Friday, September 25, 2009

Genesis 23: The Death of Sarah and the Genius of the Redactor

The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept some form of what has come to be known as the "documentary hypothesis." (I know, I know ... I'm starting with academic mumbo jumbo, but this is serious stuff, so man up!) Originated by a German named Wellhausen (I told you this post would get more exciting), this theory suggests that the Torah--the first five books of the Bible--is a composite product, the work of a number of authors.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, most of which are only available to readers of Hebrew, though a few remain accessible to readers of the Bible in translation. There are odd repetitions, as if our someone briefly hit the rewind button on the text for just a few seconds. There are different versions of the same story (most notably, the creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1-4). There are many different names for God. And there are noticeable and drastic differences in tone and style.

Now, I don't know if this whole theory seems scandalous to you--perhaps you're a more conservative reader of the Bible, or perhaps you just like your books written by just one person. But can I let you in on a little secret? The documentary hypothesis has been around in some form for nearly 200 years. So it's not exactly news.

But the whole "many authors" thing isn't even my favorite part of the documentary hypothesis, even though it tends to rile up the fundies. Because the theory also proposes that after a gaggle of logorrheic Hebrews finishes writing down all those kooky tales, an editor--we call him "the redactor," because he obviously needs a super-hero-y name--collects, organizes, and combines them all together into what will become the Torah.

Now, I just love the redactor, and not only because I like his sweet nickname. Further, I think I've found his coolest contribution to the Torah. It comes in Genesis 23.

Genesis 22 delivers one of the most harrowing accounts in all the Biblical narrative: the akedah, or binding of Isaac. This is the scene when God "tests" Abraham by requesting that he sacrifice (read: slaughter) his son and give him up as an offering. I always wonder if orthodoxy obscures some of the macabre viciousness of this tale, so I translate into plain speak: God tells Abraham to stab his only son with a big knife and then burn his body on a wood fire for no other reason than the fact that God requests it. And to make matters worse, Abraham makes his son carry the firewood to the scene of the only-barely-averted crime on his back. Please don't mistake the gruesomeness of this request; it presents devout Christians and Jews with a remarkably stark interpretive challenge.

Nonetheless, such challenges are not the subject of our meditations this evening. Instead, let's skip ahead to the passage immediately after; here it is: "Now after these things it was told Abraham, 'Milcah also has borne children, to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Betheul'" (22:20).

Now, my first thought is, I'm definitely naming my second son Jidlaph. But my second thought is this: a genealogy? Now? In the aftermath of one of the most disturbing family dramas ever written?
Has the redactor--whom I suspect had something to do with this bizarre ordering--absolutely no sense of dramatic development? This seems vaguely akin to splicing one of those old Taster's Choice commercials with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer right after the horse head scene from Godfather.

But maybe I speak too soon ... because this is the genealogy of Abraham's brother and his wife, Milcah. Unlike Abraham and his wife Sarah, Milcah and Nahor obviously have no problem at all having kids. In fact, while Sarah must wait for a divine miracle to deliver her first child Isaac, Milcah--surely an unwelcome guest at family reunions--is popping out babies like an ancient Canaanite Pez dispenser.

And this initially jarring juxtaposition begins to make sense, for while Nahor is giving Milcah an embarrassingly large brood, Abraham is off nearly killing Sarah's only son. Now, the text never tells us about Sarah's response to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In fact, she remains silent all through that devastating chapter 22. However, at the beginning of chapter 23, she dies, unobtrusively, and without a last word. "Sarah lived one-hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah's life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba" (23:1).

This, then, is the brilliance of the redactor, I think. For while our writers never describe the cause of Sarah's demise, the redactor--by this unexpected ordering of near-sacrifice, fertility, and death--allows us to propose the most obvious of reasons: Sarah dies of grief after learning of her husband's rash devotion to God, which almost leads to the loss of her only child.

We will most likely never know what parts of Genesis are whose work and where later editors play definitive roles. But this sublime weaving of very disparate narrative strands seems to me the work of a compiler willing to suggest what previous authors perhaps could not--that God, in testing Abraham, asks too much of him and his family.

And he does so without writing a single word. Now that's genius.

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