Friday, March 02, 2007

Genesis 20-21

20

I find chapter 20 not only troubling, but mysterious; I'm not sure what to make of it. So let me deal with it by pointing to things in it that interested me and by raising questions.

Verse 1 of the chapter tells us that Abraham "journeyed from thence," but there is no referent for "thence" (shm): we don't know where Abraham is journeying from, but the text assumes that we do. Of course this is evidence of the redaction process, but if we take it as part of the text, as part of a whole, we can ask what it means in that text. What are we to make of the fact that we do not know where Abraham has come from when this story begins? Or does it begin from a situation, Abraham's situation in comparison to Lot's rather than from a place?

If we think broadly about the two stories and see the way in which each shows us a different kind of hospitable life, perhaps we can read this as saying that we see Abraham, who knows how to be hospitable, moving into potentially hostile company. He is entering a home where he cannot be assured of hospitality. That suggests that this chapter is about God's protection of Abraham when hospitality fails.

It is impossible to overlook the parallel between the story of this chapter and the story in Genesis 12:9-20. Verse 1 immediately makes the connection to the story in chapter 12 by using "journeyed" and "dwelled," translations of the same Hebrew verbs used at the beginning of the earlier story. The redactor wants us to know that he sees these stories as parallel; he is conscious of the existence of two stories and includes them both.

What might we get from comparing and contrasting the two stories?

  • There, Abraham went all the way into Egypt. Here, he goes to the border of Canaan, but not into Egypt.
  • There Sarai becomes became part of the royal harem. Here she doesn't get that far.
  • There Abram explains the political reason for referring to Sarai as his sister. Here he explains why calling Sarah his sister wasn't a lie.
  • In chapter 12, we don't know how the Pharaoh came to know that Sarai was Abram's wife. In this chapter, the Lord appears to Abimelech in a dream to tell him.
  • The Pharaoh puts all of the blame on Abram. Abimelech accepts some of the blame.
  • The Pharaoh immediately expelled Abram from Egypt. Abimelech allows him to choose the land he wishes.
  • The Pharaoh is concerned with what has happened to him (12:18). Abimelech is concerned with what Abraham may have done to his nation.
  • The earlier story is a foreshadowing of Israel's entrance, sojourn, and exodus from Egypt. Is this one also?

Abimelech's plea in verse 4, "Wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?" is very much like Abraham's plea for Sodom in Genesis 18:30-32.

Verse 7 is the only occurrence in Genesis of the word nabi, "prophet": God identifies Abraham as a prophet. (The word is used very sparingly in the Pentateuch, 12 times, with 8 of those times in Deuteronomy.) It strikes me as odd that it is important to this strange story that Abraham is a prophet.

An overall oddity is that in this chapter we see Abraham, who has already been shown to be a mighty warrior who can defeat multiple kings (chapter 14), afraid of one king, Abimelech—a king whom, as Word Biblical Commentary points out, Abraham has misjudged (2:72). Compare what God says about Abimelech in verse 6 with what Abraham thought about the country in verse 11.

And why does Abraham lie in verse 13 about using this ruse with Sarah "at every place where we shall come"? He's only done it once before.

In summary, Word Biblical Commentary is helpful once again: "This incident makes us realize that Abraham is not such a saint as we might have concluded from chap. 18, nor were all the inhabitants of Canaan so depraved as those who lived in Sodom" (2:75).

21

With chapter 21, we enter into more familiar territory, though that isn't to say that there are no difficulties.

The first story in the chapter is that of Isaac's birth and Ishmael's expulsion, and I think we have to read those two stories together: the birth of the covenant child means the expulsion of the child of the handmaiden. Can we think past twentieth-century sensibilities to see what the point is, and then, having done so, can we bring that point back in a way acceptable to our sensibilities?

Without trying to justify Sarah's anger or Abraham's complicity (nor deciding ahead of time that I understand that anger and complicity well enough to know what it means), one thing I see here is that covenant and promise are not the same. Verses 17-18 tell us that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, repeating the promise of Genesis 17:20: "I will make him a great nation." However, Genesis 17:21 adds: "But my covenant will I establish with Isaac." Though the promise of the covenant is that Abraham will be a great nation, that promise is not the same as the covenant. For Ishmael and Isaac each receives that same promise, but only Isaac receives the covenant.

So what is the covenant of Abraham? Is it "I will bless thee"? That seems to be the promise. Is it "Thou shalt be a blessing"? Isn't God saying that to be covenanted is to be blessed to be a blessing? Merely being blessed (Ishmael) is not enough and must be sent away. Being blessed to be a blessing remains.

The chapter ends with the covenant between Abimelech and Abraham. Is that to set up a contrast with the covenant that is to come in the next chapter, not only in the two covenants themselves, but the way in which they are established: Abraham offers sheep and oxen to Abimelech; he offers his son to God.

7 Comments:

Blogger Robert C. said...

Before making any substantive comment, let me strongly recommend J. Gerald Janzen's commentary on Genesis (part of the International Theological Commentary series; this volume is pretty cheap, paperback, just over 200 pages, available used for $10-$15---the whole series is available through logos, though I'm not sure how good the sieries itself is yet). Joe, I think this is the same Janzen whose Job commentary you liked so much. Sadly, I only discovered this gem-of-a-book last night.

I've already hinted at some of my thoughts on the Abimelech episodes on a previous thread (the penultimate paragraph of this comment), which seems---at least thus far---very roughly consistent with Janzen's view. My comments here will most likely be an effort to appropriate Janzen's insights so they address the 4 meta-questions for this seminar.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

I think there is a very interesting covenant-contract reading of these chapters. Abraham makes a contract with Sarah to hide her identity. This contract predetermines Abraham's actions and is motived by a fear of man, in stark contrast to the responsive fear of God that Abimelech shows, and the responsive covenanting between Abraham and Abimelech that is achieved in Ch. 21, a covenanting that echos the God's covenant with Abraham. Also, I think it's interesting how grievances are aired, that is "given a voice," in a way that deepens the seeing-hearing motifs of the enitre Abraham cycle. Perhaps, then, it is interaction, that is, conversation, giving-voice-to each other and responding to these voices that is important to what is achieved for Abraham in these chapters. (Janzen's take on the laughter motif suggests this also, that laughter is the reponse-opening through which God is able to begin to work through Sarah---I'll look at this more closely and try to explain it better later).

So I think that Ch. 20 is about Abimelech's responsiveness with Abraham playing the foil/contrast, whereas in Ch. 21 we have many of the same issues arising (Sarah's preemptive fear toward Ishmael), but the roles have changed with Abraham being the one who is doing the responding (to God and Sarah) in order to avoid more conflict.

I think this idea of responding to an other, in contrast to taking a predetermined course of action can also be tied in to faith as it can be seen in these chapters. That is, faith becomes an affirmation (amn) of the concerns of an other, a following-through of a covenant. God is the perfect example of faithfulness, making a covenant and following through with that promise unconditionally, protecting Abraham even when he seems unworthy of such protection, blessing Sarah with Isaace even when she seems unworthy of such a blessing---all because of the covenant that he has made. The preliminary episode with Abimilech is then the beginnings of an interaction that most significantly is culminated in a covenant of peace between them in Ch. 21, a covenant which is only possible through Abimilech's gracious handling of the conflict in Ch. 20. Abraham, then, is the beneficiary of two gracious covenants, one from God and one from Abimelech (who was also responding to God). To whatever extent Abraham becomes exemplary, it is in response to the graciousness he has been shown (like in 1 John, God first loved us).

But this establishes a provocative tension: isn't God's covenant to Abraham a predetermined course of action? What is different between God's predetermined course of action regarding Abraham's seed and Abraham's predetermined course of action with respect to hiding Sarah's identity? More than the answer, I think this is a central question embedded in the text that lies at the heart of many of the central motifs in the Abraham cycle. How can that which is future be opened/dis-closed/"seen" in a way that will not lead to violent conflict?

In searching for an answer to this larger question, I think God-as-arbiter becomes an even more important consideration. God's step from the eternal into the temporal in order to resolve the community conflict with Abimelech and the family-polygamous conflict with Sarah and Hagar is what opens the possibility of peaceful resolution. Of course I'm sidestepping the question of how God arbitrates (and thus how history/violence opens to the spiritual/eschatological...), but at the least we see atemporal intervention as the impetus that staves off violence in both chapters. It is faith in covenantal promises which reconciles past grievances with future promises that opens the possibility of resolution.

Finally, I think all of this serves to set the stage for the test in Ch. 22, where the tensions of fear and faith culminate. Whereas fear of man (representing temporality---in fearing man, Abraham is captive to the future with no control over it, with no hope of escaping the cycle of violence as a result of unaddressed grievances...) nearly caused violence with Abimelech and the Pharoah earlier, fear of God opens-to-the-future the possibility of peace, the possibility that past grievance will be responded to and addressed. Thus, when Abraham proves himself and then the promise is deepened in Ch. 22, Abraham becomes not only a beneficiary of peace-rooted-in-grace as we see in these chapters, but an agent of such grace/peace.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

So we are now approaching the most important moment (to some degree, at least) of this whole seminar. In the spirit of much of what Jim has to say in this post, I think we finally have to address a most important question. But let me preface it just briefly.

We began this whole project with the question--at least in the terms presented in Jim's "inaugural" paper--whether or not Kierkegaard and Derrida (philosophers generally?) read Gen 22 well. Jim has suggested that because philosophers have read Gen 22 in isolation, there have been major difficulties with their readings. Here we've just come through all the introductory material (or rather, we're now working through the last bit of it for now), and we I think need to begin to ask the question now, and before we begin to think Gen 22: wherein do we anticipate differences between our approach and those of at least Kierkegaard and Derrida?

If I can sum up the differences I've seen so far, I would place most of them (and Jim's post here points this way as well) in terms of the fallible figure of Abraham. Much of what we have said has been charged with a rather negative reading of Abraham (except perhaps in Gen 18, though Jim has wonderfully suggested here that the Abimelech story is meant precisely to counter that). Can we sum up our predispositions, even before the fact, by saying that we are not expecting much of Abraham in chap 22?

I'm not putting this well.

I suppose the question I'm trying to ask, and right now especially, is this: just before we get to chap 22, must we not figure out who Abraham is to this point? Isn't that a major facet of this seminar? In other words: who is Abraham, just before the command to kill? Who is he narratively? Who is he historically? Who is he ritually? Who is he covenantally? Who is he patriarchally? Who is he politically? Who is he religiously? Who is he hospitality-wise? And how does all of this prepare us to read the most important story?

I suppose this is my response to Jim's (and Robert's) words here simply because I have very little to add to what has been said, but I recognize that all of this is now setting us before the most difficult task we have yet faced here. Where do we stand? Or, where does Abraham stand in us?

10:48 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Joe, I think that indeed this is a good place to take a step back and look at the larger picture. In many ways, the story of Abraham and Sarah's barrenness and God's promise otherwise ends nicely here at the end of Ch. 21. I like Janzen's rich description of this:

"The Abraham who had earlier called upon God by altars or sacred tree (12:6-9; 13:18) now plants a tree and calls on Yahweh. With the birth of Isaac a new sacred tree grows in the land, and a new divine name appears on Abrhaam's lips. The Everlasting God stands behind the everlasting covenant (17:7, 13, 19) which has now been made good in Isaac, the tree securely rooted in the land promised as an everlasting possession (17:8). With this the saga of Abraham and Sarah themselves, which was begun in 11:30; 12:1-9, eseems at last to be concluded, and we might expect the narrative to move on to the next generation. What began as a divine promise in the midst of barrenness ends as a divine fulfillment in the form of fruitfulness. In their case, the passage of time itself, by the way it moves to a rounded completeness, becomes an image of God's everlastingness; and the mark of that everlastingness is fruitfulness whether in the form of Isaac or the planted tree." [p. 77]

So how are we to understand the continuation of the story? It is in this framework that I think Jim's work makes a very interesting, and to me uniquely Mormon, contribution: we begin again with a Fall-like cutting off. The next story of creation (Janzen also makes a good case for reading all of Genesis in terms of a series of creation stories) cannot continue until there is a new fall (or new type of destruction like flood the destruction of the Tower of Babel; in fact, doesn't this form a certain chiasmus: Fall (of Adam), destruction (by flood), destruction (of the Tower), Fall (of Isaac). Although surely much (non-LDS) exegetical work has been done comparing and contrasting these various stories from a creation point of view, I think the unique LDS perspective on the Fall is what makes the Mormon context for reading Gen 22 unique. How does the eternal round of creation work? How can there an eternal family be created? How are we to understand the obvious parallels between the "generations of the heaven and the earth" (Gen 2:4) and the generations of man (5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 25:12, 19)? I don't think we can really start to answer these questions without considering the Fall, and if the Fall was merely a mistake, then how are to we explain Gen 22?

Perhaps all of this was painfully obvious to the rest of you when you first read Jim's work, but thinking this through is helping me contextualize what Jim has already done and helps me understand what further work can be done.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

I agree with Joe and Robert that now might be a useful time to look back over the ground we’ve covered thus far. As I’ve thought about how we might possibly attempt this, it occurred to me that some simple textual nitty-gritty might offer a place to begin. I’ve read through the previous chapters (chapters 11-21) and compiled the following list of predicates that are either explicitly used to describe Abram/Abraham (with quotation marks) or implied by the narrative (without quotation marks). Here they are more or less in the order I found them:

1. husband (11.29)
2. “son” (11.31)
3. nomadic (12.1)
4. blessed (12.2)
5. “old” (12.4)
6. altar-builder (12.7)
7. man of prayer (12.8)
8. trickster/deceiver? (12.10-20)
9. source of plagues (12.17)
10. exiled (12.20)
11. “rich” (13.2)
12. tent-dweller (13.3)
13. man of prayer (13.4)
14. peace-maker (13.7-8)
15. altar-builder (12.18)
16. “Hebrew” (14.13)
17. warrior/general (14.14-16)
18. rescuer (14.16)
19. tithe-payer (14.20)
20. oath-keeper (14.22-23)
21. generous (14.21)
22. questioner (15.2)
23. doubter? (15.2)
24. “believer” (15.6)
25. “righteous” (15.6)
26. “covenant”-maker (15.18)
27. hearkens to his wife (16.1-2)
28. “husband” of two (16.3)
29. fertile (16.4)
30. delegater (16.6)
31. father (16.15)
32. “old” (16.16)
33. “old” (17.1)
34. covenant-maker (17.2)
35. “father” (17.4)
36. “Abraham” (17.5)
37. “father (17.5)
38. ancestor of kings (17.6)
39. “stranger” (17.8)
40. covenant-keeper (17.9)
41. laugher (17.17)
42. questioner (17.17)
43. “old” (17.7)
44. “circumcised” (17.24)
45. “old” (17.24)
46. slave-owner (17.27)
47. “servant” (18.3)
48. “servant” (18.5)
49. exemplary host (18.1-8)
50. “old” (18.11)
51. “blessed/blessing” (18.18)
52. advocate for the innocent (19.23-33)
53. early-riser (19.27)
54. “remembered” (19.29)
55. traveler (20.1)
56. deceiver? (20.2)
57. “prophet” (20.7)
58. man of prayer (20.7)
59. fearful (20.11)
60. “wanderer” (20.13)
61. rich (20.16)
62. man of prayer (20.17)
63. instrument of healing (20.17)
64. father (21.2)
65. “old” (21.2)
66. namer (21.3)
67. circumciser (21.4)
68. “old” (21.5)
69. feast-maker (21.8)
70. man of grief (21.11)
71. hearkens to his wife (21.12)
72. early-riser (21.14)
73. oath-taker (21.24)
74. reprover (21.25)
75. covenant-maker (21.27)
76. grove-planter (21.33)
77. “sojourner” (21.34)

The list is rough (some things might have been included but were too awkward to phrase simply, some could easily have been left out, and some things may have been repeated more often than is noted above), but I think it gives a representative sample.

I don’t have any more time today to work on some kind of analysis, but I’ll note a couple of ideas that seem to have been repeated with particular insistence in order of their relative emphasis:

1. old
2. traveler/nomad
3. father (progenitor with uncountable seed)
4. man of prayer
5. covenant-maker

"Simple" predicates explicitly applied to Abraham are relatively rare in these ten chapters and appear include only (in no particular order):

1. “old”
2. “son”
3. “father”
4. “prophet”
5. “wanderer”
6. “stranger”
7. “servant”
8. “circumcised”
9. “husband”
10. “rich”
11. “Hebrew”

I’ll try to come back to this tomorrow if I can find a few minutes, but I’m also interested in seeing what you make of the list, any predicates I’ve missed that you’d suggest including, etc.

My best,
Adam

2:13 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Interesting list Adam. One thing that strikes me is importance of the words father, old, and strange (from the frequently occurring verb gwr, translated "sojourn" in the KJV).

It's hard for me not to see this as pointing again to an overarching "generations of creation" type of reading: like we see the light and darkness, land and water separated so that all the vegatation can reproduce after its kind, we see Adam and God separated, and we see Abraham and his father separated (better would be "cut" b/c it's closer to the word for circumcision), so it seems we're being primed for the next separation, Abraham and Isaac. The creation of the next generation then is precipitated by a cutting off, an extreme trial of faith, as the Father had for both Adams (a reading that I think Mormons are bound to consider in light of "the similitude of God and his only Begotten" of Jacob 4:5), and all fathers must have when children are sent out to sojourn themselves in the lone and dreary world. But what makes this bearable is the time-transcendent promise of a future reconciliation, a promise that culminates in Christ who becomes the blessing to all nations that Abraham is promised.

(I think the preceding paragraph might be taken as pointing to an alternate reading of the separation between Abraham and Sarah with the Pharoah and with Abimilech, that Abraham's promise was analogous rather than dissimilar to God's promise, but I have a really hard time making sense of this kind of reading....)

10:14 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

I never made it back to further analysis (midterms!), but it occurred to me that one way in which a Mormon understanding of Abraham might be unique is that it includes some consideration of Abraham as other than old! Where Genesis picks up with Abraham already 75 years old, we'll find the Book of Abraham including a significant amount of backstory.

Is this contrast important? Why does the Bible only give us an Abraham who is always already described as old? What might it signify? What difference does it make that Joseph Smith gives us an Abraham that breaks that frame?

My best,
Adam

7:53 AM  

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