I am re-reading Genesis in preparation for leading a discussion for Great Books Chicago: In the Beginning…in Chicago in April.
I am always surprised by how quickly things happen in Genesis, by how many stories are jammed in there, and by how little specificity there is, except about who begat whom and how many years they all lived.
Much of what I “remember” about those old stories comes from other people’s assumptions and interpretations. It’s good to go back to the text and see what’s there, and what isn't.
Of course, Genesis coincides with Thor’s Day in the blog—thunder, justice, and vengeance galore.
What I’d forgotten was all the Vagenda. No, really.
Chapter 16: Verses 1-2:
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.
Well, he does, of course, and there is a child, a son, Ishmael. But Sarai regrets her vagenda: My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes.
Uh oh. Sounds like Hagar has her own vagenda. Later (21:9), there is more “mocking” perceived by Sarah (renamed by God by now), and Hagar is sent into the wilderness.
Sarah’s vagenda is to protect her son Isaac as Abraham’s heir.
[Painting by Adriaen van der Werff, Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham (public domain)]
On and on it goes. There is water in the wilderness for Hagar, provided by an angel. Much good, and a terrible test, come to Abraham. And there will be two nations descending from these sons Isaac and Ishmael. Turns out no woman’s vagenda really mattered back then.
But I am also reading, for the same event, Willa Cather, “Tom Outland’s Story,” about discovering the ruins of a beautiful Indian cliff-dwelling civilization.
Thunder here, too, on the mesa, and questions of justice and injustice.
There is even a hammer, or the lack of one. Tom Outland goes to Washington to try to interest government officials and members of the Smithsonian in preserving and studying the beautiful Cliff City. He encounters bureaucracy—its delays, incompetence, and self-interest.
Then he is advised to take the Director to lunch—yes, on a Thursday!—but he hardly gets a word in edgewise. “I was amazed and ashamed that a man of fifty, a man of the world, a scholar with ever so many degrees, should find it worth his while to show off before a boy, and a boy of such humble pretensions, who didn’t know how to eat the hor d’oevres any more than if an assortment of cocoanuts had been set before him with no hammer.”
Poor Tom has more to be “amazed and ashamed” of soon enough—and I find it important that he takes on what should be the Director’s own shame—but he also has a summer of happiness, living in the Cliff City.
“Happiness is something one can’t explain. You must take my word for it. Troubles enough came afterward, but there was that summer, high and blue, a life in itself.”