Thursday, July 09, 2009

Genesis 16 and 17 How We Got the Ishmaelites and Genital Mutilation

What's the point of Genesis 16? Exalted Father's (Abram's) wife talks him into marrying her handmaiden Hagar. Hagar begets a son, Ishmael, and the angel of the Lord appears to her and promises that her descendants would be multiplied so that they could not be counted. Ishmael, it was predicted, would be a "wild donkey of a man" and against everyone. Ishmael, as we learn later, doesn't figure in the story that is unfolding, so why even bring him up? I reckon this is another instance of having to explain why a cadet branch of a family ends up with the inheritance. As a first born son, I'm not too keen on this theme.

In chapter 17, God changes Exalted Father's name to Father of Multitudes (Abraham) and his wife's name to Princess (Sarah). God tells Father of Multitudes that Princess, who is 90 years old, will bear a son. Father of Multitudes falls down laughing when he hears God say this, and God doesn't smite him or anything. Instead He directs that the son who Princess will bear shall be called He Laughs (Isaac). He Laughs is going to sire twelve princes, says God, and God is going to be the God of Father of Multitudes and his descendants forever, at least the ones from He Laughs. There's a catch, though. Every male has to be circumcised. The author doesn't tell us how this went over with the entourage, but every male in Father of Multitude's household had his genitals mutilated that very day. It's not entirely clear, but Father of Multitudes may have performed the procedures himself.

Whether the conversations with God took place we cannot know, but the descendants of Father of Multitudes did, as the story goes, cut off their foreskins and believed that it was a sign of the covenant. And He Laughs did, as the story goes, beget twelve grandsons who were the putative progenitors of the tribes. It's a nice touch to the story for Father of Multitudes to know how well things were going to work out for him and his descendants, but it isn't really necessary to believe it for the story to have value. As the story goes, all these things came to pass whether or not Father of Multitudes knew that they would and whether or not Father of Multitudes was even an actual historic figure.

These stories are especially interesting because God appears to people all the time and talks to them. Later, God is conceived of as being too awesome for anyone to be in His presence. In the early days, though, God was thought of as immanent and readily accessible rather than transcendent and unimaginable.

1 comment:

Kevin Carson said...

Speaking of genital mutilation, how'd you like to be one of the household servants the Bible matter-of-factly mentions were circumcised, with no further comment? If my boss said "God's been talking to me, and he says he wants me to cut off part of your dick," I'd be looking for another job.