Monday, August 31, 2009

The End of the Beginning (Genesis 14 - 50):

Over the last month, I've gotten through Genesis which, while a bit of a feat, isn't nearly as far as I'd like to go. I've also read three other books, though, so it's not like I've been completely falling off the wagon. Anyway, on to my thoughts on the Genesis:
  • So in Chapter 16, we get the situation where Sarah, unable to bear Abraham (still called Abram at this point) an heir, has him sleep with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, who bears him Ishmael. Hagar conceives, gets haughty, and begins treating Sarah with contempt. No domestic tranquility comes from this surrogate mother situation.
  • Sodom & Gomorrah - a lot of craziness in these sections of the Bible (Genesis 18 & 19). First, Angels show up to Abraham to tell him they're going to destroy the evil towns, but Abraham puts forward a good argument in favor of saving the town if there are virtuous people in it. If God can find 10 virtuous people living there, he'll save the towns.
  • The angels then show up at Lot's house and the Sodomite townspeople begin banging on the door, wanting to gang rape them. Instead, Lot offers his two daughters (virgins, but they're engaged ... and given what transpires after they escape, I'm wagering they haven't been saving themselves).
  • During the escape from Sodom, we're shown once again what a useless putz Lot really is. No one listens to him. He goes to his prospective sons-in-law, telling them to leave the city, and they ignore him. Angels are telling him that the town is being destroyed, and he dallies so long that they finally have to drag him, his daughters, and his wife out of the town. A man of action he is not.
  • Once out of town, and his wife having turned to salt (because she looked back at the destruction when told not to), Lot hides in caves with his two daughters ... and we receive an abject lesson in why alcohol is bad. (Worse, even, than Noah passing out naked.) Noah's two daughters proceed to get him drunk, then have sex with him and conceive children ... who will, incidentally, go on to be ancestors to the Moabites and Ammonites, other tribes of the region. It would be like if someone from Indiana told a story of how Kentuckians were all inbred ... oh, wait, they do tell those stories.
  • In Chapter 20, once again, Abraham is traveling around and tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister. I understood it back in Chapter 12, but for it to happen again is a bit odd. If this chapter is placed chronologically, Sarah is very old - she's already given up on having children, and was quite old at that point, apparently. Again, though, she's snagged by a nearby ruler - King Abimelech of Gerar. Now, while I've seen some attractive older women in my time, I can't imagine a king snatching up elder matrons right and left. Still, according to Abraham, their standard operating procedure is apparently to pose as brother/sister when traveling, because Abraham is continually worried that someone will kill him for Sarah if they knew they were married. I suppose it's much better to just let various rulers yank her into the royal harem for a few days. (In fairness, it never actually says, or implies, that either Pharoah in Ch 12 nor Abimelech in Ch 20 did anything inappropriate with Sarah ... but if this is a society where Abraham has a serious concern of being killed for his wife, I can't imagine that she's particularly safe herself.)
  • Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac in Chapter 22. He doesn't do it, of course, but ... man. I think if God commanded me to sacrifice my son, I'd have to begin turning to pagan gods. Sorry, but that's just how I see things.
  • Isaac marries Rebekah, and they have the sons Jacob & Esau. Jacob is cunning and Esau is a bit of a dolt. Jacob convinces Esau to sell his birthright to him for some stew, and then tricks Isaac into giving his dying blessing to him instead of the older Esau.
  • In Chapter 25, Isaac goes to Gerar and this time, too, goes through this brother/sister ruse. Again, King Abimelech of Gerar (possibly the son of the former or the same guy - it's unclear, although if Abimelech is still king when Isaac comes by, then he was likely a fairly young man when he decided to yank the older Sarah into his household. Maybe he had a thing for cougars.) Abimelech finds out the truth and chastizes Isaac, indicating that someone could have laid with Rebekah thinking she was single and "brought guilt upon us." Overall, this brother/sister plan seems to have played itself out and I think this is the last time we see it in the Bible.
  • Jacob has some serious relationship troubles ... talk about Big Love. When he asks permission to marry Rachel, her father, Laban, convinces him to stay and work for him for 7 years. He then sends Leah in to the marital tent at night, and Jacob does his husbandly duty ... only to realize the next morning that he married the wrong sister. When he confronts Laban, he is lamely told that the firstborn (Leah) had to get married off first. (That would have been nice to know when they entered this arrangement 7 years earlier - he would have had 7 years to have found a guy for Leah, and Shakespeare might have set Taming of the Shrew in the Biblical era.) Since Jacob wants to marry Rachel, he agrees to 7 more years of servitude. After a week with Leah, he marries Rachel as well.
  • Rachel is loved, but barren. Leah is unloved, but fertile. Very fertile, in fact. She in fact has 4 sons for Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, & Judah), which implies that she wasn't that "unloved" by Jacob and he clearly wasn't particularly put out by having been tricked into marrying her. Rachel, wanting children too, tells him to marry her maid, Bilhah, who bears two more sons (Dan & Naphtali). Not to be outdone, Leah has him marry her maid, Zilpah, who bore Gad & Asher.
  • Rachel wants some of Reuben's mandrakes, so she strikes a deal with Leah that she can sleep with Jacob again in exchange for them. Leah cashes in her IOU and conceives Issachar. Then later (through means not particularly described) she has Zebulun. And finally, a daughter, Dinah. Again, Jacob doesn't seem particularly upset about being married to Leah.
  • Finally, God "opens Rachel's womb" and she conceives Joseph. She later has another son, Benjamin.
  • In Genesis 32, we get the famous "Jacob wrestles with an angel" passage ... and I've got to say that I'm distinctly underwhelmed. First of all, there's nothing overtly supernatural in the passage at all. Here is what it says "Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak." The man wants released at daybreak, but Jacob won't let him go until he gets a blessing. The man blesses him and gives him the name Israel. Jacob says, "Please tell me your name" and the man replies "Why is it that you ask my name?" So clearly the artistic renditions of this are way off, because he is described throughout the passage as a "man" and not an "angel." No wings or anything. In fact, it probably isn't even an angel, because Jacob says "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." So he didn't wrestle an angel, but according ot the passage wrestled God himself (to a standstill, apparently, although I think one can assume that God was probably holding back).
  • The rape of Dinah - this is just weird. It's described well by David Plotz in Good Book, because it's the passage that inspires his reading of the entire Old Testament. I have to agree with his analysis - tricking people into converting to your religion just so you can slay them when they're weak from circumcision seems a bit like a dirty trick. I normally don't defend rapists, but in this odd case the rapist appears to have fallen in love with Dinah, begged for her hand in marriage, and supplicated himself to convert to her family's religion ... and appears to have done so with sincerity.
  • Now we get to the story of Joseph (whose coat is not many colored, but "a long robe with sleeves," according to my translation). I know the story of his brothers selling him off to slavery, but what I didn't know is that they originally wanted to kill him, but Reuben talked them out of it. Instead, they dropped him in a pit in the wilderness. Reuben had the plan of coming back later to rescue him. Unfortunately, once the brothers trap him in the pit, they decide to sell him into slavery ... and do so before Reuben can rescue him.
  • Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he (after a convoluted series of events) becomes Pharoah's lead advisor, essentially in charge of the entire food supply for the nation. His brothers come during famine for help, and he sets up a situation to see if they've changed ... and they succeed. Ultimately, he forgives his brothers, but only after having seen that they have redeemed themselves by choosing right actions. A good message, and a great one on which to end Genesis.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My Good Book Experience - Genesis 1-13:

I finally started reading the Bible, planning to go from the beginning to the end, both Old and New Testaments. I've been wanting to do this for a while and became even more motivated through my recent readings, most notably Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible by David Plotz. Also, going to church on a regular basis with Amber, and having one child with another on the way, I've decided it's time to actually read this book and figure out what I think about what it has to say, as opposed to just whipping out some interesting tidbits here and there from my readings about the Bible.

So here I am, 13 chapters into Genesis. The version I'm using is The Green Bible, a version of the New Revised Standard Version that has verses related to God's law about how to deal with creation (i.e. eco-verses) in a green typeface. It also comes with a number of essays in the beginning by various religious thinkers about Creation Theology (i.e. eco-Christianity). (By complete coincidence - or possibly divine providence - The Green Bible and Good Book are being sold together for an additional 5% off as a "Best Value" deal on

Anyway, on to the reading ... which was not nearly so tedious as one might expect. It flows relatively easily so far. While the verses of lineages may not be particularly thrilling reading, the also go quickly. I read a section (I'm trying for about 5 pages or so a day), and Amber is reading the same sections. We will then discuss them prior to me posting a blog about it, so this is a mesh of our mutual insights and observations. Here are my comments and notes so far, based on the first 13 chapters of Genesis:

  1. There are two creation stories, which I already knew. In the first (Genesis 1), the creation of man and woman appears to take place at the same time. In the second (Genesis 2), the more elaborate story of Eve being created from Adam's rib is told.
  2. God references himself in plural form a couple of times - "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:24) and "the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 2:22). Polytheism or a foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity? (Or both?)
  3. Snakes used to have legs! God made them lose their legs because the serpent tempted mankind into eating the fruit (also, no indication it was necessarily an apple). Also, no indication that this was Satan or a demon or anything - just a regular snake.
  4. As always, I'm curious about God's behavior when looking for Adam and Eve. Is he pretending that he can't see them, like I play hide and seek with my son? Is he giving them the chance to confess? Or does he genuinely not realize that they've already eaten the fruit? I'm left with two alternatives - either God's not really omniscient, or God chooses to fake us out at times, making any statements of his a bit untrustworthy.
  5. Cain negotiates his punishment for killing his brother Abel. (Genesis 4:13-15) Initially, God punishes Cain with banishment and with a curse that he'll be unable to farm, making him a fugitive and wanderer, to which Cain replies, "My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today, you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me." to which God replies "Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance" and then God places a mark on Cain "so that no one who came upon him would kill him." This reads to me like Cain actually points out something which God hadn't initially thought of, and God quickly comes up with a way around the problem. David Plotz makes the point that God frequently seems to get talked out of rash action by a good argument. That's something I can certainly respect ... actually, I respect it a bit more than I respect the idea a perfect, infallible, supreme, all-knowing deity.
  6. I knew that Cain miraculously found a wife after being banished, but I didn't realize that there were details on his lineage (Genesis 4:17-24). Cain founds Enoch, a city named after his son, Enoch. Enoch had a son Irad, who had a son Mehujael, who had a son Methushael, who had a son Lamech, who had sons Jabal & Jubal. Another wife had Tubal-cain and his sister Naamah. Lamech, apparently, was a bit of a prick, with the odd proclamation ending the story of Cain's line: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold." Not great role models in the Cain family line, although apparently Lamech's kids are ancestors of "those who live in tents and have livestock," "those who play the lyre and pipe," and "made all kinds of bronze and iron tools."
  7. Adam's line through his third son, Seth, oddly, ends up with some similarities ... there's another Enoch, this time who has a son Methuselah, who then has a son Lamech. The similarities in names threw me, so I had to go back and make sure there was no way this family could have intermarried back into Cain's line ... which isn't possible, of course, since both lines are traced through fathers to sons. Of course, given the time period, it wasn't like there were a ton of names floating around.
  8. Right before the flood, we are introduced to the Nephilim, who "were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown." (Genesis 6:4) and are, from how I read this, the children of angels having mated with human women (Genesis 6:1-2,4). These angels are sometimes viewed as fallen angels, but there's no direct indictment of their behavior within the text itself. It seems to be just a statement of fact. The text abruptly switches to the wickedness of mankind ... but I wonder if the flood wasn't, in part, to get rid of all the Nephilim. Or was God mad at the women for letting the angels sleep with them?
  9. In the middle of the Nephilim passage, God declares that humans shall live only 120 years (Genesis 6:3) . Noah, as we will see in some chapters, appears to live 950 years, so has been grandfathered into the over 120 year club.
  10. The flood timeline is a bit confusing. There are 40 days, then 150 days, then 40 days again. Here is, I believe, the proper timeline: Flood starts on the 17th day of the second month of Noah's 600th year. Water rises from the earth and falls from the sky for 40 days, then stops, so we're at the start of the fourth month. The waters swelled for 150 days in all, putting it in the middle of the seventh month, when the ark lands on the mountains of Ararat. The mountains are apparently still underwater, though (the bottom of the ark is hung up on them, apparently) until the tenth month, at which time the top of the mountains become exposed. After forty days (early in the eleventh month - although I'm not sure if they had eleven months when this was written, so we might be in the first month of the next year) he lets out a raven, who flies around as the water dries up on the Earth. Then he sends a dove, who can't find a place to set down, so comes back. (Why the raven didn't come back is never explained.) A week later, he sends the dove out again. This time it comes back with an olive leaf. A week later (about the end of the eleventh month), he sends out the dove again, but it doesn't come back. At this point, we're told it's the first day of the first month of Noah's 601st year - so this would kind of mesh if the ancient Hebrew calendar had exactly 11 months. All told, Noah and his family spends an entire year in the ark.
  11. God has mood swings. In Genesis 6: 5-7 we are told that God is very angry about "the wickedness of humankind" and "that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually." He declares that "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created ... for I am sorry that I have made them." Then, after the flood, he says (Genesis 8:21-22), after Noah provides him with a burnt offering of the "clean" animals and he is pleased by the smell of the offering, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." Notice that the situation hasn't changed - human thoughts are still evil. But now God seems okay with it, like it's an endearing personality flaw that he'll put up with. If only Noah had ignited a burnt offering before the Flood, it might have been avoided.
  12. Noah plants the first vineyard, gets drunk, then passes out naked. When his grandson stumbles upon him, and tells his sons, he curses the grandson to become their slave, because he saw Noah's nakedness. I have no idea how to interpret this. It's just plain weird.
  13. The tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1-9) is much more mundane than I expected. Though it says that humans said "let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens," the tower itself doesn't seem to actually be an attempt to reach divine paradise itself. When God shows up, his complaint isn't even explicitly about their hubris in building the tower. It seems to be almost a complaint about their competence: "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible to them." Then God decides to confuse their language almost just for kicks. It's not really a punishment for anything they've actually done.
  14. Once again, God refers to himself in the plural - Genesis 11:7 - "Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there..."
  15. More descendants. Among them we've got some who are living a couple of hundred years, even though God specifically set a time limit of 120 years back in Genesis 6:3. At least we're out of the 900s now.