Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 15 & 16

In this installment: Yahweh makes some promises to Abram over bisected animal bodies, an ambiguous antecedent becomes the basis for an entire doctrine, more Chaldeans are mentioned before they exist, Yahweh rounds to the nearest hundred, old age is relative and slave girls learn their place.

Genesis 15:1
Yahweh is about to once again promise stuff to Abram, but this time he appears to him in a vision rather than as some sort of manifestation at an altar under a tree.

Genesis 15:2-5

There are a couple of elements in this passage that are highly suggestive of literary construction or oral folkloric tradition as opposed to a historical account. The first is that Abram’s servant and heir, Eliezer of Damascus who is nowhere else mentioned by name, has a name that means “El gives help,” which happens to be exactly what this passage is about.

 The other feature is that the word ben-mesheq, translated “heir of my house” creates wordplay with dam-mesheq (Damascus) so that Abram is actually making a pun by saying that his ben-mesheq is Eliezer dam-mesheq. The details come across more as convenient mnemonic devices rather than historical details, especially given that Eliezer is not mentioned anywhere else.

Yahweh takes Abram outside, while he's in the middle of this vision, and tells him to gaze into the night sky and count the stars if he can declaring, "so shall your descendants be." While it could be said that Yahweh's point seems to be merely that it would be difficult for Abram to count the stars and likewise it will be difficult to count his descendants because there will be so many, the fact is that there are only about 3,000 stars in the night sky that are visible to the unaided eye. The difficulty in numbering them is not because of their quantity.

Abram: "I can count about 3,000 individual stars, Yahweh."
Yahweh: “So shall your descendants be.”
Abram: “Uh. OK. That’s cool, I guess.”
This verse is odd in its ambiguity. I've linked to the ESV because those translators have managed to honestly preserve the ambiguity. Some other English translations like the NASB and NET disguise the ambiguity by capitalizing the pronoun "he" or by inserting "the LORD" in the second part of the verse. The point is, translated literally, it isn’t clear whether it’s Yahweh considering Abram to be righteous because Abram believed Yahweh or if it's Abram considering Yahweh to be righteous/charitable, given Yahweh's promise to provide him with an heir from his own body. The pronoun "he" has no clear antecedent and could go either way.

In the New Testament, Paul will take a particular position on this verse's interpretation when he quotes it (from the Septuagint, of course) to rather tenuously support the concept of justification by faith (Rom. 4:3 & Gal.3:6). However, several standard Jewish interpretations of this verse disagree with Paul’s interpretation. Indeed, as these Jewish commentators will point out, the entire concept of meritorious faith is nearly absent from the rest of the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4 is no exception either). The fact that Abram appears to doubt Yahweh's ability to fulfill this promise later in Genesis is further evidence that Paul's interpretation has some obvious holes.

Indeed, it appears the Old Testament foundation of Paul’s entire theology of justification by faith rests on a single possible interpretation of this passage and it's very likely, given the context of the verse and the absence of this concept from the rest of the Torah, Paul was dead wrong. James shows how even if one accepts Paul's interpretation of Genesis 15:6, the rest of the Torah does not support Paul's supposed dichotomy [Don't worry, I'm well aware of how commentators have tried to rescue Paul from James]. It's tempting to hyperbolically point out that the doctrine regarded as the focal point of the entire Protestant Reformation seems to rest on a possible antecedent for an implied Hebrew pronoun in a single verse. 

It's an interesting observation that most Christian commentators usually insist that the New Testament should interpret the Old, but then those same commentators will turn around and accuse people that rob passages from context of eisegesis. It seems the apostle Paul, whose interpretations are nearly always favored by Protestants over every other New Testament writer's, is guilty of inspired eisegesis almost every time he quotes an Old Testament passage.

Again we have this reference to Ur of the Chaldeans hundreds of years before there were any Chaldeans. Why does this need to be clarified yet again? If it is a later scribal insertion, why does this scribe think it’s OK to add this directly into a quotation from God himself?

Also note that the setting established in verse 1 has not changed. We are left to assume that Abram is still having a vision and since Yahweh took him outside to look at the stars in verse 5, we are also left to assume that it was night time in the vision. Does this mean that everything that follows in this passage is still within this vision? Or is it possible that verses 7 and following are from a completely different account that has been appended to the preceding vision involving the stars?

Genesis 15:8

Yahweh again promises Abram that he will give him the land to possess. Abram took Yahweh at his word and that too was counted to Abram as righteousness. Oh, no. Wait. That's not what happened this time. No, apparently the promise that he's going to have a son in his old age was easier for Abram to believe than this promise for land. All of a sudden, now Abram wants some kind of confirmation. The inconsistent characterization certainly seems to hint that we're dealing with a separate narrative now.
Abram goes and cuts up some animals and falls asleep. While he's in a deep sleep, Yahweh tells him that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. Wait. Four hundred years, not four hundred thirty (Ex. 12:40-41 & Gal. 3:17)? Was Yahweh rounding to the nearest hundred? Maybe they just weren’t enslaved and oppressed for the first 30 years. Of course, if we take that interpretation it would mean that Joseph would have been alive for at least 36 years of the oppression and we certainly don’t get the impression from Genesis 50:22-26 that Jacob’s descendants were at odds with the Egyptians until after Joseph was dead. Yahweh does not appear to be one for precision.

Abram is told that he will go to his ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. Going to his ancestors is apparently a euphemism for death. The euphemism loses some of its meaning when we recall that six of Abram’s nine ancestors going back to and including Shem are still alive at this point according to chapter 11. At least three will still be alive after Abram is dead. The phrase “a good old age” kind of loses its force in light of this as well, as Abram will die at 175. Compared to most of his ancestors in chapter 11, that’s not really that old. In fact, compared to some of them, dying at 175 was like dying in your twenties.

The other odd thing is that although this would be a great time to tell Abram all about heaven and resurrection and stuff, Yahweh keeps that to himself. I guess he didn’t want to ruin the surprise? Of course, the writer of Hebrews implies that Abram already knew this stuff somehow (Heb. 11:10), even though that’s never stated anywhere in the text of Genesis or anywhere else in the Old Testament for that matter. If that’s the case, why not communicate this rather important information about an afterlife to the original readers of Genesis? Instead the reader is left with the impression that Abram’s only glimpse of anything resembling life after death is the hope that his descendants will live on after him.

Here we find that Abram’s people will be back from Egypt in four generations. So one generation equals one hundred years? That’s fine. Just keep that in mind when we consider the population of the people of Israel when they enter Egypt (about 70) compared to when they leave Egypt (about 2.5 million). Also keep in mind that one of those four generations had to die in the wilderness, which practically cuts it to three generations for the time in Egypt as the fourth generation would have to be the ones who were either children during the Exodus or born during the wilderness wanderings. Maybe Yahweh is just being imprecise again?

Moses and Aaron are four generations from Levi according to Exodus 6:16-20, but they don’t qualify, as neither of them entered the land. In 1 Chronicles 7:20-27 we find that Joshua (who along with Caleb is the oldest man to enter the land) is apparently 12 generations from Jacob’s son Joseph, cutting a generation back from 100 years to about 35 years and putting Joshua way too far out from that four generation mark Yahweh promised.

We also learn here that the Amorites aren’t yet wicked enough to justify expelling them or wiping them out, even though their expulsion still hadn’t happened by the time of the returned exiles under Ezra (Ezra 9:1-2). Note also that verses 13-16 interrupt the narrative. In verse 12 Abram falls sound asleep and a great darkness falls upon him. In verse 13 Yahweh speaks to him while he is sound asleep? Why are the Amorites the only ones mentioned in verse 16, but later in verses 19-20 nine other nations are listed? This section is too artificial, and given the obvious continuity between verses 11 and 17, it bears the marks of a text that’s been inserted in an attempt to force Exodus’ details into the Genesis narrative. Here's how the passage would read if we took out verses 13-16:
He said to him, “Take for me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” So he took all these for him and then cut them in the middle and placed each half to meet its neighbor, but he did not cut the birds in half. When birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking pot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. That day Yahweh cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I here and now give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River— of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
Note that the sun only has to go down once as opposed to twice (compare v. 12 and v. 17), the Amorites are just one of many of the people-groups listed rather than being singled out and Yahweh only makes a single pronouncement after the declaration that a covenant was being made. The narrative just works better without verses 13-16. If I didn't know better, I'd say this is the mark of a later insertion attempting to retroject the Exodus tradition into the narrative. In fact, I'd say it looks an awful lot like verses 1-6 are from one account, verses 7-11 and 17-21 are from another one and verses 13-16 are from a third. All three sections can be separated and form complete, coherent narratives. Nah, that can't be it. Moses wrote the whole thing. Jesus said so.

The smoking firepot with a flaming torch is often interpreted to represent Yahweh himself passing through the pieces. That may be the case, but smoking firepots with flaming torches were used in Mesopotamian rituals and were supposed to ward off evil spirits who might seek to distort the covenant-making process. Just as Abram did his part in protecting the ceremony by driving the birds away in verse 11, Yahweh does his part by driving the evil spirits away. Even if these things do represent Yahweh, isn’t he just providing an image of himself? Why would it be necessary for him to represent himself in these two objects? Why doesn’t the text simply say that Yahweh passed through the pieces without giving this weird imagery that people could interpret to mean something else entirely?

Of note in this passage is that Abram fathers a child through Sarai’s slave girl, Hagar. The facts that he’s 86 years old and Ishmael is his firstborn son will be ignored later. Abram and Sarai’s actions are morally reprehensible in this passage and yet when the messenger of Yahweh shows up it’s not to condemn or correct these actions, but rather to tell Hagar to return to that mistreatment and inform her that her son will be hostile to his neighbors. Hagar thinks this is just peachy. Note that Yahweh does not appear to have any problem whatsoever with female slaves being regarded as sexual property. This will become even more evident in Exodus and Deuteronomy when it’s not just tolerated, but rather legislated.
"Return to your mistress and submit, slave."

Also of note is that all God had promised Abram up to this point was that he would have an heir that would come from his own body (15:4). It’s not until we reach chapter 17 that Elohim promises an heir through Sarah. I’ve read commentaries and heard preachers say that this was Abram and Sarai’s way of trying to artificially force the fulfillment of God’s promises in an improper manner, displaying a lack of patience and faith. Nowhere is that commentary expressed within the text itself. Sarai’s not even worried about Abram not having children. She’s worried about herself according to verse 2. Neither polygamy nor taking a slave-wife is ever condemned in the Bible. The arrangement only becomes a failure when Hagar forgets her place and no longer respects Sarai as her master.

We'll come back to several things in this chapter later as conflicting details emerge when we get to chapter 21.


  1. Re: the end of the chapter. I'd heard that same contortion from preachers about Hagar. It didn't sound right to me but I didn't quite know why. Now I do! (Also, obligatory mention of "The Handmaid's Tale".)

    1. Conservative commentators are always quick to point out that there is never any direct approval given for the often reprehensible actions taken by the Patriarchs and that is mostly true. However, there’s never any chastisement or condemnation either and to me, that’s a real problem. I’m even at a loss when I try to recall an example of a Patriarch’s behavior being called into question by any of the New Testament writers. Even Lot gets a pass by the writer of 2 Peter and this is a guy who offers his daughters up to be raped by an angry mob. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

      I have to admit that I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, but based on the synopsis I read, it sounds like it’s right up this story’s alley. It makes me wonder if our biblical story-teller would want to go back and insert his own Nick-like character into his own telling to further de-legitimize the Ishmaelite’s link to Abraham if he had to do it all over again. Maybe have Eliezer of Damascus knock up Hagar after it turned out that Abram wasn’t up to the task because Yahweh was…um…blocking him. That would’ve made for a more intriguing twist to the story.

  2. Worth noting that in one of his epistles, Paul recounts this story but appears to screw up which one is Sarah and which one is Hagar. Some people - myself included - believe this was deliberate. Paul's utter disdain for the law vs. grace, slavery vs. freedom, is pretty well known, and I think he's twisting the story to reflect that.