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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Gen. 46-47 (wrapping up)

These chapters include a record of the descendants from Jacob, aka Israel, and his twelve sons.  I wonder what these names meant to those who heard them in ancient times.  What did it mean if your people were from the tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan or Naphtali--the children born of the slaves of Laban sent along as handmaidens of his daughters.  Even among the sons of Leah you have the major four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, and Levi.  Issachar and Zebulun sort of fall in the also mentioned camp.  Were you among the elite if you were among the children of Joseph & Benjamin, from Jacob's favorite wife?  (Actually, things do not go well for the descendants of Benjamin, as I recall.)

Gen. 46:8-26 goes on to list the next generation.  Presumably meaningful to the ancient hearer.

In chapter 47 we sort of add another layer to the claim of Joseph's greatness in Egypt.  Not only did he save the from famine, but he is personally responsible for setting up the feudal system where the Pharaoh owns everything and receives 20% of the lands produce.  Gen. 47.  Sort of a big finish of a "And that's why to this day ..." type of story.

Question:  What were the ancient Hebrews, my spiritual ancestors, doing differently from all of the other ancient religions/cultures?  Does the book of Genesis provide a story of human behavior to be proud of?  Or is it not a matter of pride but of recognizing the faith that gave rise to the faith that I practice today?


JimII said...

What if we read Genesis to recognize some ugliness in our history?

Matt Dick said...

Genesis-Deuteronomy (inclusive) I think do almost all their work for the ancient reader. I think for modern readers, there's just not much to get out of them that *we* don't put into them.

Perhaps this is what I mean: Imagine a world, 10,000 years from now. A person who has lived her entire life on a space station orbiting around Ganymeade picks up Winnie the Pooh, knowing that it was a story that was deeply meaningful to 20th century humans in the Western world.

Now clearly it's a curious story, not meant to be literal. It's full of all sorts of things, actions and rituals and some are very familiar (the use of kitchen implements to cook food, maybe), some are familiar in a way (say farming practices... they still farm on the space station, but it doesn't mean carrots in dirt in an open field), and some are just a mystery (rivers running out of their beds? WTF, what was a river again?).

Reading Winnie the Pooh in that context could potentially produce three different types of revelations. One(A), which will undoubtedly be useful, and exactly what A. A. Milne intended: say the nature of friendship. Some things may come from the text (B) that are useful to the reader, but aren't related to *anything* Milne intended--say something about not gaining irresponsible amounts of weight while moving around confined spaces. But most of what's happening in Winnie the Pooh from Milne's perspective (C) is simply not landing--they have no analogs to the space station girl and the vocabulary and context are lost to history anyway.

I think when we read the Bible, we are also wrestling with A, B and C type events. I think we see the (A) things pretty clearly (if you want a livable society, don't kill or steal). The (C) stuff always seems to me to be most of what's happening in the Old Testament. These kinds of lists of lineage are obviously immensely important to the ancient reader, but do exactly nothing for us. I think there are lots of those.

Then we do lots of work creating and fighting about the (B) stuff, but that's mostly coming from us in the first place. I think it's useful, but it's largely an effort on the reader's part to find meaning that was not there inherently, but can ultimately be useful to co-invent with the text. The fact that it's "The Bible", therefore, seems only marginally useful technically, but may mean a great deal spiritually to you, whereas the Greek tragedies can give you largely the same technical help, but doesn't come with the spiritual value you gain from knowing that ancient rabbis read this same text.


Matt Dick said...

Yeah, Genesis makes it clear how our feelings about genocide have changed over time. I mean it was never great to be the victims of one, but it hasn't always been something to worry about committing as long as the other guy wasn't so good.

JimII said...

Why take the effort to read and study the Bible? Is it more useful than Euripides or James Joyce or Kant?

I appreciate the idea of breaking a text's value up into (A) what the author intended and I can understand, (B) what I find illuminating from the text but which the author did not intend, and (C) what the author intended but I don't understand. I suppose within (A) there is another division between what I agree with and don't agree with.

Certainly as a Christian, (A) is more important to me with the Bible than with Great Books of Western Civilization because the Bible is so important to my spiritual ancestors. My Faith is certainly not entirely defined by Scripture, but Scripture plays a major role in influencing my faith and that of those who have transmitted the faith to me.

Regarding (B), literature can serve as a tool to stimulate our thinking and engagement with the world in new ways. Reading Kant while thinking about the implications of Hawkings description of expanding spatial dimensions is something neither author would really find an appropriate use of their work. But I think it is invigorating, so screw them. I think to a large extent due to my connection with the Bible, it is a particularly fertile text for this for me.

And, yeah, there are dummies who don't know from whence the words come and try to believe they can merge (A) & (B) and there is no (C), but who cares, right?

Final note, it would be dishonest for me not to confess that there is part of reading the Bible--and Kant and Joyce--that is done not because it is easy but because it is hard. A little hubris, right? It is kind of fund to have conquered the work of big thinkers. At least for me.

Matt Dick said...

I definitely want to have conquered them all, but I don't seem to ever want to *be* conquering right now.

You're a stronger man than I.