Original writings by Tereza Coraggio available by permission of the author.
Ask and you shall receive!
The slave seeks only to be free, he does not hope to acquire the estate of his master. But the son is not
only a son but also an heir - he lays claim to the inheritance of the father.
Gospel of Philip 2
Has God created us as slaves or engendered us as Son? If God is all-powerful, and we are God's son, why are we slave to death and suffering? Why does God mock our love for each other, ready to snatch away whoever we hold dear? Is this a loving Father, who reminds us how puny we are every time we have the temerity to feel safe? From all the evidence of the world, we've been created as God's slaves.
How can we reconcile the evidence of the world – pain, suffering, and death – with the concept of an all-loving, all-powerful God? If God has not chosen this for us, as punishment or trial, the only alternative is that we've chosen it ourselves. Could we, humanity, have been born as Son and have chosen to be slaves? What could bring us to that? For stories of how sons turn into slaves, we open the Bible at the beginning.
"So Noah, tell me about the time your son saw you naked and talked about it, causing you to curse his sons to be slaves to his brothers' sons for eternity. What exactly did he talk about? Was this perhaps a little, er, over-reactive? Let me just recap...you had the world to repopulate and two of every animal – but it wasn't a big enough inheritance for three sons? Now Japheth and Shem, you knew your father's temper. Why did you repeat back to him Ham's little remark? (no pun intended, Noah) After he died 350 years later, hadn't the joke had gone far enough? Making his nieces and nephews into slaves of your own kids seems a bit excessive. Hmm...Noah, you directly curse Canaan, the son of Ham. Does that have anything to do with the current land dispute between Abraham's family and the current inhabitants of Canaan? Your descendant's rights to this land, Shem, seem to trace back to you setting up your brother to take this fall. The title was issued by the same agency that gave you your brothers as slaves? I see..."
"So Lot, we've already been through your uncle Abraham tricking the Pharaoh by passing Sarah off as his sister. Whether he did it for the money is immaterial to our discussion, we're talking about you now. Yes, I know that he kept the gifts and drove you off, letting you choose the direction first but claiming that God gave him all the land as soon as he got rid of you. But let's get back to the point. Your daughters say that you told an angry mob to rape them. How would that effect their engagements? They were how old, to be betrothed but not yet married...12...11? If the strangers...okay, angels...hadn't intervened, what future did you see for them, if they'd survived? Their suspicion is that you wanted to sell them as slaves, rather than paying their dowries. Now, let's examine your claim that they got you drunk and raped you. If you weren't conscious at the time, how did you...er...function? They say that your uncle Abraham paid you to make this claim, to discredit their sons, when the wars started between his family and yours."
"Okay, first you make me sleep with your husband, then you say I despise you when I get pregnant. A little projection here? I did what you wanted! You set me up to be a surrogate mother, promising that my son will inherit everything, then you turn on us. Or did you really want me to sleep with him to show it was his problem and not yours? So I run away, pregnant, figuring the desert can't be more harsh than you. When the angel talks me into going back, I tell you that rubbish about my son Ishmael being foretold to be a wild donkey, and you fall for it. Did you really think I'd tell you the good stuff? I called God "the One who sees me", but I wouldn't tell his secrets to someone who only looks down her nose at me. At least it got you to tolerate us for 14 years. Then we move on from Canaan, so you and Abe can pull the "sister" con on yet another unsuspecting king – getting them to take you into their harems as his sister, then taking all the "gilt" compensation when the horrified king realizes he's broken taboo. I gotta give it to you there, to be still raking in kings at 90 years old – more power to you. Level with me though, when did you guys come up with your angel story? That's pretty tight timing – the angel says you'll have a son in a year, we move to Gerar, another king takes you, then God tells him he's as good as dead for taking a married woman. Have you noticed how often your God talks to those of us you call godless? He swears he didn't touch you, but gives Abraham the usual – sheep, cattle, slaves, a thousand silver shekels and all the land he wants. I don't know how angels calculate, but either you're already pregnant when you go to Abimelech or all this drama happens in three months, and then you conceive in calm marital bliss. No comment?
"Al right, so my son, your stepson, is set to inherit all the loot. But then you have Isaac and overnight Ishmael turns back into a slave. At Isaac's "weaning feast", you accuse Ishmael of mocking your son because you don't like the look on his face. How is he supposed to look? He's a 14-yr-ld who just got tricked like one of your "godless" kings. But now, me and my son remind you of your lies, so you turn us out to die in the desert. Listen, sister, how much do you need? You had too many livestock to share the land with your nephew Lot even before you rolled Abimelech. How much is enough? What does it take to satisfy you?"
Apparently Jacob felt the need to hedge his bets, in case Esau didn't really despise his birthright. With his mother's help, he ridicules Esau at the same time as cheating him, by getting his father to mistake a hairy goatskin for him. What kind of mother is Rebekah? The only thing that Esau has done to her is not despise Canaanite women and marry two of them. Obviously, the story of Ham hadn't been told in his family or he'd also know not to make casual jokes that could cost him his birthright. Dare I say, like mother Sarah, like daughter-in-law Rebekah? Esau's Canaanite wives are "a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah"3 for reasons that must be too obvious to mention – like having an ancestor who speaks the naked truth about his father.
When Esau cries, "Bless me – me too, my father!" Isaac answers, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives [including you] his servants...So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" Esau's plaintive cry breaks my heart, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!" And he weeps aloud. Even after all has been taken from him, he still just wants his father's love. But Isaac answers with a curse: "Your dwelling will be away from the earth's richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck."
But Esau, despite his father's dire prediction, prospers and forgives his brother Jacob. If there is a God of righteousness, Esau is his man. If God is forgiveness, Esau is a man of God. Jacob reminds me of the trickster fox, returning kindness with cunning, always looking for an angle. When his deceit works, he takes it as proof of God's favor. Why is Isaac so stingy to bless? Why do we feel there's not enough to share, even in love for our children?
Joseph, Jacob's golden boy, struts like a peacock in "the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore."4 He imprudently brags about dreams in which he rules over his brothers. While the men do the work of tending the sheep, he lolls about in his pretty coat at home, certain of the inheritance even as a boy. Through Jacob's withholding of love for his other sons, and Joseph's smug acceptance of his superiority, the other brothers turn on him. Simeon and Levi already have the blood of in-laws on their hands, and have nothing to lose in their father's esteem. All that saves Joseph from being killed is the potential to make a quick buck from selling him to a passing caravan.
When sold into slavery to Potiphar, he becomes the boss of all the slaves until the wife "frames" him. When he goes to jail, he's put in charge of the other prisoners. When he interprets the dream for Pharaoh, it happens to be an unprecedented way to exploit the small landowners, like his father and brothers. "Listen to this, Pharaoh. First you tell them that you're doing them the favor of storing their wheat. It's like insurance. They can't afford to build silos, so you'll keep it for them. Sooner or later, there'll be a famine. You sell the wheat back to them, if they can buy it. If not...well, tough luck. Someone else can."
There's a word for someone who succeeds like Joseph does. It's "collaborator," not "chosen of God." You don't get put in charge of the other slaves because you're popular with them. You don't get elected President democratically by the other prisoners. When you come up with a scheme or a dream to take all the "excess" grain and sell out your own people, it's not God who puts the twinkle in the Pharaoh's eye. Joseph follows the same game plan that worked for him with Jacob. Pander to the one in power and screw over everyone else. Of course the Pharaoh gives him his own enforcement agency. No wonder he's the darling of pyramid builders and pyramid schemes.
By Hebrew custom, the oldest should inherit at least twice the amount of the younger sons. Reuben loses this birthright before Joseph is kidnapped, and given Jacob's favoritism, perhaps he never really had it. The official reason given for disinheriting Reuben is that he sleeps with Jacob's concubine, as if his father is already dead. But love isn't considered as a possibility between sons and slaves. Could Reuben have loved this girl, Bilhah, who was probably his age and who meant nothing to his father? Consider the context: Bilhah is Jacob's concubine and Rachel's maidservant. Her job is to dote on the favorite wife by day and have sex with the husband by night. One possibility is that Reuben is no better and no worse than his father, and takes her as property. But we fall into the era's mindset if don't consider that Rueben and Bilhah may have had a relationship. Like Esau, Reuben's only offense may be forgetting to despise the unworthy women.
In fact, it's the seed that they give their lives and land for – too precious to eat until they could replenish their own silos. So the famine may not have been God-given, but man-made by Pharaoh's ownership of the seed. Did Joseph create the famine when he confiscated the reserve that would normally be held back for next year's planting? If the farmers were still growing their own food after they get the seed, it's not conditions of nature that disrupted production. Did Joseph lie to the farmers that they'd get the seed back, or did he take it with the threat of violence? Egypt is brought to its knees, and Canaan is even worse off, but Joseph himself is rewarded well for his perfidy. His own family prospers in Goshen by exception. Since the story takes up next in Exodus, we can see how long that lasts.
Are the Hebrews, at that point, enslaved by popular demand, because they brought Egypt under the yoke of Pharaoh? With glee, Genesis reports, "So Joseph established it as a law concerning land in Egypt – still in force today – that a fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh. It was only the land of the priests that did not become Pharaoh's." So everyone except the priests and Joseph's family becomes a tenant farmer to the Pharaoh, with no rights to the land and a 20% tax on everything they produce. With a straight face, Joseph still contends that "God intended all this [the slavery that set him on his path] for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
Or maybe it goes back even a step further. According to Cain, it was God's preference of Abel's offering that incited him to fratricide. But perhaps the approval that Cain sought was God's disapproval of Abel. If God found Abel equally worthy, would Cain, as the firstborn, have felt he deserved better? Cain himself may have been banished, but this way of thinking was passed from father to father – there can be only one chosen son.
The Bible can be read as a historical proof of the chosen people, whether that's Jews or Christians. Or it can be read as the story of all of us, our stumbling journey to self-knowledge as the prerequisite to understanding God. Unlike regal histories, it reports intimate details with candor and is unsophisticated in its self-defense. Therefore, we have much to learn from it about how things have gotten to this. We might find the secret of how to reverse enslavement, rather than enjoy our (temporary?) status as exceptions. Whatever excludes isn't love, but a prison that holds us in as it holds the other out.
In Genesis, we find the seeds of our Judeo-Christian understanding of God, and the germination of knowing ourSelf as humanity. But as we grow in the Hebrew tradition, so does the God of Genesis, opening our minds petal by stubborn petal. God fills the space we allow Him, every time our tight-fisted heart breaks open.