The following chapter about Lot is from James Kugel"s The Bible As It Was
LOT AND LOT'S WIFE
When Abraham first left his homeland of Ur, he was accompanied by his nephew Lot. Later, Lot continued with him to Canaan, but once established there, they separated: Lot took the fertile land of the Jordan valley, settling in Sodom, while Abraham stayed in the territory to the west (Gen. 13:8-12).
Despite this separation, Abraham continued to look after his nephew. When Lot was taken prisoner in the war that broke out between the city-states of the Jordan valley and their eastern overlords (Genesis 14), Abraham went into battle to free him. Later, when God announced to Abraham that He was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their "wickedness" (Gen. 18:16-33), Abraham intervened to try to save them--presumably on Lot's account. Lot was indeed saved, but the whole region was scourged; when Lot's wife looked backward, she became a pillar of salt. Later, in their place of refuge, Lot's daughters conspired to get their father drunk so that they might have relations with him. From the resulting pregnancies were born the ancestors of two nations, Ammon and Moab.
It was hard for interpreters to know what to make of Lot. Was he good or bad? On the one hand, he was Abraham's nephew, and like Abraham, he had willingly left Ur and its presumed evils--this certainly made him sound good. Moreover, when Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom, he did so on the grounds that destroying the city might mean killing the righteous along with the wicked. Presumably, Lot was among these "righteous"--and, in fact, God then did send angels specifically to get Lot and his family out of Sodom before its destruction. So here too was an indication that Lot was good.
On the other hand, some of Lot's deeds were questionable at best. Given a choice of where to live in Canaan, he had moved right into Sodom. The Bible narrates the event in these terms:
So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan valley, and Lot journeyed to the east; thus they separated from each other. Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, while Lot dwelt among the cities of the valley and moved his tent up to Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were evil and very sinful against God.
If the text observes (quite needlessly, at this point in the story) that the men of Sodom were evil sinners, then why did Lot move in with them? Certainly he could have pitched his tent elsewhere in the valley. Perhaps, after all, he was not much better than the wicked men of Sodom, whom, at one point later on, he addresses as "my brothers" (Gen. 19:7). And although Lot is saved from Sodom before its destruction, his subsequent doings are hardly exemplary. He ends up having relations with his two daughters, who get him drunk for the occasion, and the two sons born from these shameful unions end up being the ancestors of the Ammonites and Moabites, the only two peoples whom God specifically excluded from the "assembly of the Lord" (Deut. 23:3). None of this, needless to say, reflects very well on Lot.
Lot the Righteous
It is not surprising that, given these conflicting signals in the Bible itself, ancient interpreters disagreed on how Lot was to be viewed. Some sources describe him as altogether righteous and good:
Wisdom rescued a righteous man when the ungodly were perishing; he escaped the fire that descended on the Five Cities. Evidence of their wickedness still remains: a continually smoking wasteland, plants bearing fruit that does not ripen, and a pillar of salt standing as a monument to an unbelieving soul. For because they passed wisdom by, they not only were prevented from recognizing the good, but also left for mankind a reminder of their folly, so that their faults would not be able to pass unseen.
[You are] the one who kindled the fearful fire against the five cities of Sodom, and turned a fruitful land into salt because of those living in it, and snatched away pious Lot from the burning.
--Hellenistic Synagogal Prayer, Apostolic Constitutions 8.12: 22
"He who walks with wise men becomes wise..."[Prov. 13:20]. This refers to Lot, who accompanied our father Abraham and learned from his good deeds and ways.
--Pirqei deR. Eliezer 25
Lot was a wholly righteous man, but since he did not study [Torah], Abraham did not wish to be his neighbor and said to him, "Depart now from me" [Gen. 13:9].
--Alphabet of Ben Sira 268
This tradition of "Lot the Righteous" is likewise found in early Christian sources. Some Christians saw in Lot yet another biblical figure who, while uncircumcised and not part of Israel, was nonetheless blessed:
By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, He [God] condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and...He rescued the righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds).
--2 Pet. 2:6-8
Because of his hospitality and piety, Lot was saved from Sodom.
--1 Clement 11:1
Lot was saved out of Sodom without circumcision, when those very angels and the Lord led him forth.
--Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 19:4
[Paul recalls:] When these had passed on I saw another with a beautiful face and I asked, "Who is this, sir?"...And he said to me, "This is Lot who was found righteous in Sodom."
--Apocalypse of Paul 27
In Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot was righteous.
--(Armenian) Story of Noah (in Stone, Armenian Apocrypha, 93)
Lot also appears in the Qur'an as a righteous figure:
And behold, Lot also was one of those who had been [divinely] sent, and We saved him and his household, every one, except for an old woman [Lot's wife] who stayed behind.
Lot the Wicked
A great many other interpreters nonetheless found Lot to be a less than positive figure. If he was saved in the destruction of Sodom, perhaps (as Gen. 19:29 seemed to imply) it was only because of Abraham's earlier supplications, or because of Abraham's own moral stature:
And in like manner, God will execute judgment on the places where they have done according to the uncleanness of the Sodomites, just as the judgment of Sodom. But Lot we [the angels] saved; for God remembered Abraham, and sent him out of the midst of the overthrow.
And he [Lot] and his daughters committed sin upon the earth, such as had not been on the earth since the days of Adam till his time; for the man lay with his daughters.
For Lot was saved not for his own sake so much as for the sake of the wise man, Abraham, for the latter had offered prayers for him.
--Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 4:54
If he was able to escape Sodom, as Scripture indicates, he owed this more to Abraham's merits than his own.
--Origen, Homilies on Genesis 5:3
And when the Lord was destroying the cities of the plain, the Lord remembered Abraham's merit and He sent forth Lot from the midst of the destruction.
--Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Gen. 19:29
When the angels overthrew Sodom and saved him [Lot] because of Abraham's merit, they said to him "Escape to the mountain lest you perish" [Gen. 19:17], [meaning that] by the merit of that great mountain Abraham you have escaped; now go to him.
--Pesiqta Rabbati, Bayyom ha-shemini 3
As mentioned earlier, the fact that Lot chose to live in Sodom certainly seemed suspicious. But even his earlier decision to separate from Abraham--caused, the Bible says, by strife between their own shepherds (Gen. 13:7)--did not reflect well on Lot:
[Abraham recounts:] After that day, Lot departed from me because of the deeds of our shepherds. And he departed and settled in the valley of Jordan, taking all his riches with him; and I myself added much to his possessions. As for him, he grazed his flocks and came to Sodom. At Sodom, he bought for himself a house and lived in it. And I lived on the mountain of Bethel. And I was disturbed that my nephew Lot had parted from me.
--Genesis Apocryphon 21:5-7
[Lot] was an unsteady and indecisive person, turning this way and that, sometimes fawning on him [Abraham] with loving embrace, sometimes rebellious and refractory through the instability of his character.
--Philo, Abraham 212( also Questions and Answers in Genesis 4:47)
It is written, "And there was strife between Abraham's shepherds and Lot's" [Gen. 13:71. And why did they strive with each other? When a man [that is, Abraham] is righteous, then the members of his household are likewise righteous...but when a man is wicked [like Lot], then the members of his household are likewise wicked.
[Later,] God said to them [Lot's shepherds]: I said to Abraham that I would give this land to his sons--to his sons and not to that wicked man [Lot] as you suppose.
--Pesiqta Rabbati, Bayyom ha-shemini 3
When he [Lot] separated from Abraham, Scripture says, "And Lot chose for himself all the Jordan valley" [Gen. 13:11] --that is, Sodom. For Lot saw that the people of Sodom were plunged in wantonness and he chose Sodom so that he might do as they did. Similarly, Lot [later] says to the men of Sodom, "Behold, I have two daughters..." Normally, a man will sacrifice himself for his daughters or his wife: either he kills or is killed [on their behalf]. But Lot was ready to turn over his daughters to them for iniquity! Said God to him: Well then, you can keep them for yourself, and eventually little schoolchildren will laugh about you when they read, "And Lot's two daughters became pregnant from their father" [Gen. 19:36].
--Midrash Tanhuma, Vayyera 12
Sodomites' Sexual Sins
If early interpreters were thus somewhat divided about Lot, they were equally perplexed about the city of Sodom. God destroyed it because of the terrible things that were being done there--but what exactly were those things? Strangely, the Genesis narrative does not say. The men of Sodom are said to be "evil and very sinful" (Gen. 13:13), and at one point God observes that the Sodomites' "sin is very grave" (Gen. 18:20), but that is all we are told.
To some interpreters Sodom's sin seemed clear enough: homosexual practices. After all, when the angels sent by God arrived at Lot's house, "the men of Sodom, both young and old, every one of them" (Gen. 19:4) came to surround the house and demanded to have sexual relations with them. Was this not clear proof that the unnamed sin of the Sodomites consisted of just such practices (later known, as a result, by the word "sodomy")?
In addition to specifically homosexual practices, some interpreters attributed to the Sodomites other, heterosexual sins, specifically, adultery and fornication. The reason is a certain verse in the book of Jeremiah:
They [Jerusalemite prophets] commit adultery and deal falsely and encourage evildoers, so that no one repents--they are all like Sodom to me.
If God equated adulterers in Jerusalem to the people of Sodom, then it followed that the latter were no less guilty of adultery than of homosexual acts. As a result, Sodom came to be known generally as a place of sexual profligacy:
And in this month the Lord executed his judgments on Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Zeboim, and all the region of the Jordan, and He burned them with fire and brimstone, and destroyed them until this day, even as I have declared to you all their works, that they are wicked and exceedingly sinful, and that they defile themselves and commit fornication in the flesh, and work uncleanness on the earth. And in like manner, God will execute judgment on the places where they have done according to the uncleanness of the Sodomites, just as the judgment of Sodom.
[Later on,] he [Abraham] told them [his descendants] about the punishment of the giants and the punishment of Sodom--how they were condemned because of their wickedness; because of the sexual impurity, uncleanness, and corruption among themselves they died in sexual impurity.
--Jubilees 16:5-6, 20:5
You make married women impure, you lie with whores and adulteresses, you marry heathen women, and your sexual relations will be like Sodom and Gomorrah.
--Testament of Levi 14:6
My children, recognize in the skies, in the earth, and in the sea, and in all created things, the Lord who made all things, so that you do not become as Sodom, which changed the order of nature.
--Testament of Naphtali 3:4
You shall commit fornication with the fornication of Sodom, and shall perish, all save a few, and shall renew wanton deeds with women.
--Testament of Benjamin 9:1
And made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and...He rescued the righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked.
--2 Pet. 2:6-7
...just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serving as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
The whole region of that irreligious city was destroyed, where lewdness between males had become as habitual as other deeds that the law declares permissible.
--Augustine, City of God 16.30
The Proud and the Stingy
Interestingly, however, there was another tradition that held that the Sodomites' sin actually had nothing to do with homosexual acts or adultery or fornication. Instead, their fault was pride or stinginess, an unwillingness to help the unfortunate of this world.
The origin of this other tradition is not hard to find. It comes from a passage in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet compares the people's sins to those famous sins of the (now defunct) people of Sodom:
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before Me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.
According to this list, it was primarily the Sodomites' pride and their failure to aid the poor amidst their own prosperity that caused God to smite them. (The "abominable things" may also refer to Sodom's licentiousness, but this is not certain.)
As a result, a great many interpreters read the story of Lot quite differently. He had settled in a city of haughty, wealthy, but inhospitable and tight-fisted people. In such circumstances, Lot was, if anything, a victim of the Sodomites, since, as a newcomer and a stranger, he was likely to suffer from their lack of hospitality.
He did not spare the neighbors of Lot, whose arrogance made them hateful.
You [O God] burned with fire and brimstone the arrogant Sodomites, who were unseen in their vices, and you made them an example to posterity.
--3 Macc. 2:5
Others [the Sodomites] had refused to receive strangers when they came to them.
Now, about this time the Sodomites, overweeningly proud of their numbers and the extent of their wealth, showed themselves insolent to men and impious to the Divinity, insomuch that they no more remembered the benefits that they had received from Him, hated foreigners and avoided any contact with others. Indignant at this conduct, God accordingly resolved to chastise them for their arrogance, and not only to uproot their city, but to blast their land so completely that it should yield neither plant nor fruit whatsoever from that time forward.
--Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:194-195
[Jesus tells his disciples:] And if anyone does not receive you [that is, fails to be hospitable]...truly I say to you it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
Someone who says, "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours" [that is, who is unwilling to be generous]...this is the disposition [characteristic] of Sodom.
--m. Abot 5:10
R. Yehudah said: They announced in Sodom that anyone who gave bread to the poor, the sojourner or the destitute would be burned. Now, Pelotit was Lot's daughter and she was married to one of the leaders of Sodom. She saw a poor man afflicted in the public square and she was sorely grieved for him. What did she do? Every day, when she went to draw water, she would take some food from her house and put it in her pitcher, and so would feed the poor man. The people of Sodom wondered: how is this poor man managing to live? When they found out, they took [the woman] to be burned.
--Pirqei deR. Eliezer 25
But what were the Sodomites really guilty of, fornication or arrogance and stinginess in the midst of their prosperity? Perhaps it was an of these.
The region of the Sodomites...was laden with innumerable injustices, especially those arising from gluttony and lust...The cause of this excess in licentiousness among the inhabitants was the unfailing abundance of their wealth, for, provided with deep soil and ample water, this region every year enjoyed a harvest of all manner of crops...They threw off from their necks the law of nature by indulging in strong drink, rich food, and forbidden forms of intercourse.
--Philo, Abraham 134-135
Indeed, the fact that the Bible seemed to contain an unnecessary duplication in its description of the Sodomites--they are said to be both "wicked" and "sinful" (Gen. 13:13)--might in itself be a subtle hint that two entirely different and unrelated sorts of sins were involved:
Now the men of Sodom were wicked with their wealth, and they were sinful with their bodies before the Lord, exceedingly.
--Targum Onqelos Gen. 13:13
And the people of Sodom were wicked toward one another and sinful with sexual sins and bloodshed and idolatry before the Lord, exceedingly.
--Targum Neophyti Gen. 13:13
Being stingy and unhospitable, especially to strangers, was no small matter. From ancient times, this had been considered a particularly grave fault. Indeed, the Sodomites' stinginess (if that was in fact their crime) stood in sharp contrast to Abraham's behavior. For he was celebrated among early interpreters for his generosity, especially to strangers.
This tradition derives mainly from the description of Abraham's generosity when he encounters God's angels on their way to destroy Sodom. The incident begins as follows:
And God appeared to him [Abraham] at the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. And he lifted up his eyes and saw three men standing near him; and when he saw he ran from the door of the tent to meet them, and he bowed down to the ground. He said: "My lords, if I have found favor with you, please do not depart from your servant. Let a little water be taken to wash your feet, and take your rest under the tree, while I fetch some bread so that you may sate yourselves, after which you may continue on--since, after all, you have stopped by your servant's place. They answered: "Do indeed as you have said." So Abraham hastened to Sarah in the tent, and said, "Hurry! Knead three measures of fine flour and make cakes!" Then Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and goodly, and gave it to his servant-boy, who hastened to slaughter it. Next he took butter and milk, and the calf that had been slaughtered, and he served it to them. Then he stood near them under a tree while they ate.
The whole lesson of this lengthy passage (and why was such a detailed description necessary if it were not in order to teach some lesson?) seemed to be that hospitality and generosity to strangers are a great virtue. Thus, seeing the three strangers (who later turn out to be angels and no mere mortals, Gen. 19:1), Abraham immediately offers them every courtesy. He runs to meet them and with exceeding humility begs them to take a meal; the passage then stresses how he and his household hurry lest these guests be kept waiting one extra moment.
For interpreters, all this was an indication that Abraham was a man of extraordinary generosity, in particular with regard to strangers:
That [Abraham] had a multitude of servants is clear...[Yet] he himself becomes as an attendant and a servant [to the visiting angels] in order to show his hospitality.
--Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 4:10 (also Abraham 107-114)
All the years of his life he [Abraham] lived in quietness, gentleness, and righteousness, and the righteous man was very hospitable. For he pitched his tent at the crossroads of the oak of Mamre and welcomed everyone--rich and poor, kings and rulers, the crippled and the helpless, friends and strangers, neighbors and passersby--[all] on equal terms did the pious, entirely holy, righteous, and hospitable Abraham welcome.
--Testament of Abraham (A) 1:1-2
0 my sons, be generous to strangers and you will be given exactly what was given to the great Abraham, the father of fathers, and to our father Isaac, his son.
--Testament of Jacob 7:22
And remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Abraham...used to go out and look all around and when he would find travelers he would invite them into his house. To someone who was not used to eating wheat bread he would [nonetheless] give him wheat bread, to someone who was not used to eating meat he would give meat, and to someone who was not accustomed to drink wine he would nonetheless give wine. Moreover, he went and built for himself a large mansion on the road and would leave food and drink there so that anyone who came by would enter and eat and drink and bless God, and that gave him [Abraham] great satisfaction.
--Abot deR. Natan (A) 7
Lot Learned from Abraham
Given this tradition, it seemed likely that Lot had learned from his uncle the lesson of hospitality. For, like Abraham, Lot welcomed the angels and prevailed upon them to accept his hospitality (Gen. 19:1-3). And if Lot and his family were subsequently spared--the only residents of stingy Sodom not killed in the destruction--was this not further indication that Lot, unlike his neighbors, was indeed generous?
But the angels came to the city of the Sodomites and Lot invited them to be his guests, for he was very kindly to strangers and had learned the lesson of Abraham's generosity.
--Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:200
Because of his hospitality and piety, Lot was saved from Sodom.
--1 Clement 11:1
"He who walks with wise men becomes wise..." [Prov. 13:20]. This refers to Lot, who accompanied our father Abraham and learned from his good deeds and ways.
--Pirqei deR. Eliezer 25
Lot's Wife Sinned
As Lot and his family fled Sodom, Lot's wife disobeyed the order of the angels not to look back (Gen. 19:17), "and she turned into a pillar of salt" (Gen. 19:26). Interpreters found it difficult to understand what was so bad about Lot's wife turning around. The Bible did not say, so some felt free to search out their own explanations. All interpreters agreed that her deed must somehow have been sinful. Perhaps she turned around more than once, displaying thereby a flagrant disregard for divine commandments; perhaps her gesture testified to her own indecision or lack of faith; or perhaps she was motivated by too great an attachment to her way of life in Sodom or to the sinful relatives she had left behind:
But Lot's wife, who during the flight was continually turning round towards the city, overly curious about it, notwithstanding God's prohibition of such action, was changed into a pillar of salt.
--Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:203
And since Lot's wife was a descendant of the people of Sodom, she looked back to see what ultimately would happen to her father's house. And she remains a pillar of salt until the time of the resurrection of the dead.
--Targum Neophyti Gen. 19:26
Remember Lot's wife: Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.
Lot was saved from Sodom, when the entire region was judged by fire and brimstone. In this way the Master clearly demonstrated that He does not forsake those who hope in him, but destines to punishment and torment those who turn aside. Of this his wife was destined to be a sign, for after leaving with him she changed her mind and no longer agreed, and as a result she became a pillar of salt to this day, that it might be known to all that those who are of two minds and those who question the power of God fall under judgment and become a warning to all generations.
[She] serves as a solemn and sacred warning that no one who starts out on the path of salvation should ever yearn for the things that he has left behind.
--Augustine, City of God l0.8
A Visible Reminder
But there was another way of understanding the punishment of Lot's wife, one that was connected to a still larger question in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The inhabitants of this region had sinned; they should have been punished, by all means. But was that a reason for God to blight the landscape forever, turning what once was a flourishing and rich valley into a smoldering wasteland? The biblical narrative offered no explanation, but it was not hard for interpreters to come up with one. If the land itself had been destroyed forever, was this not so that the area would stand as a visible token, a vivid reminder for later generations of what can befall those who defy God's word?
[Sodom and environs] were turned into a smoking waste as a testimony to their wickedness; with plants that bear fruit before they ripen, and a pillar of salt standing there as a memorial of an unbelieving soul. For having passed Wisdom by, they were not only distracted from a knowledge of the good, but also left behind for the world a monument of their folly, so that they were unable to go undetected in their failure.
And to this day it goes on burning...a monument of the disastrous event...providing proof of the sentence decreed by the divine judgment.
--Philo, Abraham 141
By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, He [God] condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly.
--2 Pet. 2:6
Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities...serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
You [O God] burned with fire and brimstone the arrogant Sodomites, who were unseen in their vices, and You made them an example to posterity.
--3 Macc. 2:5
In similar fashion, if Lot's wife had been turned into a pillar of salt, was it not so that this pillar might also serve as a visible reminder?
[Lot's wife] was changed to a pillar of salt: I have seen this pillar, which remains to this day.
--Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 203
Of this his wife was destined to be a sign, for after leaving with him she changed her mind and no longer agreed, and as a result she became a pillar of salt to this day.
--1 Clement 11:1-2
For what is to be learned from the fact that those who were rescued by the angels were then forbidden to look back--if not that a soul ought not to return to its old life after it has been freed from it through grace?...Hence, Lot's wife remained [fixed] where she looked back, and she was turned into salt in order to supply men of faith with a grain of wisdom, serving as an example of that of which they are to beware.
--Augustine, City of God 26:30
Lot's Daughters Meant Well
Lot's incestuous union with his daughters seemed to provide obvious grounds for condemning him:
And [Lot] and his daughters committed sin upon the earth, such as had not been on the earth since the days of Adam till his time; for the man lay with his daughters. And behold, it was commanded and engraved concerning all his seed, on the heavenly tablets, to remove them and root them out, and to execute judgment upon them like the judgment of Sodom, and to leave no seed of the man on earth on the day of condemnation.
It is interesting, however, that some interpreters seized upon a detail in the biblical text to defend the daughters' actions. For when the daughters resolve to do this deed, it is because the older says to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come to us after the manner of all the earth" (Gen. 19:31). Now, in context, this seems to mean merely that Lot's daughters, dwelling alone in an isolated mountain cave with their father (Gen. 19:30), had no one ("not a man on earth") to turn to for a mate. But perhaps the expression "not a man on earth" meant more:
These virgins, because of their ignorance of external matters and because they saw those cities burned up together with all their inhabitants, supposed that the whole human race [had been destroyed at the same time], and that no one remained anywhere except the three of them.
--Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 4:56
His maiden daughters, in the belief that the whole of humanity had perished, had intercourse with their father, taking care to elude detection; they acted thus to prevent the extinction of the race.
--Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:205
In keeping with their simplicity and innocence, these daughters imagined that all humanity had perished, just as the Sodomites had, and that the anger of God had descended upon the whole earth.
--Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 4.31.2
They saw the fire, they saw the burning sulphur, they saw the destruction of everything, and...they saw as well that their own mother had not been saved. Thus they imagined that there was taking place something similar to what had happened in the time of Noah, and that they had been left with their father alone to insure the continuity of the human race.
--Origen, Homilies on Genesis 5:4 (also Contra Celsum 4.45)
They believed that the entire world had been destroyed, as in the generation of the flood.
--Genesis Rabba 51:8
Since they [Lot's daughters] thought that a sea of fire had destroyed the whole world, just as water had in the time of Noah, the older 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. Come let us make our father drink wine" [Gen. 19:31-32].
--Ephraem, Commentary on Genesis 19:31
However, the justification that is offered for the daughters, namely, that they thought that the entire human race had been killed and for that reason lay with their father, still does not exculpate the father.
--Jerome, Questions in Genesis 19:30
In short. Many interpreters held Lot to have been a righteous and good man, whose generosity--in stark contrast to the stinginess of the Sodomites--was at least one reason for his having been rescued from the doomed city. If so, this virtue had no doubt been taught to Lot by his uncle Abraham, whose hospitality to strangers was unparalleled. Despite Lot's apparent virtues, other interpreters believed him to have been wicked and saw his settling in sinful Sodom as hardly accidental. Whether Sodom's sin was stinginess or sexual license, such interpreters judged Lot to have been scarcely better than his neighbors. As for Lot's wife, she was turned into a pillar of salt as a lesson to humanity. His daughters, however, could hardly be blamed for their sin: they believed that all of humanity had perished in the destruction of Sodom, and so were merely seeking to perpetuate the human race.
The following essay is from E. Fox”s The Five Books of Moses:
The Great Test (Chapter 22): This story is certainly one of the masterpieces of biblical literature. ln a famous article by Erich Auerbach it is remarked how biblical style as exemplified here, in contradistinction to that of Homer and other epic bards, eschews physical and psychological details in favor of one central preoccupation: a man's decision in relation to God. The result of this style is a terrible intensity; a story which is so stark as to be almost unbearable.
Chap. 22 is a tale of God's seeming retraction of his promise (of "seed") to Abraham. The fact that other issues may be involved here (i.e., Israel's rejection of local and widely practiced ideas of child sacrifice) may be quite beside the point. Coming just one chapter after the birth of the long-awaited son, the story completely turns around the tension of the whole cycle and creates a new, frightening tension of its own. The real horror of the story lies in this threatened contradiction to what has gone before.
Most noticeable in the narrative is Abraham's silence, his mute acceptance of, and acting on, God's command. We are told of no sleepless night, nor does he ever say a word to God. Instead he is described with a series of verbs: hurting, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going (v.3; sirnilarly in v.6 and 10). Abraham the bargainer, so willing to enter into negotiations with relations (Chap. 13), allies (Chap. 4), local princes (Chap. 20), and even God himself (Chap. 18), here falls completely silent.
The chapter serves an important structural function in the Abraham cycle, framing it in conjunction with Chap. 12. The triplet in v.2 ("Pray take your son,/ your only-one,/ whom you love") recalls "from your land/ from your kindred/ from your father's house" in 12:1; "go-you forth" and "the land that I will tell you of" (v.2; the latter; three times in the story) similarly point back to Abraham's call (12:1, Go-you-forth... to the land that I will let you see"). There he had been asked to give up the past (his father); here, the future (his son). Between the two events lies Abraham's active life as man of God, ancestor, and intercessor After this God will never speak with him again.
In many ways this story is the midpoint of Genesis. It brings -the central theme of continuity and discontinuity to a head in the strongest possible way. After the events on Moriya, we can breathe easier, knowing that God will come to the rescue of his chosen ones in the direst of circumstances. At the same timewe are left to ponder the difficulties of being a chosen one, subject to such an incredible test.
The story is also the paradigmatic narrative of the entire book. The Patriarch passes the test, and we know that the fulfillment of the divine promise is assured. Yet there is an ominous note: love, which occurs here by name for the first time, leads almost to heartbreak So it will be for the rest of the book of Genesis.
The following essay appeared in Commentary Magazine in February 1997 and deals with the Moyers series we have watched extensively in class the past weeks.
Genesis and the Talking
By Hillel Halkin
IT Is when we think we are most original that we often most reflect the spirit of the times. Twelve or thirteen years ago, in a period of my life when I had begun, after a long interval of rarely opening the Bible, to study the weekly Torah reading with its traditional commentaries every Saturday, I had what I took to be an illumination about the book of Genesis. It was, it came to me, a family novel. It was the greatest family novel ever written. And it was the saddest family novel ever written, for in this family everything went wrong; everything was ruined by too much love; everything was passed down to the next generation, the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons with fatal precision. Not even the happy ending of Joseph and his brothers, lavishly reunited in Egypt, could obscure the bitter truth of this book, which was that momentary lapses have eternal consequences and that momentary lapses are inevitable. Jacob, not Joseph, spoke for that truth when he said at the book's end:
The days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my flithers in the days of their pilgrimage.
It hit me with such force that I sat down and began writing a novel about Genesis myself. I wrote two chapters. The first took place in Ur of the Chaldees, when Abraham and Sarah fall in love. The second was set on the descent from Mount Moriah, after the aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham walks by himsel£ He knows his son is hiding nearby, somewhere in the burnet and the rockrose. He strains to make out his footsteps but hears only the birds. Then I threw the two chapters away.
IN The early 1980's Rabbi Burton Visotzky of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, whose book "The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Deveiopment" appeared this past year, began a monthly "Genesis Seminar" that attracted to it, in the words of the television journalist Bill Moyers, "a score of people... among them a film critic, a screenwriter, a poet, an editor, an essayist and novelist, and a smattering of biblical scholars, Jewish and Christian." Hearing that the discussion at this seminar was "the best conversation in town,” Moyers decided "to check it out"; discovered that Genesis was about "a dysfunctional family" whose stories "retain their hold on us" because they "ring so true about human nature"; and came away "resolved then and there to test whether the communal reading of these stories could happen on television." The ultimate result was a ten part series, "Genesis: A Living Conversation", which played to a large audience on PBS last autumn and has now been published as a book.
And since twelve or thirteen years is not an overly long span for a literary pregnancy, one can assume that at least some of the other books treating Genesis as a family saga that have recently hit the market with remarkable simultaneity were conceived at about the same time. Some, by their authors' testimony, were inspired by weekly Torah study too, and some of these authors participated in the Moyers program. Something, it would seem, was in the air. What?
Well, TORAH study groups for one thing. Jews have always gone over the weekly reading in the privacy of their homes, but doing so in informal discussion groups came into fashion in America in the late 1960's and 70's, concomitantly with the Chavurah or "fellowship" movement. Many of these groups were composed of adults raising children, often in the process of rediscovering their "Jewish roots" and when adults raising children sit around and talk, what do they talk about but adults raising children? Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael, Hagar, Rebekah, Esau, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph and his brothers gave them plenty to talk about. It may be, though, that Genesis could not have been talked about in this way had the ground not been prepared by a growing number of books and articles, many written by scholars coming from the field of literature, in which biblical texts were treated as literary ones.
Although, starting with the 1970's, the change brought about in perceptions of the Bible by writers like Northrop Frye, Edwin Good, Frank Kermode, Michael Fishbane, Meir Sternberg, and Robert Alter was initially confined to the scholarly community, it had a broad trickledown effect. After nearly a century in which the widespread loss of religious faith had removed Scripture as a living book from the hands of most cultured readers, leaving it in the possession of church and synagogue-goers on the one hand and the Higher Critics on the other, the new literary approach restored it to general accessibility. Suddenly, a generation of sophisticated college graduates came to realize that a text like Genesis did not have to be approached as either the Word of God or a problem in Semitic philology. It could be read as an artful story by the same methods, and with as much profit, as The Odyssey or Hamlet-and, with the thirst of long deprivation, so it was.
And the family! Has any age talked and worried about it more than our own? In part this is because no other age has seen it fall apart like our own; in part because no other has expected more from it. Never before have families been smaller and have parents invested so much time and emotion in their children; never before have they felt so bitterly cheated by the results; never before have children been so angrily bewildered by what was wanted from them.
And God! Many of us do not exactly believe in Him, but we are not prepared to let go of Him, either, not even when we call Him "Her" or "It." He lives on in us as a kind of fictional character with whom our imaginations remain intensely engaged. A fictional character? But suppose that is what He is in the Bible, too!
The stage is set for "Genesis: A Living Conversation."
BEAUTIFULLY PRODUCED, with delicate accompanying music and art work, each installment of the PBS series consists of an hourlong panel discussion on a different chapter of Genesis. Each panel has seven members, among whom only Burton Visotzky is a constant presence.
The other 37 participants switch on and off. Among them are Robert Alter, author of a recently published new translation of and commentary on Genesis; Azizah al-Hibri, a Muslim feminist who teaches at the University of Richmond; Rabbi Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at the Jewish institute of Religion (Reform) and author of Self Struggle, and Change: The Family Conflict Stories in Genesis cind Their Healing Insights for Our Lives; Francisco Garcia-Treto, chairman of the department of religion at Trinity University; novelist Mary Gordon; P.K. McCary, author of "Black Bible Chronicles: From Genesis to the PromisedLand"(1993); Indian novelist Bharati Mukheijee; Muslim theologian Seyyed Hossein Nasr; African-American social worker and pastor Eugene Rivers; psychotherapist Naomi Rosenblatt, co-author (with Joshua Horwitz) of "Wrestling With Angels: what the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritucil Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships"; Phyllis Trible, professor of sacred literature at Union Theological Seminary and author of "Texts of Terror: Literary-Femintst Readings of Biblical Narnitives" (1984); Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, author of "Genesis: The Beginning of Desire"; Karen Armstrong, author of "In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis"; and Stephen Mitchell, author of another new translation of Genesis.
An ecumenically representative and carefully gender-balanced group, including not a few ordained ministers and rabbis and/or teachers of theology. And yet Genesis proves to be a troublesome book for many of them -- sexist, racist, and incompatible with contemporary norms.
The story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar, for example. Burton Visotzky finds it "horrifying" because Abraham is "put into a different moral category, which lets him get away with things that don't belong in everyday morality," and because Sarah "physically abuses" Hagar. Elizabeth Swados, who wrote the music for the series, thinks Sarah "a victim" who is "the second class citizen in the relationship," yet whose behavior toward Hagar and Ishmael "shows the beginning of class and cultural identity and false pride --in a sense, racism." Bliarati Mukheijee feels that in this story "there's a kind of justification for the oppression of the rest of us." Lewis Smedes, professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, agrees: "It was wrong and dumb to have Hagar sleep with Abraham and have a son and have them all live in the same house. Sarah was obtuse and unimaginative...using Hagar and Ishmael for nationalistic or family purposes." Abraham was "a very wimpish patriarch."
The BINDING of Isaac, discussed in an episode entitled "The Trial," poses even more of a problem:
Norman Cohen: As I read the account, it seems to me that the voice Abraham hears commanding him to sacrifice his own son is perhaps Abraham's own voice. It's Abraham's ego that needs to prove his fidelity and his faith to himself and the world.... How can that possibly be what God wants?
Phyllis Trible: No, this story is terrifying precisely because it is God Who sets up the test.... My understanding is that the story has to do with idolatry~the idolatry of the son. Once God has given the gift of Isaac to Abraham, does Abraham focus on Isaac and forget the giver? Abraham is so attached to this child that the issue of idolatry becomes acute for God.
P.K McCary: When I look at Abraham, I see a man. so detached from emotional involvement in other people's feelings that he seems self-centered.... It's as if the intimate relationships he has aren't as important as the people in the rest of the world.
Francisco Garcia-Treto: When we get to the point where we feel that God is calling us to give somebody else's life up, we're in bad trouble. There's no such thing as a theological suspension of the ethical [sic: the actual phrase, from Kierkegaard, is "a teleological suspension of the ethical"]. This is at the root of the worst things that religions have done.., Don't you think that if God said, "Sacrifice your son" to a mother, the mother would say, "Get lost!"? I think that's what Sarah would have said.
Bill Moyers: And many people who claim to hear a call from God sacrifice their families to their sense of mission.
Burton Visotzky: When I read this story,... I'm not sure I want to be involved with a God Who makes these kinds of demands on me..
If faith is being tested here, it's a kind of faith I don't want to
subscribe to. I prefer to think that God demands a faith that calls for the intellect to be engaged rather than one that just says, “Yes, sir.”
To be sure, Abraham has his defenders. Picking up on P.K. McCary's remark, Sayyed Hossein Nasr says:
I don't think detachment is necessarily identified with selfishness... God is the sacred, and the sacred has the right to ask of us all that we are. This is something that modern people have forgotten.... Isaac.. is really our carnal, passionate soul, that must be sacrificed before the altar of divine reality..
And Eugene Rivers adds:
We're viewing this story through a 2Oth century lens and then superimposing our context on a very complex historical, cultural, and political context that we don't fully appreciate.... Abraham's moral ambiguity is an argument for the position that you don't have to be a goody-goody to function as an instrument of God. I resonate with Abraham, and I identify with his frailty and humanity.
Rivers, too, however, illustrates how such "superimposition," unavoidable in the reading of any text, is especially unavoidable in a modern reading of the Bible, whose prose, with its oft-remarked-on radical minimalism, demands a filling-in of the many "blank spaces" between verse and verse, or even between word and word. For if one is not going to rely on traditional Jewish commentaries (and of all the panel members, only Avivah Zornberg makes a consistent point of doing so), one must create biblical commentary of one's own. In discussing, for example, Abraham's lie to Pharaoh that Sarah (who is consequently taken to Pharaoh's harem) is his sister and not his wife-an act witheringly criticized by most of the panel members-Rivers declares:
Listen, I can imagine lying. I can see that. Here's a black dude in the inner city. He's got a white wife. A couple of Egyptian brothers roll up on the brother with the white wife. Now this guy's not a complete fool. "Yo, baby, we work together. Right? Pretend you're my boss. You're not my wife' right, because if you're my wife, you may be a widow by the end of this evening."
Other panel members, like Rivers, frequently cite their own experience in trying to understand that of a biblical character. Even when they do not, we often sense it in the background; sometimes, outside confirmation is available. Thus, in his Self Struggle, and Change, Norman Cohen speaks of the binding of Isaac in greater detail:
We are all like Abraham; each of us is so involved in our outside worlds-our careers, interests, or our principles-that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar.... For when Isaac calls out to Abraham... it is my son who is speaking to me and saying, "I know that you're busy, dad, but do you have some time to watch the basketball game with me tonight?" and it is so easyto blurt out "Ilan, I'm tired. Some other time." At those very moments, would that we would have the strength to respond hineini ["here I am," Abraham's response to Isaac] in the fullness of its meaning; would that I could say more often, "Sure, Ilan' nothing could give me more pleasure!"
IT WAS at this point that I went in search of a remembered passage from Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" (1843), which also deals with the binding of Isaac story, may well be the most extraordinary commentary ever written on a single episode in the Bible. And it is also the first truly "modern" biblical commentary in the sense I have spoken of; for in writing it Kierkegaard deliberately used an incident from his own life --his breaking-off of an engagement to a young woman he loved because of his decision that marriage was incompatible with his religious vocation -- as the key to understanding Abraham's readiness to offer up his son to God. In the text of Fear and Trembling this incident is disguised, but in Kierkegaard's journals it and its relation to the book are discussed at length.
How can we "superimpose," to use Eugene Rivers's word, our private expenence on the Bible without the Bible's being trivialized? Kierkegaard was troubled by this question too. The passage from Fear and Trembling that I was looking for reads:
I require of every man that he should not think so inhumanly of himself as not to dare to enter those palaces where not merely the memory of the elect abides but where the elect themselves abide. He should not press forward impudently and impute to them kinship with himself; on the contrary, he should be blissful every time he bows before them, but he should be frank and confident and always be something more than a charwoman, for if he will not be more, he will never gain entrance. And what will help him is precisely the dread and distress by which the great are tried, for otherwise, if he has a bit of pith in him, they will merely arouse his justified envy.
Would that these words had been inscribed above the entrance to the PBS studio! For by "the palaces where the elect abide," as opposed to those inhabited only by the "memory" of the elect, Kierkegaard means the books of the Bible as opposed to the traditional commentaries upon them; and what he is urging us to do is to read these books in a dual frame of mind that is difficult to maintain.
On the one hand, Kierkegaard says, we should be "frank" and "confident" with them, by which he means that we should not conceal our private experience from the biblical text, but should rather admit it into our reading and make use of it there without false or seIf-demeaning modesty, as one admits valid evidence into the proceedings of a trial. Precisely to the extent that the Bible is an eternal document, we are its contemporary witnesses, a role for which we disqualify ourselves when we discount the testimony of our own lives.
But, on the other hand, Kierkegaard warns us, we should not be "impudent" and "impute kinship" between us and the biblical heroes; if we do, we shall lose sight of their greatness and degrade them to our level of understanding rather than struggle to rise to theirs. And the best way to guard against this is to keep in mind their "dread and distress. ' If we fail to do this-if we allow ourselves to think that they acted easily or mindlessly, or without inward reflection of a more intense and anguished manner than is customarily our own, we shall be led to assume that we too, in similar circumstances, could have done as well as or better than they did, a conclusion that can only make us resentful of the homage paid them and itching to take them down a peg.
This is excellent advice, and if it had been followed by Norman Cohen and Burton Visotzky, the former would never have compared Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac with a father's refusal to watch a basketball game with his son, nor would the latter have written in The Genesis of Ethics that "One can almost see the flat affect of the depressive as [Abraham] walks, zombielike up the mountain" of Moriah. "I know," writes Visotzky in the same passage,
that every parent has a moment or two, particularly with teenagers, when the thought "I'll kill them" has flitted through his or her mind. But it is a long way --three days' distance-- from an angry or frustrated passing thought to the assumption that this murder is a divinely commanded sacrifice.
Three days is indeed a long while for a man to be walking with the son he loves and has gambled his entire life on to the place where he will slay him, which is why the Bible specifies the time it took. And if one would grant this man, for every second of those days, the dread and distress that Visotzky and Cohen deny him by turning him into a psychopathic or (what is in a sense even worse) grumpily inattentive father, one would be safeguarded from their particular kind of impudence.
"This is the amazing thing about the people of Genesis," says Bill Moyers. "The more we talk about them, the more they look like people we know -- faces in the mirror." What is truly amazing is the thought that we might want to read a book that has inspired countless millions of people for thousands of years in such a way. The people we know are all around us; if we are merely going to find them again in the Bible, why bother reading the Bible at all?
"For its healing insights," answers Norman Cohen. But Cohen's insights are not extracted from the biblical text; they are the shibboleths of our age, read into it so that he can pretend to take them out again like the coins a magician pulls from a spectator's ear. Or, to alter the metaphor, they are the postcards sent by the tourist who has journeyed to a foreign land and, summing- up his impressions, now writes to the folks back home, "They have everything here that we do!"
WHY, FOR that matter, read great literature of any kind (if great literature is what the Bible is), if instead of extending our horizons it simply confirms the ones we are familiar with?
The problem is not just with reading the Bible. It is not even just with reading great literature. For great literature tends to be about heroes, which is to say, about people fundamentally different from ourselves-and if there is anything our conventional contemporary piety cannot tolerate it is the idea of fundamental difference. Behind the paternoster of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ageist, anti-abusist, anti-victimist-of-any-kind rhetoric-even, or paradoxically most of all, behind the rhetoric of multiculturalism, lies a leveling will, more sweeping than that of the most egalitarian economics. Marxism, after all, seeks only to abolish outer distinctions, whereas the piety of our age passes over these to aim straight at inner ones.
"What really matters is not whether Abraham is good or bad or cowardly or heroic, but that God pursues His design for the welfare of the human family with
people like us. “ “When we come to this .story.... I have this sinking feeling that it's... about the mixed family so many of us experience now-first wife, second wife, surrogate parenthood, children, conflict." "I still want to know:
what's the deal? what do I get in this covenant?" "Abraham, in a sense, is the prototypical American. He's got hustle.... We have only Abraham's word that the Lord appeared [to .him]... It's like a guy saying, 'Look, I need to inspire my followers to take this arduous journey, so I'd better make God come on. I'd better bring on the voices, bring on the vision.’"
And indeed, how could God be so unfair, let alone elitist, as to talk to Abraham when He does not talk to us? These are what Nietzsche called the voices of democratic ressentiment-with a vengeance.
But they are not, happily, the only voices on Moyers's program. (In fairness, they are not even always the voices of the voices I have quoted.) There are others, many of them wise and insightful. There are the two Muslim panelists, who of all the panel members are the most religiously traditional in their thought and, ironically, those closest in many respects to what might be called a normative rabbinical point of view. There are more conservatively-minded Jewish panelists like Leon Kass, who reminds us that the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs were playing for the stakes of handing on a "divine lineage," which are higher than those of personal relationships; and like Avivah Zornberg, who time and again brings the discussion back to the realities of the Hebrew text from which it keeps escaping. There are black panelists like Renita Weems and Eugene Rivers, who-clearly irked by some of his colleagues-remarks at one point:
The Scriptures function as an emancipatory mechanism to resurrect faith and hope so that a person can transcend the whining, can transcend the limousine liberalism where you're just whining about your rights.... See, the funny thing about this is that most poor people don't need any of our liberal cliches about the unfairness of it all because they know that infinitetely better than we do. So much of what salon intellectuals do in the academy, where we go through a kind of hand-wringing routine about the injustice of life, really has no bearing out there in the streets. This is why the Scriptures are so important for people....
And there is the British-American artist Hugh O'Donnell, who did the graphics for Genesis: A Living Conversation. O'Donnell participates in the first and next-to-last panel, which is called "God Wrestling" and deals with Jacob's struggle with the angel on the eve of meeting his brother Esau for the first time in twenty years-the same Esau whom he last saw on the day he cheated him of his father Isaac's blessing. It is hard to say what this discussion would have been like without O'Donnell; with him, it soars with the excitement of minds rising on each other's updrifts. It makes me wish I could have been there.
"GOD WRESTliNG" begins, like many preceding installments, with a panelist-in this case, the liberal Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann-criticizing the moral standards of a biblical hero. Jacob, says Brueggemann, is "duplicitous" to the end. "Even after this last, wonderful vision" of the angel, "the very last thing Jacob does is lie to his brother. He says 'I'll meet you' [at Esau's home in Seir] and then he goes the other way."
Avivah Zornberg: But Jacob doesn't actually believe in Esau's peacemaking.
Burton Visotzky: I'm with Walter on this.. . Nothing about Jacob changes. In a way, that's what's so depressing.
Bill Moyers: when we meet [Jacob], he is a thief, a coward, and a fugitive. He has stolen a birthright and is running for his life from his brother because he's afraid of his brother.
Here O'Donnell intervenes for the first time. "Jacob," he says, abruptly flinging the conversation off its familiar feet, "is pure genius. He's human genius." "How so?" asks a perceptibly startled Moyers.
Hugh 0 'Donnell: Jacob is a real hero in this story because he's cursed with a kind of active monkey brain and incredible invention and intellect. It keeps him awake. He can't get any rest or any peace. He's sent running through the world, and God comes down and gives him help.... He actually shows him the pathway to heaven [in the vision of Jacob's ladder]. He shows him the structure of how to do it because the man has the intellect and equipment to do something about it.
Bill Moyers: what does this tell you about God? Here's this young man who's stolen his family birthright, abused his brother, and he's on the run, afraid for his life.
Hugh 0 'Donnell: He's a typical second-born son, right? He's emerged with this equipment, and he's got this wild brother, and he knows, through the support of his mother, that he really is the one who has to save God's vision and the covenant.
AND NOW, despite Visotzky and Moyers's repeated attempts to drag it back down to the well-trodden ground of Jacob's ethical incorrectness, the conversation begins to take off First O'Donnell gives it another push by remarking, "Morality isn't a question of life. Life is voracious, and you have to make really, really clever decisions on what is going to grow and what is not. Renita Weems then agrees that "There's nothing like being confronted with .....when you've had some kind of experience where you know that God is accessible, then heaven is accessible," and tells a story about how, when she was once despairingly contemplating suicide, "All of a sudden something lifted. I knew that it was God and that God was speaking to me. Roberta Hestenes also relates a religious experience and says, "And one of the things in the Jacob story that touches me is that this [kind of experience] is so unexpected. ' Renita Weems adds:
We asked earlier: why doesn't God judge Jacob and punish him or chastise him in some way? But sometimes an experience [like Jacob's wresting a blessing from the angel, who then lames him] is enough to prostrate you. Sometimes the worst thing that God can do is show up and do something merciful to you.
Hugh 0 'Donnell: And sometimes when you get these wonderful gifts, it just ups the ante. God has given you a bit more, and so you have more to do.
Wafter Brueggemonn: The story isn't about .morality... It's about grace-the unexpected and unearned....
Hugh 0 'Donnell: And it's angels every time, isn't it? We're talking about agency. whenever heaven's gates open, it's because of an agency, which is not the person you think is driving'. It's something like a lodger that lives inside you and takes over, thank God.
Soon after, O'Donnell speaks of having once had to wrestle with his own father as Jacob did with the angel. "Physically?" asks Bill Moyers. And the answer is:
Yes, physically. I had to overpower him because until then he had overpowered me.... There were no two ways about it-it had to be done.... This was drawing blood. But when this occurred, he immediately arrived at a state in which he could say, "You are free-and free with my blessing."
Avivah Zomberg: Isn't it very poignant with Jacob, then?
Hugh 0 'Donnell: I think it's extremely poignant.... Jacob doesn't know how to reconcile himself with what he's done because he's done something that is greater than his awareness of himself. He has moved into his destiny. This need shapes his vision of moving into God as the next father.
The conversation continues to gather intensity, moving from the lives of the participants to the story in Genesis and back again, one apercu following another, until Renita Weems says near the end of it:
There's something about reading with others and hearing other experiences that make this story just so precious... [I]n this conversation there were times when we were all locked into "what does it say?" Then there were other times when we were a little freer, playing with what it says and how we experience what it says and what it does not say.
To which Hugh O'Donnell responds:
And that ladder is Jacob, seeing himself stretch all the way to heaven. He's that large.
WhaT ThESE panelists have done is the opposite of what their colleagues did in discussing Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah. There, to adopt Kierkegaard's language, one had an impudent pressing-forth, a reduction of the Bible's heroes to the size of the participants; here one has a blissful bowing-down, a subordination of the participants to the aspect of a biblical hero. The two procedures may depend on a similar use of analogy, but the difference between them is precisely the difference between descending and ascending a ladder.
And an interesting phenomenon emerges here. These discussions, I have said, were made possible by a "literarization" of the Bible, without which a book like Genesis could not have been talked about with the freedom Renita Weems speaks of. And I have also said that if the human characters of Genesis were to be regarded as fictional, it would be only consistent to regard the God of Genesis in the same way.
But here something happens. Although no member of Bill Moyers's panels has ever met Sarah or Jacob, some of the panelists do feel that, in a mysterious manner they cannot explain, they have met God. And when they express this feeling, the movement of their reading begins to ripple back in the other direction. For if the God of Genesis is real, it is only consistent to regard the characters of Genesis in the same way-and so, with a sudden shifting of the tide, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael, Hagar, Rebekah, Esau, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph and his brothers become intensely real too, realer than the characters in any other work of literature, realer than Odysseus or Hamlet. The Bible as a family novel? Up to a point. Up to a point.
HilleL Halkin Is an essayist and critic whose work appears frequently in the pages of Commentary.
(25:19-36:43); See also 37-50
Before commenting on the Jacob cycle, it is appropriate to consider why his
fatherIsaac, the second of the Patriarchs, receives no true separate group of stories on his own.
Isaac functions in Genesis as a classic second generation-- that is, as a trans-mitter and stabilizing force, rather than as an active participant in the process of building the people. There hardly exists a story about him in which he is anything but a son and heir, a husband, or a father. His main task in life seems to be to take roots in the land of Canaan, an admittedly important task in the larger context of God's promises in Genesis. What this means, unfortunately, is that he has almost no personality of his own. By Chapter 27, a scant two chapters after his father dies, he appears as (prematurely?) old, blind in both a literal and figurative sense, and as we will see, he fades out of the text entirely, only to die several chapters, and many years, later.
The true dynamic figure of the second generation here is Rebeka. It is she to whom God reveals his plan, and she who puts into motion the mechanism for see-ing that it is properly carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridg-ing the gap between the dream, as typified by Abraham, and the hard-won reality; as realized by Jakob.
Abraham is a towering figure, almost unapproachable as a model in his inti-macy with God and his ability to hurdle nearly every obstacle. Adding to this the fact that Isaac is practically a noncharacter, and that Josef, once his rise begins, also lacks dimension as a personality, it becomes increasingly clear that it is Jacob who emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in the book. The stories about him cover fully half of Genesis, and reveal a man who is both troubled and triumphant. Most interestingly, he, and not Abraham, gives his name to the people of Israel.
Distinctive themes of the cycle include physical struggle, deception, and con-frontation. These are expressed through the key words of Jacob’s name ("Heel-Holder" and "Heel-Sneak," then Israel, "God-Fighter"), "deceive" and similar words, and "face."Also recurring are the terms "love," "bless," "firstborn-right," and "wages/hire" (one word in Hebrew). The cycle is structured partly around
etiologies (folk explanations of place-names and personal names) and also around Jacob’s use of stones in several of the stories.
Continuing from the Abraham cycle are such earlier themes as wandering, sibling rivalry; the barren wife, wives in conflict, the renaming of the protagonist, God perceived in dreams and visions; and particular geographical locations such as Bet-Bl, Shekhem, and the Negev (Cassuto 1974).
Finally, it should be mentioned that the Jacob stories are notable in the manner in which they portray the two levels of biblical reality: divine and human. Throughout the stories human beings act according to normal (though often strong) emotions, which God then uses to carry out his master plan. In this cycle one comes to feel the interpretive force of the biblical mind at work, understand-ing human events in the context of what God wills. It is a fascinating play between the ideas of fate and free will, destiny and choice-a paradox which nevertheless lies at the heart of the biblical conception of God and humankind.
The Exodus paper will be due after vacation. You may choose a topic on your own. Please e-mail it to me as soon as possible. I will be glad to advise you about your topic, either in school or via e-mail.