Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Summary: Genesis 19

A brief (and rough) summary of some key elements of last week’s (ongoing) discussion:

1. Abrahams’ exemplary hospitality is an essential element of his fidelity to God.

2. It is crucial to distinguish Abraham’s “true” hospitality from Lot’s “false” hospitality.

2.1. Genesis 18-19 exhibits three types of hospitality figured in the Sodomites, Lot, and Abraham.

2.1.1. The Sodomites’ actions manifest a lack of hospitality.

2.1.2. Lot’s actions manifest a misguided sense of hospitality.

2.1.3. Abraham’s actions manifest a perfect hospitality. Lot’s hospitality is misguided in that it remains mired in an excessive economy of demand, satisfaction, and retribution. Abraham’s hospitality is perfect in that it exceeds and breaks with the economic bind of demand and satisfaction for the sake of an unconditional fidelity. (We will see Abraham sacrifice to God the very satisfaction God promised Abraham: a son.)

3. That Lot’s daughters violate the incest ban can be read as a culmination of the social dissolution manifest in the utter destruction of “urban” society.

3.1. The chapter appears to offer a thorough-going critique of urban existence per se. What are the implications for politics? Must we be, in some sense, nomads like Abraham? But what, then, of the promised city of Zion?

4. What should be made of the significant JST changes to the chapter?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Genesis 19

I. Discussion Question

If Abraham’s unconditional hospitality is the very mark of his fidelity to God (to the point that he is willing to personally sacrifice [murder?] his own son when called upon), then what would allow us to distinguish Lot’s own excessive hospitality in Genesis 19 (manifest especially in his willingness to sacrifice the virtue of his own daughters for the sake of the two strangers) from Abraham’s? Or should they not be distinguished?

Are their actions similarly or dissimilarly beyond “ethics”?

II. Some General Notes & Comments

vs. 1-2 “And the two messengers came into Sodom at evening, when Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. And Lot saw, and he rose to greet them and bowed, with his face to the ground. And he said, “O please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night . . .”

The structural parallels between 19.1-3 Abraham’s hospitality in 18.1-8 are potentially important. Alter points out that “the whole episode is framed in an elegant series of parallels and antitheses to Abraham’s hospitality scene.” Like Abraham, Lot is waiting outside and meets the visitors at an entrance – though here it is an entrance to a city rather than an entrance to a tent. Is this difference important? The shift from the nomadic to the urban does seems to contribute to a significant inflection in the narrative’s “feel.” For instance, the whole of the chapter manifests an antipathy to the urban: the cities are the site of wickedness/destruction and the angels will try desperately to convince Lot to leave the urban area altogether – though Lot will refuse to do so (see 19.17-22).

Does this antipathy to the urban tell us anything important about the kind of ethics or politics that the text would, perhaps in contrast, be willing to affirm? Is the connection between the urban and injustice essential or accidental? Must real politics be, in some sense, nomadic?

That Lot is sitting at the gate of the city may uncharitably be read as a result of his being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s evening and the public square associated with the city’s gate is not a place a respectable person would want to be found after dark. Though, on the other hand, we could read it more charitably as an indication of Lot’s participation in the public life of the city. Certainly, the fact that he is also so quick to offer hospitality to strangers suggests a more positive motive.

vs. 2-3 “And they said, ‘No. We will spend the night in the square.’ And he pressed them hard, and they turned aside to him and came into his house, and he prepared them a feast and baked flat bread.”

That Lot also insists on the extended hospitality even after its initial refusal, that he leads them back to his home (rather than having them show up on his own doorstep as Abraham did), and that he likewise prepares a feast, all indicate ways in which Lot’s hospitality appears to exceed Abraham’s own. However, where Abraham promises only “a little water and a little bread” and instead prepares a feast, Lot promises “a feast” and instead appears to prepare for his guests only the most common possible meal (baked flat bread). There is certainly a kind of irony at work here in this last juxtaposition. But is the irony sufficient to cancel out the “excess” of Lot’s hospitality over Abraham’s?

vs. 7-8 “Please, my brothers, do no harm. Look, I have two daughters who have known no man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you want. Only to these men do nothing, for have they not come under the shadow of my roof-beam?”

In one respect, at least, Lot’s hospitality to the strangers clearly exceeds anything Abraham is called upon to give: when the gathered crowd demands to have their way with Lot’s guests, Lot offers his own daughters in their place. The difficulties involved in this gesture may trump any of the ethical difficulties we examined in Genesis 18.

In one sense, the only proper reaction is to be utterly horrified at Lot’s willingness to deliver over his own daughters in place of the strangers. (And, in the end, it may be appropriately impossible to move beyond this horror). Nonetheless, Lot’s willingness to sacrifice the virtue of his own daughters for the sake of the other is also the mark of an extremely excessive hospitality. What could be more excessive? Perhaps only a willingness to allow his daughters to be murdered . . . or a willingness to murder them himself.

Lot’s excessive hospitality plays, I think, as a kind of foil for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice (murder?) his own son. Both incidents raise very uncomfortable questions. What are the limits of hospitality? At what point must the line be drawn? What would allow us to distinguish between Abraham’s future action as justified and Lot’s action as not justified? How could one tell the difference, in medias re? Should Lot have thrown the two strangers out and protected his own family instead? Is there a correct action in the face of such a situation?

Most simply: is Lot’s hospitality a counterfeit hospitality to be contrasted with Abraham’s unconditional commitment to the Lord (Other)? Or do their actions belong to the same category? Either way, how would we tell?

I’d like to bring my initial comments to a premature conclusion here and reserve some additional comments about the rest of the chapter for later in the week. For now, I wonder if we couldn’t focus our attention simply on this initial difficulty. I’d be grateful for any suggestions, readings, and/or counter-readings. The greater the diversity of opinion and perspective, the better the results are likely to be.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Genesis 18

Reading the Old Testament has a way of making my modern ears (eyes?) burn a little. In Chapter 18, I was struck again and again by the ethical ambiguity with which the Lord is portrayed, at least the ambiguity filtered through as the story passes through the lens of contemporary culture.

For instance, why does the Lord make particular mention of Sarah’s laughing when just a chapter earlier Abraham received no direct rebuke for his identical laughing? Relatedly, why is it that Sarah is not sitting with Abraham and the Lord rather than hiding behind the tent door, presumably preparing the meals that Abraham has commanded her to prepare? The Lord even refuses to speak directly with her at first, talking instead with Abraham and later only speaking with her through the tent door.

More vividly questioning the moral status of the Lord is his impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He apparently feels some type of shame in regard to the act, wondering whether He should tell Abraham about the plan (I admit that it is unclear, at least in the King James Version, exactly why it is that the Lord does not want to speak with Abraham about His destructive activities.)

More importantly, the fact that Abraham negotiates with the Lord seems to suggest both that the Lord was previously going to destroy the town regardless of at least some of the righteous persons within it and that the Abraham, not the Lord, is the chief agent responsible for the mercy shown in this situation. Why would the Lord destroy any innocent persons, presuming that He has the power to destroy the wicked without simultaneously destroying the innocent? Even granted the legitimacy of capital punishment (a grant many would be unwilling to make), the Lord’s apparent lack of concern for those not worthy of death seems morally inexcusable. Why must Abraham persuade the Lord to save their lives? That the Lord is willing to renege on His intended destruction of the righteous after Abraham’s pleading, often cited as an example of His mercy, seems to my lights less like mercy than the concessions of a sovereign somewhat, but not altogether, persuaded of the ethical problems posed by his actions.

And we have not even considered that the traditional “reason” given for God’s decision to destroy—at least the traditional reason accepted by the LDS edition of the scriptures (see Gen. 18:20 fn. b)—is something that, while we may even agree is morally offensive, we surely do not see as meriting the death penalty. It looks, then, like we have a misogynistic God preparing to kill at least some righteous individuals in order to punish their neighbors for deviant but in all probability non-lethal sexual practices.

All of the above I consider the reductio ad absurdum of this way of reading scripture. But I find myself at a loss as to how to read this chapter otherwise. (Here I call upon your help.) And because of this loss, I am unclear as to how the four questions suggested in our methodology can be answered through this chapter.

We do learn something about the nature of faith from Abraham’s example in this chapter. Abraham teaches us, at least implicitly, there is some kind of moral standard outside of God’s actions, a moral standard that humans have the ability to call upon when questioning God. He rhetorically asks: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” We also learn something as to how this questioning is to proceed: Abraham humbly but boldly calls upon the Lord, even offering rhetorical questions which serve to remind the Lord of His goodness. This episode also gives hints at the possibility and nature of theology: Abraham’s response to the Lord’s intentions seems like a kind of theological response in which Abraham informs the Lord (at least so it seems) that it would not be proper for him to kill the righteous with the wicked, a response which perhaps gives part of the impetus to the “perfect being” theology we usually associate with Greek influences or the scholasticism of Aquinas or Anselm. If Abraham can do theology, and can use that theology to call God to account, perhaps this front is not as bleak as we may otherwise suppose.

Regarding our third question, how our family relationships shape our relationship with God and the kind of theology we pursue, I don’t believe this chapter gives clear suggestions in this direction. Abraham’s relationship with God still seems much different from Sarah’s relationship with God, and there is not much suggestion that they have any kind of “joint” relationship to God. Moreover, Abraham’s theological questioning of God does not involve Abraham telling God that one of the righteous men in Sodom, Lot, is his kin. All that seems salient to the Lord is righteousness, and the salience of even that feature has already been called into question. If Abraham’s familial relationships play a particular role in his relationship with the Lord or in the covenant the Lord has made with him, that role does not seem to be clearly demonstrated here. Abram apparently deals with the Lord on his own, without his wife, and without his kinsman Lot.

This conclusion serves as yet another reason to find something deeply flawed and problematic about this way of reading the chapter: I want Abraham to be the paradigm example of the centrality of faith and family. What do we do if the text simply doesn’t describe him thus, at least according to our own standards and seemingly “common sense” notions?

Through the above, my question that I hope will guide discussion for the week has become clear: “What is the ethical status of the agents of the story of Abraham, in particular of the Lord, in Genesis 18?” This question is admittedly presumptuous: who are we, and more importantly who am I, to judge God? But I sincerely hope to follow Abraham’s example in righteously questioning God, looking for the God of love in places where something different seems to appear. I hope that these comments will be understood as I intend them, that is, as an example of one flawed way of reading the scriptures, a way that I think is commonly presupposed but generally not followed through to its logical extremes. As I said above and in my email, I’m not sure how else to read such a text. I know that others have ideas in these areas, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions. I appreciate your willingness to help me work through these difficult issues and these sometimes troubling passages.

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.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Discussion summary: Reading Hagar, Gen 16

I will confess, from the very beginning, that I have no idea how to summarize this discussion using Jim's (Wittgenstein's?) numerical systematization (primarily because the discussion has been overly complex this week). Better: I haven't the patience to systematize this discussion that way because it looks like it will take me another week to do so without grossly misrepresenting things. Let me take a unique approach in summarizing the discussion this week by (1) summarizing where this week's discussion stands for now, (2) trying at the same time to synthesize a lot of loose ends by going beyond this week's discussion, and (3) trying to think (originally, and perhaps well beyond this week's discussion at all) about how what we have done this week bears on the four questions that are guiding our study.

Gen 16 picks up on the theme of metaphor from previous discussions, but in a rather unique fashion: in an(other) attempt to fulfill the promises given to Abram, Sarai brings Hagar into the story as a metaphor for herself, and this complication of the story opens onto the possibility of reading this chapter in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic. This metaphoric surrogacy introduces (or perhaps confirms) the symbolic order for Sarai: because of the (now) symbolic structure of her selfhood, Sarai's very selfhood is "split," and the dialectic attempts to work out her self-consciousness (perhaps according to a metaphysics of presence that is highlighted again and again by the textual theme of "seeing").

This metaphoric origin (Ursprung?) of the dialectic--because it is tied to surrogate motherhood--may well equate the symbolic in this narrative with the patriarchal: the introduction of the metaphor (the symbolic) confirms (even as it obviously reorients) the "naive" patriarchy at work before its introduction. But it seems clear, in the wake of Abram's experiences with God in Gen 12 and Gen 15, that this introduction of the symbolic (parallel to the "word" of the Lord for Abram) aims at a kind of post-symbolic order, ultimately an ethical order. However, perhaps because Sarai remains within a dialectical metaphysics of presence, she does not yet experience the rupture of the symbolic by what Adam (via Lacan) calls the Real.

That Sarai does not enter the ethical realm of faith/hope/charity is highlighted by the fact that she oppresses Hagar when she sees her pregnant (this sight seems ultimately to be bound up with the nature of the slavery to which Sarai has set Hagar: surrogate motherhood). If Sarai fails to achieve the ethical, Hagar seems to come much closer with her theophany in the desert, though the heavy emphasis on seeing in this latter pericope may also suggest that she too remains within a metaphysics of presence, as might the fact that Hagar does not receive a covenant for Ishmael.

This last point, that covenant outstrips contract, seems to be one of the most promising themes, especially if it is interpreted with an eye to the three stages of the symbolic discussed (apparently) by both Lacan and Derrida: the pre-symbolic (the tautological, the naively self-identical), the symbolic (the historical, the dialectical, the economical, the "temporal"), and the post-symbolic (the ethical, the evental, the "end of history," the "spiritual" or even "typological"). If contract and covenant are thought along these lines, one might read the three stages thus: the state of nature, the contractual, the covenantal. Apparently, Gen 16 finds Sarai (at least) still within the realm of the contractual. Does it find Abram at the same stage (what is the significance of Abram's hearkening to his wife, hearing rather than seeing, and especially after the covenant discourse of Gen 15; but then see #4 below)?

Finally, a couple of thoughts about how these still open questions might be brought to bear on the four questions that guide our collective study.

1. The covenant increasingly appears to be absolutely key to the faithful relationship embodied in the figure of Abraham. In the course of this week's discussion, that covenant has taken on a clearer meaning. It might be said that the word "faithful" (along with "hopeful" and "charitable") only makes sense on the level of the covenantal (the post-symbolic level). Faith implies covenant, and that seems at the very least to mean that faith implies an orientation to the Real that disrupts the symbolic order.

2. It is not clear how we ought to think about theology after this week's discussion. Looking back, it probably would have been better if we had taken this question up at some point along the way in an explicit fashion (though perhaps it has only become interesting with the comments made over the past twenty-four hours). But at least this: it is clear that theology can only happen once the symbolic order has been introduced (it must be a response to the word, whether it does so consciously or not). Might it be said that an idolatrous theology is one that remains within the symbolic order of the contract, while an iconic theology is one that surpasses the symbolic order by speaking from the post-symbolic site of the covenant? Might it be that a righteous theology is possible precisely in its (re-)orientation to the Real that disrupts the symbolic?

3. At least one family relationship discussed in Gen 16 bears on our third question, though it is not quite clear how the relationship itself should be read into the possibility of theology. The course of the discussion seems, at least on one level, to suggest that the im/possibility of theology is a question that outstrips the family relationship, while these relationships will bear powerfully on questions of theological method. In this end, this question seems to be the one we have least engaged.

4. Our fourth question perhaps cannot be answered productively until we have taken a look at more of the Abraham narrative, but the importance of D&C 132 to Gen 16 is at least suggestive of what is coming. The metaphoric surrogacy that binds Sarai and Hagar together at the level of the symbolic was, according to D&C 132, commanded of God. This might suggest that the metaphoric/symbolic substitution performed in Gen 16 is parallel to the "word" that comes to Abram in Gen 15. A similar hand-of-the-Lord-in-everything-Abrahamic permeates the Book of Abraham: perhaps specifically LDS scripture emphasizes the fact that the symbolic order is imposed by God in an attempt to point the way to the post-symbolic? This might be confirmed by the pairings of ordinances in the temple (first and second endowments; first and second sealings; call and election and then call and election made sure, etc.). That what is to be doubled for the Latter-day Saint is an ordinance may suggest that while there are other ways to perform an iconic theology, a uniquely LDS iconic theology would involve drama, ritual, physical enactment, covenant, priesthood, etc., all under the aegis of the temple.