Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 8.2

8: MIRACLES: SIGNS OF GOD OR GULLIBILITY? (PART 2)

I stopped in the middle of chapter eight for a long time because I was annoyed and tired. I thought that we were finally getting to Biblical claims, but instead, it was more magic hand-waving tricks. The rest of the chapter can be finished out fairly quickly. The author wants to define for us what is and isn’t a miracle. He says, fairly enough, that for an act of God to be an unmistakable sign from God, it must be distinguished from any other unusual event (p 210). He defines these to be an instantaneous beginning of a powerful act, intelligent design and purpose, and the promotion of good or right behavior (p 211). He does not consider events that can be explained by natural laws to be miraculous. However, he brushes over the issue of Satanic signs. I don’t have the inclination to address the arguments about dualism, but I’ll point out that again the author makes facile points and declares an absolute conclusion. Moreover, he declares that Satan can only produce limited counterfeit miracles that are often associated with immoral behavior. He says that only God can create life, with the example of Pharaoh’s magicians being unable to create life in the form of lice in the third plague, although they were able to imitate the first two. This makes absolutely no sense, because the second plague was frogs, another living creature. So somehow imitating frogs with magic tricks is possible, but lice are impossible to imitate and must be created? I don’t even know where that argument is going.

Moreover, Evangelicals will generally see fit to denounce the kind of miracles that Jesus appeared to accept in Mark 9. Jesus says No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.

Lastly, there are excuses for why we don’t see Biblical miracles today. The author says that miracles were rare and only performed during the times that God was confirming new truth (p 216). But then why talk about miracles at all at this point? In fact, we’re offered with no valid criteria to evaluate whether a miracle happened or not, because there is nothing that we can point to, within the chapter at least, that is both miraculous and witnessed. Even the plagues in the aforementioned examples, if we had any way of confirming that they happened at all, are not clearly miraculous, since anomalies are ruled out from being miraculous. Frogs, lice, boils, hail, darkness, death of children… these are all things that can occur naturally, and predictive powers aren’t addressed in the category of miracles here. Again, these kind of definitions lack meaning without having anything to evaluate. So far, it seems that a miracle is anything that the author labels as a miracle, so that a swarm of lice from an ancient text qualifies, but anything purportedly done in the name of any other god does not.

Genesis 46-50

46: Jacob’s family moves to Egypt. It turns out after all that God sanctions the move to Egypt, telling Jacob that he will make him a great nation there. I think that God talks to Jacob directly more than to anyone else in Genesis. While Joseph attributes his dream interpretation to God, neither he nor his brothers ever appear to have a direct visitation or a personal assurance that they’re part of the earlier covenant. The family of Jacob is listed, and at the end of the list, it’s said that the number of persons in the household is seventy. This is a number that has importance throughout the Bible, but it looks that the list has been doctored a bit to add up. For one thing, there’s exactly one granddaughter in the entire list, but it’s highly unlikely that there would have been only one granddaughter and fifty-four grandsons and great-grandsons, even considering that married granddaughters may have stayed with their husband’s families. I find it really really funny that Benjamin has sons named Muppim and Huppim.

In a previous chapter, it’s mentioned that Egyptians don’t eat with Hebrews, and here it’s revealed that shepherds are abhorrent to Egypt. Even though Pharaoh and the Egyptians welcomed them down because they were Joseph’s family, it’s evident that there’s already prejudice against them as foreigners.

47: Joseph taxes Egypt. It’s an odd detail to me that Joseph takes five brothers to see Pharaoh with him. Why five? Pharaoh agrees to let the family settle in Goshen. Jacob tells Pharaoh that his days have been few and evil, and that he won’t live as long as his ancestors, although he does live to be 147.

Joseph is a profitable overseer for Pharaoh, and he takes all the Egyptian’s silver as payment for bread, and then takes their livestock, and then their farmland and taxes them permanently. He resettles the farmers. While a twenty percent tax is not that high in total, it’s unlikely that there was no tax before that and the arrangement is that the farmland and the harvest actually all belong to Pharaoh now, and the people are being allowed to keep 80% for food and resowing. Not surprisingly, Christian commentary on this chapter includes titles like Socialism Leads to Slavery and The Sin of Socialism. Also unsurprisingly, some of these are sermons against Obama. But look at this: Well, I tell you this – I know the Messiah; the Messiah is a friend of mine; and Mr. Obama is no Messiah! No, brothers and sisters, if Mr. Obama is a character from the Bible, then he is Pharaoh (http://tinyurl.com/4jetlnq). But that’s not the case in this story. If Mr. Obama is a socialist character from the Bible, then he is Joseph. The same Joseph whom God spoke to in dreams, whom God made prosper, whose ascension as Pharaoh’s second in command is always attributed to God, and who orchestrated the entire governmental takeover. Not only that, in this story, the Egyptians are grateful to Joseph for keeping them alive. It’s simply not mentioned at all what God thinks of Joseph’s governance, but the commentary suggests that the writer of Genesis would have considered Joseph’s plan to be smart and to explain the then current economics of Egyptian peasants.

What I do find troubling about the story as a modern person is that the stored grain presumably came from the farms of these same Egyptians during the seven years of plenty. It does seem remarkably unfair that they should be bankrupted when they produced the grain they now have to buy back.

48: Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob relays the words of the covenant to Joseph, but he doesn’t give Joseph any particular blessing for himself. Instead, he says that he will consider Joseph’s sons to be his own. Joseph was probably going to remain an official under Pharaoh, virtually considered an Egyptian, and never need lands or be a shepherd again nor pass those things to his children. For Joseph’s children to be considered part of Jacob’s family instead of Egyptians, they would need to be like Jacob’s sons.

Jacob gives the younger son his right hand, although he blesses both at once. Joseph should probably have smacked him. He tells Joseph that he has given him with single intent over your brothers what I took from the hand of the Emorite. It’s not clear what or where this is, but single intent translates literally one shoulder.

49: Jacob blesses the twelve sons. Firstborn Reuben is displaced from the birthright because he slept with his father’s concubine. The blessings and mixed blessings follow what Jacob knows and don’t seem to be influenced by God. As I mentioned before, Reuben is never rewarded for being the only brother to try to save Joseph’s life as a boy. Jacob outright curses Simeon and Levi for murdering the Shechemites. So Judah receives the birthright, where he is promised that his brothers will bow to him and he will have the tribute and submission.

The other brothers have no stories of their own, so it’s hard to know why they receive the blessings that they do – Zebulon will dwell by the sea, Issachar is a donkey and a serf, Dan is a judge and a snake, Gad will be goaded and a goad, Asher will have bread and kingly dishes, Naphtali is a hind and father of lovely fawns, Benjamin is a ravening wolf. Joseph does get a special blessing and his sons aren’t mentioned specifically. He’s the only son to be connected to God’s blessing. At this point, he’s obviously in a different situation than the others, but I do find it notable that while Jacob appeared also to love Benjamin more than his brothers previously, he gets a weak and ambiguous blessing.The commentary is fairly important here – it isn’t known whether this is a complete composition or a fragmented text, but it’s agreed that it’s one of the oldest, with such old and rare language that the interpretation is sometimes uncertain.

Jacob asks to be buried in the field at Mamre with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. Jacob knows where Rachel was buried, as it was marked by a pillar in chapter 35, but Leah was the one to be buried in the family grave.

50: Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. When Jacob dies, Joseph gives him a full Egyptian embalming, then takes him back to Canaan to be buried in the family grave. The brothers tell Joseph, probably falsely, that Jacob had asked him to forgive them and they call themselves the servants of his father’s God. Joseph lives shorter than any of his ancestors, 110 years. He assures his brothers that God will take them to the covenant land and asks them to take his bones with them when it happens. He is also embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt, and as we know, his brothers never left Egypt to be able to take him with them. His coffin is the last image in Genesis.

Genesis 41-45

I’m happy to be almost finished with Genesis.

41: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. This story continues to be very different in tone from the other stories of the patriarchs. It’s moralistic and linear. It’s odd that all Pharaoh’s soothsayers couldn’t interpret his dream, because I had the general impression throughout the Bible that prophets who aren’t called by God are fakes and are making up interpretations to begin with. It’s also odd to me, but may be a modern perspective, that Pharaoh would make Joseph second in command with no verification of the truth of his interpretation. It’s hard to tell how much of his rise was clever manipulation. It kind of sounds like he’s setting Pharaoh up when he suggests an overseer, but he’s so bland. Joseph marries the daughter of a priest, probably a sun worshiper. There’s no mention of religious tensions.

42: Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt. First Joseph tells the brothers that the test will be for all but one to be detained and the one to bring Benjamin. After three days, he changes it to detaining one brother and sending all the rest back to get Benjamin. Perhaps he believes that his brothers have also gotten rid of his full brother, who was also probably favored by Jacob. He detains Simeon, and when they return to Jacob, he acts as if Simeon is already gone, while telling them that he is the one who bears all the bereavement. Reuben steps up again as the one who appears to be trying to work things out – he was the one who wanted to spare Joseph – he promises the lives of his own two sons in return for Benjamin’s safety, something that would presumably not make their grandfather feel better.

The brothers act surprised twice when they find the silver in their packs, once on their return trip and once when they are emptying their packs at home. It’s unclear whether these are two versions of the story or if they’re acting out the story for Jacob.

43: Joseph’s brothers return with Benjamin. The ten brothers appear to lie to Jacob. In the previous chapter, they offered their family information to Joseph to convince him they weren’t spies, and here they tell their father that Joseph asked them specific questions about the family. This time Judah promises to be responsible for Benjamin, and Jacob accepts, perhaps a foreshadowing of Judah’s eventual inheritance of the birthright. Jacob was called Jacob in the previous chapter, but is called Israel here. Despite the famine, Jacob appears to still be wealthy, as he can offer more silver as well as many types of expensive goods.

Joseph seems to favor his full brother, perhaps deservedly since Benjamin was the only one not involved in his being sold into slavery. The Egyptians found it abhorrent to eat with the Hebrews, although presumably they ate with Joseph regularly. It seems a sign of contempt that might foreshadow their later slavery, but the commentary says that the Egyptians were prohibited from eating lamb, which was a primary Hebrew food.

44: Joseph frames Benjamin with stealing. Joseph’s household manager is responsible for putting the goblet in Benjamin’s bag and also for accusing him. It makes sense that he would be aware of both, if Joseph wanted to make sure no harm would come to his brothers because of the accuser’s anger. He tells them that Joseph uses the goblet for divining. Like when Rachel stole the household gods, the manager is promised that when the goblet is found, the thief will die, but this time the goblet is easily found.

Judah recounts the entire story of Jacob’s responses to Joseph. He acknowledges that Jacob acts as if Rachel were his only wife and elaborates on Joseph’s story of being allegedly killed by wild animals that wasn’t in the previous chapter. While I don’t condone the brothers’ past treatment of Joseph, I feel dully sad that they’ve acquiesced to being less loved, that losing Judah would be less terrible to Jacob than losing Benjamin. Judah asks to take Benjamin’s place.

45: Joseph reveals himself. Ugh at the moralizing. I think this is the first place that Hebrews/Jews as a remnant is introduced. Pharaoh is happy to have Joseph’s family come to live in Egypt. The thought that the ancestral land where Jacob lives is the land promised by God to Abraham doesn’t seem to come up.

Genesis 36-40

36: Lineage of Esau. Esau has a very repetitive and elaborate genealogy, all apparently aimed toward explaining the names of the Edomite tribes. The chronology of this section is confusing, as Jacob first leaves Canaan because he’s fleeing from Esau. When Jacob meets Esau again, over 20 years later, in chapter 33, Esau is already in established in Seir/Edom. The brothers make peace at that point, and there’s no indication that they’ve seen each other in the years between. Indeed, the opposite is implied as Jacob is afraid of his reception with Esau and leaves the other way as soon as he can. In chapter 35, Esau and Jacob come together again to bury Isaac. Here it is said that Esau leaves Canaan because his and Jacob’s combined livestock was too great for the land if they lived together. However, according to the previous chapters, there doesn’t seem to be a possible time that they could have been living together with great numbers of livestock before Esau settled in Seir.

Esau’s wives and sons are listed by name multiple times, then there’s a lineage of one of Esau’s wives who descended from the first settler of the city, then a list of kings of Moab, and finally the names of Esau’s descendant chieftains. The description of the Moabite kings as being before any king reigned over the Israelites suggests the time period of the writing to be after the monarchy was established.

37: Joseph sold into slavery. I care little about Joseph here. If Joseph were my little brother, and his brothers were my six sisters, I would understand completely why they got rid of him. I might have more pity if things had turned out badly for Joseph, but his story in Egypt has the tone of a fictional adventure, while his brothers’ hatred for how their father loved the golden sprog more than any of them has the tone of reality. Morally, I suppose they should have left Joseph alone and sold Jacob. When Jacob mourns for Joseph, he’s getting no better than he deserves.

Joseph is often portrayed as being a petulant and spoiled child, but he is seventeen. It’s a bit odd that Benjamin wasn’t the golden sprog, since he was also Rachel’s child and in fact was the child of Jacob’s old age. Perhaps the fact that his birth caused Rachel’s death caused Jacob to favor him less. Oddly, Jacob rebukes Joseph saying “I and your mother”, but there seems to be little doubt that Benjamin had already been born at this time so that Rachel was already dead. Else it would make no sense for there to be eleven sheaves and stars.

Another oddity that shows that the God of Genesis seems to overlook what we would consider just punishment or reward is that Reuben stops his brothers from killing Joseph and intends to rescue Joseph and return him home, but he never receives anything more or less than the other brothers, and has no reward during the blessing. God originally appears to make his choice of blessing during the father’s blessing, but by the time Jacob is the dying father, there is enough land for all the sons and the amount of favor bestowed appears to have to do with Jacob’s wishes than any godly guidance. The commentary says that Ishmaelites would be an anachonism, as Ishmael was still alive and his sons would be the brothers’ relatives and probably not strangers. Later they are called Midianites, but this would be a much later designation after Ishmael and his sons were long dead.

38: Judah sleeps with his daughter in law. Judah moves away from his family and has three sons. His firstborn son Er marries a woman named Tamar. Er is described as evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord put him to death. It’s not described what this evil was, but as murder, rape, stealing and lying appear not to be punishable by death at this point, perhaps it was a personal affront against God. Or more likely, it was a necessary part of the setup.

Here’s a familiar story, and since becoming an adult, I’ve heard the explanation as many times as the misconception, no pun intended. Onan’s sin is not masturbation, but his refusal to give his dead brother an heir, probably by pulling out early. This practice of levirate marriage was common all over the Near East. At any rate, God kills Onan too, and Tamar is made to remain a widow in her own father’s house until the third son is grown up, which is a social insult to her. It seems that Judah thinks that Tamar may be responsible for the deaths, as he fears that the third son will die too, presumably if she stays in Judah’s household.

The rest of the story certainly isn’t taught often though the plot unfolds in a wonderful literary manner – there’s no convenient moral and God doesn’t appear to interfere again. Tamar is a character somewhat like Jacob as a young man, she dresses up to deceive her father (in-law), and ultimately is rewarded for her cleverness despite her dubious morals. Jacob is often dressed up to be righteous by the church, with all sorts of excuses for how Esau was wicked and greedy and undeserving so that Jacob practically merited the blessing, that God practically gave it into his hands. The difference with Tamar, I suspect, is that she’s female and that her deceit involves sex.

When Tamar sees that the third son is an adult but she  hasn’t been married to him, as it would be considered socially right for her to be, she dresses as a prostitute in a veil. Judah propositions her – and it’s notable that while Tamar appears to have set up the situation, she doesn’t approach Judah, but he asks to sleep with her. If a moral had to be found, it might have been not to sleep with prostitutes. She asks for a pledge of his seal and staff to ensure his payment. When he comes back with the promised goat, she’s nowhere to be found and Judah feels he must keep his mouth shut about the pledge, as he entrusted extremely valuable things in exchange for one incident of sex, and would be seen as ridiculous if he tried to harangue random prostitutes in an attempt to find them.

Predictably, three months later, Tamar is pregnant and Judah is about to send her to be burned to death. She sends him his own seal and staff, saying that the man who owns them was the man who impregnated her. Judah recognizes them, of course, and admits that he was more wrong than she for not marrying his son to her. He considers failure to follow social convention more of a wrong than sleeping with one’s father in law – but forcing her to stay a widow was a serious disenfranchisement. Tamar is saved from death and has twin sons. The first son puts out his hand, but draws back in the uterus and the second son comes out first. It’s another parallel of the pairs of patriarchal sons in which the older is displaced by the younger. It feels like it should be the start of another story, but it’s the last we hear of Tamar that I know of.

39: Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife. If being rewarded for being a woman who tricks a man into sex isn’t a good Evangelical moral, being rewarded for being a man who rejects a whorish woman is an excellent one. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, God blesses Joseph, Potiphar trusts Joseph implicitly. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, he resists, she grabs him. He runs, leaving his cloak, and she accuses him of trying to sleep with her against her will. Potiphar throws Joseph in prison, where God continues to bless him by making him trusted of the warden.

It’s a good enough story, but so familiar that of all the stories so far, I think this is the only chapter in which I have nothing to add, nothing that I’ve observed newly. There are a number of clever word plays and linguistic techniques noted in the commentary, but they add little to the meaning of the story. Joseph’s story also seems the most like a pure fiction, although it may have the most clear cut morals.

40: Joseph interprets dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Since Joseph has the trust of the warden, he is able to be a guard to some other prisoners. It strikes me as a somewhat odious position to accept, as Joseph has cause to know that that people can be thrown into prison unjustly, but his attitudes toward authority would doubtlessly be different than a modern person’s. Each man tells a dream to Joseph, and Joseph replies that solutions are from God and interprets their dream. It’s not clear whether God speaks directly to Joseph. Joseph asks that the cupbearer remember him when he is restored to his position, but although the dreams come true, the cupbearer forgets Joseph. Again, I have almost nothing to offer on the story.

Genesis 31-35

I am still looking forward to getting through the familiar stories of Genesis, although it has been interesting to see some details that are not frequently taught. After that, I will review some more chapters in Geisler – something I had needed to take a break from for a while. In my personal life, I’ve been reading a fair number of non-religious books, running again, and trying to get everything in the house organized with dubious success.

31: Jacob leaves Laban. Laban’s sons are angry that Jacob has taken the larger flock, and God tells Jacob to return to his birthplace. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that their father Laban has changed his wages repeatedly, and that God told him in a dream that he was causing the spotted sheep to breed. Alter notes that some source critics consider the dream to be Elohist and the narrative in chapter 30 to be Yahwist. It’s not clear whether the sympathetic magic Jacob performs earlier is a ruse, or if he’s telling his wives a story that makes him seemed blessed by God, or if Jacob thought his own cleverness had caused his success and was later corrected by God. After all, Jacob isn’t overly encumbered by truthfulness.

Jacob’s wives tell him that Laban has sold them and consumed their money. They all take off together on camels. The commentary says that a proper marriage would involve a large part of the bride-price going to the bride. The wives allege that their father kept the money and sold them for profit as if they were slaves instead of daughters.

Early in the Bible, the authors appear to have mixed ideas about other gods. When Rachel steals Laban’s household gods, she is never condemned by either Jacob or the author for having other gods. She hides the gods under her seat and lies to Laban that she’s on her period and can’t get up. Like when the earlier patriarchs lie to the kings about their marriages, the matriarch is blessed and the one lied to is warned by god and loses out. Jacob reproaches Laban for the “false accusation” and also for his cheapness in the face of Jacob’s efforts as a shepherd. Jacob and Laban make a pact and Jacob swore by the Terror of his father Isaac.

32: Jacob wrestles an angel. http://www.flickr.com/photos/37601433@N04/5400442742/ This is a bit of a change from the normal way that a patriarch has a meeting and comes out ahead despite lying. Jacob leaves Laban and messengers of God accosted him. The story doesn’t say if these were angels or what they wanted with him. However, Jacob realizes that he is coming into Esau’s lands and he’s rightfully scared. Jacob grovels a bit, calling himself Esau’s servant, and his messengers tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob believes Esau will attack him, divides his camp, and begs God for mercy. He sends three gifts of livestock to Esau in waves, hoping that Esau will feel a little more kindly toward him with each gift.

Jacob in the second half of the chapter seems different in character. He wrestles with a man who touches Jacob’s hip and wrenches it. The man says that he has to leave because dawn is breaking. but Jacob won’t let him go until he blesses him. The man renames him Israel, because he has striven with God and men, and won out, but he won’t tell Jacob his own name. Nonetheless, Jacob says that he has seen God face to face and lived. This is such an excellent story that I hate to start discussing Christian interpretations. The text starts out by calling the person a man, but obviously he is more than that. Jacob calls him ‘Elohim. In Hosea, he is called a messenger, usually translated an angel. While I was always taught that this was a pre-incarnation form of Jesus, ‘Elohim can be translated as the plural word gods, so it’s not indisputable that Jacob was referring to YHWH, the god of his fathers, although ‘Elohim is also used to refer to that god.

33: Jacob meets Esau. After all the attempts to show Esau as being a person deserving of being deceived, he turns out to be forgiving and generous. Again, Jacob shows the difference in his regard for Rachel and Leah. He sends the rest of his family ahead of him and comes along scraping and bowing, but Esau runs to him, embraces and kisses him, says that he doesn’t need gifts. Jacob calls the gifts a tribute and oddly, says that he has seen Esau’s face as one might see God’s face. It seems that Jacob is still afraid though, because he makes excuses for Esau to go ahead without him, but then goes in the opposite direction.

Jacob settles in Shechem and builds an alter to El-Elohei-Israel. The commentary notes that Claus Westermann makes the argument that being in Canaan, Jacob claims the Canaanite god El as synonymous with his own god.

34: The rape of Dinah. This isn’t a story that’s taught a lot in Christian school. I had read it before, but I probably read the other stories of the patriarchs ten times more often. Dinah is Leah’s only daughter, sister of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The prince of Shechem, also named Shechem took her and lay with her and abused her. It seems that he raped her, but then fell in love with her and he spoke to the young woman’s heart. It’s not clear by that last phrase the amount of consent involved. The text says as what might be taken as fact that he ought not to have slept with Jacob’s daughter. Shechem’s father asks for Dinah to be married to Shechem and to begin intermarrying freely at any bride-price and clan-gift.

The sons of Jacob, which turn out to be the full brothers of Dinah, tell them that they can intermarry if they will become circumcised, and Shechem and his father agree, largely because they hope to share Jacob’s livestock. Three days later while they are in pain from the circumcision, Simeon and Levi kill every man in the city, capture all their wives and children, take all their livestock, and loot everything in their houses. They bring Dinah home, perhaps an indication that she was not there by her own free will, as she might have been expected to come home while marriage negotiations were taking place. Jacob is angry that his sons have caused trouble in their new land, and the sons ask if their sister should be treated like a whore. The sons are both sympathetic in wanting to avenge their sister and repugnant in using her rape as an excuse to murder an entire town.

35: God renews the covenant with Jacob. God commands Jacob to make his alter in Bethel as he promised, and Jacob tells his household to put away their alien gods. Jacob takes the alien gods and earrings and buries them. The terror of God kept the towns from pursuing the sons of Jacob, apparently other tribes who had heard about the massacre at Shechem. An odd aside – Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse dies and is buried in Bethel. To be Rebekah’s nurse, she must have been extremely old.

God either repeats or affirms Jacob’s name change to Israel. He is described as ascending from Jacob, suggesting a visual manifestation. Rachel gives birth to the twelfth son Benjamin and dies. Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine, an incident that doesn’t surface until the blessings. Possibly this is a way to take his father’s place as patriarch.

Finally Jacob returns to Isaac, who is a hundred and eighty years old. He lived over twenty years past the blessing. Apparently Jacob does see Esau again, because he is said to have helped bury his father Isaac. It appears that reconciliation happens at the death of a father, as Ishmael also helped Isaac bury Abraham.

Genesis 26-30

26: Isaac settles in Gerar. There’s a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine king. God tells him not to go to Egypt but to stay in this land, and Isaac stays in the land of the Philistines. It was noted in chapter 21 that the Philistines are an anachronism. Staying around Canaan appears to be some sort of condition for receiving Abraham’s blessing, but it’s not clear whether this has to do with Isaac’s obedience or with God’s attachment to the land. It was common for different gods to be in charge of different regions, and God later appears to have a physical presence in Israel. God tells Isaac that Abraham listened to his commandments, statutes and teachings, but I wouldn’t consider God’s reported interactions with Abraham to include statues and teachings. He tells him to build alters and to be circumcised, but almost everything else is situational.

We have almost the exact same story that happened twice with Abraham – Isaac says that his wife is his sister and the king finds that he’s lying. The odd thing is that this is the exact same king as in the second Abraham story – King Abimelech of Gerar. This time, Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebekah being intimate instead of getting a message or plague from God, and instead of being apologetic, appears to be at least somewhat reproachful toward Isaac, whereas he was afraid and fawning toward Abraham. However, Isaac is still the one who profits. It still seems unlikely to me that these are all literal different stories instead of variations on one story or a fiction to illustrate how Isaac is the successor to Abraham, although I can see why the patriarchs would repeat it since the outcome is always that they get rich. The commentary points out that Isaac may have strong physical appetites as he loves the venison that Esau brings him and disports with Rebekah in public – it seems to me that he has little self control.

Also like Abraham, Isaac has a dispute with Abimalech over a well, but this time, Abimelech sends Isaac away from the city where he continues to fight over water rights until he moves farther away. God appears to Isaac and renews the covenant, and Abimelech asks to make a peace pact and appears to recognize Isaac’s god. Esau marries two Hittite women, which provokes Isaac and Rebekah.

27: Isaac is tricked into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. This is the first chapter that has affected me as a story. Esau previously is portrayed as stupid and unappreciative of his birthright, but here he is simply victimized. He goes out to obey his father, and Rebekah prepares Jacob to appear as his brother. The story is thorough, Jacob and Rebekah prepare for every detail – even the smell of Esau’s clothes. It always struck me as odd that Isaac would be so easily fooled, because my impression was that blind people are extremely oriented toward sound differentiation. But Isaac hadn’t been blind his entire life.

I’m not certain how the blessing differs from the birthright. Since Jacob already had the birthright, what did the blessing add? Was it purely religious or was it the emotional trauma of being cut out from a father’s favor? It’s reminiscent of the kind of fairy tale in which once the king makes a declaration, it cannot be taken back or changed. Like Esther, for example, where Xerxes does not rescind his order to kill the Jews, but makes a new rule that allows them to fight back. It’s difficult to understand.

I don’t even think that Esau comes out so poorly in character at the end of the story. Of course, when the story was taught in Christian school or Sunday school, Esau was always defamed as much as possible. He didn’t respect God and he wanted to kill Jacob, but many people have been killed in the Old Testament for less. But when he hears that Jacob has stolen his blessing, his immediate instinct is to beg – Bless me, too, Father! And that is the saddest thing that I’ve read so far. Esau uses an unBiblical style vernacular before his birthright is stolen, but he gets poetic here. Still, his biggest flaw appears to be stupidity, while Jacob’s only virtue appears to be cleverness.

Rebekah uses the excuse to Isaac that Jacob needs to leave to find a wife. She’s like a Jewish mother stereotype – I loathe my life because of the Hittite women! If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?

28: Jacob’s ladder. Jacob goes to find a wife from the daughter’s of Laban, Rebekah’s brother (who is a relation of Abraham as well). He gives him a new blessing that God should give him the blessing of Abraham. Poor Esau, who already has two Hittite wives, sees that Isaac disapproves of Canaanite wives, and in what appears to be a last useless attempt to gain his approval, marries a daughter of Ishmael. The text says that he goes to Ishmael, but it’s not clear whether that means that Ishmael is still alive, as he was probably at least ten years older than Isaac. I never noticed this little story before.

This is the only place that the word usually translated “ladder” is used in the Pentateuch. Alter points out that the phrases used are associated with a ziggurat, so the ladder is probably a ramp. God promises to continue Abraham’s blessing through Jacob. Although God made a promise, Jacob’s vow sounds like a bargain in saying that the LORD will be his God and he will build a house of God and tithe, but only if God gives him bread, clothing and safety on his journey.

29: Jacob marries Leah and Rachel. The sadness of Genesis went over my head when I learned these stories. Now I think that the stories are better than I remembered, but the morality is worse. As a former Calvinist, I believed then and still believe that it’s a strong theme that God loves and chooses certain people, but I don’t see any righteousness in it. Jacob talks to some men at a well, and they talk about Laban and point out that his daughter Rachel is a shepherdess who is arriving with her sheep. It seems to fit the idea that the women of Abraham’s extended family are very capable.

The men say that they can’t water the sheep until the flocks have gathered and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well, but when Rachel arrives, Jacob moves the stone and waters the sheep. The significance of this story is a little confusing to me. It imitates to some degree the story in which Rebekah waters the camels, but I don’t know why the other men can’t roll the stone away sooner, although it appears to be a feat of strength for Jacob to do it alone. Nor do I know why Jacob starts weeping when he meets Rachel.

Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel was comely in features… I’ve heard this translated “weak” to imply that Leah had poor vision, but it’s not clear whether the word means gentle or weak. It makes it sadder if it refers to Leah’s character. Jacob agrees to serve seven years for Rachel, and while there’s a feast, there doesn’t appear to be some kind of ceremony where Rachel is supposed to appear, they just go to bed together except that Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel. What is not explained is if or why Leah and Rachel are complicit in this. They must both have been aware of the deception, but there are no stories of how they had to be bribed or restrained, or what they thought of the arrangement. Nor does it explain how Jacob could have not been aware that he was sleeping with Leah. Perhaps for all his love, he rarely had a chance to be near her. I always thought that Jacob served seven years, was deceived with Leah, then served another seven years before marrying Rachel, but it turns out that he gets Rachel after a week and then owes another seven years in the future.When Laban says that it is not done thus to give the younger girl before the firstborn, surely that is a narrative condemnation of Jacob’s own deception.

The sad thing about the story is not just that Leah is loved less and knows it, but that with each son, she hopes to no avail that having a child will cause Jacob to love her.

30: Rachel conceives and Jacob performs sympathetic magic. Rachel demands that Jacob give her a son, and Jacob becomes angry and asks her if he’s God. So Rachel gives Jacob her slave to sleep with, and then Leah gives him her slave. Rachel obviously considers this to be a competition and says that she has won out over her sister. Then, Leah gives Rachel some mandrakes in exchange for sleeping with Jacob for one night, which appear to be either a contraceptive aid or a way to drug Jacob, who hasn’t been interested in being with Leah. Leah tells Jacob that she’s hired him, but still holds onto the false hope that having another son will cause Jacob to love her. Leah’s last child is a daughter.

All of these people are repugnant and I can have no sympathy for people who so desperately want sons. Oddly, when Rachel finally has Joseph, his name implies a request for God to give her another son. What a bitch. Jacob and Rachel are my least favorite people in the Bible, including Satan.

Jacob tells Laban he wants to go back to his land and that God blessed Laban on Jacob’s account. Jacob asks to remove every spotted animal, and then he gives the spotted animals to his sons and herds Laban’s sheep separately. He puts peeled strips of trees in the water when the flocks go into heat and then the flocks bore spotted young, then bred the strongest of his own flock in front of the strips. Google this and it’s funny to see Christians have conniptions about how the mean atheists are bullying them by pointing out that this isn’t how one creates spotted sheep. Later in Genesis, God tells Jacob that he was the one who made Jacob prosper, but that doesn’t erase the fact that Jacob was superstitious.

Reading List 2010

(From Yale’s open courses: http://oyc.yale.edu/english/american-novel-since-1945/content/sessions.html)

Black Boy – Richard Wright

All autobiographies are fictionalized.

Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor

This is a difficult book, not because the plot is hard to follow or because the story goes slowly – it was a fast read. I’ve read things about the way that O’Conner should be interpreted or about her personal beliefs. But on its own, the meaning isn’t obvious. I don’t think that a lot of interpretation is nearly as important as absorbing everything though.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

The first time I read Lolita, I was just fascinated and amazed. This time I read more slowly and more carefully and had more pity for Lolita herself.

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I liked this book more after reading it than while I was reading it. The last trip to Mexico was very vivid, and I also have taken many road trips – from Virginia to Los Angeles, to Seattle via Michigan, to Maine, and to Denver, plus the return trips except for the last. Kerouac spent a lot of time in Denver as well.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

I had mixed feelings about this story, not least because I have mixed feelings about the subject matter. I had a lot of sympathy for Franny but was never sure how I was supposed to feel about Zooey. The first section that focused on Franny was more engaging.

Lost in the Funhouse – John Barth

This was like no other book that I’ve ever read. Some of the stories were outstanding and some were terribly boring, but they weren’t typical. It may sound a bit pretentious, but I feel that I understand modern literature in a different way for having read this.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Reading it again was worth it, and I’m sure that reading it for a third time sometime in the future will also be worth it. Gravity’s Rainbow has been on my reading list for a long time now and I plan to read it in 2011, despite the difficulty, because I truly do enjoy Pynchon.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

This book is so sad that it was hard to read. It’s more than a bludgeon to beat the reader over the head with its message, but the pain and violence aren’t insignificant and I can’t imagine reading it again for a long time.

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

At some point, it occurred to me that my sympathies might lie with Lucille rather than with the protagonist, Ruth. I felt that the author was making value judgments about the superiority of one type of personality.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

If I could only have ten books to read over and over again for the rest of my life, this would be one of them.

The Human Stain – Philip Roth

I loathe this book. I loathe the plot and I loathe the writing style. And if Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth’s alter ego, then I loathe Philip Roth.

The Known World – Edward P. Jones

I agree with all the positive reviews about the merits of this book, but it didn’t make a lasting impact on me. The prose, the story lines, the characters were all well crafted, but I was never completely drawn in. It’s still a book that I’d recommend as a worthwhile read.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

There are a lot of  wonderful moments in this book. I’m glad that I missed the hype, because with no expectations, I enjoyed it a good deal. However, too much of it seemed contrived and self conscious. This isn’t a new criticism, and like many people, I also think that Safran Foer will be worth reading again in the future.


(Free Kindle books)

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

I don’t ever remember reading this before, but everything in it was familiar – apparently picking up descriptions and discussions of the book is pretty much the same as actually reading it.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I enjoyed these stories a long time ago, and they’re pleasantly nostalgic.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

I’d forgotten how short these books were. I can still clearly remember the illustrations in the book I had as a child.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When I first read this in high school, it was very successful in making me identify with Raskolnikov. The whole time I was reading, I felt his guilt and fear. I had a lot of personal philosophical problems and contempt for the people around me at the time that were causing my own guilt and stress, although I never killed anyone. This time, I appreciated the writing and psychology, but felt no particular identification, and I’m glad that I read it first when it could make more of an impact on me.


The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a good book. This was a good book.

Perdido Street Station/The Scar/Iron Council – China Mieville

I loved all three of these books. PSS was brilliant but uneven – I was captivated by the world building and the constant moving through the city, seeing something new with every page, but the ending felt a bit exploitative and tacked on. The Scar was the best of the three – one of my favorite books. IMO, Iron Council had pacing problems – I didn’t enjoy it as much while I was reading it, but after I’d finished, I felt that the setup paid off, and I was extremely satisfied to see that my instincts about the protagonist weren’t accidental.

The Darkness that Comes Before/The Warrior Prophet/The Thousandfold Thought – R. Scott Bakker

I really don’t understand how people whose literary opinions I respect can like this series. It’s not uniformly horrible – there are some worthwhile plots and philosophies – but ultimately I failed to find any of the characters believable. A major problem I had was that Kellhus was supposed to be insightful, motivational and a figure that inspired near-fanatical devotion, but his speeches and dialog failed to capture that.

Neuromancer – William Gibson

I feel like I missed a lot from this book, probably because I tried to read it too quickly (before a book signing). Gibson is a prophet of technology, and his most famous book is worth reading if only for that. However, I was never able to get immersed enough to care about the missions and motivations of the characters; I felt that I was watching things go by without being able to get a hold on them. I feel that this book deserves a re-read in the future.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

I enjoyed reading it, but the further I get from it, the less impressed I am. There wasn’t any specific thing that was bad – the setting, the plot, and the characters all had many interesting aspects. There just wasn’t anything sublime. I never got the feeling that the story was one facet of a rich world of history and real people.

City of Saints and Madmen – Jeff Vandermeer

Despite some flaws, this was an amazing book. The part that seemed like it might be the most dry, a history of the city, was the most mysterious and sinister. Where I lost interest was when things became overly meta. Vandermeer did an excellent job of taking phenomena related to organic fears – the mushroom growing upon decay and dampness, the squid living in the murky and possibly bottomless ocean – and creating a world where those fears become a source of culture. Finch and other books set in Ambergris will be on my reading list for 2011.

Year of Living Biblically – A. J. Jacobs

The idea was interesting but the execution lacked focus. I admit that I was biased because the author didn’t do things the way that I would have, and perhaps as someone who grew up with a system of religiously related rules – particularly at Christian school – I was overly hard to impress. Jacobs acknowledges that living apart from a devout community has a significant impact on his inability to live identically to an Old Testament Hebrew, and it’s part of the point that even in Orthodox Judaism, it’s impossible to re-create that exact environment within a larger modern non-theocratic society. But I still felt that his effort was too disorganized to be a proper experiment.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss is a very likable and clever author and his prose is fun and easy to read, but I had mixed feelings about this book. Several other readers were in agreement that it was a promising start, but the plot doesn’t get very far off the ground and an important female character is extremely irritating and lacking in personality. I’m not sure that I want to invest the time in finishing the series.

The Unlikely Disciple – Kevin Roose

It’s a revelation to hear about your own culture (at least one you used to belong to)  from someone else. I went to Baptist school, went to Liberty’s campus many times for concerts, many of my schoolmates went to college there. The rules of my high school were fairly similar to the rules at the university – dress code, restrictions on movies and music, mandatory chapel, expectations for dating… I plan to write more about how my experiences compared to Kevin Roose’s after I finish Genesis.

Lost Christianities – Bart Ehrman

I didn’t get all that I could out of this read because I didn’t finish the accompanying text of “Lost Scriptures” which contained a sampling of some extra-Biblical texts. There was too much material to take in at one time considering that I wasn’t familiar with most of the documents. The Yale courses on the NT give a more localized, more specific discussion on the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thecla. I decided to read the canonical books again (starting with my blogged review of Genesis), then come back and read the Lost Scriptures while using this book as a reference, so I will return to it within the year.

Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jr.

The movie follows the book fairly closely. It’s one of the few books that I’d say is not necessary to read if you’ve seen the movie.

Sympathy for the Devil – Tim Pratt

This was a collection of short stories, and I can sum it up by saying that it was pretty good. Almost every story was good, but as a whole, it wasn’t incredibly memorable. It seemed like a lot of the stories had weak endings. I don’t mind ambiguous or open endings, but too often the stories simply seemed as if they’d been left unfinished, unresolved.

A Garden of Earthly Delights – Joyce Carol Oates

I first read this book in the Radford library, when I stayed on campus all day between classes, about five years ago. Although the first section is by far the best, the writing stuck with me and I considered it one of the most compelling books I’d ever read. It was every bit as striking on a re-read.

Ulysses – James Joyce

It took me two years. I had to read the Telemachiad twice and then I stopped about 30 pages short of the ending for almost a year. And as soon as I was finished, I immediately felt that I needed to read it again, more carefully. But not right now.

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