Isaac’s Bride vs Hagar

I visited my parents on Sunday after church. They’re Presbyterians–the frozen chosen–and their pastor is currently taking them story by story through the book of Genesis. Sunday was the story of how Isaac wed Rebekah.

Once again, if it’s been a while, the basic outline is this: Abraham sends a servant back to Ur to find a suitable wife for Isaac. The servant prays that God send the woman He has appointed for Isaac to the well so that the servant can meet her and tell her his plan.

My parent’s pastor used this as an example of how his congregants should pray to God, and thank God when things go right, but they still need to do the footwork. Abraham’s servant, the pastor says, didn’t just stay home and pray that God send a woman–he went to Ur, he went to the well, he met people and explained his business.

A perfectly serviceable interpretation, and one I’m sure people have been pulling from this story for centuries. However, maybe because it’s another woman-and-a-well story, it made me think of the story of Hagar.

Hagar was the handmaiden of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Sarah had instructed Hagar to sleep with Abraham in order to conceive a child, since Sarah was convinced that she herself was too old to do so. After Sarah does in fact have her own kid, she grows worried that Hagar’s son will negatively affect the inheritance situation. So, she tells Abraham to kick Hagar out, which he does reluctantly.

After Hagar and her son drink the water Abraham had given them, she resigns herself to dying in the wilderness, and separates herself from her son so that she doesn’t have to watch him die. Fortunately, God notices their distress and provides a well (or points out a well, depending on how you read it) for Hagar and her son.

In that story, Hagar most certainly does not do the footwork. No disrespect to the woman, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared much better in her situation, but the moral of “pray, but do the work too” just does not fit in her tale.

So, here’s what interests me: is there a way to interpret these two stories so that they have complementary meanings? What would that meaning be? If you have thoughts, please let me know. I would love to hear them!

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What the Heck is a (the?) Targum

In embarking on this project, I’m stepping into a rich and intimidating pool of history. People have been translating, interpreting, and expounding upon biblical texts since before a written bible existed. Some of the earliest known biblical interpretations are known as targumim.

Targumim: The plural of targum. Targum relates to the Akkadian word for interpreter or translator. Targumim were oral translations of biblical text from Hebrew into another language–usually Aramaic.

A targum would be relayed by a meturgeman, a professional interpreter, who would frequently add in his own or others’ commentary on a given passage or section. This extremely early exegesis is still studied by some religious traditions, although a prohibition against writing them down means that many interpretations were likely lost to history.

On Biblical Literacy

I received an article this week in my inbox dealing with the American president’s tweets supporting teaching Biblical literacy.

My knee jerk reaction was “oh no, something I agree with him on.” I love the idea of teaching Biblical literacy to high-school aged students, and would have jumped on such a class if it was offered in my school. I think most people are lacking in Biblical literacy, especially those who grew up with a Biblically-based faith tradition. I group myself among them. The Bible is an ancient, cobbled together text with roots in a hundred fertile grounds, and it is incredibly difficult (although worthwhile!) to even attempt to understand it.

The problem with these classes, and this is something the linked article brings up, is that people promoting these kinds of classes are rarely teaching a genuine kind of literacy. Instead, the curriculum deals with a narrow presentation of stories that support one particular view of the text–a treatment that does a tremendous disservice both to competing faith traditions, and to the Bible itself.

The thing that lit a spark in me for this subject, the thing that made me want to learn everything I could about the Bible and its origins, as well as the millenia of exegesis and commentary surrounding it, was learning that there is not one but actually two creation stories in Genesis.

If you haven’t read it in a while or if, like me, you grew up with a tradition that only taught the one, let me refresh you. (if you know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to forgive me the recap. I genuinely get excited about this)

So Genesis 1 starts with God on his lonesome, above a formless void. He creates light, then the sky, then the land and the seas, then swarms of living creatures and plants, and so forth until finally, on the sixth day, “God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” It continues “So God created humankind in his image/in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26 to 1:27, New Oxford Annotated Bible).

But then, record scratch, in Genesis chapter 2, there’s a whole new version of events. In this one, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils.” So we have a different timeline, and a completely different manner of creation. Before, God spoke and it was so. In Genesis 2, God has to form man, and give him breath. We have a more physical picture of God here. Perhaps most importantly, as this is the detail that was stressed in my learning of the story, and the thing that continues to echo today, it is not until Genesis chapter 18 that woman is created. “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Notice the depiction of God questioning his own creation). God presents man with all of the beasts of creation (another difference from Genesis 1), before finally putting him to sleep and creating woman from one of the man’s ribs.

That’s the version I learned, the version that was used to teach me why women were subservient to men and why wives had to obey their husbands. Learning there was a second version, a completely different version, was exhilarating to me. This text that I thought I knew–that I thought, frankly, was pretty boring–came alive to me then. How interesting, how complex could my Sunday school discussions have been if this information had been included? How exciting would it be for interested students to learn the challenging and engaging truth behind a book that many of them see as stodgy and monochromatic?

That’s the way Biblical literacy should be taught, but the prospect is scary for people who think that the text will lose meaning if you begin to point out the inconsistencies. The truth is though, something doesn’t last for thousands of years just because nobody noticed its faults. It lasts because generation after generation discover the mystery and the wonder wrapped in and around those perceived mistakes–it lasts because people have engaged with it.

The Definition Struggle

In begining this project, I find myself fighting to avoid the temptation to pepper every post with caveats and warnings. “I’m not a scholar,” “I’m not an expert,”  “You probably already know this.”

But so frequently we define things by what they are not, and I’d rather let this take shape without those boundaries. I want to find out what this will be by doing it, rather than making a long list of what I won’t do.

So no, I’m not a scholar, or an expert, and this will by no means be a perfect exploration of any given topic. But I am enthusiastic, moved by stories, and eager to learn more. I’m letting myself believe that that will be enough.

Sacred Spaces

This past week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’rumah, describes the building of the mishkan, the first central place of prayer in Jewish life. It is not one of my favorite readings, as I tend to zone out when the subject matter is instruction-based, as the bible is so often fond of being. “Take this many cubits of wood, divide them into four equal width, construct your dwelling at right angles to the sun’s path…” etc, etc.

However, I heard some commentary on this section from Rabbi Rick Jacobs connecting this portion to the overall idea of sacred spaces. Rabbi Jacobs described himself as a junky for these kinds of places, and I laughed out loud because me too! Even when I thought my spiritual journey was over, when I thought I had landed firmly in the non-believer category of the divine census form, I still found myself drawn to places of worship. There is something unspeakably special about the intentional spaces humans create for themselves when they are hoping to house the infinite.

I spent some time as a hospice volunteer, which gave me a lot of experience in hospital and nursing-home chapels. Every single one of them felt like an oasis, an oxygen-filled bubble of stillness and peace in the midst of a desperately frantic environment. They were generally nondenominational and often had a selection of well-thumbed religious texts available, as well as spaces to sit or kneel as your observance dictated.

The overall idea of sacred spaces in all their variety brought me to the concept of creating room for spirituality in my home. Not just metaphorical room, but an actual physical space that is reserved for some kind of exercise in religious feeling, in reaching out for connection.

I believe that creativity and storytelling are divine acts, and that human beings touch holiness when they use language–fiction, metaphor, poetry, allegory–to try to describe something so outside our experience. If I am going to throw myself into that endeavor, it would make sense to mindfully dedicate a space to it.

Now, what exactly that means I’m not sure. I don’t have the step-by-step directions given to the ancient Israelites concerning what to build and how. But, using that hospital-chapel-feeling as a guide, I’m looking forward to creating my own sacred space.

What is This?

In 2010, I started a short-lived blog called Theocrack, in which I intended to explore the origins of Biblical stories, modern interpretations, and how those stories effected the world today. It was very much inspired by a Bible as Literature 101 course I had recently taken, as well as by my burgeoning and regrettable militant atheist phase. It was, predictably, pretty embarrassing.

However, in the time since then, the subject hasn’t stopped fascinating me. I’m drawn to the sacred, to the ancient stories that have defined reality for thousands of people over countless centuries. I love thinking about these things, and the easiest way for me to think about things is to write them down.

With this site, I hope to document some of what I’m interested in, and maybe connect with other people who can’t leave these topics alone either.