Category Archives: the Bible

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.

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.”

 

Come Away

And then, in Genesis 12, God takes a personal interest in one man. He calls on “a wandering Aramean” known as Avram: 1-Slide18

God says, Lech Lecha” meaning, “Go-you-forth” (from your land, from your people, from your father), … “and I will give-you-blessing and will make your name great!” God renames Abram Abraham.

Abraham, his wife Sarai, nephew Lot, and his entourage settled in the land of Canaan. God repeats his promise to Abraham, who builds altars to God at Shechem and Bethel.

A great famine set in–perhaps linked to the environmental/social cataclysm that shook the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE–and Abraham and Sarai went to Egypt (where Abraham presented his wife as his sister, for reasons that scholars are still debating). When he learns this, the Pharoah sends them away, with gifts, back to Canaan.

 

The Nature of the Bible

The Bible influences anyone who grows up in or lives in a Western culture. Believers or not, we all hear the stories and see the art. The Bible is part of how we make meaning, especially in terms of purpose and trust. And, I would add, shame.

This is a scrap from the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which we stored in jars in a cave for centuries. It’s a passage from Genesis. The Bible is a collection of stories gathered from these and other scrolls and organized according to temporal and cultural needs.

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The Hebrew Bible basically follows the history of the people Israel. Its Hebrew name is TNK, or Tanak, an acronym for its three parts: Torah (teaching), Nevi’m (prophets) and Ketuvi’m (writings).  Some of the stories are very old, dating back to 1200 BCE and before but the TNK was probably compiled during Babylonian Exile and the Second Temple period. (Using the terms BCE–before the common era–and CE–common era–is a way of accommodating the Christocentric dating system of BC and AD without offending other religions.)

Before we go any further, I should clarify that I am not reading the Bible as though it is Absolute Truth but rather as history, sociology, creativity.