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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the key things that's important to understand are the idioms and euphemisms of ancient Hebrew. The phrase "uncover the nakedness of" has a sexual connotation; if you skip ahead to Leviticus 18, "uncover the nakedness of" clearly refers to sex. Essentially what Ham did to Noah was not just seeing him naked, but it also involved something along the lines of Ham fucking Noah; which is why the punishment is so harsh, and why its imposed on his descendants - the product of his loins.

Lot's drunkenness on the otherhand is basically a folk tale for slurring Edom and Moab; it casts aspersions against these two nations, namely that they originated from incestuous and underhand circumstances. Its similar in style to the WWII phrase "Hitler only had one ball".