Genesis 11-15

I had the urge to return to Geisler, but I need to wait until I get my new Office software in the mail. I was using the 2010 Beta version, it expired, and I had to buy a new copy. My internet connection is crap, so I have to wait for the CD to install it.

Although I’ve noticed some things in a different way, the book of Genesis is extremely familiar to me, as I expect it is to most people who were “raised Christian”. I’m looking forward to getting past Genesis and Exodus.

11: The tower of Babel. Come let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens… So far, the term heavens has been used for part of the sky, part of the physical universe, and is not understood to be a special place where God lives. Alter says that the phrase “its top in the heavens” was used in other inscriptions on ziggurats. God speaks in the plural again when he suggests baffling the language. He says that nothing they plot will elude them. This is an odd observation, because what exactly is God worried that men will do? Is he worried that they will become more wicked? The ability of people to work together leads them to be more efficient at war and genocide, but not particularly capable of any plot.

One thing that’s not explained that would be an interesting plot point is whether every person had a different language, or if every Xth person spoke the same language. The way that I imagined it when taught in school long ago was that little groups of people found each other after the incident and went off to form their own group with their own language. The moral of the story doesn’t change, but it becomes an odder thing to imagine if no two people spoke the same language. They would have had to have learned quickly in order to pass anything down to their descendants.

The chapter ends with a genealogy from Shem to Abram. The son of Shem listed here appears to be his third son in the previous chapter.  In fact, in the previous chapter, only two of five are listed as having sons of their own. Possibly only a limited number of area cultures identified with Shem. There’s a symmetry of another ten generations between Shem and Abram.

Haran is Abram’s brother and Lot’s father, and he also appears to be the father of Abram’s brother’s wife. Abram later identifies his own wife as his half-sister. To make things more confusing, Abram and Lot go to live in a place called Haran. There’s a difference in the Hebrew in the name of the location.

12: God calls Abram. The first place slavery is mentioned in the Bible. When Abram goes to Canaan with his family, he also takes the people he bought in Haran. Alter makes the point in the commentary that this is not chattel slavery, but with the function of the slave handmaidens in the next chapters doesn’t sound very ideal. I think there’s a difference between the allegedly perfect law and the actions of Noah and the patriarchs with regard to morality. While it raises questions about God if the law is unjust, the passages about the patriarchs are descriptive rather than moralizing. Although some of them are called righteous or favored, there isn’t enough information about anyone’s normal behavior to make a judgment. At the same time, the stories thus far don’t impress me with divine perfection.

As has been pointed out by scholars, this section looks to have been written after the time of Moses, since it says the Canaanite was then in the land. It was written by someone who considered that as a past event.

It’s odd that Sarai was found very beautiful, since she was 65. From Shem to Abram, the ages of people decrease quickly, and from Shem’s son thereafter, every child in Abram’s line was born when the father was around his early 30s. Abram appears to have profited a lot from his lie – it sounds that all the things the Pharoah gave Abram were in exchange for having Sarai in his brothel.

13: Abram and Lot part ways. Although God tells Abram that Canaan is the land he will give him, Abram continues to move around a lot. He seems to be a semi-nomadic shepherd, but it’s not clear whether God is giving him any specific instructions on where to go anymore. Lot sees that the land around the Jordan plain is well watered “like the land of Egypt” and Abram goes to live near the Terebinths of Mamre. It does appear that there may have been significantly more trees in Israel at some point, as the area has had several periods of deforestation.

When God again promises Canaan to Abram, he has him walk the length and breadth of the land, which was a legal ritual in the Near East. It doesn’t seem that the Canaanites cared very much about new settlers in their land, since presumably Abram would have had to walk through and around a lot of Canaanite settlements.

14. A war in Canaan. Not only does it seem that Abram was welcome enough in Canaan, he knows the neighboring kings. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and a few others had been vassals to the king of Elam but rebelled. They came to a battle with the king of Elam and his allies near the Dead Sea. When they began losing, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah leaped into bitumen pits while the others fled to the hills. This is a really weird story. At first I thought that the kings had committed suicide, but it appears that they were only hiding, since the king of Sodom shows up a few verses later.

The enemy kings took everything in Sodom, and carried off Lot because he was living there. A survivor told Abram, and he and 318 retainers rescued Lot, all the possessions, and all the other people. And he struck down Elam and the ally kings. Unlike later with leaders in Joshua and Judges, it’s never said that Abram’s success was because the Lord was with him. He just kind of goes and kills all these kings with a few hundred men.

The important part of the chapter to Christians is that Abram goes to be blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He is the priest of El Elyon, a title usually translated as God Most High. Previously it’s said that Abram invoked the name of YHWH, and El and Elyon are names of Canaanite gods, so it’s not clear whether Melchizedek considers his god to be the same as Abram’s god. It is clear that Abram is willing to accept the blessing. Salem may refer to Jerusalem or a place near Shechem. What seems odd to me is that if Melchizedek is really a worshiper of Abram’s god and also a king in Canaan, then the Canaanites would already have a tradition of worshiping the Hebrew god. However, nowhere else is it suggested that this is the case. Abram tithes to Melchizedek, and later in Hebrews, Melchizedek is said to have neither father nor mother nor genealogy, and to be without beginning of days or end of life. I was taught that this meant that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus (who had a father and a mother and a genealogy).  Inserting this kind of thing back into the story is something to talk about when we get to Hebrews, years later. It’s not anywhere in the story right now, all that has happened is that Abram went and got blessed by a priest after a battle.

The king of Sodom doesn’t seem all that wicked in relation to Abram, he only wants his people back and tells Abram he can have all the possessions, even though they were things taken from Sodom. One of Abram’s allies is called Mamre, like the area where he lives.

The entire story seems to be written differently from other stories in Genesis. It begins with “in the days of”, and it refers to “Abram the Hebrew”, a designation that doesn’t seem necessary if it were written by Hebrews for Hebrews.

15: God promises Abram heirs and land. Verses 1-6 happen at one time, and verses 7-21 happen at another time, or least on a different day. In 1-6, the stars are already out, but in 7-12, the sun is just about to set.

The land where Abram came from, Ur, has one of the oldest known law codes, written by king Ur-Nammu. It contains punishments and recompense for various crimes. It also has an command specifically against a slave-woman comparing herself to her mistress and speaking insolently to her, as will be demonstrated with Hagar and Sarai.

Abram receives a prophecy about slavery in Egypt for four hundred years, but then says they will return in four generations because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. In fact, it ends up being both longer than four generations or four hundred years. The Amorites may have been a general term for Canaanites, but as a specific group, they were actually not one of the tribes that Israel wiped out completely, as they later made peace with the Hebrews.

God finishes the covenant by passing a flaming torch between Abram’s sacrifice. It may be a vision of God, since he appears as smoke and fire at other times, but we don’t know how he’s been appearing to Abram or how Abram knew he was talking to God. He promises Abram the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates, but in fact neither the Hebrews nor the later Jews ever held all that land.


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