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.