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.


Kristen said...

So far many of the things you've talked about just reinforce my issues with capital-R Religion.

How often does a faith pounce on one section, often one or two lines (like the laws against sodomy and homosexuality) and hold it up as god's almighty pronouncement, while ignoring or glossing over "inconvenient" parts?.

The raving hypocracy of interpreting a so-called "gospel truth" to suit one's own demands of power over other people just makes me sick. Especially when that truth comes from what is so obviously an ancient document re-written and re-interpreted so many times as to have lost the vast majority of it's connection to reality.

Sorry if that's a little ranty... t'isn't aimed at you. I've not read the bible in any great detail, so I can't claim I have the best foundation to stand on. ;P

Anonymous said...

Melchizedek means "(T)Zedek is king", referring to a deity called "(T)Zedek". The deity seems particularly associated with Jerusalem. And when David (book of Samuel) eventually chooses the site for the first Temple in Jerusalem, its from an Adonizedek ("(T)Zedek is lord"). Strangely enough a "Zadok" suddenly appears at that moment in the narrative as the "priest" at Jerusalem....

Anonymous said...

And yet the Bible is a no-holds-barred account of the history of mankind with God. It is brutally honest about who and what we are. Abram was not a perfect man. Thankfully. Becuase I draw encouragement from the fact that he made many and repeated mistakes, yet God still loved him and blessed him. The Bible is also, taken in its entirety, an amazing love letter from God to His children. Not those who are religious, but those who are in relationship. It is encouragement, it is instruction, it is the foundation for a life filled with joy and purpose. As long as pride and judgement don't get in the way. I hope you find that to be true.