Thursday, September 27, 2012
Through the Bible, Week 5
NOTE: This theme is one of the most crucial in the Bible and in the life of Truro. We will be exploring it all year long and with particular intensity during our Parish/Region wide mission this January, featuring Don Renzo Bonetti, Christopher West and Matt Maher. Details to follow.
The patriarchal narratives, which recount the spiritual exploits of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, are foundational to the rest of scripture. It is not an exaggeration to say that Genesis is about the family and Exodus is about the state. Thus, from a biblical standpoint, there are some things that are pre-political and beyond the state's competency. Many Christians and Jews would say that marriage and family are such things.
What Genesis teaches about marriage is fascinating. The trajectory of these chapters is that marriage functions as the divine pedagogy for monotheism. As Abraham, for example, learns to love one woman he learns likewise to love one God. His commitment to Sarah is the seedbed for his commitment to the LORD. As God reaches out to humans in the revelation of his name, he simultaneously helps them to understand that revelation through their deepest and most intimate relationship. God is restoring us to our original experiences so it makes sense that the two relationships that were ruptured together would likewise be healed together.
In the language of sociology then, heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the "plausibility structure" for monotheism. It is the social practice that makes an unusual or un-empirical belief "plausible." Remember, in the age of scripture, "monotheism" was the unusual or minority belief.
There are two recurring literary forms that are repeated in these chapters and are crucial to understand: repeated (with variation) sister-bride stories AND "woman at the well" scenes. Part one of this post will discuss the sister-bride stories. Part two will discuss the "woman at the well" type scene. These are keys text in our ability to adequately read the Gospels.
There are three stories in the patriarchal narratives where the husband seeks to portray his wife as his sister. Abraham does it with Pharaoh in ch 12 and with Abimelech, the tribal king of Gerar, in ch 20.
The apple does not fall far from the tree and Isaac does the same to Rebekah when sojourns in Gerar in chapter 26. What accounts for these stories? Sarah was, in truth, Abraham's half sister. This is a window into the world out of which God is redeeming the human race. The culture had decayed considerably; we are far from Eden. W.F. Albright explains in his important book Yahweh and the God's of Canaan:
In fixing relationships [among the gods] in the ancient Near East, we must remember that both in Egypt and Canaan the notion of incest scarcely existed. In fact, Phoenicia and Egypt shared a general tendency to use sister and wife simultaneously. Such kings as Amenhotep III and Ramses II married one or more of their own daughters as late as 14th and 15th centuries. Baal was closely associated with two other goddesses... For example, Anat was not only Baal's virgin daughter but also his consort (p128).
So Abraham told a half truth to protect himself but it was a half truth. Abraham was a product of his world and God took him, progressively, out of the world in order that God might redeem that world through the messianic line promised to Abraham ("through your seed the nations will be blessed."). The narratives repeat these sister-bride stories not just because they happened, or because they are a window into the ancient near eastern culture which produced Abraham, but because they are the site where God's redemptive action is most powerfully discerned. Remember the rule of faith discussed earlier: 'the way out is also the way back in." To heal the relationship with God will also heal the relationship between the sexes and vice-verse. It all goes together just as it all fell together.
We will discuss the other literary feature - "woman at the well" - an important "type scene" in part two of this post. Till then think on this important truth about Abraham and his progressive faith in God:
Abraham struggled mightily to believe in God's promises, to trust that God would fulfill his promise without Abraham's "help" - or - to state it more positively, that God would keep his promises as Abraham exercised simple faith. Do you realize that Abraham got everything that God promised him through Hagar, except Jesus? Sarah was an essential player in the plan of salvation and Abraham did not recognize that until the very end. Oh, how far we have fallen from Eden.