The other night I was hanging out in a friend’s basement, listening to Lacey Sturm’s “State of Me” on Radio U. And when she repeatedly sang, “Just get behind me,” I thought of Jesus’ brutal reprimand to Peter in Matthew 16:23: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s purposes, but men’s.” Is Jesus calling Peter the actual Devil?
Oh, great. We’re not two verses into this chapter, and God–the same God whom we had established was speaking out loud about what not to do as his people and how to build altars–now starts talking about the proper keeping of slaves. Comedian Bo Burnham’s song from 2010 “Rant” immediately sprang to mind. Most of it is unfit to quote on this blog, as it’s Bo Burnham. But there’s a section where a hypothetical priest interprets the Old Testament passages about slavery as allegorical, referring to “slaves within our hearts,” and then Bo observes: “And then as God goes on to explain / The logistics of buying and selling slaves…” And worse, this isn’t the last time in the Torah that we’ll read a passage detailing the rights and obligations of the slave and slave-owner. To quote another song by Bo Burnham, I don’t think that I can’t handle this right now.
Happy Magic Bread Day! This is the chapter with the manna, and so many things about it seem foreign to me in so many different ways. I have no clue what it’s like to travel in the desert or to travel long distances on foot. I don’t know a whole lot about what’s normal for storing food without refrigeration or sealed packaging. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it said that someone “grumbled against” someone else outside of the Bible. But there’s one thing here that I’ve got half a clue on, and that’s people being people.
We’ve got a short one today. This chapter serves as prelude to the last plague, the calm before the final storm. It calls back to several events that God predicted previously, so we’re going to look back at those previous passages, in the interest of actually having something to talk about. Ha! I’m not being entirely facetious.
Sometimes a lot of different things happen in a chapter. In today’s chapter, for example, God tells Jacob to go dwell in Bethel, which Jacob does, and God has a message of blessing for him once he settles there. Also, people die: Rebekah’s nurse Deborah, Rachel as she gives birth to Jacob’s twelfth son Benjamin, and then old Grandpa Isaac. If you can find a common theological or spiritual thread through all these events, more power to you. But as far as I can tell, the only theme tying them together is “some things pertaining to Jacob’s family happened in Canaan.” Sometimes chapters are like that.
For better or worse, the text of the Bible doesn’t generally come with content warnings, so I feel like I should begin with one. The story in today’s chapter deals with sexual violence, and the victim is in all likelihood a minor. I often make flippant or lighthearted remarks here on Chocolate Book, but I’ve had to scrap more than one incomplete intro here because the tone wasn’t appropriate to the subject matter. The story of Dinah, Shechem, and Simeon and Levi’s revenge is intended for mature audiences, in that if you or I aren’t going to treat it with the gravity it merits, we have no business discussing it at all.
Okay, we are in chapter 33; we can give away the ending now. Esau does not kill Jacob! In fact, quite the opposite.
Today’s chapter tells the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham goes to do it, and the angel of the Lord tells him that he doesn’t actually have to sacrifice his son. It’s one of the better-known passages from the Bible, and with good reason. An ostensibly all-loving God calling for human sacrifice, only to turn around and say, “No, wait, sacrifice this ram instead,” has a way of arresting our attention. But I feel like the story, in its magnitude, has me hemmed in on all sides. How can I adequately address its scope? How can I say something worthy of the monumental matters it raises?
As a child, I was terrified by stories in which people were turned to stone. Medusa was the most horrifying of monsters to me, and the narrated portion of Conan the Adventurer’s opening freaked out my business. And it didn’t even have to be human people, or even stone necessarily! Trolls were the bad guys in The Hobbit and The World of David the Gnome, but scenes in which the rising sun turned them to stone still gave me the jibblies. I declined to see Ernest: Scared Stupid with my brother and father. And even when my brother and I rented it in high school, the numerous organic-to-mineral transmutations in Return to Oz left me unsettled. But I’ve saved the best for last: my first encounter with this harrowing phenomenon was drawn directly from today’s passage.
I could swear my dad had marked up this chapter more. He’s certainly talked to me about it enough, speculating as to whether the three men whom Abraham encounters are in fact the Trinity, investigating the notion that this may be a pre-incarnate Christophany, pointing out some detail of the original Hebrew that I cannot at this moment recall. But my dad, whose Bible I use, has only written a single marginal note on this whole chapter. It’s three words, which you may be able to see in the photo above: “Hospitality – 1) Inconvenient 2) Costly.”