Against Ammon (Am 1:13-1:15)

“Thus says Yahweh.

‘For three transgressions,

Of the Ammonites,

And for four,

I will not revoke

The punishment.

Because they ripped open

Pregnant women

In the Gilead.

They wanted to enlarge

Their territory.

So,

I will kindle a fire

Against the wall of Rabbah.

Fire shall devour

Its strongholds,

With shouting

On the day of battle.

There will be a storm

On the day of the whirlwind.

Their king

Shall go into exile,

He with his officials together.’

Says Yahweh.”

Ammon was east of the Jordan River, between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in the old Gad territory. According to Genesis, chapter 19, the Ammonites were the descendants of Lot through the incest he had with his daughter. Yahweh, via Amos, invoked the same language as he had used against Damascus, the Philistines, Tyre, and Edom. He used the same numeric formula of 3 and 4, as found in Proverbs, chapter 30. These Ammonites had killed pregnant women in the Gilead, the Israelite territory on the east side of the Jordan River, because they wanted to take over that territory. Thus, Yahweh was going to send fire down on Rabbah, the capital city that is today the capital of Jordan, Amman. This fire would destroy all their fortresses, like a storm or whirlwind. The king and all its officials would go into exile.

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The results of the attack on Moab (Isa 15:4-15:6)

“Heshbon cries out.

Elealeh cries out.

Their voices are heard

As far as Jahaz.

Therefore the loins of Moab quiver.

His soul trembles.

My heart cries out for Moab.

His fugitives flee to Zoar,

To Eglath-shelishiyah.

At the ascent of Luhith,

They go up weeping.

On the road to Horonaim,

They raise a cry of destruction.

The waters of Nimrim

Are a desolation.

The grass is withered.

The new growth fails.

The verdure is no more.”

As far as we can tell, everybody was crying out from the towns of Heshbon (mentioned 37 times in the biblical literature) and Elealeh (mentioned 10 times in the biblical literature). They were towns in the Israelite Reuben territory, but Isaiah seems to indicate here that they were part of upper Moab. This crying could be heard 25 miles away north in Jahaz (mentioned 8 times in the biblical literature) which was in the Israelite Gad territory. The Moab people were frightened. They were trembling. In fact, Isaiah says that even his heart cried out for them. These Moabites fugitives fled south to the tip of the Dead Sea near Zoar, which is on southeast end of the Dead Sea. There was a story about Lot in Genesis about this city (chapters 13-19). They also fled to the surrounding towns of Eglath-shelishiyah and Horonaim, near the ascent of the Luhith hills. Isaiah is the only one to mention any of these towns, but they seem to be in southern Moab near Zoar. The waters of Nimrim were desolate with grass withering and nothing growing. Only Jeremiah and Isaiah make any reference to these waters of Nimrim. Anyway, everybody was crying and upset.

Historical punishments for sin (Sir 16:6-16:14)

“In an assembly of sinners,

A fire is kindled.

In a disobedient nation,

Wrath blazes up.

The Lord did not forgive

The ancient giants

Who revolted in their might.

He did not spare the neighbors of Lot,

Whom he loathed

On account of their arrogance.

He showed no pity

On the doomed nation,

On those disposed because of their sins.

He showed no pity

On the six hundred thousand foot soldiers,

Who assembled in their stubbornness.

Even if there were only one stiff-necked person,

It would be a wonder

If he remained unpunished.

Mercy is with the Lord.

Wrath is with the Lord.

He is mighty to forgive,

But he also pours out wrath.

As great as his mercy,

So also is his chastisement.

He judges a person

According to his or her deeds.

The sinner will not escape with plunder.

The patience of the godly

Will not be frustrated.

He makes room for every act of mercy.

Everyone receives in accordance

With his or her deeds.”

Sirach mentions the people and the groups from the Torah that were punished for their sins. A destroying fire will rage where sinners or disobedient nations are gathered. The Lord did not forgive the ancient giant Nephilim people in Genesis, chapter 6, before the flood. The Lord did not forgive the evil arrogant Sodomite neighbors of Lot in Genesis, chapter 19. He did not have pity on the disposed Canaanites in Joshua. The 600,000 Israelites in the desert revolted against Moses in Numbers, chapter 16. Not one person gets away with being a stiff-necked proud person. They will not go unpunished. The Lord has both mercy and anger. He judges according to the deeds of the people. No sinner will escape. The patience of the godly will run thin. While there is room for mercy, everyone will receive punishment based on their deeds.

Lot (Wis 10:6-10:8)

“Wisdom rescued a righteous man

When the ungodly were perishing.

He escaped the fire

That descended on the Five Cities.

Evidence of their wickedness still remains.

It is a continually smoking wasteland.

Plants bear fruit that does not ripen.

A pillar of salt is standing

As a monument to an unbelieving soul.

Because they passed wisdom by,

They not only were hindered

From recognizing the good,

But also left for mankind

A reminder of their folly.

Thus their failures could never go unnoticed.”

Next we have the story of Lot and the town of Sodom, without mentioning his name, as found in Genesis, chapter 19. Once again, it is wisdom that rescues Lot, who is described as a righteous man (δίκαιον) among ungodly men (ἀσεβῶν), from the destruction of the 5 cities (Πενταπόλεως). Only 3 cities are mentioned in the Genesis story, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Zoar, but their names are not here. However, the Genesis story says that the cities of the valley were destroyed. This became a smoking wasteland so that plants did not ripen in this valley, probably someplace near the Dead Sea. Then there is famous story of the unbelieving wife of Lot who turned into a pillar of salt. So you can see that these stories in this abbreviated history had a big impact on the people. They were not only foolish people, but this smoking valley and salt monument remained as a reminder of their failures. They had passed on wisdom (σοφίαν) and did not recognize the good.

Slow to anger (Prov 16:31-16:33)

“Grey hair is a crown of glory.

It is gained in a righteous life.

Whoever is slow to anger

Is better than the mighty.

The one whose temper is controlled

Is better than one who captures a city.

The lot is cast into the lap.

But the decision is Yahweh’s alone.”

Grey was a crown of glory because you had to be righteous to live a long life. If you were slow to anger, you were stronger than the mighty ones. You were better than someone who captured a city. Finally, the lot that was chosen from the priestly ephod was really the decision of Yahweh alone. Thus casting lots was a way of putting the decision in God’s hands, not human hands.

My understanding of Genesis

These are the great stories of the Bible with unforgettable mythic characters and events that dominate our lives even today. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Lot, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and the twelve sons of Israel are as real as any super heroes or fictional characters in history.  They are flawed heroes, not gods..  They are anything but perfect.   In what sense are they real people and is this a work of fiction?

History is always an interpretation.  Who knows what really happened over four thousand years ago?  Sometimes we call this period, pre-historic.  These stories are as good as any at trying to explain how the Israelites felt about themselves some 2500-3000 years ago.  These ancient oral traditions were gathered and written down in order to explain what they were doing then.  We know more about the belief of these ancient authors than about the people they were talking about.  These mythic characters had power over their lives.

The Yahweh tradition made no attempt at being historical.  Everything takes place in some vague somewhere and sometime. Yahweh appears a little capricious choosing who he likes and who he does not. The priestly tradition, however, loved order, genealogies, and clear structure, in trying to put things into a wider perspective, yet explaining why they do things the way that they did them. The Elohist tradition tries to put God into a more distant governing, but kind power.

God had special relationships with these archetype patriarch heroes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The three great belief religious systems of the west, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share in this Abrahamic heritage.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, and his Technicolor coat ended up almost ruling Egypt when his brothers turned against him.

The general narrative is that there is a loving caring God who spoke with these bigger than life characters.  Yahweh has chosen these guys to be fruitful and prosperous, to inhabit a land, to be righteous, to follow Yahweh, and be circumcised.  God is almighty.

The details are shocking as we see these heroes with warts and all. The primordial man, Adam could not even follow a simple divine order not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Eve, mother of all, gets duped by a snake of all things.  Cain kills Able because God somehow liked him better.  The world gets populated either by the sons of Adam and Eve having sex with Eve, their sisters, or female animals.  There are no other options if you want to follow the single source theory.  Only the multiple source theory allows for other female humans from other humans.

Noah is an interesting character who follows God’s orders, but he does not get much credit, except as a builder before some giant flood hit the Middle East.  He actually is the origin of all humans according to this story, since all humans were destroyed, except for him and his family.  All of these stories of magic trees, wonderful gardens, and massive floods can be found in most religions of the world.  This seems to be something that humans crave that is part of practically all oral traditions.

The story of Abraham is more complicated.  Somehow he is the father of all the good guys and the bad guys. His two sons Isaac and Ishmael become symbolic of good and evil.  Isaac, born of Sarah, is good, and actually appears as one of the nicer figures in these stories. Ishmael, however, born of the slave woman from Egypt, Hagar, is bad.  When you add in Keturah and her children you can figure out how the Middle East was populated.

Isaac is a very sympathetic figure, if only because Abraham was going to offer him as a sacrifice to God, until he was stopped by an angel.  He marries his cousin, which was quite normal and has twin boys, who fight all the time for his favor.  In a twist of fate and deceit, Jacob and not Esau, who was the oldest by seconds or minutes, gets everything.  Eventually, they make up and all prosper.  None of these characters are poor people.  They have lots of livestock and slaves.

Jacob is the most deceitful.  He tricks his brother Esau all the time.  He meets his match with his uncle Laban, who tricks him also.  Jacob marries two sisters at once, both his first cousins.  Just as Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, as the new names become important.  Jacob who becomes Israel has twelve sons with four different women, the two sisters Rachel and Leah, plus their female maid servants.  This then becomes the twelve tribes of Israel.

The most interesting personality is Joseph, who was not liked by his ten brothers who tried to kill him.  He gets sold as a slave to an Egyptian.  Due to his ability to discern dreams he becomes the second in command in Egypt and even gets an Egyptian name.  When his brothers come to get grain during a famine, they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them.  He puts them through all kinds of demands, until there is a grand reunion and the whole family moves to Egypt.

This all explains why the sons of Israel were in Egypt, where Moses will try to get them out of there.  Joseph seems like a wise man, who speaks his mind.  One of the key concepts of Genesis is genealogy, showing how people are connected to each other via birth.  Marriages seem to be with very close relatives. First cousins are not abnormal.  Another key concept is land, particularly the land of Canaan.  Over and over again, these characters are promised this land.  In some cases they are already there.

Finally the covenant idea is clearly dominant.  God has made a special pact with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be their God.  The main element of this pact is male circumcision.  It may sound odd to us today, but that clearly was in the minds of the biblical authors.  They made male circumcision a really important religious activity.

Thus Genesis is the foundation book of religious stories about the fallibility of man and his need and fear of God in this life.  These mythical religious persons, who have spoken with God, are not always living up to the ideal, but they keep trying despite themselves.  This is an important lesson of all people and all times.  Be true to yourself and your relationship with a higher power even when you are not perfect.

The destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:1-19:29)

 “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening.  Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet.  Then you can rise up early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No. We will spend the night in the street square.’  But he urged them strongly.  So they turned aside to him and entered his house.  He made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.”

How are these two angels related to the three men who visited Abraham? They almost seem the same.  Nevertheless these two are called angels, not men, and there only two as if Yahweh, the third did not come.  Lot met them at the entrance to Sodom.  He promptly asked them to stay the night by washing their feet. They wanted to spend the night in the town square of Sodom, but Lot convinced them to stay with him. So, he prepared a great feast with unleavened bread, which they ate. So these angels eat food.

“But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, and all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.  They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’”

However, before they went to lie down for the night, the whole town surrounded Lot’s house.  Here they are called men not angels.  In a surprising tone, the men of Sodom told Lot to bring the men out so that they might ‘know them.’ ‘Know’ is a euphemism for sex. The wickedness of this town becomes obvious as some kind of homosexual rape.

“Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look I have two daughters who have not known man.  Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.  Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’  But they said, ‘Stand back! This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near the door to break it down.  But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. They struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.” 

Lot went out to talk to them and told them to not act so wickedly.  In fact, he offered his two virgin daughters, saying you can do anything you want with them.  He begged them not to hurt ‘the two men’ since they had the shelter of his roof.  Then the men of Sodom turned on Lot as an alien. However, the two men or angels pulled Lot inside the house and struck all the men outside the house blind.  It is interesting that Lot would give up his two daughters to protect the two men or angles, showing that men were more valuable than women.  There is a show of force by the two visiting men making the intruders blind.

“Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. We are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before Yahweh. Yahweh has sent us to destroy it.’  So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, ‘Up, get out of this place.  Yahweh is about to destroy the city.’ But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.”

Then the two men who were angels at the beginning of this story asked Lot who was with him, because Yahweh had sent them to destroy this place.  Lot went to his future son-in-laws to tell them to come with him because of the destruction of Sodom. They thought that he was joking.

“When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.’  But he lingered.  So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, Yahweh being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, ‘Flee for your life.  Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley plain.  Flee to the hills or else you will be consumed.’  Then Lot said to them, ‘Oh, no, my lords.  Your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life.  But I cannot flee to the hills, for fear that the disaster will overtake me, and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one.  Let me escape there.  Is it not a little one?  My life will be saved!’  He said to him, ‘Very well, I grant you this favor too, that will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there! For I can do nothing until you arrive there.’ Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.”

The two angels took Lot and his wife and two daughters by the hand outside the city, since they were lingering.  They were to flee to the hills without looking back.  However, Lot resisted and wanted to go to a nearby little city of Zoar and so he went there.

“Then Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from Yahweh out of heaven.  He overthrew those cities, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.  But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

Then Yahweh rained on both Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire so that all who lived in those two towns and the plain were destroyed.  It is not clear why Gomorrah was included but it is assumed that they were wicked also.  Lot’s wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt, a striking biblical image.  Remember that this was in the plain by the Dead Sea which was also called the Salt Sea.

“Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before Yahweh.  He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.  So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.”

The next day Abraham looked down on the destruction with smoke in the air like a furnace.  So it was that the cities of the valley plain were destroyed, while Lot was saved.  This is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a fiery destructive God dislikes wickedness and destroys it.