Monday, September 30, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 20 & 21

In this installment we get to experience a bit of déjà vu when Abraham once again becomes worried about his super-hot nineteen-year-old ninety-year-old wife, we find another big fat anachronism, we see once again how possession (of a woman) is nine-tenths of the law unless Elohim threatens to smite you, and we get to see just how much of a physically underdeveloped little man-child Ishmael must've been at seventeen.

Genesis 20:1-17
Abraham lives as a temporary resident in Gerar, a Philistine city that current archeology tells us wouldn’t be inhabited until 1200 BC at the earliest and not as anything more than a small village until about 800 BC, putting it hundreds of years after the time when the Patriarchs lived or when Moses supposedly wrote this account (Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, pp. 37-38). While there, not-so-honest Abe has his ninety-year-old sister/wife once again trick the locals into thinking that they aren’t married. Exactly as happened in chapter 12 during the first of the three "Dude, she's just my sister" patriarchal narratives, the ruler sees the nubile nonagenarian and takes her as a wife. In chapter 12 it’s Yahweh that threatens Egypt. Here in Gerar it’s Elohim. Later in 26:6-11 when Isaac pulls the same thing one more time on Abimelech, no specific deity will be named directly.

As usual Elohim appears in a vision or dream rather than in person or with an angelic messenger like Yahweh typically does. He tells Abimelech that he’s as good as dead if he doesn’t return Sarah to Abraham. What’s noteworthy is that in the Hebrew phrase at the end of verse 3, Elohim literally says of Sarah, "she is owned by an owner" (see NET text note). Elohim is clear that Sarah is Abraham’s property, lest anyone forget.

This is a good time to digress a bit and reiterate the point that language reflects culture, so it is no accident that the Hebrew term for a “married woman” as often constructed in Genesis denotes ownership of the woman by the man. Tellingly, there really is no word for "wife" in Biblical Hebrew at all. Wifehood is always expressed in relation to a man. She is either "his woman" (ishah) or, as in this verse, she is described as being owned by a master (using either the word baal or adonai to refer to the husband). And yes, the word for husband/owner in this verse is the same word that was used as an honorific title for Canaanite gods and high officials. That's a not-so-subtle linguistic reminder to the ladies that their husband is to be thought of as their master/owner/god. Small wonder that "Paul" will continue to drive this bit of misogyny home in the letter to the Ephesians and "Peter" will likewise seize upon it.

OK, back to our narrative. Abimelech points out his innocence and Elohim acknowledges that he was indeed acting in ignorance, but nevertheless tells Abimelech he must have Abraham intercede on his behalf to take away the afflictions he’s brought. That seems totally fair, right?

Abimelech does as Elohim instructs, as he really has no alternative but to give in to Elohim’s terroristic threats. He gives Abraham a bunch of stuff and begs Abe to call off his god. Note that to confirm Sarah’s integrity Abimelech gives a bunch of silver to Abraham, not Sarah. Why? Well, duh. She's his property.

This time, Abraham is not forced to leave as he was when this happened in Egypt. The Isaac birth narrative in the next chapter abruptly interrupts the Abimelech narrative, but it’s implied in the second part of chapter 21 that Abraham is still hanging around Abimelech’s territory. Is this because that's the way it really happened, or are the two sister/wife folkloric narratives we've seen here and in chapter 12 just reflections of the political realities of Israelite relations with the Egyptians and Philistines in the first millennium BC? What is really being communicated here? Is this a historical account or a means of expressing the superiority of Israelites over Philistines by way of showing how their deity dealt with the respective patriarchs in a way that was supposed to parallel their own contemporary experience?

There are a few odd things about this passage. First, in verses 6 & 7 we get another account of how Isaac got a name that means “laughter.” This time it’s because Sarah says everyone will laugh with her because she has given birth to a son in Abraham’s old age. As I've pointed out before, this birth late in life is really not that surprising given the family history.

Second, it’s noteworthy that the events that take place during this weaning party would’ve taken place at least two to three years after Isaac was born. Ishmael turned thirteen the year before Isaac was born, meaning he was fourteen when his half-brother was born. If Isaac is weaned at three, this means Ishmael is now about seventeen years old, a mere three years away from being old enough to muster for military service according to the Law of Moses. He’s a young man by this culture’s standards. He’s nearly a man by most modern standards.

After Ishmael is seen laughing (another pun on Isaac’s name) at the toddler by Sarah, she gets upset and tells Abraham to cast out this son and his mother. Abraham is distressed by this request, but Elohim tells him it’s totally OK because through Isaac Abraham’s descendants will be called to him.

"Well, this sucks."
What’s really odd is that the narrative treats Ishmael like he’s a helpless little child and not a grown-ass seventeen-year-old man. He’s old enough to be not only responsible for himself but also his mother, and yet Hagar is the focus as the guardian of the boy. Note that in verse 14 Abraham puts this man-child on Hagar’s shoulder and in verse 15 Hagar places a boy in his late teens under a bush and goes about a bow shot away so she doesn't have to watch him die. In verses 17 & 18 it is implied that Ishmael has been crying, although some will try to salvage the story from this problem and suggest he was actually praying. In verse 18 Hagar is told to lift him up and hold him in her hand. In verse 21 we’re given an epilogue that tells us about a time later in which Ishmael is growing up.

There would be no interpretive difficulties in this passage if Ishmael is understood to be a four-year-old, but at seventeen (or even fifteen) some really odd things have to be worked around. Ishmael should naturally be the stronger of the two, not the weak one who gets tossed under a bush to die while he sobs like a little bitch. Abraham shouldn’t be putting him on anyone’s shoulder [insert Nephilim joke here] and by this culture’s understanding of adulthood he's got very little growing up to do before manhood. It’s almost like the writer of this passage isn’t aware of the vast age difference between Isaac and Ishmael that could be calculated in the previous passages and instead understands Ishmael to have been a little kid. Thinking that Ishmael is supposed to be a seventeen year old in this passage honestly makes this a rather silly story.

Translators and expositors have to take advantage of nearly all of the semantic wiggle-room the Hebrew will allow and compress the timeline as much as possible to try to make Ishmael's age somehow fit with the depiction of these events. They'll try to make it so that Abraham is not depicted as putting Ishmael on Hagar's shoulder, taking advantage of some ambiguity in verse 14 (compare these translations that try to mask the ambiguity with these more honest ones that at least preserve the ambiguity). Some will have the angel tell Hagar to help him up rather than pick him up. For the word na'ar (typically used to describe the period of life from infancy to adolescence) they'll consistently translate it "lad" or "youth" instead of "child" to try to further smooth over the age problem. All the tricks will be employed to try to mask the obvious: the passage simply makes the most sense if we understand that the writer of this account did not envision a fifteen to seventeen year old Ishmael in the story, but rather a much younger, and thus weaker and more exposed, child. This does, after all, loosely fit in with the pattern of a child exposure motif expressing the theme that the child will receive some form of divine favor which he will carry forward into adulthood.

There are some noteworthy story elements in this chapter that prove interesting in comparison to the last time Hagar went out from the presence of Abraham and Sarah back in chapter 16. In both instances Sarah feels threatened by the presence of a rival and initiates the events leading to expulsion. In both Hagar is wandering through the wilderness in distress.  In both it’s the angel (of Yahweh in chapter 16 and Elohim in chapter 21) that finds and speaks to Hagar. In both the angel speaks to her near a well, although in this passage she needs some help finding it. In both there is a play on the name Ishmael (God hears). In both Hagar is promised many descendants through Ishmael. It's déjà vu all over again.

A well is named by Hagar in chapter 16 in response to that meeting with the angel of Yahweh, but oddly enough she doesn’t name this well despite the memorable circumstances. Or does she? The well is clearly the one in Beer Sheba (Beer Sheba means “well of the oath”) according to verse 14, and yet the naming story for the well is supplanted by the account of Abraham’s treaty with the Philistines in verses 22-31. One wonders if there were two etiological tales for this well: one that involved Hagar making reference to the oath the angel swore to make Ishmael into a great nation and another tradition involving Abraham’s treaty with the Philistines. Faced with dealing with both traditions, perhaps a redactor has chosen to place one account right in the middle of the other and thus supplanting one of them.

Note how the Isaac birth/Ishmael eviction narrative of 21:1-21 abruptly interrupts the Abimelech narrative of 20:1-17 and 21:22-34. Watch what happens when we take out the eviction narrative of 21:1-21 and instead let 20:17 flow right into 21:22ff.

So Abimelech gave sheep, cattle, and male and female servants to Abraham. He also gave his wife Sarah back to him. Then Abimelech said, “Look, my land is before you; live wherever you please.” To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your ‘brother.’ This is compensation for you so that you will stand vindicated before all who are with you.” Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, as well as his wife and female slaves so that they were able to have children. At that time Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. Now swear to me right here in God’s name that you will not deceive me, my children, or my descendants. Show me, and the land where you are staying, the same loyalty that I have shown you.” Abraham said, “I swear to do this.”
Notice that Abimelech recognizes the divine favor and makes a reference to Abraham's deception, building on the themes expressed in the verses from the earlier parts of chapter 20. It seems pretty obvious that the Isaac birth/Ishmael eviction narrative has interrupted this one. I have no doubt that some literalist could offer an explanation of why Moses was divinely inspired to do that. But maybe, just maybe, someone intentionally placed Isaac's birth narrative here because they wanted him to be born near the Philistine frontier and close to a strategically important southern city so that claims to the southwestern borderlands and important water resources could be further legitimated.

A lot of ink is being spilled in these chapters in an effort to lay claim to this territory through a supposed ancient treaty, the planting of a sacred tree, the naming of a well and the birth of one of the three main Patriarchs. Isaac will later build an altar here and Jacob will have his stairway dream here. It sure looks like the biblical authors may have had some political motivations in choosing this setting. Nah, I'm sure it all really happened just the way Genesis describes and that's why God had Moses write it that way. Yup.

After signing a treaty with the Philistines and settling a matter concerning the well at Beer Sheba, Abraham plants a terebinth tree and worships Yahweh. Once again, the worship of Yahweh is associated with a green tree. When is Yahweh going to put a stop to this practice and attempt to correct Abraham's abhorrent behavior?


  1. I heard a while ago the theory of basically everyone from Moses back to the beginning of the Torah being legend based on older legends. It made sense to me. Now, having read a bunch of your series here, I'm convinced. Great writing, tight prose, funny, well-researched, addictive reading. This would come together really nicely in book format I wager. Cheers

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you are enjoying the series. Honestly, these posts are the least popular on my blog. I pretty much keep doing them for my own benefit and because I'm a sucker for the sunk costs fallacy.

      As far as legendary figures vs historicity goes, I think you can go well past Moses. Sheshonk I is the first Bible character with any substantial archaeological evidence to confirm his existence and "wicked" king Omri has more solid evidence for possessing an actual kingdom with a central government than David or Solomon. Given the Bible's track record, I now tend to be agnostic about any figure prior to the 10th century BCE, which would be pretty much everyone from King David on back.

    2. I can't believe it's the least popular... This stuff is gold! Loving it. Pete

  2. Yeah, I was thinking I started too far back the moment I posted.

  3. I'm surprised these aren't so popular. I found the Bible incredibly boring growing up in the Fundy faith. But now when I look at it through the lens you're employing here I find it incredibly fascinating. I suppose it's just going to take a few more years (decades?) for the majority of the population to be able to read these tales as historical myth and cultural studies. Like you said in your post on the new film Exodus, these stories still able to get the proper Greek myth treatment to be interesting, yet at the same time they're not staying 'true' enough for the believer to enjoy. Which is a shame, because there are some Bible stories that would make great films if we approached them like Clash of the Titans et al.