Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Genesis: Isaac and His Spawn

So Abraham is dead, and the narrative moves on to his son Isaac. Now, just like his mom was, Isaac’s wife Rebekah is barren. But while Abraham had to wait until he was old for God to offer to let her have kids anyway, Isaac gets to toss off a prayer and have that little problem taken care of. Rebekah gives birth to twins, named Esau and Jacob. Esau is born first, and Jacob follows after while grasping his brother’s heel.

Footnotes can be fun. “Jacob,” according to the footnotes in my translation, can mean two things: “he grasps by the heel,” or “he cheats.” The Jacob character in these stories does both. Which ought to be a hint that this is fiction – the character’s name is a literary device that describes the way he’s going to behave, which is pretty common in parables.

In fact, the very first story about Jacob and Esau after their birth highlights the cheating thing. Esau, when he grows up, is a man who enjoys hunting. Jacob is described as “a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” (I wonder if that’s a euphemism for “lazy ass”). One day Esau comes back from an unsuccessful hunt, and he’s starving. Jacob happens to be making stew. So Esau asks his brother for something to eat. Jacob refuses to give him anything to eat until he agrees to sell Jacob his birthright (I assume his inheritance?). Esau, since he’s starving, agrees and Jacob gives him stew. The author’s bias shows in the last line of the story: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” It would have been more properly written as “Thus Jacob extorted Esau’s birthright.”

I should say I feel real badly for Esau. He seems to be the only character in this whole family that is not a complete shit. He’s a bit slow, but he’s dedicated to his parents and his family, and all he seems to want is their approval. And his reward is getting repeatedly fucked by his younger twin Jacob, who’s cleverer and almost completely amoral.

Guess which one God loves best. Come on, guess!

Moving on, there’s a famine in the land where they live so Isaac’s family meanders back to Gerar (where Abraham had told Abimelech that Sarah was just his sister). Well, what works for dad works for the son – Isaac pretends Rebekah is his sister instead of his wife. This time Abimelech tipped to the bullshit before anyone accidentally married her (and it’s kind of unclear whether this is the same Abimelech that Abraham had pulled this ruse on – it’s at least 60 years later, so that seems unlikely. A little research turned up speculation that Abimelech was actually a title held by the Philistine kings, not a name). Oh, and yeah, on the journey God promised Isaac (stop me if you’ve heard this) that he’ll have tons of descendants and God’s gonna give them all this land. Just in case someone forgot somewhere along the line.

At this point I decided to do a little research on just what Christians think about Abraham and Isaac lying about their wives all the time. Apparently it’s the view that these stories illustrate how wonderful god’s grace is, that he sticks by his peeps even when they screw up.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Firstly, there is no implication in the text that God disapproves of the behavior and is simply choosing to forgive it. Also, he punishes the people who mistakenly take these women as wives (i.e. the victims of the fraud) rather than the people perpetrating the fraud. Lastly, in every case Abraham explicitly benefits from pimping his wife in the acquisition of wealth, and Isaac benefits in that Abimelech issues an edict protecting him and his wife from harm. Oh, and then Isaac gets blessed with a bumper harvest, and becomes rich. The implication of the story is that God doesn’t regard these lies as bad, and possibly even approves of them. Either that, or he’s perfectly willing to reward bad behavior. Basically, it seems to be God’s position that his followers are right because they’re his followers, and as long as they worship and obey him he couldn’t give a fuck less how badly they behave otherwise. Which… actually seems to be pretty consistent with Christian theology.

After his great harvest, Isaac is now richer than the king. So Abimelech asks him to leave, and he heads down into the Valley of Gerar. There he re-digs some wells that Abraham had dug when he came through here, has some disputes with native herders over water rights, and eventually manages to dig a well that nobody disputes. God comes and promises to bless him with a multitude of descendants, yadda yadda yadda. Then Isaac and Abimelech make a treaty not to fuck with each other, and Esau marries a couple local Hittite women.

Gonna cut it off here for today. Kind of a dull section, I know, but things get more interesting in the next chapter when Jacob starts fucking with his brother in truly nonsensical ways.

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