Genesis 21

In this chapter the great promise of Isaac is fulfilled (verses one through two), and with it the narrative arc of Genesis begins its shift to the stories of the descendants and the tribes and nation that they develop into. All of that though is yet to be, and so maintaining a focus only on the present section, what may we take from it? To me as a reader one element stands out most centrally, a recurring theme of sorts (a symbol) that links the disparate parts: Water.

With Isaac born and growing, Sarah becomes jealous of Abraham’s son with Hagar, Ishmael (who, let us not forget, was Sarah’s servant and about whom she suggested to Abraham that they be sexual partners in order to have a child in lieu of herself: 16.1-4), and seeks to drive them both away. (This again is a repeat of Chapter 16; scholars following source criticism ideas assign that version to J (the Yahwist) and this to E (the Elohist).) God/“God” tells Abraham not to worry about Hagar and Ishmael and to listen to Sarah (verse twelve); at this point we are probably very curious how things will turn out, especially given that what happens is Abraham pushes them out into the wild with nothing but “some bread and a skin of water” (verse fourteen). This is our first instance of water.

That source of life-giving sustenance quickly runs out – of course – and Hagar despairs, as would we, and as we even merely as readers do too. Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush and moves away so as not to see him die (verses fifteen to sixteen). If our memories hold we recall that Ishmael was already thirteen years-old back in Chapter 17 (17.25: “and his [Abraham’s] son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”), and so for Hagar to now be putting him in place as one would a very young child seems quite odd; and it is, but these stories are simply that – stories – they are not histories, and if we approach them that way then details like this will tend to ruin the entirety. If this chapter is from another author, editor, or redactor than the earlier telling of Hagar and Ishmael’s wandering then we can easily bracket out the image of Ishmael as a young man and replace it with one of him as a baby or infant. Nothing is lost thereby and the tale carries on. However we respond to such discrepancies in the text, a moment of grace follows: God/“God” “open[s] her eyes” (a wonderful metaphor) and Hagar sees “a well of water” (verse nineteen). Let us take this “sees” as meaning “understands”, and its object as the trust that providence can come when we do not expect it, that life can be renewed. This is our second appearance of water.

Finally there is the negotiation between Abraham and Abimelech over a well: Abraham states that the well he dug was forcibly taken by Abimelech’s servants, and Abimelech claims to know nothing of it. Rather than insisting or resorting to violence, however, Abraham instead essentially purchases the well for the likely handsome sum (thinking in nomadic and pastoral terms) of seven female sheep (verses twenty-five through thirty-two). Abraham now has secure property, the land upon which it rests and forms a part, and the means to continue to provide for his family and livestock. This is our third designation of water.

Water as a token of parting, quite possibly given in shame – one would think at the very least with a sense of regret that things had not been different – and in foreboding; water as unforeseen blessing and salvation when it was most needed; and water as marker of days and years yet to unfold but which have been made more sure. Water pointing to the past, to the present, and to the future; water as that which flows beneath all the human drama in play; water, I think the chapter is telling us, as sign for God/“God” itself.

Genesis 20

Here the narrative returns from Lot and the events with the “cities of the Plain” to Abraham and Sarah, who again are travelling and once more – as with the mini-Exodus of Genesis 12 – we find Abraham pretending to a foreign king that Sarah is his sister. From a literary perspective scholars think that this tale comes from the E source (perhaps eighth century BCE) while the earlier chapter is from J (tenth to ninth centuries BCE). If so, such would account for many of the parallelisms we find, but there are differences in nuance and detail despite the overall plot structure being essentially the same. (Summarizing: Abraham lies about his relationship with Sarah, Sarah is brought into the harem of a ruler, God/“God” punishes said ruler for having taken Sarah, the ruler then returns Sarah and gives extra wealth to Abraham to make up for his mistake while also asking Abraham to go and live somewhere else, a richer Abraham and Sarah thus move on.) What I think is provocative here is the treatment that the erstwhile king receives from God/“God”, and in relating that in the manner in which it is, how although the author(s) of this section may purely have been seeking to communicate a straightforward in-group preference rather than deliver a theological lesson of some kind there are nevertheless interesting thoughts on free will that still come through. (We might call such “the spirit in the text”.) In any case, the favoritism is quite palpable; note verses three through seven, and seventeen through eighteen:

20.3-7: “But God came to Abimelech [this is the foreign ruler] in a dream by night and said to him, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.’ Now Abimelech had not approached her. He said, ‘O Lord, will You slay people even though innocent? He himself [referring to Abraham] said to me, “She is my sister!” And she also said, “He is my brother.” When I did this, my heart was blameless and my hands were clean.’ And God said to him in the dream, ‘I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife – since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you – to save your life. If you fail to restore her, know that you shall die, you and all that are yours.’”
20.17-18: “Abraham then prayed to God [this is post-restoration], and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children; for the LORD had closed fast every womb of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.”

This sequence, when written out step by step, appears either unjust or at least questionable: God/“God” informs Abimelech he is going to be killed as divine punishment, Abimelech protests his innocence and God/“God” agrees while declaring it was what kept Abimelech from doing further wrong, God/“God” then tells Abimelech what to do to get out of his trouble but still requires something Abimelech cannot himself do to be saved (i.e. Abraham must intervene for him; but if Abimelech is innocent and completes what God/“God” tells him then why is Abraham’s involvement necessary?), and God/“God” adds that if Abimelech does not follow through both he and his household (and maybe even his livestock) will die. Moreover, there had already been a sort of pre-emptive punishment put in place – whether to assure compliance or not we are left to wonder – namely the fertility problems brought upon Abimelech, his wife, and the uncounted but probably numerous other women associated with him. Their inclusion seems grossly unfair; what had they done?

We may think of some reasons for the story to be told this way: for example, historical realities, socio-cultural worldviews in antiquity, economic factors that were based on concepts of property and ownership wholly other than what we use today; even so there is a strong us-them ethos at play here; and yet hidden beneath that there is also something well worth contemplating. If we move past the simple “Abraham and Sarah get rewarded” scenario (and that Abraham is at fault here has been noted by many commentators over the ages) we find the complex presentation of free will I mentioned earlier. God/“God” tells Abimelech it is going to kill him but Abimelech still has a chance: Return Sarah or you and “all that are yours” will die. Abimelech does not have to restore Sarah to Abraham: he could test God/“God” and see what happens, or he could argue further that God/“God” ought to do something to Abraham as well, or he could simply wait it out. Risky manoeuvers perhaps, but still available options. Intriguing too is the facet that although God/“God” informs Abimelech that Abraham will pray for him and therefore God/“God” will spare his life (only because of Abraham’s extra help and not since Abimelech did what was necessary? again, the logic seems off-kilter, maybe missing), for Abraham too there is a choice in the matter such that the intercession may not have been made. What if it had not? What if Abimelech did his part but Abraham did not? Would God/“God” have killed Abimelech anyway? This is merely one portion of a series of foundational myths and not actual history and so in some ways these queries are moot; but raising them is instructive for how we think about the presentation of this text, and more so they are important for how we consider ourselves as agents within a universe where despite every single element being tightly interlocked there remains plenty of “wiggle room” for randomness and human unpredictability. If nothing else, that is something to take to heart.

Genesis 19

This is surely one of the most disturbing chapters in the whole of Genesis, seemingly filled to the brim with objectionable events. It begins well enough with Lot mirroring Abraham in the hospitality he offers (verses one through three; a core virtue of ancient Southwest Asia, and one that indeed remains), yet thereafter very few positive remarks may be made about Lot. We might note that the incredible detail in verse four that every single man living in Sodom gathered around Lot’s door connects with the negotiation Abraham had with God/“God” in the previous chapter wherein it was settled that were a mere ten innocent (/“upright”) people found in the city it would not have to be destroyed (18.32), but in this it seems that the women living in Sodom are not being counted. This is of course a reflection of an unfortunate (by modern standards) historico-cultural patriarchical thinking woven into the structure of the storytelling, but would that such were the full extent of it. Instead we have Lot also offering his two daughters as sexual partners to the men of Sodom in lieu of the visitors (horrific imagery here), and he then seemingly stands around not knowing what to do when that proposal is refused, resulting in him having to be pulled back inside his own house by the “angels” sheltering there (verses nine through ten).

Lot’s passivity and incompetence continue. He cannot convince his sons-in-law (presumably married to other daughters) to flee from Sodom before it is destroyed (verse fourteen), and he himself dawdles in his own escape; this, at least, does give us a singularly poignant verse amidst the unrelentingly harsh narrative:

19.16: “Still he [Lot, with his household] delayed. So the men [these are the “angels” established in verse one, the same two who had visited Abraham with God/“God” in Chapter 18] seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in the LORD’S mercy on him – and brought him out and left him outside the city.”

Lot, unfathomably, appears unsteady in the basic task of fleeing certain doom; perhaps he does not believe that the city really will be destroyed, perhaps he has some lingering affection for the place despite the assault of the day before (verse fifteen begins: “As dawn broke” and hence we are in a new day at this point), perhaps the narrator wishes to further contrast Lot with the exemplary forthright Abraham. Whatever the case, the divine is depicted as acting with patient grace. This helps redeem the story (which might be mostly about etiologies), but the picture remains complicated. For one, despite having only just been saved, Lot’s wife (sadly not given a name) almost immediately dies anyway as she is transformed into a pillar of salt because she turned to watch the “sulfurous fire from the LORD out of heaven” (verse twenty-four) after having been warned not to “look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain” (verse seventeen). Possibly this was written to account for the natural salt formations in the region, but one would think such an item might be left out or described in another way, something which goes double for the origin myth of the Moabite and Ammonite clans via the incestuous sex initiated by Lot’s daughters with him (verses thirty through thirty-eight).

Traditionally this tale has been interpreted as a warning against the consequences of “sin” (as moral wrongdoing and/or as an effrontery to deity), and also sometimes as a sign of God’s/“God’s” faithfulness to Abraham in that it rescued Lot although he did not seem to deserve it (but then against this line of thought there is the obvious objection that Lot’s wife, sons-in-law and other daughters were not spared). It is a foundational story to much of Western culture, the kind of background knowledge and common reference point that unites people even of variant worldviews, but for my part I have to remind myself of a great number of caveats simply to finish reading (it is an historical relic, its authors conceived of justice very differently than we tend to, it stems from a society which was unthinkingly male-oriented, et cetera). Thank goodness for verse sixteen; within all of the human failure and tragedy, the annihilatory retribution presented as deserved judgment, there is a glimpse of unwarranted mercy. The world is not fair, a great many people suffer unspeakably in ways that should never happen, let alone be commonplace. Yet even so we might hope that there can be times when we are led by the hand and away from the “city”.

Genesis 18

Two pronouncements, one laugh, and a very humble negotiation mark this chapter. Here again the majority is a theophany scene, opening with God/“God” appearing to Abraham with two attendants – in what manner we should consider these fellows is not elucidated – but unlike the previous encounters this time it is “in the flesh”, as it were, or at least in the guise of having flesh and the shape of a human being. Isaac’s birth is foretold as it was in the preceding section (17.16, 21), but now it is Sarah who laughs at the prospect rather than Abraham (compare 17.17 and 18.12). In the immediately following pair of verses God/“God” then actually reveals itself, giving full disclosure and yet remaining there in the form of a person to continue the conversation. This is quite astounding, and worth quoting in full:

18.13-14: “Then the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’”

God/“God” makes the direct connection between “Is anything too wondrous for the LORD?” – the Tetragrammaton – with the first-person pronoun “I”, thus eliminating any other interpretations of the questioner’s identity which might have been made. LORD = I, transcendent deity sitting here under a tree and enjoying the generous meal you, Abraham, have laid out for me. This is of course unsettling enough for a modern reader, but Genesis has given other instances of this kind of God/“God”-here-and-now, and it will continue to do so as its narratives unfold; to me, therefore, what is most surprising is not that but rather the non-reaction the text assigns to Abraham at this turn of events. Sarah, for her part, is given as being “frightened” (verse fifteen) – and surely we cannot blame her; I would probably try to hide somewhere – but Abraham instead calmly joins God/“God” and the mysterious adjoining duo to see them on their way (to the ancient mind these might well have been taken as lesser deities, an image that preceded the concept of “angel” or “divine messenger” which was something that developed over a long period).

Much has been made of the next portion wherein God/“God” somewhat indirectly informs Abraham that it wishes to judge the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham – in language that is very deferential – bit by bit gets God/“God” to agree to forgive everyone should a mere ten innocent (i.e. upright) people be found. (Verse twenty-one: “I [this is God/“God” speaking] will go down to see whether they [the inhabitants] have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The “take note” part there is chilling, but not particularly detailed.) Both the actual assent of the divine to change its decision, and that everyone should be pardoned for the sake of a few rather than each individual be responsible for their own specific conduct, are points that are almost limitless in the notional implications involved, but perhaps due to this great depth it may be easy to overlook the setting in which this takes place.

As mentioned, God/“God” has just directly stated that it is present, manifest as a traveler, that it has eaten and drank of the meal provided as hospitality for guests, and then with apparent aplomb Abraham gets up and walks with God/“God” – still remaining “human” – and accompanies it and its probably-numinous companions on a walk towards Sodom (verse sixteen). The story does not have Abraham run away in terror, it does not have him bow down in awe nor even hide his face as he did earlier (17.17), it simply has him stroll and chat with the divinity. It is mind-boggling. Scholars think that this is probably from the J source and hence a very early layer (maybe tenth century BCE), and the presentation may reflect that as the older theophanic stories are much more of this sort than the later “voice from heaven” type, but if we allow ourselves to see in this something more than pure antiquity I think a profound lesson lies waiting to be discovered. The Absolute Other – in whatever way we may wish to think it, and not even necessarily as a being per se – gives itself to Abraham and he accepts it as is, he takes this miracle of existence in stride (literally!) and seeks neither escape nor explanation. He stays in the moment – as himself, in perfect candor – and tries to relate. Would that we might all find such comportment for life and its many marvelous surprises.