Monday, October 20, 2014

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 28:10-22

In this installment Jacob uses a magic rock to have an encounter with the deity, he has a curious response to Yahweh's promises while setting up a worship center in the wrong place, and we attempt to peel back the curtain a bit and show what source-critical scholars have been aware of for a while now.

Genesis 28:10-11
Jacob is on his way to Haran when he stops to camp for the night. He takes a stone and places it at his head. Many translations indicate that he put a stone under his head and some even indicate he used it as a pillow. I always thought it was kind of hardcore for Jacob to use a stone as a pillow when I used to hear this story in Sunday school, especially since it was Esau that was presented as the tough manly man and Jacob as a homebody mamma's boy. Some ancient cultures did use hewn rocks as pillows, but that does not need to be the case here as the text literally reads that he put the rock at the "place of his head." If our storyteller assumed that Jacob knew this place was a shrine area, then he might be suggesting that Jacob thought the rocks there were magical and placed this one at his head for either protection or to induce clairvoyance. At any rate, if he didn't think the stone was magic before this, he will certainly think it is afterward.

Genesis 28:12-22
Jacob has a dream where he sees a "sullam" reaching from the earth up to heaven with divine messengers going up and down. "Sullam" is what's called a hapax legomena, which means it's a word that occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. These things can be a problem because often people can only make educated guesses about their meanings. Many translations use the English word "ladder", but there is an Akkadian cognate that suggests it could be more of a ramp-like staircase typical of Mesopotamian ziggurats, which is why many modern translations will refer to it as a "stairway". Additionally, the imagery just fits better than a ladder and explains why Jacob is able to see the divine messengers ascending and descending at the same time.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, for two reasons. The first is to point out that because this word is not used any other time in the Hebrew Bible, we have no way to really know for sure what it means. Apparently God isn't one for communicating with clarity. The other reason I bring it up is to ask why our writer, Moses, who was supposedly raised in pharaoh's court and writing to escaped slaves from Egypt who would have had little to no interaction with Mesopotamian culture or language, is using a word like "sullam" in the first place. Call me crazy, but wouldn't selecting a word with Akkadian cognates suggest that this writer and his audience are more familiar with and influenced by Mesopotamian culture than Egyptian culture? That's odd.

In verse 13 the NET places Yahweh at the top of the stairway. However, other translations like the ESV and NIV will give an alternate reading of Yahweh standing beside Jacob and the NRSV even goes so far as to make that the preferred reading. In other words, Jacob doesn't see Yahweh at the top of the stairs, but rather standing right beside him. Why is this significant? Well, it may be part of a line of evidence that suggests we are, once again, dealing with an editor that has woven together two different tellings of this encounter.

In verses 13-15 Yahweh ratifies the blessing of Isaac and transfers the covenant promises on to Jacob. Jacob then wakes up and recognizes the place as the gate of heaven and the house of El. He sets up that magic rock as a sacred pillar and anoints it with oil, changes the name of the place from Luz to "house of El" and promises to bring tithes there. However, his response to the promises of Yahweh is puzzling. In fact, it's downright faithless. He makes a vow to bring those tithes and make Yahweh his god only if Yahweh takes care of him and returns him to his father.

Remember how everybody in the previous chapter thought Isaac was about to die any day now? Jacob doesn't appear to be thinking this little sojourn in the land of his uncle is going to be for a couple of weeks either. Why would he make returning to the house of his father part of the promise? Maybe that's not so puzzling if by returning him to his father's house he merely means to the place where his father once lived. That might be a bit of stretch, but let's just go with it.

The other problem is this seemingly faithless conditional vow. Did Jacob not believe the promises that Yahweh just made to him? He was obviously impressed by this encounter, and yet here he is making this conditional vow when Yahweh gave him unconditional promises. Many interpreters will say, "Yes, Jacob was showing a lack of faith in the face of the promises of Yahweh by making this conditional vow, so what?" Well, what if some redactional issues are making Jacob look worse than was originally intended? 

The big problem is why Yahweh gives Jacob this vision here in the first place. The imagery is highly suggestive that this is the place where the messengers of God ascend and descend. It's the gate of heaven, the means of communicating between God in the sky and his creatures on earth. This is the place where tithes are to be brought. Yahweh's presence is here. There's a sacred stone. Jacob even names it "house of God." Can this be any clearer? All the marks of the establishment of a worship center are here, and not just any worship center. It's the worship center. Except...this isn't Jerusalem. This is Bethel. That's very confusing considering what Moses later writes in reference to Jerusalem as an exclusive place of worship. Why is God giving such clear indications that this is the place where he is to be worshiped and that this is the place where he communicates with man, knowing full well that he will later take it all back and make Jerusalem that place?

Well, what if we don't need convoluted, ad hoc explanations from conservative Bible expositors or apologists to explain all of these puzzling questions? What if it turns out they can all be solved simply by pulling apart and reconstructing portions of the text into two separate narratives and admitting that these texts were originally written by different people with different ideas about where and how their deity was to be worshiped? Let's take a look:
Source 1: And he took from the stones of the place and put it at his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed. And here was a sullam set up on the earth with its top reaching to the sky. And there were divine messengers of Elohim going up and down it. And he was afraid, and he said, "How awesome is this place!" And Jacob got up early in the morning and took the stone that he had placed near his head and set it as a sacred pillar and poured oil on it. And Jacob made a vow saying, "If Elohim will be with me and watch over me in this land I am going to and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I come back in peace to my father's house, then Yahweh will become my Elohim, and this stone that I set as a sacred pillar will be Elohim's house and I will surely give you back a tenth of everything."
Source 2: And he happened upon a place and stayed the night there because the sun was setting. And here was Yahweh standing beside him and he said, "I am Yahweh your father Abraham's god and Isaac's god. The land on which you are lying: I'll give it to you and to your offspring. And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will expand to the west and east and north and south and all the families on earth will be blessed through you and through your seed. And here I am with you, and I'll watch over you everywhere that you'll go, and I'll bring you back to this land, for I won't leave you until I've done what I've spoken to you." And Jacob woke from his sleep and said, Yahweh is actually in this place, and I didn't know! And he called that place's name house of El, though in fact Luz was the name of the city at first. 
Once isolated we see that in one encounter the deity never directly speaks to Jacob and makes no promises, but rather only grants a vision. This vision is of a stairway to the gods. In response to the vision, Jacob establishes a sacred shrine with that special rock and anoints it. He doesn't rename the place (just yet, anyway), and he makes a conditional vow while establishing the tradition of bringing tithes to that locale.

This writer is often identified as the Elohist and this place is really special to him because it would be the center of worship for him and his people from the Northern kingdom of Israel. It's a really big deal to this writer. This is his original audience's "Jerusalem." This is where their holy temple is located and his Jacob seems to be having a vision of it and indeed becomes its founder. This is also the rival worship center that propagandists from the Southern kingdom will spin into a place of improper worship by concocting the post-Exodus golden calf incident to link to it. Prophets from the Southern kingdom will rail against this place of worship and King Josiah will eventually raze and desecrate it as its history is rewritten and reworked by the victors.

In the other encounter from the Yahwist, Jacob has a very direct encounter with Yahweh standing beside him and wherein Yahweh places upon him the covenant promises granted to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob responds by recognizing the specialness of the situation and naming the place "house of El". There is no vow made by Jacob, no chief place of worship established and no reason given to ever bring tithes there.

The Yahwist doesn't share the traditions of the Elohist. He has to account for the fact that this place is named "house of El", and give it some significance, but his narrative lacks the elements that place so much more importance on Beth-El as the worship center and the place where heaven and earth meet. There is no stairway to heaven and no magic rock pillar (the use of which the priestly source will openly condemn). This place is significant for him, to be sure, and he doesn't appear to utterly loathe it like the Deuteronomist writers later will, but it's certainly not the be-all and end-all place of worship that the Elohist makes it out to be either. Additionally, there is no reference to returning to Isaac because this writer does not have any intention of returning Jacob to the promised land in Isaac's lifetime.

I should point out that not all text-critical scholars agree on the redactional history of this passage as I have presented it. Some understand it apart from the two major sources being woven together. Regardless, even if we take the view that this portion of the text is from a single source that has undergone various stages of editing, it still looks like the writers and editors of Genesis are using these stories of the Patriarchs to explain the political realities they found themselves in as well as to justify the positions of the rulers and religious leaders of their day. The ruling classes and priestly classes of their civilization, like all ancient civilizations, had the pen. Do we really think they're not going to use that pen to suit their purposes?

Time and again the text has had all the appearance of originating from and being shaped by flawed human beings writing to serve their own purposes and intentions. Is it possible a deity is behind such a production? The question is reminiscent of an oft-mischaracterized and somewhat disputed exchange between Pierre-Simon Laplace and Napoleon Bonaparte in which the French astronomer and mathematician was asked by the dictator why his work, Celestial Mechanics, made no reference to God, unlike Newton's Principia. Laplace reportedly replied, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis."

Irrespective of the question of whether or not deities exist, when it comes to accounting for the production of the Bible, not only do we have no need of that hypothesis, such notions become almost absurd. I can appreciate deism, but theistic biblicism* now seems utterly untenable to me. The Bible is not nearly as elegant and awe-inspiring as the cosmos.
[start back at the beginning]

*I define biblicism as the view that the Bible is divinely inspired, ultimately authoritative, entirely infallible, internally consistent, perspicuous, self-sufficient and universally-applicable.

1 comment:

  1. I am simply in awe of what you've accomplished here with this series. The stuff you're talking about would have been a big problem for me once upon a time, but now I can appreciate not only the scholarship but the artistry of the achievement. The Bible isn't a divine book--and it looks less and less like a book and more and more like a patchwork--and a clumsy one at that. -- Cas