Part two of my Bible-reading project, and I’ve moved on from Genesis to Exodus. Where Genesis is known for the creation story, Exodus is of course known for the, well, exodus of the Israelite people from Egypt to be led to the promised land. But first we have to finish Genesis, and find out why the Israelites were in Egypt in the first place…
So in this week I read all the way to the end of Genesis, i.e. chapter 47, and made a little headway into Exodus. This week I’ll be discussing surrogate motherhood, casual racism, slavery, rape and power-tripping.
Let’s start with the casual racism. Last week I got up to the birth of Jacob and Esau, which ended in Jacob stealing his elder brother’s birthright. In Genesis 27 Rebecca, correctly guessing that neither Isaac nor Esau will be best pleased with this, urges Jacob to flee to her brother Laban and stay out of Esau’s way for a while. Also, this gives him the chance to marry a decent girl, because the local women are from a different tribe (tribe? people? it’s a bit vague really) and are quite horrible. This is an ongoing theme – don’t mix with the locals because they’re all horrid, and the continuous casual assertion that Abraham’s brood are better than other people is quite chilling really.
Anyway, Jacob falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and agrees to work for Laban for seven years to gain her hand. Except at the wedding Laban substitutes his elder – heavily veiled – daughter Leah for the bride, and when this is discovered (only when Jacob unwraps her) gives the excuse that he can’t possibly marry off his younger daughter before the elder. So then Jacob gets Rachel as well, but has to work for Laban for another seven years.
So Jacob loves Rachel but isn’t so keen on Leah, a fact which Rachel likes rubbing into her sister’s face. In a rare display of fairness God then strikes Rachel barren and gives Leah four sons (Ruben, Simeon, Levi and Juda). Rachel then takes matters into her own hands and tells Jacob to take her handmaiden/slave Bilha to bed, because as long as she sits between Rachel’s legs when she gives birth, all her children will be Rachel’s. So Bilha has two sons, Dan and Naftali. Then Leah thinks ‘what she can do, I can do too’ and gives her slave Zilpa to Jacob, resulting in two more sons: Gad and Aser.* Then Leah has two more sons, Issakar and Zebulon, and God finally takes pity on Rachel and she has Joseph. (And much later Benjamin too, but then she dies in childbirth.)
In school I was always taught that Leah had ten sons, and only the last two were Rachel’s. They never told me the bit about the slaves. I’m not actually sure they mentioned any slaves, but I’m rather disturbed by the casual mention of slavery in the Bible as well. (And let’s not get into the hypocrisy this instigates, because devout Christians are happy to quote Leviticus against gay sex, but (these days at least) don’t go around saying ‘hey can I get me some slaves, because the Bible says I can’.)
In Genesis 34 we get the brief but yet again disturbing tale of Leah’s daughter Dinah. It says that Sichem, son of Hemor (one of the locals), lay with her and raped her. Rape is of course a horrific crime, but immediately afterwards it says that Sichem loved Dinah and that ‘he spoke to the heart of the girl’. That kind of implies mutual feelings to me, so I’m not going to take the Bible’s word for it that it really was rape. I’m more inclined to feel that they liked each other and got a little too frisky, but because they weren’t married it’s automatically classed as rape. In any case, Sichem wants to marry Dinah, and asks Hemor to go and speak to Jacob about it. Jacob’s sons are incensed at the despoiling of their sister, and demand that all the men in Hemor’s city get circumcised (including the cattle!), because their sister cannot marry a non-circumcised man. Sichem and Hemor happily agree, but three days into their ‘severe pain’, Jacob’s sons take up their swords and slaughter everyone in the town, then steal all their cattle. So they enter into an agreement with a man who would have done pretty much anything to get that girl, and who honours that agreement, then kill him anyway. And Jacob’s reaction? ‘Oh, why did you do that, you’ll get us all killed!’ Not ‘faithless bastards, reneging on a solemn agreement like that’, no, he’s only afraid for his own hide.
Anyway, I was going to say something about prostitution in relation to Tamar in Genesis 38, but this is getting way too long already. Let’s swiftly move on to Joseph being sold by his brothers. He ends up in Egypt, then after explaining a couple of prophetic dreams he gets brought to the Pharaoh, who has dreamt about the cows and the wheatsheaves. According to Joseph this means seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so the Pharaoh puts him in charge of gathering all the excess food in the plentiful years so they can survive the famine.
The thing that struck me most about this bit is the shameless profiteering. Everyone in the country is starving, but Joseph makes them pay for the food. When they run out of money they pay in goods and land, until pretty much the entire country is owned by the Pharaoh. Nice bit of charity there, Joseph. Still, this is how Jacob’s sons end up in Egypt, because when they come to beg for food, Joseph takes them in and bids them to live in the land of Gosen (after some revenge-taking on his brothers who sold him, but again – too long. That story is pretty famous anyway.)
Which then brings us to Exodus, four hundred years later. The then Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph, and sees the Israelites as a prime people to exploit. (Building pyramids? It’s never really said what they’re making all these straw-and-clay bricks for.) God then calls upon Moses from the Levite tribe, and tells him to talk to the Pharaoh about letting the Israelites go. Moses comes across as a bit of a whiner really – initially he’s all ‘oh, but what if my people won’t listen, and what if the Pharaoh won’t listen, and what if this and what do I do when that?’ but God is surprisingly patient and gives him a number of miracles to perform to inspire belief.
But then there’s the bit that really surprised me when I first read it. We all know about the ten plagues sent to Egypt, but before they even start, God tells Moses that he will ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ so that he won’t listen and won’t let the people go. Because that way God can show how awesome he is, which he can’t do if the Pharaoh caves in after only one plague.
Initially, all Moses’ miracles and plagues are thwarted by the Pharaoh’s sorcerers, who copy everything Moses does. Moses has a staff that turns into a snake and back, but they do the same. Then the first plague hits, which turns all the water in Egypt to blood for seven days. Not just the river, but also all the wells and all the water in barrels inside the houses. But Pharaoh doesn’t believe him, because the sorcerers do the same.
Wait, what? All the water has already turned to blood, so how the hell can the sorcerers do the same?
The same goes for the second plague, which is frogs. The entire land is covered in frogs, but Pharaoh doesn’t believe in the might of God, because his sorcerers do the same. Again, how?? How the hell do you see the difference between a fuckton of frogs and even more frogs?
Then in the fifth plague all the Egyptian cattle dies, but before the seventh plague (hail) hits, they are told to bring their cattle inside. What cattle? Didn’t it all die? Nothing here makes sense!
And then Pharaoh finally caves in when all the firstborn children die, but then he changes his mind and pursues them and they all drown in the Red Sea. And that’s the last of the excitement in Exodus. Next week I’ll move on to the endless, mind-numbing boredom that is the remainder of Exodus, and the slew of commandments and rules that is Leviticus.
I’ll leave you with one last question – why the hell is God so obsessed with circumcision?
*Please see last week’s note about the spelling of the names – these are the Dutch versions.