Pharaoh’s Gonna Make Abram an Offer He Can’t Refuse
January 6, 2012 4 Comments
Complaint of the day: last night, somebody posted the fucking urban legend about Einstein shaming his stupid atheist professor on Facebook so I had to debunk it for the 29834298347928th time and then I was too angry to sleep so today I overslept and I’m still tired.
OT: Genesis 12-13
God tells Abram to abandon his family and go somewhere else to start a new “great nation” (Genesis 12:2). God promises to “bless those who bless” Abram (Genesis 12:3) and curse those who curse him. So Abram does as he’s told. And his nephew Lot goes with him. And also his wife Sarai. Oh, and all “those who became members of their household in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). So…that whole thing about leaving his family? Not so much.
Anyway, they all go to Canaan, where – prepare yourself – the Canaanites live. God dedicates that land to Abram’s descendants, so Abram builds an altar as a thank-you gesture, because he ran out of cards and fruitcakes back in Gaza. (JK. I have no idea where Gaza is in relation to Haran and Canaan.) Then Abram keeps going, first toward the mountains in the east, then toward the plain in the south, building altars as he goes. It’s not specified why his path is so circuitous, but I’m assuming it’s because he refused to ask for directions. I bet Sarai hated that.
Then there’s a famine wherever he happens to be, so he goes to Egypt “to live as an immigrant” (Genesis 12:10). On their way there, Abram starts freaking out that maybe his wife is too hot for his own good. He’s all, “We need to talk.” And she’s all, “What, is this about the directions thing? Don’t worry about it, we’re almost there.” And he’s all, “No, no, we need to talk about you.” And she’s all, “About me? What did I do?” And he’s all, “No, nothing. It’s just…Look. I know you are a good-looking woman.” (Genesis 12:11. Okay, so only the last sentence was canon, but I’m pretty sure the conversation went something like that.) And she’s all, “Duh.” And he’s all, “I’m pretty sure I heard somewhere that all Egyptian men are unfathomably horny all the time with no morals or self-control whatsoever, so they’re almost definitely going to kill me so they can fuck you. So we’re going to tell them you’re my sister instead of my wife, and then they’ll be really nice to me because they think it will help convince you to let them fuck you. Okay?” And she’s all, “Yeah, that definitely makes sense and isn’t batshit at all!”
Just kidding. She literally has no dialogue at all in this chapter. Because it doesn’t matter what she thinks about anything, because she’s a woman!
So they get to Egypt, and the Egyptians – all of them – are all, “Hot damn!” So then “the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s household” (Genesis 12:15), except I think in this context “household” means “harem.” Pharaoh is so into Sarai – and, by extension, her “brother” – that he gives Abram “flocks, cattle, male donkeys, men servants, women servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Genesis 12:16). I like that the genders of the donkeys and people matter, but not of anything else.
Anyway, then God gets pissed off about the shenanigans and sends “severe plagues” (Genesis 12:17) on Pharaoh. Pharaoh somehow figures out why he’s being plagued (maybe God or Sarai told him?), and then berates Abram in a speech that I think is best imagined in an Italian-American mafioso accent:
“What’s this you’ve done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister,’ so that I made her my wife? Now, here’s your wife. Take her and go!” (Genesis 12:18-19)
So Pharaoh had Abram and Sarai and all their camels and shit ejected from Egypt.
“…And-a don’t-a come-a back-a no more-a!”
Abram and Sarai – and Lot (almost forgot about him, didn’t you?) – go back to the southern plain where they were chilling before Abram’s brilliant immigration plan. Abram is “very wealthy” (Genesis 13:2) at this point because, inexplicably, Pharaoh let him keep all his thank-you-for-letting-me-bone-your-sister gifts. They all go to the place where Abram had first pitched his tent and built his second altar, so they can worship nostalgically. Lot is also really rich now, for some reason – so rich, in fact, that Abram and Lot have too many livestock to live in the same place. (I face this problem all the time.) Abram’s livestock herders and Lot’s livestock herders are getting antagonistic over the cramped quarters, so Abram suggests that they split up, offering to head in the opposite direction of wherever Lot wants to go. So Lot heads east and claims the “well irrigated” Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:10), and Abram goes west, back to Canaan.
Lot settles near Sodom, where people “were very evil and sinful against the LORD” (Genesis 13:13). (Ominous foreshadowing music)
God tells Abram that all the land he can see in any direction is his, and promises to make his descendants as numerous as “the bits of dust on the earth” (Genesis 13:16). Abram settles “by the oaks of Mamre in Hebron” (Genesis 13:18), wherever that is, and – naturally – builds an altar.
Um…well, nobody died. And it was nice of Pharaoh not to kill Abram or anything.
Once again, somebody is punished for something that is completely not their fault. Abram doesn’t get punished for essentially selling his wife into prostitution. Sarai doesn’t even get punished for her semi-compulsory adultery, which would be unfair, but probably less so than what actually happens. No, Pharaoh gets punished for being tricked by Abram and Sarai. It’s actually unclear where responsibility lies in this whole mess. Is Abram legitimately acting in self-defense? How would Pharaoh have reacted if Abram and Sarai had told the truth? Did he force Sarai into his harem, or did he invite her and did she go willingly? And how much of Sarai’s participation in this whole thing is voluntary? She could be frightened for her husband’s life and/or her own, or she could just be following her husband’s orders, or maybe she was really hot for Pharaoh and she enjoyed the whole thing. We have no way of knowing, because – bringing us to lowlight #2 – Sarai hasn’t said a damn word the whole time we’ve known her. Or, rather, the authors of the Bible, in their infinite wisdom, haven’t seen fit to record any of her thoughts, feelings, ideas, or words. Because those things don’t matter, because she’s a woman! *twitch*
NT: Matthew 5
OMG I think this is the Sermon on the Mount! YAY.
So Jesus sees all the crowds following him and heads up a mountain and sits down and his disciples surround him. Then he makes all these statements starting with “Happy are people who…” which I’m guessing is the Common English version of the King James “Blessed are those who…” I kind of want to switch to KJV now, but I committed to the CEB, so I’ll stick with it. So, Jesus teaches everyone:
Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (Matthew 5:3-11)
Yeah, in case you hadn’t caught on, we’re going to be going through the Sermon on the Mount in full, because I’m a Humanist, and Humanists love this shit. They won’t always admit it to you, but almost every Humanist who grew up around Christianity at all has a huge boner for the Sermon on the Mount.
Anyway. First off, although the KJV is much more majestic here, I do vastly prefer the CEB’s “humble” to the KJV’s “meek.” I support humility; meekness, not so much.
This section as a whole seems to me to serve two main functions: to comfort the wounded by giving them hope of better things to come, and to incentivize good behavior by promising reward. The first two and last two verses fall primarily into the first category, and all the rest fall primarily into the second.
One of the biggest challenges that the non-religious face, I think, is to give hope to the hopeless, because we don’t believe in a posthumous reward to make it all better in the end. I sometimes wish it were that easy. So I think our job, as Humanists (and otherwise ethically motivated non-religious folks, who I know don’t all identify with Humanism, but just for shorthand I’m going to use that term for now), is to try to make conditions actually better now, as much as possible, instead of hoping for divine justice in the distant future. Our only hope is to make earth into our own kingdom of heaven. It’s our job to gladden the grieving and comfort the wounded, because God sure won’t.
As for the incentivized virtues, I believe, as a Humanist, that we are obligated to live virtuously without incentive. Do the right thing, not because you will be rewarded for it, but because it’s the right thing to do, and if you don’t do it, it might not get done at all. Be humble. Thirst – and not only thirst, but strive – for righteousness. Show mercy. Make peace. Hopefully, one day, we’ll live in a world where goodness is consistently rewarded with goodness. But that won’t happen if we all wait to be good until we know it will be rewarded. The only way to bring goodness into the world is to be good. Be the change you want to see.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
So…I don’t get the whole salty part. Sorry. But yes, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and
praise your Father who is in heaven be inspired to do good things too.
Remember how I said I would copy and paste the whole thing verbatim? I lied. This next part is boring. Jesus says that rather than doing away with all the OT laws and prophecies, he’s fulfilling them, so you still have to obey all the old commandments in order to get into heaven. And you have to be better at it than the Pharisees.
Then Jesus reminds everybody about the commandment against murder, and then extends to include insults and anger in general. He commands everybody to make amends with those they’ve wronged and befriend their enemies. Which is nice.
Then Jesus similarly extends the commandment against adultery to include ogling, because “every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matthew 5:28), which is pretty unfair. Does this include unmarried men and women? They can’t be lustful? And then we get this lovely gem: “And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30). I’m almost positive this is meant as a metaphor, but I honestly can’t think for what. Nor do I have a good Humanist analogy. I think I’m too distracted by the image of somebody chopping off their own hand to think about ethics.
Don’t worry, I won’t include a picture for that one.
Then we get Jesus’s weird ideas about divorce. Apparently in the OT there was a commandment that if you divorce your wife, you have to “give her a divorce certificate” (Matthew 5:31), which I guess is nice? But Jesus says that if you divorce your wife for any other reason than infidelity on her part, you are forcing her to commit adultery. Whaaa? What if you guys just don’t get along anymore? What if she hurt your kids and you needed sole custody? Also, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). Whaaa? What if her husband was abusive and so she had to leave? What if he cheated on her? Then again, there’s no mention of women being allowed to divorce men. Fucking typical.
Then Jesus reminds everyone about a commandment against breaking oaths, and amends it by telling everyone to just not swear oaths at all, but just “let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no” (Matthew 5:37), which is pretty reasonable.
Then we get another interesting part:
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
Mixed feelings here. I think there is an important distinction between revenge and self-defense. Jesus makes it sound like you should not only let people walk all over you, but help them do it. But there are a lot of situations where I think a passive lack of resistance is comparable to active self-destruction (either physically, or emotionally, or financially, or what have you). And I think self-care is a positive virtue. It can be difficult to strike a balance between self-care and selfishness; between self-defense and aggression; between generosity and irresponsibility; between being a peacemaker and being a doormat. But it’s important to try to find that balance and stick to it.
You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:43-48)
I’m mostly on board here. Empathy is fantastic. It’s maybe the simplest foundation for all of ethics. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” probably the best and simplest complete ethical system ever devised, is just a roundabout way of getting people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. So, yes, by all means, do your best to love your enemies. But I think again we run into the balance issue: love your enemies, but don’t make yourself too vulnerable to injury. And for Christ’s sake – which I mean idiomatically, not literally – don’t just do it because you’re told to, or because you think you’ll be rewarded when you die, or because you want to feel superior to the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles.” Be good for goodness’s sake.
A lot of good ideas…
…for a lot of bad reasons.