Monday, January 15, 2007

Reading Genesis 13-14

Let me start with questions that occurred to me as I read. Then I will make a few comments about the chapters.

Chapter 13

Verse 1: Notice the difference in the way the families are described in Genesis 12:5 and here. Does anything in these verses suggest a change in the family situation? If yes, of what sort?

Verse 2: The Hebrew used to describe how rich Abram was, translated "very," is the same term used to describe the famine in 12:10, there translated "grievous." What connection, if any, does that duplication of the word suggest? This is the first mention of money- rather than livestock-wealth. Is this something Abram acquired in Egypt? If so, was it perhaps compensation for the pharaoh's having taken Sarai? Is this part of a parallel between Abram's departure from Egypt and the later departure of Israel under Moses?

Verse 3: The KJV's "he went on his journeys" is translated more accurately elsewhere as "he went by stages." This is another parallel with Israel's exodus, the only other place we see the same term. (See, for example, Exodus 17:1 and Numbers 10:12.) What are we to make of that parallel? Why does Abram go back to the place where he had built an altar? (See Genesis 12:7-8).

Verses 5-7: What is happening to Abram’s family here? Had Abram presumed that Lot would be his heir? He has already been blessed that he will be a great nation (Genesis 12:2). What would Abram think about that blessing at this point? Might there be anything deeper to this strife than an argument over pasturage or wells? (See also verse 10 and compare Genesis 26:16-22.) Does Genesis 18:19 suggest something about the difference between Lot and Abram? Is there any connection between the story of Lot's choice and the blessing/cursed pronounced in Genesis 12:3? What kind of inheritance does Lot choose? How does that contrast with Abram's inheritance? Is Abram's peacemaking typological? (Compare Levitcus 19:17-18; Psalm 122, 133; Proverbs 3:17, 29-34; Hebrews 12:14; and James 3:17-18.)

Verses 10-13: Did Lot know what kind of men lived in the land he had chosen? Why did he choose that land? Why does the writer include an allusion to the Garden of Eden in verse 10? The Word Bible Commentary (1:297) says of verses 11-12:

The theological geography of Lot's decision is particularly interesting. The boundaries of the promised land of Canaan are defined in Num 34:2:12. It appears that the eastern frontier coincided with the Dead Sea and the river Jordan, i.e., what Gen 13 terms "the plain of the Jordan." So in picking this area to live in, Lot is moving to the edge of Canaan, if not beyond it: 10:19 certainly suggests that Sodom and neighboring cities mark the borders of the land. Lot is stepping out toward the territory that his descendants, the Moabites and Ammonites, would eventually occupy in Transjordan. Though offered a share of Canaan, he is here depicted turning his back on it.

The same writer points out that Adam, Eve, and Cain went east after sinning (Genesis 3:24, 4:16) as did the men of Babel before they started building their tower (Genesis 11:2). Is this a genuine parallel, and if it is, what are we to make of it? What is the point of foreshadowing Sodom's future (verse 13)?

Verses 14-16: Why did the Lord repeat his blessing to Abram? Why is the promise so much fuller in verse 15 than it was in 12:7? Why is verse 16 so much fuller than previous promises of descendants, such as 12:2 and 12:7? What is the point of the innumerability of Abram's seed (a point often repeated in scripture, e.g., Genesis 15:5, 28:14; Numbers 23:10; 1 Kings 3:8, Galatians 3:29; and Revelation 7:9).

Verse 17: Is this Abram's way to appropriate the land?

Chapter 14

Verses 1-12: Though the names of the kings sound authentic, we know of no historical kings to whom these kings correspond, so this is perhaps not so much a report of an actual war as it is a typological reworking of an ancient story. What might this story be intended to tell us about Abram? Is it significant that verse 2 is the first mention of war in the Bible?

Verse 12: Why might King Chedorlaomer have taken Lot captive?

Verses 13-16: I believe that verse 13 is the first use of the term "Hebrew." It wasn't a term used by Israelites to describe themselves and seems originally to have referred to those on the margins of society. Why does the biblical writer use the term here?

Verses 16-17: Notice that verse 21 seems to follow naturally after these verses, but the flow of the story, from these verses to verse 21 is interrupted by the story of Melchizedek. Why?

Verse 18-20: The name "Melchizedek" is composed of two words, mlk and tsdq, "ruler" and "righteousness" or "justice," so "Melchizedek" means "righteous ruler" or "my king is righteousness/justice." Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in scripture. So what? He offers Abram bread and wine. Is he offering a covenant meal? What had the King of Sodom offered? (See also verse 24.) What is the point of that comparison? How does the story of Melchizedek fit into the typological cast that the writer seems to have given this story as a whole?

Verse 21: According to ancient custom, the victor had full rights to the spoils of war. What does this verse show us about the king of Sodom? What has the writer suggested by portraying the king's demand so curtly?

Verse 22: The most high God is said to be the qna of heaven and earth. The KJV translates that as the possessor of heaven and earth. Other translations take it to mean that he is the maker of heaven and earth. The word means "to acquire" or "to create" and it is also the word translated "conceive" in Genesis 4:1. Some scribes later changed qna to asa ("to make") in order to avoid the possible sexual connotations of the former. What might those connotations have originally suggested?

Verse 22-24: How does Abram’s behavior here contrast with his behavior toward Melchizedek? What is the difference?

Comments

Adam (a.k.a. "Mini-Lacan") has suggested three questions that are immediately relevant to us:

1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?

2. What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?

3. How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?

I defer his fourth question, "In light of the above, what is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?" until later, toward the end of our discussion of Abram/Abraham's story.

As to the first question: do these chapters add anything to our thinking about the essential elements of fidelity to God? In them, Abram is portrayed typologically in at least two ways: (1) as the first to make the move from Egypt to Canaan, as Israel will later, and as must every sinner; (2) as the first peacemaker (after Cain, after the Flood, after Babel).

Expanding:

1. The faithful must flee the world for the Promised Land, but on arrival they will not find the Garden of Eden. Instead, they will continue to encounter the world, but they will have power to overcome it. At the heart of overcoming the world, however, is divine covenant, the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, the covenant with God mediated by priesthood.

2. Though the relationship of the faithful to the world may unavoidably be one of war, the relation to the family ("Lot") is one of peacemaking. One question that follows, of course, is "Who is of the family?" Lot, after all, is a nephew who has turned his back on Canaan. And Abram himself is explicitly someone on the margins of society as a whole. The question of inner and outer seems unavoidable. Is the work of peacemaking the work against the inner and the outer, or is it something else?

My first thought is that peacemaking means the work against the inner and the outer, the work to bring everyone into the family, though it seems from the beginning to have been a work done at the margins rather than at the center. Abram is at the margins, indeed, cast out. Israel has hardly been the center of the world, though medieval cartographers placed Jerusalem at the center. The Restoration remains at the margins of today's world, a tiny minority with the mission to change the world. I'm not sure how to understand the work of peace as a work that occurs at the margins, much less what it means to intend to bring all human beings into one family.

As to the second question: In other conversations, some of us have talked about the parallel between theology and psychoanalysis: theology as an interruptive practice that questions us, requiring us to be remade in new terms. Abram's story is one of being questioned, being brought up short by God's demand and being remade in response. God doesn't ask him questions, but he gives him commands that remake his life, and the story of that relationship raises questions for those who read it. Abram does theology, understands and explains his relationship to God, by living a godly life. Presumably the questions that Abram's story raises for believers are not historical and philological questions, but questions that demand a response like Abram's, a godly life. Like Abram, however, we cannot know in advance what it means to live a godly life, except to know that we will find it in covenant.

As to the third question, "How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?"

This is for me the most difficult of these three questions. It is obvious that Abram's relation to Lot is central. I believe that his almost unspoken relation to Sarai is also central, though I cannot yet say why because we need more text for that. In both cases, however, his relationships to his family members are hardly what we understand as good family relations. Does Abram demonstrate his fidelity to God by making peace with Lot and then by saving him from kidnapping? It seems like that is the direction to go, but I don't see how to get there. I'm interested in how others understand these things.

7 Comments:

Blogger Joe Spencer said...

That Lot plays such a central role really is odd. It seems almost as if the narrative--or Abram himself--allows Lot to usurp the role Sarai ought to be playing (if chapter 17 offers a corrective to this, the corrective is questioned in turn by the disruption of the birth narrative by two more chapters--18-19--of focus on Lot). Is Lot's being heir to the dead Haran important here? Is Lot a placeholder for the patriarchal, or a step on the way from the patriarchal to the relation with Sarai?

I need to digest much of what Jim has written more fully, especially concerning Lot (though I would personally like to explore the implications of the appearance of Melchizedek in this story as well).

7:58 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Upon first going through Jim's comments, I was struck by the place Lot seems to have in the dissolution of a patriarchal reading of family, but going back through it now, I am far more interested in the typological themes Jim draws out.

If the trip out of Egypt is a type of the Exodus, and the battle here is a type of the conquest of the land, then (am I simply pointing out the obvious here?) the experience with Melchizedek might well be read in terms of the establishment of the kingship. Typologically, the movement from subservience in Egypt to the monarchy in Jerusalem is traced.

What strikes me presently about this is the fact that the Melchizedek figure comes to be the "without mother/father" character, without lineage, without patriarchy. Certainly there is a hint at least of this in the David stories (he is a nobody). Yet the (editors of the) Bible seems to be at such pains to establish, in the latter half of Genesis, that Judah's line had the promise to rule. Obviously, there are some major difficulties of interpretation here (what to do with Joseph, etc.), but it seems clear that there is something here to think about in relation to David.

Perhaps more to the point with the discussions we've had so far: what are we to make of the point that the first priest in the Genesis story is the one without lineage, and that Abraham approaches God, covenants with God, etc., through him? How much of the JST should be taken up in the Melchizedek story? I'm not one to argue that the JST restores original material, but I'm convinced that looking at the JST (etc.) often reveals aspects of the biblical text that too easily escape us. It is interesting, for example, that there is such a city-building ethic about the JST story (explicitly connected with Enoch), whereas in the Bible, Melchizedek seems to be a sort of lone figure. Where does that square up with the political themes introduced last time by Ralph?

Finally, just a note. Jim mentions that he does not know how to think about making the whole world of one family, but isn't this precisely the idea behind the sealing ordinance? I don't know how much we should indulge ourselves in 19th century temple theology, but that theology is so profoundly intertwined with the 1842-4 understanding of Abraham that it is perhaps inevitable. Do we dare tread on those grounds?

12:17 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Joe, you bring up the temple ordinances and their effect. That is exactly one way to put my question: We have a doctrine of making the world into one family. How does that fit with what we see in this story? Given that marginality of Abraham and the fact that Lot turns his back on Canaan, as well as Abraham's war against some, what does it mean to make the world into one family?

1:57 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jim,

I appreciate your first summary point and find it especially useful.

You say: "The faithful must flee the world for the Promised Land, but on arrival they will not find the Garden of Eden. Instead, they will continue to encounter the world, but they will have power to overcome it. At the heart of overcoming the world, however, is divine covenant, the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, the covenant with God mediated by priesthood."

This may provide a clue as to why Lot left for Sodom and why Sodom is compared to the Garden of Eden: Lot expected the promised land to already be the Garden of Eden. Perhaps we could read a kind of promised land “fantasy” at work here in this misidentification. If so, this would remind me of what happens to Jesus over and over again in the Gospels: people don’t recognize him as the promised one because they have an “image” or “fantasy” about he should look like (an idol). However, Jesus is only able to interrupt our lives to the extent that he refuses to be what we (selfishly) imagine him to be. In this sense, a promised land that already was a (fantasy) Garden of Eden would be a disaster and would confirm our idolatry rather than shatter it. Beware a messiah/promised land that meets your expectations and looks the way you fantasized it would! (And, by extension, we might say: beware of a church that is what you want it to be!)

Additional thoughts follow.

I agree with Joe and Jim that the typological parallels between Abram and Exodus are important here. In light of the typology, perhaps we could venture the following about the relationship between the familial and the political: Abram’s familial acquisition of the promised land is a type and model for Israel’s later political acquisition. There are limits to this, but it may provide a pattern for relating the family to the polis.

Chapter 15’s thoroughly political thrust might also indicate several more specific things about the relation of the family to the polis. What sucks Abram into the maelstrom of rival political factions is his unconditional fidelity to a member of the family. His family commitments don’t isolate him from the political world but draw him out into it. In this sense, Abram’s political gesture is spurred by his attempt to recover the lost sheep of the family (Lot – lost physically, but perhaps also already lost spiritually?). The family member who is outside the bounds of the covenant draws Abram into “politics.”

Further, might Abram’s generosity in victory mark a typological departure from Exodus? If so, perhaps this marks a way in which Israel failed to follow the pattern properly set for them by Abram.

Perhaps we could summarize Abram’s political engagement in this way: the engagement is precipitated by an unconditional familial obligation and concluded by an uncalled for political generosity?

Also, as has been pointed out, Melchizedek (a priest and king without father or mother) nicely represents the interruption of patriarchy by an outside/transcendent (quasi-political?) force.

My best,
Adam

5:47 PM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

I too am interested in the promised land imagery used in the passage. In particular, I am interested in the silence surrounding Lot's decision to leave and the questions that this silence suggests. For example, we read only that Lot's decision seems to be based on geographical considerations: Lot wants the land that looks like the garden of Eden. As Adam noted, this may indicate a desire on Lot's part for the "promised land" to fit his expectations. One question about this reading, though, is that Abram has already been told (Gen. 12:7) that this land is the promised land. Is the choice Lot faces to either to stay in the land promised to Abram and his seed or to leave for his own land, a land not promised to someone else? Did Abram inform Lot that he knew this land was the promised land (all of the divine communication seems to go to Abram alone)? More ominously, does the "promise" of the "promised land" simply not apply to Lot, since the land is given to Abram and his seed (rather than his entire family)?

All of these questions point again in the direction of patriarchy. Does God reinforce patriarchy by excluding Lot from the promised land? Does Lot's capture after his leaving the promised land act as a kind of punishment for his action? Does Lot's capture and subsequent retrieval allow Abram the opportunity to move beyond strict patriarchical relations?

Also, it seems that the promised land is not capable of sustaining both Lot and Abram and all of their possessions (Gen. 13:6). I'm left wondering if this is because Abram and Lot simply have too many possessions (and thus implicitly point to an ecological ethics) or if, since the land is only Abram's, it's one way of getting Lot off of the land. We may blame Lot for leaving the promised land, but it is unclear that he has any real choice in the matter (his culpability for where he goes is a different story).

11:46 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I remain intrigued by the fact that Melchizedek comes into the Bible here, of all places, especially in light of the subsequent tradition (on the one hand) and revelation (on the other hand) about him. Before saying anything, however, let me make this point: there is an obvious tendency to this point in our discussions--young as they are--to maintain a commitment to the Genesis text without much of an eye to uniquely LDS material. I think this is very important for understanding the text, but I'd like, nonetheless, to push this discussion a bit more in the direction of an engagement with 19th century LDS thought. (In the end, what most interests me about the possibilities of this project is that they include the possibility of exploring a sort of dialectic between an attempted non-passional textual reading of the Abraham story in Genesis on the one hand and a full-blown uniquely LDS theology--if there is such a thing--on the other hand.)

That said, how might a Latter-day Saint engage the appearance of Melchizedek here at the level of the text? There are at least three aspects of (early or 19th century) LDS thought that seem important here: (1) Joseph's discourse on the three orders of the priesthood, where he divides what we usually call the Melchizedek priesthood up into an Abrahamic and a Melchizedek priesthood; (2) the obvious importance of the Book of Hebrews to Joseph's thinking about the nature of priesthood, angelic visitation, the sealing keys, etc.; and (3) Brigham's teachings regarding Adam (this we may want to steer relatively clear of, if for no other motivation than the subsequent rejection of those teachings by many, even and especially authorities).

As far as the Abraham story goes, this Melchizedek business also marks the first major departure from the KJV text in the JST manuscripts as well, and it might be worth paying some attention to those additions (not as a restoration of original text, but perhaps as a revelation concerning Melchizedek's place nonetheless).

Now, perhaps all of the above was already given (though I've hardly articulated anything here, just referenced it of course), but it seems to me worth making explicit. How does the Genesis text--as it stands--help us to think about these questions? I confess that I'm not sure how to answer that question, but I think it is worth asking, and that comments from others here will help me get my own thinking jumpstarted.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jeff,

Your last comment is, I think, especially astute.

"Also, it seems that the promised land is not capable of sustaining both Lot and Abram and all of their possessions (Gen. 13:6). I'm left wondering if this is because Abram and Lot simply have too many possessions (and thus implicitly point to an ecological ethics) or if, since the land is only Abram's, it's one way of getting Lot off of the land. We may blame Lot for leaving the promised land, but it is unclear that he has any real choice in the matter (his culpability for where he goes is a different story)."

What does the sheer inability of the land to support both Abram and Lot say about the promise of the promised land and especially about how its promise is to be extended as a blessing for the whole world? And what does it say about the way in which we ought to take up residence in the promised land?

My best,
Adam

5:10 PM  

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