Genesis 17

Abram becomes Abraham (verse five), Sarai becomes Sarah (verse fifteen), and as the names have changed so is their destiny both re-affirmed and slightly elucidated from the earlier statement of covenant two chapters prior. Scholars inform us that this telling is from the Priestly layer of editing and redacting (fifth to fourth centuries BCE), and that its author(s) were apparently unaware of the previous version that predates it and came to precede it in the final version of the text (thought to come from the Yahwist layer (the J source); perhaps tenth century BCE). The promises of land and offspring are the same, but now a sign is added (circumcision) and Sarah is specified as the mother through whom fulfillment will come. Almost the entirety here is a theophanic dialogue between God/“God” and Abraham, and in that setting – if we allow ourselves to think our way into the context and worldview being presented – there is a remarkable moment.

After sixteen verses of God/“God” addressing Abraham and explaining the contours of the blessings to be received and the adjoining expectations (I think that calling these directives “commandments” precludes the necessarily free will found herein), Abraham is evidently skeptical to the point of derision; but he follows this with what might be a touching sentiment for the son he already has through Hagar. The relevant verses are as follows:

17.17-18: “Abraham threw himself on his face [recall that he is being divinely addressed and thus such a response was considered the only appropriate physical action to take; remember too the notion of “seeing God/‘God’ equals death” as discussed in regard to Genesis 16] and laughed, as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah [interesting that he has already taken up his spouse’s new name] bear a child at ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!’”

In reading this I am firstly struck by the chutzpah Abraham demonstrates: he is still in the midst of an experience that you or I would probably be rendered completely dumbfounded by, namely a direct verbal interlocution with the divine. Yet Abraham is not so much awed as he is incredulous; possibly even dismissive. “What, old Sarah and I should have a child?” he seems to scoff. Given the circumstances one would think that Abraham would find anything possible; that he does not endears him to us as a character, and possibly imparts a valuable (and gracious) lesson about humanity and its place vis-à-vis the numinous. There is, moreover, no consequence for his apparent derision, and God/“God” is even given to wink at Abraham in telling him to name the forthcoming son Isaac, which a footnote informs us is from the Hebrew Yiṣḥaq, playing on ṣaḥaq, meaning “laugh”.

That Abraham demonstrates his concern for Ishmael is not necessarily a contradiction of his statement in Chapter 16.6 that Sarai might do as she wishes to Ishmael’s mother since that was purely directed at Hagar (this of course neither justifies nor excuses anything in our eyes, but we must refrain from casting twenty-first century judgments onto the ancients who inhabited entirely other modes of thought and approach), but it is somewhat – or at least could be understood as – evidence of the doubt he seems to have. Does Abraham’s plea reflect more of a desire for the benefit of what-is because he doesn’t believe in the promised what-will-be; or does it rather indicate genuine care as a father for his son? To which side shall we give our weight: Abraham thinking the only chance he might have for the assured offspring and land – if he is to have one at all – is via Ishmael; or Abraham thinking that he doesn’t want his boy to be supplanted, not even by another child who is also his own? That, certainly, is a choice for the reader. We may be comforted though that in all cases God/“God” pledges protection and many descendants (verse twenty: Ishmael too will be “the father of twelve chieftains, and I [i.e. God/“God”] will make of him a great nation”; intriguingly this mirrors Jacob, whose story will soon come to dominate the Genesis narratives). In that too, I think, we might find something the story would prod us to learn, or at least consider.

Genesis 16

There is a bit of tragicomedy at the opening of this chapter, playing upon well-known sitcom-esque (and fairly sexist by today’s standards) tropes of the wife who changes her mind and the bumbling husband who becomes exasperated. As God’s/“God’s” great promise of children had yet to materialize, Abram’s wife Sarai (also soon to be re-named Sarah in 17.15) decides to follow what was in her time and place the standard operating procedure of making a female servant sexually available to her husband in order to bear a child in her stead, to which Abram consents (verse two; social structures of power being what they were the servant – Hagar, an Egyptian – had no say in the matter). A child is conceived, the servant begins to look down on her mistress as a result, and Sarai blames Abram for this outcome. Abram – we can picture him throwing his hands up in the air – tells her to do whatever she wants. Very sadly Sarai takes this as license for severity (verse 6b: “Then Sarai treated her [Hagar] harshly”) and Hagar runs away as a result.

It might be noticed how here we have a kind of Exodus-in-reverse, another editorial looping that seems reasonable to think a consequence of the many hands at work on these stories over a number of centuries, and we might also remember reading Chapter 12 with its miniature Exodus narrative of Abram and Sarai going down to Egypt in a time of famine and then leaving there with great wealth (12.10-20). In this instance however the terrible master is the Israelite, the Egyptian is the slave, and – perhaps shockingly – the escapee is sent back. This last point concerns the theophany story which piques my interest, and particularly so because of a subtle blurring of numinous identities therein. Let us look more closely at the text:

16.9: “And the angel of the LORD said to her [Hagar], ‘Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.’” (This is the un-liberation, the backwards Exodus with its role reversal between the Egyptian figure and the Israelite one.)
16.13: “And she [Hagar] called the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You Are El-roi,’ [a footnote explains: Apparently “God of Seeing.”] by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’ [another footnote: Meaning of Heb. uncertain.]”

Two thoughts immediately come to mind here: The first is that Hagar (or rather, and to remind ourselves that none of this is actual history as we know such today, the “Hagar character”) may simply have mistaken the angel of this encounter for being God/“God” itself, and thus her exclamation of surprise at still being alive despite having had the tête-à-tête which just occurred. (I.e. no one could meet the divine and expect to survive, which naturally raises a host of problems with God/“God” being repeatedly presented in this and other biblical texts as suddenly appearing to people: Did God/“God” not realize such would mean certain death for the mortals affected (“weak God/‘God’” theology again)? Was the necessity of dying a groundless rumor, a widespread mistake amongst ancient Southwest Asian peoples (after all, the Greek myths do not have this detail)? Was the idea of certain demise circulated (with or without divine guidance) in order to facilitate a greater gratitude for it not coming about afterwards? Were any of the editors and redactors paying attention to these contradictions? Or was the device simply too good a narrative tool to be dropped? And etc., etc.) The other thought, however, is far more intriguing.

The reader will recall that when we notice “LORD” given in all upper case letters it is a signal to us that the Hebrew term being translated is the Tetragrammaton, the most holy name afforded by tradition and considered properly ineffable (and even a few of its circumlocutions are thought ineffable in some circles). This is the very specific rendering of Israel’s deity, the God/“God” of all the monotheistic faiths, but of course here long before either of the two major (and other minor) inheritor traditions came along; it is not the generic term El we remarked on last week. Look again at this pair of verses: “And the angel of the LORD said to her” (16.9); “And she called the LORD who spoke to her” (16.13). There is no other personage brought into the ensuing verses (e.g. ten through twelve), but rather in them we find an announcement by the angel regarding Hagar’s forthcoming son. No one else but the angel could possibly be “the X who spoke to her”, and yet the text does not use “Lord” or even something like “master”, both of which we might expect in this context. It does not, noticeably, use the word for angel either (mal’akh), nor the generally numinous-designating el. Instead it employs this highly charged and overwhelming nomenclature; if this was an erroneous assignation by the Hagar character then why on earth repeat that unless it were a part of her direct speech (and thus demonstrative of her state of mind, e.g. in the pronoun capitalization of 13b) rather than as preceding her utterance – as it does here – and thus reflecting the voice of the “omniscient narrator” conducting the telling? Did the final editors (probably the Priestly layer; fifth to fourth century BCE) fail to note this, or did they leave it in on purpose? Was the original theophany event God/“God” meeting Hagar and then later “an angel” was inserted (a change to verse nine), or was the Tetragrammaton the term that was later put in (a change to verse thirteen)? Perhaps most provocatively of all: What does it mean for our theological understanding (and the phenomenological tracing of one’s internal reactions) to think that an angel might “be” God/“God”, as clearly seems implied? That is a thought to dwell on!

Genesis 15

A promise, a doubt, a dark sleep with a troubled dream, the pledge renewed, and a gift: we break from the narrative and read instead an accounting of Abram’s inner life and how he responded to the incredible theophanic instances the text describes. There is of course nothing we might place our trust in as far as the historicity of these characters – and especially of these events – goes, but naturally we relate: who among us does not doubt, does not dream? Let us then follow the emotional and aspirational lines Abram demonstrates, looking to ourselves as we co-travel, keeping a watchful “conscious of” eye of introspection along the way.

The chapter opens with God/“God” repeating a promise of reward to Abram, to which the stark reply given is (verse 2a): “But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless’”. (Note, incidentally, that the NJPS translation we are citing has “Lord” in lower case letters with “GOD” entirely capitalized, indicating to me that the underlying Hebrew is not the Tetragrammaton but rather El, a much broader term for divinity; were it the Tetragrammaton the upper case usage would, I think, be reversed.) This is the existential cry of “What is the point?” and it is one that many of us can identify with; certainly I can, and even having my own (wonderful) children I will admit to quite often looking at how the human world is unfolding and feeling a strong measure of despair. Abram has recently attained great wealth and power (related in chapters twelve to fourteen), yet he anticipates the author of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) in declaring it all vain, bereft of any inherent meaning. There is beauty, and there are sparks of joy in life, but in the end it is merely a passing of breath, of time. Where is the value in that?

A more specific promise of offspring ensues, and again communicated directly from God/“God” itself. No proof, no explanation, no lengthy delineation nor analysis, but Abram recognizes his place in the whole and thus (verse six): “And because he [Abram] put his trust in the LORD [capitalized now], He [i.e. God/“God”] reckoned it to his merit.” Abram simply trusts; he chooses to look at the world and think that whatever circumstances exist now such are not bound to always be, that things might – indeed will – improve, that the promise can be realized. There follows the extraordinary accounting of God/“God” passing between a series of halved animal carcasses, which scholars tell us was an ancient method of declaring an oath, calling a curse on oneself if one does not fulfill what is being promised, and moreover enacted in a way that bestows no obligation whatsoever on the other party: a purely one-sided pledge of fulfillment (verses eight to ten, and culminating after the dream interlude with verse seventeen). This is stunning storytelling.

Experiencing this chapter from within the lifeworld I inhabit – the fullness of my situational “nows” – I find a tremendous amount of peace in these words. There is little objective reason for me to presume any great beneficial change, but I am also very aware of how fortunate my neighbors and I are, how good we have it: and not just as compared with other nooks and crannies on this planet of ours but from the point of view of history and even biology. The human mind may be a machine prone to dissatisfaction but we have merely to plant our feet on the earth, gaze up at the sun, and feel the breeze on our faces to sense the awe which dissipates every petty complaint. There is real, brutal, horrid suffering in the world, and it is our call as fellow human animals to do what we can to ease the burdens of those we are able to reach – entirely irrespective of what we do or do not make of God/“God” as a being, a beckon, a force, a challenge, a what-have-you – but the potential is always there that things might yet be better, that we might make them better, that whatever is “out there” has guaranteed our ability to bring comfort and warmth to one another; and that this is something in which we can place our trust.

Genesis 14

A most puzzling vignette in the overall storyline of Abram (soon to be renamed “Abraham” by God/“God” itself; see 17.5): the chapter begins with a listing of nations and kings – setting out the political alliances – proceeds to describe how a group of five monarchs were bested by a team of four (verses eight to nine), and further that amongst the losing side was the king of Sodom. We recall from the preceding section that Lot has been living there (13.12), and sure enough he and his were captured by the victors and carried off (verse twelve here). The action then continues apace as word of this is brought to Abram, causing him and his allies (given as “Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner”, verse thirteen) to gird themselves and those with them, setting out on a mission of rescue.

My own image of the patriarch Abram from these biblical tales is certainly not one of a warrior, and I presume that I am not alone in this. It is moreover surprising to read that he even has “retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen” (verse fourteen; there is a footnote stating the meaning of the Hebrew term (ḥanikh) rendered as “retainers” is uncertain); in the previous two chapters we learned of his rapid intake of livestock and material wealth, but not of such a large crowd of people. (For review: “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels” in 12.16, and “cattle, silver, and gold” in 13.2; maybe here the slaves? How sad that they are listed between the “asses”!) Still, Abram and these three hundred-odd plus with him, joined by the unspecified groupings accompanying his three compatriots, attack the four kings at night and defeat them, retake all of the previously seized bounty, and return. Everyone is saved, the king of Sodom comes out to meet and thank the heroes, and we are introduced to the rather mysterious King Melchizedek of Salem, called a “priest of God Most High” (verse eighteen; and note that the Hebrew – given in a footnote – is El ⁽Elyon and hence not the Tetragrammaton, although in Genesis El and the Tetragrammaton are often treated equivalently). Abram receives a blessing from this king/priest and in return gives him “a tenth of everything” (verses nineteen to twenty), possibly reflecting the hand of a later priestly class editor(s)/redactor(s). This is of course highly generous given the circumstances.

Abram’s open-handedness continues as the king of Sodom offers to let him keep all the re-won goods if Abram would only free the liberated population to go back to Sodom, which Abram refuses because he does not want anything or anyone: “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” he declares (verse twenty-three), stating he will only reimburse himself with “nothing but what my servants have used up” but that regarding his comrades – Mamre, Eshkol, and Aner – “let them take their share” (verse twenty-four). Again, this entire narrative is quite unlike what we read of Abram otherwise, but what is consistent in his portrayal are these ethical choices, highlighted here as (we might assign them): 1) great efforts made towards justice in the sense of righting a wrong done (the captured cities’ populaces had nothing to do with the kings’ wars whatever the historico-social practices were in antiquity), and 2) the refusal to be materially rewarded for such. Abram even gave money and items away in the process (to King Melchizedek). I do not imagine that any of these events “really happened”; and I have great doubts that a figure like Abram/Abraham ever even existed; but none of that matters. What does instead is the lesson being imparted here for beneficial human behavior, and the unstated hint that by having the virtuous Abram perform these acts he is reflecting the divine, and therefore that how we ought to think God/“God” is along these lines of caring for the oppressed and freely and repeatedly giving of itself while not insisting that others do so as well (e.g. Abram taking nothing but indicating that those friends who helped him might want something in return). These are motifs that will be repeated consistently throughout the scriptures, but I think they are quite easy to lose hold of given the many other accounts of judgment and infliction that are found in these texts. What we need perhaps is the sophistication to take everything herein as a “maybe/I don’t know” and try to figure out what works for us as readers now, what helps make us into more caring and sharing people, the kind of individuals that these characters are at their best. I suppose this is more of an applied ethics hermeneutic than anything, but I see no reason to foreclose whatever type of reaction these words might call forth.