Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musing Before Shabbat
Vayera 5767

Redux and Revised 5759 - Whoops!
(or Non-Linear Thinking)

Having been a student in a theology program was and remains challenging. Then I wasn, and now, I remain able to compartmentalize my faith perspective and my academic investigations. This duality can be a blessing, and it can be a curse. Of course, when I find that magic key that brings faith and science together as one, (take your pick:) I will have discovered G"d; the Moshiakh will come; I will have discovered the unified field theorem; it will be TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it); I will have done nothing; I will have wasted my life in search of an answer I am not meant to know; "Hello I must be going"; or perhaps just "42."

Yet I constantly strive to find that balance between faith and rigorous academic scholarship. I have often had great success with this. So I smile a secret, knowing, smile and feel smug for a while.

Then G"d, being as much a gadfly as I am, never fails me. Just as soon as I have 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 chrnonological 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. A simple stroke of the quill and voila!

Let's think a bit. Now, we do 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 have discussed in previous musings.) There, at least, the biblical editors made an effort to cover their tracks. (Or it really happened three times...)

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. Gee, thanks. (Or maybe it's more than that-maybe it's a warning beacon to tell us: this is not history, this is not academia - don;t try and apply those standards because they won't work.)

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. (Yeah, well, I tried that with the two creation narratives at the beginning of Genesis, and it just didn;t work for me.)

Perhaps 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. Or that warning beacon I suggested.)

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? I wouldn't put it past the author, be that author Divine or earthly.

Let's dig deeper (pun intended. Beer-sheva. 7 wells. Dig deeper. Oh, forget it!). 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.)

[Just as an aside: we get so stuck with modern geographical lenses. We think Beer-sheva and we immediately think the town/city of Beersheva, as it exists today. Yet from some of the usage in the Torah, it's more likely a region or area--the area in which the seven wells were located. They weren't necessarily all in the same spot! Why did so many wells in one place?)

Dig deeper still. (Why, has our first well run dry already?) Hagar and Ishmael being sent out to a named place (21:14) yet to be named (21:31.) 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. Was he walking in his father's footsteps, to a land that G"d would show him 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.

A friend offered these thoughts which brought things into perspective:

"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 friends, do I.

Could it really be that simple? Funny how academics have determined that the most difficult reading is usually the the right one, and those of simple faith look for the simple reading. Is the answer someone in between those? Perhaps it is between then going around the other side--that is, past either extreme until you circle around through unknown territory back to the other?

May I never tire of asking such questions. May I continue to learn which questions are the better ones to ask. May this be a Shabbat of better questions for you and yours.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester 


Some other musings on the same parasha:

Vayera 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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