The Bible is the most read and most published book in the world by peoples of all nations. In a globalized world, it is clearly the most-global book of scripture. In spite of this there is one factor that might seem to undermine its relevance to most of those who read it: it seems to clearly address itself only to one small group of people in a tiny nation very much unlike ourselves and might not seem to be a good example to us. Furthermore, I have often read the view that this “tribal desert cult” was wrongly converted to an imperial cult in for problematic political purposes. Now rightly viewed almost any Bible story can be seen to clearly contradict this claim, and it is really hard to choose where to start since all of these stories are so anti-imperialist and, in my view, somewhat nationalist in its import. By “nationalist” I do not mean that this story is Zionist or perhaps focused on designating some Master Race chosen by God; rather in my view the message of the Bible seeks to undermine the idea of empire and, by implication, pluralism or multi-culturalism. While we think of these as being uniquely modern, they both have a long history in imperialist politics, and the Bible criticizes them in nearly every book. While any of the Bible stories serves to undermine the imperial idea of multiculturalism, the story of Genesis 12 is as good a place as any.
II. The historical background.
The books of the Bible span many centuries and most scholars date the book of Genesis to the time after the Exile in Persia. Now this time was when the Hebrew nobility with their families and slaves were taken as “hostages” in Babylon. Now this practice was common among ancient empires, dating back to the Assyrians. Even medieval European kingdoms would cement a peace agreement through a marriage or by one side “adopting” a member of the immediate household of one or both of the kings, which adoption was often merely a euphemistic synonym for “hostage”. In the time when Genesis was likely written, the Persians has taken a more significant number of the defeated nation such that it permanently altered the thought and culture of the Hebrews, and that this can be seen in almost all of the Bible (which was written afterward). Now as the Persians and Hebrews became more amicable with each other, the latter gradually began to return to their homeland and to establish what we now call the “Post-Exilic Kingdom”. We can safely assume that not only did a great many return to the land of Israel, but that a great many remained in Babylon. I will also assume that a significant portion also remained in other nations in Asia Africa and Europe, and that these people all thought of themselves as parts of one race or nation and that they conferred with each other either through travel or through the written word. It is my view that much of the Old Testament is a discourse on how people of a single race would make sense of their being divided into many countries or Empires.
A good example of this sort of discourse is found in the immediately preceding chapter, Genesis 11 which contains the story of the “Tower of Babel”. This story really makes very little sense to the modern reader save in light of the political situation described above. We know that the great empires of the ancient world very often had the effect of establishing a lingua franca or “common tongue” that people used within Empires regardless of the local languages. The most obvious example of this is the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s Empire made Greek the unifying language of everyone from Greece, to Egypt, to Afghanistan. Long after the demise of this empire, Greek continued to be the lingua franca for the Roman Empire and many books of the Bible are written in it. Thus we may take it as established that the reality of a unified imperial language in an Empire was well known to the authors of the Bible. Given this, it seems that the most likely interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel is that it is reminding the people of God that Empires are temporary institutions not recognized under God’s law, and that once they fall apart under God’s judgement, then people will once again have separate nations, languages and cultures. It is our view that the following chapter of Genesis will elaborate on this theme of coming out of the Empire and back to the land.
III. The First Promise of God to Abram.
Chapter 12 contains as it main theme the first promise of God to Abram. The second promise comes much later after making the Covenant of Circumcision. In this chapter, all we have is the promise othat God will give to Abram a new land in the west which was currently occupied by other nations. The steps in this chapter’s narrative are as follows:
In verse one, God simply commands Abram to leave his country and go somewhere else “to the land which I will show you”. We do not often focus on how strange this is as an origin myth. In my view, the crucial feature of this can be seen in opposition to the idea of “autocthony”. Every nation has an origin myth, and this is especially true of pre-modern nations. While the origin myths of near-Eastern peoples known the Biblical authors may be in doubt, it is well attested that other nearby cultures considered themselves “authothonous” in the sense that their founders were alleged to have “sprung from the earth” (“autochthones” from Ancient Greek αὐτός autos “self,” and χθών chthon “soil”; i.e. “people sprung from earth itself”). Of course, we know that the Greek people were not native to their lands, as can be seen from their own writings and the fact that their place-names are rarely Greek or even Indo-European. Now the Biblical origin myth for the Israelites differs from this is openly admitting that they were not sprung from the Earth, and that the people who gave their name to Canaan land were almost completely slaughtered by the ancestors of the people for whom the Bible was written. This feature make it all the more relevant to us today, who know that there is not a single group of people alive who are autocthonous but that we are all conquerors who should openly admit this fact. This theme is not local to Genesis, but rather is consistently maintained through to the end. Arguably, the main thrust of the Bible is to inspire its readers to be worthy of the sacrifices of these conquerors. This applies just as much to the Christians. Take for example Paul’s telling of the tale of the “cloud of witnesses” – past heroes of faith who should inspire the faithful of his day:
By faith the wall of Jericho fell down after they ha been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:30-34)
Thus it makes sense that, far from renouncing the conquests of great heroes of old, Paul accepts that the people of his generation should accept their own place in a lineage of conquerors whose only title to land is derived from the fact of conquest by just war. Of course, the Bible is notoriously silent on what exactly a just war is, so we shall leave this topic to the side for the time being. While it is clear that God’s people have many other things to do besides conquering territory and founding nations, it is also clear that such warfare is “on the table”, by which we mean that God has revealed to us that he has, as a matter of fact, told some people to conquer some lands, and this for reasons he has elected to either keep to himself or perhaps to reveal only indirectly in the course of a narrative such as we find in the Bible.
V. God’s blessing and promise.
God’s promises in Genesis 12 come after the command to leave Ur and are as follows:
- You shall become a great nation.
- You shall be blessed.
- You shall have “a great name”.
- You shall be “a blessing” (to whom?).
- God will:
- “Bless those who bless you…”
- “Curse those who curse you…”
- “To your descendants I will give this land…”
Now these verses are often quoted to the effect that anyone who criticizes Israel and or modern Jewry are in effect contradicting the revealed Word of God. I shall disagree with this, but rather shall not focus on this issue here; however my interpretation for which I argue will clearly tell against this charge. For God has on numerous occasions punished or threatened to punish the children of Abram for not keeping up their part in the covenant.
V. The First Sojourn in Egypt.
It’s interesting to note that immediately after God’s first revelation concerning the “Promised Land”, Abram immediately goes somewhere else. Now this in itself is not obviously wrong; for “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”, and this applies to conquest no less than planting and reaping crops. However, it will be come clear that Abram’s detour is rather his going against God’s plan. Thus it fits perfectly a consistent design pattern of Biblical narrative:
- God reveals his will by giving commandments or making a covenant with someone.
- They accept the terms.
- Then immediately they decide on an alternative plan of action that “seems right in their eyes”. (This turn of phrase is a signal from the Hebrew author that this character is getting ready to make a mistake and rebel against God’s will as found in step #1 above.
- Then the people to whom God gave his will or command then suffer the consequences of their actions.
- Return to #1 and repeat..
While the Fall of Adam and Eve is clearly the prototype of this design pattern, many other Biblical narratives follow this as well: Cain and Abel, Noah, the Tower of Babel, and of course the present story, where Abram leaves the Promised Land and goes somewhere else. The Bible of course makes it clear that doing so was not obviously wrong (i.e. the famine), but even so this diversion leads directly to trouble. In this case, those living in another country/empire were faced with a choice of either one of these two options:
1) Accept a subordinate position to the natives – e.g. being slaves or an underclass as we find in the Exodus narrative.
2) Brokering a unearned position of power – blending into the native ruling class by deception and deriving weath and security therefrom.
It is clear that Abram chooses the latter (12:12-15). He deceives the native rulers by presenting his wife as his sister. This puts one of his people “on the inside”, and it is clear that she manages to greatly benefit her people on th outside with a lot of wealth and security. (12:16) In our view, this part of the story is not merely a tale of legend or historical detail, but is also directed at the people living abroad in other empires during ancient times. If we are correct, even at this early period, there were many Hebrews who have already adopted that way of life that many now allege to be the dominant one for those whom we now call “the Jews”; that of living in other people’s countries and negotiating with their governments for various preferential policies and considerations.
That this strategy is against God’s will is clear from the fact that it brings plagues upon Egypt (12:17-19), and somehow it become clear to Pharaoh that Abram has lied to him and that this is the cause of the plagues. As a result, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews out of the country. This is the very first time in any literature that the children of Abraham (in the person of their ancestor Abram) were expelled from a country. The acknowledged fact of the matter is that those who we now called “the Jews” have, uniquely among all nations, such a history of being expelled from other lands not their own. And it is curious that in the Bible itself the cause of this very first expulsion is due to Abram lying to the natives of that land in order to become wealthy there. Now of course, the tone of the Bible is not so bitter and nasty as what we find in so many latter writings “against the Jews”, on the contrary, this is written by Hebrews for Hebrews telling them to return to their homeland and not do that which only “seems right” but which alone will fulfill God’s promise to them.
Of course this is not the end of the story; we have not at all dealt with the radical “plot twists” of the later Prophets and the Gospel. But any interpretation of these latter writings cannot stand to ignore the historical context of that we discuss above. Just as the first sin of Adam is meant to be the prototype of all further sins, and the salvation of Noah from the Flood the prototype of all future instances of salvation, so also in our view this first Sojourn in Egypt is meant to be the prototype of all future sojourns in other empires down to the present day. In our view, only this context can make sense of the mission of the Gospel with respect to “the Jews” and “the Gentiles”. We shall return to this topic in another work soon. In the meantime, I am eager to hear any criticisms you may have, since I am only too aware of my inexperience in Biblical studies, and I know that my views are unorthodox among modern scholars, however, I think that I am more in tune with the bulk of interpretation in pre-modern times. If you disagree, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks!