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Friday Bible Blogging - Genesis 11 to Genesis 20

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleToday's entry contains several familiar stories from the Bible, such as the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and God's covenant with Abraham.


Genesis, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 started with the Tower of Babel story. This is another of the odd stories from the beginning of Genesis. First, it starts off by describing all the people of the time as having a single language, when the previous chapter described people having different languages. Then, it described them building a tower that could reach the heavens. Like the first creation story, this seems in line with a view where the world was flat and covered by an actual dome. Verse 5 describes God coming down to see the city. This is in line with a physical god who actually travels from place to place. It's also counter to most Christians current belief in an omniscient god - why would he have to come down to get a closer look if he was already all knowing? And then, in verse 7, there's language indicating that the Lord is one of multiple gods, "Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." And like many of the chapters I've read so far, this has the feel of a just-so story, explaining why there are so many languages in the world.

Most of the rest of the chapter was genealogy. The last few verses introduce Abram and Sarai and a few of their relations.


Genesis, Chapter 12

This is where the story of Abram/Abraham really gets started, where God calls Abram to leave his home country and promises to "make of you a great nation".

When Abram arrived at the land of Canaan, God promised "To your offspring I will give this land." This seemed a little odd, since the Canaanites were already living there. I guess this is just part of the Canaanites' punishment for what Canaan did all those years ago in Chapter 9.

But Abram hasn't been given Canaan, yet. That's a promise for the future. In this chapter, due to a famine, Abram took his family to Egypt. Upon his arrival, out of fear that the Egyptians would kill him to steal his wife, Sarai posed as his sister. The Egyptian pharaoh, impressed by her beauty, took her for a wife. So, after being lied to about her availability, the pharaoh and his house were punished by God with plagues for taking Abram's wife. This seems rather harsh - punishing someone for something he didn't even know he was doing wrong, and then punishing others close to him for a 'sin' they had nothing to do with.

I'll mention here that when I read the notes in the back of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, I learned of an interesting if somewhat questionable interpretation of this story and of Sarah's barrenness. As put forth by Savina J. Teubal in her book, Sarah The Priestess, these are vestiges of a prior tradition. Sarah was a priestess in a matriarchal tradition. She was childless not because of infertility, but because priestesses were barred from having children. Further, her marriages with the kings they visited with were a type of hieros gamos, or sacred marriage. According to Teubal, these stories were modified as authority was transferred to a patriarchal tradition. You can read more about that theory, along with other interpretations, at My Jewish Learning - Sarah in the Bible.


Genesis, Chapter 13

After leaving Egypt, Lot and Abram went their separate ways. Their flocks and possessions were just so great that "the land could not support both of them living together". Abram stuck to Canaan, while Lot went to the plain of Jordan and settled near Sodom.

I was struck by one verse in this chapter, in how it relates to those people who argue that the creation story of Genesis was dumbed down because primitive people wouldn't have been able to understand the true history of the universe. One of the parts of this argument as I commonly hear it is that primitive people wouldn't have been able to comprehend how ancient the universe is. But just consider verse 16 from this chapter, "I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted." If Yahweh could have used a metaphor like that here, why not in describing how old the universe is?


Genesis, Chapter 14

This chapter began with a description of fighting between different kings, leading to Lot being taken prisoner. Once Abram learned of his nephew's predicament, he took 318 of "his trained men, born in his house" to rescue him. The rescue was successful, and they even returned the King of Sodom's possessions to him. This supposedly wicked king then graciously offered for Abram to keep all of the goods and just return the people, but Abram refused "so that you might not say, 'I have made Abram rich.' "


Genesis, Chapter 15

In this chapter, God promised to Abram that his descendants (and not his slave) will inherit the promised land, but not after spending 400 years "in a land that is not theirs". This chapter also had a bit of animal sacrifice, cutting in half a 3 year old heifer, a 3 year old goat, and a 3 year old ram, and also sacrificing a turtle dove and a pigeon. I know I'll get to read much more about animal sacrifice in Leviticus, but these parts just make no sense from most modern Christian perspectives. Of what possible use could animal sacrifice be to an omnipotent, omniscient god? And why would animals be forced to suffer? To me, these parts just make it more clear that the stories come from more primitive sources.


Genesis, Chapter 16

When Sarai couldn't have children, she convinced Abram to take her slave-girl, Hagar, and conceive a child with her. But once Hagar was pregnant, she got a little haughty with Sarai, so Sarai chased her off. In the wilderness, an angle came up to Hagar, told her to return to and submit to Sarai, and prophesized that her son, whom she shall call Ishmael, will have a bit of a rough time, but also that she would have plenty of descendants. Actually, the wording here was, "The angel of the Lord also said to her, 'I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.'" I found that a bit interesting, because it was the angel promising to multiply her offspring, not God himself.

And what does this chapter have to say about traditional marriage? That it's okay to marry more than one woman if the first one can't give you children?


Genesis, Chapter 17

This is where God made the big covenant with Abram and renamed him Abraham (Abram translates as exalted ancestor while Abraham means ancestor of a multitude). God promised that Abraham would be a father of nations and kings, gave Abraham and his offspring the land of Canaan, and demanded that "Every male among you shall be circumcised." God also renamed Sarai as Sarah, and promised that she would have a son who shall be named Isaac. Further, even though God would ensure that Ishmael would be blessed and made a great nation, it was Isaac with whom God was establishing this covenant.

In the discussion of circumcision, the bible made mention of "all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner". I know I've heard of people saying that slaves in the Bible were really servants, but this discussion of buying them as property puts to rest that claim.


Genesis, Chapter 18

At the start of this chapter, God and a couple of his friends (angels, maybe? or maybe other gods from an earlier version of the myth?) came to visit Abraham. This is another of those locations where God was presented in a very physical manner. Not only did Abraham talk of them washing their feet, but he had Sarah and his servants prepare a meal for them, "and he stood by them under the tree while they ate."

Then God promised that Sarah would have a son. Sarah, being an old woman past menopause, was a bit incredulous, but God called her out and insisted that she would have a son.

From there, the chapter moved on to the start of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. There were a few strange aspects of that. First was God discussing with himself whether or not to tell Abraham of what he was about to do. It almost reads like this was originally a conversation between the three gods, but has been massaged to make only the Lord speaking. But when he told Abraham of what he was planning to do, he said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know." This certainly doesn't sound like the omniscient God that most Christians believe in. He only heard of what was happening in the cities due to the outcry, and he was going to investigate in person to see if it was really true.

Next comes the somewhat famous exchange where Abraham tries to defend Sodom. He began by saying, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?", to which the Lord replied that he would forgive the city for the sake of fifty. Abraham continued going by lower and lower increments, until he got God to agree not to destroy the city for the sake of ten righteous. This story had the sense of Abraham being clever, getting a god to change its plans (almost like a trickster character). And that shows a god that wasn't sure of himself, since he was able to be persuaded.


Genesis, Chapter 19

When the two angels arrived in Sodom, they were met by Lot, and upon his urging, went to spend the night in his house. Next comes the infamous scene, where "the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man" came to Lot's house and demanded to have the two angels so that they could 'know' them. And what was Lot's heroic response? "Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please..." But since Lot was a foreigner, his interference angered the Sodomites, and things were about to get really ugly when the angels dragged Lot back into the house and afflicted the Sodomites with blindness so that they couldn't find their way in. The angels then told Lot what they were going to destroy Sodom, and for him to get any relatives out the city. This included his sons-in-law who were engaged to his daughters (one wonders if they were a part of the angry mob outside his house), but the sons-in-law didn't believe him.

At daybreak, the angels took Lot, his wife, and his daughters out of the city. The angels told them to flee the plain entirely, but Lot convinced the angels to let them instead escape to the city of Zoar. The angels had also given a warning not to look back. Unfortunately, Lot's wife did look back as the Lord was raining "sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven" onto the plain, at which point she promptly turned into a pillar of salt. It's possible this is a just-so story to explain the creation of Mount Sodom, which is made up almost entirely of rock salt. Otherwise, it's an odd punishment.

After this destruction, Lot settled with his daughters in a cave in the hills. They must have been out in the middle of nowhere, because there were no men for the daughters to marry. So instead, they got Lot drunk and slept with him to become pregnant (each on a different night, because apparently a father daughter threesome would have just been too weird). Their sons were named Moab, "ancestor of the Moabites to this day", and Ben-ammi, "ancestor of the Ammonites to this day".


Genesis, Chapter 20

Chapter 20 gets back to Abraham. In Gerar, Abraham and Sarah pulled the sister stunt again, and King Abimelech of Gerar took Sarah as his wife. This time, at least, God used his power to prevent the king from touching Sarah and sinning, and warned him in a dream of the dangers. So Abimelech gave Sarah back to Abraham, and when confronted, Abraham defended himself in part by saying that it wasn't a complete lie because Sarah was his step sister. To make amends for his unwitting sin, Amibelech gave "sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves" to Abraham along with 1000 pieces of silver and permission to settle anywhere on his land. And then, in the final two verses, it came out that "the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham's wife", so Abram prayed for Abimelech, his wife, and female slaves to be healed, which God did. Just like in Chapter 12, this seems a harsh punishment for somebody who had no idea that they were doing wrong.

---

The thing that struck me most reading these chapters was that Yahweh looks to be a very provincial god. From a modern Christian perspective, God is supposedly the creator of the heavens and earth, of all the stars and planets in our galaxy, and the countless other galaxies in the universe, and maybe even entire other universes. Yet here he is in these chapters, walking around to different cities to see for himself with his own eyes how their citizens are behaving. And the whole concept of picking one man to make a covenant with, and then following him around just seems so small. I mean, he's taken this interest in Abraham and his descendents, but seems to show almost no interest in the other peoples. Heck, he basically just ignores the Canaanites when he promises their land to Abraham. But if I try to imagine what the myth might have been like long ago, it would make more sense if Yahweh was one of many gods, and that this particular god chose one person to make an allegiance with. Because in that scenario, there would have been other gods concerned with other peoples. It wouldn't have been the creator of the universe focusing on one guy while ignoring everybody else.


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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