One of the enduring legacies of my education at Franciscan University is a deep-rooted enchantment with the Old Testament and a confidence in reading and interpreting it. I think if I had only learned that, my education may still have been worth it. Thanks, Dr. Hahn!
I especially love the unfinished feel to parts of it: the short, unexplained stories where it is not always easy to see the point, or the otherwise-weird stories that only make sense in light of the larger covenant structure, or the super-long-term payoff stories where you have to remember something that happened three books previously.
So since my son is now of age to read these stories, and as I help a new colleague adjust to the life of teaching 6th graders these stories, I thought to start jotting down how I handle some of these fun passages. Tone? Moral? Purpose in the narrative? Most people I know find these hard to get a handle on, and I love doing it. So…
Take a look at Genesis 12! No, not the three-fold promise. That’s one of the most famous and most important passages in the entire bible. Skip that for now and skim down to the part where Abram and Sarai go to Egypt.
Canaan is crippled with a famine and Egypt has the Nile, so off they go. But the ancient world is a dangerous place where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Abram is nervous, and rightly so, about what may happen to him and his family on the journey.
Well, not so much on the journey–he does have about 300 men of his own–but rather what happens in Egypt. What if Pharaoh decides he wants Sarai for his own? She’s beautiful and kings like collecting beautiful women for all the typical reasons. He might kill Abram and take her.
This is not a silly fear. It’s a valid one. But Abram’s solution to this problem is unimaginably stupid. “Honey, I’ve thought it over, and here’s what we are going to do. We’ll tell everyone you are my sister.”
The side-eye that Sarai must have given her husband had to have been mighty savage. How does that solve anything? This isn’t just a lie (those are bad), it’s a stupid lie. Pharaoh now has more incentive to take her, not less! And he might still kill Abram to do it!
Everything that follows is an entirely predictable lesson on this simple truth: don’t lie. The Old Testament teaches good and evil in a lot of different ways, sometimes even in top-10 lists. But the Old Testament is always teaching good and evil, no matter what genre you’re currently in, and in narratives it does so through consequences.
Pharaoh takes Sarai for his own. The bible discreetly avoids details on just how much “take” and just how much “for his own.” Considering Pharaoh must have had quite a harem, it’s not impossible that “nothing happened.” But then again, she is his shiny new acquisition, and dire consequences immediately befall Egypt…
Abram is at a loss for what to do, but God is not. God sends mighty plagues upon Egypt to show their king that he is in the wrong and to get him to change his mind. But, in an irony to cash almost exactly one book from now, this Pharaoh has the common sense that God gave a bag of hammers.
He goes to Abram and demands to know what is going on with this mighty God savaging his land. When Abram confesses that Sarai is his wife, Pharaoh is livid. He rightly blames Abram for this mess and throws their family out of Egypt. And don’t come back! Was he more afraid of Abram doing something stupid or Abram’s obviously, enormously powerful God? Eh, poTAYto-poTAHto.
If you’ve got any Old Testament game in you at all, you should recognize the pattern of this story. Reader has very little reason to worry about Egypt yet in the flow of the narrative (except that he’s descended from Ham, which takes us back to some…indiscretions…at the end of the Noah story), but everyone has read ahead. Everyone knows what happens with Egypt, Pharaoh, and plagues.
Abram returns to Canaan with his wife and does every chore she ever asks of him ever again with remarkable alacrity. Well, sort of. Abram represents us, and we are slow learners. Remember: the Chosen People are stupid, just like us.
- Don’t lie. Lying is bad. It makes the top-10 list God gave Moses.
- When the going gets tough, the tough ask God. Abram tries to fix his problem by himself and it blows up in his face. You can replace Abram with any other character in the OT and still get a valid claim. Rely on God. More on this…well, on pretty much every page of the bible.
- Chosen doesn’t mean smart; good doesn’t mean perfect. The reasonable actor in this story is Pharaoh. Lots of times in the OT the narrator contrasts the righteous, or at least not idiotic, behavior of a pagan with what the Israelites (or their ancestors) are doing. This is a fun one that shows up many more times: why do the enemies of God and Israel have more respect for God and listen to him more attentively than God’s own people?
- There is a mystical connection between a king, his people, and his land. When a nation sins, the land turns against them. When a king sins, he sins on behalf of the nation. The rules of this game are complicated but help to make sense of a lot of corporate guilt stuff that plays out over the next several books.
- When God sends plagues, surrender immediately. See: Exodus.
Closing thought: one way in which I differ from St. Thomas Aquinas (I tremble to write that) is that I do not think it is necessary to take Abram as a moral exemplar. In the Catholic tradition for many centuries we interpreted these kind of stories such that the protagonist was blameless. Not always–there are plenty of villains and blackguards in the OT–but heroes like Abram, Jacob, David, etc. fall under this approach.
And I don’t like it. Abram is our father in faith…and he does some incredibly stupid stuff. But I do hesitate when I find myself going up against a tradition of saints. I might be really, really wrong. And that’s part of the interpretation game!