Monday, January 15, 2007

Discussion Summary: Genesis 11-12

Discussion Question

Why are God’s first words to Abram (Gen 12.1) aimed precisely at puncturing the security and harmony of Abram’s connection to his family and homeland?

Discussion Summary

That God speaks to Abram immediately out of the void of his father’s death (11.32-12.1) appears to indicate that God intends a radical break with or reconfiguration of patriarchy. God here inserts himself into the father-son axis of the family relationship between Terah and Abram and (as we will see) he will insert himself again between Abraham and Isaac.

It should be noted that there are several textual suggestions of disruption and disorder in Terah’s house/lineage prior to God’s command to Abram to leave his father’s house (these include the premature death of Terah’s son, Haran [11.28], Terah’s own late paternity [11.26], and Terah’s decision to leave Ur [11.31]). In this sense, God’s intentional scattering of Abram might be seen as a continuation of a patriarchal breakdown that is already underway or, perhaps, as the event that actualizes the hitherto only potential break in the patriarchal order for the sake of producing a specific effect.

In light of this reading, Abram’s treatment of Sarai in Egypt (12.10-20) becomes potentially telling. Does Abram’s (mis?)treatment of Sarai on the borders of Egypt show that, contrary to God’s call, he has not yet left his father’s patriarchal house? Could Sarai function here as a type for Abram’s relationship with God? There seems to be a kind of absoluteness to Sarai: we are denied any textual information about her (where is she from? what is her lineage?) so that she appears to be outside of kinship and geographic relations. If so, then the text may indicate that Abram mistreats her (and, by extension, God?) as a kind of idol (“she is fair to look upon” [12.11]). We might also note that God’s promises come only to Abram, not to the couple (though, looking ahead, it may be important that only Sarai’s child will count as the fulfillment of God’s promise).

The most pressing question about Abram’s relation to Sarai may be this: does God’s disruption of the patriarchal axis of the family reconfigure the husband-wife axis of the family as well?

With respect to theology, the primary question appears to center on silence: what are the implications of Abram’s silence in response to God (especially in light of the scattering of language suffered in a “post” tower of Babel world)? What does his silence say about the place of language/theology in their relationship? We should note, here, the interplay between place (sham) and name (shem) in Genesis 11.1-9 and the way in which the scattering of people (Abram included) also involves a scattering of language. To be scattered from one’s “fatherland” also involves being scattered from one’s “mother tongue.” Nonetheless, God’s promise to return to Abram a “great name” (12.2) may prefigure an opening onto theology in light of the loss of fatherland and mother tongue rather than a closure of its possibility.

Apart from the importance of God’s intervening call in Abram’s relation to his family, chapters 11 and 12 also raise important questions about the relation between the family, the polis, and the individual. How are we to relate the ruin of “urban transcendence” in 11.1-9 with God’s own disruption of the order of patriarchy in 12.1-3? Is family being privileged over city? If so, what kind of family and in what kind of way? Does the disruption of patriarchy open beyond the family onto a political responsibility (and political theology) or does it indicate a kind of regrounding of political relations in a reconfigured family (with its own attendant familial theology)?

Finally, it is important to note the use of the imperfect tense in Genesis 12.1: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram . . .” The use of this tense appears to indicate that God’s call, though textually contiguous with the death of Terah, preceded these events in some way. This may indicate that there is a kind of immemorial or meta-historical dimension to God’s call, that there is a way in which God’s call has always already preceded whatever historical events take shape in light of it. Further, it may also be connected with the way in which chapters 11 and 12 operate as a textual pivot in Genesis from pre-historical cosmogony (Adam to Noah) to a more properly historical “ethnogony” (Abraham and his posterity).

In light of the discussion, we might reformulate this past week’s discussion question in the following way: in what way does God’s intervention in history untie and/or re-knot the relations between God, family, community, and the individual?


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