So at the Grove City conference this year (see the last two posts), I was challenged to try reading all the way through the Bible again, and the invitation resonated with me. The recipe for finishing in a year is three chapters a day, and five on Sunday (apparently). I finished Genesis this week, and here are some random thoughts on this first, most familiar book. These are mostly for my benefit, but feel free to follow along:
1. Reading Genesis 1 while driving through the Pennsylvania wilds added a whole new dimension to the poetry of that chapter for me. I could visibly see the water “above” (the clouds) and the water below, and the sky in between. And so, so, so much green. Birds flying through that middle space seemed to be carving a dance in blue, and the whole experience put me in so mindful and zen-like a mood that I stopped reading for a while just so I could appreciate the moment.
2. That part where God makes the covenant with Abraham, and Abraham (I think he’s still Abram at that point) has to slaughter several animals and cut them in half and lay them out, and then a great darkness falls upon him – that part is still creepy. And I even heard a brilliant sermon on it once – how the ritual Abram goes through was a standard ancient ritual for the making of treaties between kings, and the kings would each walk through the passage created by the lined-up animal parts and make promises to each other, and the idea was “If I ever betray this treaty, may what has been done to these animals be done to me,” and this is how God sets up the covenant with Abram, except God is the only one who walks through the animals and makes promises – he puts Abram to sleep for the whole thing. It’s a covenant of total grace because Abram hasn’t had to promise a single thing in return. But it’s still a very dark, grand, intimidating, creepy kind of passage. No wonder it never made it into my children’s book of Bible stories.
3. Hagar – I absolutely love re-reading Hagar’s story. I loved her before, but I love her even more after hearing this.
4. Abraham begs his servant not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite, but to find someone from his own family to come and marry Isaac. My Bible notation claims that marrying within the family was due to religious prejudice, but my recent research into tribal societal structures claims that it’s financial – you marry your cousins to keep the land and money in the custody of people who have a blood interest in protecting it. I wonder….
5. I have to say I feel really bad for Esau. I always felt bad for him before, but this time he seems a little extra pathetic, weeping at his father’s deathbed because there isn’t enough blessing left for him. I mean, he’s a little clueless and a little bit of a schmuck, too, (it’s only after Isaac tells Jacob not to marry a Hittite woman that Esau figures out that his parents can’t stand his wives – and then his solution is to take a third wife), but it still gets me.
6. Speaking of Esau’s wives, I have to say that as a married woman, Rebecca’s complaints to Isaac about her daughters in law, the Hittite women, takes on a whole new dimension. In-law politics can be brutal. (Not that I have any experience with that whatsoever, but I can suddenly imagine the dynamic much more clearly).
7. The imagery in the scene with Jacob’s ladder really does sound like an alien encounter. I’m not saying that’s what I think happened, but I see how people see that.
8. The whole section about Leah and Rachel reminds me of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Shout-out to book club.
9. In the section about Dina, I am struck again by how Dina herself doesn’t get to say anything about her situation. We don’t know if she was in love with Shechem, or if she really was raped; it says that Shechem was delighted with her, but makes no mention of whether she was delighted back. Nor do her brothers seem particularly concerned to discover her feelings on the matter. It seems that they don’t talk to her at all until they “take her back” from the Shechemites, after they’ve already killed everyone.
10. Genesis contains two quiet accounts of brotherly reunion. It states that at the burial of Abraham, both Isaac and Ishmael were present, and at the burial of Isaac, both Jacob and Esau were present. While the book gives the account of the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, it says nothing about Isaac and Ishmael and their relationship. The account of Ishmael stops after Abraham sends him and his mother away. I idly wonder aloud what that family reunion was like….
11. Here is another recorded instance of friendship between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael – when Esau discovers that his father does not approve of his Hittite wives, he takes to wife Basemath, the daughter of Ishmael, specifically to pacify his parents by taking “one of ours.”
12 I am struck anew by how important family ties were in the ancient world – when people introduce themselves, they invariably include their family info. People needed to know who you were related to in order to know something about who you were. The way that we ask someone what they do; they say they are an engineer, we know something about them that distinguishes them from, say, an artist. Back then, family relations created the same kind of shorthand. It really was just like one big, spread-out small town. You knew that such and such clan was noisy, and another didn’t know how to manage money, and another made their food extra spicy, etc. It hits home for me again how very divorced we are from a sense of continuity in the modern age. We define people by their natural inclinations, gifts, and choices rather than their hertiage. Positives and negatives to either approach I guess. Both systems define you by something narrower than what you really are.
13. 38:11 has Judah sending Tamar back to her father because his youngest son might die. When I read this before, I always thought it was sort of a shrugging of the shoulders and letting Tamar go free – “Well, there’s no use making her wait here since my sons don’t seem to live long,” but after doing some extensive research on widows for my play, I’m more inclined to think that Judah’s action was superstitious and cruel. If widows in the day were treated as the widows I was researching, then his action was born of superstition – blaming Tamar for his sons’ deaths – and it was cruel because she would have had no economic resources outside of her marriage, and no other families would be willing to accept her for the same reason. She would have been seen as a disgrace to her family, having been returned, and her only hope would be Judah’s making good on his responsibility to marry her to his next son. He sentenced her to a life of disgrace and poverty by not granting her children through her husband’s brother. He took away her only means of support and safety. So when, later, she is accused of prostitution, and he says, “she was more righteous than I,” he is saying that her sexual sin, forced on her by her circumstances, was less than his economic sin, by putting her in those circumstances to begin with. Or that’s my new theory anyway.
14. Chap. 40: Interesting that in the chief baker’s dream, the symbol for his body is bread. Echoes of the Eucharist, or merely a baker’s preoccupation?
15 Chap’s 35, 37, 42 (Reuben) – You know, what I always remember about Reuben is that he slept with his father’s concubine (Bilhah, Ch. 35), and eventually lost his paternal blessing because of it. But in Ch’s 37 and 42, the ones dealing with Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, Reuben is clearly the conscience of the group. He’s the only one who thinks it’s a terrible idea to jump Joseph, he’s the only one of the brothers who is recorded mourning for the loss of his brother, he’s the one who tells his brothers in Egypt that their suffering is karmic justice for what they did to Joseph, he’s the first one to pledge Benjamin’s safety to their frightened father, and he does so by offering his own two sons in exchange if Benjamin is harmed. He is a consummate oldest brother, looking out for everyone, and acting as liaison and stand-in between the other brothers and their father.
16. Ch 44 – Judah also distinguishes himself during the second half of the whole Joseph saga. While there’s no mention that he objected to selling Joseph into slavery in the beginning, he is the second, after Reuben, to guarantee Benjamin’s safety to his father, and then when Benjamin is found to possess the supposedly purloined cup, it’s Judah who steps forward and offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He seems to have matured somewhat. Perhaps all that business with Tamar gave him something like a conscience? Pity the same humility isn’t recorded for Simeon and Levi after their slaughter of the Shechemites – were they propped up in self-righteous indignation for the rest of their lives, or did they eventually repent, but it didn’t get recorded?
17. Ch.45 – Joseph’s total and unconditional forgiveness of his brothers really is remarkable. I mean, he did put them to the test quite a bit, but to be able to ever get to the point where you say “No, it’s not that you sold me into slavery – God sent me down ahead of you to save lives, so you see it all worked out in the end” is really amazing.
18. Regarding the accounting of Jacob’s offspring in Ch 46: First, it’s notable that Judah’s only descendents came from Perez, who was one of the twin sons born to him by Tamar, so in ancient world terms, I guess that situation was pointedly redeemed. Second, the only girl named is Serah, sister to Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, daughter of Asher. She is named, but not counted as one of the “children born to Jacob by Zilpah,” only her brothers. Furthermore, according to my footnotes, there is a discrepancy in the text regarding Joseph’s children, in v. 27, it says in my translation that Joseph had “two sons,” but the footnote says that in two early versions, Joseph is listed as having “nine children.” So did Joseph have seven, unnamed daughters? How many other daughters might have been left out of the accounting? I sort of understand why they might not have been counted, in the strictly clerical sense, since daughters left home to get married, whereas sons stayed with the clan (contrary to what it says in Genesis 2 about a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife, perhaps hinting at an earlier, matrilinear society?). While I’m sure their lives counted for something, when taking a census it’s too hard to count the expats, even today, much less in ancient times. Why was Serah named with her brothers? Was she a spinster, or in some way unfit for marriage in the ancient world (Down’s syndrome, physical deformity, other ?)? Was there some extra-biblical story that she starred in which was never recorded, but which the original readers would have been familiar with? What gets a woman counted?
19. Ch 47:13-26 – Joseph is kinda harsh on the Egyptians during the famine – just because you *can* enslave an entire country that would otherwise starve to death, doesn’t mean you *should*. Although if his professional purpose was to make Pharaoh as powerful as possible, he did his job damn well.
20. Ch 50 – The burial scene for Jacob is kinda surreal. He gets embalmed in Egypt, and the whole country mourns for him, and then all these Egyptian dignitaries travel with Joseph (with chariots and everything) to bury him and mourn with Joseph in Canaan. An unlikely procession.