Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Genesis 11-12

Getting started is always the most difficult part of any project. I imagine that after this week we'll already have a clearer idea of what particular kinds of questions and issues interest us as a group. For now, in order to get the ball rolling, I'd like to raise a specific question about Genesis 11-12. However, especially this week, we should feel free to let the discussion roam in a variety of directions including general questions about the reading, the project, technical questions, etc.

Also, Rosalynde previously asked about what translation we'd be using. I suggest that we begin with the KJV but freely draw upon any other translations we find useful and upon the Hebrew itself where possible or profitable. I've found Robert Alter's very literal and literary translation of and commentary on Genesis to be especially helpful and may often come back to it (Alter's famous The Art of Biblical Narrative is well worth taking a look at if you're unfamiliar with it).

I'd like to begin, then, with a question that I hope will not be trivial and that I hope will open in several directions at once.

Discussion Question

Why are God's first words to Abraham/Abram (12.1 - "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house") aimed precisely at puncturing the security and harmony of Abraham's connection to his family and homeland? And, is this a fair way to pose the question?

Notes and Additional Questions

Genesis 11.1-9, It's useful to include all of chapter 11 in our reading for this week (even though it does not directly concern Abraham) because the story of the tower of Babel functions as a useful foil for the opening of chapter 12 and the question I pose above. Just as the builders of the tower were scattered and their language was confounded, Abraham is also scattered by God from his native land (and his native tongue?) and is mute in response to his scattering (he makes no reply to God). However, where in the first instance this scattering is experienced as a curse and as what ruins the attempt of the tower-builders to "make a name" (11.4) for themselves, for Abraham the dislocation comes as a blessing by means of which he is blessed and his "name will be made great" (12.2). Abraham is here promised the very thing the tower-builders wanted (a name that would last), but he is promised it by the very means that denied it to the tower-builders. Or, we could say, the tower-builders want a name so that they won't be scattered, but this is the very thing that prompts God to scatter them.

Genesis 11.32-12.1, We should also note that God speaks to Abraham immediately following Abraham's father's death. ". . . Terah died in Haran. And the Lord said to Abraham . . ." This connection doesn't strike me as accidental (God speaking to Abraham out of the void of the father's death) and seems connected to the way that God is dislocating Abraham from hearth and home (though we perhaps need to be careful in talking about Abraham in this way due his relatively nomadic lifestyle - he certainly doesn't have a mortgage).

Genesis 12.4, As I've already noted, Abraham, living in a world that has seen its language broken (as Alter translates 11.1, what has been lost is "one set of words" or the possibility of univocity), is mute in response to the blessing. He simply "departs." Does this loss of univocity, the dislocation of home and language, spell the end of theology (so that we must be mute), or does the possibility of a relation to God (and perhaps the possibility of theology) open only in the light of plurivocity and the loss of general equivalence?

Genesis 12.7, Abraham goes without knowing where he is going: the place is specified only when he arrives there without knowing it. Does this also say something about the im/possibility of theology?

12.10-20, Alter notes that this pericope has long been interpreted as a miniature version of the exodus (going down into Egypt because of a famine, the plagues on Pharaoh's house because he splits a family, his cry for Abraham and Sarah to "get out!"). Can we milk this tale of tangled family relationships for any useful information in addressing the general question I pose above?

12.19, Pharaoh's words "Get out!" echo God's opening words to Abraham (12.1) of "get thee out of the land," so that Abraham is reunited with Sarah only at the price of being dislocated once again.

Connections to More General Questions

My discussion question relates most clearly to our third key question: "How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?" It is clear, I think, that Mormon theology requires us to think the family as central to religious experience as such. The difficulty is that Abraham's story (at least thus far) is no story about protecting the sanctity of hearth and home. There does not seem to be a straightforward way of finding in Abraham a paradigm for our everyday conservative Christian discourse about the theological centrality of families. Abraham is, I think, central to trying to think about the way in which God, family, and individual are essentially tied to together in a religious knot, but I suspect that these relationships may get knotted together in a way that is, at least at first, somewhat surprising and (perhaps) not at all conservative.

In addition, the function of language in these two chapters, highlighted by the inclusion of the story of the tower of Babel and its parallels in the opening of Abraham's story, offer some material for thinking about the possibility of theology in general as indicated in the second key question: "What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?" However, they don't appear to be encouraging.

12 Comments:

Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Gathering my responses to Adam's "notes and additional questions" under the headings of the two key questions Adam discusses in "connections to more general questions":

Language and the possibility of theology more generally

Gen 11.1-9 - In addition to the "name" connection between Gen 11 and Gen 12, the "great" connection is likewise suggestive: "tower" in Hebrew is mgdl, "great" is gdl, so that "tower" means something like "great thing" (Abram is told in 12:2 that his name will be made "great"). The interplay in chap. 11 between shem ("name") and sham ("there") is also interesting to me: if one "un-points" the Hebrew text (that is, drops the vowells), "name" and "there" (Heidegger's Da?) become textually equivalent. If this suggests a profound interweaving of name and place, should we be reading a stronger (or perhaps more NT-oriented) paradox still in 12:1-2 (something like: leave your place/name to find your name/place)? This would accord with a very traditional reading of the difference between the builders and Abraham, the former storming heaven in a totalitarian project, the latter responding to a call (God in Search of Man).

Gen 12.4 - Adam's comments on Abram's muteness recall two papers to mind: "The Crossing of Being" (chapter 3 of Marion's God Without Being) and "Silence in Painting (the second paper in Chretien's Hand to Hand). Both aim, perhaps, at this (p. 54 of Marion): "In other words, the highest difficulty does not consist in managing to reach, with Wittgenstein or Heidegger, a guarded silence with regard to God. The greatest difficulty doubltess consists more essentially in deciding what silence says...." In short: silence is only another form of speech for the speaker. The silence of Abram's departure might well be a form of theology, an ironic logos perhaps, but a logos all the same.

Gen 12.7 - I need to think about this point more carefully.

Family relationships and their bearing on how we do theology

Gen 11.32-12:1 - I really like this insight, of Abram's call coming out of the void of his father's death. That YHWH's voice would speak out of that void might at once be interpreted to imply a radical break with patriarchy and to suggest a sort of absolute ground for patriarchy. In other words, one might read the placement of the echo (within the void of the patriarchal figure) as suggesting a replacement (a cancellation of patriarchy in the name of a radically individual relationship with YHWH), or one might read the placement of the echo as suggesting that YHWH's voice should be heard patriarchally, should be heard as the voice of the Father (might Friedman's suggestion that J was written by a woman point in the direction of the former interpretation?). I confess I'm not sure which of these two possibilities seems to be a better reading to me. Whichever one decides to take up, at least this much seems implied in either case: the structure of patriarchy is suddenly to be revised by a voice from outside the patriarchal structure. Incidentally, this way of putting it seems to me to point towards Paul's reading of Abraham in Romans: the outside voice of the Lord (a lord is always, in scripture at least, a different kind of structure than patriarchal or familial) calls the familial structure of Israel out of itself, fundamentally revising it, and specifically when He speaks to Abraham.... I hope this didn't get too cryptic.

Gen 12.10-20 - Without looking ahead to the Exodus story (I imagine Jim will fill in the details there; I believe he's written a paper on the formation of community in Exodus), I think the revision of patriarchy must be read into every word of the split-up of the family at the borders of Egypt. That is, what on earth is being split up? Is the split-up dependent on Abram's lingeringly patriarchal point of view (setting aside, again, the Book of Abraham aside, of course)? What is the significance of their not having children at the point of this split-up?

Language and family
If I've separated these into two themes (following Adam, I think), I'm wondering how they might be thought more interwovenly. I'm wondering, in fact, what Lacan would have to say (Adam...?). That the Lord speaks in the void of the father perhaps draws the two themes together best. How should we think about that crossing, especially because Abram responds with his silent departure?

A couple of thoughts, anyway.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Joe,

The deep connection between name (shem) and place (sham) is nicely stated - and it nicely ties together our questions about theology (language/names) and family (place/home). Maybe we could say: Abraham is promised a name by becoming anonymous and a place by becoming homeless.

I'm interested to hear what other's think about the voice of God "speaking out of the void of the father's death," but I think that you are right to say that whichever direction we go in reading it, what is at stake is a fundamental revision of the familial/patriarchal structure into something else altogether. Lacan is, of course, not far from my thoughts here, but let's see where this goes for now.

My best,
Adam

6:42 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

In response to Adam's primary discussion question, perhaps it's worth noting the several textual suggestions of disruption to Terah's household and lineage prior to Abram's call. According to the recounting of Shem's lineage in 11.10-26, Terah was 70 years old at the birth of his first son, roughly twice the age of his progenitors at the same occasion; Abraham was, of course, 100 years old at the birth of Isaac. Was Terah's tent barren for a season, as well? A little more mining of the genealogy brings up another disruption to Terah's lineage: in 11.28, Terah's third son Haran dies "while his father was still alive," a most painful and unnatural genealogical reversal, as Abram will of course discover. Finally, Terah has himself already "scattered" his lineage by leaving Ur for Canaan with Abram, Sarai and Lot for Canaan; the migration is interrupted, however, and the group settles in Haran (named for the dead son?), where Terah dies and, presumably, whence Abram departs. The orderly patrilineal succession of 11.10-24 has already begun to sputter and veer when Abram receives his call.

And about the timing of that call: it does follow textually on the death of Terah, as Adam has so elegantly drawn out. In both the KJV and the NIV, the only two versions I've looked at, though, Genesis 12.1 begins in the past perfect: "The Lord had said to Abram," etc; again in 12.4, "So Abram left, as the Lord had told him," at which point the simple past tense resumes. Is this grammatical distinction meaningful in the Hebrew? If it is, it may be meant to suggest that Abram's call occurred sometime earlier, though the textual sequence is significant, and perhaps the discrepant historical (or narrative, I suppose) sequence fruitfully informs the reading in some other way.

Other thoughts and questions:
I’m virtually certain that a scholar---or several dozen---much smarter than I and of whom I am embarrassingly ignorant has already noted the following with far more clarity, but it seems to me that the first ten chapters of Genesis comprise several cycles of cosmogony: a couple of creations to begin with, a reversal of creation in the great flood, and yet another physical revelation of the world as the waters recede. In Genesis 11, we’re on to a different kind of creation, the establishment of a political world of nation(s) and people(s)---what we might call, if we were feeling particularly fustian, an ethnogony. This is what Babel is about, and this is very much what God’s call to Abram is about, as well.

Chapters 11 and 12 are bracketed by a pair of tricks or deceptions, the first carried out by the Lord and the second by Abram, both of which turn on a kind of wordplay and both of which are made to bear on---here’s that horrible pretend word again---ethnogony. In Genesis 11.5-10, the Lord plays a malicious little trick in Babel (or is this the wrong reading?), and scatters the striving tower-builders to pay off, one tries not to suspect, an ethnic pun. The agonistic relationship here between Lord and man sets off the remarkable poem-promise to Abram in 12.2-3. Later, Abram very profitably tricks Pharaoh on the basis of his casuist’s interpretation of “sister”; here the agon obtains between man and man. I’ll be interested in future readings to see what other tricks---including, of course, the greatest trick of all, culminating on an altar on Moriah---turn up in the course of Abram’s (wait for it) ethnagony. (Hey, if the Lord can pun with in impunity---in scripture no less---…!)

7:03 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I think Rosalynde's reading of Terah's progressive scattering before the call to Abraham is absolutely vital. Interestingly, this is undone in the Book of Abraham (another look ahead, but disregard it for now: it only strengthens how we ought to read the Biblical text over against the Book of Abraham). I see, for now, two ways this might bear on the primary question Adam has asked: on the one hand, it might suggest that the call in Gen 12:1-3 comes as the climax of a scattering that begins with Terah; on the other hand, might Abraham's scattering, accomplished by the call, be a scattering of a scattering (since he is to cut his ties with his father's house), an undoing of the scattering that began with Terah (albeit ironically by a further scattering, but now one that aims at the possibility of a just gathering/community)?

As for the past perfect tense of the call in Gen 12:1, I've been thinking about that some lately anyway (Jim interprets this a little in a paper soon to be published... where is Jim anyway?). I don't know whether anyone here has done more with Hebrew than I have (I hope so, and if so, speak up!), but here's what I can read into it. There are really only two tenses in Biblical Hebrew, perfect and imperfect (and imperative, if you want to make that a tense; some do, some don't). The perfect tense is used of actions that have been completed, that are "closed up," while the imperfect is used of events that are not yet completed, that remain "open" (which I think ultimately must mean that they are open to something like Kierkegaardian repetition: the most common explanation is that these events carry into the present, simply are present, or will occur in the future, but it remains the fact that the perfect tense can describe actions that are to occur in the future). A major consequence of this very foreign verb tense system is that any temporality a translator writes into the text (and I don't know how a translator can translate Hebrew into English without temporalizing the verbs) is marked with some violence. What is important in the present story is that the verb there ('mr) is in the imperfect tense. However we want to read that in temporal terms is going to depend on our careful reading of the text itself. At the least, we can say that the event of the call remains "open" within the structure of the narrative.

A word or two further on the patriarchal revision (since Adam does now at this time stand in his arms, and does await with great anxiety for the word--Go down upon the blog and speak the word of Lacan... therefore I have written this comment, sealing it with mine own hand....): I'm thinking more and more that the event (the trick) at the borders of Egypt is of the utmost importance for interpreting what's going on here (or at least for interpreting Abraham's reaction to the whole experience). The trick certainly highlights a sort of individualism on Abraham's part, and his willingness to sacrifice Sarah (ignoring the Book of Abraham) only confirms this (if it doesn't confirm the fact that he has hardly left his father's house, according to the common feminist reading). That Sarah makes up so little of the story until this moment where she is, so to speak, dispensable, is certainly important. But how should this be read?

9:49 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Rosalynde - I was hoping that someone else would do the hard work of sorting through the genealogical material and I agree with Joe that the results are important. Also, I love the neologism "ethnagony" (I promise to use it at every available opportunity) and I think it nicely captures precisely the transition in Genesis from the kind of proto-historicity proper to the narratives about Adam & Noah to the kind of "genuinely" historical narratives regarding Abram. Perhaps in this way, the tower of Babel (and the steady decrease in life-expectancy) indicates this transition: history begins when univocity is definitively lost. The loss of a univocal language and increasingly proximity of death are, of course, I think, connected here.

As for Lacan - I'll need a bit of a running start. More later.

As for Sarai - maybe the biggest hurdle in wrapping our heads around even the un-transformed conception of family/marriage/patriarchy is that our notion of romantic love as central to marriage is profoundly foreign to "traditional" marriages. Can we even think about marriage as being fundamentally about something other than romantic love? This doesn't directly address the importance of Gen. 12.10-20, but Joe's comments about it reminded me of this point.

My best,
Adam

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

Pardon the changing of horses mid-race; I'm not sure what to add at the present moment to the proceeding discussion, so I hope that my own, hopefully not too tangential comments will suffice.

What strikes me at the moment is that Sarai seems to be completely outside of the kinship and geographic relations of Abram. It even appears that God sees it this way, as His injunction that Abram leave his "kindred" obviously does not include Sarai. But why? (Strong's, my only and limited Hebrew source, has "kindred" as "mo-leh'-deth," meaning place of birth and by implication kindred and surroundings. Interestingly, the word comes from "yalad," which means "to bear young; causatively, to beget." Thus Abram, despite the command to leave all begotten ones of his past, stays with the only woman (at the time) with whom he is to beget. Another irony?)

It seems then that either Abram is violating God's command by remaining with Sarai (at least until Egypt) or that, in some important sense, Sarai is not part of Abram's community. This latter view draws obvious support from the view that Abram is continually righteous, but I think it also draws interesting support from the lack of biographic information regarding Sarai. It doesn't seem to be just a result of patriarchal prejudice; Nahor's wife Milcah, who is much less important historically, is described as "the daughter of Haran" (Gen. 11:29–31). Even the servant Hagar is described as "an Egyptian" (Gen. 16:1). Why is it that we know nothing of Sarai?

Obviously Sarai status as someone outside of Abram's community creates as many (theological) problems as it solves. While it may explain in some sense why we learn nothing of Sarai's past, why Abram treats her instrumentally, and why God speaks and promises specifically to Abram and not to both of them, it leaves me wondering about the possibility of inclusive communities. Is Abram simply unable to recognize that Sarai has become a part of his family? ("Family" does not occur in Genesis or Exodus; I'm not sure what implications this has on a possible kindred/family distinction that allows Sarai to be the latter while not being the former, but they don't seem promising.) Is the Lord unwilling to recognize Sarai in his injunction because she does not belong to the "nation" or "kindred" which he has become concerned with? Is Abram's sometimes questionable treatment of Sarai justified by her excluded status?

7:03 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jeff,

I think that at the very least we might say that the primary axis of the family here appears to run from father to son rather than from husband to wife (so that Abram's relation to Sarai is, as you well point out, apparently secondary).

Further, it may be important that it is precisely into the father-son axis of the family that God inserts himself: (1) by promising a blessing to Abram out the void of his father's death, and (2) (as we'll see) by requiring Abram to depend entirely on God's grace for his own heir.

Perhaps the question, then, is about what God's insertion into the father-son familial axis promises for the husband-wife axis that you and I might be tempted take as more eternally central?

My best,
Adam

10:09 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I really like how Adam phrased this last point: what does the disruption of the patriarchy imply for what we would call the center of the family (the husband-wife relation)?

But perhaps Jeff has picked out a key to thinking about this: Sarai's complete lack of connections anywhere (whereas Milcah and even Hagar have something like a genealogical register). If Milcah and the other women in the story are given at least a relative genealogical position in the story, doesn't the narrative implicitly draw women within the patriarchy that the voice of YHWH disrupts? If so, an implication: Sarai's very absoluteness, her "without mother, without father, without beginning of days or end of years" placement in the story might well be read, in itself, as a disruption of the patriarchy. Sarai might well be read as an echo of the disruption.

Might one read Abram's relation to Sarai as a type, an echo, a key, etc., to Abram's relation to YHWH? If one reads Sarai as the sign of YHWH's patriarchal disruption, then how does Abram respond to the sign? There is an interesting focus in the event at the Egyptian borders on the gaze: Sarai is beautiful "to look upon." Is Sarai the signal and significant figure of the sign as idol? Or at least, she becomes such under the gaze of Abram?

Perhaps this points to the possibility of reading later chapters as shattering Sarai for Abram by introducing Sarah to Abraham. Only then does Abraham really engage her (a real engagement after so much marriage? but then pregnancy follows so quickly after their late engagement), wrestle with her rather than wrest her (wrestling or striving, as Isaac strove with Rebekkah: Sarah finally becomes pregnant when Abraham actually wrestles or strives with her), and love her (and I'm not sure how this takes us back to Adam's warning about the romantic-love reading of marriage and family, but might it suggest that the establishment of the covenant in Gen 17 points to the possibility of a patriarchy that is ultimately grounded on the husband-wife relation?).

1:11 PM  
Blogger Ralph Hancock said...

This is mostly just to say that I am here, I have logged in, and I have appreciated many thoughtful, intriguing, venturesome suggestions. My life and my limitations have not favored the kind of sustained attention I would have hoped to give to the beginning of this joint reflection, but let me see if I can just indicate the angle from which I connect with certain issues you have raised.

I had learned from Leon Kass (The Beginning of Wisdom) to see the Babel story as an answer before the fact to the Greek claims of reason. In beautifully compact fashion, this story points up the connection between speech and pride; it is the perfect counterpart to Aristotle’s understanding of human beings as political animals, as beings who find fulfillment in taking up and directing their lives through the medium of discourse about the good and bad, the advantageous and the disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.

So the confounding of languages clears the ground for some other understanding of fulfillment – or shall we say, of transcendence, or of meaning. How this understanding will relate to the capacity, certainly central to our humanity (I think the Greeks are right at least this far), to order our lives through the medium of speech and reason – the capacity that may claim to culminate in “theology” – is indeed something we must continue to consider.

Thomas Pangle’s magisterial and erudite High-Straussian attempt to refute the Bible in Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham includes the clearest statement I know of the connection, cemented at the core of the Western philosophical tradition, between the polis (the aspiration to articulate self-government) and the philosophical ideal of self-sufficiency.

Just as Biblical piety is rooted in the patriarchal family, Pangle argues, so, philosophy springs from the city’s “radical subordination of many or most individual goods that are ordinarily associated with happiness,” a purification of “preoccupation with corporeal, familial, and mundane needs.” The call beyond family introduces the prospect of “passionate” male friendship, which itself “is ultimately transcended, in and by an ascent toward the divine spiritual self-sufficiency that is the dimly beheld highest aspiration of the life of the city.” (62-3)

What Pangle then chooses not sufficiently to notice is that the very idea of divine self-sufficiency appears then to be an extension of the city’s virtue and of virtuous friendship, and thus an inherently politically conditioned interpretation of transcendence or of human possibility. One implication is that the Greek understanding of reason at the outset elevates the experience of the polis above that of the family in framing an understanding of transcendence, or of that which gives meaning to our sacrifices.

I see that I have fallen back excessively on secondary sources, not being able to add anything to the nice exegetical efforts already made. But I wanted at least, before this first week was over, to start to put a few cards on the table and to solicit some help in connection my angle of interest with those of others.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I feel, at times, as if I'm writing (babel-ing?) too often, but I find that I think (construct towers?) best while responding directly to others' comments or approaches (I can only pray that these are calls, and that they therefore undo my parentheticals above). If my comments end up being nothing more than notes for myself for further thinking, I hope everyone can bear with their frequency.

Ralph's comments articulate better than anything else we've done here the distance between a familial theology and (what must be called in the wake of his comments) a political theology. And, for me at least, this highlights the importance of thinking about idolatry in a text that appears never to quibble at all with idolatry (though the later traditions concerning this very period of Abram's life are filled with questions of idolatry).

Three points this draws out for me: (1) Abraham 1 is, from start to finish, a question of family vs. polis (or at least, vs. however-you-say-polis-in-Egyptian-or-Babylonian); (2) Abram's first word in the narrative is his (what I have already characterized as) idolatrous treatment of Sarai at the borders of Egypt, the polis; (3) Lot plays a peculiar role in this story: he at once grounds the possibility of the political (as the "friend" Abram needs) and the possibility of the familial (he remains the only vestige of the patriarchy Abram knew before leaving Haran).

Here are at least three points of contact between my textual interests and Ralph's interests (as I interpret them).

12:42 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

I apologize for coming into this so late. If it helps to know it, I feel quite guilty. Since we are getting ready to move on to a new discussion, however, I'll say two things about the discussion so far, about two things that stood out in my reading, not necessarily about the two most important things that have been said. That will, perhaps, allow me to get caught up.

The first is about Genesis 12:1-2 and the imperfect tense translated as "The Lord had said." In a soon-to-be-published piece I've already written some things about that question, so please forgive me for quoting myself:

Rather than seeing YHWH speak to Abram, we hear of what has already happened. The story has begun before we hear it. The already of the Infinite articulates the present.

The already-given character of God's command suggests that the commands, obligations, and covenants that are to come come not just from the historical past, but from an anarchic past. There is no first, foundational moment for the community. We can think the present of that past, a presence that is absent from the story, only in the already; the past we remember comes before the first moment of the historical past. Thus, memory, too, must be reconsidered. Philosophers from Augustine to Nietzsche have argued, memory and anticipation make possible the transcendence that defines us as human, but if memory ultimately points to what comes before history, to the already, then memory must be something other than recollection. It must be more than the ability to re-cognize and re-collect past events. As a community, we share in such things as customs, rituals, names, clothing, preferences, forms of government, felt allegiances, "common sense," and especially language. Memory and recollection are both what we share. However, the story of Abraham suggests that our share extends further than anything we can recollect. It extends beyond any first historical moment toward an anarchic beginning. In an important sense, what we remember cannot be recollected.

In the story of Abraham what we remember comes from beyond history; it is metahistorical. Our lives are the gift of an immemorial, anarchic heritage. But this is a dangerous idea. Claims to a metahistorical beginning for a community are behind much, perhaps all, totalitarianism. It is as if totalitarians say, "We can govern because we are authorized to do so by something beyond history; therefore, we need not concern ourselves with the petty, merely historical problems of individual existence." With some regularity Christendom has made this move from the claim to a metahistorical beginning to one or another kind of oppression and totalitarianism. Presumably the cultures of other religions have done the same thing. However, those who make such claims and use them for totalitarian purposes necessarily go beyond claiming that the community has a metahistorical beginning that has authority in our lives. To know, as they claim to, what that beginning entails, they must also claim that they have a metahistorical—a nonhuman and nonfinite—vision of the beginning. They must claim that nothing remains to be revealed. Totalitarians claim that they have been able to bring what is metahistorical into history and language, that they have been able to recollect in history what stands prior to it. That is patently self-contradictory. In contrast, the genuine claim to a metahistorical beginning is a claim not to recollect transparently one's beginning, a claim that "something remains to be revealed." It is a claim that the anarchic past remains to be revealed; it is futural.

However, that we cannot recollect our beginning transparently does not imply that we cannot remember it. We remember what is metahistorical in and only in the recollections of our daily lives, where it shows itself in the ambiguity and opacity of daily life, its thickness. Memory remains ultimately opaque to explication and presentation, in other words, to recollection. As a result, though the beginning and the first moment are not the same, we take up the beginning of our community only in the recollection of its first moment. On the one hand, this means that the beginning shows itself only in our particular recollected history. On the other hand, it means that because the beginning is prior to the first moment, we cannot reduce memory to recollection. To use a word from Levinas to respond to this aporia, we encounter the metahistorical as a trace or fault line in our recollection of the first moment. We remember an emptiness, an absence in our recollection, for there is nothing with which we can fill the demand for an explication and recollection of that beginning. In terms of our story, we may remember the beginning as Sarai's barrenness (Genesis 11:30), the impossibility of the community promised to Abraham.

Besides starting with a reference to the metahistorical, the first verses of Abram's story call for our attention because YHWH's command takes an unusual form: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee" (Genesis 12:1). Like the primal parents, Man and Eve, if Abram is to live in community with other persons, he must leave the Garden and move into the temporal, human world. However, if this were merely a command to change location, we would expect the form to have been, "Get thee out of thy father's house, and from thy kindred, and from thy country." After all, that is the merely physical order of any departure. As the command is given—country, kindred, father's house—it points not so much to a change of location as to a change of what one is. Of the three, one is least attached to one's country, next most attached to one's kindred, and most attached to one's immediate family. The command comes as a command for Abram to remove himself from the community and society that constitute him. It is a command from outside of Abram's story, and it is a command for Abram to go outside, to remove himself into the desert. Given the way that traditional societies usually understand one's connection to family, kindred, and country, we can assume that this is also a command for Abram to deny his identity, his understanding of who he is.

The second is about the husband-son axis of the Abramic family. I'll save quoting myself in that regard until we get to chapter 12. You can only stand so much of my self-quoting, and I suspect the publisher of my paper wouldn't be happy if I quoted the whole thing or the most interesting tidbits on the internet before the paper came out. But I read the story of chapter 12 as interrupting the father-son axis of the family. Once that disruption occurs, then the relative silence about Sarai/Sarah and also Rebekah can be understood meaningfully.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Since I composed my comment, above, Ralph has joined us, for which I am glad. I have a lot of confidence in Ralph's ability to ask questions that I find hard to answer, though it appears that in that Ralph will have company with the rest of our crew.

I think Joe is right that Ralph has raised well the question of the distance between a familial theology and a political one. I wonder, however, whether we don't want to end up in a position where political theology is founded on familial theology, as would be the case for most political philosophers from Aristotle through at least Hegel.

What happens, however, when familial theology continues to wear the hat? When the movement to political theology is a movement, but not an advance beyond the familial?

9:46 PM  

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