Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas - Jesus's not-birthday

It is Christmas Day so please excuse a post out of sequence. Jesus was not born on December 25th, and there are no ancient records that say so. Christian meaning was given to a former pagan midwinter festival when the Roman Empire became nominally Christian. We still put up conifers. Nevertheless, if we do not know an actual date of birth, celebrating it sometime might seem reasonable. Buddha's birthday has attracted a similar legendary story. Two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, thought so anyway. Each give Jesus a similar family tree, from Joseph his father to Adam. In Luke, the probably later addition of "as was supposed" to this paternity renders the whole exercise absurd - if Joseph was not his father, this was not his family tree. That God took responsibility for this special birth need not preclude human reproductive processes. Matthew was a little over-enthusiastic in insisting that Mary was a virgin to fit in with his mistranslation of an Isaiah prophecy, "A virgin shall conceive" (for the original "a young woman shall conceive"). Jesus fulfils Zoroastrian prophecy also: the Magi come running. Yet even Matthew gives Joseph's family tree. The date of birth is linked in the story to a census at the time of the governor Quirinius, which was in 6 AD/CE. The Herod was therefore a son of Herod the Great (died 4BCE) such as Herod Antipas. The purpose of Matthew's birth narrative is to prove that Jesus fulfilled so-called prophecies of the Messiah. Luke attempted to link Jesus with John the Baptist and is equally tendentious. If Luke based his account on first hand sources, they have glorified the event in their memory. It is however more likely to be a folk story, a tale invented by the early Christian community.

None of this devalues Jesus as a thinker, teacher and moral authority. We have to argue those potential contribitions separately. Important figures encourage legend.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Slave wives and Concubines

Slave wives
We have seen how the patriarchal stories allow slave-women to represent their mistresses in producing children for her husband. The children are counted as legitimate, seen clearly in the Jacob cycle, but more complex in the Hagar/Sarah cycle.
A law in Exodus deals with slave-wives.

King Solomon was famous for his army of concubines, alongside his army of wives. David had fewer, but more interesting in the story. The term for concubine was pilegesh. It is not semitic, defying analysis from a triliteral root. It is the equivalent of the Greek pallakis feminine of pallax but for the word to be a Greek loan word the text would need to be relatively late (6th century BCE, although Greek speaking visitors may have landed at Palestinian ports before that, and even traded women) , not the much earlier dates that the stories assume. This has led some to see the Aramaic phrase palga isha 'half-wife' as the origin of the Greek term to justify an earlier use of the term (e.g. Wikipedia, without justification). Until demonstrated otherwise, I regard this as tortuous and insecure. So for example, even if palga means 'half' and isha 'wife' [or is it 'woman'?] do they ever appear together meaning 'concubine'? And are the logistics (date etc) realistic to get the term across the water to Greece by 500 BCE or thereabouts? Someone has a lot of persuading to do before I believe that. A different Aramaic term for concubine was used in Daniel 5.2.

Genesis describes concubines mainly in the genealogies, probably the latest editorial section. The parallel compilation in I Chronicles names Keturah's, Abraham's "wife" in Genesis 25, as a concubine. The children of other concubines he sent away so as not to challenge Isaac. Nahor had concubines and their sons mentioned. Bilhar, Rachel's slave and therefore Jacob's slave-wife is termed a concubine after Rachel's death. Caleb has two concubines, Ephah and Manoah, named in his genealogy. We should not conclude that these references describe early marriage customs - rather that they imply differing status in clan relationships. The late writer uses a term current in his own day to make the point.

In Judges, Gideon has a concubine living in Shechem; and separately a Levite had a Benjaminite concubine who became estranged and returned to her father (Judges 19). Here
the pilegesh presents a mixed message. When a mob attacked, she was put out and raped, during which she died. The fact that this happened caused offence which was remedied by war. The offence was a property infringement (like vandalism) rather than one involving women's rights. It was described as the time when there was no law, before the monarchy, when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The reality may have been the lawless period after the return from exile, before authorities were in place, when Greek girls came into Palestinian ports and entered insecure sexual relations. As stories of the fictional old times were being told and written down, these inhabited the stories as anachronisms.

The huge harems of the Persian empire, represented in the story of Esther, are read back into earlier royal stories. Solomon, the legendary king of all Israel and Judah, had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and other monarchs mimiced this on a smaller scale. For a royal prince to have sex with his father's concubines was an attempted coup: Absalom started his attempt at the throne of his father David this way (2 Sam 16.21 cf 15.16). Reuben slept with Zilpah, Jacob's concubine "and all Israel heard". Of course, all Israel was very much an anachronism - it did not exist then.
Post under construction.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Prostitution: Rehab in Jericho

Consideration of the story of Tamar has demonstrated that prostitutes were part of the everyday life assumed by the story writers. Tamar was impregnated by Judah when playing the part of a qedeshah, or sacred/cultic prostitute; his meeting with her was civilized, offering her his payment of a sheep, which he honoured and risked blame if he did not do so - he was agitated when he couldn't find her again and let everyone know that he had tried his best to pay his debt. He also entrusted to her his personal seal as proof of identity, vital evidence of paternity later. Contrast this with Judah's assumption that she had acted as a zonah, or common prostitute, for which his penalty was death as it brought on family dishonour.

The story is just a story and has nothing to do with any historical event involving people called Judah and Tamar. Such historicising is sheer romanticising influenced by naive conservative theology. The story was an artefact of its time, communicating a point of view relevant to that time - and its time was nearer 500 BCE than 1500 BCE, a time when the legitimacy of Judah's heirs was a real issue. Perez was Judah's heir, Tamar's son by his quasi-father the dead Er by the law of levirate marriage; and he superceded the claim of the older Shelah, Er's younger brother. The death of Er and Onan was explicitly for their wickedness, which is connected to the fact that they are sons of intermarriage - the great concern of the post-exilic community who returned from Babylonian exile. Tamar's strategy of pretending to be a cultic prostitute did not damage Perez's legitimacy in any way.

Names for sex workers reflect public attitudes. 'Whore', the translation found in several of the prophets and in Revelation in the New Testament (the great whore Babylon), is hugely pejorative. The tone in these passages is indeed pejorative. 'Prostitute' is pejorative also, more so as a verb than a noun. 'Harlot' is rather We should not assume without evidence that the sex worker function was always viewed negatively. The qedeshah was, as we have seen, respected.

Fortuitously, I have received for review Sex Working and the Bible by Avaren Ipsen (Equinox Press, 2009). This book (a converted PhD thesis) surveys some texts (Rahab, and the judgement of Solomon relating to two prostitutes are the Old Testament examples), and by discussing the exegesis of these with prostitutes and their support groups, draws insights into the possible experiences of these women in the light of similar contemporary experiences. It becomes then an exercise in liberation hermeneutics rather than exegesis. It will be a positive review, since it is a powerful and interesting book and since we don't upset the conservative fraternity (I choose the gender carefully) enough. Exegesis and hermeneutics do not always sit comfortably together. Hermeneutics assumes that modern people can read a text with some personal profit, and it can help them make sense of modern lives today. It lays modern attitudes and definitions on ancient texts which may make the understanding of the ancient text more difficult. In particular, the moral horror of sex work may not mirror how it was viewed two and a half millenia ago. Nor do we know whether stories about sex were told by men or women, although we might assume that written forms, including laws, were produced by men and emphasise male assumptions. In the stories reviewed above in earlier posts, sexual activity is social and not constrained by morality. This calls for readers to keep an open mind and to keep Christian moralising at bay.

Rahab was described as a prostitute in Jericho, at whose home the Hebrew spies ended up. She gave them information, protected them, and let them escape from her window which opened outside the city wall. For this kindness, they agreed to spare her and her family, so long as she collected them into her house and hung out a red chord from the window.
Following the story through, her descendants included Boaz and king David, accolade indeed. She is emphasised in the family tree of Joseph in Matthew's Gospel (supposed to be the genealogy of Jesus).

There are interesting questions raised. Why does the story name her as a prostitute? Features in the story have a symbolic rather than historical function. The story has chosen what conservative Christians today might think an unlikely heroine. Clearly, the biblical narrator thought differently. Rahab was respected, believed by the Jericho authorities, respected by the Hebrew invaders. The story of conquest mirrors the return to Palestine after the Babylonian exile. The occupation of Palestine is declared legitimate, and Yahweh's will - how else would the walls have fallen down? King David is linked to the original population by birth. David is a unifying monarch, ruling consensually as the one who has both Canaanite and Hebrew ancestry. Moreover, this was not a political establishment link: it was underbelly, created by moral action, as Tamar also had demonstrated, an earlier David ancestor. David therefore is a king of the common people, of mixed descent, the product of moral purpose. The community promoting this image of monarchy had emerged from exile, the produce of resistance and underground community building, who brought together strong-minded people from the exploited underclass to be pioneers in a new country which they needed to claim ownership. There is solidarity therefore between the real exiles in Babylon and the fictional slaves in Egypt, the real mixed bag of returners who needed fictive kinship, and the fictional mixed multitude in the Exodus from Egypt who needed recircumcising. Victory for this underclass would be by cunning, resilience and moral choice and not by birth or privilege. Seen therefore in their contexts, the stories of both Tamar and Rehab paint a positive view of prostitution - both were fundamental links in the legitimacy both of the tribe of Judah and of king David. In the New Testament version of the genealogy of Joseph (assumed to be the genealogy of Jesus) both Tamar and Rehab are named heroines, as also is the wife of Uriah, mother of Solomon. Matthew at least is faithful to the real story in the Hebrew Bible of legitimacy in spite of unexpected sexual encounters. Of course, thinking of our own civic leaders and politicians, such sexual intrigues are actually normal and it is faithfulness which is unusual.

Not all biblical texts will agree with the positive account of prostitutes I have identified. Passages in the prophets will be explored later. This account has implications for the stories of David, which I will explore later. It assumes also that these stories are primary material for the post-exilic era.

Saturday, 19 December 2009


Male circumcision, cutting away the foreskin, became a feature of Jewish heritage, in common with other groups worldwide. Why is a mystery. It continued as a sanctified symbol of the covenant between God and the people.

The first mention comes in the final writer's organising structure, into which other stories are placed. As part of the promise of descendants, given by Yahweh in person plus two other 'men', he is instructed to circumcise all household males. The instruction follows later practice: it is to be done to boy children of eight days old. The second story is that of Shechem, described above, where the requirement of circumcision is given as a deceptive condition of alliance (Genesis 17).

A third story is told of Moses. Moses had been brought up as an Egyptian prince but developed pro-Hebrew sympathies. The story in fact declares that he was actually born a Hebrew and adopted. His active protection of the slaves causes him to become a wanted man and he escaped into Midian, where he similarly protected the seven daughters of a priest named Reuel (Jethro in later verses). Moses is brought into the family and given the hand of his daughter Zipporah as wife. A son, Gershom was born, the name linked to the Hebrew word ger, 'stranger, alien'.

The call of Moses at the burning bush, and commission to return to Egypt to save the Hebrews is well known. The verse comes on the journey to undertake this commission:

During the journey, while they were encamped for the night, Yahweh met Moses, meaning to kill him, but Zipporah picked up a sharp flint, cut off her son's foreskin, and touched him (the son? or Moses?) with it, saying, 'You are my blood bridegroom'. So Yahweh let Moses alone. Then she said (or: therefore women say) 'Blood-bridegroom by circumcision. Exodus 4:24-26.
Much is obscure here. Clearly in the constructed redeemer narrative leading to the exodus, it makes no sense for Yahweh to want to kill Moses. It is a physical meeting, much like Abraham's meeting with the three men, one of whom was said to be Yahweh. In the sequence of stories justifying the intermarriage and adultery prohibition and levirate marriage, this one introduces circumcision as a puberty/marriage custom. Other stories justify non-sexual customs, such as the refusal to eat the sciatic nerve in animals. That there is such a gap between this account of superstitious custom and theological symbol suggests that this story has some antiquity. Jacob similarly had wrestled with a man he assumed was God (Genesis 32:22-32). The blood-bridegroom story has superstitious assumptions, another phyical meeting with God. The magic of circumcision was thereafter thought to protect young men about to be married.

A fourth story moves us forward to the conquest and settlement of Canaan: the Israelite army, described as a bit of a hotch-potch, is unified by circumcision. The foreskins are removed on 'the hill of the foreskins'. As Hebrews we would expect them to be already circumcised, but clearly this was not so. Circumcision is therefore declared to originate with Abraham, with Moses and with Joshua. For the settlement of the land, read resettlement after exile. Problems then are read back into an ancient past. All the issues in Genesis, of national identity and ancestry, were crucial for the construction of post-exilic Israel. Unfortunately that means they tell us little about the ancient past.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Dinah, Tamar and Potiphas's wife.

We have told the story already of Isaac's marriage to Rebecca and the birth of Esau and Jacob - and of their families. Isaac's marriage is monogamous and straightforward, although only having a set of twins rather than many other children is interesting. If we are talking about family history, we could surmise that this was a difficult birth and she could have no others. But it is of course a story, a legend of the origin of Jacob/Israel and Esau/Edom. The birth names are not eponymous, as Jacob's sons are (Reuben, Gad, Judah etc). Isaac's twins were not named Israel and Edom. We therefore have to assume that a Jacob/Esau tradition has a different function and origin from an Israel/Edom cycle. A legend of human origins in the ancient world (Noah, Shem, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob) has been reshaped into a Hebrew origins schema.

Dinah was the only named daughter of Jacob, a daughter of Leah. Her name means 'judgement', and may be symbolic in this story. In Genesis 34, the extended family group arrived near Shechem and bought some land from the local chief, Hamor (whose name means 'ass'). His son the prince (named Shechem) liked and had sex with Dinah, wishing to marry her. Nothing happened until Jacob's sons returned home from pasturage. The term 'dishonour' is used several times, and 'violate'. Given the racialised nature of the broader story, the likely implication is that the proposed intermarriage was the real problem. Dinah, in their racialised view, had been violated by a foreigner, a descendant of Ham, an enemy. Tricks are a continued theme in Genesis. Jacob and his sons go along with the proposal, and require that the male inhabitants of Shechem are circumcised. This is in line with views of the exilic or postexilic Genesis writer on circumcision sealing the covenant (Genesis 17, see below) so the Shechemites were told that this ritual would make them kin. But the writer had laid out a strict kinship line which excluded swathes of the regional population, and circumcision without the kinship was an empty symbol. When the men were weak with infection and the injury, Dinah's full brothers Simeon and Levi slaughtered them, and all the brothers pillaged the city. The act was described as vengeance for dishonour. Although Jacob did not approve, his objection was that the act had brought potential trouble to the family. Dinah was rescued from her marriage. An occasion that might be relevant to the time of the Genesis writer was the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, when intermarriage was forbidden and Hebrews/Jews required to put away (divorce) their non-Jewish spouses.

The next sexual story is in Genesis 38. The line of Judah was significant for Davidic kingship. Judah had separated from the rest of the family and married a Canaanite woman, Bathshua. They had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar became Er's wife. The scene is thus set. Judah had married into a Canaanite group, and therefore laid himself open to dire consequences. Er was declared as a bad sort, and he died, leaving Tamar childless. She then took the initiative. She should be married to son number 2, Onan to raise children for Er, who would then be firstborn. Onan was none too pleased, because that would mean that his children and line would not inherit. He went along with the sex but not the procreation - he made sure that his ejaculate fell outside Tamar's body, on the ground, so that she could not conceive a child. Then he too died, and Tamar should have been passed to the third son, Shelah, who was too young at that time. Privately, Judah feared that Tamar was jinxed and Shelah would suffer the same fate. So he declared her a widow, to live single in his household. This Tamar fought against, as we will see.

This is an interesting story of a woman's status. Being a widow was not good. Widows and orphans are elsewhere named as two needy groups. To understand the story so far, we need to understand the law/custom of levirate marriage given in Deuteronomy 24. The law may be based on a custom, or be a specific expediency. Probably the former as it is found elsewhere in tribal societies. It requires that a dead man's widow, should he die childless, be able to have his child fathered by the next of kin, her brother-in-law (levir is Latin for brother-in-law). She would then have a child to look after her in old age. As the child would be deemed the child of the dead brother, he would be heir. That should benefit both the biological father and the legal (dead) father. It is an example of the family being more important than individuals within it. We may today take a dim view of women being passed down rather than being free to redesign their lives with new desired relationships, but women in tribal society were handed tough choices.

Tamar considered the levirate marriage/relationship as her right. She would be a wife and not a widow, she would be productive, a mother, and not a liability. In doing so, she was honouring a Hebrew custom which put the family first. The story declares both Er and Onan to be wicked. This intermarriage had produced two evil sons. It is the daughter-in-law's role to put things right. (We are not told if she is Hebrew or Canaanite: it is not deemed significant enough to be declared).

She planned a trick of her own. She dressed up as a harlot to tempt Judah by the roadside. Being veiled, her identity could be concealed. Judah readily obliged and impregnated her. She had the child she was entitled to. All she had to do is prove that it was Judah's. This was no easy task, and the penalty of her failure was death, for dishonouring the family. She therefore had taken from Judah proofs of his identity. There is a tense scene when Tamar is condemned by Judah for dishonouring the family and can declare and prove that the child was his, so she was actually honouring the family that Judah's sons had dishonoured. This is breathtaking brinkmanship, and breathtaking double standards from Judah. His tumble in the hay was OK, her tumble in the hay was worthy of death. In the end, Judah has to admit defeat. "You are more right than me, since I did not give you to my son Shelah", he said. So legitimate twins are born, Perez and Zerah. Zerah means 'red', much like Esau: his hand came out first, and was given a scarlet cord; but it went back in and his brother came out first. The story of their birth resembles the birth of Esau and Jacob; clearly the birth of twins was a common legend theme. The twins were not significant tribal names. This story was not associated with tribal aetiology. The main purpose of the story was to clarify family control of marriage as illustrated by the levirate. This was part of a strong public move towards genealogy and family survival. It is the flipside of the condemnation of intermarriage: as intermarriage divided and weakened Judaism, so family solidarity strengthened it. Judah was saved from the consequences of intermarriage by a doughty maid who reset the tribe on track. Tamar produced Judah's true heir Perez.

Interesting to note the difference between a sacred prostitute and a common harlot. Judah, before having sex with what he thought was a sacred/cultic prostitute, negotiated a price, a sheep, and left with her a token of his identity (in modern terms, a credit card or passport) as security for its delivery. He then tried to deliver the sheep, but failed to find her. He felt justified because he had tried hard to meet his obligation. Tamar was not condemned for acting as a sacred prostitute. On the other hand, the thought of Tamar acting as a common harlot was enough to land her with the death penalty.

That this is a Judah story is significant for the Genesis writer. Before the exile, Judah was the main Israelite population left. Judah was taken into exile, and Judah was the core of the returning population. This story complains of intermarriage, and states that the legitimacy of the line was dependent on a determined and feisty woman. Matthew's Gospel will pick this up again in due course in his genealogy of Joseph (sic!) and Jesus.

Joseph and Potiphar's wife.
Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt and came to the house of Potiphar. He rose to the position of trusted slave, a major domo. His master's wife kept asking him for sex, which he stoutly refused, the narrator indicating that adultery is wicked. One day she grabbed him and he ran out with his modesty but without his cloak, and the woman accused him of attempted rape. So he was thrown into prison where he again rose to an entrusted position.

The foreign woman was held up in biblical books as something to be feared, sexually forward and ready to entrap unwary men. Slaves had no voice and no appeal. Joseph therefore appears in this story as vulnerable. Later, of course, he is summoned to sort out a national emergency, and holds power when his brothers come asking for help, but this is later. This story is an object lesson in sexual temptation and a folk condemnation of adultery.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Abram and Lot: where's the heir?

Abram (better known as Abraham) wandered from Mesopotamia to Palestine. His father Terah started it, getting to Harran; then he died and Abram took his family, and that of his nephew Lot gradually down to the Negev in south Palestine. His wife Sarai was 'barren'.

The first episode was that Abram and Sarai went to Egypt during a famine, and fearful for his life, Abram declared that Sarai was his sister so that she married the Pharaoh. Abram became wealthy, but was found out when disease hit the royal family, presumed to be a punishment for adultery. So both were sent away, back to the Negev. We can note several things. Abram caused his own problem by lying - the Egyptians would have been less likely to notice a woman who was clearly a married woman. He would not have benefited economically though. Sarai did as she was told, and obediently went into another man's bed. There was no thought about paternity or legitimacy, it was a world of the powerful and powerless.

Assuming that it really happened, which we should not assume. There is no corroborative evidence in history, and the story is found in a text, Genesis, a thousand years after the supposed events. So why was the story told? Abram the ancestor/hero willingly requiring his wife to commit adultery. Tricking Pharaoh is one answer - it is a trickster tale, and Egypt, from the line of cursed Ham, was an eternal enemy. But why no concern by the story teller about the solemn commandment about adultery? There is no angst, just a practical problem to solve for which adultery seemed to be a short-term solution. Illness in Pharaoh's family was said to be caused by sin, so this is a story which claims that the God Yahweh notices and punishes sin even if no one else cares. Sarai is not shown as guilty in all this, and nor really is Abram - he has offended Pharaoh but not Yahweh. He retains his wealth. Pharaoh's sin may be that he, a Hamite, had violated a Shemite, the line championed in Genesis, worse he had violated a woman in the chosen family. That he did so unknowingly is seemingly not relevant. Pharaoh feared Yahweh, not piously but with sheer fright. He makes not attempt to imprison, kill or impoverish the offending family. The Hebrew reader is clearly presumed to find the story horrifying and repugnant.

Lot and Abram part company so not to compete for grazing. Abram allows his nephew to choose, and he chooses the lush green Jordan plain and settles near Sodom. The lushness was deceptive, since everyone else was attracted to it and we read of powerful struggles between rival kings. Lot and his folk are taken captive and Abram has to head a rescuing army. Moving the story on to Genesis 18-19, Yahweh comes in person to judge Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram (now called Abraham) pleads to save any innocent people, but in the end only Lot's family can be saved. Two incidents catch our eye. There is a riot outside Lot's home when the two visitors who were with Yahweh had arrived. They demand sexual use of the men; Lot replies with the offer of his virgin daughters instead. It does not happen, because the men use supernatural powers to help the family escape. It is a fantasy story. It explains why the Dead Sea is dead, and with Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, it explains natural geography. That leaves us with the gross disregard for the safety and virginity of the girls, behaviour which is not criticised in the story.

Lot's line was potentially at an end. With his wife's death, only his daughters remained. Living alone in hiding with their father in a cave, they were concerned to have children. By making him drunk, each had sex with him and each became pregnant. One produced the son Moab, ancestor of the Moabites; the other Ben-ammi, ancestor of the Ammonites. Thus it was declared that these two tribes were kin of kin, but definitely from the wrong side of the sheets. It is another trickster story, the story failing to condemn the girls. It is also a political anti-Moabite/Ammonite story - both tribes declared bastards of incest.

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.
In the meantime, Abraham had no children, so his heir was his (presumably trusted) slave Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15.2). He is promised his own children in a vision. There is a presumption of monogamy in the stories generally - we have met each character "and his wife". Polygyny was allowed in Judaism into the medieval period, and its origin lies in this story. Sarai offers her maid Hagar as a slave-wife, intending to count the child as her own. A surrogate arrangement. A child is conceived, but this changes the dynamics between the two women. An angry Sarah persuades Abraham to cast Hagar out, and she and her son nearly die in the wilderness. Her son Ishmael became the ancestor of the Arab tribes; the miraculous gift of water (zamzam) is still celebrated at Mecca. This line carries on away from Abraham's family. Hebrews and Arabs are divided, but of common heritage. Sarah hears from the three supernatural men that she will have a child, and laughs - she is over child-bearing age. The child Isaac's name means 'laugh'.

Abraham was up to his tricks again in Genesis 20, passing of his wife Sarah as his sister with king Abimelech. This story has moved on a little from the version with Pharaoh. It says that this was his customary practice, and that Sarah really was his (half) sister. That doesn't really excuse the lie. In this story, adultery clearly means something because it is stated that sex never actually took place, that the truth was revealed in a dream (by 'God' not Yahweh) and that Abimelech acted with a clear conscience. This version was from a period sensitive to adultery and (more precisely) legitimate kinship, such as the post-exilic period when true blood was being emphasised. So by the time Isaac was born, we only really have the writers word for it that he really was Abraham's son. Sarah had potentially had a few partners following her husband's deception. Isaac was of course deemed to be true heir. Ishmael's lineage is more secure. But let no contemporary group go to town on this. The story of tribal origins is one of the securing of power and not of legitimacy. It is not history, it is a fable. Abraham's line is secured by trickery, the wrong heir, not the 'firstborn' persistently being chosen - Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben. The author is saying that the choice of the legitimate line used other criteria than accidents of birth, i.e. primogeniture.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The sons of the gods, the daughters of men, and Noah's nakedness.

Genesis 6:1-8 is a curious passage. The sons of the gods (bene elim) fell in love with human women and had children by them. In those days there were giants (nephilim) on earth who were heroes and men of renown. Humans and done much evil, so Yahweh repented he had created them. Then came the flood.

A superhuman race of gods (divine beings) dates back before monotheism, and matings between gods and humans are found in many mythologies, whether in Greece, Rome or in tribal societies. Indeed, passages like these enabled many peoples to feel comfortable with the Bible, because their own traditional beliefs were similar. Abraham and Adam became their ancestor too, and God their Ultimate Ancestor. Did these coupling produce the heroes and mighty men of legend? Probably, but there is a slight dislocation in the current text, as if the editor wished to muddy the water. The editor was mostly interested in the part that said that Yahweh reduced human life-span to 120 years. His genealogies show ages of up to nine hundred years. The reduction is not linked to evil, or hybridity. It is just a statement of (apparent) fact.

Noah's ark had a primarily sexual function, to preserve breeding pairs (including humans) from the flood. There are three human breeding pairs, Noah's sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives. The link with Semites and Hamites are part of later white racism. Ham's son was not father to a black race, but Canaan, physically little different from the Hebrews. The story itself does not account for white, black and brown races. The cultivation of grapes led to Noah becoming drunk and naked. Ham saw him like that, told his brothers who were able to cover their father up without seeing. So Ham was cursed, but not his brothers. What is going on here? The story curses Canaan, which is understandable in the 6th century exile, as Canaanite religion was blamed by the prophets for the disasters which occurred. The curse was given by the ungrateful Noah, and it declared Canaanites to the fate of slavery. This antipathy also feeds into the conquest and settlement legends. But why was it bad to see a father's nakedness? Shame, maybe, or a breach in etiquette to family leaders? 'Uncover the nakedness' is a euphemism for sex. Perhaps to see uncovered genitals was viewed as incestuous, an invasion of privacy. No blame lies with Noah for getting blind drunk; but every curse fell on his son's family for sorting him out.

There follows the complex genealogy of Shem, Jam and Japheth. It was a genealogy of the known world. Ham is declared ancestor of Cush (Ethiopia?), Egypt (Misraim) but also of Canaan, Akkad, Babylon and the Assyrians. This is not based on skin colour, but rather on the fact that these countries are all enemies of the Hebrews. Why are they enemies? Because their ancestor had shown disrespect to his father.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Sex, maternity and paternity.

I have traced the narrative of fictive tribal origins through a narrated family tree, from Adam, through Abraham, to the twelve tribes of Israel. The family tree seems tidy, but it is not. Its querks are not accidental but need to be taken seriously. I start to do this through the trail of sex. A patrilineal family tree (that is, following the father's line) is vulnerable if paternity is not certain.

Genesis starts with humans created male and female (not explicitly a couple) and instructed to multiply, fill the earth and rule it. To have sex is therefore a divine commandment. The opening of Genesis negatively reflects the Babylonian tale of Tiamat the chaos monster from whose split body heaven and earth was created. That tale reflects the fact that existence is chaotic, depicted metaphorically as a great leviathan. Humans create order out of chaos, represented as a symbolic slaughter of chaos itself. That order of course soon reverts to chaos if order is not constantly renewed, by strong kings and armies. That was the Babylonian way, during which the Jews were wrested from their homeland to live out their lives in an exile which prompted them to write down their stories. They also wished to assert that their God was higher than the gods of their captors. Tiamat, in Genesis, is like all sea monsters, created by God. Chaos, that state of being "without form and void", was the ocean, or "the deep" (tehom is related to the word Tiamat) from which order and life was created during a six day period. Last to be created was humankind, who ate as vegans on leaves and fruits, and whose purpose was sex for procreation. This chapter is the prologue, the introduction to the history of that procreation. It is agenda setting, the work therefore of whoever put Genesis (and probably more) together. The humans were in the image and likeness of God, which means God is the human Ancestor, the start of the family, the family head. Seth, son of Adam and Eve, was in the image and likeness of his father, and so on. Even the New Testament, Luke's genealogy, calls Adam the son of God.

Genesis 2-3 recounts a different creation story. A male is created from dust, to which it will one day return. In the time between the body is animated by God's breath. The man (Adam is the Hebrew word for man, adamah for dust) named plants and animals and was 'in charge'. He was lonely and needed a helper or partner (there is nothing low status in the word). The woman was taken from his side (hence the inaccurate reference to Adam's rib). In fact the man was divided into two, split. Those two halves belong together, each half of the whole. They were "one flesh", sharing bone and flesh. The woman is called Ishshah, as she came "from man [ish)". Husband and wife are thus united, one, bodily the same, each partner having a different function. Finding ones wife means leaving one's parental home and setting up a new one of their own.

They are naked without shame, creatures of nature rather than creatures of culture. All that was to change. They did not have the knowledge of good and evil, but were instinctive, unreflective, like any cat, horse or chimp. The fruit of a particular tree could progress them to self-consciousness, but it was banned under pain of death. God did not wish his creation to have a will of their own. They were supposed to be natural and innocent. The instrument of progression was a serpent, which was "subtle" - logical, persistent, thinking, rational. The serpent therefore pointed out that by eating the fruit, their eyes would be opened (they would gain understanding) and they would not die. Contrary to the usual belief that the servent is the evil devil, we are shown that the serpent was in fact right. Self-consciousness meant shame at nakedness (unlikely in the context, but reflecting the Hebrew social reality) and God (who was not aware of the act of rebellion) was alerted to it by their aprons of leaves. God who was walking in the garden and curses the couple to live human lives that we recognise - having to work hard, have children in pain. The serpent would be a human enemy for ever. God says (and note the plural) - "humans have become like one of us". The worry was that by eating the fruit of the tree of life they would also live for ever. Presumably the gods had access both to the tree of knowledge and the tree of life; humans managed to steal one and not the other. The couple were therefore expelled from the garden. The paradise garden, by the way, was a typical royal walled garden in Mesopotamia. It had a gate, with guards. God's guards protecting the tree of life were cherubim, dragons, and a whirling sword.

Sex was part of the penalty of this rebellion. We are not told how they would reproduce otherwise, but childbirth as we know it was a consequence of the curse. Sexual passion is another consequence. "You shall be eager for your husband, and he shall be your master". She will be eager for sex, and eager to be dominated. The partnership is over; inequity has replaced equity. God made them clothes from animal skins - human relationships with animals would no more be innocent. It would be a short step to eating the animals themselves.

This is complex theology. God is not omniscient, nor omnipotent. God is one of many, the 'us' of the story, and is privileged by ownership of two magic fruit. The deities can wander about this innocent wildlife park enjoying their creation. They get their knowledge and discrimation from one fruit, and everlasting life from another. That makes them a cut above. But amongst their creation is one species which turns out to be rebels. They seek equality with God, and obtain this in part, that is, the ability to think and discriminate. Life thereafter to the end of time will be a battle between the gods and humans. That human life is dreadful is really the fault of the gods, and in particular of Yahweh the spokesman of the gods. This is not a pious tale; the gods are self-serving; humans trick them out of their privilege, and would get the other, eternal life, if they could. The gods have to keep one step ahead if they are to stay on top.

Our first couple, now called Adam and Eve ('mother of all who live') leave the garden and have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain marries (where does he get his wife from, we ask? Were there other humans around, and is Adam and Eve just the first Jewish couple? is Cain's problem that of intermarriage outside of Judaism?). Cain also prefers animal sacrifice to Abel's vegetable sacrifice, and as God prefers Abel, he kills his brother. So God still wants humans to be vegans, and the effect of the expulsion has made Cain a meat eater. Abel is killed, the vegan ideal has gone. Henceforward these rebel creatures will kill to eat. Cain is cursed to wander, to be a nomad. The line will now move to the next son, Seth, born "in his likeness and image" - the prologue writer intervenes with a genealogy of the next generations. Seth was legitimate, Cain was not.