Wibble Wednesday: Abductions and Love Affairs (Genesis 12:1–17:21, continued)

I gave פָּרָשַׁת לך לך short shrift last week because I was busy, so I hoped to return to it this week. If I ever have a slow week maybe I’ll do two at once. Then again, maybe not. Anyways, in our previous installment, we explored mostly the cultural context of the Abraham story, rather than anything that actually happens in it. Today, I’ll roll through some of the occasionally mystifying elements of Abram’s calling and the early activities of his wanderings.

Abram’s calling was in some ways mystifying: why Abram, and more importantly, why so late in life? The generations from Noah to Abraham lived long lives (Nahor died young, at the tender age of 148), but if we can judge childbirth as a sign of maturity, they reached adulthood at about the same rate as modern humans. While Abram and Sarai’s childlessness is a signficant plot point, one would imagine that he spent the first seventy-five years of his life doing something. We get very sketchy details on what this somethings might be. Back at the very end of the previous parsha, there was a bit of narrative telling us that Abram’s brother Haran died young, and that the whole family up and moved from Ur to a vicinity called, confusingly, Haran (except perhaps Abram’s other brother, Nahor, conspicuous by his absence in the accounting of the migrants).

None of this gives much of an idea of what Abram was doing with his life, and what God was waiting for, and why Abram merited the charge laid on him. His father was still alive when he left, so his journey is hardly the questing of a rootless wanderer. The text of 12:5 indicates that Abram had significant material possessions and retinue, which might in part explain the mystery of his calling: God wanted his chosen people to be prosperous, so he selected an agent with the wealth and following to have a measurable impact in his travels, and he selected the particular aged person he did because at that time he’d gathered together all that prosperity. It’s not the best theory, but it’s not unthinkable that Abram might have been the wealthiest person in Mesopotamia who could be called to a nomadic lifestyle (i.e. not a king, or a major landowner, or an urbanite), and that he’d gotten that wealthy through 75 years of work.

His journey’s pretty trackable through the Negev, to Shechem (which we’ll revisit later) and Ai. His activities on this route consisted chiefly of altar-building. The Biblical text gives no idea of the actual cultural practice this was part of, so it can’t be discerned whether this was in keeping with local customs (associating his deity with or setting him up alongside El or Baal, who would have had shrines in that region), or an act of overt hostility to local religion. Jewish interpretations, which like to draw Abram as an iconoclast, favor the latter view, but there’s not much evidence for actual interreligious rivalry/hostility at that point in history, so the interpretation doesn’t fit; I’d prefer to read these shrines as the introduction of YHVHism into the vibrant extant cultural fabric (Shechem, at least, is established to be a city of some significance; Ai is mentioned as an urban center mch later).

This progress to the south we eventually get a purpose for: there’s a famine and Abram’s off to sojourn in Egypt (sojourning in Egypt during famine will be a recurring theme, so we might as well get used to it). The Egypt issue is a strange one as regards the rights of foreigners and the marriage customs of Egypt (bear in mind that the Genesis text is almost certainly of Semitic origin one way or another, so if it’s a fabrication it may be unduly harsh towards and inaccurate concerning the social customs of Egypt, which was after all a foreign and far-off nation). It’s taken as a given that killing a foreigner and taking his wife is acceptable, and likewise the text’s blithe suggestion that Pharoah married Sarai in 12:19 suggests that, in fact, even the permission of a brother (who could often serve as a woman’s guardian) was not necessary to marry a foreigner. I’m inclined to think that Egypt was not quite as barbaric as it’s drawn here, but would like to point out in closing that the object of all this fantastic lust was at least sixty-five years old. Also, that Abram comes out of this whole escapade even richer than he came in.

After the Egypt adventure, Abram retraces his steps and at this point his entourage and flocks and suchlike are so damn big that he has to split them up. We’re told Abram’s and Lot’s shepherds quarreled, which is a rather unusual idea since up until now we’ve gotten no indication Lot had possessions or a household distinct from Abram’s. But this episode is necessary to set up some future stories which will feature Lot prominently. We don’t have to wait long, since Sodom, where Lot settled, is gobbled up in the war of the Four against the Five. One thing which is easy to miss unless you look up names is that the Four Kings are actually pretty heavy hitters in the Bronze Age Near East. Amraphel is the king of Shinar, a term used interchangably elsewhere for Babylon; Chedorlaomer is the king of the mighty nation of Elam. Tidal and Arioch are a bit more problematic: Tidal is a Hittite dynastic name, and Hatti would certainly be a peer to the other powerhouse nations, but Goiim isn’t a particularly familiar term for Hatti (it’s a Semitic word which basically means “states”). Arioch of Ellasar is unintelligible, since any historical figure he might represent is probably not the equal of the other three. In contrast, the Five Kings are very small-fry indeed, ruling over cities rather than states, so their easy conquest doesn’t really come as a surprise. It does come as a surprise that Abram could rout such a huge coalition force with 318 men; we’re given no indication of miraculous power being brought to bear in the battle, but surely the Four Kings had a lot more men at their disposal, so presumably we should read between the lines that Abram’s tiny force was supernaturally empowered (even more so if you buy into a popular bit of gematria suggesting that Abram’s army was in fact one man: his servant Eliezar, whose name is formed of letters adding up to 318.

A couple of peculiar details come out of this story, none of them in the battle, which is actually pretty oringly presented. We get evidence that Abram’s not actually a lone voice in the wilderness: he receives the blessing of a priest-king Melchizedek, who is notable both for his Semitic name and the explicit mention that he was a holy man and a servant of God, which again raises the question of what Abram’s function in the divine plan is, if the servants of God are already kicking around and serving as the cornerstones of Mesopotamian society. We also get the first indication that Abram actually ahs a personality and positive character traits: he refuses the spoils of war, wanting to enrich himself not out of others’ misfortunes, which is a nice little touch of good behavior.

This parsha closes out with several explicit promises about the disposition of Abrahamic nations. Chapter 15 describes a ritual sometimes known as the “Covenant Between the Parts”, since Abram chops animals up and separates out the parts. God promises him a nation of descendants, which is nothing new, since 12:2-3 already gave that assurance, but he adds to it a promise of the land of Israel as well as a bit of prophesy. This section almost certainly has later authorship: the prophesies here are pretty in line with Judaic attitudes during the Assyrian exile, and by that time would be history rather than prophesy. It’s entirely possible this whole section was added, both as a reference to exile and as a justification for divine right to Israel (a contention which remains bloody and highly disputed to this day).

Speaking of those people who dispute the Hebrews’ divine right to Israel, Chapter 16 is generally regarded (both by Jews and Muslims) as describing the origins of the Arabs (there were Arabic ethnic groups called the Hagarites and Ishmaelites — although, confusingly for the genealogy proposed here, not actually closely related groups). This episode gives an interesting view of domestic life in the Bronze Age: a woman’s authority in the household came through children, and even a slave’s childs enhance her domestic position while weakening the position of the mistress of the house. To my surprise, this is all actually keeping in line with the prevailing traditions as reported by other documents: a concubine’s children had certain rights, and the concubine herself secured significant rights through her. So the resentment Sarai shows in 16:5-6 is understandable if not exactly a credit to her character.

Fortunately God’s everywhere these days and talking to everyone, because even Hagar gets a vision of God (under a different name than that invoked by Melchizedek) and a prophesy of birth of a nation. She gets the bargain-bin prophesy, since along with an acknowledgment of Arabic prosperity and multitude, verse 16:12 has a backhanded swipe at their unpopularity.

We close out the chapter with God (under yet another name) repeating pretty much everything he said before: Abraham’ll give birth to nations, Ishmael will become a father of an enormous multitude, the children of Abraham will get to live in Israel — basically it’s a reiteration of the promises of the last two chapters. But to show that he means it, God also changes their names. Explicit name-changing in the bible is generally a sign of divine favor: Jacob and Joshua gain new names as explicit signs of elevation, so God renaming Abraham and Sarah is really a promotion of sorts. But God doesn’t give anything for nothing, so in exchange for this elevation he gives the second real commandment that’s binding over the long term (the first was commanding Noah not to eat living flesh, back in 9:4), in giving detailed instructions for circumcision: when, how, and who. The circumcision is supposed to specifically mark the kin of Abraham, althoguh the exact details of who is covered by the covenant isn’t clear: context suggests the covenant’s really for Isaac and his line, but the mark of circumcision is specirfically extended to Ishmael (and the larger household, at that).

But anyways, with this event Abraham has really Arrived. Up to this point we get the impression God’s playing at nation-building, selecting some guy and enriching him to produce two major nations, the Hebrews and Arabs. We don’t even have good reason to think he’s the primary servant of God, since if anyone in this chapter fits that role, it’s Melchizedek. But by the time this covenant rolls around, God’s promising not just a nation of descendants, but a nation specifically selected and marked by God, and we’re moving out of the common Near-East culture and into a tight focus on this specific Semite and the culture he’s creating.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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