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2 The Genesis of the Dysfunctional Family

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

The slave of idols is a willing slave. For willing he must be to let himself bow down in worship to what has no life, and seek for power in the powerless. What happened to the holy Son of God that this could be his wish; to let himself fall lower than the stones upon the ground, and look to idols that they raise him up?
Course in Miracles Text 29:IX:1 1-3
If you know what you have, you are truly rich.
Tao te Ching 14
A Sleep of Prisoners
The human heart can go the lengths of God
Cold and dark we may be......
But this is no winter now.
The frozen misery of centuries cracks, begins to thaw.
The thunder is the thunder of the flows,
the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.
Thank God our time is now.
When wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us.
The longest stride of soul folk ever took.
Affairs are now soul sized, the enterprise is exploration into God.
But what are you waiting for?
It takes so many thousand years to wake.
But will you wake? For pity's sake.

— Christopher Frye

2. Of Slaves and Sons

A literal reading of Philip 2 implies that some of us are inherently slaves and some of us are inherently sons and heirs: all are not equally deserving. Leloup's translation gives a Christological interpretation: "The Son, he who is Son, possesses the heritage of the Father." His interpretation of the Son doesn't refer just to any son, and the Father isn't just any father. The premise of A Course in Miracles, however, is that the Christ or the Son includes all of us, or none of us. We are either all created as slaves, or we are all born as the Son. We're equally deserving, and the question is, "of what?"

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.

The Genesis Patriarchs

The subtitle of Genesis could be "The History of the Dysfunctional Family." Cain and Abel, Noah and Ham, Lot and his daughters, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his miserable coat. Family therapy would have a field day unraveling the dynamics. As we know from modern psychotherapy, every family is an interconnected ecosystem. The hero can be the secret instigator, the passive victim might be the enabler, and the troublemaker might emerge as self-sacrificing to divert the violence. The Torah reports the intimate details of family as shamelessly as any soap opera, enabling us to put them on the analyst's couch today:

"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."

Ishmael, the Firstborn Son

Sarah...Hagar has something she'd like to say to you...

"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?"

Genesis to Exodus: Sinner-Slaves as Them to Victim-Slaves as Us

Exodus is God's vindication of a slave people. But in Genesis, when the shackle is on the other foot, the slave deserves what he or she gets. Even the footnotes assume the guilt of the one cursed or mistreated.1 No examples are given of the qualities of which they're accused. In fact, the "heathen" kings act with honor – it's Abraham who has no fear of a God, who seems to protect him no matter how badly he behaves. It's Sarah who acts with hatred to Hagar and Ishmael. If there's enmity between the stepsons, as the angel blames on Ishmael's future character, it's certainly Sarah's doing. Lot's wife looks back in compassion on Sodom. Could she have found fifty people more righteous than the husband who just shamed her daughters? Do we accept this accounting of Sodom from Lot, an opportunist who even blames incest on his barely pubescent daughters? In his wife's shoes, I would only hope that my daughters became pillars of salt with me.

Esau, the Righteous and Forgiving Heir

Jacob, whose name means grasping2, tricks his brother out of his inheritance for a bowl of lentil stew. Esau comes back ravenous from hunting and asks the brother who's comfy by the fire for a bowl of stew. Jacob says, "Not unless you sell your birthright for it." Esau says, "Look bro, I'm dying here, what good is my birthright if I starve to death?" You recognize that as a joke, right? Any sane person would recognize that as a joke. But the record says, "So Esau despised his birthright." Is this the same logic that, millennium later, says land can be knowingly sold for a handful of beads, but land treaties signed by generals to end wars aren't necessarily binding?

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?

How to Raise a Traitor

Jacob continues the tradition of favoritism, breeding dissent and competition among his children and wives, which takes its toll on their significant relationships. When Simeon and Levi kill Dinah's new husband and father-in-law, plundering all their goods and taking the women and children as slaves, Jacob has to move out quickly. The angel tells him en route to change his name to Israel. Shrewd move, angel.

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.

Reuben, Heir and Silent Hero

Is it any surprise that Jacob's oldest son loses his inheritance? Another unsung hero of the Torah, Reuben talks his brothers out of killing Joseph, even though Joseph has already taken his birthright. His planned rescue is only foiled by their sale of Joseph into slavery while Reuben is gone. When Joseph, as the Pharaoh's right-hand man, later holds Simeon hostage unless the brothers bring back Benjamin, Reuben tells Jacob that he can kill Reuben's two sons if he doesn't bring Benjamin back safe. Reuben has everything to lose by this and nothing to gain. His only reason for the ultimate self-sacrifice is that he gave his word to the Egyptian controller (Joseph) and he's a man of his word. From past experience, Reuben must know that Jacob would undoubtedly carry through and kill his sons if he doesn't bring Benjamin back safely and on time. Fortunately for Reuben, Jacob scorns his offer – Reuben's sons mean nothing to him, even as collateral. Simeon can rot in jail for all Jacob cares. I think the message is clear that they can all rot – to Jacob, Benjamin is worth the lot of them put together.

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.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophet

Back in Egypt, "Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh's palace." When all the money of all the people was gone, he took all the livestock. The next year they said, "Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh...The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh's, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude from one end of Egypt to the other."

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."

Of Fathers and Favorites

How does this history relate to the question of whether we're God's slaves or God's Son? In the succession of fathers to sons, Genesis shows what we've done to ourselves, not what God has done to us. As the sons become fathers, they pass on favoritism, whether they were themselves the favored son or not. Shem is the firstborn son of Noah, which isn't enough for him. He brings down Noah's curse on his brother's son, Canaan. Abraham, himself a lesser son, prides himself on his superiority to the Canaanites. Isaac learns his value as favorite son by the way in which Ishmael is despised as the son of a slave. Isaac's favorite son is tricked out of his inheritance by Rebekah's favorite son, Jacob. Jacob is then tricked into marrying an unfavored wife, for which he gets revenge by despising his sons by her. Jacob spoils his favorite son, Joseph, causing his brothers to turn against him. As a slave, Joseph continues to curry favor with his oppressors. The slavery of the Hebrew people, in the end, can be traced back to Noah's son Shem. Our desire to be better loved than our brother results in the enslavement of all.

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.

1New International Version Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995. Examples: "It is probably better to hold that Canaan and his descendants were to be punished because they were going to be even worse than Ham." p.20. What! Even worse than making a joke about your father?
2 NIV footnote: "The name became proverbial for the unsavory quality of deceptiveness." p. 43
3 NIV. Genesis 26:35, p.45
4 NIV, footnote 37:3, 2Sa 13:18. p.61