Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, April 7, 2017

Lent 16: Rebekah: Unfinished Bible Study Version

"Elizarus and Rebekah at the Well," Johann Carl Loth, 1670's


You have to love an account of courting between a man and a woman which begins with a man telling another man, "Put your hand under my thigh..."

But, Biblical Times. So. In the words of Rashi, based on the Midrash Rabbah...

"It does not mean literally the thigh; it means the Milah (organ of circumcision). The reason is because one who takes an oath must hold in his hand a sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah or phylacteries. And the circumcision was his (Abraham’s) first commandment and came to him through suffering. And it was beloved to him. And (therefore) he chose it (as the object upon which to take the oath)."

This is also the opinion of Tosefot in the Talmud Shevuot 38b. 

(Rabbi Moshe Leib Halberstadt at Yeshiva.org)

Now that this is out of the way...

Read Genesis 24, and notice what a folk take it is...

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

The portions of scripture that are most easily linked to the oral sources tend to be repetitive. This story contains instructions from Abraham to his servant (unnamed, the "oldest of his house," like Abraham... so, Abraham's true surrogate) on procuring a wife for Isaac. No Canaanite women, but a woman from his country and his kindred (just like his sister-wife, Sarah).

The servant travels, says a prayer for a sign and for success, encounters Rebekah (at a spring! Perhaps a post on wells and springs would be good. Have you noticed they pop up in stories concerning women?), engages her, says a prayer of thanksgiving, and goes in to meet her father Bethuel and her brother Laban.

The servant then tells, almost verbatim, the same story we have been told, only to the family of Rebekah.

But let's talk about Rebekah.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lent: Fessing Up

For no particular reason, here's a little blanket I'm knitting. Sporadically.


Hello friends.

I haven't written any reflections in a while, have I? Looking like, oh, about two weeks since the last one.

I am sorry for that.

Sorry, partially because I know some folks were reading, and they expressed appreciation. Sorry, too, because I enjoyed writing them... up to a point. That point being: when the demands of the season (many of which, I hasten to add, were my own ideas!) made writing feel less a joy and more a burden. 

I also want to say something I was sensing in the last several posts. My initial desire was to write reflections on biblical women. That morphed into women of the Hebrew scriptures, which morphed into women of Genesis.

Then I realized something. What I was writing weren't reflections; they were more like little bible studies. And I love bible study! But when I present something as a bible study, I venture into issues around things like language, and readings by scholars, and I get very "completist" about the whole thing. You know, when you force yourself to do something all the way through (in this case, address every mention of the woman in the Hebrew scriptures) because that's what A-students, or people in your family, or (insert the name of the super-achiever tribe of your choice here) do. I have a half-written piece on Rebekah, which I stopped because I was researching this and that and checking language stuff and... and... and...

Reflections (at least, as I envision them) allow space for creativity. They are about essence, flavor, color! They are not about saying absolutely everything that can be said about the given topic (woman). That's what I had intended to write.

I hope tomorrow I shall be able to write a reflection on Rebekah, who is a very interesting woman. I hope I shall be able to do it without needing to tell you what I think she had for lunch on a Friday. I hope to reconnect with the creative project I had in mind from the get-go.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent 15: Sarah, a Postscript

"Abraham and Sarah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)


This comes in two parts.

First, the "binding of Isaac" in chapter 22 of the book of Genesis has other layers of meaning than as a precurser to the cross. It is arrogant of Christians to layer a particular theology of the cross (of which there are many) on this Hebrew text.

One very pragmatic assertion about the story is that it is one of the many stories in Genesis that falls under the category of etiology. Examples: How was the world created? (God spoke it into being.) How did we get language? (The arrogance of those who built the Tower of Babel.)

The question this text answers is, "How did God's covenant people step away from the ancient practice of human sacrifice?"Genesis gives us a story of a man who believes he hears that God desires a particular sacrifice, and who then learns that, no, that is not what God wants at all.

Second: The monologue I posted yesterday was in reaction (my strong reaction) to the story, and in particular, to the fact that Sarah has no voice in the story. Sarah has borne the burden of this covenant promise of children. She has borne it, even to the point of losing her own humanity in casting out another mother and child, and being willing to be responsible for their perishing. That she is sequestered away from this episode, that we do not get even a glimpse of her anguish (or the cruelty of the possibility that she has not been told), is a painful gap in the story. I am not the first to wonder: Is this what killed her?

It seemed important to give this flawed and fascinating woman at least one final opportunity to speak her love and possibly her terror and anticipatory grief. Sarah deserved her say.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lent 14: The Caprice of God, and the Death of Sarah





I have had a difficult time posting this entry, partially because I am caught up in the madness that is a pastor's Lent. But it is most because this is a painful part of Sarah's story, and one that takes an emotional toll.


In Genesis 22, Abraham receives an unimaginable command from God to sacrifice this child, Isaac, whose birth and existence has consumed so much of this narrative so far, and whose coming was promised by God as part of the divine covenant with Abraham and Sarah.

Is God as capricious and cruel as this?

Christians have used this story as a precurser narrative, equating it with the theology identifying Jesus as the substituting sacrifice to atone for all humanity's sins.

I don't actually believe that to be true. But it is beyond the scope of what I intend here, which is to ponder the lives and experience of some women in the biblical narrative.

In this week, when the community in which I live is grieving the loss of not one but two children-- one, an 18-year-old college freshman, and the other, a seven year-old-- I can only read this passage as a mother, in the long run, helpless to protect her children from whatever cruel caprice life may have in store.

Below, an imagined monologue of Sarah.

~~~

Where can they be? It's been days.  What kind of foolish errand have I allowed?

When Abraham told me he wanted to take my son, my only son Isaac, whom I love, off to the God-forsaken land of Moriah, for the purpose of taking part in a sacrifice... the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I felt a chill. How far is it... perhaps 55 miles? 60? 

I know what they say about Moriah: It is a holy place. It is a place where God meets men and speaks to them. It is a place that is fought over by warring tribes, each believing their God wants them to have it.

Well, Abraham has met and spoken with God in any number of places. In Haran. At Shechem. In the hill country, east of Bethel. By the terebinths of Mamre. Here! In this very place? Why Moriah? Why now?

If I am honest, I have seen a change come over my husband. It would be easy to say it is age... but this has been sudden. These last few days. A cloud has descended upon him. I come upon him, and his eyes tell me he is far, far away, in some misty recesses of thought or feeling to which I have no access. Maybe he's with his God. How should I know? But he has a haunted look, the look of a man who wishes he did not know what he knows, or wishes he did not have to do what he must do.

And then... I saw it last night. A cheer had come over him, but when I looked closer, more deeply into those eyes I have been looking into for... how many dozens of years?... I could see, it wasn't a cheer at all. It was resignation. A decision, which always lightens the mood, terrible though it may be.

What is this terrible decision?

And why does it terrify me, that Isaac is somehow involved?

Listen to me... the ramblings of a fond old woman, with but one child to love, and to tend, and to fuss over. If I'd been able to give Abraham a houseful of children I wouldn't give it a second thought, seeing my son helping him to pack their provisions and give is father a leg up onto that old donkey. Watching them grow smaller as they walk away towards... their goal. Seeing them side by side is what did it... Abraham's age blooms in the presence of Isaac's beautiful youth. As Isaac becomes a young man, his father wears his age even more heavily, a burden making his shoulders droop.

Why is it that my heart clenches so within me?

Where is he? My son, my only son Isaac, whom I love?

Where are they?

What is it? What has that God of Abraham's has asked of him now?

My dread grows with every passing hour. I feel sick... my breath comes in short bursts... 

Where are they?

Where is he?

~~~

At the conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Moriah (believed by some scholars to be Jerusalem), there is some brief business involving family names. The next chapter opens with the news that Sarah is dead.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Lent 13: Hagar: The Tears

"Hagar and Ishmael" by Abel Pann (1883-1963)


It was never going to last.

(Read the next part of the story here (NRSV) and then here (CEB).)

By my count, Hagar hung in for fourteen years as the slave-who-was-also-the-mother-of-the-heir (by my calculations Ishmael was about fourteen years old when Isaac was born).

During that time, there is no evidence that her status as Ishmael's mother protected her from the harsh treatment that caused her to run away.

Nor is there evidence she continued to be harshly treated.

It is a hole in the story. Since it is about the well-being of a slave, this shouldn't surprise us.

Then, with a new heir by the mistress of the household... it is entirely possible that Hagar's status dropped in the eyes of Abraham. Any protection or special treatment he offered her was no longer required. Her son was no longer the heir. By the law and custom of that era, he was a slave, just like his mother.

Isaac was weaned, when? Age three? Four?

Meaning, this incident took place when Ishmael was seventeen or eighteen. A young man.

As translated here, the incident that awakened Sarah's rage (or, perhaps, the incident she was waiting for....?) makes no sense.

Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. ~ Genesis 21:8b-9

 "Playing with," with no hint of malice, doesn't account for what happens next.

The King James Version translates the word, "mocking."

It turns out, the word can be used to mean "playing," "mocking," or "sporting," which has even caused a few exegetes to envision sexual misconduct on Ishmael's part, because "sporting" contains a sexual undertone in an entirely unrelated passage ("behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife..." Genesis 26:8, KJV).

Here's what the Common English Bible says, and I think it's a very canny translation:

Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. (21:9)

Turns out, in the Hebrew, Isaac is nowhere near this sentence.

Of course, anyone who heard this in the original Hebrew would have know exactly what was going on.

Remember: Immediately before this passage is the story of the birth of Isaac, whose name means "laughter," and who brought joy and laughter to both his parents.

There was no room in this household any longer, for the laughter of Ishmael.

I believe Sarah was looking for an opportunity to get rid of the teenager who must have continued to remind her of the pain she had experienced when seeing another woman-- a slave, even-- pregnant with her husband's baby.

That was over. Out they went. It was never going to last.

The thing pained Abraham, we are told, but not enough so that he would give the boy and his mother anything resembling an inheritance for their well-being. He gave them enough for a day or two-- the classic prisoner's ration of some bread and water--and, reassured by God that they would be looked after, sent them off, again, into the wilderness.

Again, we see the seams in the narrative... for those of us keeping track (me), the "child in the sling" or "on his mother's shoulder" doesn't make a lot of sense. The story was told, and told again, and the final editor(s) of Genesis decided to piece together this version and that, and what we have are ages that don't go with a particular version. It's ok. We'll be ok.

This version highlights the desolation of Hagar in the wilderness, with a son, however old, who was at risk of dying there.

She settled her child where she wouldn't see him dying (a strange thing, for any mother... but can anyone truly place themselves in this story, and claim to know what someone would have/ should have done?). 

And then Hagar "cried out in grief, and wept."

The passage assures us that God heard Hagar's cries, and sent help, and that Hagar's eyes were opened and she saw a well (eyes, again!). The passage wants us to believe all will be well with these two, because the passage, honestly, is ashamed of what has been done to them.

Maybe it is Israel's later experience of slavery in Egypt that is being forecast here. Maybe there is empathy for a slave, even in the telling of this story, about who is the right and proper heir. 

But I do believe that the editors felt shame at the casting out of a woman and her son from even the no-status status of being slaves, into a hostile wilderness with nothing and no one to provide for them.

The story betrays itself: It is ashamed of what has been done to these two.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lent 12: Sarah: The Laughter

"Sarah" by Indira Bailey


The first verses of Genesis 21 return us to creation story mode; we are speaking in poetry, a poetic couplet:

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, 
and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised... 

Sarah did indeed conceive, beautiful ninety-year-old Sarah... but for the next several lines, the narrative celebrates, not the son of Sarah's old age, but of Abraham's.

Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 

Scripture tells us stories of remarkable women. That we even know their names is remarkable, for the culture of patriarchy which brought us their stories. This passage firmly reminds us; this is a story about men and their nations, men and their accomplishments in old age, men and their sons.

The story returns us to the foreshadowed joy of chapter 18 in the next verses, though, and Sarah pushes her way to the forefront of the narrative again. 

Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” 

It is a brief moment of recognition, affirmation, even speech. Sarah gets to speak, and this time, not in her fury, but in her joy. 

It does not last long. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Lent 11: Sarah: What, Again?!?

Detail "Sarah Taken to Pharaoh's Palace," Tissot


OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, ABRAHAM.

In Genesis Chapter 20 (you can read it here), Abraham once again pulls the "she's my sister" thing, and Sarah once again is taken into the keeping of a king who thinks she's quite a dish. At ninety.

And you know what? I know some gorgeous ninety-year-old women. I don't doubt Sarah's allure one bit.

BUT ABRAHAM. ABRAHAM?!?

Now that that's out of my system...

These wife-sister stories (as the scholars call them) betray an enormous amount of anxiety of the issue of succession and legitimacy.

This story differs from the first in a number of ways, but here are the most significant:

In the the earlier version (blogpost here), it is possible... even likely... that Sarai (as she was still called then) did indeed have sexual relations with the Pharaoh. In this version, great pains are taken to demonstrate that Sarah did not have relations with Abimelech... which is helpful to the overall story, because the very. next. thing. is the announcement of Sarah's pregnancy and the birth of Isaac.

When Abimelech calls Abraham out on his deception, Abe drops mic with the following:

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. ~ Genesis 20:11-12

Oh, biblical times. 

W. Sibley Towner, with a straight face, says, "At least he is not a liar." (Westminster Bible Companion).

Just look at Sarah's face.