Let us look more closely at some of the stories to see how the general introductory material presented in earlier chapters might be of use in reading the Bible. Every speech act; can be thought of as requiring three conditions to be completely successful: intention, text, and interpretation. When a person uses language to inform another about a state of affairs the information may be generated in language and begins with an intention on the part of the speaker. A simple thought experiment serves to show that intention is a necessary condition for a speech act to occur. Imagine walking along the beach and seeing many lines in the sand made by the outgoing tide. You might consider those lines from an aesthetic viewpoint, and point to interesting patterns in the sand made by the lines; you might even speak metaphorically about how the water is "writing" in the sand, but it would not occur to you to consider them as a new language that needed translation. The reason such an approach strikes us as absurd is that it is impossible to consider the ocean water as having intention. The lines in the sand are just that: lines in the sand. But now imagine that on the same beach walk you find a bottle washed ashore by the water and in the bottle you find a piece of paper covered with lines. In this case you have reason to believe that effort spent attempting to translate the lines into a language that you understand will not be an irrational act because it is likely that an intentional act of communication has occurred. In the second case we would consider the lines a text and proceed to read it in quite a different way than the first set of lines. It is not the medium that is crucial here, for it is quite possible to make temporary texts in the sand with a stick (who hasn't written her name in the sand and probably thought how apt such an act is in capturing the human condition?), but it is the intention that makes the one a speech act and the other a non-speech act.
Readers invest time and effort in texts because of a belief that meaning, in the form of information or inspiration, either resides in or is triggered by the text at hand. By applying everything we know to the text we begin to create an interpretation. `Intention, text, interpretation' is a bit like an unknown in an algebraic expression: its meaning is determined by the context and conventions of the language of algebra. Think of meaning as the unknown x of an algebraic expression. X is not ambiguous; its value is determined in each "sentence" - thus the value of x is not constant, but it is not arbitrary either. Consider:
1. 3x = 12, so x = 4
2. 2x = 12, so x = 6
3. .5x = 12, so x = 24
where the meaning of x changes from statement to statement but is fixed in the statement in which it is used. Speech acts do not yield their meaning in such a mechanical way, but when a reader reads a text, some value for x, some interpretation, will necessarily follow. Just as we can solve algebraic expressions for unknowns only if we know the conventions, so too with speech acts. Reading is a creative act as can be seen in the way we use the word "reading" to refer to a construct, another text, as in "my reading of the curse of Ham story is that it is a story about homosexual incest," or, "most everyone reads Abraham's test story as an expression of blind faith but I think that it is a story of rational self-interest." Writers and readers are driven by intention, and they meet on a grid of conventions.
We have seen how repetition of a key phrase is used to affect the reading of the creation myth that opens Genesis. The form of that story is clearly an important part of its complete impact: repeated phrases emphasizing the phases of creation and the valuing of those things created; formal imperatives which move from word to world; and the utterances of the creator-god, which are the commands of a separate, transcendent power, and which mediate between nothingness and being. We have seen also how the author presents various other myths: the flood story presents a covenant myth, the tower of Babel story presents an origin myth to "explain" why there is "a babble of the language of all the world" and fantastic stories of giants and hints of many gods populating the .... the place where gods live. These many gods behave like Greek gods moving in with Bacchanalian thoughts on the beautiful human women. These stories come to us from a distant past, and bring with them roots from a vast storehouse of images. They are told as part of our universal need to explain and understand the experiences of our life by telling stories. Were there really giants on earth? No. Did Noah's ark float around filled with pairs of animals (or sevens of animals)? No. These stories do not claim a truth; rather they proclaim it.
The balance of Genesis establishes the beginnings of the line of heroes that people the next several books, heroes who, through the covenant promise, are chosen to bring a boon to the community. Everyone of importance to the story of Israel springs from Terah, and we are given the requisite genealogy to proclaim this line. These are the bare bones of the stories, but let us see how the flesh is put on the bones.
Consider Yahweh's "test" of Abraham. In a brief narrative one of the central stories of the Judeo-Christian belief system bursts out of the page and into human consciousness:
The time came when God put Abraham to the test. `Abraham', he
called, and Abraham replied, `Here I am.' God said, `Take your son
Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him as a sacrifice on one of the hills which I
will show you.' So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled
his ass, and he took with him two of his men and his son Isaac; and
he split the firewood for the sacrifice, and set out for the place of
which God had spoken. On the third day Abraham looked up and
saw the place in the distance. He said to his men, Stay here with the
ass while I and the boy go over there; and when we have
worshipped we will come back to you.' So Abraham took the wood
for the sacrifice and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulder; he himself
carried the fire and the knife, and the two of them went on
together. Isaac said to Abraham, `Father', and he answered, `What
is it, my son?' Isaac said, `Here are the fire and the wood, but
where is the young beast for the sacrifice?' Abraham answered,
`God will provide himself with a young beast for a sacrifice, my
son.' And the two of them went on together and came to the place
of which God had spoken, there Abraham built an altar and
arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the
altar on top of the wood. Then he stretched out his hand and took
the knife to kill his son; but the angel of the Lord called to him
from heaven, `Abraham, Abraham.' He answered, `Here I am.' The
angel of the Lord said, `Do not raise your hand against the boy; do
not touch him. Now I know that you are a God fearing man. You
have not withheld from me your son, your only son. (Genesis
One way of reading this story is as a myth signifying the end of human sacrifice: there will be no human sacrificed in this story. But such a reading is flat and does not do justice to the levels of narrative tissue to be found. Concentrate on the story: once again this god speaks: "Abraham," he calls. Abraham replies: "Here I am." What else could one say to the power represented here? There is no place to hide from this god; Adam and Eve learned that. And he issues commands: "Take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love...." In the command there are two phrases (emphasis mine) which are completely redundant. Abraham certainly does not need to be reminded either that Isaac is his only son or that Isaac is beloved. Isaac is, remember, a "special package", a miracle that arrived from this god who now demands the miracle's sacrifice. Isaac arrived very late in Abraham's life from a wife beyond child bearing days, and he is the repository of the seed that is to carry on the chosen people. `Isaac' means `he laughed' and the charming story in which he is announced has Sarah laughing at the idea that she can give birth to a child at her stage of life. No, these non-restrictive phrases are for the reader's benefit: "Remember, reader, this command to this old man is to take his only son, his beloved son, to the land of Moriah, there to kill him." Abraham's response? "So Abraham rose early in the morning...and set out for the place which God had spoken."
In the scene just after the announcement of Isaac's birth and before the test story we were shown Abraham's reaction to God when told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argues with his god: "Wilt thou really sweep away good and bad together? Suppose there are fifty good men in the city..." And further: "May I presume to speak to the Lord, dust and ashes that I am: suppose there are five short of the fifty good men? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for a mere five men?" Finally Abraham negotiates so aggressively that God that "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." But the angels of the lord are unable to find the people who would in their goodness save Sodom and Gomorrah and God destroys the place. And Lot's wife does not obey the order "do not look back" and is turned into a pillar of salt. Do not obey and die.
This man Abraham, who had argued effectively with God in order to try to save unknown men in Sodom and Gomorrah, says nothing to try to save his only son. He says nothing; he does obey. We are told nothing of his conversation with Sarah or of her reaction to the order to kill her only son. Can you hear?
"Sarah, I have to go on a journey."
"Where are you off to now, dear Abraham?" "
"Oh, I have to go out into the desert and sacrifice
Isaac, but I should be back in about six days."
"Sacrifice Isaac! No, let us take him and hide from
But there is no place to hide. "Here I am." And Sarah's reaction in the story? Well, we can only guess at any of this because we are not told. Here the writer has compressed the narrative to the breaking point. We are told, "On the third day Abraham looked up...." He has been travelling, head down, for three days, ever since receiving the crushing command to sacrifice his son. The narrative provides no details, presents no psychological profile. What happened on that three day journey?
Do you see young Isaac running along, playing, whistling, throwing stones, puzzled that his loving devoted father is so depressed? We are not told that Abraham is depressed; we are just told that he "looked up" on the third day. What a wealth of narrative detail has been omitted in order that our attention be riveted on this old man Abraham, obedient and unquestioning, walking toward this place of sacrifice. Do you identify with Abraham? Is this story filled with verisimilitude? Can you imagine being ordered by your god to sacrifice your child? Would such an order tell you something about your god?
Isaac's direct question to his father, who has not spoken for the entire journey, is an ironic one: "...where is the young beast for sacrifice?" And Abraham's answer is ironic, "God will provide himself with a young beast for a sacrifice, my son." Replace that final comma with a colon and the answer is as honest and complete as Abraham can give. More irony. Or is it? Why doesn't Abraham argue with God on this occasion when he did so before to save people he did not even know? Perhaps Abraham knows exactly what part he is to play here. Unquestioning obedience, required by this god in the Garden of Eden story, is required here also. Failure to obey has led to severe punishment in the past. Abraham knows that Lot's wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Knowing what he knows about this god, Abraham proceeds with the best action based on a rational analysis of his situation. Earlier, when faced with an order from Abimelech, king of Gerar, Abraham also acted out of rational self-interest; he told the king that Sarah was his sister and did nothing to stop the king from taking her.
A current textbook on the philosophy of religion is typical in its assessment of the story of Abraham: "This story is the archetypal example of faith as trusting obedience to God." Penelhum, like others, takes the story out of context to assess it. But this story of Abraham and Isaac is a part of a larger narrative, a narrative which has shown important events that have already occurred in the earlier relationship with God. For example, in an earlier scene God has said to Abraham: "I will maintain My covenant with him [Isaac] as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come." (Gen. 17.19) Thus, Abraham has reasons to believe that God will not kill Isaac - in fact, he has the word of God. Instead of a set piece on blind obedience the story is a report of rational action.
Reading Abraham as a rational self-interested hero instead of as a "knight of faith" may be objectionable because to do so shrinks him to mere human size. Where is that fearful "teleological suspension of the ethical" that Kierkegaard writes of so movingly ? Where is the knight of faith in a reading like this? Where? It resides in the Kierkegaard interpretation, in his official line, but not in the story line given in the Bible. Kierkegaard writes of Abraham:
Yet Abraham believed and did not doubt, he believed the
preposterous. If Abraham had doubted - then he would have done
something else, something glorious; for how could Abraham do
anything but what is great and glorious! He would have marched
up to Mount Moriah, he would have cried out to God, "Despise not
this sacrifice, it is not the best thing I possess, that I know well, for
what is an old man in comparison with the child of promise; but it is
the best I am able to give Thee. Let Isaac never come to know this,
that he may console himself with his youth." He would have
plunged the knife into his own breast. He would have been
admired in the world, and his name would not have been forgotten;
but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star
which saves the anguished.
What would it mean to believe and not to doubt? Would doing so have any survival value? To believe the preposterous is just what the salespersons of channeling, E.S.P., out of body experiences, and other nonsense depend upon. How passionately one believes that x has no efficacy whatsoever in making x true, where x is a proposition about the world. Either God exists or God does not exist; and what I believe about the proposition `God exists' has no effect on its being true. We can tell another story, as Kierkegaard does in his retelling of the Abraham story; we can put forward another official line as Kierkegaard does in Fear and Trembling, we can escape into the irrational or into subjectivity, and "believe the preposterous," or we can listen to the ancient voice of the poet who is telling the Abraham story, and who reveals its human meaning in the details of the narrative and in the overall structure. Hear Sarah laughing outside the tent as the angel announces to Abraham that they will have a child. That laugh is the laugh of this tale: human and skeptical.
The human sized Abraham is in the biblical text; the knight sized Abraham is in Kierkegaard's text. Fear and trembling flow from Kierkegaard's reading while the story tells of fear and surviving. Two different stories are at play here. One proclaims that this god (the establishment, authority, the official line) values unthinking obedience above all else, and, indeed, will reward blind faith with the ultimate prize. A second reports on how to live, and how to survive, in an arbitrary world filled with powerful and tyrannical forces. Abraham, who earlier was Abram, carries not only two names, but also two radically different intentional "lines": one with the authority of the religious doc- trine which it proclaims, the other with the authority of the human voice it can not drown. What one must do to survive or advance oneself is not always identical with what one believes in one's heart or says in public. There is always an official line, proclaimed as true by priests and kings, and it is often in con- flict with the story line that makes up a human life. Official lines change: now blind obedience is of utmost importance, later it will not be enough. Official lines change because they are based on a complex of beliefs and doctrines, which as we all know are relative to time and place. But each of us realizes that some things never change; these things are not to be found in official lines because they reside in story lines. In part the story line reveals ways of surviving in spite of the official line.
Patriarchy is the official line of Genesis. Men's names and men's stories make up much of the Old Testament. Yahweh appears to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses. We have come to think of God the father. This privileging of the masculine over the feminine is also part of the official line, and although it is, it is countered by the story line. Who are the characters with sparkle, intelligence, and ability? The women. Rebecca over Isaac in every way - except in the official line.
And what does it mean to choose Rebecca over Isaac? Look at the story: Sarah dies. Isaac is devastated by the loss of his mother. Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland to get a wife for Isaac. The servant meets a virgin by a well and by good fortune she is of the right tribe. When we first see Rebecca it is clear that she is a lively, intelligent, alive young woman. "The girl was very beautiful, a virgin...She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again." She moves quickly and decisively, draws water for the servant, for his camels, answers all questions, and runs to her mother's tent to report. Here is a type-scene for a betrothal. But what is different; what is the writer telling us about character and story through the variations in the pattern for a betrothal scene?
First, it is a servant and not the husband-to-be who is present at the well. Isaac is back at home moping about at the loss of his mother. Actually he is even further removed from the center of the story than that, for it was Abraham, not Isaac, who sent the servant in search of a wife. And when the servant returns home with Rebecca, (who announces her decision to leave her mother and family and travel with him with a "Yes, I will go,") then we finally see Isaac, the bridegroom. "One evening when he had gone out into the open country hoping to meet them he looked up and saw camels approaching." He looked up? There is some confusion in the text here, and one reading of the Hebrew is, "One evening when he had gone out into the open country to relieve himself...." Isaac is out there either to meditate or to urinate. Either action is a good measure of this bridegroom. Of Rebecca we learn, "So she became his wife, and he loved her and was consoled for the death of his mother" (emphasis mine). Isaac the special; Isaac the spoiled. He will have a wife to replace the mother he has lost.
JACOB AND ESAU
Abraham remarried after Sarah's death and his wife, Keturah, bore him six more sons. These six plus Ishmael and Isaac and several sons by his concubines provide dozens from whom he can choose when he dies. He chooses Isaac to carry on the special relation with Yahweh, or, better yet, Yahweh chooses Isaac to carry on the special seed, or, even better, the writer presents a story in which choosing is given to us in the form of a narrative. Just as Yahweh had chosen Abraham for his covenant so too Abraham chooses Isaac. These choices are made; we are given the heroes. And do these particular people have any particular virtues? The stories tell us: no. Neither is exceptional. Neither is endowed with extra-human courage or special insight (the image that remains in both cases is bowed head), neither is particularly bright. But here are the choices. This is the god of choice; whatever else he does in these stories he is always choosing. He chooses to create the world. He chooses to accept Abel's sacrifice but reject Cain's sacrifice. He chooses Abraham and in so doing chooses Israel over all other tribes. He chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all of his brothers. Why? It is important that we look carefully for the answer to this question. Is there something special that leads to each of these choices? No. This god of choice is also the god of chance. Never are we given reasons for these choices.
Here a choice is announced to Rebecca:
Two nations in your womb,
two peoples, going their own ways
One shall be stronger than the other;
the older shall be servant to the
younger. (Gen. 25.23)
And "when her time had come, there were indeed twins in her womb. The first comes out red, hairy all over like a haircloak, and they name him Esau ("Red"). Immediately afterwards his brother is born with his hand grasping Esau's heel, and they call him Jacob ("he caught by the heel"). The boys grow up, Esau a hunter of skill and Jacob a stay-at-home. We are told that Isaac favoured Esau and that Rebecca favoured Jacob. Given what we know of these two characters it is obvious that Jacob has the stronger backer. Jacob, remember, is at home with his mother while Esau is out hunting. Jacob trades some soup for Esau's birthright and we are given an explanatory comment from the writer: "Thus Esau showed how little he valued his birthright." Here we see clearly an attempt to show a causal relationship between character and outcome: Esau deserves what he gets (or does not get) we are told. At yet another level we are told how it is that Israel flourished and their close kinsmen, the Edomites, did not. David will subdue the Edomites (2 Sam. 8.13-14). Writing after the fact has the same effect as writing before the fact with foreknowledge.
Because of a famine in the land God orders Isaac to move to Gerar. Notice how we are given two explanations for the action: 1. famine, 2. god's command. This dual explanation for the actions of the heroes is typical in the Old Testament. We are often given a natural as well as a supernatural reading of the forces at play. Thus, God is always present in the story, controlling events and characters directly. God appears to Isaac as he had done with Abraham and reaffirms the covenant, "Thus shall I fulfil the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky; I will give them all these lands..." And we are told of the continuing story of Israel: from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. This connection between Abraham and Isaac is emphasized with one brush stroke in chapter 26: "When men of the place asked him about his wife, he told them that she was his sister; he was afraid to say that Rebecca was his wife; in case they killed him because of her; for she was very beautiful." Like father like son: both are capable of lying to save their own skins. These are characters of human dimension.
The famous deception story of Genesis 27 begins with a reminder to the reader that Isaac is old "and his eyes became so dim that he could not see." With Rebecca assisting Jacob, and with a nearly blind Isaac, it is easy to accept that Jacob in his costume, with wool over his smooth arm, can deceive his father. Once again we are given a natural explanation for the events of the story, a story which is intended to show how it is that the chosen seed of God will be carried on from generation to generation in violation of the conventions of primogeniture. One measure of a god is to have the god break human conventions. Although Isaac and his choice, Esau, cannot see, this Jacob can see even at night while asleep. He dreams the famous ladder dream in which he makes contact with the spirit world. In the dream he is told that the land will be given to him and his descendants, who will be as countless as the "dust upon the earth." Jacob will become Israel, and will father the twelve tribes. The image of fruition used in the Isaac story came in "as many as the stars" but now the promise to Jacob is expanded to as "countless as the dust upon the earth." Not only is the image expansive, it is also a part of an imagery pattern that goes back to the creation story and forward to the united kingdom, when all of the land is brought under one kingship and is the pinnacle of power for the Hebrews. The promise God makes to the heroes of the Old Testament stories is always a promise of land - a place here on this earth, a place of dust: real, solid and actual.
Jacob, who receives this promise, is imaged as one who is real, solid, and actual. He is aggressive, but a dreamer. He is tenacious (he will work twenty years to get Rachel), brave, strong, physical, wily, self-reliant and shrewd. He is the Hercules of the Old Testament, lifting stones, wrestling with angels, tested and successful, climbing in his dreams to touch the other world but always of this world (he uses a ladder with its feet firmly on the ground). If fire identifies Samson, then stones identify Jacob. He lifts them, builds with them, finds water in them, and above all, has stones. From these stones will come a nation. A comparison between the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel brings out the character differences. Rebecca was a burst of energy and vitality in the scene where she is first discovered by the well. Isaac is not present. In Genesis 29 we find a parallel scene when Jacob meets Rachel. Travelling through open country Jacob spots a well that has a huge rock over it. He discovers that all the herdsmen gather at the well daily and when they are all there then together they can roll this rock off the well shaft to water their flocks. He makes contact with these herdsmen, discovers that they know Laban, the grandson of Nahor, and asks about him. "Yes, he is well," they say, "and here is his daughter Rachel coming with the flock." A well, a woman, and a group of herdsmen - a scene to watch carefully and to compare with others like it. While the herdsmen wait for the rest of their number in order to jointly roll the "huge rock" off the well Rachel arrives. "When Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, with Laban's flock, he stepped forward, rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered Laban's sheep. He kissed Rachel, and was moved to tears....she ran and told her father." The scene is filled with action, exhibited through the series of active verbs. The sight of Rachel brings a surge of energy to Jacob allowing him to do that which several men cannot do: roll the huge stone off the well. Once that well is opened, water, the life force, can flow. The images of male and female sexuality and the promise of new life are obvious in the well, the stone, the uncovering and the release, and the two characters are brought together by the kiss. There is power here. Sexual power, imaged in the well, the rock, the flocks, the young people, the actions, is palpable in the story.
Jacob the deceiver, who with his mother had tricked Isaac into giving him the birthright over his older brother, is now deceived himself by Laban who exchanges Leah for Rachel on Jacob's wedding night. Jacob works for twenty years for Laban in order to pay for Leah and Rachel. With his two wives and the two slave girls given to him by his wives he fathers thirteen children, twelve of them the sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Thus Israel is founded and the act is signalled by a change of name for Jacob, who becomes Israel. The story must get the Israelites into Egypt, and it does so by having Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. Chapter 37 begins with "And this is the story of the descendants of Jacob." First we are told of Joseph, who is Jacob's chosen son, and we see how disharmony arises in the family because of this special treatment. Here again the story is struggling with the stated principle which it carries, namely, that God has chosen a particular tribe for special covenant treatment. The concept of choseness, as we see in the Joseph story, is fraught with problems. Joseph's brothers are jealous of him and hate his overbearing presence. He acts as a spy for his father, and his father gives him a special long sleeved robe. This robe becomes an identifying feature for Joseph and when he is sent to spy on his brothers in Dothan it serves the writer well as a way of focussing the brothers' hatred when they first spot the cloak coming across the fields.
 A speech act is an act performed by using either written or spoken language to bring about any of a number of intentional consequences. People use langauage to do many kinds of things: to promise, to predict, to pray, to prophesy, to politisize, to claim or to report. John Austin and John Searle have both written on the subject of speech acts. See How to do Things with Words and Speech Acts.
 Remember, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, but Isaac is Sarah’s only son.
 Faith, edited by Terence Penelhum, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, page 5.
 A fascinating book on the subject of rational assessment is Biblical Games: A Strategic Analyxix of Stories in the Old Testament, by Steven J. Brams, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1980. Brams writes, “One conclusion I draw from these stories is tha “rational” interpretations of biblical actions are no more farfetched than “faith” interpretations.” (page 36)
 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, Princeton, page 15.
 Kierkegaard, op. cit., page 35.
 Medical science has attempted to diagnose conditions depicted in the Bible. For example, J. R. Gwilt writes, “It seems likely that Esau suffered from congenital adrenal hyperplasia; this is based on his appearance at birth ... his exhaustion due to vigorous exercise with a feeling of immanent death, and his rapid recovery after a high protein meal of lentil soup and bread.” “Biblical ills and remedies” in Journal fo the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 79, Dec. 1986.