Wibble Wednesday: Banned by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (Genesis 18:1–22:24)

Next up we have is פָּרָשַׁת וירא (“And he was seen” portion), including a lot of the most significant events of Abraham’s life; after this he’s going to end up taking a back seat, mostly, so his son can step forward.

The quick snarky summary: Abraham finally gets guests, and his guests prophesy reproductive miracles. Meanwhile, God’s smiter-finger gets itchy, and he decides that it’s time for another wanton act of destruction. Abraham tries to talk him out of it but doesn’t drive quite a hard enough bargain. Lot manages to get in trouble again, we learn about the sin of Sodom (spoiler: it isn’t homosexuality), and get some hot father-daughter action. Abraham re-enacts one of his earlier interpersonal dramas with an entirely new case, and Sarah has a kid. The kids then proceed to act out hilariously age-inappropriate dramas.

A central cultural theme in this section of the Bible is hospitality: how we treat strangers, and how we treat our own household. Much of the exegetical justification for Abraham’s goodness and holiness stem from his hospitality: that is, his attention and service to wayfarers in the desert. There’s actually not much text in the Torah itself about Abraham displaying hospitality, and Genesis 18 is one of the few places where it really comes to the fore (as far as I can tell, the entire view of Abraham-as-consummate-host comes from this one incident).

The story plays some interesting games with the identity of Abraham’s guests, in that it speaks of God and these three wayfarers more or less interchangably. A standard interpretation is that these guys are God and two angels (presumably, for narrative continuity, the same two angels as are explicitly described as such in 19:1, after God goes home), but that’s peculiarly at odds with the traditional Semitic (and particularly Judaic) view of God as rather beyond ordinary human comprehension. It’s much more in line, to my way of thinking, with the behavior of gods in polytheistic systems — nobody has to ask why, say, Athena’s going around participating in weaving contests, or why Zeus is dressing like a general in order to seduce his wife.

The interaction is rich on details which do support a theory of extraordinary hospitality: promising a light refreshment and rest, he makes a full meal (and a quite excellent one, with high-quality flour and tender meat). There are also less savory elements of hospitality emphasized which are par for the course in a bronze-age society: namely, that modesty forbids the woman of the house from even making an appearance. The code of feminine modesty actually manages to work its way into this narrative twice: first, by its observance in Sarah’s self-concealment, and second by its non-observance when the eavesdropping Sarah laughs.

Apropos of that laughter, one of the midrashic observations which isn’t a ridiculous stretch and actually is kind of sweet is that God makes an effort to soften Sarah’s scorn when reporting it to Abraham: she’s disbelieving on account of both her and her husband’s advanced age, and God, passing the info along, is tactful enough to omit the second part.

Anyways, Abe and Sarah are explicitly promised a son as the practical upshot of this story, which would have a lot more narrative impact if God hadn’t spent the entire last parsha making rather similar promises.

Before leaving, big G scouts out the neighborhood, and decides that he’s extremely offended by the sins of our old friends in Sodom, who were last seen getting the tar beaten out of them in Genesis 14 by a coalition force of Mesopotamian empires. Actually, which cities’ fates God is ruminating over here is a bit vague: Sodom is prominently mentioned, but in the specifics of the punishment, Gomorrah gets lumped in (and no, we don’t get a real idea of what the sins of Gomorrah are, the CBSA’s definitions notwithstanding). To muddy the issue, both the Wisdom of Solomon (a text regarded as apocryphal by most traditions) and the Midrashic texts refer to the five cities of the plain, which would include Sodom and Gomorrah’s companions in adversity from Genesis 14: Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar.

God discusses his plan with Abraham, which is the first real sign we see that Abraham is being groomed to be anything other than a decorative appendage to the greater glory of God: apparently he cares enough about what Abraham thinks to solicit his input on the matter. Following our continuing theme of graciousness towards strangers, Abraham is a rather vocal advocate for these people most of whom he doesn’t know, probably doesn’t much like, and has already had to go to bat for once already, going through a long-winded bargaining procedure, talking God into staying his hand for even a modicum of good behavior on the part of the city. All for naught, it appears, so perhaps this little dialogue is more mean-spirited in intent than it is in interpretation, since, the implication is that these plainsment are so very wicked that even massive intercession can’t save them.

So now on to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The destruction is mostly told through the lens of Lot’s rescue: once again, he reaps the benefit of being a good guy’s nephew because he gets saved again, this time by basically divine intercession. Verses 19:1–3 are a direct echo of Abraham’s hospitality, and are meant, presumably, to show that Lot, too, was a man of merit. Hospitality was and still is a big deal in the Near East; even to a stranger, you’re supposed to give at the very least water and food when on the road, so the fact that courteous treatment of wayfarers was a natural impulse for Lot and Abraham isn’t so very much of a surprise. And now we get to the part of the story that everyone pokes at: the Sin of Sodom, as retailed in 19:5–9. Conservatives like the Liar Tony Perkins and the late Asshole for Jesus Chuck Colson make much of the sexual aspect, but in context the obvious contrast between the Sodomites and Lot (and Abraham) is in treatment of the wayfarer. Lot specifically invokes the protection of the house, and of the sacred status of a guest, and it’s clear that treatment of guests and strangers is the main issue here, and definitely to the dominant local culture, abuse of a guest, or suffering the abuse of your guest, would be regarded as a great evil (sufficiently so that we are presumably meant to view Lot’s offer of his daughters to the fury of the mob as an act of virtue, taking even an extremely unpleasant step to secure the safety of his guests).

The story concludes with a series of relocations. If we buy into the Wisdom/Midrashic take that all the cities of the plains are condemned, then Lot’s whining succeeds where Abraham’s arguing fails, in that he talks God into sparing Zoar, although why doing so is narratively relevant isn’t clear, since the termination of the Lot story requires that he be a rustic hermit anyways. This nasty little tale, in addition to providing Baroque painters with inspiration for soft-core pornography, was probably, like the Canaan curse back in 9:25 and the backhanded blessing of Ishmael in 16:12, meant as a little bit of ugly propaganda against rival nations, in that the story says, pretty much “And Moabites and Ammonites fuck their fathers”.

Genesis 20 is a curious story for several reasons. The most obvious one is that the plot of Abimelech’s marriage to Sarah under the mistaken belief that she’s Abraham’s sister is pretty much a direct ripoff of the Egypt story back in 12:10.20. A somewhat more subtle one is that Abimelech is a transparent anachronism. Verses 21:32–34 make it clear that this king of Gerar with a Semitic name is a Philistine. We get to see the Philistines at greater length much later in the Bible, as constant antagonists from the period of Judges through the early monarchy, and we actually know a lot about this ethnic group: where they lived, what language they spoke, and their customs. Unfortunately, Abimelech has the wrong name, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place to plausibly be a Philistine, so we’d be best off ignoring his racial identity.

Anyways, in spite of the fact that this is an obvious retelling of a previous story, there are a few details which make the rereading worthwhile. God speaks to Abimelech, unlike Pharoah, who is punished first and has to come around to doing the right thing on his own. This may reflect a persistent ant-Egyptian prejudice which suffuses the Bible (spoiler: they enslaved us. We don’t like them).We also learn (and this is the first, and only time it actually gets mentioned) that Sarah is Terah’s daghter, and is actually Abraham’s half-sister! I suppose that such a marriage was permissible in those societies (it probably wouldn’t be in most places today).

Abraham casts out Hagar, in a story somewhat echoing Hagar’s plight in 16:6–14, and I mostly want to focus on one rather hilarious aspect of it (indicative, I think, of some poor continuity checking). Hagar puts water and food on one shoulder, and her child on the other, and stumbles out into the desert, alone and abandoned. You can probably come up with a good mental image for this. And your mental image is almost certainly wrong, because you’re going to have to replace that kid with a gangling adolescent, since Ishmael was at least thirteen years old, and probably closer to fifteen, at the time. That’s the bit of the story that really jumps out for me.

In a brief interlude, Abraham makes a treaty with Abimelech. This might have Judges-era reverberations, but I mention it now because… well, don’t want to get ahead of myself, but we’ll see it again soon.

Finally comes the binding of Isaac, a big culturally significant event, the major test of Abraham and the major promise of glory. Actually, the promise is the same one God’s make, like, five times before, but the little bit of theatre before really sells it. Here, as in the previous story, there’s one sticking point: the chronology’s a bit goofy. This story is generally regarded as time-continuous with the following verse in 23:1. If you do the arithmetic on that, the “boy” is in his mid-thirties, which kinda destroys the imagery of the guileless youth being led to the altar. It’ll also muddle the next chapter, where Abe gets the kid a wife, but we’ll get there when we get there.

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

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Banned by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (Genesis 18:1–22:24)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Huh, I never caught the various age oddities with the kids. I’d picked up on some of the other nation bashing of course, but I hadn’t realized it was quite so prevalent.

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