Rebecca, Too: Three Views of the Sorceress


Funeral

Alyssa, age seventeen, is milling about in the vestibule of a Methodist church in Midtown Atlanta, waiting for the funeral of her aunt, Margaret Blaine, who she knows as Peg, to begin. A life-long chain smoker, Margaret succumbed to lung cancer nearly a week earlier. As her oldest and closest brother, it fell to Paxton to make all the arrangements. As children, they called one another “Peg” and “Lee” which was the nickname given Paxton for his despised first name, Leroy. Margaret hated the name Peg almost as much, but tolerated Alyssa’s use of it, since Alyssa got it from her father, who’d been more of a presence in her life than that of her sister, Leah. Leah and Margaret had bonded over their shared kinship of being first-born daughters, though there were fewer years between Margaret and Paxton than between Leah and Alyssa. Whenever either sister needed to know the family’s dirt, they knew they could count on Margaret to dish it. With Margaret’s death, the only person Alyssa knows of who still uses Paxton’s first name is Leah, usually to get under his skin.  

The thought of Leah causes Alyssa to wonder about her sister’s whereabouts. Contact with Leah has been sporadic since she graduated college and started attending MIT, several years ago. Alyssa has not seen her at all, though they do talk on the phone once every month or so. The last time they saw one another was when their mother died the same week Leah was supposed to have her graduation ceremony at Wellesley, seven years ago. Leah disappeared for several months right after that, supposedly touring around the country as an improviser, though Alyssa found it hard to imagine her rather sensible sister doing that. Leah would usually phone whenever she arrived in some town, just to let the family know she was still alive, but after she refocused on her studies and began attending MIT, she did not return home, not even for holidays, and Alyssa wonders if she’ll ever set eyes on her sister again.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the door to the church opening, flooding the vestibule with light. Alyssa looks to see a familiar silhouette in the doorway. She slowly takes a few steps forward, as the door closes, revealing it to be Leah, far different than Alyssa remembers her. The disheveled, awkward, eighteen-year-old, who used to play hide-and-go-seek with Alyssa and tell her stories when she was a small child has been replaced by a poised, confident, and professional woman, dressed in a dark business suit with slacks.

“Leah?” Alyssa says.

“Hey Princess,” Leah says. She gives Alyssa a quick hug. “It’s been a long time. Wow, you’re getting tall.”

“You heard about Aunt Peg,” Alyssa says. “I wasn’t sure.”

“Yeah, from the AJC,” Leah replies, a note of anger in her voice. “I had a few choice words on the phone with Dad last night over not telling me Margaret had died.”

“We didn’t know you were back in town,” Alyssa says.

“My cell number hasn’t changed,” Leah says with more than a hint of annoyance. she brightens and touches Alyssa’s shoulder. “How’ve you been?”

“I’m okay,” Alyssa says. “Are you still in school?”

“No, I graduated,” Leah says. She leans in. “I’m a doctor now. I’ve been back in Atlanta since the first of the month.” Leah looks around at the church. “What was Dad thinking, giving Margaret a church funeral?”

“Believe it or not, it’s what she wanted,” Alyssa says.

“Really?” Leah replies. “I imagined her having some sort of Wiccan ritual at the Botanical Gardens. I should have stayed in touch better than I did.”

“She changed a lot with the cancer,” Alyssa says.

“Exactly why I stopped smoking,” Leah says. “Dad should take the hint.”

“What are you doing now?” Alyssa asks. “Are you working anywhere?”

“Not yet, but I’m looking,” Leah says. “I may go back to school. You’re about to be a senior, right?”

“I will be. Yes,” Alyssa says.

Leah moves a few steps toward the sanctuary. “I suppose Dad looks about the way I remember him.”

“A little older,” Alyssa says. “He grew a beard.”

“You don’t say,” Leah says, facing her.

An usher looks out from the sanctuary. “Miss Walker?”

Alyssa looks at him, nods, and tells Leah, “I guess they’re ready to start.”

“Okay if I sit with you?” Leah says.

“I’m sitting with Daddy,” Alyssa replies

“I think we can tolerate one another for a little while for Margaret’s sake,” Leah says. They head into the sanctuary together.

Company

Walter Blankenship sits at his desk in the downtown offices of Walker Development, Inc., the real estate development firm where he’s been on the board since before Paxton Walker, the company’s founder, stepped down to look after his daughter, Alyssa, following his wife’s death in 1991. Walter is, in fact, the only board member still left from those days, and is looking forward to his own retirement within a year. In front of him are resumes for several positions, since one of his duties includes sitting on the hiring committee. A voice from the doorway catches his attention.

“How’s it going, Walt?” a woman’s voice says.

Walt looks up to see Leah Walker, Paxton’s oldest daughter, standing before him. He rises, and enthusiastically goes to greet her. “Leah! How are you? How long has it been?”

Walt embraces Leah.

“Too long, Walt,” Leah says. “How are the years treating you?”

“Can’t complain,” Walter says. “I’ll be getting out of here middle of next year and I can’t wait. I have a whole bevy of grandchildren I need to start spoiling.”

“I bet you’re looking forward to that,” she says.

Walter leads Leah to a sofa near the window. They sit.

“I haven’t seen you since before you left for college,” Walter says. “I hear you’re Dr. Walker now.”

“Leah’s just fine among friends,” she replies.

“So, to what do I owe this pleasure?” he asks.

“I hear you’re looking for a senior network engineer,” Leah tells him.

“We are,” he replies. “That sound like something you could handle?”

“Definitely.”

“Then the job’s yours,” he says.

Leah shakes her head. “No, Walt, that’s not how I want this to work. That’s not why I came to see you.”

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“I don’t want to get this job based on who I am,” Leah replies. “I want it because of what I know.”

She takes a copy of her resume from her briefcase and hands it to him. “I want you to submit this to the search committee.”

Walt takes it and looks over it. “L. J. Rosales? Rosales was your mother’s name, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” Leah says. “Since my credentials are under my name, you can verify them without involving the others on the committee, and work out any issues with HR.”

“You understand, Leah, you’ll be under the same level of scrutiny as any other applicant,” Walter says. “If you can do the job, why does it matter how you got it?”

“It matters to me, Walt,” Leah says. “I don’t want anyone dismissing me because I’m the founder’s daughter.”

“We’ll do it your way, then,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Leah says, “and I don’t want you to pull any punches with me either, Walt.”

“Not to worry,” he says. They rise and Walt extends his hand. “Good luck, Dr. Rosales.”

Leah learns she’s one of the finalists for the position. Several days later, she finds herself in a board room with the search committee seated at a table before her. Leah sits in front of the table, her briefcase beside her chair. The interview has gone well, and the committee seems impressed with her knowledge and responses, with the exception of Walter Blankenship. Walt is holding a copy of her resume as he says, “Dr. Rosales, your educational credentials are very impressive, but you don’t have a great deal of hands-on experience. We’re looking for a senior network engineer and quite frankly, your work history is seriously lacking.”

Leah gives a confident smile. “With all due respect, Mr. Blankenship, you’re not going to find a senior network engineer at the price you’re offering. If I were to demean myself by working at Bickering Plummet for a year or so, to pick up some on-the-job experience, you wouldn’t be able to get me for that price. Call it what you want, this is an entry-level position at best.”

“You seem very sure of yourself, Dr. Rosales,” Walter says.

“I’m sure I can do this job,” she replies.

“How do we know you won’t fall flat on your face the first time a crisis comes along?” he says.

Leah leans back, confidently. “Guess there’s only one way to find out — Walt.”

The committee chair looks around at the members and nods.

“Okay. Thank you for your candor, Dr. Rosales,” the committee chair says. “I believe we have enough information to decide. If you’d like to step out for a moment, I’ll poll the committee.”

“I’m a big girl,” she says. “I can take it. Proceed.”

The chair nods. “Very well. Mr. Williams?”

“I vote yes,” the committee member replies.

The chair polls the others, all of whom vote to hire Leah. Finally, he comes to Walter, “Mr. Blankenship?”

Walt replies, staring straight at Leah. “I think we should pass.”

“It seems you’re in the minority, Mr. Blankenship,” the chair says. “Welcome aboard, Dr. Rosales.”

Leah stands and shakes everyone’s hand. When she shakes Walt’s hand, he winks at her, eliciting a half smile.

Once she’s in charge of the network, Leah initiates a total overhaul of the system, catching several serious errors which could have caused a considerable loss of data and revenue. Before long, she makes herself indispensable to coworkers and company officials.

She’s at her terminal one afternoon when someone enters her office and says, “L. J. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Leah stands and turns to find herself face to face with her father, Paxton, standing beside one of the office managers.

“Paxton Walker, L. J. Rosales,” the manager says.

“L. J. Rosales?” Paxton says, giving her a curious expression.

Leah extends her hand. “Mr. Walker. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”

Paxton chuckles and shakes her hand. “Good to meet you, L. J. Nice to put a face with a name.”

“Mr. Walker,” the manager says, “you should know, Dr. Rosales has been nothing short of a miracle worker. To say she’s saved us from millions in potential losses is an understatement.”

“Impressive,” Paxton says. “Keep up the good work — Doctor.”

Paxton and the manager turn to leave. As he’s exiting, Paxton looks over his shoulder at Leah, then shakes his head, with a smile. Leah collapses into her chair and breathes a sigh of relief.

Several months later, at the annual company picnic, Leah is outside talking to a coworker when Alyssa appears, being guided by an employee. Seeing Leah, Alyssa stops.

“Why’s my sister here?” she says.

“Who’s your sister?” the employee asks.

“The woman in the lavender top,” Alyssa says, indicating Leah.

“That’s L. J. Rosales, our network engineer,” the employee tells her.

“Rosales?” Alyssa says. “That was our mother’s name.” Suddenly, Alyssa realizes what’s going on. “Oh, wait. Never mind. My mistake.”

“L. J. Rosales is your sister? Paxton Walker’s daughter?” The employee steps away from her. “Excuse me.” The employee exits, quickly.

Leah sees Alyssa and walks over to meet her. “Alyssa.”

Alyssa shakes her head. “Sorry, Leah. I think I blew your cover.”

Several employees appear with the one who’d been with Alyssa. They point and whisper among themselves.

“Thanks a lot princess,” Leah says, amused.

Wedding

Alyssa looks at herself in the mirror, wearing her long, flowing, wedding gown. In a few minutes, her father will come to get her and she’ll walk down the aisle to marry Tim Caine. Her joy is tempered somewhat by news that several of her father’s relatives have refused to come, and while they offered various excuses, Alyssa knows it’s Tim’s race which is the real issue. Alyssa chooses to ignore all that, instead focusing on the happiness of the day.

One person Alyssa regrets not being there is her sister, Leah, left off the guest list at her father’s insistence. Alyssa had wanted Leah to be in the wedding party, but her father had objected, believing Leah would only be a disruption, and when informed of this, Leah reacted with her usual dry wit, though Alyssa could sense her sister’s bitter disappointment. Alyssa had acquiesced to her father’s wishes, but had not been able to put this behind her as she had the absence of her other family members.

She clears her head, and again examines herself in the mirror. She imagines herself as a fairy princess and begins to hum, then sing the lyrics of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and starts to dance around in her gown. Her steps are curtailed by a knock at the door. The face that greets her causes her heart to leap.

“Leah, what are you doing here?” she says excitedly. “The ceremony is about to start.”

She steps aside to allow Leah to enter. Leah is dressed in dark slacks, an elegant top, with a light jacket over it.

“Hey Princess,” she says. “I know. I just wanted to give you something.”

Leah hands Alyssa a DVD.

“What’s this?” Alyssa asks, a hint of excitement in her voice.

Leah points to the DVD. “I took all our old films and videos, cassettes and pictures, digitized them and put them on a DVD for you. Dad’s there, but it’s mostly Mom.”

Alyssa feels a lump in her throat. “Mama?”

Leah touches Alyssa’s shoulder. “Yeah. I thought it would be nice if Mom could attend your wedding.”

A tear runs down Alyssa’s cheek. “That is so sweet of you, Leah.” She hugs Leah tightly.

“I should let you get back to your preparations,” Leah says, turning toward the door.

Alyssa catches Leah’s arm. “Leah, wait. Please stay for the ceremony. It would mean a lot to me.”

“I don’t think Dad would like that very much,” Leah says. “It’s your special day, Princess. I don’t want to get in the way of that.”

“Forget Daddy,” Alyssa tells her. “I should have never let him talk me into this. With all our family who had other things to do today, I shouldn’t turn away someone who truly wants to celebrate with me. Besides, you’re my sister. You deserve to be here.”

“Your wish is my command, Princess,” Leah says with a bow.

“Will you please stop calling me that!” Alyssa says.

“It kind of suits you today,” Leah says.

Alyssa laughs. “Oh, okay, today’s fine.”

Rebecca, Too: Snapshot McCall


Nurse Lana Turner moves down the hall of the emergency ward at Grady Hospital in Atlanta where she’s worked for more than twelve years. In that time, she’s seen the job move from patient charts on clipboards hung on the foots of beds to sophisticated, hand-held devices that automatically update the central database, showing up in the patient care system where doctors can chart the course of treatment on a given patient and make recommendations on restorative procedures. Despite the technological advances, the one aspect that remains the same is the human element. Patients and their loved ones still want a friendly face and a reassuring voice to help them through a medical emergency, and Lana always strives to be just that.

She pauses outside the room of Alyssa Ruth Caine, a young woman in her late-twenties, brought in late-Wednesday with head trauma following a car accident in Peachtree Corners. The reports say she lost control of her car trying to avoid another accident and crashed into a wall. Her seat belt and airbag saved her life, but the impact shook up her brain, causing swelling. Lana feels for Alyssa, who has recently lost her father per Alyssa’s husband, Tim. Whenever she’s there alone with Alyssa, said to be a schoolteacher with a sweet and loving disposition, Lana always gives her extra words of encouragement.

Earlier, Alyssa’s sister, Leah, was here, a difficult woman, who initially struck Lana as the typical, pushy, well-to-do white woman, thinking everyone’s supposed to stop and take notice when she speaks. Average in height, with a medium build, and reddish-brown hair, she has piercing, steel-blue eyes which she often focuses on someone for a long moment before uttering, “Perfect!” — her favorite phrase, Lana has concluded — often with more than a hint of sarcasm. From the start, she’s insisted everyone on staff call her Doctor Walker, even though she’s not a medical doctor. Lana is certain that’s liable to cause some confusion in the hospital, but honors the request. Most of the staff prefers dealing with Tim, who’s been a sweetheart the entire time. Doctor Walker asks too many questions, though they are relevant to her sister’s treatment.

The night before, while Lana was looking in on Alyssa, Leah, who was sitting with her sister, explained that she’s a facts and figures type of person and needs information to allow her to wrap her head around what’s happening. While not apologetic, Leah did sound a bit friendlier and less insistent than normal. Nurse Turner has concluded Leah does care for Alyssa, albeit in her own way, and Lana admires that. Among the nurses, opinions about Leah are mixed — Angelique, the nurse from the Ivory Coast, who studied in Haiti, enjoys Leah’s company, as Leah always converses with her in French when she’s on duty.

Nurse Turner makes a quick notation on her pad to close out the previous patient, switches to Alyssa’s record, then enters the room. Tim is seated at Alyssa’s side, holding her hand. He’s medium-toned, with a trim, athletic build, and a few days’ growth of beard, in his early-thirties. His facial features put Lana in mind of Nigerians she met on her trip to Africa a few years ago, particularly those of the Yoruba tribe, but, perhaps with some European and Native American mixed in. He’s originally from the West Coast and decided to stay in Atlanta after finishing school at Mercer. From talking to him, Lana has learned that he and Alyssa met through an outdoors group that sponsors hiking and camping trips for busy singles with a love of nature. One thing is for sure, he is totally devoted to his wife and rarely leaves her side. Lana asked him about Leah, but he assured her, “Don’t read too much into her act. That’s how she is with everyone.”

Lana examines Alyssa. While she’s never seen Alyssa on her feet, Lana can see she’s well above average in height and slender in build. Tim has mentioned she’s a distance runner, who also enjoys cycling and swimming. Fortunately, the accident did not necessitate cutting her hair, which is long and very blonde.

Tim stirs. “Morning, Lana. How’s she looking?”

“Morning, Tim,” she replies. “Not much has changed. Dr. Leonard says she could come out of it any time. I take it Alyssa’s sister went home.”

“Yeah, Leah headed home to get some rest,” he says. Tim rises and stretches. “Is the cafeteria open?”

“Yes, open and serving breakfast until 10:30,” Lana says.

“Great. I’m going to get some coffee. Maybe a bite to eat.” He rubs his chin. “I could probably use a shave, too.”

Tim exits.

Nurse Turner concludes her examination of Alyssa, then steps away from the bed and makes notations on her electronic device. Suddenly, Alyssa groans. Lana turns to see Alyssa’s eyelids fluttering, and her head moves back and forth on the pillow. She groans again, then raises her right hand to her head. She opens her eyes.

“Oh — my — god. What happened? Where am I?” Alyssa says.

Lana puts away the electronic device and hurries to the bedside and begins examining Alyssa again.

“Ms. Caine,” she says, “can you hear me? Alyssa?”

“Of course, I can hear you,” Alyssa says in a very agitated voice. She puts her hands up to shoo Lana away. “I’m right here. Who’s Alyssa?”

“You are,” Lana says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like JFK in the Zapruder film,” Alyssa says.

“That’s to be expected — I suppose — after what you’ve been through.”

The first notion to come to Lana is that this does not sound like the Alyssa Tim has described. She almost sounds like her sister who Tim says she’s nothing like.

Nurse Turner raises the bed and as she does, Alyssa glances at Lana’s name badge. She chuckles.

“Lana Turner?” she says. “Is that the name you were born with?”

 “It sure is.”

“Your parents had a sense of humor,” Alyssa says.

Lana finds this amusing. “Actually, I was named after my aunt. Her parents had the sense of humor.

Alyssa looks again at the name tag. She looks confused. “Wait, does that say Grady? Why’d they bring me back to Atlanta?”

“It was the closest available trauma center to where the accident occurred,” Lana says. “You were just a few miles away and in pretty bad shape.”

“I’d hardly call Braselton a few miles away.” Alyssa places her hand to her head again. “Oh, my head! Listen, is my brother Steven here?”

Lana gives Alyssa a curious look. “I don’t know your brother. Your husband Tim is here. He just went to the cafeteria.”

“Husband?” Alyssa says. “Hello! Not married, Lana!”

Nurse Turner steps away from the bed. “I’m going to get the doctor.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s he? Clark Gable?”

Nurse Turner shakes her head, then exits.

Once in the hallway, she sees Tim exit the men’s room and head for the elevator. She hurries toward him and calls out, “Tim? Tim!”

He turns.

“Alyssa’s awake,” she says. “I’m going to get Dr. Leonard.”

“Thank god,” Tim says as he jogs toward the room.

The Bible Tells Me So


Some years ago, the Reader’s Digest caused quite a stir by issuing a condensed version of the Bible. Televangelists were up in arms, some going so far as to burn the book and calling for an all out boycott of the Reader’s Digest organization. Despite all the outrage, no one seems to care that there are numerous versions of the Protestant Bible, different translations, different interpretations, different concordances, each of which alters the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. Many still view the authorized King James Bible as the official version, totally ignoring that it was based on Greek and Latin texts which may not have agreed with one another.

Marcion, an early Christian leader with Gnostic leanings, in the second century, made one of the first attempts at organizing a canonical version of the Bible. His list included mostly Gospels and Epistles and none of the Hebrew scriptures. While his version was never considered authoritative by the emerging Western Church, it served as the scripture for his congregations for several centuries, and Marcion is credited among those who began the discussions that led to the Christian canon being formalized. Thomas Jefferson compiled his own condensed version of the Bible that included the sayings of Jesus and rejected books such as Revelation, which he described as “the ravings of a maniac”.

Scholars agree that the earliest versions of most of the Gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his closest followers spoke or wrote. This would not have been unusual for the time, since only the most educated and specially-trained in society would have been able to write in Latin or Greek and most people spoke in the dialects common to the region in which they lived. Scholars have also noted many changes, transcription errors, and additions common among different texts of the same Gospel. Mark, for instance, in its familiar format, has sixteen lines added to the end of it that don’t appear in the earliest known versions, and once had a secret version that included extra lines, which was written about by early church fathers who considered it problematic but nonetheless regarded it as authoritative. The Gnostics claimed Mark had three versions, the commonly known version, the secret version, and an oral version Mark would only share directly with believers.

For many Christians in the United States, the English translation of the Protestant Bible is considered to be the inerrant word of God. This is despite the fact that the English language as we know it was not spoken by anyone when the material that made it into the Bible was being written and compiled. There is significant evidence to show that the works in the Bible are not rendered in their original form. One such example can be found in Richard Elliot Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, which recreates what Friedman has called the world’s first novel, that was chopped up and dispersed throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible itself speaks of its incomplete nature, citing in Kings and Chronicles the very works on which these summaries are based and referring readers to them, and in other places, mentioning sources that are now lost to modern readers.

With any translation there are two problems to confront: comprehension, or, does the translator understand the material he or she is reading, and interpretation, is the translator accurately conveying what the material is saying. Translating from Spanish to Italian, for instance, may not yield many overt problems, because the languages are similar and come from the same root, Latin. Translating from Spanish into German will most likely pose more problems, since the languages have very little in common. Even so, the material being translated can have a huge impact on how successful the translation will be. A shipping list of common household items will likely be easier to translate than an epic poem, since objects are much easier to describe than ideas.

The task is compounded by cultural differences. People who live in a land-locked mountainous region are likely to have ideas and concepts that would be foreign to coastal, seafaring people, even if they speak the same language. If one is trying to convey a concept to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s helpful to have concepts with which to compare it, and it’s not always possible to find a reliable comparison. Perhaps the mountain dwellers have a word to describe the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the trees. Relaying that word to the seafarers will tell them what it means, but simply knowing the meaning would not convey the memories or sensations the mountain dwellers invoke when using it. Another example would be equating the Jewish concept of a Messiah, that is a ruler from the Davidic line of kings with the Pagan concept of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior-king such as Attis.

The people who wrote and compiled the Bible lived in a much different world, under vastly different circumstances than we do. Ideas and concepts we take for granted would be as foreign to our ancestors as theirs would seem to us. We have their static words, but not how they used their language for day to day affairs, or to communicate important beliefs or rituals. Words can sometimes lose certain nuances when written rather that spoken, as anyone who has ever misread a text or Internet post can attest. Since many of the stories which comprise the Bible started out as oral folklore, how the storyteller told the story was often as important as the words being said. Describing a leader as “great” has a different meaning if the person saying it has a sarcastic edge to his or her voice and unless this delivery is recorded with the words, the meaning will be lost. Since we were not present to hear how these stories were told, we cannot be certain how they were intended. Finally, people in a culture can develop shorthand in communicating where they leave out concepts that are generally accepted in their society, assumptions a native would know without being told. Our society takes cars for granted. If we’re communicating with an isolated tribe in the Amazon which has mostly been shielded from modern technology, telling them we “drove” someplace won’t have much meaning for them.

One cannot claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God when there are multiple official versions of the Bible that are accepted as authoritative and which do not always agree with one another. If the Protestant Bible is the inerrant word of God, then how does one assess the Catholic Bible, which is older, contains more material, and which includes the Septuagint, which was the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures for several centuries, up to and including the time of Jesus. While one can isolate portions of the Bible which may have sprung from what seemed to be divine inspiration, such as the Psalms, or Ecclesiastes, there are many more portions that exhibit obvious editorial oversight, such as the book of Judges, which constantly reminds its readers that the stories took place before Israel had a king. Mark is believed by most scholars to have been the first Gospel and was the basis for Matthew and Luke. In his Gospel, Matthew corrects instances where Mark erred, such as in relating the pronunciation of Jesus’ final words on the cross, or when Mark, not familiar with the geography of Judea, got place names wrong. Apparently the author of Matthew did not regard the author of Mark as infallible.

Real Bible Studies: Genesis, Isaac


Isaac is almost a footnote in the history of Israel. He’s born; he’s almost sacrificed by his father; he marries Rebekah; he buries Abraham; he fathers Esau and Jacob; he almost gives Rebekah to Abimelek; he’s tricked into giving away Esau’s blessing to Jacob; then he reconciles with Jacob and dies, all in the span of a few chapters. Abraham’s story takes up most of Genesis 12-25, from the call of Abraham to his death. Isaac’s story overlaps Abraham’s in chapters 21-25 and by chapter 27, the story of Jacob is starting to overlap that of Isaac. By chapter 28, the focus of Genesis has shifted to Jacob, now on his way to his uncle Laban’s household, where many of his adventures will occur, and we only have a few mentions of Isaac from here on. The only story about Isaac that’s not tied to either Abraham or Jacob is Genesis 26, which is a verbatim retelling of the story of Abraham and Abimelek, from Genesis 20, but unlike his father, Isaac doesn’t get cattle or grazing rights out of the encounter. The incident with Abimelek adds nothing tangible to the story of Isaac, and seems to have been inserted simply to give Isaac an adventure of his own before skipping to the story of his son Jacob.

Even in stories where he’s featured, Isaac takes a secondary role. When YHWH tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (something that was never done with Ishmael, the oldest) it’s to test Abraham’s faith. Abraham accepts the request without question, which seems rather odd. Recall that in Genesis 18, when YHWH tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, Abraham barters with YHWH to gain concessions for the denizens of those towns, yet here, YHWH is telling him to sacrifice the son he’s waited until his old age to have and Abraham seems totally okay with it. We’re not told how old Isaac is, but at one point, he speaks to Abraham, so he must be at least five or six years old, and maybe as old as eight or nine. Despite this, he doesn’t say anything when it becomes apparent Abraham is about to sacrifice him.

In the ancient world, whenever a town was founded, often the founder would sacrifice his oldest child, usually a son, to become the guardian spirit of the town. There’s a mention of this practice in 1 Kings 16:34, describing the rebuilding of Jericho. In this instance, however, Abraham is not founding a city, as he’s still depicted as a nomadic herder. There are clues to suggest that in the original legend, Abraham sacrificed Isaac, and this fact was altered by the author of Genesis, who was writing after human sacrifice had been abolished. The death of Sarah immediately follows the story of Abraham being tested, and the death of a son she had at an advanced age, combined with all the other factors working against her, might have been sufficiently stressful to hasten her end. If this is so, it placed quite a burden on the author of Genesis to account for an individual who wasn’t originally in the story line.

The solution seems to have been to make Isaac the conduit through which Abraham was connected to Jacob. Either that or there was a tradition among the tribes that Isaac was the father of Jacob but that they were somehow descended from Abraham, so the author of Genesis made the logical leap. In genealogy, it’s often a common error to attribute a child to a nearby family with a similar name. It’s also possible that then, as today, many different people claimed descent from Abraham with no rhyme or reason as to how and Isaac was used by the children of Israel to make their connection. Unlike Abraham, who started out as Abram, and Israel, who started out as Jacob, Isaac is not given a new name, signifying a covenant with YHWH. His “covenant” was through that of his father, and fulfilled by the descendants of his son.

In all probability, these stories are based on authentic legends about Isaac and Jacob, since they don’t show Jacob in the best light, being deceptive in taking his brother’s birthright and later in deceiving his uncle Laban (who pretty much deserved it) into giving away the best of the flock when they divided their assets. Most of the story of Abraham and his descendants through Jacob are part of the “hidden book” discovered by Richard Elliott Friedman in the pages of the Old Testament and chronicled in his work, The Hidden Book in the Bible.

Killing Babies now Available


Sometimes, in writing, things need to get cut.

My latest collection of essays entitled Killing Babies, is now available for purchase from online bookstores in print, and Kindle format from Amazon.

Purchase the print version from Amazon and download the Kindle version for free.

These essays originated on this blog in their earliest forms, but have been revised, expanded, and, in some instances, combined in the book.

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Real Bible Studies: Kings & Chronicles 

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Nowhere is the piecemeal nature of the Bible more evident than in the books detailing the kings of Israel and Judah from the time of David’s ascension to the time Babylon sacks Jerusalem and burns the temple. Kings and Chronicles are each broken up into two books, but according to sources, in the Hebrew Bible, each was originally a single volume. The narrative flow of Kings is disrupted by the break, which occurs during the story of Ahaziah of Israel, while Chronicles is less so, book one ending with David’s final days and book two beginning with Solomon building the temple.

While both collections tell essentially the same story, and appear to be based on the same source material, volumes referred to as The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, there are numerous differences between the two, suggesting they were written by different authors for different purposes and combined in the Jewish scriptures without making any attempt to reconcile the differences. Kings references the source material as two works, one for Israel, one for Judah, but Chronicles often references it as one work. This may indicate that by the time the author of Chronicles was writing, the texts had been combined into one. Even in translation, the books have a different feel to them, Kings a bit more flowery in its descriptions than Chronicles, and a good deal more concise, Kings at a combined forty-seven chapters and Chronicles at a combined sixty-five.

Kings alternates between the stories of Israel and Judah, from their status as a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, to independent entities following Solomon’s reign. Chronicles concerns itself exclusively with Judah, only bringing in relevant facts about Israel when the king being profiled interacts with his counterpart in Israel. Kings often uses the reign of the opposing king to date his counterpart; for instance, Ahaziah becomes king of Israel in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat’s reign in Judah. Chronicles is far more sympathetic to the House of David than is Kings, which reports the failings of the kings of Judah with the same critical eye the kings of Israel receive. This also means the author of Kings has to come up with excuses for why Judah doesn’t suffer the same fate as Israel, despite committing the same offenses. This is usually accomplished by citing God’s commitment to David.

First Chronicles is complicated by having the first nine chapters provide a painstakingly tedious recitation of the genealogies of every generation between Adam and David. I haven’t taken the time to check this genealogy against others that occur within the Bible, but it doesn’t just document a single line down to a specific individual, though it does end with Saul’s death and David becoming king of the unified kingdom. The genealogy covers most of the major figures in the narrative up to that point, and also provides some details about other tribes such as Edom. Even after David comes into the story, at just about every step, the author provides lists of David or one of his descendants’ followers, names and numbers of different tribes, sizes and weights of the materials used in constructing various buildings, and other trivial facts surrounding the kings. There’s some of this in Kings as well, but Chronicles takes it to ludicrous extremes.

One of the significant differences concerns the building of the first temple, as well as the portrayal of Solomon. In Kings, David wants to build a temple to the Lord but is told, without much elaboration, that it’s Solomon’s responsibility to do so. In Chronicles, David is also told it’s Solomon’s responsibility, but this time is given the explanation that David is a man of war and the temple must be built by a man of peace. In Kings, it’s Solomon who provides this information after David has died, but he puts a slightly different spin on it. Nevertheless, in Chronicles, David assumes all of the responsibility for everything short of actually building the temple, designing it, financing it, hiring the workers, electing priests, designating all the temple personnel, in addition to naming Solomon as his successor. In this version of the story, David’s decision to designate Solomon as the next king is to facilitate Solomon building the temple, not in reaction to Adonijah’s challenge to the throne as related in Kings. There’s also none of the palace intrigue of Solomon eliminating his older brother after taking the throne, or having to rid himself of his father’s army commander or other enemies at David’s insistence.

In Chronicles, Solomon is depicted as young, inexperienced, and totally devoted to doing the work of God, not the cunning politician ruthlessly consolidating his rule as depicted in Kings. Also, Kings reports that later in life Solomon married wives from the surrounding nations, and often worshipped other gods earning the disfavor of the God of his ancestors. Chronicles doesn’t mention any of this, portraying Solomon as a wise and godly ruler throughout his reign. Kings is also the source for the story of Solomon deciding between two mothers arguing over a child, perhaps his most famous decision. Chronicles doesn’t mention it, though it does laud the wisdom of Solomon.

Both narratives agree on the dimensions of the temple (1 Kings 6 & 2 Chronicles 2): Sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, thirty cubits high, with a portico twenty cubits wide. Footnotes in the NIV interpret the dimensions as 90 feet (27 meters) long, 30 feet (9 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) high. By way of comparison, the US White House is 168 feet (51.2 meters) long, 85 feet 6 inches (26.1 meters) wide without porticos and 152 feet wide with porticos. In Kings the father of Huram, the metal worker, is from Tyre and his mother is from the tribe of Naphtali. In Chronicles, he’s Huram-Abi and his mother is from Dan. Both narratives also state that David took a census of the people which earned the disfavor of God, prompting a punishment, but Chronicles states Solomon later used the census to find foreigners to press into service in the building the temple.

Kings is preceded in the Protestant Bible by first and second Samuel, and Chronicles is followed by Ezra, giving a full accounting of Israel and Judah from the anointing of Saul to the return of exiles from Babylon under Cyrus of Persia. Both Kings and Chronicles make it clear throughout that they’re only summarizing the source material, the aforementioned Chronicles of the Kings of whichever kingdom is being profiled. It seems clear that whoever wrote Chronicles intended to promote the Davidic line of kings, and also show that Israel’s problems arose from failing to follow the word of God as written in the Commandments and Leviticus. During the reign of Josiah, a text was discovered during the renovation of the temple which most scholars agree was Deuteronomy, which purports to be the last commentary by Moses. The initial intent of Kings is less apparent, stating kings failed to remain faithful to their God, but not hammering home the idea that this is what led to the destruction of Israel or the exile of Judah. The prophets Elijah and Elisha are prominent figures in Kings, but since their dealings were mostly with Israel, they’re hardly mentioned in Chronicles.

Chronicles ends with Cyrus, king of Persia issuing his decree allowing the Jews in exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem, which is picked up in Ezra, almost without a break. Kings ends with the release of King Jehoiachin, one of the last kings of pre-exile Judah from captivity in Babylon, but he’s not allowed to return to Jerusalem. This suggests the writer was aware of these events but not of the return from exile and gives a clue as to when Kings was compiled. It also gives us a clue to who wrote the history, since this person appears to have access to official documents pertaining to the reigns of the Davidic kings. Most of those carted off were among the upper eschelons of society.

Real Bible Studies: The Sons of Israel

img_6262The Bible is as much a political document as it is a religious one. Stories printed there were crafted to support a specific narrative, perhaps to bolster the reign of a particular king or party in its quest for control. Over time, these stories were edited, re-edited, and re-arranged to support different narratives. One such example can be found in Richard Elliott Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, where he uses textual analysis of the earliest Greek sources to piece together a complete book covering the story of creation through the conquest of Canaan that had been spread throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, attempts to reconcile the story of Israel told in its archaeological record with what’s written in the pages of the Bible, and finds a much different narrative written in the ruins. Kings who were vilified in the Bible emerge as some of the longest ruling and most successful in the archaeological record. Even within the pages of the Bible, different books provide different views of the tribes who came to be known as the children of Israel, in particular Genesis and Judges.

In order to understand the purpose of a literary work, it’s necessary to look at the stories presented and the way in which the narrative is crafted. In Genesis, following the flood, the main hero is Abraham, whose story takes up chapters eleven through twenty-five. Excluding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which exclusively involves Lot, that’s fourteen of the fifty chapters of Genesis. This isn’t surprising, considering what a towering figure Abraham is in Middle Eastern lore. His son, Isaac only gets a few chapters, one of which is a retelling of a story originally attributed to his father, before Jacob’s story takes over, and the stories of Jacob and his family take up the rest of Genesis, which ends with the death of Joseph in Egypt.

In it, we learn how Jacob deceived his brother Esau (also known as Edom father of the Edomites), claimed Esau’s birthright, and fled to his uncle’s family to avoid retribution. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, but was deceived by his uncle into marrying her sister Leah, then had to perform additional servitude to gain Rachel’s hand, and Genesis tells us Rachel was his favored wife. Jacob also had two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who produced four of the sons who would be the progenitors of the tribes who later identified themselves as the children of Israel. Leah is the mother of most of Jacob’s offspring, including Levi and Judah, two prominent tribes in later Jerusalem and she’s listed as being buried with Jacob in Genesis 49. We learn that Rachel bore two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Though Leah is the most productive of Jacob’s wives, being the mother of six sons and one daughter, Dinah, all the attention is focused on Rachel, naming her as Jacob’s most beloved wife. This focus on Rachel extends all the way to the Gospel of Matthew, who, in relating the slaughter of the innocents, misquotes as prophesy, verses from Jeremiah lamenting the exile of Ephraim (Rachel crying out for her lost children). This is despite the fact that the majority tribe in Jerusalem was that of Judah, who was Leah’s son.

Where Judges exhibits very crude editorial oversight, adding lines here and there to connect what were obviously individual tales from different sources, Genesis seems to have been crafted with the specific intention of relating the origin story of the sons of Israel. Rather than simply collecting the myths and legends, the author of Genesis used them as the basis for a new telling of the story, and Genesis is far more polished than Judges, which is loosely cobbled together with only a cursory attempt to unify the stories — the editorial asides that the stories happened before Israel had a king. In Genesis, the narrative has been crafted to unify the story of the sons of Israel, and to highlight one son in particular, Joseph. Most likely, the different stories came from sources similar to what’s found in Judges, that the editors of Genesis had to reconcile. Each tribe that claimed descent from Abraham undoubtedly had its own traditions about him, just as Arabs and Jews do today. Since most of the population couldn’t read, the editors could afford to add in multiple traditions and let scholars debate them later.

In all probability, Genesis was assembled by someone who came from the tribe of Ephraim — the tribe who claimed descent from Joseph — or felt a kinship with it, given how prominent Joseph is depicted within the narrative. Ironically, Ephraim is one of the tribes said to have been carted off by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again though remnants could have escaped to Judah after the exile. A later editor who knew of the fate of Ephraim, may have altered the story somewhat to give Judah more prominence, but the narrative flow still makes Joseph the ultimate hero of the story. The only story we get on Judah outside the context of Joseph’s story is of his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar, with whom he fathered Perez, the ancestor of David. Joseph was the full brother of Benjamin, whose tribe avoided the fate of Ephraim and survived to become one of the more prominent tribes that inhabited Jerusalem up to the time of Jesus. Joseph is also the reason his brothers go to Egypt, from which their descendants must flee in Exodus.

Joseph’s story starts in Genesis 37, and takes up the bulk of the remaining chapters of Genesis ending with the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48 and Joseph’s death in chapter 50. We learn of his gift for prophecy, his brothers’ jealousy of him, and their initial decision to kill him, which is softened into the action of selling him into bondage. Reuben is the brother who prevents the others from killing Joseph, and Judah is the one who convinces them to sell Joseph into bondage, which sets in motion the fulfillment of Joseph’s prophecies. The very next chapter in Genesis relates the story of Judah and Tamar which the author of Ruth uses as the basis for the genealogy of David. With the story of Jacob’s death in Genesis 49, Joseph takes the lead on burial and tributes to his father, with his brothers hardly being mentioned at all.

The tribes most often mentioned in Judges are Judah, Ephraim, Benjamin, the Levites, and Dan. The opening chapter of Judges gives an update on the various conquests of the tribes which may have been inserted by a later editor to tie the book to the previous story of Joshua. In this introduction, it’s stated that the Benjamites were not able to drive the Jebusites from Jerusalem and lived along side them and that other tribes were unable to dislodge the Canaanites from their land, setting up the temptations that will lead the Israelites astray throughout Judges. At the end of Judges, a Levite from the hill country of Ephraim has problems while spending the night among the tribe of Benjamin, leading to the near destruction of the tribe in the resulting retaliation. In Genesis, we’re told that Joseph, the father of Ephraim, was the loving older brother of Benjamin.

In Judges, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Judah among others, are tribes; in Genesis, they’re individuals, and in Genesis 49 Jacob/Israel blesses each of his sons and the words he uses sum up how each tribe was viewed by the author or editor of Genesis. One brother who does not fare well in the narrative is Levi, which is interesting given that the Levites, or priestly class which includes Moses and Aaron in Exodus, is said to descend from Levi. In Genesis, Simeon and Levi are criticized for using their swords in anger — the incident is described in detail in Genesis 34 pertaining to Dinah and the Shechemites — and condemned to be scattered and dispersed in Israel. The two sons who get most of the praise, not surprisingly, are Judah and Joseph, each with long blessings which places them above all the rest. Benjamin is compared to a ravenous wolf, and in Judges, displays considerable military prowess when fighting the other tribes. Reuben, the oldest son, is all but disowned by his father for offenses he committed and the remaining sons each gets a descriptive line or two.

Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to the Bible, identifies stories in Judges as perhaps the oldest material to appear in the Bible. The story of Deborah, is notable, in that it presents us with one of the few women in the Bible who is not solely defined by the men in her life, as are most of the women in Genesis. The stories in Judges bear almost no kinship to those in Genesis, except for the tribal identity of the sons. Judges follows the pattern of Israel “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” which leads to them being conquered by one of the local, larger tribes, prompting the need for a leader or “judge” to arise and save them.

Bear in mind, the people who crafted the stories that eventually found themselves in the Bible were in constant competition with other tribes for the resources of the land they inhabited. Three of the most prominent mentioned in the Bible were the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. In Genesis, the attitude of the author to the Moabites and Ammonites was made plain by reporting that they were the product of the illegitimate and incestuous union of Lot and his two daughters following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Judges reports on these tribes as well and chronicles many of the difficulties faced by the Israelites at the hands of the Philistines. In particular, Samson has a considerable beef with the Philistines for reasons unknown, other than they’re oppressing the Israelites. Samson’s actions, however, are usually in service to his own selfish motives, rather than in service to any of the tribes.