Dear readers, I forgot to title the essay I sent out, no doubt leaving you a little confused. Here’s the same essay–with a title.
The other day, a friend and I discussed my interest in reading and writing about the Bible. He didn’t like the posture of naïveté that I had taken. “You’re more sophisticated than that,” he contended. I admitted to having read many books about the Bible, and, as a young historian, many theological tracts that included some Biblical exegesis.
But I don’t know the text, itself. I’ve never immersed myself in its powerful narratives. I’ve treated it in a more historical and clinical way, in the reserved spirit of anthropology and lacking the internal experience that people of faith bring to their reading. I don’t know the smallest fraction of what Biblical scholars know. I know a fraction of what my wife knows. She’s been steeped in Torah study since childhood. So, what else could I be but a naïf.
It seems to me that the only way I can begin to understand the Bible is to admit that I am a stranger in a strange land. That means casting out big, abstract ideas imported from my historical studies. I want to read the Bible simply, with as few intermediaries as possible. Which means to accept my very particular and limited encounter with it. I hope you’ll enjoy joining me in my travels.
Today, I want to talk about Chapter 18. It begins as God comes to Abraham and bestows a baby to Sarah and him in their old age. Once dinner is done, God continues his journey to Sodom to punish the blaspheming Sodomites. Abraham intervenes on the part of the innocents among them. The entire chapter, one of the most famous in the Bible, takes place with stunning speed and imagery within just a few pages.
The story begins with God’s arrival at Abraham’s camp. Just take in that image. “And he (Abraham) raised his eyes and saw, and look, three men were standing before him. He saw, and he ran towards them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground.” It’s easy to feel Abraham’s urge to bow; and, as I read, I noticed myself bending forward, just a bit.
At first, God appears as three men, who, almost without mention, are magically transformed into one—the Lord. Startled, I read the passage a second time to see if I’ve got it right. I’m tempted to step back into the comfort zone as a skeptical, distant observer and wonder: Are we seeing the shift from polytheism to monotheism in an instant? But my skepticism doesn’t dominate. Mostly, I am stunned at the ability of the human imagination to construct such a transformative vision. And I am oddly comforted by the air of mystery and miracle that pervades the scene.
With his visitor at hand, Abraham comes close to normalizing the situation. He tells Sarah to prepare a dinner for God. Just like any host would treat any guest. I begin to relax into this domestic imagery, forgetting that it is God, not a normal traveler who has arrived.
But the drama quickens. Out of nowhere, God tells Abraham that he will bestow a child on Sarah who, listening within the tent, laughs. The laugh could be cynical—“Are you kidding? An old lady like me?” But the reasonable cynicism seems to me to be mixed with wonder. She—and Abraham—had given up hope. Sarah is post menopausal. Abraham is an old, old man. They might have still prayed for a child but probably with little fervor and less hope. So the gift of a child feels mostly unbidden, a complete surprise, a miracle.
Hope or pray as we might, God’s gifts seem to come as they come. We have little to say about the matter. So much of life comes in spite of our efforts, good and bad. Would that we could figure out what to strive for and what to let be, and relax witin the uncertainty.
There’s another important twist in the story. God had promised to spread Abraham’s seed far and wide. It was the divine mission that Abraham had accepted: to build a people, a plethora of tribes. Impossible when he and Sarah couldn’t begin by begetting their own. I find myself irritated for Abraham, placed in a vice God—accepting and believing in your life’s mission but unable to fulfill it.
I can readily identify with Abraham here. There have been so many times when I have wanted badly to accomplish something but lacked the means. Didn’t even know how to find the means. Then, just as I’m about to give up, something clicks, and I can move ahead. And the key seems to be this: Often, it is only when you give up that you’re open to seeing, feeling, learning something new, something that allows you to move ahead with your project. In Abraham’s case, divine grace grants him a son. For me, at these moments, when I am close to giving up, solutions do appear. The experience is a recognizable psychological process, but I must admit, it feels like magic, like it partakes in some small measure, a hint, of divine intervention.
Chapter 18 concludes with one of my favorite passages so far. God has just given Abraham an extraordinary gift, and you’d think that he would he would be overwhelmed by gratitude. Not exactly. God is about to set off to punish the Sodomites for their impiety and impurity. “Their offense is very grave,” after all. But Abraham butts in. He decides that he’s got a better idea than God does and lets him know it.
“And Abraham stepped forward.” Imagine the scene. He steps up to God. He asks: “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Perhaps there may be fifty innocent within the city…Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?” No way around it. Abraham is calling God to account.
You have to believe that God is at least surprised by the reprimand. I’d have imagined God taking offence. But God takes it well and replies: “Should I find in Sodom fifty innocent within the city, I will forgive the whole place for their wake.” An impressive concession. Apparently God can learn from us mortals. That might be victory enough for others, but not Abraham.
On one hand, he acknowledges that he is “but dust and ashes,” a mere mortal, but he carries on with what seems like confidence: “Perhaps the fifty innocent will lack five. Would you destroy the whole city for the five?” And so the bargaining between God and Abraham, our forbearer, the compassionate ethicist and skillful lawyer, continued. Then, once God had adopted Abraham’s more compassionate attitude, “Abraham returned to his place.”
This interchange speaks to a man’s relationship with God, and to authority in general. Abraham speaks truth to power, even to legitimate power. On its surface, it may seem disrespectful, but I believe this kind of courageous candor represents the greatest respect for authority.
You can’t act this way unless there is an authentic relationship, one that won’t break because one of the parties is angry. You can’t act this way unless the two of you share a value system that leaves room for such encounters and for the resolution of conflict.
In my first essay on Genesis, I talked about the notion of Tzim Tzum, where God leaves a space for humankind to act autonomously, and especially to “repair the world.” Abraham’s intervention with God seems to me to be the purest and boldest way to accept the responsibility that comes with our autonomy.