Some chapters are just action-packed: Genesis 21 is one of those. This chapter includes the birth of Isaac, the casting out of Ishmael and Hagar, and now a peace treaty between Abraham and Abimelech. You might remember that Abimelech had tried to take Sarah as a bride, only a chapter ago.
This story is a brief return, or perhaps a deliberate contrast, with the Abraham of Genesis 14. In that story, Abraham was a war-lord, a king in all but name. Abraham went to war against a host of Caananite kingdoms to rescue his nephew. Now, he’s suing for peace. Read on.
While I love the bible in translation, there are little moments that I miss for not being able to read the original Hebrew. All translations have to make difficult choices. Given a poem, for example, do we translate for the meaning or the meter of the verse? Should we fail at both and land in between? The bible contains poetry, of course, but these translation challenges happen whenever there is wordplay in the bible.
The birth of Isaac is one of the places where the humor, in this case the puns, simply don’t come through in our translations. In Hebrew, Isaac’s name means “he laughs”. (I have no way to verify this, but several of my bibles reference in this a footnote.) By a complete non-coincidence, the verb “laugh” happens all over the several chapters of Genesis that refer to Isaac. In fact, the verb appears in that story in Genesis more than it appears in any other book except the Psalms.
Let’s try an experiment. Let’s re-translate “Isaac” and “laughter” in the Isaac story as “Chuckles” (as a proper name) and “chuckle” (as a verb) and see what happens…
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and chuckled, and said in his heart: ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?’ … And God said: ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Chuckles;
Modified Genesis 17:17-19
Not too bad, right? Funny, but understated. The vision of Abraham “falling on his face” underscores the humor intended. Can a woman that old have a child? Preposterous!
Genesis 21 follows up and knocks this pun out of the park:
And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Chuckles. […] And Sarah said: ‘God hath made Chuckles [or chuckles] for me; every one that heareth will chuckle on account of me.’
God was very hard on Abraham’s relationship with his kids. Despite the fact that he would be “a great nation”, the choices (and commands) that God gave Abraham only served to separate him from his family. While the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is better known, it must have been all the more heart-wrenching to Abraham for one often overlooked reason: he had already sacrificed his fatherhood for his real first-born son. When God commanded him later to “Take now thy son, thine only son,” when he took Isaac up the mountain, those words must have stung twice over: both with regret for the son he had already lost, as much as for the one that he knew he was soon to lose.
After a long break with posts about holidays and marriage, I have returned to the Genesis stories. (The last was the second wife-sister story, where Abraham first meets Abimelech.) This will begin a short cycle (with one intermission to return to the Abimelech story) that will ultimately result in the loss of everything Abraham ever loved: Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and finally Sarah.
In honor of my first wedding anniversary, I’m doing a week-long look at marriage in the bible. Monday was marriage in the creation story, which first depicts something akin to marriage equality, before casting women below men after Eve’s sin. Tuesday was Levirate marriage, which describes a method by which widows can be married off to their spouse’s brother. Wednesday was polygamy, the one-sided practice of marriage plurality. These all dance around an uncomfortable truth: in many cases and in many ways, wives were property.
I should make clear of course that this doesn’t mean that the women in the Torah were subservient or weak, only that they were working in a system that was unkind to them. Read on!
No discussion of biblical marriage can be complete without the major elephant in the room: polygamy. Though modern Jews and Christians hold that marriage should be like Adam and Eve, one man and one woman, early Jews thought otherwise well into the post-Christian era. Echos of this practice still exist today in Islam as well as a few very fringe Mormon groups. (Mormonism as a whole outlawed the practice around forty years after the religion’s founding.)
If you are just joining us, this week in honor of my first wedding anniversary, I’m doing a post every day about a different aspect of marriage in the Torah. Monday was marriage in the creation story. Tuesday was Levrite marriage. Today, I’m digging into polygamy.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one… Abraham and his wife travel to a foreign country. They’re enjoying the sights, sampling the exotic food, but it doesn’t look good to be attached and so he asks his wife if she can, you know, pretend to be his sister for a few days… And then the leader of the country falls in love with her, abducts her, gets punished by God for his sin, and the couple get out as fast as they can. The end. Some jokes never get old.
Obviously, my posting schedule has not been what I would hoped it would be. But, I have promised a friend that I would post weekly again and so I will desperately try to do that, despite whatever other challenges life throws at me. And to start, I’m picking up where I left off: a brief survey of justice in the bible prior to Abraham.
As I said in my previous post, the genius of Abraham was not just that he argued with God’s punishment (the first biblical figure to do so), but rather that he seemed to articulate a UNIQUE (to Genesis) view on justice. Up to that point, I postulated, all punishments and rewards were to families and clans rather than individuals. With one huge exception, that’s true. His view was that a small number of good people could keep from punishment a larger number of bad people. What he didn’t do was what we really might wish he had done: request individual justice. Save the good people, punish the bad ones. That’s what we all look for in divine justice, isn’t it? Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But, this is the closest we come up to this point, so that’s something. “Sins of the father”, or clan-guilt, is never fully expunged from the Bible, though later passages will also stress individual justice and the Book of Job will suggests that not all apparent punishments are for crimes anyway.
Where we left off, Abraham and Ishmael had just been circumcised, accepting the covenant with God. The following chapters (summary after the break) paint a complex story of punishment, of two men’s relationships with God, and how sometimes a weaker man can do more than a strong one.
This story also marks a turning point: The first time that a man (Abraham) argues with God and wins. It is also the moment where it appears that God’s vision of justice begins slowly to turn from the clan- or family-based justice to individual justice. It won’t get there until the Book of Ezekiel, but it’s a good start. More on that in the next post.
But what do you say about a man who selflessly puts his own butt on the line (rather literally) while trying to save a group of strangers from a rape gang? If he’s Lot, you call him a buffoon.
Va-Yera is the fourth weekly Torah portion, spanning Genesis chapters 18 to 22. This portion continues the narrative of Abraham and his family through two huge events: the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and the Binding of Isaac, where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his second son as a test of his loyalty.
The name “Va-Yera” means “And He appeared”, after the first several words of the portion. One can argue that these names are meaningless because the first words are chosen rather than a description, but the textual breaks are flexible enough that the rabbis who codified the names had a great deal of control over what each was called. In this passage, the “He” of course refers to God in his meeting with Abraham while en route to Sodom and Gomorrah. But on a more spiritual level, this portion shows God appearing in a way that He had not in previous sections of Genesis: he is showing his authority and power in a very public way that is as much a warning to others as it is a direct punishment for misdeeds. When God punished mankind in the flood narrative, the punishment was so universal that almost no one could have taken it as an example to do better. When God assisted Abraham in his struggles against Egypt and Chedorloamer, he did so privately and without spectacle. In that way, this portion shows the first time that God has “appeared” before all mankind.
For those new to my blog, I am closing each portion with some observations I make as I read Rashi’s commentary on the portion. While I cannot properly summarize, or probably even understand, some of the subtle theological and traditional points he makes, there are many observations and stories that I can relate. Many of them are serious. Some of them I find quite funny!
Unlike modern textual criticism, Rashi was coming at the text with the belief that it was perfect. Every word and punctuation mark was critical, and the text had to be considered in the light that adding or removing any word would have to change the meaning. As so Rashi sometimes concocts fanciful explanations why a specific word means a specific thing. These don’t appear to be the minimal explanations – he was no fan of Occam’s Razor – and he is pulling some of these stories and legends from other traditional sources.
Here’s an example: one of the kings that Abram tussles with is King Shember, the king of the Zeboiim. Rashi tells that Shember was a biblical Icarus; he built a set of artificial wings which he wore that allowed him to fly.