Saturday, May 14, 2011

Genesis 31-40

In her book Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality, Frances Young does a lot of good work on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel- or perhaps even God himself. Unfortunately I don’t have the book right now (it’s sitting in a box in storage at school), otherwise I would quote it because I really don’t think I will be able to do it justice. However, she argues that the condition of Jacob is similar to the human condition in general: somehow, we come away from an encounter with faith both blessed and limping. We each have a struggle with God and we come away marked, in both good and bad ways. Although Jacob is given a anew name, he also has to be reminded of his struggle for the rest of his life as he limps along. This is similar to how God gives us a new identity as children of God but yet leaves us struggling with burdens and our own faith. I thought this was really profound, and I encourage everyone to read the book.

There is a theme running through the OT of renaming. Those people who are chosen by God are given new names to reflect their blessedness, and they have a new identity that has everything to do with how God has used their life. In mainline Protestantism, I don’t see this theme being reflected. We all have one name that we are born with, and few WASPs change their first names later in life. However, the Catholic church gives names to babies as it christens them- I think this is heading in the right direction although I do not entirely agree with the practice because it is done before the person has any chance to accept Jesus and receive that state of blessedness. How can we incorporate this idea of being blessed with a new identity into our lives as Christians? I think it could be very scary to be given a new name, because that would mean leaving quite a large part of your old life behind. With the acceptance of a new name, you are essentially shedding your old life and changing everything. This seems to be especially true in the Hebrew Bible, given the emphasis on the power of names in the ancient Israelite culture. Is it possible that one of the reasons that God does not give a “name” as we think of it when Moses asks is because then we would have a fixed perception of God? It would be more easy to put God in a box because God would not be boundless but contained within a name…. maybe.

There  are a lot of puzzling stories in these ten chapters, and the story of Tamar in particular has always confused me. A lot of it has to do with the rituals of the ancient Israelites, which I am ill equipped to understand. However, the thing that always confused me the most was the blasé treatment of the deaths of both Er and Onan. Gen 38:7:
“But Er was a wicked man, and so the Lord killed him.”
 Similarly, Onan is struck dead by God (ostensibly) later in the chapter. I don’t have any answers to what is happening in these passages, but it definitely troubles me. How can we reconcile a God who strikes people dead for sinning with a God who says that all humans are loved by God? The other thing about the story of Tamar is that it is the first and one of the only times in the Bible that we see a woman who is in charge of her own fate. Although she is passed around the clan of Judah, she also come up with a way to get what she wants even though it is deceitful and a little… strange. The other other thing about the story of Tamar is that it comes in the middle of the story of Joseph. I don’t know why, but it always cracks me up that the book of Genesis takes a rabbit trail for a chapter and then returns to the Amazing Joseph. “Meanwhile, back on the ranch…”

…..The story of Joseph always makes me want to start singing songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Is that bad?
On Wednesday morning,  I thought to myself “Finally! I can start on the Old Testament!” I had been putting off reading from Genesis for a few days because I had been on the road, traveling back to my home in Colorado. The Bible and reading in the car do not mix for me, so I had decided to just read when I got back. So I looked at the calendar, dug out my concordance, and set up a chair for reading in my living room…
 And then  I remembered that both my Bibles were packed. Somewhere in one of the million boxes that were sitting in my room, probably at the bottom of the least likely box.
 So I began a search around my house for a Bible, thinking that I would find a good ol’ Good News version and looking forward to all the funky drawings in it. However, what I found was a leather bound Bible with no words or design on the cover.
 I had never seen this Bible before. I opened it up and found that it was a version called “The Way” that Campus Crusade for Christ had published back in the early 70s. And yup, it is pretty amazingly 70’s. There are pictures of wholesome looking American college kids with feathered hair throughout- my favorite is a picture of a football player right above 1 Kings. 
 This was my mother’s Bible when she was about 15. There is something amazing about reading out of a Bible that your parent read out of when she was about your age… Something that really forces you too acknowledge your ties. Given the emphasis on families in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, it was really powerful for me to be sitting and reading from a Bible that was owned by my mother almost 40 years ago. The stories that we now know as canon were passed on from person to person orally throughout generations of ancient Israelites, and now I am receiving the Scriptures from my parent.
 Yup, that is neat.
 The Bible itself is interesting. It seems like a predecessor to The Message in that it attempts to use as much of the vernacular as possible, stopping just short of calling God “rad”. Whenever two people are talking to each other, the text acts like a script, which is definitely an interesting way to interpret the Bible. There’s a lot of stuff in the front of the Bible that is desperately trying to encourage teenagers to read it, including a reading plan and a section on what verses to read in what situations. There is a chart in the beginning that attempts to list the books of the Bible in chronological order according to the events in them, which I found very interesting. So there’s a lot of stuff in there to talk about.
 However! I want to talk about the actual contents of Genesis 1-30. These chapters contain so many stories that we learn as little kids in Sunday School, and so many stories that are left out. What to make of Lot and his daughters, or for that matter what to make of King Melchizidek and the defeat of the Sodomites? These stories are left out because we are puzzled by their violent and troubling nature, but it is up to us to seek out a reason for their inclusion- a “spiritual meaning” as Origen  might say. I must admit that I could see little to learn from the “left out” stories of these particular chapters, but I will keep trying to look for the things that we can gain from the stories in the Bible that we think are too vulgar to tell.
 During my 15 billionth reading through the creation story in Genesis, the thing that really struck me was God’s curse to Eve. 3:16:
“Then God said to the woman, ‘You shall bear children in intense pain and suffering; yet even so, you shall welcome you husband’s affections, and he shall be your master.’”
 This verse disturbs me for a multitude of reasons: 1. “He shall be your master”. As a feminist, I have a lot of trouble with the concept that men are to rule over women, or in this case the husband is to rule over the wife. How to look at this verse? Should I look at it through the lens of “Oh, that is the ancient Israelite prejudices coming through.” Or should I see it as “This is what God commanded: for women to be a companion to man, but beneath him.” I really don’t have an answer to this, and it bothers me. The old Testament is not known for it’s progressive views on women: how to reconcile the Bible with more modern views about human rights and equality? 2. “Yet even so, you shall welcome your husband’s affections.” Is this still part of the curse or is this meant to simply be a factual statement? It is set as an antitheses to “You shall bear children in pain and suffering.”, meaning that although the actions of men will hurt women, it is still part of the nature of women to look for affection from men (their husbands).  The King James version reads “Thy desire shall be to thy husband.” On one hand, this passage almost seems to be a statement about human nature: even though other people will hurt us, we still desire love and belonging from them. On the other hand, it troubles me to think that this is part of the curse of women: to love men. Because that isn’t a curse at all. Why would it have been reported that way?
I have many more thoughts on this part of Genesis but after repeatedly working on this post and then losing all that I typed, I will leave it at that for now. There is so much material here and so many diverse stories that it would take a lifetime for me to accurately summarize everything that I thought while reading it.
My little Bible reading spot
The reading plan that "The Way" Bible has in it- my mother did something similar to me when she was a teenager. Date in the corner is 3/10/73
My mother got this when she was living in Wilton, IA, which means that this Bible has survived for almost 40 years and at least 10 moves.