Yes, I know this may be a bit of a recurring theme, but it does stand out quite remarkably here. Perhaps because I’ve been slacking a bit so I’m having to have a catch-up session, reading 3 days’ worth of chapters in one go.
So, from chapters seven to nine we have the Flood, Noah and the aftermath of these events. The Flood and Noah’s Ark are another of those iconic tales, with references to one bit or another appearing throughout popular culture. I also remember a particularly bizarre pseudo-archaeology documentary, screened years ago, which featured some weirdos running around Mount Ararat in Turkey, finding a big stone shape (metamorphic in sedimentary rock, perhaps?) which they’d managed to convince themselves was the petrified remains of the Ark, where it settled on the mountain. There seem to be quite a lot of people doing this sort of thing, like these and these.
I think the dove which Noah sends out from the Ark to find land, and which returns from its second journey with an olive leaf in its bill, is the first reference to olives in connection with peace. Ironic, given the habit of Israeli settlers and soldiers of cutting down and mutilating Palestinian olive trees. Fortunately there are also some great organisations replanting them…
But apparently its ok because God again confirms that man gets to be boss of everything, which is just such a depressing prospect anyway:
“Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”
As well as being speciesist, we also of course get into some nice stuff which in millennia to come will get used as textual justification for slavery, since apparently Ham getting a full-frontal of Daddy warrants his hapless sons getting used as servants by their cousins from time immemorial.
Although amidst all this rather depressing and disturbing stuff, we at least get some wonderfully resonant and mellifluous placenames to conjure with: Nineveh, Rehoboth, Sidon.
And, of course, the name Gaza makes its first appearance. Which seems apt, what with the origins of so much racism, bloodshed, prejudice, violence and racially justified land grabbing apparently being laid down on these very pages. And meanwhile in the modern world… racism, bloodshed, prejudice etc etc etc. The Israeli army is busy butchering woman and children in Gaza as I write, ambulance medics are apparently fair game in Jabaliya, and the spineless bastards at places like CNN and the BBC continue to peddle Israeli propaganda under the title of news.
Oddly, in the middle of all the Biblical violence and general badness, the Tower of Babel, another of those highly resonant phrases, only actually gets a couple of lines in Ch10, verses 7-9:
“7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
After this, we get onto Abraham, Sarah, Lot and some other big Biblical names. In Chapters 12 and 20 Abraham seems to hand his wife over – i.e. not once but twice – to various kings, because he’s afraid that he’s going to get killed so that they can kidnap her. There seems to be little indication of how Sarai feels about being farmed out to strange men at the drop of a hat, but Abraham seems to do quite well out of it on the sheep, cattle, gold and silver front.
Hagar, Sarai/Sarah’s servant, also comes out pretty badly. She also gets handed over to a random male – in this case, Abraham himself – in order to bear Sarai a child, but then the mistress changes her mind and Hagar ultimately gets turfed out into the desert. Being a slave (presumably therefore a descendant of Ham?) she doesn’t get asked if she wants to be knocked up by the geriatric Abraham. And, again, given that we are dealing with the stories which establish the concept of God’s Chosen People as being superior to anyone else, it is unpleasantly prophetic that Ishmael, viewed by some traditions as the father of the Arab peoples, is described as dwelling “in the presence of all his brethren” and yet as an outcast and a ‘wild man.’
The wonderful novelist and short story writer Sara Maitland has a deeply moving and disturbing short story called Triptych in the Book of Spells collection. It tells the tale of Genesis 16-21, first from the perspective of the abused Hagar, then from a bitter and miserable Sarah, and then it refuses to tell it from Abraham’s perspective since, since, as she notes, “almost everyone knows it already.” And, as she observes:
“Father Abraham is, frankly, a real bastard. Among other things, he lives off his wife’s immoral earnings (cf Chapter 12 verses 10-20 et al), he is prepared to bump off his supposedly-beloved son in order to please his boss and gain material advantages (Chapter 22). He is almost certainly insane and demonstrably selfish, autocratic, lecherous, cowardly, violent and megalomaniacal. all of these things are renamed ‘virtue.’ This is called Patriarchy.”
Maitland’s writing on the women in the story is much more uplifting, in a beautiful and savage kind of way that is typical of her best writing:
“To understand all is to forgive all. And I do not want to forgive. I cannot forgive. I am Hagar who is driven into the desert. I am Sarah who betrays her friend. This nasty cynicism which destroys joy, hope, transformation, magic, truth, love, it is still necessary, still – as always – a useful mutation, an adaptation vital to the survival of the species. As we dance, dance on the hot sands and rejoice, as we laugh, laugh in the cool tents and weep, we must remember and give thanks for that too, alas.”
And in between the various stories of Abraham’s efforts to breed, we also have the story of destruction of Sodom and Gomarrah, and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt in Ch19, v26:
“But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
This particular incident follows the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, due to the wickedness of their inhabitants. It’s likely that this does actually record some kind of seismic event – the Dead Sea is the northernmost end of the Great Rift Valley and therefore a volcanically active area, and naturally-occurring bitumen was exported from the area from hundreds, or thousands, of years BCE. This is also evidence of thousands of graves at the southern end of the Dead Sea, some of which have been revealed by the shrinkage of the Sea due to Jordan River water being drawn off for Israeli and Jordanian agriculture, and it’s thought that these graves date back to Biblical times and the era of the Cities of the Plain.
The wickedness of the inhabitants of these Cities (including some homosexual activity, what the Bible being so liberal on sexual preferences and all that) is contrasted with Lot’s virtue, which is apparently demonstrated by the fact that he’s willing to hand his virgin daughters over to a baying mob to:
“do ye to them as is good in your eyes,”
just so long as they don’t lay a finger on his two male guests.
I really didn’t start reading this version of the Bible seeking to be hostile. I’m busy telling myself that somewhere ahead we’ve got Ruth and Naomi and Boaz demonstrating some kindness and generosity, and Esther showing that women can be brave and intelligent. But really, I’m not doing so well here on finding much that’s admirable or virtuous in the lives of the patriarchs.