Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Genesis 16:1-18:33


I let it go by, in my last post, but we should probably take note of Genesis 15:6

"And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." (NRSV)

This verse will become important in the New Testament, particularly in the debate about the roles of faith and works that takes place between the Apostle Paul and the author of James.

In Genesis 16, we find the story of Abram, Sarai, Hagar, and Ishamael.  Sarai has continued childless into her old age. Taking matters into her own hands, she uses her slave, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. Abram agrees with Sarai's plan and has sex with Hagar. As a result Hagar becomes pregnant.

Is it only me, or does anyone else think this is a bad idea from the get-go?

Once she is pregnant, Hagar begins to treat her mistress, Sarai, "with contempt." In previous readings, I have always thought that this meant Hagar took an attitude of superiority over Sarai. I'm pregnant and you're barren. Nanny nanny boo boo. This time through, I have seen another, maybe better, interpretation. Hagar is a slave. She is human property. She is probably deeply resentful of her status as a slave. She is now being used as breeding stock, a human incubator for Abram's offspring. Of course she is contemptuous.

In response to Hagar's contempt, Sarai begins to treat her harshly.  (Begin sarcasm) Because that's going to make things better. (End sarcasm).

Hagar runs away, but an angel of the Lord advises her to return and submit to her mistress. If I were Hagar, I'd question this advice. The angel tells Hagar to name her son "Ishamael" and prophesies that the boy will be the enemy of everyone, including his own kin. Hagar gives YHWH yet another name, "El Roi" (the God Who Sees). She then, in spite of my reservations, returns to Abram and Sarai and has her child.The well at which the angel met Hagar was, apparently, an actual place at the time that Genesis was written.

In Genesis 17, the Lord cuts another deal with Abram. Literally. God promises Abram that he and Sarai will become parents. Abraham laughs at this idea. He is only the first to laugh. Along with their new status, Abram and Sarai are given new names. From this point on they are known as Abraham and Sarah. The sign of this covenant is circumcision. Every male among Abraham's descendants, even the slaves born in their households, are to have their foreskin surgically removed when they are 8 days old.

If the covenant made by passing through the cut halves of animals in chapter 15 represented a self-curse (May this happen to me if I fail to keep my end of the deal) what is the significance of circumcision?

Despite his doubting laughter, Abraham circumcises all of the males in his household including his firstborn son, Ishmael. May I just say "ouch?"

Ishmael also receives, at Abraham's (perhaps unwitting) request, a promise. He, too, will be the ancestor of kings and nations. Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael. Like the Jews, many Muslims practice male circumcision.

I think it is significant that Abraham and Sarah vacillate between faith and doubt. They are human. They are capable of heroism, but also of stupidity. They can be generous and they can be cruel. Sound like anyone you know?

Speaking of Abraham's generosity, in Genesis 18 he receives three visitors. One is the Lord, walking about once again as he did in the Garden of Eden. The other two are angels apparently. Whether Abraham recognizes them at first is not clear. He welcomes them with exaggerated middle eastern obsequiousness, downplaying his hospitality. He offers a little bread and water, but provides a banquet of veal, cheese, and milk.

One of the visitors tells Abraham that he will come back to visit again in a year. At that time, he says, Sarah will be a mother. Sarah, listening from the tent, overhears. Now it is Sarah's turn to laugh in disbelief. Women past the age of menopause do not have babies. But when confronted, Sarah denies having laughed.

When the visitors leave, Abraham walks along with YHWH for a time. The angels go on ahead. The Lord confides to Abraham that he has heard bad things about the inhabitants of Sodom and has come to investigate. In this portion of Genesis, God seems particularly limited. He is neither all-knowing nor everywhere present. Whether he is all-powerful is a question. By now we should have learned not to expect the Scriptures not to present a completely consistent picture of God.

Abraham, again almost comically obsequious, argues with God, and wins a serious concession. If God finds as few as 10 righteous people in Sodom, he will not destroy the place. Abraham holds God to a simple standard of justice: it is not fitting for the Judge of all the earth to destroy the righteous along with the wicked.

How often do we hear preachers, in the aftermath of some disaster, proclaim that God had sent punishment for some perceived offense as if the innocent who suffer and die are acceptable collateral damage?

Abraham wouldn't accept that kind of behavior from God.* Should we?

Next: Genesis 19-21.

*To be honest, I don't think the problem lies with God so much as with those preachers who serve the religio-political complex.

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