November 30, 2006

Genesis 32-34: Appeasement

Today's reading is Genesis 32-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's reunion with Esau, his wrestling with God and renaming to Israel, and the defilement of his daughter Dinah and the aftermath thereof.

Imagine the scenario: you played a nasty trick on your older, stronger brother, and as a result he threatened to kill you. So you ran away, far away, to an entire other country. There, you settled down, had a family, and became very rich. Then, twenty years later, for reasons not entirely of your own devising, you find that you need to return to your homeland, where your brother still lives and probably still holds a grudge against you. Even worse, the messengers you sent returned to tell you that your brother was on the road to meet you with 400 men, presumably armed.

If you were in this situation, you'd be Jacob at the beginning of Genesis 32.

The question becomes, what do you do?

The first thing Jacob decided to do, after the return of his messengers, was to divide his company into two bands, under the reasoning that if his brother descended in a murderous rampage, at least half his people might have a plausible chance at escape. (Gen. 32:7-8)

The next thing he did, after a prayer to God and a night's rest to think on things, was to send gifts. In fact, he sent some very expensive gifts: several hundred each of goats and sheep, and several dozen camels, cattle, and other animals. He also divided these into groups, so that they wouldn't all arrive at once. Presumably, Jacob was hoping that he would overawe his brother with a never-ending stream of gifts, and thus win his forgiveness. With each set of gifts, he made sure the servants told Esau Jacob was coming behind them, just in case he forgot. (Gen. 32:9-21)

A brief encounter with God later (see tomorrow's breadcrumb, Gen. 32:24-32), Jacob is on the road again, and sees Esau with his 400 men. (Gen. 33:1) Continuing with the "divide and remain unconquered" strategy, he proceeds to divide up his family, placing the most valuable people (Rachel and Joseph) at the back, and the less important ones (his handmaids and their children) towards the front, closer to the oncoming horde. (Gen. 33:2)

Then, mustering up his strength, Jacob goes in front of all of them and arrives before his brother. It turns out that all his fears were in vain: Esau embraces him and kisses him, marvelling over the gifts and the people with his brother. (Gen. 33:4) Nevertheless, Jacob continues in the proud tradition of underdogs everywhere: sucking up. He calls Esau, "my lord" (Gen. 33:8) and compares looking upon him to looking upon God himself (Gen. 33:10), which Jacob himself had, in fact, recently done.

And yet, despite Esau's apparent goodwill, Jacob is still cautious. Esau is magnanimous and apparently wealthy himself, and at first pushes aside Jacob's gifts. But, like his grandfather before him, Jacob refuses to allow Esau to return them. (Gen. 33:9-11) Also, he refuses to let Esau accompany him to Seir, brushing him off with excuses (Gen. 33:12-14). He even refuses to have Esau's men come with him, saying that he's rich enough without them (Gen. 33:15). Indeed, Esau continues on ahead, and Jacob follows behind.

What do we learn about Jacob through this whole episode? First, he's amazingly cautious, perhaps the the point of paranoia. Of course, if I'd had my life threatened, I would be cautious too. But it seems that Jacob's denial of Esau's escort stems from fear: what if Esau wanted to kill him while he slept? What if he hired men to do so instead? What if all this public nicety vanished in the privacy of his own tent? To me, this is the subtext behind Jacob's appeasement. In the words of Will Rogers or Wynn Catlin (variously attributed), "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggy' until you find a rock." Jacob, it seems, was sizing up the opposition and making sure any nice-size rocks were well out of arms' reach.

Of course, Jacob is not the first person in his family to go to extremes in the name of security. We've already spoken about Abraham's and Isaac's "she's my sister" scheme (Gen. 12, 20, and 26). We've also spoken about Abraham's refusal to place himself in a situation where his enemy's goodwill might come back to haunt him -- for example, when he refused to accept plunder after rescuing Lot (Gen. 14:22-24), or when he insisted on paying for Sarah's burial cave (Gen. 23). Jacob, it appears, is merely carrying on the family tradition of paranoia and extreme self-reliance.

On the other hand, it is amazing to see how many times these episodes of heightened caution backfire. All three times, the "she's my sister" plan was discovered by its intended victims, and all that apparently happened from the refusal to accept gifts or the insistence of payment was that Abraham lost the opportunity to become even richer. Similarly, here, Jacob just seemingly lost a sizeable chunk of material wealth to gain forgiveness from Esau, when Esau had already apparently forgiven him.

I suppose we can't fault Jacob for putting up a few extra safeguards. After all, if I knew I was going to face a person who'd threatened my life, I would at least wear a kevlar vest under my clothes and place a few expendable minions between my opponent and I. Then again, maybe I'd just launch a pre-emptive strike against him to confiscate his weapons of mass destruction and liberate his underlings.

November 29, 2006

Breadcrumb: Pinky swearing

Covenants occur all the time in Genesis, and we have another one in Gen. 31:44-55, between Jacob and Laban. Since there was a lack of outside witnesses, the men build a heap (or pillar) of rocks to act as a witness for them. In fact, the name of the pillar ("Jegarsahadutha" in Aramaic and "Galeed" in Hebrew) means "witness heap." Interestingly, another name for the same heap, "Mizpah," means "watchtower." The covenant was concluded, as many others, with a sacrifice and a meal. Covenant in place, Laban was content to bless his children and grandchildren and return to his own home.

November 28, 2006

Breadcrumb: Folk magic

In yesterday's essay, I spoke about the possibility that Rachel used mandrakes in an attempt to conceive. We find another episode, in Gen. 30:37-43, of potential folk magic. In these verses, Jacob has the strong cattle mate before certain branches, so that when they give birth, the young are speckled or streaked (in a previous agreement with Laban, the men had agreed that Jacob would own all the specked and streaked cattle of Laban's flock). It seems that even with their trust in God, folk magic still persisted among the early Hebrews.

November 27, 2006

Genesis 30-31: What's in a wife

Today's reading is Genesis 30-31 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the further birth of Jacob's children, the increase of Jacob's flocks, Jacob's flight from Laban and Laban's pursuit, and the pact made between the two men.

One thing that is striking about this passage is the continuing presence of Jacob's wives. When people think of family structures in Biblical times, they typically think of a highly patriarchal system, where men control everything and women have barely any power. Indeed, none of our readings until now would have given us reason to doubt this idea. However, Gen. 30-31 gives us a new perspective on the power women may have really held, both overtly and covertly.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship that women are able to be quite crafty when they want to be. In the last essay, I spoke about Rebekah's cunning ploy to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright that was rightfully Esau's. Today, we see that her daughter-in-law, Rachel, seems to share several of her trickster characteristics.

In Gen. 31:19, Jacob prepares to flee his father-in-law, Laban. Meanwhile, Rachel secretly steals Laban's "images" (KJV, ie: the statues representing household gods). She doesn't inform Jacob she has done so. Once Jacob flees, Laban follows and the men quickly come to angry words over the stolen images. A brief summary:

Laban is incensed at Jacob's audacity in stealing his images. Jacob, equally incensed at the accusation of theft, challenges Laban to search through his (Jacob's) possessions, and anyone found in possession of the images shall die. Laban searches everywhere without luck. Finally, he comes to Rachel's tent and searches that. Unbeknownst to anyone but Rachel herself, she had hidden the images in a camel saddle at sat on it. She claims that she cannot stand up, because she has her period (KJV: "the custom of women is upon me"). Laban returns empty-handed, and Jacob climbs onto his high horse to berate him, never knowing the trickery conducted under his own roof.

It is beyond the scope of this particular essay to ask why Rachel wanted to steal her father's images. Perhaps she wanted to forcibly convert him, perhaps she was just vengeful, perhaps the images were intrinsically valuable. The reason isn't important. More important is that her deception was cleverly done and masterfully executed. Following the proverb, "loose lips sink ships," she didn't tell anyone about her plan and instead formed a conspiracy of one. Furthermore, she planned for every contingency, knowing that her father would search her tent, and had a cleverly planned (and plausible) alibi.

Rachel successfully played both Jacob and Laban, and came out of the incident unpunished. Surely this shows a significant amount of covert power.

Wives were also able to manipulate their husbands by working together. Consider the incident of the mandrakes, Gen. 30:14-16:

Leah's son, Reuben, found some mandrakes in the field while harvesting. Rachel asks for them, and Leah refuses, claiming that Rachel has already taken her husband. Rachel and Leah thus make a deal, that Jacob will sleep with Leah that night in exchange for Reuben's mandrakes. Jacob returns and Leah goes out to meet him, saying that he must sleep with her that night because she "hired" him with Reuben's mandrakes. He does, and Leah conceives again.

This episode leads us to all sorts of interesting questions. Why did Rachel want the mandrakes? One potential reason might be as a fertility drug. Because of the mandrake's similarity to the human figure, it was often used for occult rituals. It is possible that Rachel was trying to conceive, despite her barren condition. Indeed, shortly afterwards, Rachel gives birth to Joseph. (Gen. 30:22-24)

Another question arising from this passage is, what did Leah mean when she said Rachel had already stolen her husband. I see two potential explanations. First, it might refer to Jacob's second marriage, with Rachel, after he had already been married to Leah. After seven years as the sole wife, it must have been a difficult adjustment to have a second contender. The second possibility stems from the first, that Rachel may have been the preferred wife, despite her barren womb. Since the deal struck between the women was the Jacob would sleep with Leah, it is possible that Jacob had stopped sleeping with her after marrying his true love, Rachel.

Another interesting point is that Jacob apparently has no say in the outcome of this deal. The wives decide that he will sleep with Leah, and he does so. No argument, no complaints. The decision of the wives was, apparently, final.

But wives had even more power than what happened within the marriage beds. As Jacob prepares to leave Laban's house, he takes counsel with Leah and Rachel (Gen. 31:4-16):

Jacob calls his wives to the field and relates to them the situation he is having with Laban: that Laban has been cheating on his wages, treating him poorly, and so on. He further relates that God came to him in a dream, telling him that He has given Jacob all of Laban's flocks and instructed him to return to his native land. Rachel and Leah reply that Laban has also treated them poorly, that they feel entitled to Laban's wealth, and that Jacob should do as God told him. And, that decided, Jacob leaves.

We see by this episode that Jacob's wives apparently have power even in matters that go beyond the home. Jacob could have decided unilaterally to leave Laban's house. He could have informed his wives that he was leaving, without posing it as a question. But instead, he waits for their opinion and confirmation that he is making the right choice. As in many happy households today, the decision to leave is made by both Jacob and his wives.

This is, obviously, not always the case in Biblical families, just as it is not always the case today. We don't have many instances of husbands taking counsel with their wives. Whether this is because most husbands made decisions on their own, or whether the authors of the text deemed such counsels too unimportant to include, we don't know. We do know that it appears this time, and Leah and Rachel appear to have some real power over Jacob.

So, the next time you think about the horrific oppression of women that occurred before the rise of 20th-century feminism, think twice. Though women were oppressed many times throughout history, today's readings show that there were also many times when they wielded significant power in the household.

November 26, 2006

Breadcrumb: More of the same

We have already mentioned that both Sarah and Rebekah were barren when they married their husbands, while the other wives and handmaidens were fertile. The same is true of Rachel and Leah. Leah has four children, while Rachel is barren. Yet again, the main protagonist of Jewish tradition (Joseph, Rachel's son) comes about through divine intervention. (Gen. 30:22-24)

November 25, 2006

Breadcrumb: To veil or not to veil

A short apology to everyone reading Daily Breadcrumbs off the LJ feed: I was fiddling with the settings yesterday and somehow refreshed the RSS feed, so that it republished all the recent entries. Once again, sorry.

The traditionally stated reason Laban was able to trick Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel is because Leah was veiled during the ceremony and subsequent consummation. (Gen. 29:22-25) This is the source of one of the key differences between Jewish and Christian marriage celebrations. In a Christian ceremony, the bride is veiled until the end of the ceremony, in order to protect her from evil spirits and jealous friends of the groom. In a Jewish ceremony, the groom himself puts the veil upon his bride, and lifts it before agreeing to marry her. This is because Jews don't want a repeat incident of the trickery of Laban ruining a couple's happy day.

November 24, 2006

Genesis 27-29: Fool me once...

Today's reading is Genesis 27-29 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's theft of Esau's blessing from Isaac and his subsequent flight to Laban, Jacob's ladder, and Jacob's marriages to Leah and Rachel.

In this passage, we encounter two instances of deception. In fact, it could be argued that these are the first successful deceptions of the Bible. While there were, of course, other attempts at deception (see, for example, the three repetitions of the "she's my sister" strategy), none of the have been successful until now.

The first episode takes place in Gen. 27:1-45. Here is a brief summary:

Isaac is old and nearly blind. Knowing that his death is drawing near, he asks his favourite son, Esau, to kill him some venison so that Isaac may eat it and bless him. Isaac's wife, Rebekah, overhears this and quickly has her favourite son, Jacob, retrieve a few kids (young goats) from the flock. She concocts a tasty stew and places the goats' hides over Jacob's smooth skin, so that he feels like Esau. Jacob goes to his father, who is not entirely convinced Jacob is who he claims to be. Nevertheless, Isaac eats the stew and blesses him. Then, just as Jacob is leaving, Esau returns to claim his blessing, in vain. Isaac weeps and wails, but cannot undo the blessing he's already given, unwittingly, to Jacob. He gives a lukewarm blessing to Esau, who vows to kill his brother. Forewarned by his mother, Jacob flees to his uncle Laban's house in Haran.

The first thing we notice about this deception is that it is not completely flawless. Isaac did sense something was amiss when Jacob spoke with his own voice, not that of Esau's. Isaac says as much, "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Gen. 27:22) In fact, Isaac asks three times whether the son before him is, in fact, Esau. (Gen. 27:18, 21, and 24) For all the elaborate preparation that went into the ruse, it was still quickly put together and left room for doubt.

Of course, it was not Jacob that prepared the deception, but his mother, Rebekah. Rebekah overheard the conversation (Gen. 27:5), instructed her son in the particulars (Gen. 27:8-10), and did most of the work (Gen. 27:14-17). Jacob, meanwhile, merely followed the will of his mother and raised the occasional objections. The mastermind of the operation was not Jacob, but his mother Rebekah.

This is all the more interesting because of Jacob's name. Jacob's name comes from the Hebrew "grasping the heel," because he was born grasping Esau's heel. (Gen. 25:26) However, the NIV notes that "Jacob" can figuratively mean "he decieves." (see footnote f) Furthermore, notes that Yaakov (the Hebrew version of "Jacob") can mean "supplanted." Esau notes this meaning in Gen. 27:36, claiming that Jacob supplanted him twice, once when he took his (Esau's) birthright, and once when he took his blessing.

Yet despite these literary devices, it was Rebekah, not Jacob, who was the true deceiver of the story.

The second deception story comes in Gen. 29:15-28. Here is a summary of the episode:

Jacob is living with his uncle Laban. When he begins his stay, Jacob requests marriage to Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, whom he loves, as his wages for working in Laban's house for seven years. Laban agrees and Jacob works for seven years. However, when the marriage day arrives, Laban gives him Leah, the elder daughter, instead. Jacob does not discover this trickery until the next morning, when it is too late to repent. Laban, instead, insists that Jacob work another seven years before he can marry Rachel, which he does.

Yet again, we find that Jacob is not the instigator of the deception. In fact, this time he is the victim. Furthermore, Jacob seems somewhat dense during this episode: he seems to submissively accept a further seven years of work on top of the seven he has already provided, in order to marry the woman he loves. Perhaps he enjoyed the work. Perhaps he lived well in Laban's house. Regardless, fourteen years is a long time for a man to pine after his love. And yet Jacob does this, with narry a hint of negotiation between him and his uncle.

On the other side of the deception, Laban appears to be a cold-hearted taskmaster. He knew, from the beginning of Jacob's stay, that his nephew wanted to marry Rachel. Surely Laban had been planning this beforehand. Why wait seven years to perform a bait-and-switch? Perhaps it was simply because he knew he could: he understood that he could get many years of service from Jacob, fourteen instead of the original seven.

As one final point, Laban's excuse is that in his country, the eldest daughter is always married before the younger, thus Leah needed to be married before Rachel. (Gen. 29:26) There are a number of problems with this argument. First, Laban had seven years to find a husband for Leah. Surely, it would have been possible for him to find another man to marry his elder daughter before Jacob's seven years were up.

Second, if this truly was the custom, Jacob should probably have discovered this in his years of work. A man so love-struck that he's willing to work seven years for his bride would certainly have attracted notice from the other men in the neighbourhood, who presumably would have told him about this regional custom. So either it was the custom of the region, and Jacob was exceptionally stupid or love-blind, or it wasn't the custom, and Laban was making a poor excuse (and Jacob was still stupid to fall for it).

Either way, things don't look good for Jacob.

November 23, 2006

Breadcrumb: What's it worth to you?

In Gen. 25:29-34, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage. Esau's exclamation that he is about to die (25:32) is traditionally considered by midrashim (Jewish commentary) to be an exaggeration, thus absolving Jacob of gunpoint negotiations, as it were. As a further proof to this, the midrash points out that Esau "rose up, and went on his way" after eating (25:34), not typically the behaviour of a man recently on the verge of death.

If this is the case, then Jacob can be congratulated on his good sense, and Esau blamed for his lack of foresight. After all, I'm sure Esau's birthright would have been able to buy him lots of pottage in the future.

November 22, 2006

Breadcrumb: Like father, like son

In Gen. 26:6-11, we find Isaac in the land of Gerar, still commanded by King Abimelech. And, in a stunning case of deja-vu, Isaac tells his wife Rebekah to pose as his sister. But Abimelech has begun to catch on to this ploy: even before his family becomes barren and God must intervene in a dream (as happened before, when Abraham pulled the same stunt, Gen. 20:1-18), Abimelech puzzles out the deception and commands his men not to touch Isaac or his wife.

What was that phrase? "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." At least Abimelech learns from his mistakes.

November 21, 2006

Genesis 25-26: Children or no children?

I apologize to my loyal readers for the delay in this essay. Life has been hectic. I'm sure you understand.

Today's reading is Genesis 25-26 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the remarriage and death of Abraham, as well as his children by his new wife; Ishmael's children; the birth of Esau and Jacob; Esau's sale of his birthright to Jacob for pottage; and Isaac and Abimelech's relationship.

We find out in this passage that, like her mother-in-law, Rebekah was barren when she married her husband. (Gen. 25:21) However, Isaac prays for her, and she conceives. At the time of his sons' birth, Isaac is sixty years old. (Gen. 25:26)

Let us recall how things happened with Sarah. We find out in Gen. 16:2 that she is barren, which is the reason she suggests Abraham sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar. This union produced Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son, albeit illegitimate. In Gen. 17:15-19, God promises Abraham that Sarah shall also bear him a son, though Abraham laughs at this idea. In the next chapter, Gen. 18:9-15, Sarah overhears that she will have a son, and she too laughs at the thought, though she denies doing so. After all, by this time, Sarah and Abraham are both quite old. Finally, in Gen. 21:1-7, Isaac is conceived and born, and everyone is happy (except, perhaps, Hagar, who is forced into exile with Ishmael).

In the story of Isaac and Rebekah, which passes in the course of a single verse (Gen. 25:21), there is no mention of laughter or doubt. Isaac prays, and Rebekah conceives. Perhaps all the doubt was relegated to the world behind the text, or perhaps, knowing the story of his own conception, Isaac was more willing to accept the potential of a miraculous intervention for his own wife.

Regardless, it seems odd that the patriarchs of the Jewish people should choose barren women as their wives. Theoretically, if I had been promised that my descendants would be so numerous as to be uncountable, I would want to make sure that I could have legitimate descendants. Of course, in an age before premarital sex and fertility tests, it would likely be difficult to determine before marriage whether my wife was able to bear children. On the other hand, I'd want to be as certain as possible that all those God-promised children could actually come into being. It seems that Abraham and Isaac were either negligent or truly unlucky.

In fact, the entire line of Jewish patriarchs is quite small until Jacob's children. Abraham had a single son by Sarah, though he had six more children by his second wife, Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4). As far as I remember, these other children are not dealt with in any detail later in the text. Similarly, Isaac only has two children, Jacob and Esau. It is only with Jacob's twelve children that the Hebrew line begins to blossom. Neither Abraham nor Isaac has a chance to see God's promise (to multiply their descendants like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) fulfilled.

This is all the more interesting because Abraham's other partners proved quite fertile. Hagar conceived Ishmael, presumably fairly quickly after Sarah's suggestion. Ishmael, we find out in Gen. 25:12-18, had a dozen children. Abraham's second wife, Keturah, gave birth to six children, all while Abraham was in his old age. Though we do not have a complete family tree for the sons of Keturah, we know that Abraham had at least seven grandchildren from them, and at least three great-grandchildren.

Why, then, would God choose to make Abraham's other wives and children so fertile, while causing a delay in his chosen people, the sons of Isaac and Jacob? This might be just another case of the traditional Jewish underdog attitude: by allowing Abraham's other sons to grow more numerous with their two-generation head-start, the Hebrews would be facing an uphill battle to dominance. This is just the sort of challenge we see time and again in Genesis and Exodus: God snatching the weaker group from the hands of a much more powerful oppressor. This might be, in other words, just another chance for God to show his power and the Hebrews' dependence on it. This interpretation does, of course, pose problems for those who believe that God is beyond such self-aggrandizing ploys. On the other hand, so do many other episodes in the Old Testament.

Interestingly, while I was researching this essay, I came across an article called Arrows for Joy, about a modern group called "Quiverfull Christians." Oversimplifying somewhat, Quiverfull Christians believe in having lots and lots of children for God, ideally at least 6, though more is better.

Quiverfulls do not tend to rely on the passages I've been discussing. They focus, rather, on Psalm 127, the command to "be fruitful and multiply," and the story of Onan (see page 3 of the article). On the other hand, they do focus greatly on faith – the faith that God will not will not give them more children than they can handle, faith that they will receive God's favour by having many children, faith that God will provide for them in times of need, and so on.

It is precisely this sort of faith, I think, that was required for Isaac to pray for Rebekah to conceive. Of course, Isaak only had two children, and Abraham only one by Sarah. Neither Sarah nor Rebekah would be accepted as Quiverfull women. Obviously, despite their importance to the Jewish and Christian lineages, they were simply not as faithful or devoted to God as these modern-day warrior women, who fight the decline of the white race (see page 2) by adding ever-more children to our already-overpopulated planet.

Pardon, my bias is showing.

Perhaps I should close this essay before I get in more trouble among my conservative readers, if I happen to have any left. I shall merely note that if you, too, are having problems with conception, you can save yourself thousands of dollars of fertility-clinic fees by praying to God instead. Hey, it worked for Isaac, didn't it?

November 18, 2006

Breadcrumb: Marriage

Towards the end of our readings, Isaac takes Rebekah as his wife. (Gen. 24:62-67) The episode plays out as follows: Isaac sees Rebekah, the servant relates who she is and why he has brought her, Isaac takes Rebekah into his (deceased) mother's tent, and marries her. It seems, therefore, that there was no priest and no ceremony beyond the consummation itself. Of course, it is possible that the ceremony lurks behind the text and out of sight of the reader. But a literal reading of the text suggests that marriage was not the elaborate ritual it became in later years.

November 17, 2006

Breadcrumb: Dotted i's and crossed t's

In the readings, Abraham tries to arrange a burial-place for his wife Sarah. (Gen. 23) He asks for the cave of Machpelah, owned by Ephron the Hittite. Abraham is a mighty lord, and Ephron offers to give the cave, for free, to him. And yet Abraham, in true fashion, refuses to take the free gift and insists on paying the full price (400 shekels of silver). As when he rescued Lot (Gen. 14:21-24), Abraham seems unwilling to be in debt to anyone.

November 16, 2006

Genesis 22-24: Sacrificial son

Today's reading is Genesis 22-24 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the death and burial of Sarah, the servant's quest to find a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac, and Isaac's marriage.

It is the first section, the so-called sacrifice of Isaac, that I wish to focus on today. (Gen. 22:1-19) While I realize that this topic may be overdone, I feel that Daily Breadcrumbs needs to at least touch on this seminal moment in Jewish and Christian history.

For those who don't know the story, I shall relate it very briefly:
God calls to Abraham, telling him to take his son Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. So Abraham, Isaac, and two young men of the household go to the mountain. Abraham and Isaac continue on alone, with wood, fire, and a knife, but no animal to sacrifice. Isaac asks the inevitable question, "where's the sacrificial animal?" To which Abraham replies, "God will provide a lamb." They arrive, build an altar, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. But, just as Abraham is about to strike the killing blow, an angel descends and tells Abraham not to do it. They see a ram, and sacrifice that instead. Meanwhile, God blesses Abraham for his unswerving loyalty. Abraham then returns to Beersheba.

So that's the story. The questions of whether God actually intended Isaac to be sacrificed, whether Abraham was actually so fanatical that he would sacrifice his own child, and what type of God requires human sacrifice at all, all these questions have been dealt with so extensively in other writings that it is hardly worth it for me to travel the same beaten track.

Instead, I would like to offer another road of interpretation. Though the text does not state Isaac age at the sacrifice, Jewish tradition (ie: Talmudic scholars) teach that Isaac was 37 years old. In other words, Isaac was a fully-grown man and doubtless capable of resisting his aging father, had he wanted to. Looking at the sacrifice from this perspective brings in all sorts of other questions worth pursuing.

The most notable feature of this interpretation is that Isaac both understood and accepted the fate in store for him. As a grown man, he was certainly able to understand Abraham's intentions when he brought out the rope, or whatever material was used to bind Isaac. He would have seen the lack of sacrificial animals, and drawn the logical conclusion. When Abraham began to tie him, he would have needed to stay still long enough for his father, already quite old, to bind him. He could have run, fought, or struggled, but he didn't.

The sacrifice thus becomes not only a test of Abraham, but an even greater test of Isaac, that of self-sacrifice. In a sense, this is a foreshadowing of Christ's self-sacrifice. We can only imagine the thoughts in Isaac's mind as he lay on the altar, bound and immobile, watching his father bring down a knife towards his throat. Perhaps he felt despair, perhaps anger. Perhaps he accepted his fate as necessary. We will never know.

We will also never know Isaac's relationship with his father, after the abortive sacrifice. We learn in Gen. 22:19 that Abraham returned to the young men who accompanied him, and they travelled together to Beersheba. However, the text does not say that Isaac was with him. In fact, the next we hear of Isaac is two chapters later, towards the end of Gen. 24, when Isaac is coming out of Lahairoi, in the south country, and he takes Rebekah as his wife. (Gen. 24:62-67) At this point, Isaac is forty years old. (Gen. 25:20) He presumably was not living with his father, and perhaps had not spoken to Abraham in all the time since the sacrifice. It certainly would make sense that being nearly sacrificed by your father would put some stress on the father-son relationship. In fact, the next time we hear of Abraham and Isaac together is at Abraham's burial, when Abraham was 175 years old, and Isaac 75 years old. (Gen. 25:8) (Recall: Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac was born. – Gen. 21:5)

Returning for a moment to Abraham, what does he actually receive from this ultimate test of loyalty? This is God's blessing to Abraham: "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and they seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice." (Gen. 22:17-18, KJV)

Wait a minute. Hasn't Abraham been given very similar blessings before? Recall Gen. 13:16, 15:5, and 16:10 (which is similar, though said to Sarah). Abraham has already been told by God that his seed will be uncountable and that they shall possess the land where Abraham lived. What new thing is he gaining from this ultimate act of loyalty? The only thing I see in this passage is, "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed," which is vague enough to mean practically anything.

So, in the end, the near-sacrifice of Isaac managed to apparently estrange son from father without gaining much tangible benefit in return. If I were Isaac, I'd be angry, too.

Of course, we don't know that Isaac was a grown man during the sacrifice. We don't know his age at all. But the possibility that he is, in fact, an adult during the episode adds an entirely new dimension to our interpretation.

November 15, 2006

Breadcrumb: Mommy's little boy

Continuing on the theme of age, Abraham sends Hagar away with her son Ishmael in Gen. 21:14-21. In these passages, the KJV refers to Ishmael as "the child" (verses 14, 15, and 16) and "the lad" (verses 17, 18, 19, and 20). In the NIV, he is "the boy." The Hebrew words used are yeled (yud-lamed-daled) and na'ar (nun-eyin-reish). The passage seems to imply that Ishmael is a boy who cannot take care of himself. You'd expect to see him in a sling on his mother's back, perhaps.

The only problem with image this is that Ishmael was 14 years old at the time.

November 14, 2006

Breadcrumb: Well-preserved

A further point about the "she's my sister" episode in Gen. 20:1-18: at the time Abraham travelled to Gerar, Sarah was nearly a hundred years old. She was well past childbearing age, at the very least. And yet Abimelech still coveted her. Why? Did he actually intend to sleep with the centenarian? Or were there other motives behind the kidnapping? Keep in mind that Abraham was already a very rich man with a retinue of at least three hundred warriors in his household. (Gen. 14:14-16) Perhaps Abimelech wanted ransom, not conjugal pleasures. The text suggests otherwise, but I find it difficult to imagine that a king, presumably in the prime of his life, would want to sleep with a woman who was nearly a hundred years old, no matter how beautiful she was in her youth.

November 13, 2006

Genesis 19-21: Fun for the whole family

After a month-long absence, Daily Breadcrumbs is back!

Today's reading is Genesis 19-21 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham's second "she's my sister" incident (the first was in Gen. 12), the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and Abimelech's covenant with Abraham.

The readings also cover a somewhat taboo topic: incest. There are two incestuous incidents in these three chapters alone, and there have been a few more in the readings up until now. And so, once again, Daily Breadcrumbs descends into controversy.

The first incestuous moment comes during the second episode where Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister (Gen. 20:1-18). I discussed the first episode in detail in a previous essay, so I shall only give a fast overview of the second one:
Abraham and Sarah travel to the land of Gerar in the south, a kingdom ruled by Abimelech. Sarah poses as Abraham's sister, and Abimelech claims her, though he doesn't sleep with her. God punishes Abimelech's house with sickness and then comes in a dream to Abimelech, telling him about the sin he is about to commit (ie: adultery). Abimelech returns Sarah to her husband, showers Abraham with gifts, and the two are reconciled. When asked why Abraham committed this fraud, Abraham gives two reasons: first, he was afraid Abimelech would kill him if he knew Abraham was married to Sarah. Second, and this is the important one for our purposes, Sarah is Abraham's half-sister, his father's daughter by another woman. (Gen.20:12)

This raises an interesting problem for modern readers with traditional family values. Was Sarah actually Abraham's sibling, or was Abraham just trying to fast-talk his way past Abimelech? If we take the Bible at its word, then the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic peoples condoned not only adultery (he had a son out of wedlock after he was married), but also incest. This is hardly the sort of person you'd want to invite home to meet the parents.

Of course, this isn't the first time there has been incest in Abraham's family. In Gen. 11:29, we learn that Abraham's brother Nahor married their niece Milcah, daughter of their other brother Haran. The family was, it seems, rife with incest. And yet Abraham was considered to be one of the most righteous men on the Earth at that time.

Moving onwards from Abraham to his nephew Lot, we are faced with another infraction against morals. (Gen. 19:30-38) After fleeing Sodom, Lot and his two daughters arrive in Zoar and live in a cave. A brief summary of the episode:
Years pass, and Lot is an old man. Neither daughter has had relations with any man. So, on two subsequent nights, the daughters get Lot drunk and sleep with him, the elder on the first night, and the younger on the second. Lot doesn't realize this is happening, because he is completely drunk. Both daughters conceive. The elder gives birth to Moab, father of the Moabites, and the younger to Benammi, father of the Ammonites. There is no mention of Lot in any subsequent passage in the Bible.

Let us pause and consider for a moment. Several centuries previously, Noah's son Ham saw his father naked one day, when Noah was drunk. When Noah realized what had happened, he cursed Ham's son Canaan, his own grandson, to be a servant to his uncles. The curse is phrased to seem like it descends, not only to Canaan, but to his descendants as well. (Gen. 9:18-27)

Compare: Noah's son glimpses his father's naked body and his line is cursed. Lot's two daughters not only see their father's body, but in fact sleep with him, and father two nations with no explicit problems. (Problems will come later, of course, as these nations are persecuted by the Hebrews, but that is far in the future.) There are a number of potential reasons for the discrepancy:

1. Lot was naturally more even-tempered than Noah.
2. Lot didn't realize what was happening. Perhaps he died before he saw signs that his daughters had conceived.
3. Women may not have been held to the same standards as men, and thus would not have warranted a punishment.
4. The punishment occurs "behind the scenes," and is not recorded.

I'm certain there are more potential explanations, but none of these seem satisfactory. Surely incest is a more serious crime than simply seeing a naked body. And yet the punishment is not proportional to the crime. It is, in fact, non-existent as far as the text is concerned.

Surely incest was taboo, even then. It is, after all, a taboo that exists over nearly every human culture that has ever existed. And yet, here we have not one, but two instances of incestuous relationships within the short span of our readings. In both cases, the men were righteous. Abraham was the founder of the "religions of the book," and Lot was considered the only man worth saving in all of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Let's just hope the Biblical literalists skim lightly over these passages. They have enough problems without adding incest into the mix.

For other instances of incest in the Old Testament, you can visit this Wikipedia article.