YITZAAK’S TWINS: Reading Week from July 1

“The Gospel According to Torah”
Posted daily at www.hereticslikeus.com
Weekly summaries also at www.billbrucewords.com
Concurrently at www.trinityunitedkw.ca
Summer Reading 2018

Reading Week from July 1
Garret Talk NOT July 1, but resumed Tues July 3
Genesis 19-24: Mon July 2 to Sat July 7

Sunday, July 01, Week 5
Sunday Summary

The middle patriarch of ‘Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ is less familiar to us, even if we have read this book before.  The stories we get seem to feature Isaac as the character in others’ stories: how his parents’ reaction to his conception give him a name of ‘laugh’, how his father’s staff goes to fetch him a wife, how his twins fought each other and fooled him.  When we don’t get to be the hero or star of our own story, can we still have ‘agency’, or write some of the narrative, or take pride in how we contribute to others’ human nature and destiny?  I hope so, at this point in my life.  

We don’t even get a clean break from Abraham, as the J voice is old enough to want to acknowledge some Arab cousins in tribes traced through another wife Keturah (though Hagar carries the weight of mother of the 12 tribes of Ishmael) and the unnamed concubines whose kids get gifts in life, but no share of his estate or posterity.  

The account of Abe’s death, and burial by both Ishmael and Isaac, is in the much later and more ‘ecumenical’ postexilic voice of P.  The literary weight of the story putting both sons at graveside is enough for me, without historical evidence of who was interred in the one gravesite, by whom.  The recitation of the stub end of Ishmael’s line, which won’t be pursued in the chapters to come, is like anybody’s family genealogy, focusing on some lines among many mathematically possible relationships.

The crucial phrase, the ‘toledot of Yitzaak’, at 25:19, marks the next cycle in the late editorial shaping by the P voice, but most of the fun in this week’s texts comes from a lot of word play and sometimes crude humour that suggest rich oral traditions of telling these stories to personify nations, or edify hearers about human nature, as twins are hardly identical, and Mom always liked one best.  You’re dealing with a familiar bit of geography, the Gaza strip, the passes to the Gulf of Aqaba, the frontiers of the fluid borders of Judah over millennia.  

For a third and final time, (remember c.12:10-20 in the J voice, and c.20 in the E voice) we have a tradition of a patriarch cravenly calling his wife a ‘sister’ and risking her honour in the face of neighbours, this time Avimelekh, here a Philistine in Gerar, our Gaza, with the fewest lascivious details and the most civilized resolution of the 3 versions of the story, which must have more to do with patriarchy’s assumptions of the status of women as property, hard to possess exclusively in mixed company.

In the disentangling of voices, I notice that the P voice so blithely tolerant of a multi-ethnic post-exilic society still does not want a son to marry outside the ethnicity.  That’s a rich vein to mine in our own generations and the glib cosmopolitanism of affluent classes deferring or subcontracting child-rearing.  We move pretty quickly from sketching in the youthful rivalry of the twins to the morbid concern of Isaac for his mortality and legacy, developing more about the personalities and foibles of Rivkah, Esau and Jacob than about Isaac.  There is little innocence and a fair bit of shrewd duplicity here. 

Later this week, bookmark the maps in your bible, or online – the narratives of motive and character are great, but the dream at Bethel as Jacob runs north is a mix of J voice and E voice, and the shrine as a centre of northern devotion is a very big deal.  In turn, the territories associated with each of the 4 mothers and the 12 sons who stand in for tribes are as clear in original hearers minds as the provinces of Canada are in ours.  Victoria, Alberta, and Regina tie our dominion to a Victorian heritage, layered onto any number of first nations names now being reclaimed.

Anyhow, here’s hoping your eyes won’t glaze over during the enumeration of proper names and nouns – we’ll pick it apart day by day, I hope.

Monday January 30: Chapter 25
You want to jump to the last half of this chapter: Rebekah’s twins, fighting in her womb, and born Esau first, red-haired, and Jacob heel-grabbing second.  They come of age, hunter outdoorsman Daddy’s boy, quiet man in tents Mama’s boy, and the elder sells his birthright for some red stew.  Sure. What if you find Edom on the map, hear that it has red soil, and blocks the trade routes south to the sea from Judea?  

Back up to the original balance of the chapter before Sunday School selections, and you see a whole ‘nother wife Keturah whose lineage give us Midianites and other tribes around Canaan, Abraham buries in Hebron in the Mamre gravesite, and we rehearse the 12 sheiks and tribes of Ishmael, mirror to the 12 tribes of Jacob Israel yet to come!

Tuesday January 31: Genesis Chapter 26
Déjà vu all over again, eh?  Isaac’s famine pushes him southwest to offer up his wife to Philistine Abimelech as his ‘sister’.  Just as with Abraham’s surrender of Sarah, this is no family values role model, but a tale of living as resident aliens among more powerful locals.  It’s a pretty positive view of Philistines as patrons, not enemies – and a pretty sophisticated reflection on sex and power.  It also flows into an etiological land claims legend of a well near Beer-sheba.  The chapter closes with a dismissive reference to Esau’s parents ruing his choice of Hittite wives, local girls, outside the ethnic groups, threatening assimilation.

Wednesday February 1: Genesis Chapter 27
Here’s another deceptively familiar day and chapter, reciting the Sunday School tale of Jacob taking a blessing from Isaac: deceit and deception, aided and abetted by Rebekah.  Esau the elder was due the blessing from Isaac, but the old guy is blind enough and deaf enough to fall for the trickster’s charade in place of his brother.  Esau gets a consolation prize, exiled from good land to martial freedom – the identity of Edom the nation south of Israel.  Esau won’t kill his brother pending mourning for their father, and Rebekah uses the time to orchestrate Jacob’s flight to Haran, away to the old country, like Michael Corleone hiding out in Sicily, to avoid the consequences of his deception – and to avoid marrying a Canaanite or Hittite local girl.  

Thursday February 2: Chapter 28
Isaac sends Jacob off to Syria, to the cousins up north and east, hoping that he’ll someday return to claim the land promised to Abraham, where Isaac lived as resident alien, rather than surrendering the emigrant’s dream.  Esau tries to please the clan by marrying a daughter of Ishmael, at least a branch of Abraham’s toledot, to join his harem.  Meanwhile, Jacob has his dream, another familiar Sunday School tale, in the north, at Bethel.  It’s another etiological legend about ‘bet-el’, house of God, the competing shrine in the north to Jerusalem’s temple in the south – and introduces tithes, giving 10% of wealth to God, beyond basic circumcision.

Friday February 4: Genesis Chapter 29
Déjà vu or echoes, just as Isaac got a wife in the old country so Jacob gets his.  These still are not moral models of incestuous inbreeding with cousins, but crucial narratives of the toledot, setting us up for Jacob as patriarch with 12 sons from 4 mothers, Israel a nation claiming territory of 12 tribes.  Good land and bad land, near to Jerusalem heartland or out at the frontiers, is implicitly ranking the tribes.   It’s like that T-shirt: ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!’  The most beloved Rachel is mother to Joseph and Benjamin.  Steady, faithful Leah bears the solid set of ‘home counties’.  The outlier tribes and territories are attributed to the ‘maids’ – take a look at the maps, and think about Newfie jokes, western alienation, or northern hinterlands. Or enjoy the romantic tale of a man loving sisters, if you must!

Saturday, February 4: Genesis Chapter 30
Keep reading the romance and intrigues of life in the harem if you prefer.  The ‘maids’ bear sons who will be ‘fathers’ of the coastal and northern hinterland tribes.  There’s a strange tale of aphrodisiac and fertility remedy mandrake plants resulting in Leah’s 5th and 6th sons, and daughter Dinah. Once Joseph is born in the old country, Jacob starts lobbying Laban to let him re-emigrate with his flocks, tricking his uncle who had tricked him, with animal husbandry and breeding strong striped animals for himself.  Do we tell the story of immigration as ‘those with get up and go, got up and went’, or as ‘bring me your tired… huddled’ refugee charity?