Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

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


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.


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. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent 10: In which we interrupt the story of Sarah to explain the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah

"Abraham and the Three Angels" by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

When we look at scripture in our church's Monday evening bible study, we always pay attention to context. In fact, the way we most frequently approach scripture is by reading a single book all the way through. So, each time we meet, we begin with "Now, last time, we were reading..." and we move on from there.

It is vitally important to understand: the story of Abraham and Sarah's hospitality is linked with the "sin" of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are one story, and they illuminate one another.

The story of the last post was titled "On Hospitality. And Laughter." I used the last post to talk, a bit, about the Ancient Near East culture of hospitality, as I understand it.

Immediately after that passage concludes, the story turns to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,  seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” ~ Genesis 18:16-21

Remember: The chapter began with three men visiting Abraham and Sarah, and then the three men (or one of them?) was identified as "The LORD." There is a similarly slippery identification going on here. "Three men" become "the LORD" and two angels. Talking amongst themselves/ Godself, they wonder: Shall we let Abraham know what's about to go down?

Sodom and Gomorrah are already known as places where righteousness and justice are not practiced or honored. The LORD is ready to render judgment.

In verse 22, the "men" and the LORD separate again  Two men (angels?) head towards Sodom, and Abraham has an extended conversation with the LORD (read it here) in which he attempts to bargain for the life of the city. In the end, the LORD promises to save the city if there are only ten righteous men in it.

In chapter 19 we encounter the source of the confusion about Sodom and Gomorrah. The two men, now identified as angels, come to the city. They are greeted by Lot, who offers them good hospitality, just as his uncle had. The angels/ men want to spend the night in the square, but Lot strongly urges them to come under his roof-- i.e., his protection.

You know what happens next: the "men of the city" try to gain access to the strangers, in order to gang rape them. (Lot offers his virgin daughters, rather than yield the travelers to whom he has promised hospitality, i.e., safety.

For a long time this story has been a favorite Christian proof text in support of the argument that what is being condemned here is "homosexual behavior."

Gang rape of men by men is not homosexual behavior, any more than gang rape by men of women is heterosexual behavior. The crime that is attempted here is about violence and power and fear of the "stranger"-- the traveler. 

This is a crime against hospitality.

This story is presented over and against the perfect biblical depiction of hospitality because the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah is inhospitality-- refusing to welcome the stranger, but instead, preying upon him.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. ~Ezekiel 16:49

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogposts.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lent 9: On Hospitality. And Laughter

"Three Figures Announce to Abraham the Birth of Isaac " by Alexander Ivanov (early 19th c.)

It's like a dream.

It's a warm day, by the oaks of Mamre. As the heat rises from the ground, Abraham takes shelter at the entrance to his tent.

He is neither in nor out, but he is at the threshold. He is in a liminal space, a space where anything is possible, anything might happen, all possible futures still stand open. He is not what or who he will be; nor is he who he has been.

In the heat of the day, three figures arrive.

Abraham receives them as royalty. He invites them to rest under a tree, to take some water to wash their feet (and, presumably, to drink), and to rest while he brings them "some bread." (Actually, while Sarah prepares a feast.)

This is biblical hospitality. This is how you are supposed to receive anyone-- anyone-- who shows up at your dwelling. In a climate where it is often too hot and there is usually a real hunt for water, knee-jerk hospitality is a strict part of the social compact. Anyone could die out there; next time, it could be you.

So, this is how you receive guests. This is all exactly the way it should be.

After serving the bread and some yogurt and the calf Abraham has slaughtered and Sarah has prepared, Abraham stands under the tree near his guests while they eat.

It has to have been hours since they arrived. Abraham slaughtered a calf and Sarah cooked it.

It starts to get weird when the conversation begins.

Where's Sarah, your wife? they ask.

She's inside...

Then one of them says,

“I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him...  ~ Genesis 18:10

It is like a dream. 

Sarah is standing at the entrance of the tent.

She is neither in nor out, but she is at the threshold. She is in a liminal space, a space where anything is possible, anything might happen, all possible futures still stand open. She is not what or who she will be; nor is she who she has been.

In the midst of the dreamy scene, the alert biblical reader notices some seams in the story; we are told something we already know, as if we don't know it. 

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  ~ Genesis 18:11

And Sarah cackles to herself, at the thought that she might know the pleasure of sex again.

Sarah laughs.

And now the dreaminess returns... because, suddenly, it's not "three men," but "the LORD," who calls Sarah out on her laughter.

(Abraham laughed too. No one called him out on it. Just saying.)

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? I/ We will be back this time next year, and there will be a bouncing baby boy for you two crazy kids.

And the scene ends on a repeat and fade.

"I didn't laugh."

"Yes, you did."

"Did not."

"Did too."

And, scene.

Lent 8: Sarai/ Sarah: The Covenant

"Righteous Abraham and Sarah" Icon by Michael Golz

Sarai is impacted by two vitally important events that happen to other people.

First: Hagar, Sarai's Egyptian slave, bears a son, and Abram names him Ishmael (God hears), as the angel foretold.

Is Sarai there? Does she act as midwife for her slave? Is the child born between her knees, as they say such births occur?

Abram is eighty-six when the birth occurs. Eleven years have passed since the initial promise.

Second: Another thirteen years pass, and Abram has another encounter with his God. When he is ninety-nine, God appears to Abram.

What have these thirteen years been like? Has Sarah well and truly adopted Ishmael as her own? Does she love him? Or is it well known and accepted that Hagar, despite convention and despite the legalities involved in slavery, is well and truly his mother?

During the course of Abram's encounter with God three things happen:

  • God renames Abram ("exalted ancestor"). Now his name is Abraham ("ancestor of a multitude"): the naming renews and reinforces the promise of offspring.
  • God informs Abraham that they are entering into a covenant, and that the sign of the covenant will be circumcision of all males, whether free-born or slaves, who are members of Abraham's household, and the households of his descendants, forever.
  • And God renames Sarai ("my princess"; this could be taken as a name of personal endearment). Now she is Sarah (straight up "princess," a name connoting royal status), and for the first time, God explicitly names Sarah as being a part of God's covenant promise of children.

She WILL be the mother of Abraham's children.

She is ninety.

Abraham goes into hysterics. Abraham laughs like hell. Abraham falls on his face laughing.

He reminds God of Sarah's age. God holds fast.

He reminds God of Ishmael. Abraham has fatherly feelings for Ishmael! The boy is thirteen years old now, and Abraham has evidently believed that the covenant promise was fulfilled in Ishmael. Abraham want's the covenant to be fulfilled through Ishmael.

God reassures Abraham of blessings for Ishmael, but God insists, Sarah is part of this promise, and the child God has in mind will be named "Isaac," a name meaning "laughter."

Laughter is in Sarah's future, as well as Abraham's.

But it is not here yet.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lent 7: Hagar and Her Mistress and the Living One Who Sees

 Head from a statue of a woman from the Twelfth Dynasty pyramid of King Sesostris at Lisht

We interrupt the story of Sarai, because this next part insists on being told from the point of view of Hagar.

You can read it here.

Hagar the slave. (If your translation says, "servant," or "handmaiden," get a better translation. I say this with some regret, because I really like the Common English Bible, but I think it gets this one wrong.)

Hagar the Egyptian slave. So, she stands as a reminder-- if that's the right word-- of something that will happen later: Hebrews will be enslaved by Egyptians. She is also, perhaps, someone who was obtained as a result of the time Sarai spent in Egypt.

Hagar the Egyptian is a slave belonging to Sarai, the wife of the fabulously wealthy Abram. Living in close proximity to her mistress, Hagar is undoubtedly aware of a growing tension around Sarai's childlessness. That does not mean she is in anyway prepared for what happens next, no matter the culture of the time, no matter the uses of slaves.

Renita Weems (in her work Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women's Relationships in the Bible, 1988) , describes the disparities between the women here:

Sarai had social standing, as Abram's wife, but she had no respect. She had material abundance, but she was not comforted. She was beautiful, but she was barren, childless, less than a woman in the eyes of her Hebrew community. That which Sarai craved most, her husband's money could not buy her. Only her slave's womb could give it to her. And according to custom, because Hagar belonged to Sarai (through Abram, of course), any children Hagar bore would legally belong to Sarai. Thus, what the Lord had prevented of Sarai, Sarai set out to obtain through her slave.

Hagar is given to Abram as a surrogate. As a slave she has no agency, no right to refuse.

The story is told from the point of view of Sarai in the biblical narrative, but it cannot help giving us room to identify and sympathize with Hagar. And it gives us a lot.

After Hagar conceives, the story turns to vision and seeing as a metaphor, a touchstone throughout the rest of the passage.

"... and when she saw that she had conceived, [Hagar] looked with contempt on her mistress." (In the Hebrew, "her mistress was despised / trifling in her eyes.")

Whatever Sarai expected, it was probably not this.

Weems writes:

Before, Hagar had been a defenseless slave. Now, as the pregnant concubine of the prosperous but old man Abram, Hagar was protected. She ceased to be Sarai's slave and became Abram's wife.

Perhaps the pregnancy awakened something in the slavewoman, something that previously lay dormant.

Perhaps it was her sense of self-worth.

Perhaps it was her sense of purpose and direction.

Or perhaps, it was the prospect of being loved unconditionally by the child. (Pregnancy has had that effect on more than one woman.)

Whatever the reason, Hagar could no longer see Sarai and her relationship to her mistress as before, for Hagar was able to give the old man Abram something his wife Sarai could not....

Sarai is enraged, and brings the full extent of her wrath on her husband:

"May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!"

Sarai knows that, in the end, this is about her power or lack thereof... and Abram seeks immediately to rectify that imbalance by telling her, Do what you want. She is your slave.

And so Sarai "deals harshly" with her... 

(In the Hebrew, this language is identical to the language used to describe the Pharaoh's behavior towards the Hebrew slaves in Exodus. It is the language of punishment and humiliation.)

Hagar runs away, into the wilderness. She would rather take her chances with the hostile natural environment than stay another moment to endure whatever harsh treatment Sarai is doling out.

Hagar the slave.

Hagar the Egyptian slave.

Hagar, the pregnant Egyptian slave.

What happens next is the first annunciation by an angel we find in scripture. It is an annunciation to a pregnant slave. 

And that is almost all you need to know about God.

An angel finds Hagar by a spring of water, and at first, gives Hagar a bitter word.

Return to your mistress. Submit to her. (v. 9)

And this is followed by the annunciation:

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
    you shall call him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 
 He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
    and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”  ~Genesis 16:11b-12

The angel gives Hagar a vision of her son... not as the abstraction a baby can be in early pregnancy, laden with the mother's fantasies and hopes, but as he will be.  

A child whose name "Ishamel" will mean "God hears"... the cries of this pregnant slave in the wilderness. 

A "wild ass of a man" whose description as a fighter may give Hagar precisely the tangible hope she needs.

And so Hagar does what no other person in scripture has done: she gives God a name. 

So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi” (that is, God of seeing/ God who sees) she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" ~ Genesis 16:13 

And the well that was eventually built around the spring bore a name testifying to Hagar's experience: Beer-lahai-roi, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.

The Living One Who Sees Me.

The first slave we encounter in scripture receives an annunciation, and names God, and leaves behind a spring of water named for her encounter with the divine.

She also returns, at divine command, to her harsh mistress, so let's not pretty this up too, too much. Hagar's story is not over. Nor is Sarai's. 

But thanks be to and for the Living One Who Sees the harsh treatment those in power dole out to those who are powerless. Their time will come.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lent 6: Sarai's Weird Adventure

"Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace" by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

Dollars to donuts no one reading this post has heard a sermon on this passage. (Unless you went to seminary. All bets are off, when it comes to seminary preaching.)

(Go ahead and read it here. I'll wait.)

Abram and Sarai and all their retinue are forced to migrate to Egypt because of famine.

(Forced immigration for the sake of survival. It's always been a thing.) 

But as they're about to hand their passports to Mizrayim Border Patrol, Abram turns to his wife, and says, "You know, honey, you are just so beautiful...."

And proceeds to sell his wife. Literally, to sell her. To the pharaoh. For the purpose of her becoming... a concubine? A wife? A member of the royal harem?

That's not how Abram poses it to Sarai, of course. He avows that her beauty is so great, the Pharaoh will kill him (Abram) in order to possess her. Therefore, my love, won't you say that you're my sister?

Family relationship norms in the Ancient Near East were not what they are today. In fact, Sarai's being Abram's sister would only have prevented their marrying if they had been womb-siblings (children of one mother), who were considered too close a relation to marry. If they had been siblings by a father, there would have been no problem. (More on that later.)

In other words, Abram's logic is not entirely.... logical.  But there you have it. Sarai (we must assume) agrees (we don't know how enthusiastically), the two enter Egypt, and word of Sarai's beauty travels quickly to Pharaoh, who promptly takes possession of her.

And Abram becomes a very, very rich man.

BUT. There is a promise of God, still echoing in the air. The promise is that Abram (and by inference, Sarai) will be blessed with a child or children, which will result in their becoming a "great nation."

This escapade puts the promise in serous jeopardy. Will Sarai lie with the Egyptian king? Will she become pregnant? What will that do to the promise of God?

I wonder: does this story reveal some anxiety about something that becomes a central marker of Judaism? By which I mean: matrilineal descent, the passing of Jewishness, not through the father, but through the mother. If covenant belonging is passed through the mother and not the father, then there is a certain lack of control on it, isn't there? Control by men, I mean. Which... as the biblical narrative unfolds, becomes more and more of a concern, at least if you think Leviticus reveals anything about it.

Another sign that this is a tremendous anxiety? This story is told, not once, but three times. In reference to Sarai/Sarah, here and in chapter 20, and about Rebekah in chapter 26! A completely different woman!

I find this fascinating.

(Another marker of the concern about how Jewishness is identified? Circumcision. See chapter 17.)

But here, as this story reveals, the power is with, and in, the woman. She is the one through whom descendants will (or won't) appear.

In the end, God intervenes on behalf of the covenant, in scripture's very first show of plagues. Pharaoh is, understandably, miffed, and calls Abram out on it. And Abram went on his way, "with his wife and all that he had."

A final note about matrilineal descent, from It a contemporary Jewish (Orthodox/ Hasidic) answer to the question, "Why is Jewishness passed through the mother?"

Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father.

From a purely physical perspective, a child is more directly connected to their mother. The father's contribution to the production of a child is instantaneous and remote. The mother, on the other hand, gives her very self to the child . The child is conceived inside the mother, develops inside the mother, is sustained and nourished by the mother, and is born from the mother.

This is not to say that a father and child are not intimately attached. Of course they are. But as deep and essential as the bond between father and child may be, the child's actual body was never a part of her father's body. But she was a part of her mother. Every child begins as an extension of their mother's body.

The children of Israel did indeed begin as an extension of Sarai's body. But not yet. There are more adventures-- and obstacles-- between now and then.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Lent 5: Sarai

When I was twenty-nine years old and the mother of a beautiful, rambunctious toddler, my (then) husband received a call (by which I mean, a very nice offer from a particular university that wanted him to come into their Ph. D. program), to leave his country and kindred and the house on Linden Street, to travel to a new land (by which I mean, to leave the Boston area, where all our friends were, to move to Binghamton, where we knew no one).  And so he did. He left that little Cape Cod house near the commuter rail that had carried him to a law firm for three years, and traveled along I-90 and then I-88 to the little city that would be his home for the next twenty (or so). And I, his wife, went with him.

When Sarai was sixty-five years old and the mother of no one, her husband got the same basic call. The up! Get up! And go! call. I remember, at twenty-nine, being excited. Even though people and a city (all of whom I still love) were being left behind, it was an adventure!

I'm not sure how I'd feel about getting that call at age sixty-five.

Scripture is absolutely silent as to Sarai's opinion on the whole thing, even though-- Oh, I forgot to mention this--  God tells Abram that he will be given three things: land, children, and blessing. Presumably, Sarai is intimately involved in the children part. Presumably.

Ages are funny in scripture. In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the ages given for the biblical characters are mythic... Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years. Enoch lived three hundred and seventy-five. Noah, nine hundred fifty (he was a spry six hundred when he built the ark).

By the time we reach the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the ages begin to sound more reasonable, though still heroic. The question is, what does sixty-five or seventy-five mean? The same as it does to us? Probably not, but these ages do signify that what is being asked of this couple is exceptional, and unusual. These two who get up! and go! without hesitation, even by this simple, first measure, earn their status as memorable figures in the biblical story.

But what did Sarai think of it all? Was it an adventure to her? Was she weary with age? Or was 65 the old 35, in this still pretty mythic age?

What did Sarai think?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lent 4: At Last (the very last), Eve

Speaking of moral mischief....

Finally, we are there. The passage from scripture that has been mused most nefariously against women in the Christian context. The passage which gives the author of 1 Timothy the impetus to say,

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.  ~ 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Let us take a moment to gaze at the waters of the Gulf Coast, and as the sun sets in the west, to sigh deeply.

What we are witnessing is not a fall. It is not the first sin, though it is the first instance of a painful rift between God and those created in God's image and likeness.

What we are witnessing is a coming-of-age story.

At the end of the second creation story, we are told that they were both naked, the man and his woman (the same word can be used in Hebrew to mean either "woman" or "wife"). They are in a state of innocence. Nakedness does not call for shame, and so they are not ashamed.

The serpent is introduced in chapter 3... a trickster if ever there was one, we are warned of his wily ways up front. He deliberately misstates God's instructions about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The woman, even though she had not yet been created when those instructions were given, knows the score, and sets the serpent straight. (In fact, she reports the instructions as more restrictive than God's original command).

But the serpent persists, and the serpent entices.

Not only is the fruit good to eat; it will give the one who eats it knowledge, insight.

It will help the one who eats it to know the difference between good and evil.

How strange to call the pursuit of that knowledge, "sin."

The woman takes the fruit and eats it. She offers some to her husband, who has been standing, mute, beside her, and he eats it without a word of objection. Their eyes are opened, then, and they realize, on the other side of this act of disobedience, that they are naked, and they learn what shame is. They try to hide-- their bodies and their actions. They fail. God has some harsh words for them. There are consequences. In the end, they must leave their garden home. And the woman receives her name: Eve.

This is a coming of age story. Our parents give us their world view. They give us instructions and warnings. At a certain point, we test the limits of those instructions. Sometimes it turns out ok, and sometimes, not. But our eyes are opened. We experience life on the other side of the line our parents have drawn, and we are wiser for it.

But in each and every case, the expected outcome is exactly what happens here: eventually, in the normal course of events, we leave home.

I'll leave you with the words of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who, though she does in fact embrace the "fall" interpretation, also captures perfectly one precious gift of the narrative:

When Eve bit into the apple, she gave us the world as we know the world-- beautiful, flawed, dangerous, full of being... Even the alienation from God we feel as a direct consequence of her Fall makes us beholden to her: the intense desire for God, never satisfied, arises from our separation from him. In our desire-- this desire that makes us perfectly human-- is contained our celebration and our rejoicing. The mingling, melding, braiding of good and mischief in every human soul-- the fusion of good and bad in intent and in art-- is what makes us recognizable (and delicious) to one another; without it--without the genetically transmitted knowledge of good and evil that Eve's act of radical curiosity sowed into our marrow-- we should have no need of one another... of a one and perfect Other... Eve's legacy to us is the imperative to desire. Babies and poems are born in travail of this desire, her great gift to the loveable world. 

From "A Meditation on Eve" in Out of the Garden

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent 3: Oh Eve. Where is Adam?

"Dreams: There Was No Apple" by Dianne Hodack

A palate cleanser for the next post. (Click on the hot link for the video)

"Letter to Eve," by Pete Seeger; performed by the Indigo Girls

 Oh Eve, where is Adam, now you're kicked out of the garden?
Oh Eve, where is Adam, now you're kicked out of the garden?
Been wanderin' from shore to shore, now you find there's no more.
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Don't you wish love, only love, could save this world from disaster?
Lo-ove, only love, could save this world from disaster?
Don't you wish love could end the confusion, or is it just one more illusion?
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Well, if you want to have great love, you've got to have great anger.
I-if you want to have great love, you've got to have great anger!
When I see innocent folks shot down, you just want me 'shake my head and frown.
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
If you want to hit the target square, you better not have blind anger.
I-if you want to hit the target square, you better not have blind anger!
Or else it'll be one more time the correction creates another crime!
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Well, if music could only bring peace, I'd only be a musician.
If music could only bring peace, I'd only be a musician!
If songs could do more than dull the pain, if melodies could only break these chains!
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Oh Eve Eve, go tell Adam, We've got to build a garden.
Oh E-----ve, go tell Adam, We' got to build a new garden.
We' got to get aworkin' on abuildin' of a decent home for all o' God's children!
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Oh Eve, you tell Adam, next time he asks you.
Yes Eve-Eve, you tell Adam, next time he asks you.
He'll say baby it's cold outside, What's the password to come inside?
You say

Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!
Four thousand languages in this world, means the same thing to every boy and girl
Oh-oh Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent 2: Another Creation Story. Still Not Eve.

"Creation of Eve" (circa 1310-1330 CE), Marble Relief by Lorenzo Maitani Orvieto Cathedral, Italy

Following the completion of the great creation liturgy with day 7, the day of God's rest from creating, another creation story is offered. (The New Revised Standard Version actually captions it so: "Another Creation Story.") This one focuses on the garden, and the rivers, an describes, not a creation by the Word of God, but a God who plays in the mud (the dust/ the earth), breathes into the nostrils of this creation, and creates a "living soul" (KJV), or "living being." Though our English translation calls this creation "a man," the Hebrew calls it "the human," really, "the earthling" ("adama" is the earth; "ha-adam" is the "earthling"). Not too long after this, the King James Version starts using the proper name "Adam." Newer translations correct that premature usage.

Finally, we come to the creation of woman as most remember it from the Bible. Despite the fact that it is the second story ("another story"), for reasons that quickly become obvious, it has claimed the spotlight in the minds, certainly, of most Christians.

God places the human in the garden to "till and keep" it. (Another nice translation of the Hebrew is "serve and defend"). It is at this point that God gives the human the following commandment: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Please note: in this "other" creation story, the woman has not yet been created.
Shortly thereafter, God states, "“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

The idea of woman as helper, or "helpmeet," has been the source of all kinds of moral mischief throughout the millennia. Here's my favorite fact about the word "helper' ("ezer" in Hebrew). It appears something like 18 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Most frequently, this word refers to God.

So, let's set aside the notion that a "helper" is automatically a person of lesser, subsidiary status, someone whose being is only relevant with regard to a superior who is being helped.

"But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life!" ~ Psalm 54:4

God creates and parades many animals in front of the man, who pretty much says, "Nah." So God  performs a minor surgical procedure on the human, removing a rib, and from it, fashioning what becomes "a woman." 

I'd like to say a word, now, about ribs. Ribs are a part of the human respiratory system. They enclose the lungs and the entire chest cavity, including the heart. You might say, ribs guard and protect the heart and the vital apparatus for life, for breath. A rib is a part of a whole that is complexly designed. A rib is a marvelous and important thing.

Next comes what is probably the earliest example of "up is down," "left is right," "day is night" recorded anywhere. The human, now differentiated as a male from the female who has been created from his rib, speaks appreciative poetry about the newly created female.

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
    for out of Man this one was taken.”   ~ Genesis 2:23

I love this. Because, of course, in the usual course of things, men (baby boys) come out of women

This other creation story concludes with two verses. First, the verse that has regularly been hurled like a stone from a sling at gay people, as evidence that they are not right:

 "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." 

To which I reply: God gave the human (male) the full dignity of choosing his helper/ partner. The human/ male could have said "no" to the woman, just as he said "no" to the animals. The human/ male got to choose the living being who would become his partner. 

And so do we. 

And the second verse, setting up part three of our story nicely: 

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."

Not yet, anyway.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lent 1: Not Eve. Not Yet.

"The Creation of Man" by Marc Chagall

She appears slyly, at the end of the first creation story.

That's not exactly right. She appears as a quiet presence at the end of the great creation liturgy.

The first chapter of the bible, Genesis 1, the one that begins "In the beginning..." is a great liturgy. It is a great poem. Read it aloud. Even in the clunkiest of English translations, the poetry pushes through, and we read phrases that, repeating themselves, become the choral responses of the unfolding story.

"Then God said...."

"God called (named)..."

"And God saw that it was good..."

"And there was evening and there was morning, the (first, second.... sixth) day."

It is a poem. It is a liturgy. It is a story told around a fire for reassurance, that an unnameable God is in fact the source of all that is good, and the goal of all our longings.

The first woman, or maybe I should say, the first sign of woman, comes into the story on the sixth day, the last day in which God is creating (for now).

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
     So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:26-27

The first thing we learn about the woman is that she is created, together with man, in the image and likeness of God. 

If indeed God spoke these words, it is an astonishing act of generosity from One to whom we ascribe all power and majesty. It's the origin of Psalm 8.

If these words are the words of God's people describing their experience of God, they are even more amazing. Think: A text that may be three thousand years old affirms that women and men alike are created in some way to resemble their God. A society in which women's power was relegated mostly to the home, and in which women were considered by custom and law to be the legal property of a male relative such as father, husband, or brother.... is telling us that nevertheless, woman is created with the same dignity as man.

That's pretty cool. (Now if only that conviction could be made manifest in the present day.)

The second thing we learn is that this is a creation, not of two individuals, but of "humankind" (which is the NRSV translation above). The first creation story (the next one is coming right up) speaks of creation of people, not individual persons. So, "the woman" is really still "woman." Woman has been created, and, like man, she is without particulars of character or action or any role except, along with man, co-steward of the creation into which she is plopped at the utterance of God. 

She is not "Eve." Not yet. 

But she has arrived.

Lent 2017: Women's Stories, and a Blessing

"The Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" by Paul Gaugin

I love the church seasons of preparation. As beautiful and glorious as I find Christmas and Easter, it is the run-up to each of these festivals that really captivates me.

I love Advent, when all the world is pregnant, and the outer world gets darker so that we can know we, too, are in the womb, waiting for birth.

I love Lent, when we try to walk with Jesus towards the cross... mostly saying "Hell, no!" the whole time. (At least I am. Who wants the cross?) But wanting, yearning to be on a journey that is so pure of heart, so convinced of its rightness, and so utterly focused on the love of God and the love of others. The love of The Other.

For my Lenten discipline, I have decided to choose a woman from scripture each day, and to write a bit about her. I don't have a formula. I don't have a plan (for this). I simply want to write what comes to me, when I open myself to the story of each individual woman.

Years ago I was introduced to feminist biblical criticism through the story of a man. In Genesis 32, when his life is on the line, and it looks like he may just lose everything as his earlier bad behavior circles back around to get him, Jacob wrestles with an angel/ with God/ with a man/ with God by the river Jabbok.

(I just realized that Jabbok and Jacob seem linguistically linked, at least in English translation. Something to wonder about and look into.)

Jacob is amazingly strong, because this possibly divine being asks him to ease up, and let him go.

Jacob's reply is the Patron Saint of verses for women doing scriptural criticism and analysis:

“I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”(Genesis 32:26b)

We wrestle with scripture, and we don't let go, until it gives a blessing.

For Lent I will be doing this, with the stories of women from what feels like an impossibly dim and elusive long-ago.

I will be wrestling with their stories. I won't let go until I am given a blessing.