Imperfect Servants… (Genesis 12-15)
November 1, 2010
In Genesis 12-15 we meet Abram, or the artist-soon-to-be know-as-Abraham as I like to call him, and his entourage. This is the man from whom God will make a great nation, the one whose descendents will be as numerous as the stars.
Seriously? This guy?
I have heard a lot about Abraham being obedient to God and confident in his promises even when there’s little hope. I’m sure it’s all true. But I’ve never really had good relationship with his stories. Today when I was reading the second story we are given about him, 12:10-20, I actually let out a little gasp despite being on a rather crowded bus. Now, I must have read this story several times before but it is still pretty shocking to me.
There’s a famine so Abram goes down into Egypt with his wife Sarai (soon-to-be Sarah). She is really beautiful and he knows the Egyptian men will desire her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect from their lustful ways” he says… oh no, sorry what he actually does is gets her to pretend she’s his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him. Nice. Then of course he lets her be taken into Pharoah’s house (if you know what I mean) and laps up the brother’s benefits; sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, you name it…
Seriously? This guy??
Yes, this is the guy, dodgy marital values and ill-gotten riches don’t seem to deter God from his choice, and that makes me uncomfortable. This is just one example of many in the stories that follow of women being treated like chattel and there being no overt criticism of this treatment in the text. Sure, God does send a plague on Pharoah and put a stop do to the utterly degrading situation, but there’s no punishment for Abram. Sarai is voiceless in all this, used for her looks and sex appeal and later focussed on for ability, or inability to bear a child. This text seems so stuck in the time it was written, in a time when women were often named among property and only valued in terms of their sexual and reproductive functions.
But what would I rather? That there was a miraculous gender-equality in a story originating thousands of years ago about the firstof the patriarchs?? Well, yes that is what I’d rather, but it’s not what’s here. The Bible is timeless text in some ways, but not in others. Rejecting it because of that seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.
So is there much here for a 21st century woman? Although I find it hard to look past these injustices to a great theme, Abram’s willingness to follow God does indeed shine out from these pages. And would it really be better if he were perfect? God doesn’t call us based on our perfection. If He did then the Bible would have a lot fewer characters. And the Church would have a lot fewer members. If He did then I would certainly be off the list.
So I will try to get my relationship with the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Abraham back on track. Not by ignoring his imperfections, nor by embracing them, but by accepting them. There are no perfect protagonists in Bible, if there were then there would be little space for us to imagine ourselves as among those God has called. He calls murderers and adulterers and persecutors (Moses, David, Paul) and makes them into imperfect servants. In doing so he shows us that there is no one He can’t use. And that’s some pretty good news.