AVRAM, ISHMAEL, YITZAAK Reading Week from June 24

Sunday, June 24, Week 4. 
This summary gets a bit ahead of our daily reading.  Strictly, the key ‘toledot’ formula in chapter 25 next Monday announces the begettings of Isaac in c.25, and of Ishmael in c.36, to mark the last blocks of Genesis. The cycle of Joseph stories dominates the later narrative, though, till the family gathered for Jacob’s ‘Godfather’ style deathbed blessing of each of 12 sons of 4 mothers, anticipating the rest of Torah.  Is Joseph not a ‘patriarch’, or does he define ‘us’ differently?

The phrase ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ is often repeated in scripture and tradition.  As I quoted, being a ‘monotheist’ is a bit like a monarchist.  It rules out various alternatives types of government – but begs the question of which one God, until this kind of naming is added.  I claim to believe and be in covenant relationship, and follow the same God as did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  I claim to believe, belong, and behave as a child of the patriarchs.  There is no genetic claim, no geography in common. 

This week, we read the second half of the cycle of Avram / Abraham.  The fulfillment of the promise has been long delayed, from ‘get up and go’, ‘lech lecha’, through Haran and Egypt and back to Canaan, through the birth of Ishmael and the conception of Isaac.  This week’s cycle starts with Sodom and Gomorrah, the ‘open marriage’ incident with Abimelech, child abandonment of Ishmael, child sacrifice of Isaac, burial of Sarah, then bride purchase of Rebekah.  These are not a set of morally uplifting stories of great domestic role models – so let’s hope they illuminate being one people among many peoples.

Our moralistic shallow roots in modern evangelicalism may leave us blind and deaf to this week’s portions of Torah.  Our current indiscriminate relativism is little better, in our overcompensation from that recent history of moral imperialism and theocratic assumptions in family law.  Surely there is something more going on here than anthropological surveys of old customs.  Can we find a way to read these texts as Torah, not simply halakah law, but also haggadah story, to develop our own individual and communal identities in directions that are more faithful than if we did not hear this word?

Monday June 25: Chapter 19
Two angels greet Lot.  His hospitality is spoiled by his neighbours’ mob, despite his offer of young women from his household to appease their lynch plans.  What’s the sin of Sodom?  Not homosexuality!  Lot’s clan is saved, though they have failed to save the city – but Lot’s wife wavers and looks back.  Go to your maps, and suss out the etiological legends operating here, rather than seeking moral role models: the Dead Sea, the barren wastes, are the putative sites of these cities.  Their ‘children’ are insulted as the incestuous offspring of Lot’s daughters raping him in a drunken stupor: Moabites and Ammonites, in Transjordan.

Tuesday June 26: Chapter 20
Poor Abimelech.  Here comes this Avraham and his family.  Abimelech takes Sarah in good faith as his wife – and everything goes wrong.  This ‘take my wife, please’ routine will be repeated, with less mincing around Avraham’s defence of his ruse.  This time through, try it as a tale of immigration and settlement of two peoples in one land.  Assimilation is not the biblical option, rather peaceful coexistence where good fences make good neighbours, and the peoples are rarely equal in power.  I think of Abimelech as an early liberal, abusing his power, not even aware of it - but Avraham is no moral titan either, eh?  Sarah is left to bear the burden of the worst role. Imagine!

Wednesday June 27: Chapter 21
Isaac is born, as promised, younger of Abraham’s sons, but born to Sarah the wife, not Hagar the slave.  Sarah tells Abraham to throw out Hagar, and he does – but God shows mercy where Abraham and Sarah do not, and saves the child and promises a future for Ishmael’s people, living in the wilderness to the south, with an Egyptian wife. On that frontier is Beer-sheba, and we close with another etiological legend about Abimelech ceding the well to Abraham – though Abraham lives in Gaza as a resident alien. What do you make of ‘us’ and ‘them’ today?

Thursday June 28: Chapter 22
‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am!’ ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…’  Here’s a familiar tale, of the near-sacrifice of Isaac.  Replay it a few times today, and wonder what it means about offering up your dearest.  What surrenders are faithful, and what sacrifices offend our narcissistic age?  We’ll finish today’s chapter with the stuff you usually skip over, the toledot or begatitudes of Nahor.  Can you see how the lineage of Rebekah back up in Haran is relevant to the toledot of the patriarchs?  Can you see how it may not be a moral tale promoting incestuous marriages, but a way of describing the shared and separate roots of peoples?

Friday June 29: Chapter 23
Here’s another land claim, this time to Hebron.  Sarah’s death and burial in this key locality expresses the antiquity of the biblical claim to this part of the land of Canaan.  The tale this time reflects some elaborate Oriental courtesies, as Abraham tries to buy land, declines to accept it as a favour, insists on paying and haggles a price.  In the end, this account justifies millennia of Jewish claims to Hebron’s heights as ancestral home.  Where are your people buried?  What is the basis of your land claim to your home – and how would first nations folks hear your claims?

Saturday June 30: Chapter 24
This is a long chapter, recounting the elaborate story of how Abraham sent his servant to fetch Isaac a wife Rebekah, lest he either marry a local Canaanite, or return to Haran from which Abraham had emigrated.   It has the great literary shape of oral story-telling, with repetitions – I’ve preached it here, archived at www.billbrucewords.com if you want to review the details of the story, including some challenge to the perception that Rebekah was simply property to be bought for one man from another.  The theme in context here is again about immigrants’ temptations of assimilation on one hand, and return to the ‘old country’ on the other.