Monday, November 16, 2015

An Anarchist Reading of Genesis 12

This weekend the terror that the West has unleased on the Muslim world has begun to come home in a big way: hundreds of mundanes died from suicide murders in Paris, Kenya, and Lebanon. As usual, the atrocity of these murders – and they were atrocious – was played up while the reason given by the perpetrators – that they were in retaliation for the Western killing of Muslims that has been going on for over a decade – was given little or no air play.

Instead, prayers were offered in support of the very governments and military machines that have been wreaking the carnage for which these killings are retaliation. When people give thanks for “our military that protects our freedoms,” exactly what freedoms do we have in mind? The freedom to produce pornography? To abort unborn children? To “marry whomever we please”? Or do the pray-ers have in mind “the freedom to gather freely to praise the Lord without fear of being arrested”?

I say these prayers for the military are offered to protect our right to go to church. Well, we’re still going to church, but a lot of people who (used to) live where the soldiers being prayed for are operating aren’t, many of them because they’re dead.

This spectacular failure of Western governments to protect their citizens, to make peace, to do justice, or to do anything that resembles the supposed functions of governments to fulfill Romans 13:1-7 or Proverbs 16:7, provides an opportunity for the children of Abraham to recall what happened the first time the people of the covenant came up against “the powers that be … ordained of God.”

The statist take – so called because everyone I know who follows it also believes that those whose salaries are paid by taxpayers are allowed to do things that those of us who pay their salaries are not – on Genesis 12 is that Abram (Abraham), having walked from the north end of the promised land to the south, went to Egypt to escape a famine. So far so good. But he goes wrong by having his wife tell the people that she is Abram’s sister “so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you” (Genesis 12:13). Pharaoh takes her into his house, and a curse falls on him and on all the people of Egypt. The moral of the story: your sin will affect more than just you, but God is gracious and will forgive and care for you. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and God will bless you.

In other words, Abram did wrong here and poor Pharaoh and the Egyptians were hurt by Abram’s lie, and Sarai could have been imprisoned. (That to a man those of my acquaintance who would fault Abram for lying here have defended the practice of “collateral damage” for which the murders this weekend are blowback I find not surprising in the least.)

Let me suggest that Abram handled the whole situation properly, at least after he left the promised land.

That is, if Abram went wrong, it was in leaving the promised land to begin with. We have no record of God either telling Abram to go to Egypt to avoid the famine or prohibiting him from going. Because the cities in the Jordan Valley were inhabited after the famine, one can assume that these people survived the famine and Abram and his band could have as well. We can also guess that Abram made the same mistake Joshua did before the first battle of Ai (Josh 7) of not asking God before proceeding; had he asked God if he should go to Egypt, God might have told him no.

Given that the story ends well, however, my take is that God regarded this as a teachable moment: Abram had left Ur, an advanced city with, one would guess, the usual tyrannical government, to live literally “God knows where.” Things get tough, and when things get tough, humans want Big Brother to take care of them, so off Abram goes off to Egypt, where there’s a strong central government keeping order (and more importantly keeping people fed). I think God was saying, “All those years in Haran must have clouded your memory of what the kings of the earth are like. I think you need a little reminder that you are not to put your trust in those who consider themselves as gods authorized to oppress their subjects.”

And because Abram handled himself as he should in that situation, God worked miracles and received great glory, and Abram left Egypt better off than he was when he arrived.

Before getting down to the details, I’d like to point out a general parallel between Genesis 12 and 1 Kings 3:5-28. The latter passage begins with the Lord appearing to Solomon and telling him to ask for anything he wants. Solomon asks for wisdom, and at the end of the passage, “when all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice” (v. 28). In between is an incident in which two prostitutes take a dispute to the king. Unlike most evangelical jurists, Solomon does not put them in jail for prostitution: he simply resolves the dispute and sends them on their way. (If I fault him for anything here, it’s for not asking, “What kind of ruler am I that in my kingdom there are so few opportunities for women to make a living that these had to be reduced to prostitution?”) But note the pattern: Solomon asks for wisdom, he goes through a trial, and the people celebrate because God has answered his prayer.

In Genesis 12 we have a similar situation. God promises to be with Abram and to curse those who dishonor him (v. 3 ESV). At the end of the chapter Abram returns to the promised land with more sheep, cattle, donkeys, male and female servants, and camels than he had when he left. In between, Abram goes through a trial when Pharaoh dishonors him. (Yes, it was Pharaoh who dishonored Abram, not, as in the statist reading, the other way around.)

So now let’s look at the passage. The point of contention between the anarchist and the statist readings comes from Abram’s words: “You are a very beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife. Let’s kill him; then we can have her!’ But if you say you are my sister, then the Egyptians will treat me well because of their interest in you, and they will spare my life” (vv. 11-13).

Supposedly this is Abram selling her down the river so that he can – what? Go back to the promised land without her? Maybe.

Almost everyone I know of says that we find out later in the book why he did this. When he – by then renamed Abraham – repeated his mistake (if such it be) of going outside the land to avoid famine (Gen 20), he told the local potentate, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’” He knew the people in both places were godless, and so he was playing his cards close to his chest. Perhaps he had a holy hunch that as rebels against God we have no right to know the truth, as Paul the apostle later said plainly: “They refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false” (2 Thess 2:10-11). That doesn’t mean that we have the right to defraud our neighbors, but it does mean that we are under no obligation to give them information that will allow them to sin against innocent people.

It could be that Abram expected that it would be some commoner or lesser noble who would take a fancy to Sarai. In that case, his strategy would be simple: If the prospective suitor were an honorable man, he might be able to confide in him that he was indeed Sarai’s husband and enlist his protection against those who would kill him to get her. If he could find no honorable man, he could buy time or postpone the wedding or do whatever he needed to do until the proper time came when he could abscond with her.

The key words are these: if the suitor were an honorable man. And here is where we get to the “white lie.” If the suitor were an honorable man, he would negotiate with his intended’s family – in this case her brother – first and take her only when the wedding had been agreed upon by both sides. Only a dishonorable man would take the woman first and negotiate later.

And here is where we find that – surprise! – Pharaoh was not an honorable man: “When Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace” (Gen 12:15, emphasis mine). There is no mention of negotiation here, and the original readers would have understood that none took place. Just as later on the Persian King Xerxes abducted all the pretty girls in the kingdom for one-night stands (Est 2:1-14), and no one dared raise a peep in protest, so when the incarnation of the local god of Egypt gave the command for Sarai to be brought to the palace, there was no place for resistance.

And here my statist brethren make their most horrifying blunder. While they fault Abram for not telling Pharaoh that Sarai was his wife (though, again, what he said was true and all an honorable man needed to know), I have never – never – heard those people call Pharaoh's abduction of Sarai the kidnapping it was. Of course he had the right to take her. He was the Pharaoh!

Of course he has the right to drop depleted uranium bombs on Iraqi civilians and inflict birth defects on the unborn – he’s the President! Of course he has the right to go through neighborhoods in Baghdad, round up young men, and torture them, even if over 90% of them are not guilty of even contemplating attacking us over here – he’s the President! Of course he’s justified in voting money to finance his own children’s education out of the pockets of home and private schoolers – he’s the sovereign voter!

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.” Oy, veh.

Had Pharaoh known that Abram was Sarai’s husband, he would have killed Abram. End of story. To those who say that Abram should have relied on God to protect him when he told the whole truth, I respond that in that case he should have relied on God to preserve him through the famine in the promised land, and we’re back to the main sin, if so it be, of entering Egypt.

It was nice of Pharaoh to provide Abram – at taxpayer expense, don’t forget – with “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels,” and perhaps Abram consoled himself with them or even considered himself better off with them than he had been with Sarai, but even so, it was Pharaoh calling the shots unilaterally: Abram had no say in the matter, as I’m sure he knew in advance he wouldn’t if he were overtaken by dishonorable people.

Whether Abram cared for Sarai or not, Pharaoh had dishonored him, and God was as good as his word: he acted to free Sarai from captivity in Pharaoh’s harem and Abram’s entire band from captivity in Egypt. Abram left Egypt richer than when he arrived, and Pharaoh had been publicly disgraced. Moral of the story: the kings of the earth are not honorable people; don’t trust them, and certainly don’t give them information they can use against you or other innocents. If God allows or forces you to get under their umbrella, he will see you through the experience better off than you were when you started. (Of course, we Christians know that we may not survive the experience in our earthly bodies, but we’ll still be better off!)

This distrust of royalty perhaps extends into chapter 14, where Abram – acting apart from “the powers that be … ordained of God” – rescues Lot from the four Persian kings. The king of Sodom wants to reward Abram for rescuing him and his people, and Abraham refuses, saying, “You will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” While Abram’s response was probably based more on the wickedness of Sodom than on the fact that the king of Sodom could give him nothing that he had not extorted from his subjects – Abram had, after all, taken gifts extorted by Pharaoh – he was in a position to negotiate with the king of Sodom that he had not been in with Pharaoh, so he may have wanted nothing to do with any part of the system.

So there we have it. When God’s called-out people first encounter the kings of the earth, they get their fingers burned. This theme runs all the way through Scripture and culminates at the very end. Every interpretation I have ever read of the book of Revelation associates the Beast with apostate religion married to godless, overweening government. The Pharaohs were particularly plain examples of those who devour the forbidden fruit in the attempt to “be as gods,” but Western governments – not to mention Islamic and Marxist governments – are all walking down the same road, not as far along, but doing their best to catch up.

Christians would do well to stay as far away from them as possible. Pursuing justice, peace, and prosperity apart from the guys with the biggest guns in town or even on earth may not keep ISIS away or provide an easy way to educate our children, but it will keep us from being among those who provoke retaliation from our neighbors near and far.

“The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One” (Ps 2:2).

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Ps 118:8-9).

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that” (Luke 22:25-26).

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5).

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [‘national security’ among them, methinks] will be given you as well” (Matt 6:33).

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