December 21, 2006

Final Reflections on Genesis

With the last essay, we have finished our reading of Genesis and prepare to begin Exodus. First, I would like to thank all my readers who have been following along and occasionally posting comments. I hope I have been providing some thought-provoking ideas that allow you to re-examine your relationship with the text, whether for better or worse.

I thought that before we delve into the next text, it might behove us to spend a few minutes reflecting on what we have learned so far in our readings.

Genesis contains some of the best-known stories in the Bible, second only to the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The seven days of creation, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah's arc, the "sacrifice" of Isaac, and Joseph's "amazing technicolor dreamcoat" (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Weber)... all these stories appear within Genesis. Even children know these stories, at least if they were raised in Jewish or Christian households.

On the other hand, Genesis also contains stories that are rarely mentioned outside serious Bible scholarship circles. Reading through the text, we find examples of theft, deception, rape, incest, warmongering, and power politics. We find a whole dimension of the Biblical world that is rarely discussed in Sunday school. In my mind, these often-overlooked stories make the text more interesting and more real. They present to us a world that is not perfect, a world that is far closer to reality than that which is often described in sermons.

Furthermore, the people within Genesis are three-dimensional. The challenges they faced are similar to the challenges we need to face, even today. How do we deal with a rapid rise to power? How do we deal with people who have wronged us, especially if they are more powerful than we are? How should we act when we are rich? When we are afraid? Angry? The character in Genesis all needed to deal with these issues, much as we do.

We find that, in dealing with these problems, the people in Genesis were not perfect. They have goals, aspirations, and most importantly, flaws. Abraham was almost obsessive about not owing debts to anyone. He paid for his wife's burial cave, even though its owner wanted to gift it to him. He refused a share of the treasure after rescuing Lot from rival kings, even though he allowed his allies their fair share. Abraham could be timid, disguising his relationship with his wife when travelling in foreign lands. Yet, despite these character flaws, he was a rich, powerful man. He had hundreds of armed men at his command and dealt with kings as an equal.

We know much less about Isaac than we do his father or sons. In fact, he seems almost like a placeholder patriarch, rarely mentioned except in stories also containing Abraham or Jacob. And yet, even if a few short chapters, we find that he, too, followed the family tendency for deception. He imitated Abraham's attempt to convince foreign kings that his wife was his sister.

With Jacob, we come again to a sustained story. Jacob was tricky, but just as often was tricked or used as a pawn. The plot to gain Esau's blessing was not his, but his mother's. Laban extracted an extra seven years of service from him by giving him the wrong wife. Furthermore, Jacob had no problems playing favourites with his sons, to horrible results. And yet he, too, gained amazing wealth and power. He was so rich that he and Esau could not live in the same plain, because their cattle competed for grazing land.

Even Joseph, poor, poor Joseph, had a dark side. He was egocentric and vengeful, content to use his position of power to his own gain and the detriment of others. Yes, he had a hard life. But when the wheel of fortune turned in his favour, he was quick to inflict misfortune on others. He tormented his brothers and robbed his Egyptian subjects blind.

Nor were the women paragons of feminine virtue. The women in Genesis were among the most vindictive and the most sly. If there was a plot hatched, odds were good that a woman was behind it. The plots were numerous: Lot's daughters decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him; Rebekah conspired to give Esau's blessing to Joseph; to Rachel stole her father's gods; Tamar tricked her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her; Potiphar's wife framed Joseph and had him thrown in prison... then as now, women could be crafty when they needed to be.

Though I point out all these negative features of Biblical characters, I do not mean to detract from their importance. They were the foundation of three major world faiths, and many of the positive characteristics ascribed to them in Sunday schools around the world hold true. Abraham did show great faith in God. Jacob did work hard to achieve his goals. Joseph was a skilled interpreter of dreams (with the help of God). But these qualities have been mentioned so many times before, in so many places, that I wanted to tip the scales back slightly to reality. Though they were important people, they were not perfect. They were human, and like all humans, they had bad qualities along with the good.

In my opinion, this is the most important message of Genesis. The progenitors of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions were not idealized. Nevertheless, they managed to begin some of the most important religious movements in history. To quote one of my favourite books, Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, "It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people." (32)

In Genesis, we see people being fundamentally people. I believe the text is richer for it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you've spotted the thinly drawn quality of Isaac. Its almost as if he's been crudely inserted into the narrative by just copying bits and changing the name, just so that there can be a link between Abraham and Jacob. Which is exactly what Isaac is; the original story had him dying when Abraham sacrificed him.