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Commentary on Genesis - Chapters 17-24

Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24

Chapter 17 - The Covenant of Circumcision

Postquam vero nonaginta et novem annorum esse coeperat, apparuit ei Dominus, dixitque ad eum, 'Ego Dominus omnipotens. Ambula coram me et esto perfectus.' (17:1)

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God reveals Himself again to Abraham, this time as "El Shaddai," traditionally rendered as "God Almighty." Modern scholars generally consider the meaning of this title to be uncertain, while some have simultaneously maintained that the traditional translation is certainly wrong. That such scholars can be certain of the traditional translation's falsity without knowing the actual translation speaks volumes about their rational abilities and their objectivity. If nothing else, the traditional rendering is consistent with the majestic tone of the passage, for God here reveals Himself as the way to perfection, and so He will finally impose a commandment upon Abraham in the covenant of circumcision.

The covenant of circumcision establishes the most primitive elements of the true religion. In exchange for making Abraham the father of many nations, God requires that each male be circumcised as a sign of the pact. The rudiments of religion implicit in this covenant are that man should remember God as the source of all that is good in his life, and this remembrance is to be performed through an external act, rather than mere thought. The personal nature of the act of worship is made quite obvious by the requirement of cutting away one's own flesh, an act which may also be seen as a small self-sacrifice. The mark of circumcision would later be recognized as a primitive type of Baptism, by which the New Covenant would be inscribed on men's spirits as the Abrahamic covenant was marked on their bodies. God reveals Himself gradually, as men are prepared to receive Him, and Christ's triumph over original sin approaches, so that the abyss between God and man may be closed.

The special significance of this stage of revelation is emphasized by the change of Abram's name to Abraham. The name Abram appears in Assyrian as Abramu and Eblaite as Abiramu. The latter is more similar to the Hebrew variant Abiram, once again indicating a special connection between Hebrew culture and the Eblaite culture that was destroyed centuries before Abraham. There is no equivalent of the new name Abraham in other ancient languages, so this variation is indeed an innovation. While scholars are quick to insist that the etymology of Abraham (and especially its divine origin) is mere folklore, there is an utter absence of other explanations, save the ad hoc assertion that it is merely a variant of the same name.

In a tautological sense, of course, Abraham is in fact a variation of the name Abram, but that is not all it is. An extra letter "he" has been added to his name, which is the same character that has been added to Sarai's name. The absence of these variant names outside the Israelite tradition suggests that they in fact originated no earlier than the time of the Hebrew patriarchs. In both instances, God gives them a letter "he", which has the literal meaning of "window" (or "fence"), and the symbolic meaning of "revelation." The granting of the he may therefore symbolize the granting of divine revelation to Abraham and Sarah, who receive the first elements of the deposit of faith.

The implied comparison between the new name of Abraham and the Hebrew phrase for "father of many nations" is Hebrew word play. This being so, we need not suppose that God's words are quoted verbatim here, but only that the substance of His revelation is faithfully recorded. Note that no word play can be found in the change from Sarai to Sarah, yet the addition of "he" remains constant. The fact that a word play is used only for Abraham, but not Sarah, suggests that the name changes were real events in the lives of the patriarch and matriarch of faith, for which the inspired author was able to employ the literary device of word play only in the first instance.

'Daboque tibi et semini tuo terram peregrinationis tuae omnem terram Chanaan in possessionem aeternam, eroque Deus eorum.' (17:8)

God establishes an everlasting pact to be the God of all of Abraham's descendants. This implies a special providential care beyond the ordinary care for creation. As a first sign of this special love, He gives the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants in perpetuity. We must keep in mind that this pact is in the standard form of an ancient covenant, and that this grant is effectively a deed to the land of Canaan, so that it licitly belongs to Abraham's descendants, regardless of who the de facto rulers are.

Notice that God gives the land first to Abraham, so that this is not just a future promise, but something that takes effect immediately. This promise is not a guarantee that the Israelites will never be in exile; in fact, the previous revelation to Abraham expressly indicated that they would be in exile. Early Israelites, no doubt, understood that after the exile in Egypt, they would become both de jure and de facto rulers of Canaan, and remain that way. Thus the Babylonian captivity would precipitate a severe crisis of faith for many. However, this earlier interpretation of the promise was based on an overly optimistic reading of the pact, and is not based on direct revelation in the law or in the prophets.

The everlasting bond established between God and Israel through Abraham is a religious bond, and one that involves special protection from the Almighty Himself. Thus, as long as God recognizes Israel's legal claim to Canaan, it is of lesser concern that now and again the nations of the world should not recognize it. Today, the reality of the divine promise of land to Israel has acquired serious implications in the Arab-Israeli political conflict, at least among religious Zionists and their sympathizers. For example, what are the boundaries that God has ordained for Israel? Earlier, God promised to Abraham's descendants an extensive swath of terrain from Egypt to the Euphrates, enumerating the various existing nations in that territory, of which the Canaanites were but one. This promise of a greater Israel was historically realized only briefly under King David. In Genesis 17, the grant in perpetuity seems to be restricted to the land of Canaan, which was earlier defined as all that is visible from Mount Gerizim.

'Masculus cuius praeputii caro circumcisa non fuerit delebitur anima illa de populo suo quia pactum meum irritum fecit.' (17:14)

In keeping their half of the covenant, Abraham's male descendants are to mark the pact in their very flesh. The several revelations to Abraham are actually all one covenant, each time more fully elaborated. This sequence of increasingly clarified reiterations is consistent with the ancient style of writing employed in Genesis, as well as the nature of God's plan of salvation, which has been slowly revealed through the passing of centuries. There have been brief periods of spectacular revelation, followed by gradual understanding of its implications. God has had but one plan from the beginning of time. He does not continually revise it, but brings it more fully to fruition as the time of harvest draws near.

While respecting that God's motivations are ultimately unfathomable, we may nonetheless wonder why the rite of circumcision was imposed upon the Israelites, without demanding a knowledge of ultimate causes. The only reason offered directly by Scripture is to give a mark of the covenant. At first glance, we might perceive a simple justice in having only the males perform this duty, since only they would benefit from land ownership. Yet Hebrew women were also allowed to inherit property, so this rationale will not hold. A purely natural origin of Hebrew circumcision has been proposed, since it is known that the Egyptians practiced circumcision, and they were highly influential in Canaan. Indeed, the practice of removing the foreskin may be found in primitive cultures throughout the world, and the use of a stone knife suggests the rite is of tremendous antiquity. Yet the rite means different things in different cultural contexts, and the original meaning has been lost. What originates with Abraham is not the practice of removing one's foreskin, but a new meaning assigned to this rite.

We may note that the Jews (and the Moslems, by imitation) are unique in their insistence on circumcision shortly after birth. The Egyptians of Abraham's time generally restricted the practice to the priestly class, gradually expanding it to include other nobility and eventually much of the population. Circumcision took place around puberty in ancient Egypt, as in most places in the world where it is practiced. In many primitive cultures, circumcision is a rite of passage into manhood, but the Egyptians believed the act had a purifying quality. This last interpretation seems to have been preserved in Israelite tradition, since there is a strong link between purity and belonging to God's chosen people, the children of Abraham.

Whether the rite was also of a sacramental character akin to Baptism has been deliberated through the centuries, with St. Thomas and others pointing out the curious emphasis on the generative organ, which is the propagator of original sin. While the Israelites did not conceive of original sin as unambiguously as Christians, they did acknowledge the first sin as the cause of all subsequent sin, and recognized that sin entered through the flesh (as evidenced by their speculation that Adam's first sin was carnal lust), so they grasped two important elements of the doctrine of original sin. Yet the sacramental nature of a rite is determined not merely by what people think of it, but by what God chooses to effect. It is not clear, from this passage at least, that any sacramental effect was intended by God.

God then changes Sarai's name to Sarah. As with Abraham, the name change is immediately followed by mention of a blessing that God will bestow. The blessing for Sarah is the same as Abraham's: the chosen issue who will be the stock of kings.

'...dabo tibi filium cui benedicturus sum; eritque in nationes et reges populorum orientur ex eo.' (17:16)

The primary literal meaning of this verse is that the "son" refers to Isaac, yet we hear the strange promise of becoming father of many nations, rather than a single nation. It is only now, in this covenant of circumcision that God makes this special promise. As the Jews of old have observed, this is a messianic promise, for the Messiah will rule over all nations, and Christians have seen this promise perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, the Son of Abraham who has made kings and peoples of hundreds of nations Abraham's children by faith.

Abraham's laughter at God's promise need not be taken as a literal occurrence, for not only would such behavior be totally incongruous with his characteristic piety, but it is clearly an etymology of the name Isaac (Yitzhak), derived from the Hebrew word for laughter. These word-plays on names are a stylistic device, and not necessarily a plain narration of events.

The succeeding verses make clear that Abraham thought the promise of a son in his old age to be a tremendous miracle, too much to ask of the Lord (doubting not God's omnipotence, but his own worthiness to receive such a gift), so Abraham asks God to bless Ishmael instead. (17:18) God insists that His everlasting covenant will be established through Isaac, yet because of Abraham's request, he will bless Ishmael as well to "multiply him exceedingly" into "a great nation," becoming "the father of twelve chieftains." (17:20) Arabs have long claimed to be descendants of Ishmael, and see the fulfillment of this prophecy in the great Moslem empire. Christians might balk at such an interpretation, for why should God bless a people who have opposed His spiritual children in Christ? Nonetheless, at Ishmael's birth it was prophesied, "He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; in opposition to all his kin shall he encamp." (16:12) Just as the ancient descendants of Ishmael (blessed by God in their numbers) harassed and warred against their Israelite neighbors, so their later descendants may have continued this role in their wars against the Christians.

Naturally, this interpretation partially depends on the truth of the Arab claim to descent from Ishmael. Similarity of language, custom, and geography make some connection likely, though it would of course be presumptuous to claim it is proven. Also, traditions kept in the Koran indicate the possibility of some historical continuity with patriarchal times. For example, the king of Egypt is referred to as "king" in Koranic accounts of Abraham and Joseph, but as "Pharaoh" in the story of Moses, who alone of the three Hebrews lived in the New Kingdom, which first made use of the term "Pharaoh." The Koran is not borrowing from the Old Testament, which uses the anachronistic term "Pharaoh" for earlier kings of Egypt who knew no such title. The knowledge that this title originated in the New Kingdom has only been recovered by modern archaeology, implying either a remarkable coincidence in the Koran's choice of words, or an independent cultural tradition dating back to the Hebrew patriarchs.

The circumcision of Ishmael at age thirteen does not imply an imitation of Egyptian practice, for Abraham and all his household were circumcised that same day, regardless of age, and eighth-day circumcision would be instituted thereafter with Isaac. Even purchased slaves were included in the circumcision rite, in distinction from Egyptian practice. The circumcision of slaves would later be a cause of grave controversy between Jews and those Christian servants upon whom they tried to impose circumcision, in keeping with Abraham's example.

Chapter 18 - The Judgement Against Sodom and Gomorrah

Apparuit autem ei Dominus in convalle Mambre, sedenti in ostio tabernaculi sui in ipso fervore diei. (18:1)

The most explicit divine manifestation before Abraham is about to take place in front of Abraham's tent, or tabernacle, which would become the prototype of the house where God resides amidst men.

Cumque elevasset oculos, apparuerunt ei tres viri stantes propter eum quos cum vidisset. (18:2)

God mysteriously appears in human form, and He comes as three men. This may prefigure the Incarnation and the revelation of the Holy Trinity, though we must take note that the oldest Scriptures make little linguistic distinction between manifestations of God and His messengers. The identities of these three "men" will be clarified shortly.

Et dixit, 'Domine, si inveni gratiam in oculis tuis ne transeas servum tuus.' (18:3)

The term Adonai, translated here as Domine ("Lord"), is an emphatic form of the Hebrew word for "Lord", and it is used throughout the eighteenth chapter of Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible to refer to God. On the basis of this usage, plus Abraham's otherwise inexplicable description of himself as the "servant" of the One he addresses (subsequent to his running out to greet the three men and bowing before them), we may conclude that Abraham does indeed recognize divinity in the One who approaches, though the distinction between God and angel is not articulated. In contrast, the unsubstantiated ad hoc supposition that this business of running out, bowing, and behaving obsequiously was just part of some ancient custom regarding the treatment of ordinary human guests would leave us with the difficulty that there is no point in the narrative where Abraham recognizes the guests' true identity, though he clearly knows this by the end. Our conclusion that Abraham recognized God immediately is corroborated by a similar encounter with Lot. The idea that he did not recognize God at first comes from his use of the term Adonai instead of the more explicit Divine Name, but it is likely such usage would have been either blasphemous or unknown to Abraham, and besides, this same form of Adonai is repeatedly used elsewhere in reference to God.

'Ponam buccellam panis et confortate cor vestrum postea transibitis, idcirco enim declinastis ad servum vestrum....' (18:5)

Some may question whether Abraham recognized the heavenly nature of his guests, on account of his rather humble offerings of hospitality. We should recall that the Lord Jesus asked only for something to eat after the Resurrection. All of our offerings to God may seem pitifully inadequate when viewed soberly, but it is the spirit in which they are given that gives them value. Here, Abraham takes care to serve his guests as best he knows, and does so admirably. Abraham shows recognition of his visitors' heavenly origin in his statement, "Now that you have come this close to your servant...", indicating that he was their servant even before they approached and became his guests. He addresses them in the plural, and considers himself the servant of all three. This ambiguity in the relationship between the One he addressed earlier and the three he addresses now prefigures the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

A literal revelation of the Triune God will not take place now, and instead it is revealed that One is the Lord and the other two visitors are angels. The ambiguity between the One and the three is removed when only One speaks, reiterating the promise that He will make Sarah bear a child.

The guests apparently are able to eat food, raising a question regarding the corporeality of these human forms. Certainly these bodies were not formed through natural development in a womb, but they are merely raiments for beings of pure spirit. Hence, as Jews and Christians would agree, there is no divine incarnation taking place here. Nonetheless, the ability to take food suggests that these bodies have material substance, and are not mere phantasms. Medieval theologians suggested that such bodies may be formed by merely rearranging particles of air, and acts such as eating occur only by appearance. Perhaps for this reason, Our Lord's request for food after the Resurrection could not convince the apostle Thomas of His corporeality, but it was necessary to also feel His wounds.

Quae risit occulte dicens, 'Postquam consenui et dominus meus vetulus est, voluptati operam dabo?' (18:12)

Sarah's reaction to the promise of a child is similar to Abraham's. She laughs to herself, marvelling at the fantastic nature of what is promised to them at their advanced age. Some commentators have maintained that Abraham laughed with delight, while Sarah out of doubt, but this distinction is not substantiated by the text. God answers her bewilderment by responding to Abraham, "Is anything to marvelous for the Lord to do?" (18:14) Sarah is fearful that she will be punished for her laughter, but God simply reiterates his promise, seeking to reassure her. Thus it is possible that Sarah's laughter was no more culpable than that of Abraham, who was also puzzled by what the Lord proposed. We do not need to suppose faithlessness in either of them, for neither was chastised, though Sarah's expression of shame may indicate that she did doubt. A similar situation is found in Luke's infancy narrative, where the Blessed Virgin asks the angel, "How shall this be done?", expressing inculpable bewilderment at how the miracle will happen, as opposed to Zechariah, who asks, "How shall I know this?", suggesting the angel's word was insufficient for belief.

Cum ergo surrexissent inde viri, direxerunt oculos suos contra Sodomam, et Abraham simul gradiebatur deducens eos. (18:16)

This verse helps determine the location of Sodom, indicating that it would be on the southwest portion of the Dead Sea. Notice that the city's name is mentioned without any introduction or description, contrary to the style of legends, so there is no basis for supposing that Sodom is a mere literary device rather than a real historical city.

"The Lord reflected, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, now that he is to become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him?'" (18:17-18) This is clearly a rhetorical question, as God already knows the answer. (18:19) There is no deliberation or indecisiveness in God, who comprehends and acts instantly for all time, but any verbal description of divine thought necessarily depicts this thought metaphorically as non-instantaneous and deliberative, due to the limitations of human language.

Dixit itaque Dominus, 'Clamor Sodomorum et Gomorrae multiplicatus est, et peccatum earum adgravatum est nimis.' (18:20)

The use of the singular peccatum here does not necessarily imply that Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of a specific kind of sin, though many have tried to identify a single grave offense, such as homosexuality or devil-worship. Sin may be understood in a generic sense, in which case the single (general) state of sin may refer to many (particular) sins. Whatever the sin is one or many, it is extremely grave, crying to heaven for judgment. for judgment. The tremendous antiquity of this narrative is indicated by the continued use of anthropomorphisms in describing God as some remote ruler who is coming to investigate reports of a rebellion. Clearly, this rudimentary conception of God among the Hebrews predates Moses, who must have used source texts in recording much of the Abrahamic legends. A later, post-monarchical composition of the narrative is improbable, since the omniscience and omnipresence of God were by then well understood. Moses preserves the primitive vocabulary for a good reason, since it later serves as an instructive allegory of the justice of God's punishments.

'Absit a te ut rem hanc facias et occidas iustum et impio, fiatque iustus sicut impius! Non est hoc tuum qui iudicas omnem terram nequaquam facies iudicium?' (18:25)

God has spoken of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as though the entire populations were under threat of judgment, so Abraham is concerned for the plight of the innocent. Abraham has a sense of justice that is at least partially independent of his knowledge of God, making it possible for him to hypothetically consider the possibility that God might do something unjust. This does not constitute religious doubt on Abraham's part, since he says "Far be it from You...." Justice, in Abraham's eyes, consists of establishing a distinction between the just and the wicked, so to him it is inconceivable that a just God should treat both types of men the same way.

Since Abraham has no expectation of an afterlife, he expects the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked to take place in this life. In Abraham's life, God never fails to live up to this expectation, perhaps as a reward for his exemplary faith. Later Israelites would observe that the wicked were not always punished and the just were not always rewarded temporally, giving rise to a more sophisticated understanding of God's justice. What Abraham expected of temporal judgement is true of eternal judgement, so this narrative remains useful for understanding the relation between God's justice and His mercy. Although Abraham had a limited understanding of divine justice, he was centuries ahead of his time in recognizing that one God was judge of all the world.

Dixit, 'Non delebo propter decem.' (18:32)

If God is to deviate from justice, it will be on the side of mercy. Abraham understands this implicitly in his questions, which assume that God intends to destroy the city either in its entirety or not at all. The patriarch does not question the justice of punishing the wicked, but expresses concern that the innocent should wrongfully receive judgement. This does not mean that the innocent should never suffer, but when a special act of God is performed for the express purpose of judgment, the innocent should surely be spared if justice is to be satisfied. If perfect justice is not possible, Abraham implores God to be merciful, for excessive mercy is better than excessive severity. Superficially, it may seem that Abraham is haggling with God, but upon closer inspection, it is evident that God at no point offers any resistance to Abraham's requests, and Abraham stops at ten for no apparent reason. There is no antagonism of interests, which is a necessary condition of haggling.

We will soon find that the final number is of little consequence, since God will take care to spare all the innocent. The main purpose of this dialogue is to prepare the reader for the terrible judgment that follows, remembering that such calamity comes not from some divine whim, but as the result of very grave sin. God is shown to be not lacking in mercy, for He would spare the entire city for the sake of ten, upholding the good of the few over the many, shunning any moral calculus. The depth of His mercy in this instance proves the depth of Sodom's sin, for their society was so depraved that there were not even ten good people. Justice on this earth is a foreshadowing of the last judgment, and God's infinite mercy accentuates the unbounded obstinacy of those who persevere in sin to the end.

Chapter 19 - The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Veneruntque duo angeli Sodomam vespere, sedente Loth in foribus civitatis, qui cum vidisset surrexit et ivit obviam eis, adoravitque pronus in terra. (19:1)

The two companions of God who have gone ahead to Sodom are now explicitly identified by the narrator as angels. Lot prostrates before them and addresses them as did Abraham. Once again, there is no point when the angels declare their identities, nor is there a point when the host recognizes them or addresses them differently. Thus the most obvious conclusion is that Lot had already recognized the angels immediately, as there is no external indication that Hebrews ever bestowed such adoration on any but the heavenly. In simple faith, Lot offers food and shelter to angels, as the oblation of earthly goods to heaven was essential to ancient religion. As a side note, we might also infer from the mention of Sodom's gate that this was a city of significant size.

Vocaveruntque Loth et dixerunt ei, 'Ubi sunt viri qui introierunt ad te nocte? Educ illos huc, ut cognoscamus eos.' (19:5)

The Sodomites do not recognize the angels as such, if indeed, the very concept of angels was even known to them. The narrator takes care to emphasize that "all the townsmen of Sodom, both young and old--all the people down to the last man--closed in on the house." (19:4) This is necessary to clarify that the sinfulness of Sodom was indeed very nearly universal. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine such a gathering taking place, particularly if Sodom was a city of substantial size. Whether the author exaggerated the description of a physical event in order to express the reality of the pervasiveness of Sodom's sin, or Sodom was really just a walled town, must remain an open question as long as the archaeological identity of Sodom remains uncertain. However, given the evidence presently available, it would seem that the former interpretation is more likely, unless the Sodomites were so perverse they could be moved even by the thousands to torment innocent strangers.

There is no question that the homosexual behavior of the Sodomites is morally condemned here. However, one should not exaggerate the point by suggesting that homosexuality per se is an especially grave crime that demanded the city's destruction. First, the Sodomites seem to gratify themselves through violation of other men, which is certainly a more heinous crime than consensual homosexual behavior. Second, this is only one illustration of the Sodomites' depravity, so we may not presume that this behavior was the sole reason for Sodom's destruction, though it was certainly one of them.

'Habeo duas filias quae necdum cognoverunt virum; educam eas ad vos, et abutimini eis sicut placuerit vobis. Dummodo viris latis nihil faciatis mali, quia ingressi sunt sub umbraculum tegminis mei.' (19:8)

Lot's behavior here would be incomprehensible if he did not know of his visitors' origin. He certainly would not offer his daughters to the Sodomites unless he felt something unspeakably abominable was going to be performed, and only the unheard-of violation of angels would fit that category. From his viewpoint, Lot is behaving nobly in sacrificing what is dearest to him for the sake of God's angels. His error is in presuming that his daughters would be willing to offer themselves, and in supposing that it is permissible to perform the lesser of two sins as one might accept the lesser of two evils. It is never morally licit to actively commit sin for any reason. It could be argued that Lot's speech was not an active invitation to sin, but a diversion from a greater crime. Further, it might be conjectured that he made this offer as a ploy, knowing full well it would not be accepted, and causing the Sodomites to heap condemnation upon themselves. This last interpretation is, of course, highly speculative, and there is nothing to prevent us from acknowledging morally flawed behavior in this extreme situation, while still affirming Lot to be a man of virtuous disposition.

The sons-in- law of Lot were only betrothed to his daughters. As a result of their disbelief or disrespect toward Lot's words, they perish with the rest of the city, though they could have been spared. We are not told whether these or other members of Lot's household were to be spared because of their own righteousness, or out of God's charity toward Lot. The example of the sons-in-law may be seen as a type of those who are offered saving grace, yet refuse it due to unbelief, and thus perish with the wicked.

For Lot's sake, God spares the city of Zoar as a refuge (19:21-23), implying that the destruction was to include all five cities of the plain (the other three possibly being tributaries of Sodom and Gomorrah). The divine decision to pass judgment was not contingent on anything the angels did, for they never inspected the other cities. Their purpose was to execute the judgment and spare the innocent.

Igitur Dominus pluit super Sodomam et Gomorram sulphur et ignem a Domino de caelo... (19:24)

The Lord is named twice in this verse, emphasizing the direct action of God and His omnipresence, as He simultaneously overturns the earth and rains fire and sulphur from heaven. Some have deduced from God's exhortation to flee to the mountain (19:17) that there was a flood, but any flood that occurred must not have encompassed Zoar, which was not even in the hilly region of the plain. The Biblical language does indicate a tremendous earthquake, with the accompanying fire and sulphur to be expected in a region rich in bitumen. The earlier reference to the salt sea being the present site of the cities of the plain may imply an expansion of the Dead Sea in conjunction with the seismic cataclysm, yet this might not have happened immediately, since Abraham observed dense smoke all over the plain the following morning. Such a flood, if it did occur, must not have been very large, for the above-mentioned reasons, along with evidence that the Dead Sea has been receding in historical times, though this does not preclude a brief catastrophic expansion. The complete destruction of all people and crops might also imply some sort of flooding, but only fire and earthquake are mentioned explicitly.

Respiensque uxor eius post se versa est in statuam salis. (19:26)

The fate of Lot's wife, the inspiration of countless commentaries and legends, receives only a single verse in the original telling, which is crisp, blunt, and to the point, with no explanation or elaboration. This is not at all the style of myth, as can be seen by contrast with the many apocryphal commentaries on the subject. Rather than rehash millennia of interpretations, let us first look simply at the text itself.

Lot's family had been warned expressly not to look back, and it is evident that failure to heed this advice caused Lot's wife to suffer this strange misfortune. It was not disobedience per se, but a failure to make all due haste, that was her downfall, for the injunction against looking back was made in the context of urging them to flee for their lives. There may be some poetic justice in the event if she looked back out of longing for what had been lost, though there is nothing to say she did not do so merely out of idle curiosity, and died for her folly. In either case, we must still notice that the turning to a pillar of salt was a consequence of the act of hesitation, not of disobedience per se, so the same calamity that befell Sodom and Gomorrah overtook her. All sorts of fanciful hypotheses have been advanced to explain this phenomenon through natural causes, making use of the abundant salt deposits in the area. The biblical description is too cursory to give preference to any one of these theories.

The tradition that the salt pillar was maintained intact for some time must be viewed with some skepticism. First, the Bible gives no indication of the pillar's permanence, as it does with other remnants of the past. Secondly, while there is no time at which the pillar is known to have been destroyed, its legend continued into modern times, where it has been found to be merely a result of various salt slabs seeming more human in form at times as a result of continuous erosion. Unless a miracle or some special circumstance protected the remains of Lot's wife, the pillar would have been unrecognizable within decades of her demise, if not sooner, assuming the pillar retained a human form at all. If the pillar did indeed have some special protection, questions would remain as to when, why, and how that protection was revoked.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that the supposed permanence of the salt pillar was the product of pious legend combined with reasonable inferences from observations of seemingly woman-like salt slabs. Some might argue that the refutation of this legend indicates that the story of Lot's wife is a myth designed to explain the existence of some humanoid salt pillar. On the contrary, the attempts to find a human likeness among salt slabs is derived from a prior belief in the tale of Lot's wife, which is not much of a story at all, but merely a single statement, declared simply and matter-of-factly. The Biblical narrator makes absolutely no embellishments, assigning no description whatsoever to the salt pillar, nor to the disposition of Lot's wife. To him alone, it seems, the event is quite unremarkable. Mythology arises when men attempt to fill in the blanks of what was made known through revelation or natural means, but the original story in the Bible has no explanatory function. Lot's wife could have died by any other means, and the lesson would have been the same. Although we may not claim knowledge of the particulars of this event, due perhaps to imprecision in the Hebrew language, it seems that the author's intent was simply to relate a fact.

The Dead Sea legends, even when mistaken in interpretation, do have a sound basis in observed facts, so we need not fault the ancients with deliberate fraud or excessive gullibility. In addition to the salt pillar, there were several indications that the plain was cursed in perpetuity. Some of these have been confirmed by modern observers, such as the fact that the region was once densely inhabited, though it is now barren and utterly devoid of human life. The sea itself, owing to its high salt content, contains no life beyond the microbial level, and fish die when placed in its waters. A high magnesium chloride content gives the water a repulsive taste, and bitumen deposits give the water an oily complexion, hence the ancient Greeks described it as a sea of asphalt. All in all, it really does seem a place cursed by God. As for Josephus' story of apples with ashes at the core, these would appear to be a type of fruit resembling an apple, but with many tiny seeds on the inside, as in a persimmon. The notion that birds do not fly over that sea is utterly false.

Conceperunt ergo duae filiae Loth de patre suo. (19:36)

This tale is almost certainly allegorical, as evidenced by the indication that the older daughter gave birth to Moab, a nation that is older than Ammon and more closely affiliated with Israel. The story serves to illustrate how Ammon and Moab, though bonded to Israel by blood ties, are nonetheless connected in a corrupt manner as a result of their iniquity. Once again, etymologies need not be interpreted as historical facts, though we may note that the etymology of Moab, "from our father," is more coherent than any that modern scholars have proposed. The accuracy of this etymology would not necessarily imply the literal truth of the allegory, since a nation may name itself "from our father" for other reasons. The closeness of the Moabites' relation to the Israelites is well attested by linguistic and other cultural similarities; in fact, the Moabite language differs only dialectically from Hebrew. Interestingly, the Moabite Stone, which describes a successful campaign against Israel, makes mention of what seems to be the "uncle" of Moab, but this translation is much too dubious to count as independent corroboration of the idea that Moab is descended from Abraham's nephew.

Chapter 20 - Abraham's Sojourn in Gerara

After the destruction of the cities of the plain, Abraham travels to the south, settling between the deserts of Kadesh and Shur, in Gerara, which would later become an important Philistine city. The site of Gerara has been identified as Tell Abu Hurayrah in southern Israel. The king of Gerara is not named in the Bible, as "Abimelech" is simply a Semitic title meaning, "My father was king." The Vulgate correctly does not call Abimelech a Philistine, but says he lived in the "land of the Philistines" (21:33-34). This is a geographical identifier, not an indication that the Philistines were present at such an early date.

Dixitque de Sarra uxore sua, 'Soror mea est.' Misit ergo Abimelech rex Gerarae et tulit eam. (20:2)

Abraham resorts to a deception similar to the one he used in Egypt, but the rest of this episode evolves somewhat differently. The two stories differ in virtually all their details, save that Abraham uses the same ploy of claiming Sarah is his sister. There is nothing intrinsically implausible about Abraham using this trick twice in his lifetime, especially since things turned out well for him the first time.

Nonetheless, many modern scholars argue that this partial repetition is evidence that a different source text is used here, telling a different version of the story of the sojourn in Egypt. While the use of multiple source texts is by no means excluded by the unified authorship that is suggested by the thematic and lexical unity of Genesis, we would do well to note that this hypothetical "Elohist" source for Chapters 20-22 has no mention of the call of Abraham, the covenant of circumcision, nor the promise of Isaac. We must either conclude that this second source text mysteriously omits these major events that are essential to the story of Abraham, or that the author of Genesis has chosen to partially omit the Elohist version as redundant. If the latter is the case, that would imply that whatever the author did include in Genesis was not considered to be redundant. Thus, even if we were to admit two different sources for the sojourns in Egypt and Gerara, the fact that both were included in Genesis indicates that they were regarded as distinct events by the inspired author.

The idea of a separate source text for Chapters 20-22 creates additional difficulties, as it supposes some implausible editorial decisions. The author of Genesis inexplicably chose to use this "Elohist" source for the test at Mount Moriah, which is the climax of the preceding "Yahwist" narratives. We could modify the hypothesis to exclude critical parts of Chapters 21 and 22 from the Elohist source, but this is rather arbitrary, circular reasoning. Subdividing the text into Yahwist and Elohist sources creates at least as many problems as it attempts to solve, and ignores the overall narrative's unified, coherent purpose. Even if there is more than one source text used, the hypothesis that each text relates different versions of the same story is unsubstantiated. Furthermore, splitting the narrative into its supposed source texts does not enhance our understanding of the whole that was brought together by a single author who intended it to be read as a single work.

The sojourn in Gerara shows continuity with Abraham's previous activity, as he continues to move south. This change in action is no more abrupt than those that occurred within the earlier Abrahamic narrative. Abraham's reason for deceit is the same as in Egypt, as he assumes foreigners to be without fear of God. Here he is proven mistaken, but once more he is saved by divine intervention.

God imposes a conditional threat of death upon Abimelech if he should not return Sarah. Abimelech professes his innocence on account of his ignorance that Sarah was married and notes that he did not touch her. God tells Abimelech that He knows his virtue, since it came from God Himself. Despite his ignorance, he must make restitution of this objective wrong in order to be exempt from penalty. Moreover, since Abraham is a prophet, or speaker of God's word, he will pray for Abimelech, who will be spared.

This time, Abraham gives a lengthy explanation of his action, pointing out that Sarah is in fact his half-sister. After he left his father's house, she agreed to say she was his sister in every foreign place they dwelt. This suffices to account for the repeated use of the deceit. In fact, we may assume this ruse was used on many other occasions, but only when dealing with Pharaoh and Abimelech did it become a problem, on account of monarchical prerogatives.

This story, unlike that of the sojourn in Egypt, seems to center upon Sarah's honor and her vindication, as symbolized by the closing of the wombs of Abimelech's household until Sarah was released. This foreshadows the ultimate vindication that will come when she gives birth to Isaac. Thus, this story is in keeping with the ancient narrative style of repetition with elaboration, as well as the divine plan of revelation, with each revelation fuller than the previous.

Chapter 21 - The Birth of Isaac

Visitavit autem Dominus Sarram sicut promiserat et implevit quae locutus est. (21:1)

Sarah, who was barren even in her youth, and suffered the disdain of her husband's concubine, has finally been vindicated by giving birth, at a most advanced age, to an heir like no other. Here, the name Isaac is explained by her joy, rather than her disbelief.

Wishing to guarantee Isaac's inheritance, Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael. Earlier, Sarah had banished the concubine when pregnant with Ishmael for having regarded her mistress disdainfully, but the angel of the Lord stopped Hagar and bade her to return, promising that innumerable descendants would issue through Ishmael. Now, God encourages Hagar to take Ishmael away with her, for he will start his own nation, though not sharing in Isaac's inheritance.

According to the Septuagint, Hagar carries Ishmael on her shoulder, giving us reason to believe that he may have been much younger than his apparent Biblical age of fourteen. However, Ishmael's supposed inability to walk is contradicted by God's later exhortation for Hagar to take him by the hand, leading us to favor the Masoretic rendering, which says Abraham gave bread and water to Hagar, placing these on her shoulder, and her son. The ambiguity of the Hebrew makes it unclear whether Ishmael was also placed on her shoulder. As a matter of physical plausibility, any child larger than a small infant would have been unbearable for a woman to carry for a long journey by foot, especially while carrying food and water. We know that Ishmael could not have been that small, since he was at least capable of walking. His later weakness on the journey is sufficiently explained by dehydration. It is therefore fully plausible that Ishmael was indeed an adolescent at the time of Hagar's final expulsion.

Below, we postulate a biologically plausible chronology of Abraham's life, alongside the Biblical ages of Abraham and Sarah:

Ages of Abraham/Sarah
Call of Abraham1875 B.C.75/6540/30
Sojourn in Egypt1874 B.C.76/6641/31
Birth of Ishmael1864 B.C.86/7651/41
Circumcision1851 B.C.99/8964/54
Birth of Isaac1850 B.C.100/9065/55

Our revised chronology of Abraham's life is identical to the Biblical chronology, save that we have shifted the ages of Abraham and Sarah linearly downward. The Biblical account, like most ancient biographies, provides a relative chronology based on a central event in the subject's life. In this case, the central event is the birth of Isaac, at which point Abraham is assigned a round age of a hundred years, for purposes of constructing a relative chronology without pretending to assert absolute ages. The Call of Abraham, taking place twenty-five years earlier, is thus said to occur when Abraham was seventy-five, even though the narrative implies that Sarah was much younger than sixty-five when Pharaoh admired her beauty. Thus we postulate some more plausible literal ages above, while preserving the relative chronology of Genesis. Abraham's total lifespan of 175 may symbolize that his entire life is the summation of the Call from God and the Birth of Isaac, that is, the promise and its fulfillment. It may also serve to assign to Abraham a round one hundred years of service to the Lord.

Once we make a single linear shift in ages, all the apparent incongruities of age disappear. The episodes of Abraham's life are fully consistent with each other: in each successive tale, the personages are depicted as progressively older, never the reverse.

A simple inspection of the two expulsions of Hagar shows that they are not variants of the same story, making it unnecessary to postulate contradictory source texts. The main characters are different (Hagar versus Hagar and Ishmael), as are the cause of expulsion, and the location of the wandering. It is an unremarkable coincidence that she would wander in a wilderness both times - where else would an expelled foreign servant go? Another weak point of similarity is the mention of water: after the first expulsion, she happened to see a spring, but after her second expulsion there is a miraculously revealed well that is used to quench their thirst. The only thing in common between this aspect of the two episodes is the mere mention of water. Similarly, it is unsurprising that God should personally resolves the conflict both times, given the stature of the characters involved. Even on this point, there is an important distinction, as the resolution of the second conflict is completely antithetical to that of the first, when Hagar was enjoined to return. The two stories are completely dissimilar in all the fundamental elements of plot, conflict, and resolution, making it practically meaningless to regard them as variants of the same story.

Furthermore, the motivations and actions in each of the episodes of Abraham's life are linked to themes immediately preceding and following them, showing a continuity of the overall narrative. Thus even the hypothesis that they are completely independent, though contradictory, stories will not hold, especially since there is no contradiction between the two stories unless one artificially supposes they are variants of the same story. The same holds for other parts of the Abrahamic narrative. For example, the defending of Sarah's honor before Abimelech is followed by the honor of her bearing a child. Previous themes are elaborated with each successive episode in the narrative.

Surrexit autem Abimelech et Fichol princeps militiae eius, reversique sunt in terram Palestinorum. Abraham vero plantavit nemus in Bersabee et invocavit ibi nomen Domini Dei aeterni. (21:33)

The pact at Beersheba with Abimelech contains several interesting points. First, Abimelech reaffirms that he means no harm to Abraham, and in fact he recognizes the favor Abraham's God has bestowed upon him. Secondly, there is an apparent indication that Abimelech is king of the Philistines, a seeming anachronism, since the Philistines are believed to have arrived in Palestine centuries later. We should note that the Vulgate does not say that Abimelech is the king of the Philistines, but only that he ruled the "land of the Philistines," so that this identifier may be geographical rather than ethnological.

Nonetheless, it is possible that these people were Philistines in a broader Biblical sense: a remnant of the nation of Caphtorim. As discussed previously in Chapter 10, the Caphtorim were almost certainly the "men of Keftiu" who traded with the Egyptians, bringing copper "oxhide" ingots. Many modern scholars have identified Keftiu with Crete, on account of the codpieces and kilts these men are depicted as wearing in Egyptian art. This identification may be mistaken, since the Minoans had not developed metallurgy to the extent that the Philistines would, and this copper trade seems to have been centered elsewhere, Cyprus being one possible candidate. Much like the Phoenician civilization, the men of Keftiu were a scattered nation on account of their apparent emphasis on commerce and colonialism.

The Negev and northern Sinai was a center of copper ingot trade in the third millenium B.C., consistent with the geographical location of these early Philistim encountered by Abraham in Gerara and Beersheba, removed from the coastal cities of the later peoples who would also be called Philistines. This interpretation is favorable to the idea that the Caphtorim or "men of Keftiu" were based near northern Egypt.

Whether the designation of Philistim is geographical or ethnological, the use of this term for the time of Abraham is almost certainly an anachronism, interpolated perhaps during the time of Judges. We should not be surprised to find such interpolations, as the text of the Pentateuch necessarily underwent several transliterations from paleo-Hebraic to later scripts, during which the names of places and people may have been updated in some instances to more modern forms. With this understanding, such interpolations are not inaccurate, any more than it is wrong to describe early seventeenth-century English colonists as "Americans," in anticipation of their future distinct identity. Similarly, the peoples encountered by Abraham might retroactively be called Philistim, though the mother nation of the Caphtorim had not yet perished.

The choice of a well as the site of the oath at Beersheba seems appropriate given the nature of Abraham's grievance, though there may have been other reasons. The offering of seven ewes seems odd from a modern perspective, but is consistent with the customs of the time. This pact and its circumstances provides necessary background for events that will later take place in the time of Isaac.

Chapter 22 - Abraham's Test of Faith

Ait ei, 'Tolle filium tuum unigenitum quem diligis Isaac, et vade in terram Visionis, atque offer eum ibi holocaustum super unum montium quem monstravero tibi.' (22:2)

God's testing of Abraham is stated in explicit terms, as a direct command, without explanation or qualification. Abraham's response is one of simple faith and obedience; God merely calls his name and Abraham indicates his readiness for service. As Kierkegaard has observed, a key to understanding the testing of Abraham is an appreciation of the fact that Abraham deeply loved his son. The Hebrew word for "only son" contains the sense of "beloved", but even if it did not, it would be abundantly obvious from the context that Abraham loved his son deeply. If nothing else, Isaac represented his only hope for posterity, and the fulfillment of God's promise. Yet now, he is being asked to destroy what is dearest to him, and to annihilate the sole possibility of fulfilling God's promise. Human reason would rebel against this act as absurd, but Abraham simply accepts and assents.

Dixit Abraham, 'Deus providebit sibi victimam holocausti, fili mi.' Pergebant ergo pariter. (22:8)

Abraham's assent is best explained by these words, which express complete trust in God's wisdom. The recognition that God will provide the victim does not imply foreknowledge of what will happen on Abraham's part. In fact, the patriarch is under the impression that the victim will be his own son, as cruel and illogical as that may seem.

Cumque conligasset Isaac filium suum. Posuit eum in altari super struem lignorum. (22:9)

Abraham has every intent of following through with the act. Interestingly, his son apparently submits to being bound without a struggle. Isaac is seldom recognized as much of a protagonist, but in this act of submission, he demonstrates his character. For he is able- bodied enough to carry the firewood, and surely at the point of being bound before the altar, with no victim in sight, he understands what his father intends to do. Nonetheless he trusts his father completely, as his father trusts God. The man of perfect faith is perfectly trustworthy, since his thoughts and deeds are all ordered to the service of God, who is eminently worthy of trust.

Extenditque manum et arripuit gladium et immolaret filium. (22:10)

The supreme act of faith is here performed, in defiance of all human inclinations. Perfect trust in God is required for Abraham to perform an act that makes no sense, is seemingly cruel, and would have him lose forever that which is dearest to him. It is no accident that God has Abraham offer Isaac as a sacrifice, rather than merely kill him, for a sacrifice is what this truly is. If we forget for one moment the depth of the love Abraham must have felt for his son, the act becomes one of callous disregard for human life resulting from fanaticism. On the contrary, the act is one that seems to transcend human experience, for he performs an act that he does not wish himself, yet instead submits his will to the Divine Will. The trust is perfect, for he does not have reason or emotion or moral law to justify this act, so his trust is only in the person of God Himself. Thus Abraham's faith is the true faith, for he trusts in God, not in reason, emotion, or law, all of which are fallible, though perceptible and comprehensible. Instead, God, though imperceptible and incomprehensible, is recognized by Abraham through faith as being perfectly infallible and trustworthy. Any other man today would have faltered here, either refusing to perform the sacrifice on account of its being contrary to reason, ethics, and human sympathy, or faltering in the love of one's son by either suppressing it or lacking it in the first place.

Dixitque ei, 'Non extendas manum tuam super puerum, neque facias illi quicquam. Nunc cognovi quod timeas Dominum, et non peperceris filio tuo unigenito propter me.' (22:12)

The hand is stayed by divine intervention. Abraham has proven his devotion to God by showing that he withholds nothing from his Lord. We cannot even begin to grasp the depth of Abraham's faith, for we cannot appreciate the magnitude of the gift he had received in Isaac, especially in the eyes of a man who expected no reward in any world but this. We saw Abraham's love and concern for Ishmael, and even his servant Eliezer, so perhaps from there we can extrapolate his love for Isaac. Modern commentators have been at pains to explain why others should not emulate Abraham, pointing out, for example, that now we have the Law. However, even Abraham's time knew enough law to consider the act of human sacrifice an abomination, and even if that were not so, the command to sacrifice Isaac could be perceived as a contradiction of previous divine assurances.

Abraham was moved not to understand but to obey and to trust, for human understanding, however profound, is always imperfect, but God's understanding is perfect so it is always sufficient to trust in Him. Those who would pretend to look down upon Abraham for his blind obedience instead should look up to him as a worm looks up to a giant, for it would be no great sacrifice had he parted with something that was not dear to him. It would have been no act of faith had the command been congruous with reason, ethics, and human emotion. It is a mistake to suppose that Abraham trusted unthinkingly; on the contrary, it is unlikely that he thought of anything else during this time. He trusted without understanding, which is different from unthinkingly, as it is impossible to achieve perfect understanding of divine matters through human cognition. At some point, the truth must be accepted with a simple assent of the soul.

God does provide the sheep after all, in the form of a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham himself captures the significance of the test better than any of his commentators, by naming the place YHVH-yireh, or "the Lord will see to it." Would we, who are so weak and untrusting, trust God even if He asked us to do that which defies all of our understanding, or is our faith merely in our own judgment? Man would do himself a tremendous good if he stopped looking for excuses not to emulate Abraham. Of all who were born in sin, it is likely none were greater than Abraham. Even Moses and David faltered, though they had the benefit of the Law. Abraham, in whom all his posterity were blessed, approached God not with reason or law but with faith. Those who would reduce Judaism to a legal system, or a code of ethics, or a moral philosophy, and those who emphasize the function of human reason in expounding the law, and delight in intellect, all implicitly scorn the greatest of the patriarchs, who was justified through faith. All the blessings of which Israel would later boast are credited to Abraham. Thus it would be an act of supreme ingratitude for a Jew's to take pride in his intellect or any other earthly blessing, while heaping contempt upon "blind" obedient faith. The real blindness is in those who do not see the perfection of God's wisdom, justice, and goodness, on account of not always being able to perceive it through their earthly senses. It is only through faith that man can apprehend "YHVH-yireh".

'...et benedicentur in semine tuo omnes gentes terrae quia obedisti voci meae.' (22:18)

God's call to Abraham is now regarded as fully obeyed, due to the patriarch's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. As a result of this act of perfect faith, God will bless the world through Abraham's seed. Messianism, far from being a later addition to the Old Testament, is rooted here in God's original promise to Israel. In fact, redemption had been promised as soon as sin had entered the world. (Gen. 3:15)

His life's mission fulfilled, Abraham the wanderer finally makes a home in Beersheba, where he learns of his brother Nahor's sons borne by Melcha. Twelve sons are named, in apparent parallelism with the twelve tribes of Israel and of Ishmael. The Arameans are counted among their descendants, as is Isaac's future wife Rebecca.

Chapter 23 - The Death and Burial of Sarah

Vixit autem Sarra centum viginti septem annis. (23:1)

The fullness and perfection of Sarah's earthly life are attested by her nominal age, which is the sum of the Hebrew ideal lifespan (120) and seven, which signifies fullness or completion. If her nominal age is to be regarded as a meaure of her esteem, she is surpassed only by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although the earlier patriarchs are ascribed greater longevity, it would be inapt to compare them to the figures in the Abrahamic narrative, since the genealogies of Adam and Noah come from a much earlier culture, and the nominal ages of those patriarchs probably had a different significance.

Et mortua est in civitate Arbee quae est Hebron in terra Chanaan; venitque Abraham ut plangeret et fleret eam. (23:2)

The presence of Hebron's original name of Kirjath-arba ("city of Arba") attests to the antiquity of the original text, as does the repeated use of the name Canaan for the land of Israel. A later scribe has inserted the name of Hebron for clarification, but it would be a mistake to date the primitive text on the basis of an obvious gloss.

It is unclear if Abraham was away from Sarah at the time of her death, though this apparently was the case as Abraham comes to bury her, describing himself as a sojourner wishing only to bury his dead. He and Sarah had been living in Canaan as foreigners, and thus they would ordinarily be forbidden from owning land. Providentially, Sarah's death enables Abraham to purchase a field which is the first stake in the claim of the land promised to his descendants. Due to the importance of staking a legitimate claim, Abraham insists on purchasing the land rather than receiving it as a gift from the pagans.

The inhabitants of this particular city are identified as Hittites, not at all surprising considering the vast influence of that culture during the second millenium B.C. Many of the legal procedures described in the Pentateuch correspond to what archaeology has recently discovered about Hittite law. Before modern archaeology revealed the extent of Hittite dominion and influence in the ancient world, most secular scholars held the "children of Heth" to be a legendary people. From the presence of Hittites in Canaan, we may gather that the term "Canaanite" in this part of Genesis should not be understood in an ethnologically restrictive sense, but as applying to any of the peoples who had been long abiding in the land of Canaan.

The cave of Sarah's tomb faces Mamre, which is where Abraham had earlier built an altar to the Lord.

Chapter 24 - The Search for Rebecca

After the death of Sarah, Abraham faced his own mortality, and grew concerned that Isaac should marry among his own people. He asks the servant who heads his household (indicating that Isaac is still a youth) to take care of this matter.

'Pone manem tuam subter femur meum, ut adiurem te per Dominum Deum caeli et terrae; ut non accipias uxorem filio meo de filiabus Chananeorum inter quos habito.' (24:2-3)

As seen here, the custom of swearing with one's hand under another's thigh was not restricted to fathers and sons, so its meaning does not derive necessarily from the relationship of generation. The form of oath certainly suggests a relationship of intimacy or trust, and perhaps refers to a curse of sterility should the oath be broken, but we have no evidence for such speculation. In any case, the solemnity of the oath is guaranteed not by the gesture alone, but by the name of the "Lord God of heaven and earth." Even from the beginning, Abraham understands that his God is Lord of all heaven and earth, evidencing his monotheistic understanding, and undercutting alternative hypotheses that YHVH was understood by Abraham to be merely some sort of weather-god.

Abraham is adamant that Isaac should not marry a foreigner, yet he is equally insistent that his son should not return to Haran. He explains the latter prohibition as a wish that God's promise should be fulfilled so that the land of Canaan is inherited by Isaac's descendants. Abraham is not a fatalist; he recognizes the necessity for human participation in God's plan. We may infer that similar reasoning is Abraham's basis for forbidding marriage with foreigners as this too would impede the fulfillment of the promise, either because it would dilute Isaac's offspring or create inextricable entanglements with the Canaanites and their pagan culture.

Tulitque decem camelos de grege domini sui et abiit ex omnibus eius portans secum; profectusque perrexit Mesopotamiam ad urbem Nahor. (24:10)

Abraham's servant crosses back over the Euphrates to the city of Nahor in northwestern Mesopotamia. The mentioned use of camels as pack animals is widely regarded as an anachronism, based on a late dating of the domestication of camels in the Middle East. Recently, however, specialists in this archaeological field have found evidence that the domestication of the camel may antedates Abraham by a millenium. This evidence consists of pictorial representations of domesticated camel, as well as artifacts such as camel rope, bits and harnesses designed specifically for two-humped camels, and inscriptions mentioning camel's milk. We should note that domestication does not imply breeding herds, so the absence of the latter in Abraham's time does not imply the absence of the former. Camels may have been used as pack animals long before they were ridden or bred. If camels were still in an early state of domestication (remembering that full domestication of an animal is the product of many generations of breeding), we should not expect domesticated camels to exist in abundance in Abraham's time. This is consistent with the present narrative, in which even the wealthy Abraham is able to offer only a mere ten camels, indicating that breeding of domesticated camel herds was not yet practicable at this time. The scarcity of camels is further emphasized by mentioning the "camels and asses" separately from the "flocks and herds" (24:35) in order to illustrate Abraham's wealth.

Servus autem cuncta quae gesserat narravit Isaac... (24:66)

After Rebecca and Isaac finally meet, the servant tells Isaac all he had done, so the servant's story could be passed down to later generations.

The narrative itself is an illustration of the style of patient repetition and recapitulation, and also serves as a window to some of the lost customs of those times. Among these are the use of a nose wedding ring and the offering of gifts to the bride's mother and brother. More importantly, the ideal spouse for a man is depicted as a virgin of his father's people, generous of heart, and freely assenting to become his wife, as indicated by Rebecca's decision to leave her home immediately.

...qui introduxit eam in tabernaculum Sarrae matris suae, et accepit uxorem, et in tantum dilexit ut dolorem qui ex morte matris acciderat temperaret. (24:67)

Rebecca is a sort of successor to Sarah, and she is felt as such in the heart of Isaac, whose feelings are rarely revealed to us. It may seem strange that a wife could in any way take the place of a mother, unless we recognize the existence of a purely chaste dimension to marital relations. This choice of comparison abolishes the myth that ancient peoples had no understanding of a purely spiritual bond between husband and wife, and removes any doubt about the genuineness of Isaac's love for Rebecca, appealing as it does to the love of a deceased mother. From a prophetic standpoint, the promise once held in Sarah lives again in Rebecca, as was emphasized by the blessing she received from her family. (24:60)

Continue to Chapter 25

© 2006 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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