Monday, November 11, 1996
Sensational Revelations in The Good Book
How long before we have an upscale sitcom, Abraham's Walk (nice touch of East Hampton chic there), or Adam's Family or Babylon 50210 (sort of like Dallas), with weekly ads ("Will Onan give Tamar the baby she desires? Be prepared for a surprise!")?
Over the past several decades revisionist biographers have had a field day, deconstructing great literary and political figures, and digging out sensational private facts and making outrageous surmises about them.Not that all of these were secrets - President F.D.Roosevelt's disability was an open secret, and he was protected by the media, to preserve respect and dignity, particularly in a time of war and crises. Now there is great outcry when Bob Dole stumbles and falls off the speaker's stand.The drinking and womanizing in Washington since the White House was rebuilt in 1812 had not been a secret; the press had made no great bones of it because it was then the culture; now, all of it is held under a microscope and gleefully exposed. Not that the mores have changed for the better - our sports and entertainment role models are not censured for what is deemed immoral behavior. Nevertheless, news and biography to us is no longer interesting unless someone is tweaked, whether it is a moralist like Willa Cather or a humanitarian like Eleanor Roosevelt; analysis of facts and figures to reach a meaningful conclusion is too dull.
Not all great figures have been demeaned; Theodore Roosevelt is still safely held in esteem, even by Public Television. However, now is is the turn of God and the Patriarchs of the Bible, as Public TV lays them out for your view, warts and all, in a series on Genesis. We had a preview of that, at a Barnes and Noble sponsored panel discussion.
Of the participants, Everett Fox and Robert Alter are both scholars, teachers and translators of Genesis, the Fox version being deemed closest ever to the original Hebrew. Burton Visotzky is a scholar of the Midrash, the interpretations of the Bible dating back to the Second temple, a period of 500 years before the arrival of Christianity. Karen Armstrong, a teacher in the College for Rabbis in London, is a former nun and author of the bestselling History of God. E.M.Broner (The Telling) originated the Seder Sisters, a group of interdenominational feminists who meet yearly for the traditional Passover celebration (Steinem,Abzug,Pogrebin).
Genesis, the 1st Book of Moses, is in two parts - the 1st 11 chapters describe Creation, banishment of Adam and Eve and the Flood, the 12th through 50th chapters deal with history - Abraham and Sarah, Lot and the fall of Sodom, Isaac and Rebecca and their sons Esau and Jacob; the latter's wives Rachel and Leah and the sons of Jacob (Israel); history of Joseph and his brethren.
The dysfunctionality and flawed family values of the Patriarchs came in for immediate attention - from Abraham's surrender, often deemed despicable, of his wife Sarah into the Pharaoh's harem, under the pretense that she was his sister, in fear for his life (Ch. 12; again, in Ch. 20; similar, Isaac and Rebecca, Ch.26). The Patriarchs were dictatorial; there was sibling conflict, fratricide and attempted fratricide (Cain and Abel Ch.4, Joseph Ch.37), theft of inheritance (Jacob and Esau, prompted by Rebecca, Ch.27), incest (Lot Ch.19, Reuben Ch.35, Judah Ch.38), treacherous massive revenge over rape (Dinah Ch.34), contrasted with treating women as chattel (the beautiful Sarah and Rebecca, also Lot's virgin daughters Ch.19), Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Ch.22) and let Ishmael go, at the risk of perishing (Ch.21), Laban's tricking Isaac into marrying both daughters (Ch.29), Joseph's crafty economic conquest of Egypt on behalf of his Pharaoh during the famine (Ch.47).
Some spice was added to the presentations by the feminist Marilyn French, who accused the women panel members of ignoring the anti-feminine bias of the Bible. This led to a discussion of the strong, wilful, even sarcastic women of Genesis (Sarah, Rachel, Tamar, Lot's daughters) imposing their will over complaisant or weakened men, the mores (polygamy) of the times, and the observation that the best writers -Shakespeare - could be likewise faulted. Boycotting the best observers as biased can lead to further discarding of the literature of the DWEM (dead white European males), grist to the mills of the multiculturalists.
Another significant concern brought out by a listener, that this discussion tends to discredit God and the Patriarchs, was countered by noting that the Bible has withstood such scrutiny for 2,500 years and can take care of itself. The writers of the word of God have been dispassionate, recording events and genealogy, without expression of criticism.
As to God, Genesis tell us that this was a period when the people of the Bible wavered between monotheism and the Baal family of gods. God walked the Earth, and spoke to the the Patriarchs directly (until Joseph; afterwards, only to the Prophets). Abraham, Isaac and Lot physically wrestled with God's emissaries, the angels. Note that the final committment to monotheism, in the ten -point extension of Abraham's two-point Covenant with God (one God and the promise of a homeland, from the river of Egypt to Euphrates), made with Moses on Mount Sinai ("thou shalt have no other gods before me"), came only in Exodus, 800 years after Abraham. This God of the Fathers is described by the panel as inconstant, overreacting (The Flood), impossible to predict, demanding of tribute, who tested the faith by requesting human sacrifice which he stopped at the point of execution (the Test, Ch.22); in other words, still in the process of maturing. He set up Adam and Eve for the fall, the loss of Eden (Chs. 2/3). After the Creation, he seemed to have lost control of humanity, letting it go every which sinful way. The Bible says that God Creates peace and God creates evil (Visotsky), and may have gone through a process of maturation.
What was not not brought out sufficiently by the discussion is that religionists have wrestled over the meaning of these events for the past 2,500 years, and have found viable ethical explanations for the divine acts. The acts can even be looked at in today's corporate management terms. The Loss of Eden brought Adam and Eve out of a childlike Paradise existence into real Life, with hardships, need for developing self-sufficiency in eking ot a human existence ("free will") - a good parental, educational and managerial practice on part of God, who wants to get out of hands-on management, since He has an extensive and demanding span of control, a large Universe to administer. (That's a kind of Peter Drucker line - Descartes would have God as a watchmaker, who walks away when the kids start tinkering.) However, this introduced all the problems of relinquishing control, such as sin. God's answer? First, destruction, through the Flood (which raises the questions of the more recent parallels, such as slavery and the Holocaust), and saving the righteous, through Noah's Ark. Thereafter, a more humane venue of reconciliation through repentance, introduced by the Test (sacrifice of Isaac), a mechanism of return from sin by sacrifice, a means of reaching out and touching a personal God, valid and in use today, even though we have substituted the act of writing a check for the giving of a ram or a bullock. Either act helps to feed the priests, God's administrative staff, who have no farm or property to feed themselves. The obeisance of Abraham reaffirmed God's power, the reestablishment of control in the creation of two great nations (Isaac's and Ishmael's; Abraham is Ibrahim in the Koran) under God. That mankind continues to fail God since the Fall is a continuing corporate management problem. His administrators have not been without fault, regardless of their faith - witness Giordano Bruno and other victims of the auto-da-fe, as well as the 450 priests of Baal put to death; the Crusades, and the Muslim wars of faith.
It may well be that the current interest in Genesis is fed by the sensational nature of the events highlighted in the discussions, reflective of the TV Genesis series. Genesis ends with reconciliation, a positive result. If the positive aspects and interpretations of the acts of God are diminished in the discussion, and religion loses respect, on the balance, humanity has lost. If we religion descends to the level of soap opera, we have lost. In other words, to quote a non-biblical songwriter, we must accentuate the positive.
Hooray for the programs of readings in bookstores! In the 1960s-70s there were two emporiums that offered space for readings and book club meetings. The originator, Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, on W 47 Street, in the middle of the diamond market, held meetings of the Joyce club, reading and deciphering inner menings in the oeuvre of the master. This continued and expanded under Andreas Brown. The newcomer in the 1960s was Elias Wilentz's Eight Street Bookshop, now defunct, where Ginsberg, Oppenheimer and other poets of the Beat and successor generations read their works.
Today Barnes and Noble continues the tradition, with gusto. In the T&V country, the world's most literate community (proven by simple statistical analysis: we have five B&Ns, more than anyplace in the world) three B&N stores hold author book signings, readings and discussion groups: 17th St, Chelsea and Cooper Square. 17th St has up to seven events weekly, led by the affable Jessica Reighard, if you include the cook book events held outdoors in the Greenmarket. They set up 200 chairs on the fourth floor, one above the coffee and journal emporium (only in America!), and people arrive an hour early to get good seats, just like at the People's Symphony at Washington Irving High - in fact, may be the same crowd.
In Oct overflow crouds came out for the fibber Paul Theroux, and for Joyce Carol Oates,Andrew Young, Jocelyn Elders and B.B.King (alas he neither fibbed nor played) sessions. But the best was the Genesis mob, the group that came to hear the five biblical scholars, in conjunction with the Oct-Nov Public TV series on Genesis.
Thanks to J, E, D and P, the writers of God's word; to Rabbi Kushner, Dr. Gunther Plaut, Phillip Rothman, and the five wise people of the dias at B&N, and Johhny Mercer.