Friday, May 31, 2013

Exodus: Let’s Meet Moses

So after fifteen posts, we’re finally done with the first book of the Bible. Incidentally, that’s 5% according to the reader app on my phone. And now we find ourselves at the beginning of Exodus, with the Israelites living in Egypt. At first, the situation is pretty good for them and they multiply rapidly.

But eventually a new Pharaoh comes on the scene, and he didn’t know Joseph and so doesn’t feel any particular obligation to his people. But he is afraid that there are getting to be so many of them that, if Egypt were to go to war with another people, the Israelites might join in on the other side and really mess things up for them. His solution is a campaign of oppression, because nothing says “don’t side with my enemies” like oppressing the fuck out of people.

He set overseers over them and worked them like slaves, making them build cities and work the fields. But the Israelites still found time to boink like bunnies, and kept making more babies faster than the Pharaoh liked. So then he told the Hebrew midwives to kill any boy babies the Hebrew women bore, but let the girl babies live. Surprise surprise, they didn’t comply with the order to kill their own people’s babies. When Pharaoh asked why not, their answer was basically “Hebrew women aren’t like your pansy-ass Egyptian women. They give birth before we even get there!” So Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to kill Hebrew baby boys by throwing them into the Nile.

So one day a nameless Levite couple has a baby boy, and the mother tries to hide him from the Egyptians. After about 3 months she decides she can’t hide him anymore, so she puts him in a basket to stash him among the reeds by the river. She leaves his sister behind to watch and see what happens to him.

It happens that the Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river to bathe, and finds the baby. She realizes right away that it’s a Hebrew baby, but rather than follow her father’s order about killing it she decides to keep it. She sends the baby’s sister (not knowing that’s who it is) to find a Hebrew woman to act as nursemaid. So of course the baby’s mother ends up being the paid nursemaid to her own son, whom the Pharaoh’s daughter adopted and named Moses.

After Moses had grown up, he comes across an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew. And seeing as there’s nobody else around, he kills the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand. But the next day he comes across two other Hebrews fighting, and when he tries to break it up one of them says “Why? You gonna kill me like you killed that Egyptian guy?” So Moses realizes that people know about the murder, and flees Egypt to settle in the land of Midian. There, Moses helps out the priest Reuel’s daughters when some shepherds try to prevent them from watering their flock at a well, so Reuel takes him in and gives him his daughter Zipporah as a wife.

While Moses is away, the old Pharaoh dies and the Israelites are praying for release from their slavery. God hears them and remembers his covenant with Abraham (had he forgotten? And had he not noticed up until now that his people were enslaved? The wording sure makes it seem that way).

OK, that’s really all just backstory for when things get really interesting. Because Moses is about to get chosen by God to do some important shit. And we’ll get to that in my next post.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Genesis: Joseph and the Invention of Serfdom

Phew! The Joseph story seems to go on longer than it appears to have any right to. I keep expecting it to end, and then it doesn’t. It’s amazing how little of this stuff actually stuck in my mind from prior readings. I wonder how it is that God’s words aren’t so brilliant that, once read, they burn themselves indelibly in my mind as a continuous inspiration.

But to get back to the story, we last left off where Joseph had just revealed himself to his brothers. They, of course, were terrified that this guy (who’s effectively the lord of all of Egypt, plus the guy in charge of all the grain supplies in all the world) will have it in for them. But he reassures them that what they did to him was just God’s way of getting him to Egypt so that he could save scads of lives with his grain scheme, and therefore it was actually a good thing so he’s not mad at them. I think this may be the first explicit formulation of the “God is so good that even when bad shit happens it’s really something good that you just didn’t realize at the time” argument.

So after reassuring his brothers, Joseph tells them to go back to their father and tell him about how wonderful he’s doing. Also, they should all move to Egypt where he will use his position to make sure they get all the best land in Goshen. When Pharaoh hears about this, he goes one better and tells Joseph to also send wagons for them to use to transport their households back to Egypt, and donkeys laden with “all the best things of Egypt” as gifts.

So the brothers go home to tell Israel/Jacob about Joseph. At first he doesn’t believe, but the scads of gifts sway him and he packs up his household to travel to Egypt. On the way, God appears to him in “visions of the night” (dreams) to tell him not to be afraid to go into Egypt because he will make Israel into a great nation there and eventually bring them out.

Then there are about twenty mind-numbing verses dedicated to listing all of Jacob’s descendants who came with him from Canaan to Egypt. And as usual, while it’s occasionally mentioned that daughters exist, only the sons are named.

Jacob comes to Goshen, and Joseph goes out to meet him. Big tearful reunion. Then Joseph tells them to make sure people know they’re shepherds so they’ll be allowed to stay in Goshen because shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians. I wasn’t sure what the hell that was about, so I looked it up. Apparently the explanation is that since Egyptians considered shepherds outcasts, they wouldn’t want them coming any deeper into Egypt than they had to. Which suited Joseph just fine, since Goshen was pretty good pasture land anyway. Joseph then got a bunch of his family jobs tending to Pharaoh’s personal livestock. The whole family also got a free ration of food from the grain stores Joseph was running (God’s chosen people as immigrants living on the government dole!).

Meanwhile, the famine continued. Over the next years, Joseph bled the people of Egypt of all of their money in exchange for food (literally, the Bible says that all the money in all of Egypt and Canaan was paid to into Pharaoh’s house for food). Once all the money was gone, Joseph then had people give him their livestock to avoid starvation. Finally, when Pharaoh owned all the livestock and all the money, we get to this passage:

“Gen 47:18 And when that year was ended, they came and said to him ‘We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are our lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate’ 20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe in them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”

Did I say the Joseph story was about someone who was rewarded for behaving decently? Time for that retraction I mentioned in the previous post. OK, sure, he forgave his brothers and helped out his family. But in case you missed it, he just turned all the free landowners in all of Egypt into penniless, landless serfs! And he did it in exchange for the very food he was doling out to his own family for fucking free!

This is not insignificant douchebaggery. This is the impoverishment and enslavement of an entire people for personal gain (also, a part of the story that I don’t recall being taught in Sunday school). From a certain point of view, one could see the upcoming oppression of the Jews as just the Egyptians returning the fucking favor. Not that I’m saying it’s justified – propagation of your ancestors’ animosities is a shitty way to conduct a life and a society.

OK, so let’s get on to the end of the Joseph story (and with it, the book of Genesis).

So Joseph sets a statute that all the newly made serfs must pay a fifth of anything the land produces to Pharaoh (since they don’t really own any of it anyway). Years pass, and eventually it comes time for Israel/Jacob to die.

Jacob has Joseph bring his two sons to him, and declares that they should be considered as his own sons when it comes to their inheritance. He then gives them his blessing, and for no stated reason (and over Joseph’s objections) he places the younger one ahead of the older. Then Jacob calls in the rest of his sons to bless them as well. In doing so he strips Reuben of his firstborn status (for nailing with one of his concubines), and also demotes Simeon and Levi because of all the killing they did over Dinah’s rape. He elevates Judah to head of the pack (and, as we recall, Judah is kind of an asshole, so this doesn’t really speak all that well of Israel’s judgment). Anyhow, the descendants of each of the twelve brothers became the twelve tribes of Israel.

After giving his blessings, Jacob died. Then after a forty day embalming process (seriously?!) and seventy days of mourning, a huge procession took his body back to Canaan to bury him in the cave where Abraham had been buried. There’s a reiteration of the argument that the evil Joseph’s brothers did was really good, because God used it for good by bringing Joseph to Egypt to save all these lives (albeit in a vastly diminished quality of life, but that part isn’t mentioned in the argument).

Joseph lived to 110, and on his death bed made his brothers promise that when God took their people out of Egypt they would take his bones with them. Then he died, and Genesis is finally done.

So Genesis gets us from the creation of the world up through the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel. Next we’ll get into Exodus, which will cover the Hebrews descent into slavery and oppression in Egypt, followed by invading Canaan to become enslavers and oppressors in their own right. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Genesis: Dreaming Your Way to the Top

So after the weird aside with the sexual exploits of Judah and his children, the Bible brings us back to Joseph.

Remember that he had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s guard. And “the Lord was with Joseph,” so that he was successful at everything he did. Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with him,” and that everything he did succeeded, so he made Joseph the overseer of his entire household. But Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused her repeated advances she claimed to her husband that he’d tried to seduce her (or rape her – the language is kinda flowery and vague). So Potiphar put Joseph in prison.

The prison overseer took a liking to Joseph (once more attributed to God’s intervention. Whatever happened to free will? Though I suppose to this point there has been no mention whatsoever made of the concept of free will, so there’s no reason yet to suppose it exists). So Joseph gets put in charge of the activities of all the other prisoners.

After he’d been there awhile the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were put in prison for some unspecified offense. One night they both had troubling dreams, and in the morning Joseph noticed that they were kind of down. So he asked them about it.

“Gen 40:8 They said to him ‘We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.’ And Joseph said to them ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.’”

So Joseph is making the claim to either have a power reserved for God, or to speak for God. So the two men tell him their dreams, and he interprets them to mean that the cupbearer will be returned to Pharaoh’s favor and get his job back, while the baker is going to be hanged. And he asks the cupbearer to mention him to Pharaoh once he’s restored to favor, so he can be set free.

Three days later the baker is hanged, and the cupbearer is restored to favor but forgets to mention Joseph to Pharaoh (I guess accurate predictions of life-altering future events were so common and trivial back then that folks could just forget about specific episodes). So Joseph languished in prison for another two years.

Then Pharaoh has a couple troubling and related dreams. In one he sees seven fat cows eaten by seven skinny cows. In the other, he sees seven healthy ears of grain consumed by seven withered ears of grain. So he starts asking around his advisors if anyone can interpret his dreams, but none of them know of anyone. But then his cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, and mentions him to Pharaoh.

Pharaoh has Joseph brought to him to have his dreams interpreted. Joseph basically says he can’t interpret dreams, but if Pharaoh tells him the dreams then God will interpret them through him (does this sound to anyone else like standard psychic/medium schlock?). So Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream, and Joseph responds that God sent the dreams and they mean that there will be seven years of great plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He then goes on to say that Pharaoh should appoint someone wise to manage their food stores, and order that a portion of the food from the good years should be set aside and stored so there will be something to eat during the lean years.

Well naturally, the Pharaoh decided that this stranger, fortune-teller, and prisoner must surely be the wisest man in all the land, and therefore should get the job. Not only that, he essentially made Joseph his second in command over the entire kingdom (kinda funny that I’ve never really considered before whether this was reasonable behavior – but then, I was a child when I was taught this story). And gave him a wife (the daughter of the high priest of On). This wife, in the seven years that followed, bore him two sons: Manasseh, and Ephraim.

So Joseph had vast amounts of grain saved up during the seven years of plenty that followed. At the end of those seven years the famine began, and when people came to Pharaoh begging for food he told them to go see Joseph.

“Gen 41:56 So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.”

Fairly certain that “all the earth” is a gross exaggeration, though I suppose it might seem like a reasonable claim to an author ignorant of the true size of the earth and in how much of it people lived even back then. But to continue on… eventually Jacob (or Israel – he’s referred to by both names interchangeably in this story) hears that there’s grain for sale in Egypt. So he sends all of his sons except the youngest one Benjamin (the only one to share a mother with Joseph) to Egypt to buy some grain.

Joseph recognizes them when they arrive at the storehouse, but they don’t recognize him. So he decides to fuck with them a bit and accuses them of being spies. When they deny it, he has them thrown in prison (isn’t the abuse of absolute dictatorial power fun?). After a few days he comes to question them, and when they admit that they have another brother still back home, he tells them that the way they can prove themselves to be honest men is to return home and bring back their youngest brother.

Oh, and apparently most of this conversation takes place through an interpreter, as Joseph is pretending not to know his brothers’ language. But you don’t find this out until the end of the scene when it’s mentioned that Joseph is able to eavesdrop on his brothers’ conversations amongst themselves because they didn’t realize he could speak their language due to the presence of the interpreter. I have no way of judging the poetic merit of the script in the original Hebrew, but I can tell you this: failing to mention the interpreter and resultant linguistic deception until after the whole scene is almost over is crap storytelling.

Anyway, Joseph makes them leave one of their number, Simeon, as hostage against their return and sets the rest of them free. He sends them off with the grain they had purchased, and has one of his servants sneak the money they had paid for it back into their bags (embezzling from the Pharaoh’s coffers?).

They return home and tell Israel/Jacob what happened. He refuses to let Benjamin go back with them for fear that he might lose him (and seems to just write Simeon off as dead). Reuben offers to let Israel kill his own children if he fails to return with Benjamin, but for some odd reason the proposal to let Jacob kill some of his own grandkids to make up for losing a son doesn’t seem to hold much appeal (ya think?!). When they all discover their money is still in their bags, they’re scared that they might be accused of stealing it. So they don’t go back right away.

But eventually the grain starts to run out, and they have to consider going back to buy more. This time they manage to talk Israel into letting them take Benjamin with them, and Judah takes the responsibility for seeing that he is returned. Israel orders them to take presents to the man (Joseph), as well as the money that had been replaced in their packs after the previous trip.

This time when they meet Joseph and he sees that they have Benjamin with them, he has his steward instruct them to join him at his house. They try to give the steward the extra money that had been returned to them on the previous visit, but he tells them that their God had put the money in their packs and he had been paid. So even in a world where their God supposedly shows up and physically manifests to do impressive shit all the time, apparently it’s still OK to invent stuff that he did to give him credit for even when you know that an actual person was responsible.

But then, this part of the story is really about an elaborate prank Joseph is pulling on his dick brothers, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter much.

Anyway, there’s this big impressive meal with Joseph sitting at his table, the brothers sitting at theirs, and the Egyptians in the household sitting at yet a third (because eating with Hebrews is an abomination to Egyptians). Joseph shares the food from his table with his brothers, and Benjamin gets five times as much as the rest of them. Much merriment is had all around.

When the feast is over, Joseph instructs his steward to give them the food they came to buy, and to once again sneak the money they had paid back into their packs. But since he’s not done fucking with them yet, he also has his silver chalice snuck into Benjamin’s bags. Joseph waits a bit after they leave, then he sends the steward out to chase them down, arrest them and accuse them of stealing the chalice.

Of course the brothers are shocked, and invite the steward’s men to search their bags. And of course they find the chalice, and drag them all back to Joseph’s house where he informs them that he will be keeping Benjamin as a slave now. Now, since Judah had promised to take responsibility for Benjamin’s return, he takes Joseph aside for a word. And then he retells the whole fucking story of every goddamn thing that happened from the moment they first came to buy grain (forcing the reader’s eyes to glaze over for several verses), before finally getting to the point and offering to take Benjamin’s place in captivity.

Now, finally, Joseph can’t take it anymore and reveals his true identity to his brothers. And so there is a tearful reunion (slightly tinged by his brothers’ terror that the most powerful man in Egypt might have a grudge against them for the whole selling him into slavery thing).

OK… long story, and there’s still more to it, so I’m picking this as a good stopping point. The stuff that happens after this deserves its own posting, especially since I’ll be forced to partially retract my previous assertion that the Joseph story was about someone who behaved decently. Find out why, when we return!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Genesis: Technicolor Dream Coats

Hello again to anyone who’s reading, and welcome back to my little project of reading and commenting on the Bible.

I realize that, on a certain level, the style I’ve been adopting may be a little tedious. After all, I’m sorta recounting every story and not leaving out many details. Plus, I'm telling them in the order they appear rather than trying to group them into coherent narratives. And since the stories themselves are often tedious, poorly written, and/or nonsensical, some of that is going to bleed into recounting and commenting on them. But the reason I’m doing it is that the Sunday School version of the Bible story most of us get leaves so much out as to be almost entirely divorced from the actual text. So it’s a matter of giving context, and bringing out the details that ministers prefer to (for lack of a better word) hide when asking us to accept the Bible.

So that’s a little bit of what I’m thinking, and why you readers are being subjected to every single story I come across as I read. If it works for you, then by all means keep reading! If it doesn’t, comment and let me know if you’d prefer a different style.

Now back to the Bible. Today we start one of the most famous and well-loved stories of the Old Testament – possibly because it’s one of the very few in which someone behaves like a decent human being and is rewarded for it.

Israel (formerly Jacob) is now settled in Canaan once again with his 12 sons. One of them, Joseph, is his favorite, and Israel gave him a robe of many colors. Now, the Bible says he’s his favorite “because he was the child of his old age,” which seems inaccurate to me. Joseph was the first child born to him by Rachel. The last child whose birth was recorded (and therefore who best qualifies as “child of his old age”) was Benjamin, who Rachel died giving birth to. But maybe it’s just meant to suggest that when Israel was an old man, Joseph was the son who still hung around to help him out.

Anyhow, since Israel is apparently sufficiently unsubtle about Joseph being his favorite that all his other sons are aware of it (and since Joseph has a history of “making a bad report of them” – aka tattling), Joseph’s brothers are not his biggest fans. It doesn’t get any better when, at seventeen, he tells them about a dream he had in which they were all collecting sheaves of wheat, and all their sheaves came and bowed down to his (“Ha ha ha! Someday you’ll all be my bitches!”). Then he steps it up a notch with a dream in which the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed before him (“Not only you, but mom and dad too!”). Young Joseph was kind of a brat.

A little while later the boys are out pasturing the flock near Shechem (remember that city where they killed all the men and stole all their livestock, women and children, then ran away for fear the neighbors might give them shit for it? Guess they’re feeling kind of ballsy after having gotten away with it). Isaac wants to know what they’re up to, so he sends his little favorite to go snitch on them. When Joseph arrives, he hears that his brothers aren’t there, but in some other town called Dothan.

When Joseph finally catches up with them, they decide that the way to deal with their snotty little bro is to kill him and dump him in a pit. Fine bunch of young men, aren’t they? But the oldest, Reuben, managed to convince them it would be better to leave him in a pit to die of exposure rather than just kill him, since somehow that would mean that his blood wasn’t really on their hands (apparently logic wasn’t a strong suit with them either). Though apparently Reuben’s real intent was to wait for his brothers to go away, then rescue Joseph when they weren’t looking. So good on him.

He didn’t get the chance, though. While the brothers were having lunch, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites heading by. And Judah convinced the others that as long as they were getting rid of Joseph, they might as well get some profit out of it. So they sold him to the Ishmaelites as a slave, who in turn took him to Egypt and sold him to the captain of the Pharoah’s guard. The brothers then took Joseph’s pretty multicolored robe, slashed it up and spilled a goat’s blood on it, and gave it to Isaac with the story that Joseph had been killed and eaten by a wild animal. Then we get Israel’s reaction:

“Gen 37:35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.”

Now, I hadn’t actually encountered the word “Sheol” before coming across it reading the Bible, but I had heard from my Jewish friends that they don’t actually believe in Hell. So I was curious what this was about, and decided to look it up. The grossly simplified version is that it is the Jewish version of the land of the dead, where all the dead go regardless of their state of morality, piety, etcetera. The dead wait there in silence, mere shadows of their living selves and in more or less the spiritual/emotional state they were in at the end of their lives. Sheol is physically located deep underground, at the furthest possible distance from God in his heaven.

This is kind of a far cry from the Hell of Christian imaginings with all of its tortures and burnings, but neither is it anything like the Christian Heaven. It’s a completely different (and somewhat unpleasant) conception of an afterlife that reminds me more of the Greek Hades. And I have to wonder why it isn’t mentioned at all in the creation account, since it seems that any given person will spend a damn sight more of their existence hanging out in Sheol than they will spend on earth. Most of the descriptions I found in looking it up made only the sketchiest of references to the Bible as source material, which sort of implies most of the ideas about it aren’t actually contained in the Bible. You’d think it would be worth describing.

Maybe it gets some attention later on, since it seems to me it would be a pretty huge oversight in describing Biblical cosmology to leave it without description.

So after the brothers give their little tale to Israel, the Bible goes off on a weird little aside and kind of ignores the Joseph story for a bit. It diverts to tell the story of his brother Judah, who soon after selling his brother into slavery married a Canaanite woman (we don’t get her name because she’s a woman, though her father was named Shua). With her, he had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah in that order. Er grew up to marry a woman named Tamar. Now, I’m gonna give you a long quote here because what happens to Er and Onan is pretty fucked up and the wording is important. And this is not a story they tell much in Sunday school – again, never heard about it until I tried reading the Bible.

“Gen 38:6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstbaorn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan ‘Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother’ 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went into his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”

That’s pretty fucked up, right? Aside from the irony of those Christians who want to ban books with graphic discussions of sex, I’m told that this passage is the Biblical basis for Christian proscriptions against masturbation.

Now… I know sex education is not a big Christian thing. So I’m going to share a little information that you may not have been exposed to: what was described in that passage was not masturbation. Onan was having sex with his brother’s widow, but pulling out before ejaculating in order to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant. He was doing this because, culturally, those children would have been considered his brother’s children, which would have entitled them to his brother’s (Er’s) portion of any inheritance from Judah. Whereas if Er had no heirs, that portion would belong to Onan. That was Onan’s crime – not spanking his monkey, but screwing his brother’s widow because he’s supposed to give his brother heirs, but deliberately refusing to impregnate her.

There’s been a lot of interesting research on masturbation in recent years. And that research pretty much concludes that it’s healthy and good. Aside from feeling pretty good, it’s associated with all kinds of medical and psychological benefits such as lowered stress, higher reported happiness, even lower prostate cancer rates. That’s right: it fucking prevents cancer and priests are demonizing it because they fail at reading comprehension! I mean, it would be a stupid prohibition even if the Bible actually said it, but this just means it’s doubly stupid.

By the way…in what way was Er wicked in God’s sight such that he deserved to die? Bible never says. Guess the author was too anxious to get to the coitus interruptus portion of the story to worry about giving credible explanations for what led to it.

Anyhow, to get back to the story. After Onan dies, Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father until his youngest son is old enough to give her Er’s babies. But since two of his sons have already died while married to her, Judah’s afraid to lose the third and so when Shelah grows up he doesn’t send him to fetch Tamar.

Sometime after Judah’s wife dies Tamar gets sick of waiting, so she disguises herself as a prostitute (by putting on a veil) and waits by the road where she knows Judah will be passing by. Judah sees her, and decides to hire her. They settle on a young goat as her payment, but since he doesn’t have one on him at the time he agrees to leave his signet ring, cord, and staff as collateral. So Judah does the deed with his daughter-in-law (thinking she’s a prostitute), and she gets pregnant. Later Judah sends a friend of his to deliver the goat to the “prostitute,” but of course she’s not there. And Judah decides not to pursue it because he’d be ashamed to be seen asking around and trying to track down a prostitute.

“Gen 38:24 About three months later Judah was told ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’”

Given that he’d sold his own brother into slavery, is it any real surprise that Judah is such a fucking hypocrite? Let her be burned? For having sex? From a guy who was out visiting prostitutes? Seriously?! And what kind of society does he live in where just some guy could give such an order and seriously expect it to be followed?

But anyhow, Tamar sent him the staff, signet, and cord he’d given her as collateral on the goat, with a note saying “I’m pregnant by the guy who owns this stuff. Recognize it?” Then he at least had the decency to realize he was a douche. But while he apparently let her live, nothing is ever said of him doing anything to make up for being such a jerk.

Tamar gave birth to twin boys. During the birth one of the babies reached out a hand first, and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around his hand to mark him as the firstborn, but then the hand drew back and the other twin was actually born first. I’m not sure if that’s medically possible – it’s not like the birth canal is a roomy place, and I’m fairly certain that once you’re far enough along to get a hand out into the air there’s no turning back.

Whew! Long post today! I hope it was at least interesting to read. Next one gets us back to the Joseph story.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Genesis: A Woman Actually Defended… by Massive Overreaction

When we last left off, Jacob had just reconciled with his brother Esau.

Next Jacob set up his tents outside the city of Shechem, and bought a plot of land to settle on. And while he was there, Shechem, the son of the local prince Hamor, raped his daughter Dinah. Afterwards, Shechem decided he had to have her as a wife, and he and his dad went to Jacob to ask for her hand. And actually, Hamor seemed to want to turn the thing into a full-fledged alliance with Jacob’s people settling down and intermarrying with his own. But Dinah’s brothers were… well… less than pleased about a courting process that involved raping their sister.

So they told Hamor and Shechem that their women couldn’t marry their men unless they were circumcised. Hamor was so eager for this alliance that he readily agreed to have all the men in his city cut off their foreskins in order to secure it (people seem to have been awful cavalier about cutting their penises back then).

So all the men were circumcised. And while they were lying around hurting and recovering from Bronze Age surgery, Jacob’s sons went into the city and killed every last motherfucker of them. Shechem and Hamor, and every single man in the city. Then they plundered their houses, took their livestock, and enslaved all the women and children.

OK… I agree that rape is a heinous crime. And I might be persuaded to buy the argument that Shechem, and maybe even his father (who could be seen to be sanctioning that crime in this story) deserved to die for it. At least by the standards of the day. But that every man in the city deserved to die, and all their women and children enslaved? Oh, fuck no!

Now Jacob rebuked his sons – not so much because he thought killing and enslaving a bunch of people was bad, but because by doing so they had probably pissed off the people of the surrounding cities and he was afraid of retribution. So on God’s orders, they set out for Bethel (which is where Jacob had the dream of the ladder to heaven and made an altar from the stone he slept on). So Jacob collects up all the idols of all other god that any of his people might have had, buried them, and set out for Bethel. God made the occupants of the cities they passed too scared to oppose them.

Then God came to Jacob and (once again) changed his name to Israel. And then, since it hadn’t been done in a couple chapters, he promised to give him multitudes of descendants who would get to have all the land around him. Jacob built him another altar, then they hit the road again toward Ephrath. Rachel went into labor on the road, and died giving birth to Jacob’s (now Israel’s) twelfth son. Oh, and somewhere along the line the eldest son Reuben slept with one of Israel’s concubines and Israel found out. But apparently nothing was done about it, or at least nothing worth reporting in the text.

At last, Israel finds his way home in time for Isaac’s death, so he and his brother Esau can bury him.

Now… you remember how Jacob and Esau had their falling out in the first place? Isaac’s final blessing, as he was blind, frail, and convinced he was dying any day now. After that, Jacob (Israel) was gone for twenty friggin’ years! Did Isaac lay around dying for twenty years? Did he have some miraculous return to health, and then die twenty years later? Literally nothing is said about what happened to him in the intervening twenty years, so I guess we’re left to assume he just lay there slowly dying. Once again, shitty storytelling.

The entire next chapter, a full 43 verses, is nothing but a list of Esau’s male descendants told in a really confusing manner that seems deliberately structured to make readers’ eyes glaze over.

Break time! Next we can get into a story familiar to most everyone who ever went to Sunday School: Joseph and his coat of many colors.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Genesis: God’s WWF Debut, and Family Reunions

OK, so when I left off in the last post, Jacob was on his way home to Canaan after an epic twenty-year Battle of the Bullshit with his uncle. He’s returning a rich man, with 4 wives, 11 sons, and at least one daughter, and a whole bunch of livestock.

As he’s getting closer to home, he starts to worry that Esau might still be holding a grudge. So he sends some servants to go ahead and let Esau know he’s coming, and see how he seems to feel about it. When they get back, they tell him Esau is on his way to meet him, and bringing four hundred men.

Now Jacob’s pissing his pants, afraid Esau is coming to kill him. So he quickly pulls a whole bunch of livestock out of his herd, divides them into three groups, and sends servants to take each group ahead one after the other. The servants in each group are instructed to tell Esau that the livestock are gifts from Jacob, who will be following after them (so that each time Esau encounters a group, they’re giving him another huge gift while building anticipation to meet the gift giver).

That night he sends his family across the river. And I find the phrasing interesting.

“Gen 32:22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.”

Now, back when Leah and Rachel were having the conception wars and each gave Jacob one of their servants to impregnate, the specific phrasing in each case was “she gave him her servant as a wife.” But now we see them demoted to “female servants,” and later one of them is referred to as a concubine. So the Bible is inconsistent about how it describes them, but I suspect “concubine” is the closest to what is intended. The other interesting thing about the phrasing is that it says eleven children. But I counted eleven sons and one daughter (i.e. twelve children). I guess the daughter doesn’t count.

Anyhow, he sends them across the stream, but he stays behind.

“Gen 32:24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”

Soooo… what the fuck?! One second Jacob is ushering his family across the stream, the next he’s suddenly in the middle of WWF Summer Slam? There’s literally no transition, no context… he’s alone, and then he’s wresting some dude. That’s what we call crap writing.

Now I should point out that it’s revealed later in the scene that the man Jacob is wrestling with is none other than God himself. God blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel, though for some reason the Bible and everyone else continue to refer to him as Jacob, and God has to rename him again later.

And I just have to wonder… what the hell is the point of this scene? Are we supposed to believe Jacob actually wrestled the all-powerful maker of the universe and won? Given that this isn’t even remotely possible, either God deliberately threw the match and thus Jacob’s “victory” was meaningless, or the scene is just a metaphor. As in… not literally true. But I wonder what lesson we should learn from a metaphor in which someone wrestles with their faith and defeats it.

I’m afraid the reunion with Esau is much less exciting. Jacob meets Esau, Esau greets him with hugs and tears of joy and forgiveness. Esau tries to refuse the gifts, but Jacob insists. Then Esau offers to have them all travel home together, but Jacob says his herds and children wouldn’t be able to keep up so Esau should go ahead and they’d catch up later. Esau departs, and Jacob goes to Succoth instead (wtf? Even when reconciling he couldn’t be assed to tell the truth? But I guess untrustworthy people tend to see others as untrustworthy as well, and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident that Esau had really forgiven him).

This seems as good a break point as any. Next post will feature rape and mass murder as we continue reading from the Good Book.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Genesis: You Might Be a Biblical Hero if…

When we left off, Jacob had just stolen Isaac’s blessing to Esau, thereby having all of his brothers turned into his servants. With this magical spell accomplished, we now find Esau in a pretty pissed off frame of mind. Rebekah or one of her servants overhears him muttering about killing Jacob, and she decides that it might be best to get her younger son out of town for a bit until tempers subside.

So she tells Isaac that she will absolutely die if Jacob marries one of the local women, so they should send him to stay with her brother and find a wife there. Actually, Isaac specifically tells Jacob to marry one of his uncle’s daughters.

Esau hears that they’re sending Jacob away to marry back into the family because the local Canaanite women (such as Esau’s current two wives) aggravate them. So, in an effort yet again to please his parents, he goes to visit his uncle Ishmael and marries one of his daughters.

If your family tree does not fork, you might be a Biblical hero.

Funny how, in each of my previous attempts to read this thing I never really paid attention to just how heavily this family married back into itself. I realize populations and communities were smaller back then, but they did live among other unrelated (or at least more distantly related) people. Yet they obsessively avoid marrying outside the family (and when they do, notice that the offspring of those unions are always second class in these stories).

Back to the story. Jacob starts his journey, and along the way he stops to sleep. He has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven, atop which stands God. Once again… promises… multitudes of children… other people’s land… yawn. When Jacob wakes up he builds a little shrine to God, topping it with the rock he’d used as a pillow when he was having his dream, then promises to give a tenth of all he earns to God.

Jacob travels on, and eventually gets to his uncle Laban’s house. Laban has two daughters: the older and less attractive is Leah, and the younger and more beautiful is Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to work for him for seven years in exchange for getting to marry Rachel. Here’s a fun little gem when the seven years are up:

“Gen 29:21 Then Jacob said to Laban ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed’”

I suppose it was normal in the time period to explicitly refer, in direct conversation with a man, to screwing his daughter? Because most fathers I know today are a little uncomfortable discussing the subject of their daughters having sex, even if it is with her husband or husband-to-be.

Anyway, after a big feast, Laban took his daughter to Jacob’s bedchamber, and Jacob “went into her.” Only in the morning, it turns out the daughter he brought was Leah. Now, apparently, they were considered married at this point? Apparently tricking people into screwing one of your daughters is just as legally binding as tricking people into giving blessings to the wrong recipient.

Jacob was kinda pissed about the deception (and, I mean, the guy was kind of a tool, but you do realize that this was a case of Leah raping him, right?), and demands to know why his uncle did that to him. Laban makes the excuse that it’s just not done to marry off the younger daughter before the elder. Then he tells Jacob that if he keeps sleeping with Leah for a week, he’ll get to marry Rachel right away in exchange for another seven years of service. So he agrees, and goes on to marry Rachel.

Jacob continues to prefer Rachel, so Leah starts popping out babies as fast as she can hoping that if she keeps bearing him sons he’ll start to love her better. It doesn’t work, but Rachel starts getting jealous because she doesn’t seem to be getting pregnant. So she gives Jacob her servant to impregnate, and claims those babies as her own. Leah doesn’t want Rachel to get ahead, so she gives Jacob her own servant for the same purpose. Then Rachel starts having babies of her own. Between the four women, they pump out twelve sons over the next several years.

So at the end of his term, Jacob goes to Laban and asks to get paid for his work so he can go home. They work out that Laban will let Jacob take any speckled or spotted goats and sheep, and any black lambs, that he finds in the flock. But before he can go make his selections, Laban has his sons separate out all of the animals that meet that description and take them to pasture 3 days travel away so Jacob can’t find them.

So Jacob puts his tremendous knowledge of genetics and breeding to come up with a scheme. He takes sticks and strips off part of the bark so that they have a speckled appearance, and lays them in front of the herd when they are breeding. And because they bred in the presence of speckled sticks, the make speckled babies. And of course this works, because the author of this piece of fiction has no knowledge of how animals pass traits on to their young (hint: it’s not based on what they’re looking at when they conceive).

Then he goes one better. He makes sure to put the sticks out only when the strongest, healthiest animal are breeding, and hides them when the weakest ones are breeding. That way his animals will be strong and healthy, while the ones that Laban is supposed to keep will be weak and sickly.

After awhile, Jacob hears that Laban had noticed the difference between the flocks and was getting pissed off about it. So he goes to his wives, tells them that God had given him his wonderful speckled flocks, and now was commanding him to return to his own lands. They agree to go with him, Rachel steals Laban’s household gods (idols of some sort, I assume?) and they sneak away while Laban is off shearing his sheep. When Laban finds out, he chases after them. God warns him in a dream not to fuck with Jacob. When he catches up with them, he accuses them of stealing his gods, and Jacob invites Laban to search his tents. Rachel hides the gods under her saddle and sits down on it, claiming she can’t get up because she’s having her period. This transparent little ruse works, and then once Jacob and Laban bitch at each other for a bit they agree to go their separate ways.

Gonna stop here, since this entry has gone on far too long. But now we know how Jacob came to marry his cousins, develop a harem, have a bunch of kids, and got rich by besting his uncle at a contest of who was better at being a dick. Next we see Jacob’s reunion with Esau.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Genesis: Yeah… Jacob’s Kind of a Jerk

Today we get into one of the more messed up stories I’ve read so far. Not “messed up” in that the characters behave badly (though they do), but more in that it’s just complete nonsense. Hopefully, you’ll see what I mean.

Isaac is getting old, and going blind. Worried that he could die any day now, he wants to give a final blessing to his eldest son Esau. So he calls Esau in and tells him to go hunt him up something good to eat, and once it’s prepared he’ll go ahead and bless Esau.

Now Rebekah overhears this conversation. And since Jacob is her favorite, she’d rather he get Isaac’s blessing than Esau. So she tells Jacob to snag a goat from the herd, prepare it the way daddy likes it, and impersonate Esau so blind old Isaac will bless him instead. When he points out that Esau is much hairier than him, she tells him to wear the skins of young goats on his hands and neck so if Isaac feels him it won’t give away the game (it’s not enough for poor Esau to be continually taken advantage of, the author – or cruel God/genetics, depending how factual you think any of this is - has to make him this big hairy gorilla as well).

So Jacob goes and gets a goat, and his mom prepares it for Isaac to eat. Then she dresses him up in Esau’s clothes and covers him with goat hair, then sends him in to Isaac. At first Isaac is skeptical that it’s Esau, because it sounds like Jacob, and he got back from his hunt too fast. But Jacob claims that God provided game for his hunt, and Isaac feels the goat hair on his hands and smells Esau’s clothing, and is finally convinced that Jacob really is Esau. So he gives him his blessing.

“Gen 27:27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said ‘See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed! 28 May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. 29 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!’”

So Jacob departs, and almost immediately Esau returns from his hunt. He prepares his food and takes it in to Isaac. It doesn’t take too long for them to figure out what had happened. Now, you might expect at this point that Jacob might be called in, roundly berated, told that all the shit in the blessing really applies to Esau, and he can pretty much fuck off. But no, this is the Bible, so insanity must prevail. Thus we get:

“Gen 27:37 Isaac answered and said to Esau ‘Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?’ 38 “Esau said to his father ‘Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me also, O my father.’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.”

That’s right. These dipshits actually think that the words spoken to Jacob are legally and mystically binding, and that nothing can be done about it. Now, I realize that they’re both the products of intensive inbreeding, and Isaac is both near death and the victim of severe childhood trauma when his psycho dad nearly cut him open and set him on fire for God, but c’mon! These are grown men expected to be the heads of their households, and they’re both batshit insane!

And when you think about it, both Jacob and Rebekah believe the same thing or they wouldn’t have gone through all this effort to steal the blessing.

It occurs to me that these people seem to be operating on a very different definition of “blessing” than what we think of nowadays. Generally, I think most of us think of a blessing as a request for God to intervene for someone’s benefit. Well, if that were the case here, the solution would be simple. If God is all-knowing, then he knows the intent of the blessing and Esau is all set. If God is fallible, Isaac could simply pray to God and correct the error.

But these guys are acting like the words as spoken contain power independent of the intent behind them, and that makes them irreversible. That’s not a blessing as we understand it – that’s a magic spell! It’s an incantation. Isaac is performing sorcery.

Anyhow, Isaac gives Esau a separate blessing that reinforces the idea that he has to serve his brother now, but includes a loophole to allow him to break out of that servitude at a later date. Whatever.  It’s a whole lot of backstabbing, conniving, and misery over nonsense. Illustrative, perhaps, in its own way.

That’s it for today! Tune in next time when we find out how Jacob comes to marry his cousins!

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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Genesis: Finishing Abe

After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abe moves on and eventually comes to Gerar. Once again, scared that people will kill him to steal his wife, he pulls out the old “She’s my sister,” ruse. Naturally Abimelech, the king, falls for Abraham’s barren, post-menopausal wife (I guess she’s so beautiful that even as an old lady incapable of bearing heirs, she’s irresistible to kings everywhere. Way to go, Sarah!). This time around, God sees fit to inform Abimelech in a dream of her marital state before he gets a chance to consummate the marriage. Abimelech gets up the next day and goes to confront Abraham, demanding to know why they lied to him. Abraham’s response is a reveal of Jerry Springer-like proportions.

“Gen 20:11 Abraham said ‘I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.’”

Did you catch that? Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is his half-sister! And remember that Abraham’s brother married his niece. Springer would pay good money to get this family on his show.

Oh, and just toss in the casual assumption that people who don’t follow his God can’t possibly have any moral sense. Some attitudes just haven’t changed to this day.

Anyhow, after this Abimelech gave Abraham gifts of animals and silver (as opposed to kicking his ass for being a lying shit). Somehow this payoff was supposed to be a sign that he hadn’t banged Sarah. Though it’s interesting that after this incident is when she finally conceives a son (by Abraham, wink wink).

So Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Then she convinces Abe to kick Hagar and Ishmael out on their own so they won’t be a threat to Isaac’s inheritance. More deals with Abimelech (who seems awful accommodating for someone who’s been lied to and made fool of). Which brings us to the signature act of faith of the Abraham story.

“Gen. 22:1 After these things God tested Abrham and said to him ‘Abraham!’ And he said ‘Here am I!’ 2 He said ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’”

Naturally, Abraham pleaded for the life of his son, and… nah, just fucking with you. He packed up his knife and his kindling and set out to sacrifice his son without so much as a word of protest. And by the way… what’s with this “your only son…” bullshit? It’s pretty well established that Abraham has another son. The firstborn, even. Remember Ishmael?

Of course, we all know the story. Abraham takes his son, trusses him up and puts him on the altar, takes up the knife to kill him and a torch to set his corpse on fire, and then an angel puts a stop to the whole travesty. Now in Sunday school (yes, they actually do teach kids in Sunday school that parents who really love God should be willing to kill them if he asks them to), they like to spin this tale like “See what a good man of faith Abraham was?” rather than “See what a fucking psychopath Abraham was?”

They also like to make a big deal out of the fact that God didn’t actually let him go through with it. But so what? I mean, I suppose it’s a good thing Isaac didn’t have to actually die, but that’s not really the point. The point is that 1) Abraham believed he served the type of God that demanded human sacrifice, 2) he was willing to do it, and 3) that God is, at the very least, the type of God who wants followers willing to commit human sacrifice, and of their own children no less. That, my friend, is a trifecta of fucked up. And yet this story is routinely held up as a shining example of exemplary behavior!

And yet… I take some comfort in the fact that I suspect even Christians don’t really buy it. When people murder their own children and use the excuse that God told them to do it, after all, you never see a groundswell of support for their behavior on the basis that if God wants you to kill your kids, then that’s what you should do. We lock those people up as a threat to others, as well we should.

But getting back to the story. In response to Abe’s willingness to slaughter his own kid (that’s not prejudicial phrasing; the Bible actually uses the word “slaughter”), God promises once again to give him bucketloads of descendants who get to have the Canaanites’ land. He literally prefaces the promise with “Because you have done this…” which rather raises the question that, if Abe hadn’t been willing to sacrifice his kid, would that have nullified all of God’s previous promises?

Earlier I compared the God character portrayed in this story to the nerdy rich kid trying to buy Abraham’s affection by promising him stuff. But this is taking on more of a mafia boss scenario. He starts out with the generous promise to get him feeling indebted, then starts adding more and more requirements steering him toward greater and greater efforts on his behalf.

Gonna continue on a little bit, because the Abraham story is just about over. Sarah dies, and he buys a cave to bury her in. Then there’s an involved and repetitive story in which he sends his head servant to find a wife for Isaac. Specifically, he sends him to his brother’s family. And the wife he brings back is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother and niece. Keep on keepin’ it in the family!

Then we move on to Abraham remarrying, having a bunch of other kids, dying and being buried with Sarah, concluding with more boring-as-hell genealogy.

Next we get on to the lives of Isaac and his kids Esau and Jacob. And Jacob’s a real piece of work!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Genesis: A Lot of Lot

Good news if anyone cares – our offer on the house has been accepted. No longer shall we be dependent on the in-laws for living space! Much rejoicing will be had throughout the land.

But, back to the Bible. We left off with the genital mutilation of the Abraham household, and we’re about to jump into the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This starts with an interlude in which God and a couple angels show up at Abraham’s tent to promise him once again that Sarah will bear him a son and he’ll have buttloads of descendants who get to have other people’s land given to them. Literally this chapter starts with God showing up to make the exact same promise he made at the end of the previous chapter (and about twelve times in previous chapters as well). The repetition is getting pretty mind-numbing. We get it: Abraham will have many descendants, and they get free land at other people’s expense. It’s as if the authors are hoping that if they keep drumming it into your head over and over, it’ll numb you into accepting that the atrocities that show up later in fulfilling the promise are justified.

So after the latest iteration of the same old promise, the angels get up and leave on their way to Sodom. God explains to Abraham that they’re going to see if the place is as bad as he’d heard (he doesn’t know?), and if it is then they’re going to destroy it. What follows is a portion of the story that I don’t recall ever being covered in my Sunday school.

Abraham starts negotiating with God. Starting out with kissing the divine ass a bit, he then suggests that such a great and wonderful god wouldn’t destroy a city if there were 50 righteous people there. And God agrees that OK, if there are 50, then he won’t destroy the city. And it goes on…

“Gen 18:27 “Abraham answered and said ‘Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And [God] said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’”

So this goes on, with Abraham mixing self-abasement and flattery, until he has talked God down to sparing the city for 10 righteous people. Just a funny little aside since it seems to have no effect on the course of the story – I wonder if it was thrown in there to be humorous.

Moving on to the portion of the story we’re mostly familiar with, we rejoin the angels, disguised as men, as they arrive at Sodom and are greeted by Lot. He immediately offers them shelter in his home, convincing them to abandon their plan to spend the night in the town square. Before too long, every single man in the city shows up, demanding that Lot send his guests out so they can have sex with them (I have to wonder… is the image of roving rape mobs the one fundamentalists have in their heads whenever they think of gay men?). Lot heroically steps out of the house, and gives a courageous speech standing up for everyone in his household.

OK, that last part was a lie. This is what Lot actually said to the crowd.

“Gen. 19:6 Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, 7 and said ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’”

Now, I have a daughter. Just thinking of her being raped makes me so angry I break out in a sweat. But this guy… this guy offers up both of his virgin daughters to be gang raped by a mob. And at this point the mob hadn’t even threatened him yet. He hadn’t tried to reason with them or anything, with this option being tossed out as the last ditch effort. No… “Rape my daughters, please,” was his go-to move.

Now, given Uncle Abraham’s willingness to pimp his own wife out to save his own ass, and the general contempt the Bible displays for all things female, perhaps this attitude (as nauseating as it is) shouldn’t be all that surprising. But you find out a few verses later that these girls are also betrothed to be married, and their fiancés are asleep in the house blissfully unaware of their would-be father in law’s efforts to get their intended wives gang-raped. So I’m pretty sure that even by Biblical standards this Lot guy is a complete tool.

But the men of Sodom want nothing to do with raping girls when there are strange men around they can rape instead, and now the threats start flying. So the angels drag Lot back into the house and blind everyone in the mob. When Lot seems unwilling to flee the city, the angels drag him and his family away (except for the girls’ fiancés, who think the impending destruction of the city is just a joke).

Once they’re out of the city the angels tell them to flee and not look back. Lot’s (nameless) wife looks back, and is turned into a pillar of salt. Because that makes sense.

Now we get to another part of the Lot story that doesn’t come up much in Sunday school. Afraid to stay in a nearby city, he takes his daughters up into the hills to live in a cave. After awhile, the girls start to despair of ever finding a man to give them babies. So they hatch a plan:

“Gen 19:31 And the firstborn said to the younger ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.’ 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.”

The next night they got him drunk again, and the younger daughter repeated the process. Both women got pregnant, and the Moabites and Ammonites were descended from those incest babies.

Now… whoever wrote this passage may not be familiar with a little concept colloquially known as “whiskey dick.” It’s pretty simple. If a guy gets drunk enough, he can’t get it up. Lot here is apparently sufficiently blotto that he’s able to sleep through sex. One might think performance would be an issue here. Or that perhaps the “getting so drunk he didn’t even notice getting fucked” scenario is a dodge to make the girls look like the villains in their molestation by their father. Or perhaps even more likely… someone noticed that the Sodom story made Lot look like a complete shit for offering his daughters to a rape mob, and they decided to tack this story on as a way of saying “No, look! They were incestuous whores and totally deserved it!” Plus it created an opportunity to smear the ancestry of the Ammonites and Moabites (any bets on whether some Hebrews will be in conflict with Moabites and Ammonites later in the book?).

Since that seems to be it for Lot for the moment, and the narrative switches back to Abraham, this seems like as good a place as any to break. Until next time!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Genesis: Founder’s Day

More eye-glazing genealogy lists. But the writer is getting more egalitarian. The daughters are still nameless, but their existence is acknowledged. And most of the sons are nameless as well, as the author is really only focusing on the line that leads directly to Abram (the guy who will later be renamed Abraham). At the end of it we see our first explicitly acknowledged episode of incest: Abram’s brother marries his niece. Also, turns out that Lot (yes, that Lot, the one from the Sodom stories) was Abram’s nephew.

Abram’s story kinda meanders all over the place, just like Abram himself. When he’s 75, God tells him to go traveling through Canaan. Lot joins him, and of course they take their households and all. And while Abram is wandering through Canaan, God promises (for no stated reason) to give his descendants all the land he’s touring despite the fact that there are already people living there. So Abram wanders around kicking the tires a bit and building altars to God until there’s a famine and he decides to cruise down to Egypt in search of greener pastures.

This is where we get our first real glimpse of Abram’s personality. Spoiler alert: he’s kind of a douche.

See, apparently Abram has a little hottie of a wife named Sarai (barren, btw). And he’s afraid that, since she’s so beautiful, Pharaoh might kill him in order to have her for himself. So he tells her to pretend she’s just his sister so that instead of killing him Pharaoh will give him goodies for her. Sure enough, Pharaoh falls for Sarai and marries her, and gives Abram all kinds of good stuff for being his “brother-in-law” (re: cuckold). Of course, God rains down plagues on Pharaoh as punishment (because it’s totally his fault that he was deceived into marrying what he thought was an available woman – but he’s a descendant of Ham who laughed at Noah’s junk, so he totally had it coming anyway). Once Pharaoh realizes what’s going on, he tells Abram to take his wife and get the fuck out of Egypt.

So yeah… Abram has all this special favor from God, who’s following him around promising him shit like the nerdy rich kid trying to buy the cool kid’s friendship. God could totally protect him from Pharaoh if he wanted (and would kind of have to if he was going to fulfill any of those promises). But instead of relying on that, Abram decides the best thing to do to deal with a threat nobody even made would be to pimp his wife. ‘Cause, you know, why not? It’s not like women were real human beings anyway. And nothing in the text so much as implies that he was wrong to do it.

I wonder if he spent the rest of his life wondering if she was thinking of Pharaoh whenever they got it on.

Anyhow, with all of his ill-gotten gains, Abram and Lot are now getting so rich that traveling together is getting difficult, on account of trying to find enough forage for their massive herds. So they decide to split up, and Lot goes to settle in Sodom. There’s a bit about Lot getting captured in a war between a metric shitload of different kings (near as I can tell, pretty much every city in the region had its own king), and Abram going out to rescue him.

So then God promises again to give Abram descendants and give the land all around to them. Abram asks how he will know this is true (what? Questioning God?). So God tells him to sacrifice a bunch of animals to him, and afterwards tells Abram the same fucking promise in a dream, and adds some bits foreshadowing the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt. So… somehow God making a promise in a dream constitutes proof, when him making it in person does not. That’s a pretty fucked up mindset, if you ask me.

But that’s pretty much the faith-based mindset in a nutshell: the idea that stuff that is not based in reality is somehow more reliable than stuff that is.

And while we’re talking about this episode, what’s with the sacrifices? Most Christians I know claim that it’s man’s fault that death is in the world because of the Fall, and that God didn’t want it. If that’s the case, why does God keep demanding that people kill shit in his name? He really seems to get off on death quite a bit, for a being who didn’t actually want it to exist.

Moving right along, Sarai decides that since she’s barren, Abram should impregnate one of her servants, an Egyptian woman named Hagar, instead. So he does, and she has a son named Ishmael, who God tells her will be a “wild donkey of a man.” Hilarious: “Your son will be an ass!” Who says there’s no humor in the Bible?

I know this is already running long, but if I get through the covenant of circumcision, we hit a good break point between that and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. So bear with me a little longer.

So you know how God keeps promising to give Abram and his descendants all these lands that already belong to other people? Well, he repeats that all again, just in case nobody believed him before. But this time there’s some sweetening of the deal (“deal” being used in a very loose sense, since at no point is it even implied that Abram’s consent is wanted or required). Now God says that all this can happen through a son Abram has with his real wife, Sarai (who God has decided gets to be not-barren now that she’s an octogenarian), instead of that asshole Ishmael. He just needs Abram to do a few little things first. Like change his name from Abram to Abraham, and his wife’s name from Sarai to Sarah (according to the footnotes, btw, Sarai and Sarah mean the exact same thing, so I guess this is really an arbitrary “you’ll change your name because I tell you to, bitch!” kinda thing). Oh, and cut off his foreskin. And that of his sons. And all his servants and slaves. And every male descendant will have to do the same thing. And Abraham went and did it.

“Gen. 17:23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house of bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.”

That’s the whole description of the events of carrying out the circumcisions. Very matter-of-fact. Personally, I think there might have been a bit of an uproar in the household when Abraham came home one day to announce “Guess what, everybody! God has declared it Genital Mutilation Day! Whip ‘em out and slap ‘em down on the butcher block!” You think maybe, just maybe, there might have been some resistance to the idea of cutting off pieces of everybody’s penises? Say, maybe from the possessors of said penises? I suspect there might have been. I imagine a bunch of slaves had to have it done by force (and if you imagine Biblical slavery was somehow benign, please dwell a moment on the plight of a bunch of men forcibly held down while a maniac sliced off bits of their genitals because said maniac owns them and the voices in his head told him to do it).

Or maybe it’s just badly written fiction in which two-dimensional characters react to situations in completely unrealistic ways in order to justify the narrative. Just tossing that out there.

Anyhow, this is a pretty good break point because next we get to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.