im, as far as Lasha” (Gen. 10:29).

*In some translations, Egypt is named Mizraim (which is the Hebrew word for Egypt).

*Cush is also the father of Nimrod, even though he isn’t in the original list of sons. Nimrod “was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:8-9). By the way, my study bible has this to say about Nimrod: “An old fragment of tradition relates how Nimrod, a successful warrior, built a kingdom in Shinar (Babylonia) and Assyria.”

Ham starts off in Babel, Erech, and Accad – “all of them in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 10:10).  After that, he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Calah, and Resen. The Philistines come from his grandson, Casluhim.

The Sons of Shem

Of Shem, we’re told that he is “the father of all the children of Eber” (Gen. 10:21), which my study bible notes makes him the progenitor of the Hebrews.

  • Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.
  • Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.
  • Arphaxad: Shelah.
  • Shelah: Eber.
  • Eber: Peleg and Joktan.
  • Joktan: Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

The descendants of Shem lived in a territory that “extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east” (Gen. 10:30).

Phew! We made it to the end of Chapter 10!