Peter on Reading Genesis (part V)

Peter on Reading Genesis (part V) July 27, 2008

Part I: A freaky little book

Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

This will be the last in the series of posts about Genesis, and I’m a slow enough reader that you shouldn’t expect my posts on Exodus until Christmas at the earliest. Reading the Bible with this level of detail is going to wind up being a five or six year project. Worth it…but slow.

The Evolving Covenant

The last big surprise for me in Genesis is that the “covenant” between YHWH and his chosen people is established at least four separate times, and each time it’s a little different, with more conditions added.

The first time God approaches Abram, he’s almost like Doctor Who picking up a new companion. He just sidles up to him and says, Hey, come along with me, I’ll show you the universe. No conditions. No obligations. Just:

Go forth from your native land
And from your father’s home
To a land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
Bless you and make great your name,
That it may be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And curse those who curse you;
And through you shall bless themselves
All the communities on earth.
(Gen. xii, 1-3)

He says it again in Gen xv 1-21, but this time with a little more flair. The covenant is sealed not just with a promise but with a potent magic ritual that gets described with hallucinatory vividness. But then later still, when Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him a third time and, as if the idea is occurring to him for the first time, he says, “I will grant a covenant between myself and you” (Gen. xvii 2). He announces a new name for himself (El Shaddai, or “God Almighty”) and he renames Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah. And this time, the covenant comes with conditions:

And this shall be the covenant between myself and you, and your offspring to follow, which you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between me and you. At the age of eight days, every male among you, through the ages, shall be circumcised, even houseborn slaves as well as those whom you have acquired for money from any outsider who is not of your blood—yes, houseborn slaves and those that you purchase must be circumcised.—thus shall my covenant be marked on your flesh as an everlasting pact. An uncircumcised male, one who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin—such a person shall be cut off from his kin: he has broken my covenant! (Gen. xvii 10-14)

You can imagine Abraham asking, We’ve been together all these years and you’re just getting around to telling me this now? But of course, this is another of those continuity errors that comes of Genesis being quilted together by “the compiler,” who was trying to make one coherent story from the scriptures of two or three different traditions.

Later still, God seems to question his own decision and, as if looking for a way to reassure himself, puts Abraham to the test. Having given his barren 90-year-old wife a son, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him and Abraham agrees. Then God says:

I swear by myself … that because you have acted thus, and did not withhold your beloved son from me, I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendents shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendents—all because you obeyed my command. (Gen. xxii 16-18)

The Initiatory Challenge

I’ve always wondered about that scene. It’s inclusion in the Bible probably signifies the end of the practice of human sacrifice among the Hebrews, yet it ought to raise deep questions for any believer in a biblically-based religion. Human sacrifice has always been the ultimate shocker in our culture, used by Julius Caesar to justify his extermination of the Druids, and turning up in the blood libel against the medieval Jews and again in modern paranoia about Satanic cults. Yet here it is, presented not as horror but as the final test that makes God’s love fixed and permanent: Would you do even this for me? Would you kill an innocent child?

I have even wondered at times, was this an initiatory test that Abraham failed? Behind door number one, he found himself father to a great nation. But what would have been behind door number two, if he had answered, Men do not gather figs from thorns, nor grapes from a briar bush, nor could a God of love, mercy, and justice demand so great a sin?

God changes over time. He takes on new names, first YHWH and then El Shaddai, and also takes on new attitudes towards creation and towards his chosen ones. I know that by the time of the Prophets he becomes a champion of the oppressed, and by the time of the medieval philosophers he becomes That Being Greater Than Which No Other Can Be Imagined, but there’s no hint of either of those in Genesis. I’m looking forward to watching it unfold.

So…on to Exodus!

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