Thursday, December 29, 2011

The First Happy Ending -- Bible Study, Night Seven

Much has been made of Abraham's piety in almost sacrificing his favorite son, Isaac, but not enough has been made, in my opinion, of whatever quality in Isaac prevented him from trying to murder Abraham after the execution was called off. Precisely how Isaac responded to his near-slaying is left unrecorded, suggesting that he did little, which leaves one to wonder at his forgiving nature. Or perhaps he was just extremely passive,  Isaac, and disinclined to do anything to anyone, no matter what anyone had done to him. In any case, his submissiveness seems superior to that of his father, who'd met with God so often that obedience probably came easy to him. Isaac, however, barely knew the deity, first encountering Him while bound with cords and lying on a bed of firewood. That he remained faithful following this horror is one of the Bible's greatest emotional miracles.

Another one of the Bible's emotional miracles comes a bit later, when Isaac is awarded that rarest and finest of human experiences: truly mutual romantic love. When Rebekah first glimpses him from atop her camel after being being recruited as his bride, she isn't aware of who she's ogling. Luckily, given the surge of passion she feels, he turns out to be the husband she's been pledged to.  Had this not been the case -- had Isaac been someone else and had Rebekah been smitten with him instantly -- the Bible might have stopped right there, with an intractable conflict of the heart that even God might have despaired of solving.

But it's all for the best. The wedding night goes splendidly, marking the first instance in the Old Testament of two people getting exactly what they want in the precise manner that they want it, without a lot of turbulence and testing. That the happy deflowering takes place in the tent of Isaac's late mother, Sarah, heightens the sense of symmetry and rightness. Indeed, the whole love story seems slightly implausible -- prince seeks princess, secures one through intermediary, and not only is delighted by the results but finds that she's delighted, too -- making it the Bible's first full-fledged fairy tale.

Monday, December 12, 2011

That's Torahtainment! -- Bible Study, Night Six


So far the Genesis story has been straightforward, proceeding in a simple, linear fashion, but now the tale grows complicated and layered. Like a TV serial melodrama, the focus is on one family, the House of Abraham, but the narrative splits our attention between subplots, including the perils of Lot, the fate of Sodom, the ongoing warfare between regional kings, and the sexual power struggles of Abraham's women. The overlapping structure grows so dense, in fact, that an ingenious device is introduced to give the reader a breather now and then: repeated, rhythmic appearances by God, either in visions or by way of angels. And Now a Message from Our Heavenly Sponsor...

The message in question is ever the same: Hang tough. Over and over, as though he risks forgetting a cosmic promise delivered from on high that's sometimes accompanied by bursts of flame, Abraham is assured of a bright future revolving around extensive real estate holdings, many descendants, and an exalted name. As if to keep grabbing his Favorite Son's attention, God exaggerates the math involved, telling Abraham that his heirs will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dust specks covering the ground. God also keeps Abraham in keen suspense as to when these heirs will start appearing. When barren Sarah finally grows so frustrated that she turns over her reproductive function to Hagar, her servant, who brings forth Ishmael, Abraham's situation becomes so tense that he probably wishes he'd stayed childless. Not only does the birth occasion a cat fight between the two main women in his life, his child is born emotionally disabled. Ishmael, a so-called "wild man" whose "hand will be against every man," suffers from Oppositional Disorder.

Two steps forward, one step back. That's how it continues to go for Abraham, turning his arduous, good news-bad news life into history's original soap opera. Lot, his beloved brother, achieves prosperity, but chooses to settle down in sinful Sodom. God gives Abraham everlasting influence, but on the condition he mutilate his penis (and all the penises of those around him). God grants him and his people a great homeland but also makes known that before they can enjoy it they will be slaves in Egypt for four centuries. Sarah bears Abraham a normal son, but God instructs him to kill the boy.

What's a put-upon patriarch to do?

Hang tough.

The content of this primitive cable series has to do with the origins of Judaism, but the form of the drama is equally important, seeing as it prefigures the modern potboiler and its characteristic effect, the cliffhanger.  This is to say that not only does All Abe's Children predict the founding of Israel, it also presages, in aesthetic terms, a not-unrelated development: the birth of Hollywood.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Abraham, Best of Breed and Best in Show -- Bible Study, Night Five

He kind of sneaks up on you,  this Abraham. At first he seems like just another figure in a long and tortured genealogy whose members (Arphaxad, Serug, Reu, etc) turn out to be pontoon bridges across Time, structures to be discarded and forgotten once they've afforded passage to his seed. Then, out of nowhere, he suddenly breaks out, surpassing and marginalizing those who sired him. It's almost as though (or it's precisely as though) all history before Abraham was whelped were just a complicated breeding program that yielded a couple of good dogs and lots of bad ones but no all-around, enduring champions. And Abraham is certainly a show dog, since what is his distinctive trait?  Obedience. He comes when he's called. He heels. He sits. He fetches. Canine Abraham is God's best friend.

It's tempting to think of Abraham as virtuous, but morality, in the sense of tenets and principles whose difficult application exalts the soul, doesn't really exist yet in the world. What matters at this juncture is God's favor, which is obtainable through lots of licking (in the form of building altars). As Abraham's adventures prove, if Master loves you you can do no wrong, and if He doesn't you can do no right.

Consider poor Pharaoh, who Abraham deceives by pretending that Sarah, his wife, is really his sister. The trusting Egyptian, acting in good faith and motivated by honest masculine instincts, takes lovely Sarah into his grand household and reimburses her 'brother' handsomely for his willingness to pawn her off, showering Abraham with asses and camels, all of which he cheerfully accepts. Pharaoh's reward for showing such generosity to a guest in his kingdom who ran a con on him rather than thanking him for his hospitality is to be beset by plagues. When the potentate uncovers the ruse and, understandably, vents his grumpy puzzlement (What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst tho not tell me that she was thy wife?), Abraham doesn't even bother to answer him, that's how cocky he's grown from knowing God has his back. Abraham doesn't return the asses, either. Or the gold. Or the silver. Or the cattle. He departs with his loot and once he's in the clear, his wife at his side after serving as sultry bait in history's riskiest-ever pimping scheme (exactly what happened to Sarah in Pharaoh's harem-room is left provocatively unaddressed), he meets up with God at a spot they picked out earlier and the two of them basically high-five each other.

Operation Egyptian Honey Trap complete!