Monday, March 4, 2013

Genesis 12:1-15:20


So far in Genesis nothing that God has tried seems to have worked out very well. God called creation "good" and human beings "very good." But the first generation of humans was disobedient and had to be evicted from the garden. There was a fratricide in the second generation. Thereafter wickedness and violence increased to the point that God wanted to wash the the whole thing clean with the limited exception of one righteous man and his family. After the flood, Noah quickly got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. So much for the righteous man. This led to the cursing of one of his sons. Then the downward spiral began again. Next thing we knew, people were trying to build a siege works against heaven and God stepped in to scatter them and confuse their language. Things just weren't going God's way.

So now, in chapter 12, God tries a new strategy. So far, God has worked on a global scale dealing with all humankind. (Within the narrative world of Genesis, even Adam and Eve, and Noah and his kin represent the whole world's population). Now God is going to work with an individual, Abram (who will later be called Abraham), and his offspring.

I'm not sure why God chose Abram. The text doesn't say. He is not described as righteous. As the story unfolds, Abram will show some more savory character traits, and some less so. But, whatever the reason, God did choose Abram, telling him to leave his home and travel to Canaan. God promised to bless Abram so that Abram would be a blessing.

There were 70 nations listed in Genesis 10. (No, I didn't personally count them). Abram's offspring are to become a new nation. Today, Abram is regarded as the father of the three great monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims claim him as their physical ancestor. Christians regard him as their spiritual father.

By the way, there is an ancient tradition that says Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is unlikely for many reasons. One of those reasons is found in Genesis 12:6. It says, "at that time there were Canaanites in the land." This suggests that at the time of Genesis' composition the Canaanites were no longer in the land. When Moses died, however, the Canaanites were still in the land.

When a famine struck Canaan, Abram relocated to Egypt. Here we find one of his less savory traits. Out of cowardice, and to save his own hide, Abram passes his wife Sarai off as his sister. As a confirmation student once said, "Abram pimped Sarai out to the king of Egypt." Oddly, Abram is rewarded for this deceitful behavior and it is the Pharaoh who suffers.

Did God punish the wrong guy?

In biblical times, women had few, if any, rights. No one seems too concerned about how Sarai felt about being married off to the king of Egypt. Or how she felt about being returned to the husband who had treated her so despicably.

To this point, Abram's nephew Lot has been traveling along with him. In chapter 13, Lot and Abram split amicably. With characteristic generosity (one of Abram's better traits) Abram gives Lot his choice of land to inhabit. Lot, rather stupidly as we shall see, chooses to settle in Sodom.

Chapter 14 is a strange one. It seems to come from a different source than what has come before. It presents Abram as a powerful warrior, head of an elite fighting force, and conqueror of kings and armies. When four kings from Mesopotamia go to war against 5 kings of Sodom, the Mesopotamians are victorious. The city of Sodom falls and Lot is taken captive. (I told you he'd regret moving there. He'll have reason for further regret soon). When Abram learns of it, he mobilizes his army, defeats the Mesopotamian kings and rescues Lot. He restores the city's goods to the king of Sodom, taking no reward for his deeds. (Didn't I say he was generous?) Then he encounters the strange priest/king Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor player, but much will be made of him in later biblical writings.

Melchizedek is a priest of El Elyon (God Most High). Presumably we are to equate El Elyon with Abram's God, YHWH.

In chapter 15 God cuts a deal with Abram. Literally. In response to Abram's complaint that he has no heir (Eliezer of Damascus is mentioned only here) God makes a covenant with Abram. The covenant ceremony involves passing between the cut halves of slaughtered animals. A reference to this practice in Jeremiah 52:17 suggests that this bloody ceremony was a way to invoke a self-curse: May the same happen to me if I fail to keep my end of the bargain. Interestingly, it is only God who passes through the carnage and presumably invokes the curse upon himself. God's presence is represented here, as in the Exodus, by smoke and fire.

God predicts that Abram's offspring will not occupy the land until they have served 400 years of slavery. The Amorites (one of the tribes that occupies Canaan) apparently won't be booted out until they have sinned sufficiently (cf. Leviticus 18:28).

What do you make of this God of Genesis who fails and changes and grows and tries new things? What do you think of Abram, the Patriarch who sold out his own wife to protect himself?

Notes: Abram builds two altars in this passage, one in chapter 12, another in chapter 13.

Spell check didn't like the word Mesopotamians for some reason. One of the replacements it suggested was Minnesotans.

Next up: Genesis 16-18

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