BABEL to AVRAM: Reading Week from June 17 


“The Gospel According to Torah” 

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Summer Reading 2018 



Reading Week from June 17 

Garret Talk June 17, Tues June 19 

Genesis 7 to 12: Mon June 11 to Sat June 16 


Sunday June 17: Week 3. 

In 2008, and in 2017, this was the teaser: 

The Lone Ranger and Tonto huddle behind a rock, under fire from Indians, in our subculture’s myth of the ‘Wild West’.  One says ‘I think we’re in trouble!’ The other: ‘What do you mean ‘we’, white man?’  This block of Genesis, chapters 12 to 25, moves from universal humanity ‘us’ to a smaller circle of shared identity.  Jews, Muslims and Christians all claim Abraham as ‘father’ of our people.  What does that mean? In our times of identity politics, ‘nativism’ and racism, we each require a ready answer to ‘what to you mean ‘we’. 

It took a couple of weeks to read the toledot of Adam and Noah, the myths of prehistory, and universal common humanity.  We were presented with some home truths about human nature and destiny, and common origins.  Friday of Week 2, with the second half of chapter 11, we turned a corner with the lineage, the begettings, the generations, of Shem, one of Noah’s 3 sons, presented as the forebear of what we might call Middle Easterners, as Ham begat Africans, and Japeth Eurasians, from a Palestinian perspective and ancient worldview.  It will take a couple of weeks to shake out Abraham’s toledot. 

What’s at stake in these perhaps less familiar legendary tales of the first of the ‘patriarchs’ we recite as ‘Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’?  This is a passing of exquisite discomfort for modern liberals, who prefer to deal in universal humanity and atomized individuals choosing their identifications.  We can make it through this week on what has been the platitudinous affirmation of ‘monotheistic faiths’, or of ‘Abrahamic religions or ecumene’, or that vague one of ‘Judeo-Christian traditions and values’.  I prefer to surrender before we begin, and say that none of those unified field theories survive scrutiny.   

We ended Week 2 with 3 branches of Noah’s family leaving the ark, and of the scattering, baffling babble of many languages and peoples leaving Babel.  Like Adam and Eve, Cain and Seth moving ‘east of Eden’, we enter human history of mortality and limitation, cursed and blessed by common human nature and destiny.  The next cycle of toledot is not about all peoples, but one people. 

Some will read this distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘other’ as being about a covenant promise by God to Avram, of a land, descendants, and blessing.  Terah’s clan leaves Ur, at the bottom of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, and follows the Fertile Crescent north and west toward our Turkey and Syria, the biblical Haran.  Avram and Sarai leave Terah and Haran, toward a promised land in Canaan, by way of Egypt, which on our maps is some detour or overshooting, true to ancient migrations and anthropologists’ theories, but true in other ways. 

Along the way, Avram and Sarai pursue not only place, but the heritage of offspring, heirs of their promise, and they recognize how they are blessed and can be a blessing.  Torah claims the identity of sojourners, seeking a better country, as Hebrews echoes it in turn in Christian scriptures. ‘We’ come from all over, and ‘we’ tell the story, in many voices, from a Palestinian vantage. 

One way of telling the tale is that ‘we’ left neighbours in realms where imperial rulers would rise, and to which exile would follow.  ‘We’ left cousins in frontier lands to the north, from whom would come partners for Isaac and Jacob in turn.  ‘We’ left a half-brother Ishmael, fully a son of Avram.  ‘We’ have inextricable relationships with ‘them’, the ‘Other’, dwelt among them always, and returned to them often.  This is not a saga of ‘get thee apart and be holy’, or a heroic epic of superiority, but it is one of distinctive distinguished identity tied to affirmation of Jahweh, or Yahweh, or Elohim, or El Shaddai.   

Michael Wyschogrod of Baruch College of City University of New York points out that one can be a ‘monotheist’ and worship Zeus, or Baal, or Yahweh.  One can be a ‘monarchist’ and disagree with other monarchist about which monarch is ours.  The crucial assertion is that our one God is Avram’s one God, and that ultimately, other and all peoples will come to recognize that Avram’s one God is the one God whose will and actions will prevail.  (‘Abraham’s Promise’, 2004 essays from Eerdmans).   

By the end of Week 3, Ishmael has been born of Hagar, and given his promise, and the couple Avram and Sarai, one aged 99 and the other post-menopausal, have named and perhaps conceived Isaac but he is not alive, and they have not arrived.  Scripture is kinder to Ishmael than we have been in history, in this week’s reading and in the one to come.  Listen for stories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

Saturday June 16: Genesis Chapter 12

‘Lech lecha’ – get up and go!  Here begins the new cycle, a new Torah portion, and a shift from the primeval myths of origins of humanity and peoples, to the patriarchal account of the origins of ‘our’ people.  Some call it the ‘Abrahamic ecumene’, that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all appropriate Abraham as a root narrative.  This first chapter in the cycle sketches Avram coming from Haran, and also sojourning in Egypt, personification of migrations restated throughout the biblical story.  Like Canadians claiming roots in Europe and Asia, this story starts in both Asia and Africa.  Where do ‘we’ come from, who are ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ of our collective identities?  

Monday June 18: Chapter 13

After repeated exile stories, here is an immigrant tale:  Avram, Sarai and Lot migrate from Egypt up through the Negev, to arrive at Beth-el.  There Avram and Lot split up, an etiological legend of how one set of cousins ends up in the east plain and Transjordan, and the other in hill countries.  Take a moment to find this on a map – we’ll visit this turf repeatedly before this book is over!  This occupation is less warlike than the Joshua tales to follow, and based on a choice not to overburden the land, let alone displace the people already in the land.  Lot’s peoples are judged, while Avram receives a development of chapter 12’s promise, land added to offspring blessings, settling by Mamre in Hebron. 

Tuesday June 19: Genesis Chapter 14

Don’t get lost in all the proper names of the ‘kings’.  This account of tribal war among neighbours is hard to hear in terms of our nation-states and monarchies.  Imagine something closer to Mario Puzo’s Godfather trilogy, where dons figure out who will pay tribute to whom.  An alliance of sheiks rise up against Chedorlaomer. Foolish Lot joins up.  Avram comes to rescue his cousin, forgoes his share of the booty, and consigliore Melchizedek marks the peace with a ritual meal.   The polemic about those eastern tribes, on the plain, in the Transjordan, is told from the perspective of the hills of Judah and Israel, like the ethnic slurs and prejudice of any people toward any other today.  Not you?  Sure! 

Wednesday, June 20: Genesis Chapter 15

Here’s yet a third round of promise from God to Avram.  Avram is childless, doubting the original promise of offspring.  Avram has no title to the land, save this ritual of slaughter sacrifice – compare that to the root of our word ‘indenture’ for legal titles.   In a dream, God tells Avram of a prospect of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, then Exodus when judgment comes on their slave-drivers.  The shorter cycle of patriarchs is also previewed, till the Amorites get theirs. The ritual ends with fire and smoke passing between the halves of the slaughtered sacrifices, and intoning the dispossession of the neighbouring tribes in favour of Avram’s clans.  What gives us title to our land, to the exclusion of first nations’ claims, and the rejection of immigrants and refugees from away?   

Thursday June 21: Genesis Chapter 16

Hagar bears Ishmael today.  This is an account of the origins of the Arabian neighbours of the bible writers.  It has been adopted in the tradition of Islam as the account of Muslim origins from Avram.  Barren Sarai, and fertile Hagar her slave, give more dimensions of the relationships among these peoples.  Go on back to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and “call me Ishmael”, or to Margaret Lawrence’s character Hagar Shipley in Stone Angel if you have more time!  How do you construe or construct the ‘other’ – or identify as one? 

Friday June 22: Genesis Chapter 17

Circumcision of adults makes some guys queasy, but again, consider how this story works as an explanation of the origins of defining rituals of a cultural and religious group.  Avram changes name, getting another syllable: Avraham, ancestor of a multitude.  The claim to the  specific land is repeated.  Sarai’s name changes, too, to Sarah.  Note the promises made to Ishmael, father of 12 princes, a great nation, though the covenant promise goes to the younger one Isaac – named but not conceived yet. Now, what do you make of circumcision – which includes Ishmael?  

Saturday June 23: Genesis Chapter 18

Here’s a folksier etiological legend of divine visitation by angels or heavenly beings, disguised as humans, to deliver the promise of Isaac.  Avraham is 99, and Sarah not much younger, and though they are generous good hosts, they can’t resist a snicker at the prediction of a baby. Contrast that message carried by the same messengers to Sodom and Gomorrah of threat, anticipating inhospitality.  Avraham haggles with God through these intermediaries, on behalf of his kin Lot, to say 10 righteous could save an evil city: ours?