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Peter on Reading Genesis (part V)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

This will be the last in the series of posts about Genesis, and I'm a slow enough reader that you shouldn't expect my posts on Exodus until Christmas at the earliest. Reading the Bible with this level of detail is going to wind up being a five or six year project. Worth it...but slow.

The Evolving Covenant

The last big surprise for me in Genesis is that the "covenant” between YHWH and his chosen people is established at least four separate times, and each time it’s a little different, with more conditions added.

The first time God approaches Abram, he's almost like Doctor Who picking up a new companion. He just sidles up to him and says, Hey, come along with me, I’ll show you the universe. No conditions. No obligations. Just:
Go forth from your native land
And from your father’s home
To a land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
Bless you and make great your name,
That it may be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And curse those who curse you;
And through you shall bless themselves
All the communities on earth.
(Gen. xii, 1-3)
He says it again in Gen xv 1-21, but this time with a little more flair. The covenant is sealed not just with a promise but with a potent magic ritual that gets described with hallucinatory vividness. But then later still, when Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him a third time and, as if the idea is occurring to him for the first time, he says, “I will grant a covenant between myself and you” (Gen. xvii 2). He announces a new name for himself (El Shaddai, or “God Almighty”) and he renames Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah. And this time, the covenant comes with conditions:
And this shall be the covenant between myself and you, and your offspring to follow, which you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between me and you. At the age of eight days, every male among you, through the ages, shall be circumcised, even houseborn slaves as well as those whom you have acquired for money from any outsider who is not of your blood—yes, houseborn slaves and those that you purchase must be circumcised.—thus shall my covenant be marked on your flesh as an everlasting pact. An uncircumcised male, one who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin—such a person shall be cut off from his kin: he has broken my covenant! (Gen. xvii 10-14)
You can imagine Abraham asking, We’ve been together all these years and you’re just getting around to telling me this now? But of course, this is another of those continuity errors that comes of Genesis being quilted together by “the compiler,” who was trying to make one coherent story from the scriptures of two or three different traditions.

Later still, God seems to question his own decision and, as if looking for a way to reassure himself, puts Abraham to the test. Having given his barren 90-year-old wife a son, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him and Abraham agrees. Then God says:
I swear by myself … that because you have acted thus, and did not withhold your beloved son from me, I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendents shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendents—all because you obeyed my command. (Gen. xxii 16-18)
The Initiatory Challenge

I’ve always wondered about that scene. It’s inclusion in the Bible probably signifies the end of the practice of human sacrifice among the Hebrews, yet it ought to raise deep questions for any believer in a biblically-based religion. Human sacrifice has always been the ultimate shocker in our culture, used by Julius Caesar to justify his extermination of the Druids, and turning up in the blood libel against the medieval Jews and again in modern paranoia about Satanic cults. Yet here it is, presented not as horror but as the final test that makes God's love fixed and permanent: Would you do even this for me? Would you kill an innocent child?

I have even wondered at times, was this an initiatory test that Abraham failed? Behind door number one, he found himself father to a great nation. But what would have been behind door number two, if he had answered, Men do not gather figs from thorns, nor grapes from a briar bush, nor could a God of love, mercy, and justice demand so great a sin?

God changes over time. He takes on new names, first YHWH and then El Shaddai, and also takes on new attitudes towards creation and towards his chosen ones. I know that by the time of the Prophets he becomes a champion of the oppressed, and by the time of the medieval philosophers he becomes That Being Greater Than Which No Other Can Be Imagined, but there’s no hint of either of those in Genesis. I'm looking forward to watching it unfold.

So...on to Exodus!


Yewtree said…
The making of the Covenant and the handing down of conditions is kind of reminiscent of the visit of White Buffalo Calf Woman to the Lakota (and I am not the first to draw that parallel).

I've always found the story of Abraham and Isaac disturbing. The Jewish interpretation if it is interesting (and similar to yours).
Anonymous said…
So much of this story is foreign to modern Christianity, yet it's commonly used in sermons and Sunday School lessons. I'm sure it has value, but I think some folks fail to deal with the basic, disturbing elements of the story. Even literalist readers treat it as myth without realizing it. In my experience, it's used to encourage us to commit everything to God, in case he asks of us something as difficult as sacrificing a child.

But then I'm not aware of anyone I've ever known being put to such a test. Yet many of us are taught that God "never changes"--when it's obvious from the Scriptures that he, in fact, does change.

I've enjoyed Peter's reading of Genesis because it's been refreshing to have a discussion of those elements that, in some places of worships, are not talked about. Despite the openness of Quakers, there remain many churches where the teacher's word is "inspired" and serious questions are considered dangerous.
Mahud said…
The myth of Abraham and the near sacrifice of Isaac, reminds me of a Greek myth. I've forgotten the names of the characters and some of the details, but a King is convinced to sacrifice his child/children, to avert a crop fammine (while in actuality the crops were deliberately poisoned by the Queen). Anyway, He takes his children (probably up to a mountain top) with the intention of sacrificing them, when suddenly at least according to Robert Graves' Greek Myths / [which I've yet to verify], Herakles appears from nowhere exclaiming, "Zeus Abhors human sacrifice.

Then a Golden Ram flies down and the children (or child) jump on its back and they are whisked off to Kolchis, where the Ram is sacrificed to Zeus instead, and hung on a tree.

Just found a link at Wikipedia that explains things a bit better
Will T said…
I have really appreciated your comments on Genesis. Do I really have to wait until December for the next installment?

I have heard people say that the Quakers and the Jews are similar in that they are both non-creedal religions. As a result they both tend to do their theology through stories and by studying their history.


Will T
Will, I'll allow Peter to respond more particularly to your comments--and to the other comments here, of course. But I do want to add here that at least part of the impetus for Peter taking a close look at Genesis has to do with the course that I'm signed up for myself, this summer, a course designed for English teachers, to encourage teaching the Bible as Literature. Peter is way ahead of me--I'm thrashing my way through the story of Joseph at the moment--and I've been using him, and his Anchor Bible, as a lifeline when some of the references get a little too obscure for me. ("What the heck is with Jacob and those peeled switches,anyway, Peter?" "Oh, that's just straight-up magic, Cat.""Ah. Thanks!")

But what is really starting to frustrate the heck out of me is that all the supplementary readings for the course are from a Christian perspective, and they wind up seeing a lot of what happens through a lens that I know perfectly well is not how Jews read the material. I'm dying for a little Judaism to go with my Christianity, here! I'm hoping someone will suggest a Jewish commenter, along the lines of Alter, who we do have, so I feel a little less out of balance.

Certainly, as a teacher, I feel that I will need a deeper sense of some of the varied ways the stories have been read by members of different groups. But, as a human and a reader, I'm also longing for commentary that will focus, with me, on the stories taken on their own terms.

And I'm with you--I want Peter to write more much sooner than December! (Of course, I also want him to finish the novel... and to take lots and lots of time paying attention to me. So I'm not asking much, am I? *laughing*)
Erik said…
Here's a good beginning: the complete Tanakh with Rashi's commentary. Rashi is the starting point for most Jewish bible study.
Erik said…
I'd forgotten about that story... one of several where the Gods explicitly refuse (and usually punish) human sacrifice.
Anonymous said…
I didn't comment on part four becaue I'm not sure how your findings prove anything other than you have a different view of Genesis than a few other people, and this is not an uncommon result of reading the text. The text in itself in self-corerecting and often flawed in a manner in which few peole are willing to admit. But where I find flaws, others find blessings. Imagine that.

As for the covenants, each covenant serves a different purpose, mostly dealing with expectations concerning land, the power of the monarchy, and so many other things. As for God being a God of the Oppressed, you will find in the rest of the penteteuch that god is always a God of the oppressed, from Genesis, thorugh the Exodus and beyond. thanks for such a godd sereis of blogs, I love the text and I hope these conversations soemhow continue.
Peter Bishop said…
Mahud, I'd never heard the story of Phrixus and Helle before. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. One of the things that has been fascinating to me is how many of the best know stories of the Bible have close analogues in other myths from around the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

It seems fairly obvious that if you have a culture that practices human sacrifice, and at some point that culture gives up the practice, you'll need to have a good, dramatic story with a bit of oomph to it as a stop against backsliding. That, of course, seems to be the real meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac and the ram, just as it is of the story of Phrixus and Helle and the ram.
Morning Angel said…
"Reading the Bible with this level of detail is going to wind up being a five or six year project. Worth it...but slow."

From the foreword by J.C. Wilson of Charles Guignebert's book, Ancient Medieval and Modern Christianity (1961):

"For twenty-three years he [Guignebert] also conducted a seminar devoted to the New Testament; it took that long to get through; verse by verse, Greek text in hand, they went through it; three school years were devoted to the Gospel of Mark, two and one-half years to the Letter to the Galatians."

Persevere. :)

-Morning Angel
Bright Crow said…
Ah, yes: "...every male among you shall be circumcised...."

Hubby Jim and I imagine all the men of Abraham's clan saying to him, "You wanna do WHAT? What are you, some kinda pervert?!"

I'd like to see someone explain to me the possible historical reasons for such a "pledge."

I know that female circumcision is the ghastly practice of cultures which don't want women to enjoy sex.

But what (besides hygiene, that is) would have been the ancient reasons for male circumsion?

It does deaden the sensitivity of the glans, but why would men do that to themselves? And then blame it on G-d?

Of course, this reminds me of a wonderful Dan O'Neill Odd Bodkins comic strip from decades ago.

Having created Adam, God is showing him all the wonders of his penis, but then ends with this: "There's just one thing I have to tell you--DON'T TOUCH IT!"

Oh, well....

Anonymous said…
How would this legend read if it were read in a slightly different order. Abram has a son, Isaac (who is not, per Genesis, his eldest son, but never mind), and a famine or some other catastrophe threatens and it is then the custom (italics mine) that the chieftain sacrifice a young child of his loins to god to avert the disaster. Which he then proceeds to do (following ancient tradition), only to have god at that moment say, "Don't do it; I've decided humans are too valuable for that usage; don't continue that custom." Which I think throws a different light on the story.

In the Koran, as you may know, it is Ibrahim's firstborn son, Ismail, and not the second, Ishaq, whom he is commanded to sacrifice, and then reprieved from sacrificing. Considering how many Jews and Christians Mohammed encountered in Mecca and during his commercial travels, it's no surprise at all that he knew the story. The holiday of god's sparing Ismail is Eid Bayram, the last day of Ramadan and the greatest holiday of the Islamic year.

In a recent German-Turkish movie Fatih Akin's On the Edge of Heaven, a German woman and a Turkish man, though unaware of the many links among those they love in the plot, reach an understanding and a sympathy as they observe the rejoicing for Eid Bayram in Istanbul, and he tells her the story of the sacrifice of Ismail and she marvels, "But we have that story too!" (A very touching moment.)

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