Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.

History Channel’s The Bible: Episodes 1 & 2, “Beginnings” and “Exodus”

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I’ve finally gotten around to watching the first two episodes of the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries (I wanted to wait on the rest of the episodes because, you know, spoilers). The episodes, titled Beginnings and Exodus, cover the events of the Pentateuch – from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

The Bible

Conceptually, having Bible stories at all on something called the History Channel isn’t problem-free. Even among theologians, the idea that the Bible is primarily historical truth isn’t exactly considered a settled matter. But I, personally, am okay with it. Whether or not the stories are historical in a literal sense, they are certainly worth discussing in a historical context. I’d feel the same way about a History Channel Trojan War miniseries. And, at least, the series begins with a card screen telling us that it is “an adaptation of Bible stories.”

The problem is that the card screen also tells us that “it endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book,” which is a rather misleading statement.

Throughout the episodes, the authors’ theological slant is plainly evident in what they change, what they add, and what they leave out. In several cases, the departures are significant, and they colour interpretation.

The most obvious example of what I mean is what I like to call the “Hot Jesus Injections.” Throughout the episodes, there are glimpses and hints of Jesus, even though it covers only the events from Genesis through to Deuteronomy. One of the three angels that come to Abraham (wearing a hood of a different colour from the two others, of course) always has his back turned to the camera or is seen out of focus, yet he is quite clearly the actor who will play Jesus later on in the film.

The same actor also provides the voice of God whenever he speaks to the patriarchs (and Sarah). This comes out rather silly because, of course, they chose an actor who could portray a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He can hardly muster the thunderous boom of the Old Testament God. So what we get are the patriarchs getting thrown about by these violent storms, seeing these great acts of nature, and then this totally chill, stoner voice with a slight reverb coming down from the skies. It’s decidedly underwhelming.

Which brings me to the subject of race. There’s some attempt to at least get white people with brown eyes and dirty-blonde hair at the lightest, so I guess that’s a start – and the angels accompanying God tick off a few diversity boxes – but I expect a Bible-based miniseries coming out in 2013 to do a whole lot better than White Jesus.

White Jesus

Several narratives are altered to make them less morally troubling. For example, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just because she looked back at her home as she flees is troubling, to put it lightly. So they set her up early on as someone who is chronically contrary, making sure that the audience will be predisposed not to see her as a victim.

When God tells Abraham to go into Canaan, Lot’s wife argues against the idea. Later, when they arrive, they find that they have so many animals that they cannot graze them all together. In the Bible, Abraham proposes that they separate, so Lot heads off to Sodom. But in the miniseries, it’s Lot’s wife who nags Lot into separating, clearly against Abraham’s wishes. That’s not just filling in the gaps to make a more compelling narrative for a screen adaptation, that’s outright contradicting the source material to fit a theological agenda. Just to make it even more clear that Lot’s wife totally deserves what’s coming to her, the miniseries has her scoff at faith in “a god we cannot see.”

All of this makes it absolutely silly when Abraham goes on about how he’s been promised “as many descendants as the stars, to populate our land.” This comes right after his separation from Lot because the land is already full with just their two households. Maybe he should adjust his ambitions a little…

The destruction of Sodom and God’s conversation with Abraham surrounding that event really struck me. In the biblical story, God is all in a huff and will destroy the whole city, but Abraham argues with him and manages to talk him down a bit – at least enough for God to send the angels in to find any good men. But in the miniseries, the conversation is about Abraham discovering Jesus’ plan, and Jesus being all “don’t worry, bro. I got this.”

Lot never offers up his daughters to the city-dwellers, and he never sleeps with them after. There’s also no mention of Abraham prostituting his wife (twice). But the narrator makes a special point of the fact that Lot “never saw Abraham again” after he fled from Sodom – which, even if it fits with the biblical narrative, was certainly not something that attention was drawn to. I cannot figure out why the miniseries chose to highlight this. Given that the narrator is used so seldom, I can’t help but think that it served some kind of purpose, but I can’t think of what it might be.

Moses

I found it interesting that the ‘baby in the basket’ narrative is almost entirely glossed over. The narrator never mentions it, nor does the princess (who tells Moses of his origins). All we get is half a second of footage of picking up the basket.

Once Moses escapes to Midian, a card screen tells us that he waits 40 years before God appears to him as the burning bush. I get that the actor they got to play Young Moses lacked the gravitas they needed to play Prophet Moses, but why choose 40? I don’t remember that being in the biblical narrative, so I can only think that it was just an excuse to get a more mountain man-looking actor in.

Speaking of the burning bush, the narrative was oddly done. I found the bush itself to be rather lacklustre, and the Hippy Jesus voice coming from it really didn’t lend it any of the mysterium tremendum that I had imagined from reading the Bible text. I also found that the miniseries Moses doesn’t show any of the humility that the biblical Moses had when encountering the burning bush.

Zipporah is entirely absent. On a related note, I found the Miriam-Aaron relationship to be rather disturbing. Miriam is shown to have two children, while Aaron apparently has none (or, at least, is never shown to be associated with any children other than Miriam’s). Neither is ever shown with a spouse. Not only that, but they seem rather close – and not in the way of a brother and sister – while waiting out the Passover night. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I got a distinct Lannister vibe from them, and it was creepy.

Aaron and Miriam

I found the ten plagues to be quite well done, visually. Interestingly, the “who can turn their staff into the mightiest serpent” contest with the pharaoh’s court magicians never happens. I suppose that the miniseries’ authors didn’t want to show anyone other than a God Approved Prophet having magical powers. Again, I feel that theology got in the way of retelling the story.

After the Passover plague, the pharaoh agrees to allow the Hebrews to leave. This was the same narrative I’d heard in Sunday School, and it was the same in The Ten Commandments. But, as we learned when we read Exodus 12, the pharaoh only allows the Israelites to leave because they lied and told him that they were just poppin’ ’round the corner for mo’. The lies (and the stealing from the Egyptians) are erased by the miniseries’ authors.

Once in the wilderness, there’s no golden calf, no rebellions, no reason given for why it would take them 40 years to get to Canaan. There is, however, the carving of the decalogue, which was actually a pretty cool scene.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the acting was quite decent (though maybe they could lay off on making the actors run around the block right before each take, because I found the huffing and puffing – particularly when Moses has his audience with the pharaoh – to be quite distracting), despite the many odd casting choices. I’ve already mentioned the white-washing and tokenism, but there were also some rather offensive choices, such as putting someone with dwarfism among the baddies who capture Lot. Because, you know, physical deformity is always a reflection of inner sin, right? Sort of the Disney method of character design.

There’s some odd absurdities as well. For example, there’s the scene where Lot is captured and Abraham’s household come to rescue him. For some reason, the captors decided to use the most absolutely useless gags I’ve ever seen – while gagged, Lot manages to call out, with perfect clarity, to his wife. I get that making a proper gag is really hard, but these are actors. They could have at least pretended not to be able to speak!

I also felt that the authors allowed their theology to get in the way of both accuracy and good storytelling (and, in many instances, both at the same time). It was enough that I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it to anyone who hasn’t already read the relevant biblical chapters.

If watching TV isn’t your thing, good news! The stories of The Bible are now available in a book!

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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 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 12: Abram’s Lie

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In this chapter, God chooses Abram as his special buddy: blessing all who bless him, cursing all who curse him, and making his name great. But first, Abram must obey God’s command to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

As we saw in the story of the Tower of Babel, God is a destroyer of human relationships. In that case, he made cooperation among humans impossible by confusing their language. In this instance, he is breaking up a family by bribing Abram to leave them. Nice.

Abram “typifies the man of faith” by abandoning his family for God, and he leaves Haran with Sarai and Lot. They head to Canaan, and then on to Shechem. Unfortunately, the Canaanites are there for now, but God promises that he will be giving the land to Abram’s descendants. Abram is terribly grateful for this promise, so he pitches his tent and builds an altar to God before moving on toward the Negeb.

Once there, he finds that there’s a famine in the area, so he moves on to Egypt.

Pimped

Pharaoh takes Sarah by unknown illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's 'Treasures of the Bible' 1894

Pharaoh takes Sarah by unknown illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop’s ‘Treasures of the Bible’ 1894

As they approach Egypt, Abram tells his wife that she’s so beautiful that he’s worried the Egyptians will kill him to get her. His awesome solution is to pretend that Sarai is just his sister. This can only end well.

As Abram predicted, the Egyptians find Sarai very beautiful. We don’t know how old she is, but we’re told that Abram is 75-years-old at this point. So it’s possible that the Egyptians are gerontophiles. In any case, Pharaoh (just “Pharaoh” – no names) hears about her beauty and marries her. “And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels” (Gen. 12:16).

That’s right – Abram just prostituted his wife for personal gain. Pretty awful, right? One can imagine what God’s reaction will be!

“The Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai” (Gen. 12:17).

Just to recap, Abram sells his wife into sexual slavery for personal gain, and God punishes the hapless John who had no idea what he was getting into. Just why is this called the good book, exactly?

Pharaoh’s reaction is precisely what one might expect. He goes to Abram and says: “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Gen. 12:1), and he kicks the two of them out of Egypt.

Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel

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The first half of Chapter 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel (in a form much truncated from the one I received in Sunday school!), while the second half jumps back into genealogies. Yay.

The Tower

“Now the whole earth had one language and few words” (Gen. 11:1). I’m having trouble harmonizing the first line of this chapter with:

  • “These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations” (Gen. 10:5).
  • “These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:20).
  • “These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:31).

I wondered about the timing of events and whether it might be possible to reconcile Chapter 10 with Chapter 11 by assuming that we’ve gone back in time to before the descendants of the three brothers acquired their various languages. Possible. But then my study bible came around and knocked that theory out of the water: “This tradition is clearly independent of and different from the table of nations.”

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d'Armagnac c.1477

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d’Armagnac c.1477

In any case, humans in the land of Shinar invent bricks and mortar and decide to build themselves a city, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). At the risk of relying too heavily on my study bible’s notes, it says that: “in the eyes of nomads Mesopotamian city culture was characterized by the ziggurat, a pyramidal temple tower whose summit was believed to be the gateway to heaven.”

I just want to point out that we’ve only seen somewhere between one and six generations since the entire world population was reduced to eight people. The idea that we have a need to start building cities, as opposed to hamlets or, depending on fecundity, villages is rather silly. But a city they build, and God comes down to see it.

At this point, the typical Sunday School interpretation is that God doesn’t like the tower because it displays hubris. The people were building a tower to reach heaven (and, if I remember my own childhood instruction correctly, trying to get into heaven without having to be good on earth), they were trying to position themselves as gods. This is what warranted punishment.

But I don’t see this reading in the text itself. God tells us why he doesn’t like the tower: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). In other words, God is worried that humanity – when able to work together – may become too powerful. God doesn’t want us working together to accomplish our goals. He wants miscommunication, he wants confusion, he wants factioning.

There’s a lesson for us here: we can accomplish anything if we’re willing to work together. But the Bible doesn’t want empowered people. It wants us to be ignorant and subservient, awed by the power of a God whose might we can collectively match. This God is a jealous god.

Is pettiness really an acceptable trait for the recipient of worship?

Moving on, God confuses their language and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9). Once again, “all the earth” refers only to the regions in or around the Middle East, and we’re only talking about, at most, the number of people that can be produced in six generations. If the incest forced by the Adam & Eve and Noah bottlenecks wasn’t enough, we’ve now split up an already very small number of people. Excellent.

Ebonmuse has a great post up on Daylight Atheism dealing with the Tower of Babel story.

The Sons of Shem

Getting sick of genealogies yet? We still have a long way to go…

  • Shem: 100 when Arphaxad is born, 600 at death.
  • Arphaxad: 35 when Shelah is born, 438 at death.
  • Shelah: 30 when Eber is born, 433 at death.
  • Eber: 34 when Peleg is born, 464 at death.
  • Peleg: 30 when Reu is born, 239 at death.
  • Reu: 32 when Serug is born, 239 at death.
  • Serug: 30 when Nahor is born, 230 at death.
  • Nahor: 29 when Terah is born, 148 at death.
  • Terah: 70 when Abram, Nahor, and Haran are born (triplets?), 205 at death.
  • Haran: Father of Lot, Milcah, and Iscah.

I found it interesting that both Arphaxad and Shelah lived exactly 403 years after the birth of their respective named sons. After them, Eber lived for 430 years after the birth of his son. And look at all those repetitions of the number 30! I also like how many of the ages in the genealogies are in multiples of five – which is precisely what I would think of if I were making up a bunch of numbers.

The Migration of Terah

Haran dies young, while his father is still alive. To break up the sausage-fest a bit, we finally get some women in this story. Abram marries Sarai and Nahor marries Milcah (his niece). Sarai, of course, is barren (because nothing could possibly be wrong with Abram’s equipment, I’m sure).

Terah, Abram, Lot, and Sarai all leave Ur (“of the Chaldeans”) and head for Canaan. On their way, they come to Haran (not to be confused with Haran the deceased son) and decide to settle there. Terah dies in Haran. Incidentally, my study bible says that “the migration from Mesopotamia into Canaan was a phase of population movements in the early part of the second millennium B.C., occasioned by the influx of Amorites from the Arabian desert.”