Monthly Archives: June 2017

Okay: Last Patriarch

Some time later, en route to see his estranged brother Esau (“in hope of gaining your favor”) but alarmed that Esau has amassed a small army, Jacob sends his people and animals, laden with gifts, ahead of him and returns, alone, to the side of the river he has sent them across. That night, “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Gen 32:25) The man, understood to be an angel (perhaps the angel of Esau?) does not defeat Jacob, although he renders Jacob lame.

This painting of their encounter is by the great 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt. The angel’s expression seems to express both compassion and pity for Jacob. 1-Rembrandt_-_Jacob_Wrestling_with_the_Angel_-_Google_Art_Project

Before the angel prepares to leave, at daybreak, Jacob insists on a blessing. “You are no longer Jacob,” the angel tells him, but “Israel”–one who has struggled with God. Recall that El, Elohim, is one of the names of God. Jacob’s descendants are know as the people Israel–the God-strugglers.

Jacob has 12 sons and a daughter, Dina. Dina occasions another strange circumcision story. She sleeps with a local man, Shechem. Her brothers understand it as rape and when Shechem’s father asks for Dina’s hand in marriage, they agree on the condition that all the males of Shechem’s family be circumcised. While they are still in pain, Dina’s brothers slaughter Shechem and his men, transforming the symbol of covenant with God into a prelude to revenge.  These are the same brothers who later conspire to kill their baby brother Joseph but instead sell him to the Ishmaelites who take him to Egypt.

Joseph finds favor with the Pharoah, brings his father Jacob and his whole family to safety in Egypt. In one of Jacob’s last acts, he mistakenly blesses the younger of Joseph’s two sons, despite Joseph’s effort to set things right. On his deathbed, Joseph instructs his brothers to carry his bones to the new land. (Although he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

The rest of the story follows the fate of the a particular people, the Hebrews, the people Israel (not yet the Jews), as they seek to fulfill God’s promise to the ancestors–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–in a new land.

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Here I Am

So God has promised Abraham and Sarai a multitude of descendants–and unlikely as that sounds for a couple in their 90s, Sarai does conceive, and bears a son she names Isaac, for “he laughs.” Once again, she has Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, and they leave, to live henceforth in the wilderness.

Then God calls on Abraham, and Abraham answers “here I am.” In Hebrew, Hineni (dots are vowels).

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And God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, seed of his descendants, as a burnt offering. And Abraham prepares to slaughter Isaac.

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At the last minute an angel stays Abraham’s hand (photo is of Donatello’s sculpture) and provides a lamb.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kiergaard wrote Fear and Trembling to grapple with this behavior in the face of this command. The title, “fear and trembling,” comes from Psalm 55.5. The speaker is beset by enemies:

My heart is convulsed within me;
terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling invade me;
I am clothed with horror. 

Kierkegaard noted in a journal (IIIC4): “We ought to note in particular the trusting and God-devoted disposition, the bold confidence in confronting the test, in freely and undauntedly answering: Here I am. Is it like that with us.”

 

Call Me Ishmael

Back to the story of Abraham. By the time the family returned from Egypt, Abraham and Sarai were quite old–in their nineties, according to tradition. At this point, God and Abraham have a personal relationship. God speaks directly to him, offering advice and continuing to promise descendants numberless as the stars.

Sarai urges Abraham to impregnate her maidservant/slave Hagar. Abraham does, and Hagar bears a son, Ishmael. Despite Sarai’s recommendation, she is furious with Hagar and has have Abraham send Hagar and the baby away. This image, which suggests some ambivalence, is by the 17th century Italian painter Cristoforo Salvolini.

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Hagar and the baby are lost and on the point of death when an angel appears and sends them back to Abraham. The angel promises Ishmael too will have numberless descendants. Once the family is reunited, God makes two strange requests of Abraham. The first is that Abraham, and all the men in his household, including 13-year old Ishmael be circumcised as a symbol of their covenant–that is, a special, self-expending relationship–as shown here by the 17th century Flemish engraver Michael Vandergucht. 1-Slide19

God’s next request is yet more painful.