Being a student in a theology program is challenging. Yet somehow I seem to manage to compartmentalize my faith perspective and my academic investigations.
But G-d, being as much a gadfly as I am, never fails me. Just as soon as I reached yet another plateau of comfort in the juxtaposition of critical biblical studies and faith, another stumbling block appears-as if to challenge my comfort. (It's a very "Nachman-esque" sort of thing. Reb Nachman said that if you think things are good, G-d will show you what good really is; if you think things are bad, G-d will show you what bad really is. I think he even said something about G-d's deliberate stumbling blocks challenging our complacency and comfort.)
In Gen 21:14 Hagar is said to have wandered about the wilderness of Beer-sheva. But later in Gen 21:31 we learn that Abraham has just given Beer-sheva its name, in honor of the non-aggression pact between him and Abimelech.
Now, aside from the obvious anachronism, here's my problem: if, from the academic and critical viewpoint, I accept that Torah was subject to redaction, editing, collection, etc., and accepting that redactors, editors, collectors, et al usually seek to fix, correct, harmonize or theologically manipulate the text, then why was this glaring contradiction allowed to stand? Makes no sense to me at all. It's just too obvious and too close together.
Now, we have the story of a husband lying and saying his wife is his sister three separate times. At least, in those cases, the repeated stories are not so close together, and have some variants in them. (In fact, the two times Abraham does it have two very different theological outcomes-which I discussed in previous musings last year.) Here, at least, the biblical editors made an effort to cover their tracks.
Maybe-just maybe-the biblical editors had prescience and knew that future biblical scholars would develop the theory of "the most difficult reading" is probably closest to the original. So they left this and other little "glitches" just to give the scholars fits.
Now, I'll put my faith hat on. OK, so the text has some apparent inconsistencies. All I have to do is look deeper and I'll see that it isn't inconsistent. Or there is some deeper meaning. But what could that be? (If I were a cynic, I'd say that, as the author of the biblical text, G-d was deliberately trying to vex future academics! That's meaning enough.)
OK, let's play. The first Beer-sheva, in Gen 21:14 comes at the end of a sentence. The second Beer-sheva, Gen 21:31, which chronologically should precede the first, comes at the midpoint of a sentence. So perhaps this little piece of positional word play is meant to acknowledge the inconsistency and try and set it right?
Dig deeper. Abraham himself sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness of Beer-sheva - knowing in his brain that she and the child might surely perish. But also perhaps knowing in his heart, or through some higher source, that this wilderness would soon be a place of peace. A place where he would plant a tamarisk to honor the everlasting G-d (Gen 21:33.)
Dig deeper still. Hagar and Ishmael being sent out to a named place yet to be named. Ishmael would fulfill G-d's promise to Abraham by fathering another great nation - yet one not heard of or named until more than two millennia later.
It's all dicey. It's all conjecture. And it's not scholarly at all. Neither academically scholarly, nor rabbinically scholarly. It's a random musing.
So here I am again-stuck at a place where both faith and scholarship fail me. Do I simply give up hope, and abandon both? Surely not. For both religion and scholarship are about learning to ask better questions-not necessarily to get the right answers. And so I keep asking.
My wife, G-d bless her, who is my soul mate and my editor, offered my this comment:
"Haven't we all, at one time or another, started telling a story and then had a flashback and told something which happened out of sequence, because it is really part of the original story? But you didn't realize you needed to tell it until you got that far into the story? How else could the "authors" refer to Beer-sheva except by its name, and then later, it is told how Avraham named it that? Why is that an inconsistency? I don't understand."
Neither, my dearest one, do I.
My this be a Shabbat of better questions for you and yours.
© 1998 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5758-Little White Lies
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties
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