October 06, 2006


Between my trip to Toronto and my upcoming intensive TESL course, I will not have time to update Daily Breadcrumbs until mid-November. So Daily Breadcrumbs is officially on hiatus until Monday, Nov. 13. Speak to you then!

-- Julie, the girl behind the Breadcrumbs

Genesis 16-18: I'll see your fifty...

Today's reading is Genesis 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage continues the Abraham story, discussing the circumstances around his son Ishmael's birth to Hagar, his second covenant with God and his renaming to Abraham, his hospitality to the three travellers, and his bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This last episode, which occurs in Gen. 18:16-33, raises a number of problems for believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. So, let us first have a brief summary:

Upon leaving Abraham's house, God sends several men down to Sodom, and Abraham accompanies them to see them on their way. God, who is planning on destroying Sodom and Gomorrah because they are wicked, decides to tell Abraham about his plans. Abraham, very humbly, asks God if he would spare the city if there are fifty righteous men in it. God agrees to this request. Abraham then begins to bargain God down: what if there are forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? God agrees of all of this, telling Abraham that if there are even ten righteous men in the city, he won't destroy it. Then God leaves, and Abraham goes home.

We learn in our next readings (Gen. 19) that God does, in fact, destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. It turns out that the only righteous man in the city was Lot, Abraham's nephew, whom God saves.

There are traditionally two ways of reading this passage. The first says that God is omniscient, and therefore knew beforehand that there were not even ten righteous men in Sodom, let alone fifty. However, instead of telling this to Abraham outright, God toys with Abraham, letting him believe that he is having some effect on God's already-made decision. In fact, God knows he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, regardless of what Abraham says. God was not asking for Abraham's permission, or even his opinion, but merely informing Abraham of his intentions.

In this interpretation, God is manipulative and uncaring. He could just as easily have said to Abraham, "there is only one righteous man in the city, your nephew, and I will not spare the city for his sake." But instead he insists on leading Abraham through a meaningless charade. Abraham humbles himself and thinks he's helping his fellow men, but instead God is just toying with him. This is hardly the sort of God I'd want answering my prayers.

So we move to the second interpretation. This interpretation sticks closer to the literal meaning of the text. When God says he is sending men (well, angels) down to investigate the city, what it really means is that God does not know "whether [the men of Sodom and Gomorrah] have done altogether according to the cry of [their sin], which is come unto me." (Gen. 18:21, KJV) In other words, God doesn't know whether what he's heard is the truth. He doesn't yet know whether there are fifty righteous men in the city, or even ten. He's awaiting his angels' report. Abraham is able to bargain with God, because neither know the exact count of righteous men.

True, according to this interpretation God is not manipulating Abraham. He is conducting an honest bargain with him, where both sides are relatively equal (despite Abraham's self-humbling). But this is exactly where the problem enters the interpretation. Man is not equal to God. It is one of the pillars of Judeo-Christian belief that God is omniscient, all-knowing. If God did not know whether the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were as grievous as he thought, he's by definition not omniscient. Furthermore, under this interpretation, God allowed his opinion to be swayed by that of a mere mortal, albeit a righteous one. Considering that God is supposed to be wiser than any man, this prospect is a bit troubling. So, in the end, we're left with a God who is caring and reasonable, but far from the omniscient, perfect being he's reported to be.

Note the parallel here to Gen. 3:9, when God asks Adam, "where are you?" Proponents of the second interpretation would agree that God did not actually know where Adam was. Believers of the first would say God was just toying with the first man; he knew where Adam was all along.

Many Christians believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). But, while God's omnipotence is not in question here, we must make a compromise with the other two. God can be omniscient but not omnibenevolent, because he toyed with Abraham while knowing there was only one righteous man in Sodom. Or he could be omnibenevolent but not omniscient, wanting to save Sodom but not knowing how many righteous men lived there. Either way, our triply-perfect God falls short somewhere.

Why would Biblical redactors include such a problematic passage, then? For one, it glorifies Abraham, the man who was able to converse with God nearly as an equal. For another, it shows the complete wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah: there was not even ten righteous men dwelling there! Finally, it might demonstrate a suitable way for approaching a conversation with God, in prayer for instance. Abraham is continually humbling himself and asking God not to be angry with him, and in the end God agrees to his requests. All these are useful functions of this passage.

But, in the end, it poses an insolvable paradox for believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Based on this passage, God can't be all three.

October 05, 2006

Breadcrumb: True importance

While Abraham had become materially rich in his travelling, he still considered all his worldly goods useless. In Gen. 15:2-3, Abraham asks the lord "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?... You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir." (NIV translation)

Then, as now, the wealthy want their estates to pass to their children, not their underlings. Would Abraham have given up his estates to have a child? Perhaps, perhaps not. But he considered a child (read: a son) the most precious gift God could give him.

October 04, 2006

Breadcrumb: Abram's journey

The author of Gen. 11-15 was very precise about the locations Abram visited on his journey. However, not being a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern geography, I found it useful to have a few maps to chart where, exactly, Abram's journey took him. I have not found an ideal map online, yet, but a combination of acceptable ones tend to work in tandem. Here are a few links:

- National Geographic Magazine (scroll down on the left side-bar)
- Bible.ca
- All-creatures.org
- Liberal Arts College at Penn State

If you find better maps out there, please feel free to leave a comment!

October 03, 2006

Genesis 12-15: The Dark Side of Abraham

Today's reading is Genesis 12-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the beginning of the story of Abram (later known as Abraham): his journey away from his father's home as south as Egypt, his separation from Lot, his rescuing of Lot, and his first covenant with God.

Most people, when they consider Abraham, have a certain idea of him in their minds. They imagine him as a simple shepherd or cattle-herder, a man completely devoted to God, even at the expense of his own offspring (we'll get to the sacrifice of Isaac in due time). Some adjectives they might use would be "loyal," "obedient," and "devoted (to God)." Most people would not, however, consider Abraham manipulative or warlike. And yet that is exactly the type of man we encounter in today's readings.

There are two episodes in Genesis 12-15 that portray a different sort of man from the common conception. The first takes place in Gen. 12:10-20, in Egypt. A quick paraphrase: Abram and Sarai, his wife, travel into Egypt because there is a famine. Abram, knowing Sarai is beautiful and the Egyptians will want to take her and kill him if they found out he was her wife, asks her to pose as his sister instead. They do exactly this, and Pharaoh (who does, indeed, want Sarai as his own) showers Abram with gifts, thinking he's Sarai's brother. God curses Pharaoh with plagues until the truth is revealed, and Pharaoh tells Abram to go away, with Sarai and a few more riches thrown in, just to be on the safe side.

What do we know about Abram from this episode? At best, Abram is a cautious man with a keen insight into the human condition and a strong sense of self-preservation. At worst, he's fearful of the Egyptians, manipulative and conniving, and able to twist a negative situation to his own profit. This is hardly the sort of man we'd picture as the first patriarch of Jews and Christians.

Note also that this trick worked so well that Abram does it again in Gen. 20, this time to Abimelech, king of Gerar. It works even better the second time around, and Abram (now Abraham) gets not only cattle and slaves, but also silver and land. Far from repenting his mischievous ways, Abraham repeats them!

The second episode, in Gen. 14, especially verses 13-16, is even more distant from the common conception of Abraham. Here, Abram's nephew Lot was captured by certain kings after Lot's own king (Bera, king of Sodom) fled a battle against them. When Abram hears the news of his nephew's capture, he rallies his allies, takes 318 trained household servants, and heads over to the enemy camp. There, he strikes by night, kills the foes, and pursues the rest of the routed men as far as Hobah. He rescues Lot, his goods, the women, and the other captives. For this valiant deed, the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God, hold a feast and bless Abram, offering him much of the newly-liberated spoils of war. Abram refuses, not because he's altruistic, but because he doesn't want the king of Sodom to have the satisfaction of saying he was the one who made Abram rich. He has no problem with his allies getting their share of the treasure.

From this encounter, we learn a number of things about Abram. He was a trained warrior and war-leader, with a sense of military tactics. He was rich enough to employ over three hundred trained fighters in his household, even before his second "she's my sister" ploy. Furthermore, far from being an outcast (as some family study guides depict him), Abram has political connections. We're told in Gen. 14:13 that he was allied with three other men, presumably as least as powerful and wealthy as he, who lived nearby. He's also somewhat stubborn and independent, refusing to give any impression that he owes a debt to the king of Sodom. So here we have the image of Abram as an effective war-chief, rich, ruthless, and well-connected.

Not surprisingly, many "family guides" skim lightly over these two episodes. A brief internet search for the story of Abraham revealed the following sites: themystica.com (an "occult" site) mentions neither encounter, nor does the Church of God Daily Bible Study. The Holman Bible Dictionary mentions the deception episode, though not the battle. While The Enlightened Web Site (I swear I'm not making up this name) does mention both instances, it adds another layer of meaning above them. For the deception episode (Gen. 12), it says Abram acted on fear, not faith (conveniently ignoring that God helped Abram by plaguing Pharaoh's household). For Gen. 14, it merely says, "we read how Abraham went to [Lot's] rescue" -- no war chieftain here! Even Wikipedia, generally a decent source of information, fails us. On the main Abraham article it only mentions the battle under the "modern historical criticism" section. (Though, to be fair, it is included in the narrative in another article about Abraham.)

There is a curious parallel between the selective reading done by Christians about Abraham and about God in the Old Testament. To read most Christian family study guides, you would think Abraham was a simple cattle-herder, alone with his herd and spending all his time devoting himself to the obedience of God. Whereas we know from today's readings that Abraham could be manipulative, aggressive, and self-serving when he needed to be. Similarly, Christians (especially modern Christians) tend to view their God as all-loving and all-embracing, conveniently ignoring the many instances in the Old Testament of God's vengeance, wrath, and jealousy. God routinely punishes entire nations, including his chosen nation of Israel. Many Christians ignore the idea that their God or any of his chosen people could be anything less than perfect examples of love.

One brief caveat: of course, there are many educated Christians. I do not mean to imply that all Christians are simpletons who blithely ignore the bits of their Scripture that do not fit their paradigm. On the other hand, many do. And part of Daily Breadcrumbs' mission is to give a wake-up call to these people, by showing that sometimes their own text contradicts their interpretation. In the end, unless you're Catholic, it all comes down to the text.

Happy reading.

October 02, 2006

Breadcrumb: Noahide Laws

Chapter 9 of Genesis contains the basis of the seven Noahide laws. According to Jewish tradition, these seven laws are the commandments given to Gentiles (non-Jews), as opposed to the 613 commandments given to Jews. A Gentile following these seven laws will have a place in the world to come. In brief, they are:

1. Do not worship false gods
2. Do not curse god / blaspheme
3. Do not murder
4. Do not commit sexual immorality
5. Do not steal
6. Do not eat flesh cut from a living being (sometimes "do not be cruel to animals")
7. Establish courts of justice

A few links about Noahide laws:

- Judaism 101
- Wikipedia
- An interesting article by Jacob Scharff

October 01, 2006

Breadcrumb: JEDP

The first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were not all written by the same person. They were not even redacted (edited) by one person. Scholars tend to identify four redactors, known as J-E-D-P, which stand for Jawist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly, respectively. Their narratives are interspersed throughout the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), and are the reason we have two versions of various stories.

As with almost everything in the Bible, there is a great deal of debate surrounding the JEDP theory. I suggest you do your own research and come to your own conclusions.