Saturday, February 10, 2007

Genesis 17

Genesis 17 (with thanks and apologies to Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

1- Walk before me / be thou perfect
“Walk before me” –
“Walk,” I’m told, connotes a way of life, a way of being – the first time Abram receives a comprehensive commandment, a commandment to live wholly in a certain manner.

Before me- Before my face, in my presence. Personally before me, a life thoroughly conditioned by the Lord’s regard, a life in his light, a life tending toward, extending toward a personal Other?

Perfect (tamim)– whole, blameless. Like the Latinate “perfect”? Self-sufficient, fulfilling his own end in the excellent activity of his own faculties, enacting in microcosm the self-contained, impersonal order of the eternal whole, the cosmos - like the classical great-souled man, like, eventually, the philosopher? Obviously not all this.

But is some naturally accessible “perfection,” self-completion, wholeness presupposed in this command? Must Abram have some perfectible being in himself, must he first be towards an implicit, inherent understanding of the goodness of the kind of being he is, before he can receive the command to walk in the “light” of a personal Being? Does righteousness, uprightness before God extend, redeem a goodness that in some way or to some degree is already meaningful to natural beings? Does grace perfect nature? (Can there be an icon without an idol? Does contract prepare/foreshadow covenant?)

(I am told, of course, that there is no equivalent to “nature”/ “physis” in Hebrew… How decisive is this? Can there yet be an implicit sense of “natural” good or fulfillment?)

Or is this idea or notion of perfection, of wholeness, equivalent to, derivative of, or strictly, necessarily, exhaustively correlated with “walking before” the Almighty? Is a way of life determined pervasively by relation to (a) personal being(s), in light or opening of His awareness alien to or supervenient upon a life aiming at some self-representable, graspable completeness, self-sufficiency?

The names are changed… but not that much, not beyond recognition.

2- I will… multiply thee exceedingly … 4- thou shalt be a father of many nations … 6- I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee… 16 she shall be a mother of nations.

Apparently God is addressing Abraham’s & Sarah’s fondest desires when he promises them fruitfulness, limitless seed, and, yes, it seems, some kind of dominion or rule – to be father/mother of nations and kings. Are these natural desires that stem from our deepest humanity? Of course we today love our children (and grandchildren), and maybe we even take some (guilty?) pleasure in ruling our little families wisely, in the self-aware prudence, the mastery of passions (our own and others’), the comprehensiveness of understanding of human types, of human needs and wants, necessary to govern a family (a business? A ward!?) – all subject to humble and prayerful recognition of limitations and need for divine guidance. But can we even grasp what the promise of limitless fruitfulness (and everlasting dominion? – D&C 121) means to Abraham, or to Joseph Smith, in his “lust for kin” (is that not R. Bushman’s characterization?).

(Pierre Manent, in The City of Man (p. 92f.), brilliantly deconstructs Adam Smith’s critique of the feudal landlord, whom Smith depicts only at the moment he is selling out his traditional privileges and responsibilities, his authority and his cares, for fungible bourgeois commodities. Why would anyone want to be a “Lord”? What a lot of trouble that must be…)

The promise of fecundity, “eternal lives” (D&C 132) seems to me to go to the heart of an LDS vision of or attunement to ultimate meaning. If there is any decisively privileged link between what is humanly (‘naturally’) graspable, representable, and what is ever-transcendent, open-ended (any passage or analogy between the “symbolic” and the “ethical”?), then it seems to me it must be somewhere in this region. (See Levinas, Totality and Infinity, on Fecundity.)

vv. 10-14, 23-27, on Circumcision.
Already a long existing practice, Kass reminds me, but always associated with rites of passage to manhood, recognition of virility. But this covenantal marking of the male member – instituted just in time for Ishmael’s rite of passage -- will be practiced on helpless infants, by (or under the supervision of) their fathers, thus indelibly associating the reproductive power with divine gifts and promises. The most awesome natural power is marked by a transcending significance, taken up in an infinite fruitfulness.

23- …in the selfsame day. Cf. 22:3- Abraham rose early in the morning….
……………………..
Well, that leaves many, even most stones yet unturned, but that’s all I can manage for now. Please correct what is here, and fill in the parts I’ve had to neglect. And I hope you can help me find ways to connect further with questions raised earlier.

7 Comments:

Blogger Joe Spencer said...

A couple of responses here.

The commandment to "walk before me" is also interesting because it has an explicit linguistic connection with the title in Hebrew of the story from Gen 12-17. The title of the section is lkh lkh (leikh lekhah), a two-word phrase from Gen 12:1 (where it is translated "Get thee"), and which is an interesting play on/with words in and of itself (lkh can be the commandment "Walk!" or a prefixed preposition with a suffixed pronomial "to/for you"; hence the doubled lkh lkh means something like "It's to the road with you!" though it also opens onto questions of linguistic ambiguity; it might even be compared to the tout autre est tout autre of Derrida's Gift of Death, playing on the three levels that became central at the end of our last discussion). The commandment here is hthlkh (hithalekh), derived from the same root and also in imperative form, though here it is in the reflexive stem (literally something like "walk yourself" or "go yourself"). The reason to bring all of this up is that if, as Ralph mentions, this is "the first time Abram receives a comprehensive commandment, a commandment to live wholly in a certain manner," it is so precisely as a doubling (a reflexive-izing) of the first word we heard spoken to Abram (in Gen 12:1, lkh lkh). There is an explicit connection between the first word of Gen 12 and the first word of this chapter, and it is likely for this reason that the section begins in chap. 12 and finishes here (a similar inclusio opens and closes the next narrative "block," vyr', translated "And [the Lord] appeared" in 18:1 and simply transliterated "[Jehovah]-jireh" in 22:14). There is probably reason to discuss the meaning of this title and how it connects chapter 12 to chapter 17, the fruition of the covenant-making.

Ralph mentions that "before me" can be literally translated "in my presence." How are we to think the implicit "metaphysics of presence" in the Hebrew? Does this explain Levinas' predilection for the face in Totality and Infinity, something he was criticized for?

Ralph's (Kass's?) reading of Abraham as a philosopher makes me think about Margaret Barker's work on Plato and Pythagoras, which I think is probably her most speculative work, but interesting nonetheless.

Ralph asks "Can there be an icon without an idol? Does contract prepare/foreshadow covenant?" I'm very interested by these questions. How should we think, for example, about the Aaronic priesthood and its relationship to the Melchizedek priesthood? Perhaps especially in view of the language of servitude in the former and the language of sonship in the latter? What might the Mosaic rites of adoption (Ex 21:1-7; Isaiah 22:20-25) teach us about the relation between the icon and the idol, especially in terms of Pauline theology?

I'd very much like to hear others' thoughts on Joseph's "lust for kin." How important, on the other hand, is D&C 132:3-4?

Ralph, could you expand on your paragraph beginning with "The promise of fecundity..." and ending with "Totality and Infinity, on fecundity)."? I really like what you say here--in fact, I think it is the most important thing you brought up in your post--but I'd like to hear more of what you're thinking before I get too far along in misinterpreting you.

As for circumcision, how relevant is Lacan's discussion of circumcision to any of our concerns? We've run into him a number of times, and it turns out that one of the few pieces by Lacan I've spent any significant time with is his article on Gen 17 and 22. Adam, any thoughts?

There are some wonderful possibilities in this chapter. One further question I'd like to raise: how is it significant that the JST brings into this chapter a mention of an apostate belief at the time in Abel as the sacrificed Son of God?

7:49 PM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Alter notes of verse 1 that "El Shaddai" was considered by biblical authors to be an archaic name of God. I wondered as I read it whether this archaism could be related to Jim's reading of an anarchic, metahistorical beginning to chapter 12; Joe's connections to chapter 12 are even more suggestive.

I'm interested in circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Jim, I believe, has noted that previous articulations of the covenant don't resemble the two-way contractual relationship to which we're accustomed in the Church. In this version of the covenantal encounter (the fourth?), we see something more like a mutual promise emerge: the sense of verses 1 and 2 seems to be, "If you will walk in my presence and be blameless, I will multiply you very greatly." (Does the original Hebrew support this logic?) Abraham's part, then, is to "walk in God's presence," to take up some particular way of life; Ralph's and Joe's discussions are stimulating on this topic, demonstrating among other things how very, well, indistinct this first comprehensive commandment is.

The instructions on circumcision, by contrast, are specifically detailed even at the greatest resolution. This is surprising to me, in some ways, since circumcision is the sign, covenant the signified. I'm accustomed to thinking of a sign as semantically impoverished relative to its signifier, a kind of shorthand. In this case, though, it's the signified---the commandment itself---that feels somehow abridged.

I'm also interested in the semiotics of the relationship between circumcision and covenant: clearly there's no one-to-one mimesis between circumcision and covenant, since God covenants only with Abraham even though he requires all the men of Abraham's household to be circumcised. These other men are circumcised as a sign of the glory that will redound to Abraham's chosen lineage. Why does God require all to be circumcised, if he covenants with only one? I would guess this is related to the formation and foundation of a particular kind of community. But what kind? Very different from our own, it would seem, wherein God covenants with individuals. Right? I have intimations, but I need help.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Rosalynde says: "I'm accustomed to thinking of a sign as semantically impoverished relative to its signifier, a kind of shorthand. In this case, though, it's the signified---the commandment itself---that feels somehow abridged." I really like this, but I've got to think about it more before I can say anything worth hearing.

On everyone being circumcised while the covenant remains with Abraham: doesn't this begin to sound very much like Joseph Smith's reading of Abraham (in the Book of Abraham, but also in his Nauvoo discourses and in the "theology" of the temple, especially perhaps in D&C 132)? They are accounted his seed through the sign (they are slighted physically, and it is to his glory). But I'm not sure exactly how far this parallel can be pushed.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

All,

An anonymous source (Robert) passed along some thoughts about Genesis 17 that I'd like, at least for the moment, to claim as my own. He/I/We offer the following for consideration:

"I hope no one minds if I toss in a few somewhat disorganized thoughts in response to my lurking on the Reading Abraham blog.

Rosalynde wrote:

'In this version of the covenantal encounter (the fourth?), we see something more like a mutual promise emerge: the sense of verses 1 and 2 seems to be, "If you will walk in my presence and be blameless, I will multiply you very greatly." . . . Abraham's part, then, is to "walk in God's presence," to take up some particular way of life; Ralph's and Joe's discussions are stimulating on this topic, demonstrating among other things how very, well, indistinct this first comprehensive commandment is.'

This struck me as a very interesting issue that lends itself to a uniquely Mormon reading of Gen 17:1 (inasmuch as a Mormon reading of the Fall is unique...). I like the approach that Adam has already suggested (here), that Adam and Eve's separation from God 'is a result [of] their identifying themselves (mistakenly) as "guilty."' This, to me, underscores the unconditional aspect of the Abrahamic covenant(s): no matter what Adam and Eve have done, God will continue to be their God--it is only their forsaking of God (or incorrect belief in a conditional aspect to God's love) that causes the separation. This is why the command to Abraham is so indistinct, it is a direct consequence of the unconditional aspect of the covenant--anything more distinct would be inherently conditional.

This is echoed in Gen 17 where the covenant seems not only repeated but extended in vv. 7-8 where God says to Abraham, "[I will] be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee." After Abraham confirms (`amn = amen = confirm) God's promise by bowing to the ground, the unconditional promise grows (like the word in Alma 32). This grown covenant now includes not just the existence of Abraham's seed but an uncondtional relationship with Abraham's seed: no matter how many times Abraham's seed forsakes God, God will never fosake Abraham's seed.

It is this unconditional apsect of the covenant that is important in God's relationship with his people, just as it is important in eternal family relationships--ultimately a relationship that is based on recurrent forgiveness (cf. Heb 13:5, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee," stated right after 12:22ff which Joe keeps reminding us was so influential on Joseph Smith; cf. also D&C 98:40, "and as oft as thine enemy repenteth of the trespass wherewith he has trespassed against thee, thou shalt forgive him, until seventy times seven").

Furthermore, I think it is this temporally-infinite nature of the covenant that becomes important in D&C 132's "everlasting covenant."

9:43 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

I've got a response from Ralph posted below:

I should say, first, that I don’t mean to cast Abraham as a philosopher. Rather, following Kass and extending (too far?) his question, I meant to point up the naturalness of the notion of perfection, completeness, and to suggest how this notion is developed and articulated in classical philosophy. I suppose I’m corrupted enough by a certain diffuse Thomism to always look for the naturally-available inclination that is extended, or transformed, in indications of transcendence. How does the “be perfect/complete/blameless” stand with respect to the transformative “walk with me”?

By the way: no comments on my question whether we still have any affective connection with the promises of nations, kingdoms, dominion - promises that seemed to touch Abraham’s deepest longings, fondest wishes?

Probably I’m over-anticipating the problem that for me lies at the core of the Akeda: how does the call of a kind of absolute sacrifice stand with respect to the never-cancelled promise of things that seem by nature (to Abraham, at least) very good, very appealing.
I don’t have my _Totality and Infinity_ with me at my office here, but I’ll just say that Levinas’s discussion of Fecundity (which I prefer to the purified, radicalized, Calvinist-Kantian insistence of _Otherwise than Being_) as linking love of one’s own to openness to the other seems to me to read as a kind of preface to the study of “Eternal Lives.” The LDS conception of open-ended fecundity outdoes Thomism, one might say, in binding together a hope for the fulfillment of our deepest, concrete natural inclinations with an openness to infinite possibility – thus avoiding both the classical, prideful “totalization” of the idea of perfection and modern, progressive (future-oriented) abstraction and formalism (to which both Kant and Levinas are vulnerable). Avoiding, one might say, both idolatries: that of “the same,” and that of “the other.”

12:25 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Thanks for the expansion of that idea, Ralph. I've got to do some thinking on that before I stick my foot in my mouth.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

A couple of my own scattered (belated) comments on other people’s comments on Genesis 17:

1. Joe says:

Ralph mentions that "before me" can be literally translated "in my presence." How are we to think the implicit "metaphysics of presence" in the Hebrew? Does this explain Levinas' predilection for the face in Totality and Infinity, something he was criticized for?

I’m reluctant to read “presence” here in a metaphysical vein. Could we say: to be in the “presence” of God, to see his face, would only result in deepening of his mystery, his otherness? It is, perhaps, in his absence, that it is easiest to turn him into a flat object that is simply present (an example of how this works may be pornography: it’s easier to use the other person as a simply “present” object if they are not actually present in person). In this sense, walking in God’s presence would be precisely what shatters the pretension of a metaphysics of presence. In Kierkegaard’s terms, the presence of God’s own subjective inwardness is exactly what shatters the “presence” of God as an object.

2. Ralph asks (and Joe echoes the question):

Can there be an icon without an idol? Does contract prepare/foreshadow covenant?

I’d say: you can’t have one without the other. I’m inclined to read the covenantal dimension of community, etc. as the excess that the conditions of the contract are not able to absorb or re-absorb. (This excess is always extremely important: everyone knows how disasterous a marriage would be in which both parties only do exactly what the express conditions require them to do!) The key movement depends on whether or not we try to exclude the excess for the sake of the contract (a bad, totalitarian gesture) or whether we recognize in the excess the very meaning of the contract. In either case, a covenant is not possible without a contract just as grace is not possible as what exceeds the law without the law that it exceeds.

We might read Paul’s discussion of the law in a similar way? The law makes both sin and grace possible. Sin and grace are both fundamentally related to what is in excess of the law: however, where sin inflects this excess negatively, grace inflects it positively.

3. Joe says:

Ralph, could you expand on your paragraph beginning with "The promise of fecundity..." and ending with "Totality and Infinity, on fecundity)."? I really like what you say here--in fact, I think it is the most important thing you brought up in your post.

I’d like to second Joe’s request: can we hear even more about the “promise of fecundity”? It also strikes me as extremely important. Perhaps Jim could also weigh-in on this with respect to Levinas.

4. Joe says:

As for circumcision, how relevant is Lacan's discussion of circumcision to any of our concerns?

I’m trying to track down the essays where Lacan talks about this but if I remember correctly the central idea is a kind of inversion of the notion that circumcision is a mark of virility (or, at any rate, it is an inversion of virility for the sake of virility). Lacan reads Abraham’s circumcision as a kind symbolic castration in which Abraham will become capable of fathering a child only by accepting the fact that the child is a gift of God’s covenant and not something for which he could himself take credit. This harks back to the way that God is “interrupting” the patriarchal structure, inserting himself first between Terah and Abram and now between Abraham and Isaac.

(God is himself the excess - or Real in Lacan's terminology - that makes the whole social order possible by interrupting it. Wherever I've used the words "excess" in this post, one could substitute the term "real" from our previous discussions).

In this vein, we could read circumcision as a kind of cut in the order of patriarchy itself. It cuts it in order to supplement it with the promise of an unlimited excess (uncountable posterity).

I believe I also remember Nibley saying somewhere that circumcision could be read as “a token shedding of blood” marking the fact that the circumcised person is willing to shed or consecrate all of their blood. Circumcision would then be a token of the unconditional, of the unconditional requirement of complete consecration of everything. (Surely an excessive requirement!)

5. Rosalynde says:

The instructions on circumcision, by contrast, are specifically detailed even at the greatest resolution. This is surprising to me, in some ways, since circumcision is the sign, covenant the signified. I'm accustomed to thinking of a sign as semantically impoverished relative to its signifier, a kind of shorthand. In this case, though, it's the signified---the commandment itself---that feels somehow abridged.

Perhaps we could read the under-determination of the signified (“walk before me”) against the clarity of the signifier (circumcision with all its detailed instructions) as being, in fact, an over-determination. “Walk before me” may be equivalent to saying something like: "all the commandments are summed up in the commandment to love." The commandment to love being over-determined in its meaning precisely because it’s not spelled-out who, when, where to love. Just love!

Maybe.

6. Anonymous source (Robert) says:

This, to me, underscores the unconditional aspect of the Abrahamic covenant(s): no matter what Adam and Eve have done, God will continue to be their God--it is only their forsaking of God (or incorrect belief in a conditional aspect to God's love) that causes the separation. This is why the command to Abraham is so indistinct, it is a direct consequence of the unconditional aspect of the covenant--anything more distinct would be inherently conditional.

I agree with Robert here. What moves the contract beyond the conditions that structure it as a contract is the excess of God’s unconditional commitment (his grace or his love). It is only this unconditional supplement to the contract that transforms it into a covenant. The problem has to do with our reaction to this unconditioned excess: does it cause us to run and hide, overwhelmed by it in relation to our finitude (sin) or do we allow it circumscribe us, giving ourselves unconditionally to what has been unconditionally been offered?

7. Ralph says:

Probably I’m over-anticipating the problem that for me lies at the core of the Akeda: how does the call of a kind of absolute sacrifice stand with respect to the never-cancelled promise of things that seem by nature (to Abraham, at least) very good, very appealing.

I’d suggest that, perhaps, they relate in the same way as contract and covenant? The absolute/unconditioned always standing in a necessary relation (though a relation of excess) to the conditioned/appealing. The absolute eclipsing the conditioned/appealing?

8. Ralph says:

I’ll just say that Levinas’s discussion of Fecundity . . . as linking love of one’s own to openness to the other seems to me to read as a kind of preface to the study of “Eternal Lives.” The LDS conception of open-ended fecundity outdoes Thomism, one might say, in binding together a hope for the fulfillment of our deepest, concrete natural inclinations with an openness to infinite possibility – thus avoiding both the classical, prideful “totalization” of the idea of perfection and modern, progressive (future-oriented) abstraction and formalism (to which both Kant and Levinas are vulnerable). Avoiding, one might say, both idolatries: that of “the same,” and that of “the other.”

With Joe, I also like this formulation very much. Any more, any more?

9:15 AM  

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