Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.

@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Are kobolds really evil?

On Sundays I normally post some illustrations of creatures that can be used in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. (Because last week was really busy in our household and this week I’ve been doing an intensive class, I haven’t been able to post as often as I have been, but I’m posting some illustrations now.) Folks on Twitter voted for me to draw some kobolds this time, so here are a kobold dragonshield and a kobold inventor:

I drew a winged kobold earlier in the year. Having reflect on them a bit, I’m not convinced that they should be considered lawful evil. In Volo’s Guide to Monsters they’re described as being willing to sacrifice themselves so that other members of their tribe might escape their enemies. It seems like the main reason that they’re considered to be evil-aligned is because they tend to come under the sway of evil dragons and other evil creatures. I’m not saying that they should be considered good-aligned, but I wonder if they should be considered lawful neutral or true neutral?

A couple of other things I’ve been wondering about have been elderly kobolds and the lost kobold god Kurtulmak. Volo’s Guide says that while most kobolds are short-lived, some live up to 120 years old. I wonder what kind of abilities such an elderly kobold would have?

I was also thinking that it would be interesting to run an adventure involving kobolds trying to free Kurtulmak from the maze where he’s imprisoned. Since I’ve been running Planescape adventures recently, I thought it could be interesting to change the Kurtulmak’s story a bit and have him trapped in the Lady of Pain’s maze in the city of Sigil – perhaps due to gnomes’ trcikery.

Wealth and divison

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis, and on Thursdays I’ve been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

Today I’ve been reading about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving Egypt and heading back to thew location between Beth El (a city named after a Canaanite god) and Ai, where Abram had build an altar to his god, YHWH. Abram and Lot come into conflict because they both own so much livestock that their herders are fighting over pasture. In order to resolve the conflict, Abram suggests that they separate. Lot chooses to reside among the cities on the well-irrigated plain of Jordan and Abram chooses to live in the land of the Canaanites. It seems sad to me that the family group has been divided by a sense that there aren’t enough resources to share.

YHWH promises Abram that he will give the land of the Canaanites to him and that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth. He ends up settling at the oaks of Mamre – a place that I think could also be associated with a Canaanite god. Again, Abram builds an altar to YHWH in a location that may be sacred to a Canaanite god.

A dishonest patriarch

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.

Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.

After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.

It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.

Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.

I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.

Sarai, Abram and Asherah

I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve generally been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

What stood out to me today was a small detail which I probably wouldn’t have noticed at one time. Abram and Sarai and Abram’s nephew Lot have uprooted themselves for a second time at YHWH’s instruction. They head to Canaan and they stop at the terebinth (‘great tree’ or ‘large tree’) of Moreh at Shechem. What’s significant about the tree that the people telling and recording this story mention it?

My suspicion is that the tree is a sacred site to the Canaanite god Asherah, the kind of place that some people in Israel later believed needed to be destroyed. Abram’s attitude isn’t to desecrate the site. The text says that YHWH appeared to Abram here, so he built an altar there, next to what may have been a sacred oak.

altar at asherah

What does it mean for Abram to build an altar to YHWH? Does it mean that YHWH and Asherah are familiar? Does it mean that YHWH is encroaching?


Exile ⇄ Exodus

Each week I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. I’m now posting some of my reflections on Thursdays.

What I’ve been reading this week marks a shift in the story. At this point, I think Genesis becomes a family drama, following the story of Abram and Sarai’s mob. We’re introduced to them living in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, which appears to have been located somewhere in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is the region that later became Babylon. The text describes Abram’s father, Terah, leading the family out of Mesopotamia and settling in Haran, which might be in the area we now call Turkey. After Terah dies in Haran, YHWH speaks to Abram, instructing him to relocate again, to a land where he will become a great nation.

I was talking with Beth about this part of the story yesterday, and we were reflecting on the fact that Genesis appears to have been developed (from earlier sources) when many of Abram and Sarai’s descendants were living back in Mesopotamia, after having been defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians and removed from the land. I wonder what it would have been like for them living in exile to read that their family started out here? I wonder what Abram and Sarai’s departure would have meant for them? Would it have given them hope that they could also leave Mesopotamia and repeat Abram and Sarai’s journey?

I think we can look at the whole of the Hebrew scripture follows a pattern of repeated exile and exodus, because it’s been shaped so much by the experience of exile in Babylon.

Babel and the confusion of empire

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading Genesis and posting some reflections here. This week I reassessed my schedule for blogging and made some changes to make it mire sustainable. I think I’m going to post about Genesis on Thursdays now, but I’ll see how I go.

Last time I started looking at the story of Babel. The story describes a group of people who don’t want to be scattered out across the earth like the rest of humanity. They settle in one place and build a great tower in order to make a name for themselves. I said that we might see this as an expression of free enterprise, or we might see it as a description of empire.

Something I didn’t mention last time was that it seems to me that this story describes a people who have a fear of the earth. They don’t want to be scattered across the earth, so they build a city. If you live in the city (especially right in the middle of a big city) it can be quite easy to loose touch with the earth. These people build a tower with it;s head in the heavens, as though they’re wanting to escape the earth and enter the realm of the heavens.

When the god YHWH finds out out this, however, he has to go down to have a look at what they’re doing. (It seems as though the text is suggesting that the people think they’re approaching heaven, but they actually have a very, very long way to go. YHWH confuses their languages so that they can’t work together, and they join the rest of humanity in scattering across the earth.

We might say that YHWH should have minded his own business and let humanity see what they can achieve. (I’ve been in groups where we’ve read the story and people have said that.) However, I think this story may be shaped by the fact that the Jewish people knew what it took to build these kinds of monuments – slave labour. They would have observed this during their exile in Babylon. It seems like the name ‘Babel’ which means, ‘confused’ might actually be pointing back to Babylon. This story might have been told as a way of taking back power from their Babylonian oppressors by making fun of them.

Babel: free enterprise or imperial oppression?

On Wednesdays I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and reflecting on the stories here. Last week I looked at some of the genealogy after the flood, focussing in on the interruption of Nimrod. Today I want to start looking at another interruption: Babel. Babel is one of the cities that’s mentioned as belonging to Nimrod. The general direction of movement in the genealogy is toward small, autonomous tribal groups with their own unique identities, but I think the Nimrod and Babel interruptions describe imperial assimilation. 

In this story, the world is described as still having only one language. It describes the people of Babel, who are afraid of being spread across the earth and separated. They decide to build a tower with it’s head in the heavens, so they can make a name for themselves and not be scattered. Shouldn’t this be celebrated? Isn’t this a story of humanity banding together to realise their potential?

We could take this at face value, or we could consider whether this might be a commentary on the operations of the Babylonian empire. When Babylon took over Judah, they removed the elites from the land, taking them to their own city. They were expected to assimilate, adopting the language, religion and diet of Babylon. Empires often operate in this way, expecting colonised and migrant peoples to assimilate, to speak one language and relocate to urban centres. In Australia there has been pressure on Aboriginal people to leave remote communities (or consolidate into a few large remote communities). It’s often been presumed that speaking English is more important than speaking traditional languages. There’s also been increasing presure on migrant peoples to assimilate.

Manspreading with Nimrod

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading and reflecting on the book of Genesis, gradually working my way through. Today I’ve been reading another section of genealogy, which describes the descendents of Noah spreading over the land after the flood. As I’ve said before, this might seem dull and monotonous from a Western mindset, but there are some interesting details we might pick up if we’re paying attention. 

One thing I that I find interesting about this genealogy, which we might take for granted in our current era, is that this genealogy describes all of humanity as having a common origin. Today we might take it for granted that all of humanity came out of Africa (or out of Eden) but this wasn’t the case in the ancient world.

One of the details I noticed in the genealogy was the commentary on the name of Peleg, a descendent of Shem. The next says that Peleg got his name (which seems to mean ‘irrigation channel’ – something that divides the land) because in this time the land was divided. It also says that his brother’s name was Joktan, which appears to mean ‘small’. I wonder if this entry is saying that during this period humanity was dividing into small, national groups.

The other interesting detail I noticed is actually earlier, but I’ve brought it up later because I think it shows a different dynamic to the rest of the text. While the rest of the genealogy describes differnt people groups spreading out and finding their own lands, Nimrod is described the first person to become a mighty warrior and as ‘a mighty hunter before YHWH.’ Nimrod’s kingdom is said to begin with a few cities (including the legendary city of Babel) in the land of Shinar, but from there he expands his terriory (presumably through war) into Assyria, where he builds more cities.

I think Nimrod’s actions discribed here go in an opposite direction to the rest of the genealogy. The rest of the genealogy generally describes humanity spreading out and diversifying into small, national groups after the flood. Instead, Nimrod is settling and building territories, and adding other nations to his territory. I think we’ll see this in more detail in the stiry of Babel, which I’ll probably look at next week.

Revisiting Noah’s curse

Last week I wrote a short reflection on the disturbing conclusion to the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. In hindsight I think I approached the story too lightly. I want to acknowledge again that the Bible can be, in many ways, a disturbing text. So I want to warn again that the story being discussed may be describing sexual abuse.

I mentioned that some Bible scholars have suggested that Ham molested his father Noah, after Noah had been drinking. Dylan asked me where those claims were being made and how they came to those conclusions. So I said I’d see what I could find. (What I’d written was just from memory, not from recent reading of Biblical scholarship.) So my plan here is to draw together what some of the scholars have said:

I want to start with Beth’s response, which picks up on some possibilities in the story which I missed:

In Africa Bible Commentary, Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa say in their entry on Genesis that Ham dishonoured his father by not protecting his honour, and instead going to ridicule him by telling his brothers.

In her entry on Genesis in World Bible Commentary, Clare Amos says,

‘Genesis has no truck with ethnic apartheid. Rather, the connecting link in Ham’s genealogy seems to be the symbolism of Ham’s descendants as nations the biblical writer feared either for their empires or for their aggressive expansionism, just as Ham’s misguided actions had earlier seemed to to give him inappropriate control over his father.’ (9)

In his commentary on Genesis (part of the Interpretation series) Walter Brueggemann says that this story is juxtaposed against the command in Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 to honour parents and the instructions in Leviticus 18:7-8 against don’t uncovering  one’s parents’ nakedness. Brueggemann says the story might be saying that Ham had sex his with mother, or with his father Noah. He also suggests that it might symbolically mean Ham chose to ‘penetrate the ultimate personal mystery of the parents by probing their most vulnerable action or condition.’ (89)

In Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay compares this story to the Leviticus 18 and 20, where language of ‘uncovering nakedness’ is clearly being used to talk about sex. For this reason he thinks the story is probably about incest. Goldingay believes it’s possible that Noah, even though he was said to be a good person, molested Ham, and then cursed him, with his other sons covering up what their father did. He says that it’s hard to know what is happening in the story. Something horrible and hard to understand has happened in the family. (184)

I’ve found reflecting on this story disturbing, but I think it is an important story to hear and reflect on. If it is the case that the family was working to cover up abuse, we need to make sure we don’t end up doing the same.