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.

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