I hope you’re ready for some plagues, because today we’ve got plagues. Well, one plague. Don’t worry, there are more later.
Houston, we have a problem. I was all set to examine how God answers Moses’ questions and frustrations from our passage yesterday, make a point about how he doesn’t get angry with him this time, dig into the content of his response, but almost immediately I encountered complications. As God appeals to his history with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to underscore his commitment to their descendants, he makes a claim that is, prima facie, hog-bonkers.
Here’s a passage that used to agitate me. To set the stage, Jacob and his twelve sons have long since died, and the current Pharaoh is struggling to control the numerous Hebrews in his kingdom. He forces them into hard labor, but they still prosper. So he tries to enlist the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew sons as they’re born. The Hebrew midwives don’t comply. But they lie in order to save the newborns, and therein lies the complication.
Good lord, where do I begin? This chapter’s got more drama than a 1980s daytime television serial. First we pick up where we left off in Rachel and Leah’s race to have as many sons that they can call their own as humanly possible, and then Laban tries to convince Jacob to continue working for him when Jacob has clearly had enough of employment under his uncle. The friction is palpable, and all through the chapter my soul is facepalming. Remember how I ended Friday’s post with the observation that maybe, just maybe, human relationships are worth it? That’s a hard “maybe.”
In today’s chapter, Isaac travels in the land of a foreign king, in order to avoid the effects of a local famine, and to keep the inhabitants from killing him and taking his extremely attractive wife, he claims she’s his sister. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Abraham did twice before. However, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, you can’t step in the same river twice, much less the same river that your father stepped in. Isaac’s encounter doesn’t go exactly as his father’s two encounters did, but what are we to make of that?
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?
Meet Abraham. He’s known as Abram right now. He’s the son of Terah, descended from Noah’s son Shem, whose name means “name.” In the last chapter, Abraham’s dad died, and in this chapter, God calls Abraham to go to a place where God will bless Abraham, his descendants, and finally all the families of the earth. Abraham follows God’s leading to the land of Canaan, which is named for the son of Noah’s youngest son Ham. Abraham builds an altar to God there, and he later moves on to Bethel, where he also builds an altar. But more importantly for today’s post, he goes down to Egypt to avoid the effects of a famine, and while he’s there, problematic stuff happens.
I want to start this one off with an observation. Genesis 10 is Noah’s genealogy, and it starts by going down Japheth’s branch of the family tree. Talking about all his offspring, it concludes, “From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (5). I read that, and I thought to myself: hey, here we’ve got differentiation of language. No, wait, re-differentiation of language! It struck me that the Tower of Babel didn’t account for the multiplicity of human languages after all: Noah and his family represented a second choke point where everyone once again shared a single native tongue. Except that I got the chronology wrong. The Tower of Babel doesn’t precede the flood; it follows it.
Man, writing this entry has been like pulling teeth. It’s been like going to the dentist and finding out you’re the dentist. Is every chapter of Genesis going to be like this? Is it going to be grappling every time with just what the text intends to communicate and how to talk about that to all of you, with your various perspectives on it? Am I going to spend each post on the mat, with uncertainty and self-consciousness putting me in a headlock? Well, so far we’re two for two, so let’s get back into the creation myth.
When I sat down the first time to write this post, I felt like I had nothing new to say about today’s chapter. Peter and John’s foot race to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Messiah, Thomas’ insistence on empiricism: for nearly two thousand years, wiser individuals than I have been saying things about these scenes, and what could I add to them? As I’ve been reading and re-reading the chapter here, I don’t even have any fresh insights that I’m noticing for the first time. But how is it that I’ve never before discussed Thomas on Chocolate Book? I, a professed Christian skeptic? And of all the topics I could retread today, none seem more worth recapitulating observations on which you may well have heard before than our friend Doubting Thomas.