I continue to read Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.
The first Bible story of plagues upon Egypt and an Israelite exodus is in Genesis 12:17-20, not in the Book of Exodus. The plagues happen in both stories, and the Israelites leave with cattle, silver, and gold in both stories. So Levenson believes that the author or editor of Genesis deliberately uses Abram and Sarai’s story to prefigure the Exodus. Yet in Genesis, Abram’s departure for the promised land bearing the wealth of Egypt falls short of the fulfilling of God’s promise. Sarai remains barren, and Abram needs an heir to inherit the land. You can’t separate the promise of land from the promise of children.
Apparently, part of the riches Abram brought out of Egypt included the Egyptian woman, Hagar. She served as Sarai’s maid. Then the couple asks her to bear an heir for Abram. Levenson points out that this request parallels Eve’s temptation of Adam in the Eden saga. Genesis 16:2 literally says, “Abram listened to Sarai’s voice” just as Adam listened to Eve’s voice in Genesis 3. Eventually the child, Ishmael, gets expelled into the desert, just as the first couple got expelled from Eden, or as Cain got sentenced to wander “east of Eden”. Cain and Ishmael both end up in the category of older brothers who get replaced by their younger brothers.
Although, neither Cain nor Ishmael inherit the promise of God, the text points out that God continues to care for them, and makes special provision to protect them. In the case of Ishmael, God promises to maximize his offspring beyond numbering (Genesis 16:10).
Hagar, the Egyptian woman, gets treated shamefully by Sarai, the mother of Israel. Things come full circle later when Israel’s sojourn in Egypt begins because Ishmaelites, descendents of Sarai’s Egyptian slave, sell Sarai’s great-great grandson, Joseph, into slavery there.
There is a confusion in the sources of Genesis about whether the sellers of Joseph were Ishmaelites or Midianites. But perhaps, as dwellers of the Arabian wilderness, they were the same. These became the people who taught Moses to worship the God of Sinai. As Levenson brings out, there are many intricate and subtle connections in Genesis and Exodus.
Genesis sees the surrogate motherhood of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael as a faithless attempt to circumvent Sarai’s infertility. They set the stage for the birth of Isaac, a birth which overcomes, rather than circumvents, the threat to the promise.
And the birth of Isaac, in turn, sets the stage for the drama resulting from Abram’s impulse to offer the beloved son back to God. The binding of Isaac, which Jews call the aqedah, will obviously be central to Levenson’s theme of the death and resurrection of the beloved son. We will look at his treatment of it in my next post on Levenson.