Thursday, June 22, 2006

Over at Slate, David Plotz has embarked on a project of blogging the bible. Plotz, who admits to being religious but largely ignorant of the bible, plans to read the whole thing through - for the first time - and record his impressions. So far he's done Genesis and most of Exodus, and his impressions are well-worth reading. At least, they were for me: having known the stories since I was a little boy, its refreshing to see someone reading it more-or-less unencumbered by any preconceptions. Here are Plotz' reflections on Genesis, which I think is worth quoting in full. The passge below is prompted by the story of Jacob and Esau:
Jacob is so perplexing—a favorite of God's who appears to have no moral compass, no filial feeling, and the heart of a con artist. Earlier, Jacob wheedled the birthright out of his older twin Esau in exchange for a bowl of pottage. In this chapter, Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob, con Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that belongs to Esau. In the beginning of the story, Jacob is reluctant to help his mother scam the blind and dying Isaac, though not for ethical reasons—he just fears he will get caught and "bring a curse" upon himself. But Rebekah, the original Lady Macbeth, urges him on. She shushes him, and tells him, "Just do as I say." She cooks goat stew for Jacob to give Isaac, since Esau was supposed to bring meat to his father. She comes up with the idea of covering Jacob's hands and neck with goat skins, so he would be as hairy as Esau. Jacob warms to the fraud as it continues, eagerly playing the role of Esau. When Isaac asks him how he hunted down the animals for the stew so quickly, Jacob cavalierly invokes God with his lie: "Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune." Isaac, believing Jacob to be Esau, gives him his grand blessing—making him master over his brothers and promising him wealth and power. And when Esau returns, there are no backsies. In a heartbreaking moment, poor, innocent, stupid Esau weeps and begs, "Bless me, too, Father!" But Isaac can't undo his blessing to Jacob and can only give Esau a lame substitute benediction instead. Esau vows to kills Jacob after Isaac dies.

This story is enthralling and troubling for several reasons. First, I don't think I've ever read anything that's so grim on the relationship of brothers as this first half of Genesis...They conspire against each other, narc on each other, murder each other. There's not a single act of love or kindness between brothers so far. Brothers are only enemies. Was nomadic life so difficult that only one son in any family could hope to prosper?

And if brothers are bad, women are worse. The blessing story is a reminder of just how uncharitable the Bible is toward women, who have so far been either invisible, foolish, or vindictive. Think about the women so far: Eve, suckered by the serpent. Noah's wife doesn't even get a name. Sarah is tricky (pretends to be Abraham's sister), capricious (sends Hagar to Abraham, then rages about it), and cruel (exiles Hagar and Ishmael). Lot's wife dies because she can't refrain from looking back. Lot's daughters rape him. And Rebekah hoodwinks her husband and punishes her older son. I suppose you could argue that Rebekah, with her icy Machiavellian cunning, is a woman to be proud of. She seizes power from her husband and dominates her sons. She controls every scene she's in. She's vivid, if not good.

Her fierce intelligence raises another point about the story. God doesn't suffer fools gladly. It's clear that Esau's chief failing is that he's dumb. He loses his birthright because he's impatient for lunch, and loses his blessing because he's not smart enough to recognize that Jacob might steal it. Jacob and Rebekah, for all their faults, are smart. Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob—the three great brains of Genesis so far—get what they want—and earn God's blessing—because they finagle, cajole, argue, deceive, play mind games, and even use God to advance their lies. And the Lord seems to love it.

This may explain Genesis' ambivalent attitude toward Isaac. He may be sick and blind, but he's still feckless. Isaac is at the heart of two of the Bible's most vivid stories. As a child he is almost sacrificed, and as a dying man, he is tricked by Jacob and Rebekah. In each story he is the passive victim. He never speaks up for himself: He doesn't chastise his father or punish his son. He's easily gulled by Jacob and manipulated by his wife. All the while, he appears just to want a simple life, eating meat. He's the accidental patriarch. Is it any surprise that God—and the author of Genesis—is so much more interested in Abraham and Jacob?
And later about the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau,
As Jacob approaches his estranged, wronged older brother, he is worried that Esau will attack him. When last seen, after all, Esau was vowing to murder Jacob. So, Jacob masses every defense he has, both human and divine, to ward off his brother. He prays to God to protect him. He divides his livestock and followers into two camps, so that if Esau attacks one group, the other would escape. He sends hundreds of animals as a gift to Esau, explicitly hoping to buy him. But none of this is necessary. Esau, proving again that he is the mensch of the family if not the brains, sees Jacob and immediately runs to his brother, embraces him, and kisses him. Jacob insists on giving Esau the animals, and it's clear that Jacob views this as buying back his brother's good will. But the present doesn't seem to matter to Esau, who granted forgiveness for nothing. Even so, between Esau's morality and Jacob's strategy, it's obvious which God prefers.


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