As we saw in the previous post, Genesis’s narrative develops a tension of sorts between, on the one hand, God’s faithfulness in covenant, and Abra[ha]m’s unfinished and imperfect faith, on the other. The themes continue in the four chapters we’re reading today, and if anything that tension is only exacerbated. And yet these four chapters introduce an intriguing twist: we begin to see some surprising features about God and his own dealing with humanity, features that, perhaps, we haven’t seen since Genesis 6 and that play a formative role in Abra[ha]m’s unfinished, imperfect faith.
- 1. In light of chapter 15, and especially 15.6’s notice that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” Genesis 16 begins on a very peculiar, if not quite discordant, note: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children” (16.1). Narratologically speaking, this verse is unimpressive and, frankly, redundant. Abram has already asked God about this, has already complained that one of his slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, will be his heir, and has already been promised that a son and not a slave shall be his heir. This is what Abram believed when he believed God and when his belief was reckoned as righteousness. In other words, what Genesis 16 presents as an obstacle in the narrative’s plot, Genesis 15 has already taken care of. So we have a choice to make here: Either this section of Genesis is poorly put together, perhaps from multiple and disparate sources, or the problem introduced at 16.1 is not about Abram’s and Sarai’s childlessness but about, again, their unfinished, imperfect faith (with whatever, if any, consequences for source criticism).
- 2. At this point another problem arises, one that I’m uncomfortable describing but one that, I think, the text strongly if still implicitly intends. In 16.2 Sarai takes a more active role in the narrative, and I think the narrative presents this, along with Abram’s lack of activity, as a failure of faith. In 16.2 Sarai speaks up: “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Two things jump out at me:
- a. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time since Genesis 3 that a female character has had any lines in the story. Now, of course, other female characters will play speaking parts in Genesis before the story is over. But up to this point, when a woman speaks God’s plan for humanity has been interrupted. In Genesis 3 God has left humanity with a task (tending the garden) and a command (singular): Don’t eat from the tree in the center of the garden. By speaking with the serpent rather than listening to God, the woman has subverted both the task and the command. And if all this the man was strangely silent, until, that is, he found the words to rat out his wife in 3.12. Similarly here in Genesis 16: God has left Abram with a promise, and by speaking Sarai threatens to subvert that promise. And again the male character is speechless (“And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”; 16.2). Of course, my cynicism here leads me to point out that the silent Abram is being told by his ninety year old wife to sleep with her Egyptian slave-girl; his silence is scandalously self-serving.
- b. Despite this clearly androcentric perspective, the text presents Sarai’s failure as Abram’s failure. Abram, not Sarai, has been promised an heir. Abram, not Sarai, capitulated to his wife when she (and he, if we’re honest) looked upon her slave-girl as a commodity rather than as a human being. And Abram, not Sarai, fails to take any decisive action whatsoever, so that when Hagar becomes pregnant and resents Sarai (for being barren? for handing her over to be raped?) all Abram can muster is a pathetic, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16.6). In Genesis 3, the man’s disobedience was just as striking as was the woman’s; so also here in Genesis 16, Abram’s wickedness (isn’t this the right word?) matches Sarai’s.
- c. I’m not trying to discount the clearly male-oriented perspective of the text by suggesting that Abram, like Adam, comes out as poorly as Sarai. While I think this may be, Abram’s coming-out-poorly is achieved precisely through the text’s androcentricity. In terms of the narrative, Sarai, like Eve, should not have spoken up, and Abram, again like Adam, should not have listened to his wife. And while I think the text’s perspective — misogyny doesn’t seem an inappropriate word here — is clear, I’m less confident that the point the text is making depends on that perspective. The text isn’t advocating that wives should be silent and husbands more in control; the point here is that both should speak less and listen to the promise of God more. Those who would perpetuate the narrative’s orientation risk, I think, missing its point.
One last point, this one perhaps more inappropriate than the rest: A friend of mine recently asked me if I knew what Lot had said to his wife as they were fleeing Sodom. Since I hadn’t read the narrative in some time, I told him that I didn’t know. The answer? “Hey babe, what’s that behind you?”