Genesis 13

The first seeds of what will become the story of Sodom and Gomorrah appear in this chapter, and such hints again at the wondrous cultural heritage these narratives have bequeathed, at how thoroughly richly our lives are intertwined with these fables, with their characters and their interactions, with the wisdom and lessons that have been passed down and down and down. Herein Abram’s nephew Lot, whom we learned travelled with Abram in the previous chapter (12.5), upon returning with Abram and their vast wealth in livestock, silver, and gold to the land of Canaan from Egypt makes a clearly self-serving choice which sets him on the path to his future trouble. The pair of them, it seems, have too much: flocks and herds and tents in abundance so that “the land could not support them staying together” (verse 6a). Abram as the elder could have told Lot what to do and where to go to rectify the issue, but instead he asks Lot simply to separate, to choose wherever he likes and Abram will thenceforth head in the other direction (verses eight to nine). He freely gives Lot the advantage, and the decision taken is for the “well watered…plain of the Jordan” (verse ten) where “Lot settled in the cities of the plain, pitching his tents near Sodom” (verse twelve). Our man has many animals to care for, and no doubt a large household and attendants, and so he takes the better portion from a practical point of view; water, after all, is life. We already know what happens next.

It would be easy here to launch into a homily on how worldly things are not of utmost importance, or the necessity of trusting God/“God” as Abram did, and such points are worth thinking about. Ours, however, is a study that emphasizes variant avenues, and so I’d like to highlight instead the beautifully humane ethics of Abram combined with the equally evident (and charmingly human) quality of inertia as demonstrated in the text. Upon re-entering the land, Abram first ventures right back to where he had been: the area between Bethel and Ai, the place he had built an altar and invoked God/“God” “by name” (12.8, 13.3-4). You or I would no doubt do the same; the call of the past is always strong, and the urge for those “happy yesterdays” a familiar one. Trouble follows, “quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle” (verse seven), and so Abram in his generosity and magnanimousness suggests that to avoid further unrest he and Lot and their livestock move apart a bit, and he allows the other to take the preferable area if he would; Lot, of course, does just that. What happens next? God/“God” speaks to Abram, repeating his promise of the previous chapter (12.2) regarding many offspring, and encourages Abram to strike out a bit; evidently he needed the nudging. It is only then that Abram packs up and journeys away from what he was used to for somewhere new, heading south where he makes a fresh residence and again builds an altar to the LORD.

The line is thus: Abram recognizes that there is a problem and wishes to have peace between him and the other (ethical choice #1), he does not demand even though he could but rather requests that Lot establish himself anew elsewhere (ethical choice #2), he grants Lot the benefit of taking wherever he’d like (ethical choice #3), and then with Lot gone he simply sits on his tuchus. If our experiential lives are split along divine-human and human-human axes then surely here we have much more of the latter, and that engagingly so; yet as we chuckle we also learn how we might better approach those people and situations which are perhaps less than ideal, what may instead be preferable courses of action, and then finally that every now and then a good kick in the pants is precisely what’s in order (whatever its source!).

Genesis 12

We find a kind of mini-Exodus plotline in this chapter (verses ten through twenty) wherein Abram and Sarai (not yet re-named Abraham and Sarah) journey to Egypt to avoid the worst of a famine, Sarai is essentially taken captive by Pharaoh, God/“God” dispatches plagues onto Pharaoh and his household, and then Abram and Sarai are sent off with a great quantity of freshly gained wealth. There is a large amount of misogynism in this section (i.e. Sarai is so beautiful that Abram fears he’ll be killed over her by lustful Egyptians and so passes her off as his sister, Pharaoh’s courtiers see her and tell Pharaoh of her beauty whereupon he has her brought – abducted, really – into his home, one can only imagine what happens next, and Abram ends up getting numerous livestock and slaves out of the deal; verses thirteen to sixteen), but then there was a large amount of misogynism in the ancient world and – indeed – there is a large amount of misogynism in our world still. May we continue to work towards alleviating and eliminating such from our societies. Here though I want to focus on a snippet that precedes this narrative; but first some words of introduction.

The human animal seems particularly concerned with names within our rather striking and entirely unparalleled language use (but in that not unique: quite a number of other animals (and especially mammals, e.g. dolphins, elephants, other apes, etc.) use some form of sound and/or indicative system that functions similarly to our own), and that is highlighted here in verse eight where we read:

12.8: “From there he [Abram] moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the LORD and invoked the LORD by name.”

This is intriguing because we do not actually know God’s/“God’s” name yet (that is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3.15) and nor has Abram – at least according to the text we have – been told how he ought to refer to the being that commanded him in verse one of our chapter to “Go forth from your native land”. Of further interest is that “LORD” is employed here, typically indicating the Tetragrammaton rather than the Hebrew term El which is instead translated as “God”; this might be an indication of the later editing and redacting that took place in a series of layered textual work over a number of centuries during the Bible’s compilation, but let us table that discussion to focus on the specific and evidently important mention of this appellation occurring “by name”.

What is it about a name? A proper noun carries all manner of symbolic and interpretive associations, and it is these referents that allow for the skillful and efficient engagement with conceptual packages: a single oral (or graphic) unit is able to convey a wide array of information which the brain can then automatically and pre-consciously (in pre-awareness) process without requiring the effortful and energy-draining procedures of active cognition and manipulation in short-term memory. This is precisely why much ado is made over corporate and product branding, sports teams’ monikers, groups and organizations, and on and on (including, let us remember, Abram and Sarai/Abraham and Sarah, plus many other re-designated characters to follow). It is also a primary reason there has been such conflict over the “name” of God/“God” (even here in the Tanakh we have what appears to be an extended and probably difficult transition between God/“God” as El and as the Tetragrammaton; this is powerfully explored by R. Scott Chalmers in a work I would happily recommend). Abram builds an altar and calls on God/“God” in a prayer of praise or pleading or both; how does he speak “God/‘God’”? We do not know, but the desire is there to name, to address the Other with the particularity so entailed, to attempt to define in a way comprehensible to him the immeasurable vastness of what cannot be contained: not for the divine but nor for anything, the wholeness of which will always evade our limited human capabilities. Yet we can get closer, we can approach; and it is the refusal to quit that attempt which marks our tenacity and insistence in this endeavor to invoke, and so to relate.

Genesis 11

The famous Tower of Babel. We remarked last week how in Chapter 10 a number of nations and their various languages are described, whereas in this chapter we have not only a common language but a singly existing language (11.1: “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.”). Scholars tell us that Genesis, and indeed the whole Torah, is composed of various layers with a number of authors, editors, and redactors reflected in the differing narratives and legal collections and so such inconsistencies should not concern us overmuch. We, anyway, neither seek nor expect perfection; and it should be noted too that a text “flawed” in this way does not preclude divine inspiration (but nor, of course, does it guarantee it); there is much worth to be found either way, as we have consistently argued.

What might be taken from this portion? A pair of verses strikes me as psychologically important and reflective (and that in a “human nature” way), namely four and six:

11.4: “And they [the people of the world] said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’”
11.6: “and the LORD said [looking at the city and the tower], ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.’”

In verse four we have the human point of view, and it is quite interesting in its need for recognition and insecurities. The people – they, but also we – wish to “make a name” for themselves, but they do not desire this for personal fame (this is presented as group-think, after all), rather for the sake of sureties, for the felt need to stand on a solid foundation as it were (playing with the construction theme), to attain at least this certainty: that here we are, and here we stay. The “else” conjunction is everything: They fear – and so we do too – being “scattered”, which is to say groundless, rootless, in a state of unwanted nomadism, wanderers. It will not go unnoticed that such was the very fate of Israel for long stretches of history. A people needs its land; literally but perhaps more importantly metaphorically in community, belonging, purpose and “place”. This verse gives us an overreach but I think the underlying cause must be a familiar one, and a supremely human one at that.

Then in verse six we are surprised to read of God’s/“God’s” assessment of the situation: These human animals, made by God/“God” in God’s/“God’s” own image (Genesis 1.27), are capable of anything! If humanity could only get it together there is no telling what it might do; and such, it seems, is perceived as threatening. Let us think on this a moment from our all-too-human perspective.

The notion is almost Nietzschean: Humankind as the ├╝ber-life form, but in its entirety instead of only those strong enough to take on the mantle. We together are limitlessly proficient, and yet we are so worried about fundamentals that we entirely misconstrue what are our proper concerns. We are staring at our feet and ignoring the sky above our heads (which the Babel builders tried to reach!); if that does not speak to an inherent lack of vision amongst us I do not know what does. I propose, then, that in this pairing we do not merely view God/“God” as a startled judge (and – again! – that God/“God” might be startled hints once more at a non-omniscience) who takes matters into its own and powerfully humbles us, rather that while we acknowledge the importance of humility in the face of the vastness beyond we also realize just how far we might go if we could but give ourselves a chance. Which means – mutatis mutandis – learning to see one another as co-workers towards a shared goal.

Genesis 10

Another genealogical listing, detailing how Noah’s descendents multiplied and populated the planet (as it was known at the time of writing, editing, and redacting). Three times in this chapter (verses five, twenty, and thirty-one) it is listed that the titular head whose descendants formed “nations” each had their own lands and languages, yet we are already familiar with the famous story in the very next chapter of the Tower of Babel wherein it is claimed that all the people on Earth spoke the same language and hence were able to participate in that grand but ill-planned (due to hubris, apparently) building project. Ours, however, is an interpretative position that does not demand perfect consistency, and so we can take such a detail as a charming instance of wabi-sabi: imperfections making the whole more beautiful (and adding that the aesthetic’s emphasis on impermanence can be applied to exegeses given that we do not expect further textual adjustments at this point in history). What, then, might be taken from this list?

The groupings of peoples and places as explanatory devices for the world during Genesis’ penmanship and compilation is interesting as far as it goes, and somewhat instructive in the categories by which ancient writers thought (e.g. placing political allies into linked descendant lines), but my imagination was caught by the first sentence of verse five. After giving the children and grandchildren of Japheth (one of Noah’s sons) in verses two, three, and four, verse five then begins with “From these the maritime nations branched out.” I think here of the eastern Mediterranean and its many seafaring cultures, techniques, and technologies. My mind wanders to the Phoenicians and the Ancient Greeks, to triremes and colonies, and it does not matter to me that my chronology in this is entirely misshapen: historical thrills need not align. I conjure up distant pasts, associate entire nations of incredibly diverse individuals with broad strokes painted by oceanic adventure and the spirit which drives onwards. This sort of uncritical connection between area of residence and personality traits is of course completely inappropriate in nearly every context but there it is in the storytelling, and we know that this format is hardly unique to biblical tales (just think of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), where entire planets are described in these terms). Our brains function in this way for reasons that were seemingly once evolutionarily advantageous, but need to be socially re-adapted now.

Still, there is something to the mode of thought expressed by this portion of Genesis. We want to know, we want answers and reasons, we want patterns that can be applied and then forgotten, we want to divide up the environments around us to make them simpler to comprehend and thus easier to manage. We are compelled towards organization. Human nature, it would appear; or anyway the human condition. Where do these reflections take us? Only by knowing who we are might we become capable of being otherwise. Our modern societies and global interactions call for mindsets and approaches that do not – cannot – view relations in these reduced and assigning by default formats. Reading of, and thereby realizing, the way our forebears conceptually mapped their settings allows us to take the first steps away from in-group/out-group modes and into an openness which is surely called for today. These myths still speak; not as history but rather as accidental fables, teaching the opposite lesson they were intended for: people and places are far more complex than we are prone to suppose, and a good explanation will not be an easy one. That, I think, is something for which we can be grateful.