Monday, August 5, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 17 & 18

In this installment: Abe is asked to put some skin in the game, everyone gets a laugh about having kids when you're old, Yahweh has to talk himself into telling the patriarch about his plans for Sodom and Abe teaches the deity about fairness, justice and mercy and schools him in negotiation.

Genesis 17:1
In this verse God appears to Abram and identifies himself as El Shaddai. Early translations from the Hebrew like the Greek Septuagint rendered this something like “God Almighty” because a similar word shadad means to overpower or destroy and this seems to fit when the name is employed in Numbers, Job and Ezekiel without the El element.

However, when it’s used in Genesis with El it’s almost always in the context of reproductive fertility (see 28:3, 35:11 & 49:25). Interestingly the Hebrew word shad means “breast” and the ending ai means “my own.” It’s very possible that Shaddai started out as a large-breasted Semitic fertility goddess whose “fruitfulness” attributes were eventually subsumed into Yahweh’s attributes, minus the accentuated breasts, of course.

Shaddai was also the name of an Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. El Shaddai could simply be the god(dess) of the city of Shaddai, whose proximity to the river would’ve made the land rather fertile year round. Admittedly this is speculative and if you're dogmatically committed to the idea that Yahweh was trying to reveal himself to Abram this way and that El Shaddai cannot possibly be just one of several other ANE gods that were adopted by Hebrew culture, you will not allow for such speculation. Regardless, the use of El Shaddai here and in other places in Genesis will set up an interesting problem when we get to Exodus 6.

There are two commands given in this verse: "walk before me" and "be blameless". It's not clear if the command to "be blameless" is sequential or consequential. In other words, it's not clear if El Shaddai is commanding Abraham to "walk before him" (whatever that means) and then as a result he will be blameless or if El Shaddai is giving two separate commands. Does faithfully following some moral code lead to being declared "blameless" or must the code be followed to perfection? Again, we are faced with ambiguity that theologians still argue about, but it's an important distinction to people that have divergent views about the role of works in salvation. 

Genesis 17:2-8
God again feels the need to confirm his covenant with Abram. This time he changes his name to Abraham and says that kings will descend from him. The other stuff has been promised before. Of note is that nowhere in this passage is the deity referred to as Yahweh. El Shaddai is used in verse 1 and then Elohim is used in the rest of the passage. The name Yahweh doesn’t show up again until chapter 18.

Something else of note is that the conditions of ratification rest on Abraham's ability to walk before El Shaddai and be blameless. If and only if Abraham keeps these requirements, then El Shaddai will honor the covenant. This does not appear to be an unconditional promise, as some would argue.

We find now that Abraham's part of the covenant has yet another stipulation. This one is the ritual requirement to cut off some of the skin from around the penis. Abraham and all his male descendants and their male slaves [recall that the god of the Bible has no problem with human beings owning other human beings and compelling them to do things against their will as we've seen]. Any male not fulfilling this requirement is to be “cut off” which could either mean simply being ostracized from the community or it could mean killed.

Like many other rather consequential statements found in the Bible, the specific meaning is ambiguous and still debated. This will not be the last time the Bible will be ambiguous about the form of punishment prescribed for a particular act and often the nature of the act itself will be ambiguous. For someone who’s not supposed to be the author of confusion, God’s book has certainly managed to confuse quite a number of people throughout the ages about some really important life or death, heaven or hell kind of stuff.

"We wish you'd stop being so good to us, Yahweh."

Abraham laughs to himself at the suggestion that he will have another son as a centenarian. He just had a kid at 86, but apparently 100 is too old? This is also odd because he has a still-living ancestor who fathered a child at 100 (11:10). Furthermore, his own father started having kids at 70 (11:26), and if we are to take the standard apologist’s solution to the Terah/Abram age contradiction (compare Gen 11:26, 11:32, 12:4 & Acts 7:2-4), Abraham was actually born when his father was 130 years old.

Why would the suggestion that he’s going to have a kid at 100 seem laughable to him? Why not just mention Sarah’s infertility and age? Why does he make reference to his own age? The notion is absurd unless the source of this story was simply unaware of those other remarkable details in the other stories. If that’s the case it would make perfect sense for this version of the Abraham character to react this way, as most hundred-year-old men don’t father children.

Commenting on this in Romans 4, Paul seems to recognize that hundred-year-old men don’t typically have kids. In doing so he also completely ignores the unbelief Abraham expresses here in Genesis so he can push his argument about justification by faith. Paul writes that Abraham, “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb” and that, “no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” [emphasis mine]. Like a political spin doctor, Paul conveniently leaves out the part about Abraham laughing to himself at the whole notion and asking Elohim to let Ishmael be his recognized heir.

Elohim tells Abraham that he is to name the son that Sarah bears, Isaac. Isaac means “he laughs” so Elohim is making a play on the fact that Abraham laughed at the suggestion that he would have a son at a hundred years old. In chapters 18 and 21 it will be Sarah who does the laughing, implying it was her laughter that prompted the naming of Isaac and not Abraham’s. Ishmael will do a bit laughing as well in chapter 21.

Elohim has now told Abraham that Sarah will have a son; he is to name that son Isaac. Elohom reveals to Abraham precisely at what time this will take place. Keep that in mind when we get to chapter 18 and Yahweh repeats all of this as though this appearance had never taken place.

When Elohim is finished speaking with Abraham, he goes up from him, presumably back into the sky or just vanishing. The appearance of El Shaddai/Elohim in this chapter is not nearly as anthropomorphized as the appearance of Yahweh in the next chapter and that's fairly typical throughout the text. It's almost like there is one source who prefers the name Yahweh in some of the passages we find in Genesis with a rather "low" view of how a deity is supposed to behave and there is at least one other source who prefers to refer to the deity as Elohim or El Shaddai with a "high" view of how a deity is to conduct itself. But that can't be. It must mean that Moses is just trying to show that God relates to people differently or something. He's both aloof and personal. Yeah, that's it.

Note that we are told that Ishmael is thirteen years old when he is circumcised, a full year before Isaac is born. As horrifying as undergoing circumcision at thirteen in the ancient world would have been for Ishmael, I'm sure upon reflection he considered it the better end of the deal compared to the psychological torture his little brother later went through in thinking that their father was going to slaughter and burn him as an offering to a deity.

I point out the fact that Ishmael is thirteen because it becomes an important detail when we get to chapter 21 and find that Isaac is around two or three years old. It means that Ishmael will be sixteen or seventeen years old in that chapter, i.e. Ishmael will be a grown-ass man by Ancient Near Eastern standards. If you want a sneak preview of where I'm headed with this, picture in your mind Ishmael as a seventeen year old boy who is about to graduate high school and then go read chapter 21.

There goes Yahweh again appearing in association with trees. It’s almost like he wants people to set up shrines and altars underneath trees or something. Note that this appearance happens at “the hottest time of the day.” It’s interesting because the writer seems to be suggesting that the optimal time for having an encounter with a deity is the hottest part of the afternoon.

Incidentally, this would also be an optimal time for having heat-induced hallucinations, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. Kind of like the notion that evil spirits like to roam around “waterless places” (Matt. 12:43 & Luke 11:24) in the desert where, oddly enough, people are prone to hallucination resulting from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Additionally, the desert is a good place to have conversations with the devil after a period of food deprivation (Matt. 4 & Luke 4) and the Arabian desert is a good place to have mysteries about the gospel revealed to you while you're having visions of the risen Christ (Gal. 1:17). The Sinai desert is a great place for seeing talking burning bushes (Exodus 3). In fact, prophets were pretty well-known for hanging out in deserts (Heb.11:38) while having visions and what not. Depriving oneself of food for an extended period of time is also a recommended practice when you want to hear from spirits (Acts 13:2).

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all of these people were hallucinating. After all, at least a couple of them are probably just mythic figures or a part of made-up stories. What I’m pointing out is that the ancient people who originated these stories recognized that if you wanted to have some kind of encounter with the spirit world, the best way to get results was to go to a hot, arid place or just don’t eat for a while. We now know that heat exhaustion, dehydration and depriving oneself of food all just happen to be really good ways to play tricks on ones own faculties and induce hallucinations, especially when one already has a psychological expectation for such occurrences and some sort of category of supernatural explanation to place those experiences in.

It's almost like God is trying to play right into the hands of skeptics. All of these accounts of visions and talking to deities might perhaps be a bit more convincing if they didn't so often seem to coincide with a person being in a situation where they are either physically exhaused, hot, hungry, dehydrated, inebriated, sleep-deprived, emotionally distressed or some combination of the preceding. Why does God choose to appear to people so often at the exact moment when they are the most susceptible to hallucination, suggestion and errors in cognition? Apparently his mysterious ways include providing ample reason to doubt these supernatural encounters are authentic.

Yahweh walks up along with a couple of his angel buddies (see Gen 19:1) and Abraham runs out to meet them. This is very different from the appearance of El Shaddai/Elohim in the previous chapter which had a much more ethereal quality to it than three guys walking up who happen to be heavenly beings. It’s also fairly obvious that Abraham knew full well who he was dealing with in this chapter.

Abraham begs them to allow him to show them hospitality so his behavior can be later contrasted with the people of Sodom. He busts his butt to get a meal prepared for them and they all hang out and eat some calf and curds and drink some milk (not the most Kosher meal, by the way). It would seem these are some very down-to-earth heavenly beings.

Yahweh and his buds ask where Sarah is. So not only are they eating and drinking, but now they’re asking questions they should already know the answer to? Yahweh is either ignorant or deliberately misrepresenting his nature. Haven’t we seen this before?

Yahweh tells Abraham that when he returns that time next year, Sarah will have a son. This is odd because Elohim already told Abraham this was going to happen and when it was going to happen back in chapter 17. Yahweh says it here like he’s relaying new information. Could this be a hint that we are dealing with two different sources?

We have to be reminded by the narrator that Abraham and Sarah were old. Abraham already discussed this in the last chapter. Did Moses think his audience had forgotten already?

Sarah considers herself old and worn out and laughs to herself at the thought of having sexual pleasure again and adds, “especially when my husband is old too.” This is odd because, as was previously pointed out, she had to know that the men in Abraham’s family - which you’ll recall, thanks to incest, happens to also be her family - were rather virile in their old age. Additionally, Abimilech will not think the ninety year old Sarah is worn out and incapable of having pleasure when he takes her as a wife later in 20:2. In spite of Sarah's attitude and verbal chastisement, the writer of Hebrews seems to think that she had faith that she would conceive (Heb 11:11) when everything in the narrative suggests otherwise.

This verse is just funny to me. It’s like Yahweh is arguing with a child. “I didn’t laugh.” “Yes, you did.”

This conversation is really odd. Yahweh is either talking to himself or to his angel buddies and deliberating about whether or not he should tell Abraham about his plan to check out Sodom and Gomorrah and wipe them out if they’re indeed as bad as he’s been hearing. It’s odd because it implies uncertainty and that the God of the universe either needs to council with his own created beings or talks to himself. It’s almost like Yahweh has to be talked into telling Abraham about his plan.

Yahweh keeps hearing about how bad the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are and has to go down to see if all the hype is for real. That way, he’ll know. Apparently Yahweh can’t be certain about things unless he checks them out for himself. This is, of course, just another anthropomorphism that’s here to make God relatable to us, right? It’s clear from this text and so many others we’ve seen in Genesis that Yahweh already knows all and sees all, right? No. Not right. It’s been quite the opposite, in fact. If Yahweh really does know all then he's just misrepresenting his nature again.

Abraham bargains on behalf of Sodom and talks Yahweh down from sparing the city for the sake of fifty righteous people to sparing it over ten righteous people. It’s almost like the text wants to imply that Abraham is so good at haggling that he can talk a deity into an 80% markdown. Is the writer trying to play into a stereotype here? Regardless, the whole passage is really quite comical.

Something of note is that there’s no real line of demarcation for what constitutes a righteous person. Other biblical writers would have us believe that none are righteous. Even if this is some kind of other definition of righteous, where is the line? For example, Lot lives in Sodom and he offers up his virgin daughters to be raped by an angry mob and is declared righteous by the writer of 2 Peter. Just how bad does one have to be in order to be considered unrighteous? Are we supposed to believe, as some theologians would suggest, that Yahweh and Abraham are just talking about people who have faith when they speak of the "righteous"? Then why not just say that? Why speak in code? Why make up new meanings for words that other people don't recognize?


  1. Another triumph :) Loved the argument analysis! "NUH-UH, you did SO laugh!"

  2. Genesis 18:25 - "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the godly with the wicked, treating the godly and the wicked alike! Far be it from you! Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?”

    Wow. So, Abraham needed to remind 'the judge of the whole earth' that he's supposed to do what is right. The Lord's response? "Well, okay, since you asked so nicely." You might even think that THE LORD would be able to figure out the right thing to do without having Abraham haggle him down to 10 righteous people.

    Gotta give some points to Abraham for standing up to this violent, petulant bully, especially since he knew that he could just blow Abraham away if he got angry enough by these challenges to his authority.

    1. Yeah, we’ll see similar appeals from Moses when Yahweh gets pissed off and wants to smite everyone. Although Moses will take a different approach and appeal to Yahweh’s pride: “The Egyptians will say you weren’t able to bring them into the land” (Num. 14:16 & Deut. 9:28). Suggesting those incidents were all just orchestrated by God to show Abe and Moses as types of Christ interceding on behalf of others falls kind of flat when you realize that such ruses would be complete misrepresentations of his supposed nature.

      I mean, really? We’re just supposed to believe that Yahweh was just messing around? How ad hoc does that explanation sound? It just makes so much more sense of the Biblical portrayal to admit that at least some of the writers of the Bible thought their deity had the characteristics of a very human-like “violent, petulant bully” as you put it and not some transcendent, merciful, loving heavenly Father.

      As for giving Abe points here, I think we can pretty much deduct those same points later when Yahweh tells him to kill his own son and Abe’s immediate response is quite different from “Far be it from you to request such a thing!”

  3. A more likely interpretation of "El Shaddai," and one that's actually slightly more consistent with it being another divinity, possibly a fertility cult goddess: If so, it's probably Yahweh's wife. As recently as the first century BC, the rival Jewish temple in Elephantine, Egypt, maintained that God had a divine consort. This belief had long been abandoned by the folks in Judea, but it is probably the older view. We're reading a story that is essentially a snapshot in the early evolution of the concept of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, when He's understood as little different than the head of any pantheon. Later on, as this became embarrassing, the snapshot was sloppily airbrushed to get rid of that kind of stuff.

    As to the angels and/or Yahweh having to go check out stuff physically, it can be read as a formality for Yahweh to send the angels, or perhaps just a little theater for Abraham's benefit, though that might be a retcon. In any event, in ancient Persia, and in Zoroastrianism, and in early Judaism as well, the Archangels (or their equivalents) were charged with ranging to and fro over the world and going back and forth upon it, keeping an eye on things, and reporting back to the high god of the pantheon. We see this in Job, too. That's clearly what we're seeing here.

    A very easy dodge for the 'hallucination is your gateway to the gods' thing is that, yeah, you have to put yourself in an altered state to get your visions, *but* that doesn't mean the visions are inherently false or wrong. It might simply be that the privations are a means of shutting your conscious mind down so you can hear God, or whomever.