Monday, January 9, 2012

Occupy Isaac: The Old Testament's First White Collar Crime -- Bible Study, Night Nine

Esau has the birthright. Jacob wants it. He sees his chance when Esau stumbles home one day, famished, exhausted, and half-delirious, from a deer hunting trip intended to supply the brothers' blind old father, Isaac, with his favorite game meat.  Exploiting his brother's hunger in the manner of a heroin dealer coercing sex from a trembling female junkie (or a banker pushing a teaser-rate mortgage on a shift-worker with a child on the way) Jacob demands that Esau sign over the birthright in return for a bowl of lukewarm gruel. And it works! Not only is the swindle a success in base, material terms, it's a hit with many of the critics. To this day, the scholars and divines charged with interpreting this smelly deal heap endless censure on hungry Esau's weakness while carefully theologizing away well-fed Jacob's sleaziness.

Enter their mother, manipulative Rebekah. Having always favored Jacob the Smooth (a mild, managerial "dweller in tents") over Esau the Hairy (who brings home the venison), she takes such delight in her clever darling's coup that she cries out for an encore, urging him to impersonate his brother and extract a blessing meant for Esau from their sightless, sentimental father.  Jacob would rather quit while he's ahead, but Rebekah nags and pleads and wheedles until he agrees to run the con. Esau catches him, rats him out to Isaac, and insists on receiving what is his, but Isaac, now drained of patriarchal mojo, can muster up only a wimpy mini-blessing. "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above."

Dew and fatness? Say you're kidding, Dad. So what did you promise my scummy little brother?

"Let people serve thee and nations bow down to thee; be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be everyone that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.

There it stands, and because it's in the Bible, there it will go on standing: our civilization's first white-collar crime. Its placement halfway through Genesis seems no accident, as it speaks to the book's core concern, its ruling idea. No, not sin. Not obedience. Not faith. Those are certainly important issues in this account of the struggles of a new race to organize and elevate itself, but they are luxury themes compared to this:

Property law.

From a functional, practical perspective, the work of a great, great many early Bible stories is to articulate, investigate, and, in some fashion, adjudicate a variety of title claims to a great array of holdings and assets, some physical, some social, some spiritual. We may feel as we turn the pages of the scripture like seminarians in a lovely library, but really we're law students in a drafty lecture hall. And what we're doing is analyzing precedent, from the case of the Soup Bowl and the Birthright (a right which some contend Esau essentially forfeited the moment he contemplated parting with it, especially for such a lousy price, meaning that little brother Jacob inherited it before he paid for it, meaning he could have petitioned to have the soup returned) back to Adam and Eve's Eviction Without Notice (since they'd trusted God and never demanded a lease, and since He'd trusted them and never asked for one, and also because no rent was paid or charged, leaving no financial paper trail for the serpent to conjure into an oral contract, their position or status in Eden was roughly that of two grown-up children camping out indefinitely in a parent's yard).

It's all about getting, giving, keeping, appraising, losing, regaining, and dividing. If there were a motto carved into God's Throne, it might well read: "The buck starts here." As does the hectare, the olive grove, the ingot, all the cattle and the chattel, the birthright, the pearl, the breastplate, and the grape. And the lordships, of course, which aren't just titles and costumes, but large sealed crates of prerogatives and licenses lashed to the backs of camels led by slaves.

Genesis is a treatise in story form on the paramount economic questions that civilized societies must answer, credibly, consistently, and durably, if they're not to backslide into piracy or erupt in orgiastic grabbing. Why do certain people have more than others? And what authority or history legitimizes their holdings and their powers? The Bible's answer is circular but perfect: our belongings belong to us because they're linked to a lengthy chain of title securely held at its far end by He who originally owned them unencumbered, absolutely free and clear,  by virtue of having made them out of nothing, without assistance, without outside investment, such that no lien nor levy can ever hurt them.

In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth, but in doing so, in the very act of acting, He created the deed. And all the deeds deriving from it, too, which He knew would be worthless as legal instruments unless they were properly recorded and filed. That's when his clerks got down to work, affirming the standing of the first Creation by verbally constructing another one under it, the great Book of Owning and Claiming we call The Bible.

Which moves me -- in a way I wasn't prepared for, and in a way I'm wary to indulge, lest personal digressions and reflections become a distracting habit in these posts -- to close with some words about the the Bible I own. It's right here on my laptop on my desk, a fat, loose, heavily footnoted edition thats my mother reread every year or so but suddenly stopped rereading about four months ago, when a strep infection from her right sinus crossed a fragile layer in her skull and landed her unconscious, in a coma, in the Critical Care ward of Iowa Methodist Hospital. She was seventy. She was healthy. I loved her terribly. After leaving her body in Des Moines, where she'd gone two weeks before she died so she and her boyfriend, John, who lived there,  could pass a few days having fun at the State Fair, I drove back up to her house in Minnesota and spent a week or so among her things. It didn't help, though. Her things brought no relief. They didn't feel like hers at all, but like objects on loan on from Macy's, Pottery Barn, and a number of her favorite antique stores, where some of the items might well be sold again soon.

Except for one thing, which wasn't like the other junk and now belongs to me, her eldest son, because the law is clear on certain matters, even if it's not actually the law now, even if it's just my notion of the law, or perhaps my idea of what the law should be.

By taking my mother's Bible, I claimed my birthright. By reading it and writing about it, I hope to discover what it's worth to me. At the moment, with the wind down and the sun up and stainless blue skies in all my office windows,  I wouldn't trade it for anything on earth, but tonight, later on, when I come in from the weather after hours running errands,  I'm not so sure. A bowl of warm soup might sound awfully good then, especially if I can eat it in the kitchen and pretend or imagine or actually day dream  (it's a trick I'm getting good at) that it's from her.


  1. It is remarkable that a youthful flippant remark trading a future inheritance for a bowl of soup is legally binding. "Yeah, sure, sure, you can have my birthright, just give me the soup." Even the words of blessings of the father to the disguised impostor is binding.

    Jesus said, "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment." Matthew 12:36(KJV) The disregard for our words is amplified today by the technological ease with which we transmit uncountable electronic words moment by moment.

  2. Then how come Abraham and Isaac get to lie all the time about their wives being their sisters? The idea that some principle of super-literalism has been established in Genesis, of one's word being everything, doesn't hold up.

    1. I suppose the response is that speech that is providing false information is different from one's word being binding in a speech act, like a bargain.

  3. The earth is God's and everything in it. It helps me see things as spontaneous and precious, when I imagine it created by God. I also connect to that creator part of God when I create things, and when I see my family creating things. And when I catch a plastic bag flying by...making sure it doesn't kill the earth it lands on.
    There is a ferocious sense of property, land, & seed in Israel.
    All of those things are BLOWN AWAY by Jesus, the way he views property and words and motive is just...incredible. And incredibly different than the way Israel viewed property. Israel was just a shadow...can't wait for you to get to Jesus' story.

  4. Walter, you have amazed and inspired me.

    My mother died suddenly when I was in college. 1982. I was naturally unprepared. There were no warnings that anyone could interpret in what know seems like the dark ages. No drawn out goodbyes. That could be for the best. For her sake. I don't know. It doesn't matter to her know. I would have liked to say goodbye. It won't matter to me at the end.

    After her death, I was looking where maybe I shouldn't, but I found a book of poetry in her drawer, tucked under some personal garments. The book surprised me like a concussion, "Bells In Winter" by Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet. It seemed to me she had kept it hidden. But why? You hide things away for one of two reasons: because you treasure them or because you are embarrassed by them. I can't imagine she was embarrassed to possess such enlightenment. Yet, she kept it hidden.

    We never had a bible in our house. I attended Catholic school from first grade until the eighth. I can honestly say I never felt Jesus in my life. Only the oppression and harshness of religion that a child might feel. We had a cross on the wall. On Palm Sunday, blessed palms where placed behind it. When I took it down, there was a shadow on the wall. Eventually, a coat of paint removed it's stain. Nothing lasts. Not even shadows. After all this time.

  5. I was already to go into a nice response to your apt property law commentary on the Old Testament -- something along the lines of now the believers are the "free market" crowd, probably because a free market aids and abets birthright theft and artificial hairiness.

    Then you had to go and change it to your Mother's Bible. I must say that I found more truth in the life artifact of your Mother's Bible and its impact on you, than I ever did reading it.

  6. So sorry to hear of Millie's death. She was always kind to me, the round little 12-year-old girl who crushed on her eldest son. She gave me a milk glass chicken once, and told me I was sweet and good and meant it. And I believed her.

  7. I am very much enjoying this series on the Bible. I would call myself a lapsed Catholic, years of being an altar boy. Only positive memories for me, but the hypocrisy of the faithful thus struck me at an early age, and I've never been able to fully connect to the church's teachings.

    I lost my dad about a year ago, so this post resonates with me, the idea of staying connected to a parent. It's not indulgent to write about that, it's universal, and you did it well.

  8. Walter, I was really inspired by your reading at Otis. Your mix of humor and honesty is wicked. I'm definitely going to be following your blog. Best wishes!

  9. Excellent Walt, I have a few friends I'm going to suggest this to. When I heard that your mom had passed my world got smaller, a happy part of my childhood faded indelibly.

  10. I could make neither head nor tail of this story, at all, forever, until your blog post. Lying, cheating and stealing and another evil manipulative woman didn’t seem to matter … just the whispered words of the blind and stupid patriarch. Ie god himself, mattered no matter the fraud deceit and obstruction of justice.


    You have given me the breakthrough understanding of the Bible as a series of deeds and property rights responsible fir thus horrible western civilization as we know it plus climate crisis. … write on!