Reading the Jacob story as a prequel

As I have been working through Genesis in Hebrew, I have been engaging in a thought-experiment: what if we read this text as a prequel to the Exodus story? I know that it is not literally a prequel in the sense of a text that was conceived as a sequel filling in the backstory of Exodus — clearly many of the stories originate from earlier periods, and the canonical Book of Exodus itself “already” refers to the events of Genesis in some detail (e.g., the role of Joseph in Egyptian history). Notwithstanding the fact that the overall text has been “smoothed over” in that way, I still think it is productive to read the way that the stories have been assembled and presented as a way of rereading (possibly unrelated) cultural legends as anticipating Exodus.

Whatever the sources of these stories, they have been shaped in such a way as to connect them very directly to Exodus, and more importantly, to answer some questions a reader of Exodus might have — for instance, what claim could the people of Israel possibly have over this foreign land God has given them? Some of the stories are clearly meant to establish some kind of claim for Abraham’s family in the land of Canaan. They dig wells, they buy burial plots, etc. Very early in the Abraham story, we even have him coming into conflict with Pharaoh when he pulls his enigmatic “she’s my sister, not my wife” routine, which makes Egypt into a kind of immemorial enemy of the Israelites. Toward the end of the book, we also have the story of Joseph, which directly accounts for why the Israelites were even in Egypt and also establishes that Joseph was responsible for Pharoah’s great wealth and power — making the later Pharaoh’s betrayal all the more sickening. (At the same time, as prequels often do, the Joseph story arguably “breaks” the Exodus narrative by making him the engineer of the slave regime in the first place.)

In between, we have the story of Jacob. It seems to be a very unflattering portrayal of the figure who would be Israel’s namesake and the father of the twelve tribes. He is dishonest and conniving, betraying his own brother twice over. Most troublingly, he seems to “steal” God’s blessing. What possible question could this story be trying to answer or clarify about the later story? What is this story trying to “retcon” in the biblical narrative?

I believe one possible answer is that Jacob is the only biblical figure who wants it. Everyone else receives God’s call and either submits immediately (Noah, Abraham) or else tries to weasel out of it (Moses). The people of Israel as a whole are basically forced into the covenant at gunpoint — certainly we are not dealing with a real negotiation. But at a crucial moment in the biblical narrative, right at the point where the nation of Israel proper is about to be born, we finally get a character who fights for the blessing, who is willing to do anything to get it. Yes, he is immoral, but the biblical author has already established with the Sacrifice of Isaac that being willing to violate morality in the service of the LORD is no vice. By contrast, his brother is willing to trade that birthright for a hot meal, and his father — already established as a passive victim of his father’s faithfulness — does not seem to care one way or another what happens to the blessing that was imposed upon him.

In Jacob, we have a unique figure who is not blindly obedient and does not take the covenant for granted. His story opens up a space of human agency in a story that otherwise seems fully predestined. His story tells us, unambiguously, that yes, Israel does want, even demand the blessing of the LORD. In this way, the Jacob story pulls off the greatest achievement available in the prequel format: giving us a very unexpected plot development that nonetheless snaps everything into place.

What did Noah begin?

In Genesis 9 (facing Hebrew, NRSV), after God promises never to send another Flood to destroy all living things, our attention turns to Noah and his three sons, from whom “the whole earth was peopled” (9:19). After being reminded of their three names — “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — which are repeated again and again, in that order, and being told of Ham’s son Caanan (surely, an unfortunate name from a biblical standpoint; 9:18), the text informs us that “Noah began” (וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ). As a man of the soil (אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, ish adamah, the latter term from the same cluster of Hebrew words that includes “Adam” and dam, blood), he planted a vineyard (9:20). The NRSV interprets this to mean that Noah is the first to plant a vineyard, and if that is the case, then perhaps we can excuse Noah’s drunken behavior as that of a person unacquainted with the ways of wine.

Let’s assume, though, that at some point in the 2000 years of human history, it occurred to one of the extremely long-lived (and presumably very bored) primal humans to cultivate wine. We do know, after all, that other trappings of civilization are known, including even such advanced arts as metalworking (4:22). If winemaking was a known skill, one with which Noah was well acquainted from the 600 years of his life prior to the Flood, then perhaps we can read “Noah began” more broadly: Noah began to rebuild the human world, and his first step was to make some wine. It is a promising beginning, perhaps betokening a celebration of their survival, or a ratification of their unique bond after inhabiting the ark for over six months.

But Noah takes this token of fellowship and hoards it all for himself. He drinks, and becomes drunk, and reaches such a point that he exposes himself in his tent. The unlucky Ham sees it, then tells his brothers about the unfortunate scene, leading them to cover up their father while studiously avoiding laying eyes on his nakedness. When Noah awakes, he curses the Canaan, the son of Ham, to be “a slave of slaves” (עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים), or as the NRSV puts it, “the lowest of slaves.” This passage, which was clearly intended to legitimate Israel’s conquest of Canaan, would go on to have an improbable afterlife as a prooftext for the African slave trade, as Ham later came to be seen as the father of the nations of Africa.

Even if the latter reading is a clear ideological forcing, the passage deals inescapably with a hierarchy among nations and peoples. This is what Noah is “beginning.” The first step is for Noah, as the father, to claim the beverage of fellowship all for himself. And when that assertion of authority has the unexpected side effect of humiliating him by exposing his nakedness, he creates a pecking order among his own sons. This fact is somewhat obscured by translations, which typically render Noah’s description of Ham (בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן) as “his youngest son” (9:24). Yet prior to this, we had no reason to suspect that Ham was the youngest. The trio is always listed in an order that places Ham second, and he is the only one who is credited with having a son of his own — so if anything, we might guess that he is the oldest prior to Noah’s declaration.

More than that, in the many biblical genealogies that precede this passage, the norm has been for only the first son to be named, after which the text makes an indifferent gesture toward other sons and daughters. Among the patriarchs, only Adam and a descendent of Cain named Lamech have multiple named sons. In Adam’s case, the birth order is clearly specified. Lamech’s first two sons, Jabal and Jubal, are born to the same wife and could reasonably be assumed to be twins. Could Noah’s sons be triplets? Even leaving aside that speculation, they have been treated as equals up to this point, most often simply grouped together as unnamed “sons.”

Hence I suggest that Noah is not designating Ham as his youngest son, but — following other possible meanings for the adjectives qatan — as his smallest, most insigificant, most worthless son. I might even dare to translate it as “his shitheel son.” Noah’s assertion of paternal authority had backfired and lowered him in his sons’ eyes, and so he deflects that shame and thinks of the son in whose eyes he was most vividly diminished as himself small and worthless. What’s more, the very thing that seems to point toward equality with Noah — Ham’s status as father — is then twisted into a curse, as this son is no longer an heir but a hyperbolic “slave of slaves.”

What Noah “begins,” then, is the whole order of hierarchy and domination that had been wiped out by the Flood. Nothing in God’s behavior had pointed in this direction. Though there is a privilege granted to humanity over against the animals, in that humans can kill animals for food but not vice verse, there is no indication of any intra-human hierarchy in God’s covenant — all equally enjoy the benefits of a new food source and the assurance that no future Flood will wipe them out. The biblical author portrays hierarchy and domination as a human choice. And I think there is wisdom to be found in the biblical author’s decision to ground that curse, not in Noah’s lust for power and domination, but in his shame.

Some reflections on Ruth

[As some readers know, I have been studying Hebrew for the last several months. I’ve transitioned from going through a textbook to reading on my own, and one of my first projects was Ruth. These are some reflections and observations, for which I claim no originality or even correctness. Some of it stems directly from seeing the Hebrew rather than the translation, but I assume most of this just comes from the necessity of moving so much more slowly through the text.]

There are a lot of feet. Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet gets a lot of attention, but there’s also the sandal swap to seal the deal with the other potential redeemer. Obviously the former is sexually charged to some extent, but I have a hard time thinking that’s at play between Boaz and the unnamed other dude. Could it have something to do with walking? As in, halakha, which derives from the same root as the verb for “to go or walk”?

The fact that this whole transaction is happening at the gate is significant — this is where the elders and most prominent men hang out, apparently. Clearly we are dealing with a heavy-handed symbolism of border policing. But the situation is set up so that we know Ruth will be let in — either the unnamed guy will redeem her, or it will default to Boaz. There’s no live prospect of her being excluded, once she’s decided to cleave to Naomi….

I liked the use of that verb for “to cleave,” but I don’t think it’s just about her relationship to Naomi as a possible homoerotic attachment (something my students always flatly reject as a possibility, maybe because intergenerational homoerotic relationships are less of a thing nowadays?). She’s also supposed to cleave to the women gleaning Boaz’s field, and at the end of the story the women specifically accept her and name the child and assert Naomi’s ownership of it (over Boaz’s and over the dead husband’s). At the time this was written, was Judaism already practicing matrilineal descent? And is this text arguing that “converts” who cleave to the community of Jewish women can produce Jewish children, too — even the greatest Jewish child of all, King David?

Finally, there is some weird phrasing when Boaz wants to inform the other guy about the possibility of redeeming Naomi’s property. The translation has “and I thought to disclose it unto thee” (4:4), but the Hebrew (וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי אֶגְלֶה אָזְנְךָ) is more like “I said I will uncover your ears.” It seems like an odd way to put it, right? After all, it’s not like his ears are plugged, he just happens not to have that particular information. But his refusal to redeem after he learns he has to take on Ruth the Moabite may highlight the idea that Jews had closed their ears to the message that their covenant and community can and should be for everyone. Hence the other kinsman is unnamed because he stands for a generic Jew with a more ethnocentric outlook?

Anyway, these were my initial thoughts after laboriously working through this odd little text in Hebrew. Here is a website with facing Hebrew text and English translation if you want to poke around for yourself.

The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Abraham the Babylonian?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac

Hebrew poetry relies on conceptual rather than auditory rhymes, with line pairs expressing similar ideas. To pick an example at random: “Save me O God, by your name, / and vindicate me by your might” (Psalm 54:1). While I was correcting proofs for The Prince of This World — a preorderable book, incidentally — I was particularly struck by several of my quotes from the Hebrew prophets that refer to the Babylonians in the first half of a line pair, then the Chaldeans in the second. On some level, this pairing is probably just a poetic convenience. They talk about the Babylonians a lot, and the demands of Hebrew poetry require them to have a synonym for the second line. Yet there’s another context where the Chaldeans come up — namely, Ur of the Chaldeans, the hometown of Abraham.

What does it mean that the ancestor of the Israelites is a Babylonian? Or more specifically, that he is someone who breaks with the Babylonians, in the first story of the Book of Genesis that is not in some sense a reworking or parody of Babylonian mythology? Empire is always already there as a rival who inspires mimesis and rejection all at once, and the Israelites, who will spend most of their history in exile within Empire, are here figured as primordially exiles from Empire.

By the end of Genesis, they have been thoroughly reincorporated into Empire, due to the exceptional political success of Joseph in Egypt, but their very success proves to be the greatest danger, exposing them to slavery and attempted genocide. And so they must go into exile from Empire again, and they are led by a man who is by all appearances a child of Empire — Moses the Egyptian. A strange cycle of theme and variations.

(Idle thoughts, probably not saying anything new.)

Reading the Joseph story as a prequel

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of a prequel, and it’s clear to me that it’s a genre with deep roots. Oedipus at Colonus is a self-conscious prequel to Antigone, for instance, supplying interesting background to Antigone’s torn loyalties. (By contrast, Oedipus Rex does not seem to me to be so self-consciously prequelic.) A similar argument could be made for the Book of Genesis — though it draws on materials that may predate the Genesis story, it was redacted in such a way as to provide a self-conscious prequel to the Exodus events and the subsequent conquest of Canaan (including Israel’s relationships with its closest neighbors, Moab and Edom).

The most interesting prequel element is the Joseph story. It is very distinctive in its style and approach, as it injects the kind of post-exilic narrative we find in Daniel and Esther into Israel’s primal history. The most straightforward narrative work of the story is to account for why the Israelites were in Egypt in the first place. But it goes beyond that in making Joseph (and the Israelite God who so favored him) into the source of Egypt’s survival and Pharaoh’s overwhelming power.

In this sense, like the most ambitious prequels, it winds up recontextualizing and even subverting the narrative to which it is a prequel. Joseph engineers a plan to reduce the entire Egyptian population to slavery, and for his service, he gets the assurance that his family will be a privileged population. Once a subsequent Pharaoh forgets about this promise, he initially reduces the Israelite population to the same level as everyone else.

Obviously he goes much further than this later on, but the background of the Joseph story shows that the problem isn’t mass enslavement as such — it’s mass enslavement of the Israelites. A narrative of God’s justice and liberation retrospectively becomes a narrative of God’s favoritism.

Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.