Genesis 25: Jacob takes his brother by the heel

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The first bit of this chapter is just another genealogy. Sorry.

Abraham takes another wife, named Keturah, and has a bunch of kids with her.

  • Keturah’s kids: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.
  • Jokshan’s kids: Sheba and Dedan.
  • Dedan’s sons: Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim.
  • Midian’s sons: Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abidah, and Eldaah.

Abraham gives all his possessions to Isaac (remember, it’s very important that we keep track of those possessions! Reading the Old Testament makes me feel like an accountant…). But don’t worry, he isn’t completely abandoning all those other kids he’s fathered! He’s making it up to them by giving them gifts! Yay!

By the way, it says “but to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts” (Gen. 25:6). Concubines? Plural? Does Keturah count? If not, it would seem that her kids get nothing. So I’ll assume that she’s just being counted as a concubine. But that’s still only one. Does Hagar count?

Anyways, so he gives these sons some gifts, which is good. But then he “sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Gen. 25:6). Abraham has a habit of abandoning his kids. I’m just hoping that his “gifts” were a little more than some bread and a skin of water this time…

Abraham lives 175 years before kicking the metaphorical bucket (poor bucket – gets kicked by absolutely everyone!). His sons, Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham purchased in Chapter 23, so that he can be next to Sarah. Aaaw.

It’s a bit sad that Ishmael would come back to bury his father after the way he’d been treated. There’s also no mention of an awkward reunion with Isaac, which you’d think would be inevitable considering… One also has to wonder where Abraham’s other kids are. Ishmael came back, why didn’t they?

Anyhoos, Isaac lives by a well called Lahairoi. And that’s enough of that. Now we get to hear about Ishmael’s genealogy!

  • Ishmael’s sons (by birth order): Nebajoth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

These guys each father their own tribe, so that the Ishmaelites (who are the proto-Arabs, by the way) get twelve tribes just like the Israelites will be getting later on.

Ishmael lives 137 years. Then he, too, kicks that poor abused bucket.

Jacob and Esau

Birth of Esau and Jacob as an example of twin's fate against the arguments of astrology by Francois Maitre, c.1475-1480

Birth of Esau and Jacob as an example of twin’s fate against the arguments of astrology by Francois Maitre, c.1475-1480

So back when Isaac was a young buck of 40 years, he married Rebekah. But she, like his mom, turned out to be barren (only women can be barren, apparently). Isaac prays and, after twenty years, God answers him because this is going to be a pretty short book if Isaac doesn’t have any kids. And, as is the pattern so far, whenever God causes a barren woman to conceive, the kids are male. Why bother with the effort of a miracle if we’re just going to be making girl babies?

But now, Rebekah is not only pregnant, but she’s pregnant with twins! As commonly occurs for barren women who either pursue in-vitro or are characters in myths.

All is not well with Rebekah’s womb, however. Her twins hate each other so much that they’ve already started to fight. So Rebekah goes to God and asks him why this is happening. God tells her that she has two nations in her womb (yikes!) and that “one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Wuh? How is that possible? Inheritance laws would never allow such a thing!

Well, Rebekah finally gives birth and the first baby is red and hairy and they name him Esau (he stands in for the Edomites). The second baby comes out with his hand grabbing Esau’s heel, so they name him Jacob. Taking by the heel apparently means supplanting someone, so it’s all very forshadowy when they name him Jacob, which can mean “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants.” Cue dramatic music.

Esau turns out to be a great hunter, while Jacob is quiet and likes to stay closer to home (this apparently symbolises the epic struggle between hunters and shepherds).

Isaac, ever the pragmatic one, likes Esau better because he brings home the bacon. Rebekah, on the other hand, likes Jacob better – presumably because he hangs out close to home and is a bit of a momma’s boy.

But for all of Esau’s strength, Jacob gets the brains of his family. So one day, as he’s sitting around at home making dinner, Esau comes in starving and asks for some food. Jacob, ever the sly one, says that he can have dinner, but only if he sells his birthright in exchange. Esau agrees and BAM! God’s prediction about the elder serving the younger comes to pass.

Genesis 23: Sarah’s Death

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Abraham’s wife, Sarah, dies at the ripe old age of 127. We get to see Abraham displaying some humanity again as he mourns for her.

Abraham weigheth four hundred shekels of silver for the cave by Gerard Hoet 1728

Abraham weigheth four hundred shekels of silver for the cave by Gerard Hoet 1728

He then sets about finding a place to bury her. He goes to the Hittites and asks them to give him some property to use as a burial place for his family. The Hittites tell him that he’s “a mighty prince among us” (Gen. 23:6) and can have any piece of land he likes. So he asks for a place called Machpelah, currently owned by Ephron, the son of Zohar.

Ephron happens to be there, so he comes forward and tells Abraham that he can have it for free, but Abraham says: “No no no, I couldn’t possibly!” and insists that he wants to pay. Finally, Ephron agrees to let him have it for 400 shekels, which Abraham pays.

Abraham now owns a field in Machpelah, with a cave at the end in which he can bury his dead. He buries Sarah in the cave.

This was a pretty short chapter and it really felt like the authors were trying to drag it out with all this “here, take my field!” “No, I couldn’t!” “Please, I insist!” “No, no, I couldn’t possibly!” It would almost qualify as comedy if it we’re a burial place for Abraham’s wife they were arguing over…

Genesis 21: Sarah Goes Bonkers on Hagar…Again

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As promised, God visits Sarah and she has a son they name Isaac. The author(s) of this chapter go to great pains to emphasise just how old Abraham and Sarah are and haha, isn’t it hilarious?

“God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me” (Gen. 21:6).

We’re also told that Abraham circumcises Isaac, because the Bible’s idea of character development is letting us know the status of the various characters’ penises.

So little circumcised Isaac is hanging out one day, playing with little circumcised Ishmael, when Sarah catches the two of them. She goes to Abraham and demands that he cast out Hagar and Ishmael because she doesn’t want Isaac’s inheritance split with other sons. Just a reminder, Abraham abandoned his nephew because of possessions, and his wife is now asking that he dump his own son for the same reason. Are these the Biblical Family Values the religious right keeps touting?

Abraham, having at least a little humanity, isn’t sure about this. We’re told that it was “very displeasing” to him “on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). But God comes down and tells him to chill, because it’s through Isaac that “your descendants be named” (Gen. 21:12). And since he likes Abraham so darn much, he’ll make Ishmael a nation too – “because he is your offspring” (Gen. 21:13) and Abraham totally gets God off-sprung.

So Abraham gets some bread and water for Hagar and sends her on her way.

Into the wilderness

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

After having been raped (come on, let’s be honest and call it what it was – Sarah “gave” her to Abraham and she’s a slave. At best, it was coercive) by her master and having a son as a result, poor Hagar is then cast out into the wilderness because Sarah isn’t happy with the fact that Hagar had the son Sarah wanted her to have. What the eff? No wonder the Victorians produced special, heavily edited Bibles for women and children to read…

So Hagar is wondering in the wilderness and she runs out of water. She puts her child under a bush and walks away, saying: “Let me not look upon the death of the child” (Gen. 21:16). This is actually a really poignant scene, and I think it serves to clearly illustrate Sarah’s cruelty. We can forgive Abraham in this one because God did tell him that Ishmael would become a nation, which implies that he gets to grow out of diapers. But Sarah had no such message – she just wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone and, for all she knew, she’d condemned them to death.

Ishmael starts to cry, and the angel of God calls to Hagar, assuring her that he’s heard Ishmael’s cries. He tells her to go back to him and pick him up, “for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Then God opens her eyes (she couldn’t do this herself, apparently) and she sees a well of water.

Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and he “became and expert with the bow” (Gen. 21:21). At some point, Hagar procures for him an Egyptian for a wife.

How old is Ishmael?

We’re told in Chapter 16 that Abraham was “eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael” (Gen. 16:16), and in this chapter, we hear that Abraham “was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5). With a little counting on my fingers, I quickly worked out that Ishmael is at least around 14 (if not older, since he’s playing with Isaac in v.9 and newborns don’t really play).

So imagine my confusion when I read the following:

  • Abraham puts the bread and skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder, “along with the child” (Gen. 21:14);
  • When the water runs out, Hagar “cast the child under one of the bushes” (Gen. 21:15), and then Ishmael “lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen. 21:16);
  • God hears Ishmael’s cries and tells Hagar to “arise, life up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand” (Gen. 21:18).

Now, there’s only one explanation for why a fourteen-year-old would be treated this way that I can think of, and that’s that he has a severe handicap that prevents him from walking and that’s why Hagar must carry him. The poor boy clearly suffers from some form of mental disability as well, since I don’t know many 14-year-olds who would just sit under a bush and cry without first trying to express themselves through some other means. Too bad wheelchairs hadn’t been invented yet. I can’t imagine that Hagar is having much fun carrying a 14-year-old everywhere.

A more likely explanation is that we have yet another contradiction in the inspired word of God.

Final note on the casting out of Hagar

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins explains that “the story seems to champion ethnocentrism by suggesting that those who do not belong to the chosen people can be sent away” (p.49). He adds that “we shall meet a chilling application of the same principe much later in the book of Ezra,” so we have something to look forward to.

I didn’t quite make the connection on my own, but I can certainly see Collins’ point. Nowhere are Sarah and Abraham condemned for throwing out Hagar. It all works out okay because God has plans for Ishmael, but it could just as easily resulted in the deaths of the woman and her child. God never says “it’s okay to throw Hagar out because I’ll take care of her, but make sure you don’t cast out any other slaves you decide to diddle with.”

Hagar and Ishmael are saved because God has plans for them (and because he lurvs Abraham), but the implication is that they would otherwise have been perfectly expendable. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that God values humans (or human life) for their own sake. Rather, it seems that those who serve his purposes don’t have much to worry about, but anyone else might as well just die in a flood.

A covenant with Abimelech

Completely unconcerned over the fate of his son and the mother of his child, Abraham meets with Abimelech (and Phicol, the commander of Abimelech’s army). Why Abimelech would want anything at all to do with Abraham after his last experience is beyond me, but there you have it.

In any case, Abimelech says to Abraham: “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealth loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned” (Gen. 21:22-23). Oooh, that’s quite a burn! I love how Abimelech (possibly my favourite character so far) goes out of his way to point out that he’s always dealt “loyally” with Abraham.

Well, Abraham swears to this, and then complains that Abimelech’s servants have seized a well of water. Abimelech assures Abraham that he didn’t know about this, so they cool.

I’d just like to point out quickly here that Abraham doesn’t own the land he’s on, and therefore has no real claim to any well of water. He’s staying on Abimelech’s land (as we saw in Genesis 20:15). So if anything, Abimelech’s servants were just making use of their own well. Abraham doesn’t seem to care much.

But he does give sheep and oxen to Abimelech, so that’s nice of him. In exchange, Abimelech has to agree to witness for Abraham (to whom?) that he dug the well. I don’t know if it’s the same well or a second well, though. Abimelech agrees. They call the well Beersheba and then Abimelech and Phicol head home. Abraham gets his horticulture on and plants a tamarisk tree.

There are two mentions of “the land of the Philistines” (v.32, 34) in this chapter. However, according to Matthews, “the appearance of the Philistines in Canaan is traced to a period some eight hundred years after Abraham’s time” (Manners & Customs, p.24) which, was after 1200 BCE. This anachronism tells us that either this story takes place much later than claimed (and the storyteller is inserting details from her/his own world), or that it was edited much later.

Genesis 20: Abraham Lies Again

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Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Some people just never learn their lesson. After getting into some trouble by prostituting his wife to the Pharaoh of Egypt while pretending that she was his sister, Abraham then does it again to Abimelech, king of Gerar.

Once again, God is on the right side of the moral question. He comes to Abimelech in a dream and says: “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife” (Gen. 20:3). Like Pharaoh, Abimelech is rather taken aback since he was deliberately lied to. But unlike Pharaoh, he has the gumption to say something about it.

“Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:4-5). Right on, Abimelech. Right on.

God backtracks like mad and totally tries to play it cool. “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen. 20:6). So God, by his own admission, knew that Abimelech is a victim and that Abraham is a liar who is once again selling his wife into prostitution, and yet he threatens to kill Abimelech and “all that are yours” (Gen. 20:7)… Abraham, as usual, doesn’t get so much as a “hey, maybe you, like, shouldn’t do that any more, eh?”

Well, Abimelech wakes up and tells his servants about his dream. He then calls to Abraham and says: “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (Gen. 20:9). I’m really liking this guy. He’s a true voice of moral reason in a book that is thus far sorely lacking in that department.

So Abraham responds: “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Gen. 20:11). I see no evidence of this. All I see is a perfectly nice guy nearly getting killed because a douche lied to him and tricked him into offending the big sky-bully.

As Richard Dawkins puts it, Abimelech “expressed his indignation, in almost identical terms to Pharaoh’s, and one can’t help sympathizing with both of them” (The God Delusion, p. 242).

Oh, but Abraham totally wasn’t really lying, though, ’cause Sarah “is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Gen. 20:12). So the lesson I draw from this episode is that it’s a-OK to lie about your marital status so long as you’re also committing incest. Why was I never taught this in Sunday School?

As punishment for lying to him, Abimelech decides to be really wrathful and give Abraham a bunch of sheep, oxen, slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver and invites Abraham to hang out in his country. Yup, Abraham is rewarded once again for prostituting his wife and lying to people. Abimelech’s gifts, by the way, are to buy back Sarah’s honour (Gen. 20:16), which she lost by marrying her douche brother.

Abraham prays to God, so God heals Abimelech and ‘re-opens’ the wombs of the women in his household (which he had ‘closed’ as punishment for having the audacity of being lied to).

And so we come to the close of Chapter 20. See you on Friday!

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 17: Foreskin Fetish

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In this chapter, God makes yet another covenant, but this time a bunch of animals cut in half won’t satisfy the human side of the exchange. This time, God wants man-flesh. More specifically, God wants phallic man-flesh.

More promises of land

When Abram was 99 years old, God comes to visit Abram to tell him (again) that he will “multiply you exceedingly” (Gen. 17:2). This causes Abram to fall on his face (Gen. 17:3). Surely, he didn’t fall on his face (!!) in surprise since this is the third time God is telling him this (not counting the time God said it to Hagar since she may not have relayed the message).

Although if Abram has been falling on his face each time, God may be repeating himself just for the lolz.

The second shocker is that God will give to Abram’s descendants “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8). Oops, that one didn’t quite work out!

The only new part of God’s side of the bargain is that he specifies that “kings shall come forth from you” (Gen. 17:6). I’m hoping he doesn’t mean this in the Athenian sense

Some name changes

As part of this covenant, God changes some names. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

I talked a little about the the power of naming in my post about Genesis 2. My study bible says that these new names are just cultural variants of the original names, so the names aren’t even really being changed. It’s more like God is just flexing his muscles, reminding Abraham and Sarah of his ownership of them.

All your foreskin are belong to us

Unlike the other covenants, this time humans have to give something back in return. That thing is their foreskin.

foreskinThis covenant is binding on Abraham and all his (male) descendants – “You shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Gen. 17:9). All males bound by Abraham’s agreement (though I use the term loosely, since he never actually gives his consent) must be circumcised when he is 8 days old.

For those who are already passed being 8 days old (such as Abraham, who is approaching his first century), God provides a convenient list of all the people Abraham should by snipping. “Both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13).

I feel I have to quickly point out that the reference to the people in Abraham’s household who have been “bought with your money” occurs four times in this chapter (Gen. 17:12, 13, 23, 27), and is never once does anyone say “hey, wait a minute. Slavery is bad, okay?” There is no covenant with God in which Abraham must free his slaves and his descendants may not own human beings. No, God’s only concern is that Abraham makes sure he gets all their foreskins lobbed off.

So what’s the punishment for those who escape having Abraham come at their crotches with a knife? “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14). My understanding of the cultural milieu is that it was extremely tribal. Being cut off from one’s people would mean having no place or protection in the society and would, effectively, have been a death sentence. (Please correct me if I’m wrong – I’m really out of my depth with this.) How horrible that refusal to cut the group’s membership badge into the flesh of one’s infant son would earn such a terrible punishment for him!

Of Ishmael and Isaac

Abraham took Ishmael with all the males born in his house, and circumcised them by Gerard Hoet 1728

Abraham took Ishmael with all the males born in his house, and circumcised them by Gerard Hoet 1728

After telling Abraham repeatedly to make sure he cuts off bits of his, and his household’s, genitals, God tells him that his wife will bear him a son in a year. Abraham falls on his face again (Gen. 17:17), and this time he’s laughing too (this may be the very first confirmed incident of someone ROFLing). What’s so funny about this? Well, he’s nearly 100 years old and Sarah is 90.

Now, as someone in her twenties who recently went through a pregnancy, I can safely say that it’s no laughing matter. I can only imagine how much less so it would be were I 90 years old. And what 90-year-old wants to be up all night with a screaming baby, anyway? Bending over to change diapers, chasing after a toddler, stooping to pick up an infant… No, ROFLing is definitely not an appropriate response.

But all right, 90-year-old Sarah is going to have a son, and he must be named Isaac (once again, God is showing everyone who’s boss by naming people). Abraham, displaying a rare moment of decency, asks what will become of Ishmael if his first wife will be producing an heir. So God promises that Ishmael will be blessed and “fruitful.” He’ll be the father of twelve prices and be a great nation. “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac” (Gen. 17:21). Just so Ishmael doesn’t get any ideas.

Now that God’s done, Abraham gets Ishmael and all his male slaves and starts cutting.

Genesis 16: On handmaidens and their uses

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NOTE: Up until now, I’ve been posting once a week. This worked well while I was working, and I had some concerns about my productivity with a baby around. But I’ve been accumulating so many scheduled posts that I’ve decided to try posting something twice a week. From now on, I’ll be putting something up every Tuesday and Friday. Enjoy!

Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham by Philip van Dyck

Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham by Philip van Dyck

Sarai is barren (of course – it’s impossible that the infertility might reside with the male), so she decides to give Hagar, her Egyptian maid, to Abram “that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen. 16:2). Abram agrees and takes Hagar “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Once again, polygamy is presented matter-of-factly, clearly a reality in the milieu, and not condemned.

Abram “went in to Hagar” (Gen. 16:4) (phoo! That’s explicit!) and she conceives. As soon as she realizes that she’s pregnant, she starts getting all uppity (those slaves, amiright?) and Sarai complains to Abram. Abram reminds her that “your maid is in your power; do to her as you please” (Gen. 16:6), so Sarai “dealt harshly with her” and Hagar runs away.

An angel of the Lord finds her in the wilderness and tells her to “return to your mistress, and submit to her” (Gen. 16:9). Hear that? If you’re being abused, you should go back to your abuser and submit to them. Awesome.

Hagar gets the same promise as Abram, that she will have many descendants. The angel tells her that she’s pregnant with a son and must name him Ishmael. He will be a “wild ass of a man” (Gen. 16:12), which my study bible says refers to a nomadic lifestyle and not an attitude problem.

Hagar says: “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen. 16:13). A bit confusing since we were explicitly told that she was speaking with an “angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7), not with God himself…

She returns to Sarai and gives birth to Ishmael. Abram is now 86-years-old.

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.


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.”