Bad-Mouthing the Patriarchs

Lent concludes at sundown. Indeed, as this is posted, a good chunk of the Eastern hemisphere is already into the Triduum, washing feet and transferring the Eucharist for adoration and prayer.

I’ve been noting the heightened discussion the past few days as the American SCOTUS considers anti-gay laws. One of the more laughable tracks in the argument centers on the biblical foundations of marriage as set down in Genesis. Have any of these people actually read the whole book? Or are they fixated on the charming quote Jesus pulls out to urge people to fidelity?

I’ve spent the last several months in Genesis as part of my daily practice of lectio divina. At times it has been a struggle. A serious struggle. There’s a lot of behavior by traditionally sympathetic characters that I’ve found distracting, disturbing, and not directly conducive to prayer. In my own life these past several weeks, it has led me to a long consideration of compassion. Compassion for people long-dead. Compassion for people who put up with me on a daily basis. Compassion for the situation in ministry in which I find myself: a university town in the 21st century.

That said, can we bad-mouth the patriarchs? Can we criticize Abram’s panic at his wife’s barrenness, and Sarai’s initiative to topple her servant into her husband’s bed? I’d like to think so.

This is an episode as dysfunctional and salicious as any tv soap opera. And we honor Abraham as a Father in Faith for it? The purpose of Abram’s dalliance was to produce a child, and there was nothing special about Hagar in his or his wife’s eyes, except that she was a convenient, nearby fertile woman in their power.

The Genesis philosophy is clear: build a family by any means necessary. Especially if you are an aristocrat who can afford it.

Now for the compassion. The moral of this patriarch’s adventures is, of course, faith in God. But Abram was also given a great burden. God promised him a nation, but he had no idea how this could be accomplished with an unable wife. So he and Sarai took matters into their own hands. And while I shudder at the thought of Ishmael (or anyone) not ever being born, what was the point of this? Enmity sown between woman and servant, the separation of brothers (and some might say alienation), and for what? God worked his grace through Sarai in the end.

There are good arguments to be made in the pros and cons of same sex unions. But I don’t see many of them. I don’t really see any of them in Genesis, a book more difficult to pray through than I had imagined. Maybe I need to reflect a little more deeply on these men. But I genuinely felt sorry for the women on the sidelines: Hagar, Rachel, Dinah, among others. The callous treatment of women–family members even–leaves me with a very dissatisfied taste.

So what do you think? Can a Christian honor the roots of our faith in Judaism while criticizing the patriarchs? Are we obligated to hold pen or tongue and just mutter to ourselves, “I can’t see that being right.”?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Bad-Mouthing the Patriarchs

  1. John McGrath says:

    The way I look at it:

    Genesis 1 is a poetic vision of how the human race can find harmony with God and with each other. The ultimate reality is this vision is right relationship, “God made humanity in God’s own image: female and male God made them.” No subordination of women to men, a direct relationship with God, not mediated by kings or an upper class. Humanity as the custodian of nature, nature as God created it. The world being handed over to humanity to govern according to this vision. Genesis 1 is the beginning, but more importantly it is the end, the vision to which humanity should aspire.

    Genesis 2 devolves from an ideal vision of humanity to actual human behavior and history, the need to make moral choices, to know good and evil and the difference between them. The world veers toward evil, the first sign of this the idea that woman is subordinate to the male, that the women’s relationship to God is mediated by the male, and only the male is in direct relationship to God.

    From here we can take the Bible as a history of wrong ideas about God, but a struggle to relate properly to God. These wrong ideas engender behavior that is both moral and immoral.Moral because we are struggling to relate properly to God. Immoral because we have faulty ideas about God. With woman now accepted incorrectly as subordinate to the male, the use of a woman for a man’s ends becomes “moral” until corrected by a more enlightened understanding of God and the proper relationship between men and women. Hence the patriarchs, within their lights, are acting morally in having multiple wives, with one wife set above the others. In the case of Jacob and Ismael, Jacob is chosen for his superior moral character, and for ability to be prudent, to provide for the future. Ismael lives only for the senses, for the present. He is not the best choice as the next patriarch in a line chosen to reveal a better understanding of God, women, humanity and morality. The basis of this prophetic inheritance is moral character, not biology, not primogeniture.

    The wrong ideas of God become rejected in stages and we move to truer ideas about God. Among these wrong ideas is the subordination of woman to man, and slave to master, and the annihilation of enemies. Based on these wrong ideas, wrong actions are easily taken. Yet through it all God draws good from evil and helps humanity’s representative, the Jews, to reach a higher idea of God and a higher level of moral behavior as a result. Behind it all is the foundation: Love God thoroughly. Love your neighbor as yourself. Pursue this ideal, and you move closer to the vision of Genesis 1. But your understanding will still be faulty, in need of correction, never completely right. You will be subject to history, to the experience of good choices and evil choices. In entering history Jesus chooses to become subject to your evil choices, to suffer unjustly as so many have been treated unjustly. Yet he does not teach submission to evil, just the opposite. His submission is to solidarity with the suffering of humanity, not to the right of anyone to make another suffer.

    Abraham is a great corrector of a false idea of God. In obedience to a false idea, the idea that God wants human sacrifice, Abraham is set to do evil. But he becomes enlightened and realizes that God abhors human sacrifice, and he and his people reject it it. The story of Abraham is about disobedience to a false idea of God and obedience to a truer idea about God. Abraham went up the mountain a pagan, and came down the mountain a Jew. But not fully enlightened.

    Later Jesus fully teaches the great foundation: Love God thoroughly and know you do so only by how justly you treat your neighbor, and your nearest neighbor is your partner in marriage. Yet Christians get it wrong, as in their subordination of women, they do evil, and only gradually come to realize the moral and spiritual truths of Jesus.

    • Dustin says:

      Thank you, John. What I love about the Hebrew scriptures is that these are not, as an American bible might be, the stories of a self-satisfied people convinced of their righteousness and perfection, but a long accounting of some dreadful behavior. “Look at how much God has given us. Look how much of it we squandered. Look at how much we still have to learn.” I’ve saved your comment, and will read it frequently. Thank you.

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