February 24, 2013
Patriarchs – whether fictional or historical – seem to be a spectacularly flawed set of characters. On the fictional side, characters like J.R. Ewing have been portrayed as capable of anything from graft to murder. On the historical side, patriarch Joseph Kennedy sired a President, a US Attorney General and a Senator – but also had extramarital affairs (one with his nine-year mistress and secretary), was an overt anti-Semite, and approved an experimental pre-frontal lobotomy on his daughter Rosemary, who was left incapacitated for life as a result. It seems that becoming the successful sire of a powerful family requires both titanic resolve and massive human shortcomings.
The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were certainly no exception. Take, for example, Abram (later Abraham), the subject of this week’s Hebrew Bible passage. The name “Abraham” comes comes the Hebrew meaning “the ancestor” or “father of a multitude”. As the ancestor of the Israelites, Abra/ha/m is promised by covenant with YHWH two things: land and progeny:“[YHWH] brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then [YHWH] said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then [YHWH] said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess'” (Gen 15:2-3).
Land and progeny were critical to the ancient Israelites, who were surrounded by many powerful pagan nations. Land enabled families to raise crops and farm animals for survival and gave them a place that they could be defended from foreign raiders. Progeny (particularly males) meant that your lands would be reliably tended and defended, and that you were provided for in your old age. Female progeny could be given in marriage to other land-owners as a way of cementing advantageous alliances. Obtaining land and progeny would seem, at a glance, to be fairly simple in the ancient world. You go, occupy some land, then you reproduce. There – wasn’t that easy?
Well, no, actually it was very complicated – particularly in the case of Abra/ha/m. To begin with, the land that he was promised already had quite a few people occupying it, who are listed just after the end of this week’s reading (and conveniently left out of the Lectionary): “the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites” (Gen 15: 19-21). That’s a lot of “-ites” to deal with … Consequently, land for Ahra/ha/m and his progeny (as numberless as the stars) would implicitly mean displacing the aforementioned peoples and leaving them landless – most likely by force. We see that process roll out in the Book of Joshua – a process that some people might refer to as “colonization” …
And, of course, Abra/ha/m can’t even reproduce without things getting very, very complicated. To begin with, his wife Sarai (later Sarah) is barren and past child-bearing age (although very beautiful). Abram helpfully points out to YHWH “You have given me no offspring” (vv.3) as YHWH is promising him progeny. But YHWH insists (progeny as numberless as the stars, remember?) and Abra/ha/m believes. Unfortunately, Abra/ha/m later decides to hurry up YHWH’s promise, and (at Sarai’s urging) “goes into” (i.e., rapes) Sarai’s handmaiden (i.e., slave), Hagar, and fathers a son (Ishmael) by her (Gen 16). (Yes, it was rape – a slave cannot refuse to consent to sex; therefore, the act meets the definition of rape.)
The whole episode with Hagar – and the issues of oppression raised by it – is worth an entire book (I dedicated one of my first posts to it: “Sex, Slavery and Surrogacy: The Story of Hagar“). Suffice it to say for here that things get even more complicated when Sarai/Sarah finally conceives and bears Abra/ha/m a son, Isaac.
So what is there to take from the example of Abra/ha/m? Since he fathered the Israelites, does that mean that colonization and rape are good things as long as the “right people” are doing them (supposedly) at God’s command?
To begin with, Abra/ha/m was most likely not a literal person. His story is an origin myth of the ancestry of the Israelites. The story tells us how the ancient Israelites thought about themselves and their origins, not what we should be doing with our own lives in the postmodern age. The story is descriptive, not prescriptive. Secondly, the idea that the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths are all “siblings” through Abraham (at least symbolically) could serve as inspiration for reconciliation between members of the faiths. (Here in my home county, in fact, we have a group called “Daughters of Abraham,” where local women meet once a month at a local church, mosque or synagogue to discuss topics of interest to all three faith groups.) Finally, the idea that we are all the stars of God’s promise (at least symbolically) is a hopeful one. Shine on, baby!