By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 12, 2012

2. Genesis: The Bible, pp. 19-30

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563
Chapter 11

Since they were all descended from Noah, they all spoke the same language. But when they settled in the land of Shinar, they decided to build "a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven," and not to go spreading out all over the Earth. But God took a look at the city and the tower and wasn't happy with all this unity. They're all speaking the same language, he observed, and this idea of staying in one place isn't what he had in mind.

So he said (to whom?): "let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." This made building the city pretty much impossible, and God "scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth." I had always thought the point of the Tower of Babel was the hubris of reaching toward heaven, but it seems to be instead a fable about unity of purpose -- God promoting diversity, as it were.

Then comes more genealogy, the descendants of Shem, finally winding up with Terah, who fathers Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran dies comparatively young, but not before fathering Lot and Milcah, who marries her uncle Nahor. Abram marries Sarai, but she seems to be barren. Terah takes them all out of Ur of the Chaldees and into the land of Canaan, then dies at age two hundred five.

Chapter 12

God now tells Abram to split off from Nahor and his family and go where he shows him. "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing." So Abram and Sarai, joined by Abram's nephew Lot, go out into Canaan, which is inhabited, naturally, by Canaanites. God promises to give this land to Abram, but in the meanwhile Abram and company keep going south.

A famine makes them head for Egypt, but Abram worries that when the Egyptians see how beautiful his wife, Sarai, is, they will kill him and take her. So he has her pretend to be his sister. Sure enough, when they get to Egypt, "the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair." The word gets to Pharaoh of her beauty, and she is "taken into Pharaoh's house." It's pretty obvious that she isn't just a servant, because Pharaoh rewards her "brother," Abram, with "sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels."

But God isn't pleased with this arrangement, and sends "great plagues" on Pharaoh and his house. Pharaoh sends for Abram and asks, "What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?" He sends Abram and Sarai packing, though Abram apparently gets to keep all the stuff Pharaoh has given him.

Chapter 13

So Abram and Sarai and Lot head back north again, to Beth-el, where Abram had previously pitched his tent and built an altar to the Lord. Except now, "Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold." Lot was pretty well off too, with "flocks, and herds, and tents," which makes it difficult for Lot and Abram to share the same land. Moreover, "the herdmen of Abram's cattle and the herdmen of Lot's cattle" don't get along, so Abram proposes that they split up: If you go left, he tells Lot, I'll go right, or vice versa.

Lot likes the looks of the plain of Jordan, which "was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah," so he goes east toward Jordan to "the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom," even though "the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly."

After Lot leaves, God tells Abram to look around, "For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever." He promises to make Abram's "seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered." So Abram goes to the plain of Mamre, in Hebron, and builds an altar to the Lord.

Chapter 14

War breaks out "in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea," and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fall, Lot is taken captive. Word comes to Abram that his nephew has been taken prisoner, so he trains his servants and rescues Lot. Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest, blesses Abram, and the king of Sodom offers to reward him. But Abram vows "That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich."

Chapter 15

God comes to Abram again, this time "in a vision," and tells him not to worry, but Abram complains that he and Sarai are still childless, so it looks like his heir is going to be Eliezer of Damascus, the steward of his house. But God reassures him again, showing him the stars, and promises, as he had done before with "the dust of the earth," that his "seed" will be equally numberless. He brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to inherit this land, and tells Abram to sacrifice "an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon."

Abram brings all of these things, and shoos the predatory birds away from the carcasses, then falls into a deep sleep wherein "an horror of great darkness fell upon him." God tells him that his "seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them" for four hundred years, but "afterward shall they come out with great substance." He will live to "a good old age," but "in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." (The Amorites are the mountain people of Canaan that Joshua will have to conquer.) But God goes on to promise Abram that his seed will inherit "this land" from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Chapter 16

But Abram and Sarai are still childless, so Sarai proposes that he sleep with her maid, Hagar, an Egyptian. Sure enough, Hagar gets pregnant, but she also gets a little uppity with Sarai about it. Abram tells Sarai to deal with it, so she does, and sends Hagar packing. An "angel of the LORD," the first we've encountered directly, finds Hagar and tells her to go back to Sarai and "submit thyself under her hands." He also promises, "I will multiply thy seed," and to call her son Ishmael, who "will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him." So Hagar goes back and gives birth to Ishmael when Abram is eighty-six years old.

Chapter 17

When Abram is ninety-nine, God comes to him again and tells him, "I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly." He tells Abram his name is now Abraham and he is "a father of many nations." He "will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."

As "token of the covenant," Abraham has to see to it that "Every man child among you shall be circumcised." God goes on to make a big deal out of his preoccupation with prepuces:
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed..... And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
This will be only the first of a long series of somewhat arbitrary things Abraham's people are expected to do.

As for Sarai, she is now Sarah, and she will bear Abraham a son. It's easy to forgive Abraham for laughing at this: "Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?" Oh, yes, indeed, says God, "and thou shalt call his name Isaac." You can imagine Abraham thinking at this point that committing himself and his people to cutting off their foreskins would be a small, if painful, price to pay for such a miracle. Even though the covenant will be with Isaac, Ishmael will also benefit: He'll beget "twelve princes" and God "will make him a great nation." So Abraham has himself circumcised at the age of ninety-nine, and Ishmael, who is thirteen, and every other man in the household.

Chapter 18

Abraham is sitting in his tent door when he looks up and sees the Lord and three men. He runs and tells a servant to fetch some water so they can wash their feet, and tells Sarah to prepare some cakes "of fine meal," and he gets "a calf tender and good," and has a young man prepare it to serve to the men. They ask after Sarah, and deliver the news that she is going to have a son. Sarah laughs at the idea, but "the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh...? Is anything too hard for the LORD?" Sarah says she wasn't really laughing, she was just afraid, but he says, "Nay; but thou didst laugh." (Always has to have the last word, this God.)

Abraham goes with them in the direction of Sodom, and God confides that he is going to check out what he's heard about the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah. The men proceed on their way toward Sodom, but God stays a while longer with Abraham, who worries that God is going to destroy the righteous along with the wicked in the city: "That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked." So the Lord says if he finds fifty righteous people in the city he will spare it. Well, says Abraham, what if there are forty-five righteous people? Okay, says God, I'll spare it if there are forty-five. How about forty, then? Or twenty? And finally God agrees that he'll spare it if there are as few as ten. This seems to satisfy Abraham, who goes home and lets the Lord go about his business. I guess if you've got a covenant, and sacrificed your foreskin, and your ninety-year-old wife is about to have a baby, you can press your luck a little.

Chapter 19

So two angels arrive at Sodom, and Lot meets them at the gate. He offers them lodging for the night, but they say no, they'll just spend the night in the street. But Lot persists, and they agree to spend the night in his house.
But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter; 
And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.
And so begins millenniums of interpretation, most of which have a homophobic bent, centered on the demand "that we may know them," i.e., have carnal knowledge of them. Lot certainly seems to interpret the demand that way; he offers them instead his "two daughters which have not known man." The mob is having none of it, and is about to break down the door, but the angels pull Lot inside and smite the men at the door with blindness.

They're about to destroy the city, the angels tell Lot, so they suggest he gather up his belongings and his household and get ready to leave. Lot has some married daughters and he tries to persuade his sons-in-law to leave with him, but they think he's nuts and refuse. So in the morning, Lot and his wife and his two virgin daughters are hustled out of the city.
Peter Paul Rubens, Lot and His Family Flee Sodom, c. 1615
The angels urge Lot not to look behind him at the destruction, but to head into the mountains, but Lot is afraid and suggests that they go to a little city nearby named Zoar. So while they're at Zoar, "the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and that which grew upon the ground." Sadly, Lot's wife can't resist looking back at the spectacular disaster, "and she became a pillar of salt."
The Nuremberg Chronicle, Lot fleeing Sodom, as his wife turns into a pillar of salt, 1493
Abraham sees the smoke from the destruction of Sodom, and Lot decides that Zoar isn't safe either, so he goes into the mountains and lives in a cave. His daughters, however, are concerned because there aren't any men around for them to marry. So they get their father drunk and the firstborn has sex with him one night, and the younger the next, to "preserve seed" of their father. The firstborn calls her son Moab, and he becomes the progenitor of the Moabites. The younger's son is Ben-ammi, "the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.

So homosexuality is condemned -- granted, something like homosexual rape -- but incest is rewarded? I mean, Ham got his son cursed for just seeing his drunken father naked, but the daughters of Lot sleep with their drunken father and produce patriarchs.

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