Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reading Hagar: Genesis 16

The first three of our four questions seem most relevant this week, although I will make a couple of suggestions as to how the fourth is also relevant. I see the first three as interconnected through three intertwining themes that strike me particularly as I read this chapter. To get the themes out on the table, I will state them simply and then list a series of (often leading… sorry about that) questions in order to generate some discussion on these themes (I hope, then, that my questions are not too leading, or misleading). After these three themes, I’ve written out a couple of paragraphs on some other interesting things I see in the text, for whatever they’re worth. The two intertexts open the possibility of thinking about the relevance of a uniquely LDS reading of the text.

Three philosophical themes

Verse 7 marks the very first appearance of an angel (by that name) in Genesis (there are, of course, the cherubim of the Garden story). Why would an angel show up for the first time here, of all places? And why is it that the first angel comes specifically to Hagar? How does this play into the theme of mediation that has been a question in the last two chapters (14-15)? Is it significant that Hagar considers the angel to be the Lord Himself (see verse 13)? The angel comes specifically to perform a rather common function in the scriptures, that is to announce the birth of a promised child; why does an angel perform that task? Does this bear on Joseph Smith’s reading of Hebrews 11-12, where he sees angelic visitation to be a function of the fathers turning to their sons and the sons to their fathers in the work of the covenant?

In verse 10, the already repeated promise of innumerable children is given to Ishmael, but the promise is given without the metaphorical elaborations that have appeared in chapters 13 and 15 when the promises were given to Abram. What is to be made of this non-metaphorical promise, especially since the promise is just as disruptive, so to speak, as the metaphorical promises given to Abram? If the promise goes on to use metaphor about Ishmael specifically (“a wild ass of a man”) but not about the promised multitudes of children, what can be read into that? Why is the non-metaphorical promise put in the mouth of the angel?

The chapter is punctuated by references to seeing and hearing (hearing: verses 2, 11, 15—“Ishmael” means “God hears”; seeing: verses 2, 4, 5, 13—“El-roi” means “I saw God”). How do these two themes interplay? How does seeing differ from hearing here? How does the theme of seeing play into the earlier hints of idolatry on Abram’s part? Is it significant that only Hagar is reported in the chapter as seeing? What is the significance in verse 2 of Sarai’s assuming that Abraham has seen something? How is this theme of seeing connected with the introduction of the angelic? How does hearing differ from seeing here? Is it significant that Abram is the only one reported to have “hearkened” besides the Lord Himself in this chapter? Why doesn’t the author ever use the verb to describe Hagar’s relation with the angel? Why is the Lord described as hearing but not seeing? What is the significance of seeing and hearing both being wrapped up in the names given in the chapter? Is one justified to read the body into the theme of seeing, and the “spirit” into the theme of hearing? Is there a connection between the fact that the angel is only described as seen (not heard) and the fact that the angel gives the non-metaphorical promise (metaphor can only be spoken, not shown)?

Allusions, anticipations,… types?

There are some curious parallels between this story and the Eden narrative. “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (verse 2); “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and has eaten of the tree…” (Gen 3:17). “And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (verse 3); “she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen 3:6). Curiously, in the Sarai/Hagar narrative, this is followed by a sort of opening of the eyes: “and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes” (verse 4; compare NRSV: “and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress”). More curiously still, this echo of the “Fall” story in Gen 16 traces the development from Sarai’s inability to have children (like Eve’s inability, according to one reading—not my reading, I should probably add—of 2 Nephi 2:23) to her ability to do so (albeit through a surrogate).

More obvious, perhaps, are the anticipations in the Gen 16 narrative of the Exodus story, though things are essentially backwards. The Egyptian is the slave, and Sarai “dealt hardly” (the same Hebrew word that will appear in Exod 1:11) with her. The Egyptian, instead of the Hebrew, flees into the wilderness, apparently on the way to Egypt. If all of this constitutes a sort of reversed anticipation of the Exodus to come, it is fascinating how the story wraps up: Hagar is commanded to return to her mistress. In short, the reversal is reversed in the end, and by the Lord Himself. I’m not sure what is to be made of this reversed reversal.

Finally, the scene at the well seems to be typical. Perhaps the scene that most comes to mind is John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus. In both the present text and John 4, the Lord engages the outcast kin. In the end, I’m not sure what can be taken from the tie between these two texts, but the connection is intriguing to me.


Two other books of scripture deal with this chapter in interesting ways that probably deserve mention, at least because they draw from the present text some aspects of the story that might otherwise be ignored. The first is Galatians 4:21-31, Paul’s allegorical reading of Hagar and Sarah. Verse 23: “But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” The distinction Paul draws is tied, of course, to the great gulf between “salvation by works” and “salvation by grace.” This suggests to me that what is at work in Gen 16 is a sort of “fulfillment of the promise by works.” In Gen 16, it is not quite clear whether this sort of an approach is condoned or condemned: on the one hand, the promise of countless seed is confirmed on Ishmael (verse 10); on the other hand, as the NRSV translates it, “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (verses 11-12). My own predilection is to condemn this attempt at fulfilling the commandment one’s own way, this “fulfillment by works” business (to condemn it, perhaps, as totalitarian).

But the other intertext suggests otherwise, a text I approach only with fear and trembling, a text that for Joseph Smith himself might have been the very gift of death: D&C 132. Verse 34 there: “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.” Two points to raise. First, what are we to make of this reading? It is quite different, ultimately, from the most obvious reading of Gen 16. Is there some way to reconcile the two texts? Would that even be desirable? Second, did Joseph read his own experiences with Emma into this story (Emma giving certain women to Joseph as wives, and then rejecting them and demanding Joseph break off those marriages)? If so, then verses 64-65 are important as well: if “a wife… receive not this law… she then becomes the transgressor; and he [the husband] is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.” I’m not personally quite sure what to make of these verses, but it seems quite clear that “a uniquely Latter-day Saint” reading of Abraham has to engage them. Perhaps all of this raises at least this major question: Why was Abraham so central to Joseph’s temple/marriage revelations in Nauvoo?

Setting these two intertexts side by side, it certainly appears that there are two very different ways to read this story: it might be read on the one hand as pointing to the wrong of an attempt to fulfill the promise (to be saved?) by works, or it might be read on the other hand as an example of Abraham’s strict obedience to the word (command) of grace.

An afterthought for fun

Any thoughts on how the master-slave dialectic might be read into Hagar’s work of mothering a child for Sarai?

Summary of Genesis 15

Adopting Jim's device, though certainly with less elegance and coherence, I'll attempt to summarize our discussion below.

1. Abram and the Lord converse in dialogue
1.1 Melchizedek's priestly mediation may be a necessary precursor to dialogic communication with the Lord
1.2 The metonymic locution "the word of the Lord" may suggest the introduction of a symbolic order structuring the covenant
1.3 The "cutting" of the newly symbolic covenant may enact a subject-splitting psychic exile.

2. This third (?) articulation of the covenant introduces metaphor.
2.1 The rhetorical logic of metaphor may match the covenantal logic of the interrupted patriline
2.2 The terms of the metaphor---star and dust---suggest a kind of synchronic infinity that may bear on Abram's promised "eternal increase"

3. The parameters (and perimeters) of the covenant are enlarged, specified, and delayed
3.1 Abram broaches doubt and faith in this dilatation of the covenant, and the Lord responds with a non-verbal display of divine power
3.2 The Lord may reaffirm and enlarge the covenant as Abram enlarges his concern for others

Monday, January 22, 2007

Reading Genesis 15

In my tardy (but considered) opinion, our first two research questions are most relevant to this week's material, to wit, and somewhat embellished:

1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship? In particular, is the faithful relationship between Lord and human mediated or immediate? How do questions of faith, doubt and knowledge structure the terms of the relationship?
2. What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology? In particular, are the rhetorical forms of dialogue and metaphor relevant to the particular operations of theology?

I invite your comments on these questions, as well as a number of others I have suggested in my reading notes below; as always, your own particular interests and insights are requested. Below find my inexhaustive reflections on the text.

Genesis 15
In Genesis 14, Melchizedek’s appearance introduces a priestly mediator between Abram and God Most High; in Genesis 15, however, Abram resumes direct communication with the Lord, immediate and unmediated by priest or person. Indeed, Abram’s encounter with the Lord in this chapter appears, for the first time, to be genuinely dialogic: Abram and YHWH converse in an exchange of questions and answers, requests and responses.

The temporal nature of the encounter is difficult to interpret: the Lord first comes to Abram in a vision, but it’s not clear to me whether the vision comprises the rest of the chapter; if it does, then Abram experiences an unusual sleep-within-a-dream. In any case, the conversation, whether occurring in real-time or dream-time, is narrated so as to underscore its passage through time and space. YHWH takes Abram across two crucial symbolic thresholds: the limen of his tent, in verse 5, and the setting of the sun, in verse 17. Whereas the Lord’s first utterance of the covenant in 12:1 occurs in some anarchic beginning outside of history, as Jim as suggested, the reiteration of the covenant in Genesis 15 can be understood to take place in a very different temporal mode, a here-and-now history that moves in human increments of time and space. (Alternately, I suppose, the liminal location of the encounter could be read as conferring a special ontological status of some sort on the conversation. Readers’ wild speculation considered opinions solicited.)

The Lord’s utterance in Genesis 15 differs rhetorically from his first pronouncement in Genesis 12, as well, most notably in the introduction of metaphor. In Genesis 13:16 the Lord says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” A cognate simile (a species of metaphor) is introduced in in 15:5 to the same effect: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars---if indeed you can count them. … So shall your offspring be.” Dust and star as metonym for earth and heaven; earth and heaven as metaphor for Abram’s family.

Roman Jakobson, of course, has written famously on metaphor and metonymy; I know Ricouer and Derrida have also written on metaphor, though I don’t know what they’ve said; I also am absolutely ignorant of Hebrew rhetoric. If there is anything to be gathered from the appearance of metaphor in the covenant, perhaps one might begin with the trope’s logic of substitution and interruption: dust and star work as conceptual substitutes for offspring, bringing their superabundance---indeed, their unknowable superabundance---to bear on the idea of Abram’s seed. But the substitution of metaphor is accomplished by interruption, rather than by the contiguity of metonymy: star and dust are not continuous, conceptually, with offspring. Interruption, substitution---this is the vocabulary we’ve been using to talk about the Lord’s disruption of the patrilineal logic. Is there a connection? (Readers’ wild speculation considered opinions solicited, if the question is interesting.)

This chapter seems to introduce the problems of faith, doubt and knowledge---problems that will reappear surrounding the conception and birth of Isaac. Verse 6 tells us that “Abram believed the Lord, and he [the Lord]? credited it to him [Abram?] as righteousness.” Several verses later, however, Abram seeks a surer knowledge, asking in verse 8, “How can I know that I will gain possession of” the land? In response, the Lord directs Abram to bring him various animals, and upon Abram’s compliance the Lord puts on a miraculous show of supernatural power, assuring Abram that he can “know for certain” that his descendants will ultimately inherit the land. This is clearly a foreshadowing of the episode with Isaac later, but I have no idea what to make of the specifics. I’m certain there’s symbolic meaning to Abram’s various offerings and to the way they are prepared, described in verses 9 and 10, but I’m ignorant. (Knowledgeable readers’ insights solicited.)

Finally, something might be said about the highly atmospheric recounting of Abram’s extraordinary night vision in verse 12-21. Abram’s “deep sleep” and the “thick and dreadful darkness” that falls upon him bring to mind both Adam’s deep sleep at the creation of Eve and the darkness that blankets the formless earth at Genesis 1:1; from both darknesses YHWH brings forth light. (I don’t know the original Hebrew, so I don’t know whether these parallels are supported by the lexis.) Abram knows he has encountered the creator God: in verse 2 he addresses YHWH as “Sovereign,” the term (I think) introduced by Melchizedek at 14:19 that encompasses maker, creator, possessor, and engenderer. (Please correct me if I’m wrong here, Jim.)

It is this context of creation that YHWH gives Abram the extraordinary prophecy of the future of the great nation that will bear his name. This is the first appearance of the word “covenant”, I think, though it is by now the third or fourth iteration of the themes of inheritance and offspring. Here the Lord promises the land not to Abram himself, but to his descendants: the gift is deferred, but also defined. Abram’s descendants will displace---substitute, interrupt---the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 13:14 and 13:17 the Lord invites Abram to claim the borders of his land by seeing and walking its perimeter, an incremental and continuous act of possession. In Genesis 15, however, YHWH installs Abram’s offspring in the land---discursively, at least---in a radically discontinuous, substitutionary fashion. Metonymy and metaphor are coming to mind here, again. Is there anything to be learned from from these differences? (Readers’ considered opinions wild speculations solicited.)

Summary of Genesis 13-14 Discussion

1. Abram is first to leave Egypt for Canaan, a type

1.1. Being in the Promised Land requires continued work: the Promised Land is not the Garden of Eden; the idol/ fantasy is not the reality.

1.1.1.The Promised Land seems unable to support all who enter it—what does that mean?

2. Abram is the first peacemaker.

2.1. Making piece is a familial work as well as a work in the world.

2.2. Melchizedek, without lineage, is central to this work

2.2.1. It is relevant that t his is the first major departure from the KJV in the JST.

3. Abram is at the margins of the social world.

3.1 The Saints, as the anti-type of Abram, must expect also to be at the margins.

4. Because Abram has a family, he cannot avoid politics, a politics that culminates in uncalled for generosity which is, presumably, a reflection of 2, above.

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?


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).


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.

Discussion Summary: Genesis 11-12

Discussion Question

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

Discussion Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Mormon Theology Seminar

This experimental seminar in Mormon theology is a product of the fact that I am now officially middle-aged.

I turned thirty this last year, completed my doctoral work in philosophy, started a job teaching philosophy, and welcomed our third child. Amid the pleasant chaos, my thoughts turned to the question of what on earth I ought to do with my professional life (at least the part of that professional life that is interested in Mormon theology). A few weeks before my birthday, while reading a book about the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, I had an epiphany.

I was reading about Lacan's way of grouping psychoanalysts into temporary and tightly focused study groups of 5-6 people (cartels or seminars) organized around answering a particular question (theoretical or practical) and aimed at producing a consensus report that could then be distributed to the larger body of psychoanalysts as a basis for further discussion and innovations in practice.

No stranger to megalomania, the possibility of doing something similar with Mormon theology struck me like a bolt of lightning.

Here's what I saw.

I saw dozens (and hundreds) of these seminar groups, loosely organized around an extra-instutional hub, convening for sixth months at a time and reporting over the course of the next fifty or a hundred years about the practice and foundations of Mormon theology.

I saw the accumulation of insight and the cross-fertilization of discourses and disciplines in the production of consensus reports about relatively narrow and (at least provisionally) answerable questions.

I saw books and whole series of books published containing these reports and the individual contributions that they spawn.

I saw online groups and summer theology seminars with senior scholars.

I saw an immense archive of disciplined theological discussion, organized and searchable according to topic and discipline, that could form the foundation for the emergence of Mormon theology as a unique discourse with its own proper methods and unique subject matter.

I saw Mormon theology, rounding its two-hundredth birthday, growing-up. Lacan on the brain, I penciled the name: the Mormon Theology Seminar.

The seminar's motto could be summarized in the following way: Mormon theology as common, progressive, and cumulative.

'Common' meaning that we're looking to overcome the isolation and idiosyncrasy of Mormon theology by finding a way to engage in the work as a shared project that produces some consensus. 'Progressive' meaning that we're looking to ask relatively narrow questions that are at least provisionally answerable/decidable so that some kind of general progress can be made in the field. And 'Cumulative' meaning that we're looking for a way to preserve and build on the answers and solutions already proposed (both within a given reading group/seminar on a weekly basis and, over time, between seminars).

Now such a thing (at least on a large scale) may well be impossible - and it may certainly even turn out to be undesirable - but the aim of this experiment is to find out.

When Jim Faulconer suggested to me the possibility of collecting a number of essays devoted to relatively sophisticated Mormon readings of Abraham, I counter-suggested that the project he had in mind might serve very nicely as a kind of trial balloon for the idea sketched above. We settled on a broad topic, came up with a list of potential participants, and here we are.

Now we'll see what happens next.

Sketching a (Provisional) Methodology

Jim Faulconer and I discussed the various ways in which we might conduct this experimental e-seminar (list-servs, discussion boards, blogs) and settled on the idea of using a blog (remarkably like this one) that would be publicly readable but not open to public comment. We hope that this will allow us to do several things simultaneously: (1) generate some interest and buzz for what we're doing and the way that we're doing it (feel free to contact me by email if, as an outside reader, you'd like to express any interest or ask any questions), (2) preserve a public record of our work, and (3) avoid having our relatively narrow and tightly focused discussion sidetracked by well-meaning third parties.

The first step, then, was to select a topic and come up with a short list of key texts. We chose 'Reading Abraham' as our topic and selected Genesis 11-25, Abraham 1-5, Soren Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling, and Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death as our texts. We plan to read each in their entirety and hope to do so with unusual care.

The second step was to formulate a couple of key, general questions to guide the weekly discussions and structure the common report we plan to compose at the conclusion of the seminar. The four general questions (also visible in the sidebar) are:

(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?

(4) Finally, in light of the above, what is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?

The third step was to develop a way to structure and orient the weekly discussions. We began by dividing the proposed reading material into weekly segments over six+ months (the reading schedule is also visible in the sidebar).

Each week a different member of the seminar is assigned to lead the week's discussion. That week's discussion leader is responsible for formulating a particular, narrow question that directly concerns the week's reading.

The discussion leader then composes an initial post that opens the discussion by: (1) sharing their specific question about the reading, (2) offering a brief explanation of how they think answering this question may contribute to answering one of the more general questions that interests us, and (3) sketching any additional sub-questions about particular verses they feel might be helpful for opening up the discussion. The week's discussion is then carried out in the comments section of this initial post.

At the week's close, the discussion leader formulates an additional post that briefly summarizes the group's answers that developed over the course of the week (noting points of consensus and, possibly, dissenting opinions) and tries especially to explicitly apply the week's findings to answering one or more of our four general questions.

This methodology is, of course, entirely provisional and may require some adaptation on the fly. I worry, in particular, that this format might be too restrictive - but (at least for now) I worry more that we might not get anywhere without some relatively strict discipline. Again, we'll see what happens and suggestions are always welcome.