Somehow in all my reading of Genesis, I missed one of the great controversies of the bible: camels. Dromedaries appear in several Genesis stories, but most notably in the story of Isaac and Rebekah. In this story, Rebekah waters Abraham’s camels and fulfills a prophecy to be Isaac’s wife. I never thought twice about camels in biblical times, but science disagrees. Robert Alter summarizes the controversy best:
Archeological and extrabiblical literary evidence indicates that camels were not adopted as beasts of burden until several centuries after the Patriarchal period, and so their introduction to this story would have to be anachronistic.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses
Rather than point at camels as an indication that the bible is “wrong”, I argue that the rarity of camels fits the biblical narrative. The authors may even connect Abraham to the rise of camels in all of Canaan. Read on for more.
Some of my favorite things about the Torah are the snippets of legends that the early Jews knew so well that they didn’t even need to write down. Passing references and later commentary are the only ways that we know figures like Enoch and Nimrod. Genesis 34 marks the transition between Abraham’s and Isaac’s stories, ironically with a sidebar where neither are protagonists. More on that later, but this scene also marks the second mention of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Nahor may not be a prominent biblical figure, but this verse in Genesis 24 caught my attention:
Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor.
By the time we reach adulthood, just about everyone knows what it feels like to lose a loved one. But many of us, myself included, have experienced the act of putting someone to rest only as a bystander. I’ve never had to arrange a burial myself, or select a casket, or any of the myriad of other unhappy details that must be dealt with at death. To do all that while still grieving yourself, to someone as intimate to you as your husband or wife, it’s just unimaginable to me. Abraham did that and more in Genesis 23.
This is the story of the second holiest place in Judaism, the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The Bible overall, but especially Genesis, is a collection of stories. These stories were stitched together (either by man or God, it doesn’t matter) to make theological or historical points. I’ve made a big deal out of ages and timelines in the last couple of posts because I love facts. I love nuggets of information that I can hold on to and draw context with. Genealogical tables, lists of place names, and timelines all fascinate me in the bible and I’ve done posts about all three.
The truth is though, that sometimes it seems like the author didn’t care about all of that. Some stories appear to be spiritually true more than they are historically true, or even true relative to other stories. This happens in the Proverbs (some of which directly contradict each other), this happens in Numbers (the inflated population figures), and it happens in Genesis. The ages of Isaac and Ishmael is one of those “truths”.
What do I mean? Well, I guess you’ll have to keep reading…
In my previous post on Sarah’s death, I included a small timeline of ages and events in Abraham’s and Sarah’s lives. For your enjoyment, here is the complete timeline. I have also included links to each of the relevant blog posts, so you can collect the full set:
In the Jewish cycle, Genesis 23 begins the fifth Torah portion: Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah. Like all portions, it is named for its first phrase:
And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriatharba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
Ironically, while the name of this portion celebrates life, its content is just the opposite: it begins with Sarah’s death and ends with Abraham’s. In the middle is Isaac’s marriage, a fitting reminder that the cycle of life continues even as the ones we love pass away.
The circumstances of Sarah’s final days is one of the smaller mysteries of the Bible, and one that Jewish and Christian sources tend to disagree on. We know how old Sarah was when she died, but why did she die alone? What caused her death? Was she the Bible’s first divorcee? Read on for more.
We’re up to one of those famous stories in the bible. The “Binding of Isaac”, as it is generally called, is almost as well known as Noah’s Ark or the Parting of the Red Sea and it does so without cute animals or Charlton Heston. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him, only to relent at the last moment and provide a ram to use instead. Because of his commitment to God, Abraham proves himself worthy again to be the patriarch of the future Israel.
This test and validation narrative is a good one, but a careful reading shows that God wasn’t demanding an empty sacrifice of Abraham. Although Isaac was spared the knife, God dealt Abraham a tremendous hidden sacrifice: a family, a father and son, walked up the mountain together but two strangers walked down. In one stroke, Abraham’s family was shattered. He, his son, and his wife would never be together again.
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!