One thing I have noticed while reading the Bible is how small and petty both God and his people are. This is supposed to be the story of the God who created the Universe and everything in it, but in these chapters his powers don’t extend beyond a household. There are only a handful of his followers and this number seems to only increase with reproduction, not through conversion. What was wrong with God, that he could not convince people to worship him? The God of Genesis is not an all-powerful being, but a small household God who can offer blessings, but is not responsible for the ways of the world and has little control over them. Nor is it clear why he has chosen these people who are deceitful, manipulative and dishonest. If God is limited to only one family on the face of the Earth, why is it this family?
It is necessary to explain the difference between the ancient Pagan religions and the monotheist (One God) religions we have today. The Ancient Celts, Greeks, Vikings etc had many Gods with a range of powers and abilities. There was a God for every conceivable situation and some had vast powers while others were so small that they might only be worshipped by a household. While these Gods were believed to be powerful, they were not all powerful like the Christian God. While they could intervene in human affairs, they were just as frequently absent. They were not responsible for everything, no one expected them to stop end disease and war, this was seen as impossible. These Gods were not seen as perfect, in fact they were often similar to humans in their jealousy, lust, hate, love and even stupidity. Another important feature was that Paganism did not impose strict rules on how people lived their lives, altars and sacrifices were usually sufficient.
What is interesting is that the God of the Bible sounds far more like a Pagan God, than a monotheist one during these early parts of Genesis. So far there are no rules or requirements apart from circumcision, so it’s not clear what being a Jew/Israelite meant in these early days. God does not try to be God of the whole world, instead he is merely God of Abraham’s family, which in turn grows into the Israelite people. In fact, he is often referred to as merely the God of Abraham or the God of Isaac, not the God of the whole world. He doesn’t attempt to communicate with people on the far side of the globe like China, America, Australia or Europe, in fact his world is limited to Mesopotamia. He cannot do everything, like stop famine, he can merely nudge the scales of luck in your favour. Being close to God, doesn’t bring major changes to the lives of Abraham’s descendants. They become a bit wealthier from the experience, but no great wisdom is passed onto them no advantage conferred on them that would elevate them above their neighbours and mark them as truly blessed by the Divine Creator.
Today’s story begins when Abraham makes his servant put his hand “under my thigh” (Genesis 24:2) to swear an oath to find a wife for his son Isaac. He insists that the wife cannot be a Canaanite, and Isaac cannot leave to see her before they’re married. The servant goes to the next land and decides that the first woman to offer him some water will be Isaac’s wife (the standards for wife material were a lot lower back then). A beautiful woman Rebekah, offers water for him but also his camels, which settles the matter (Genesis 24:14-20). As an added bonus she’s related to Abraham (Genesis 24:27) (seriously Bible, does anyone sleep with anyone outside their family in this book?). For some reason Rebekah is completely fine with marrying a man she never met and knows nothing about (times were simpler back then).
Isaac and Rebekah have twins, Jacob and Esau (who is born with hair all over his body as if he is wearing a cloak) (Genesis 25:25). Esau was a hunter and when he one day returned home, he asked for stew. His twin brother Jacob said he’d only give him food if he sold his birthright to him (Genesis 25:31). Was there no other food in the house? Could he not make some himself or get one of the servants to do so? The most bizarre part is that Esau is so nonchalant about the request. Instead of being insulted that his brother is extorting him, he casually agrees because he is about to die (Genesis 25:32). Even after he eats, he doesn’t seek revenge or to renegotiate, nor does either parent pass comment on their child’s manipulative behaviour.
Then there was a famine in the land so Isaac went to a new land but pretended that his wife was his sister (Genesis 26). If this sounds familiar it’s because this exact story has already been told twice already. It even has the exact same king as before. It’s like a TV show that has run out of ideas after a couple of series and resorts to just repeating the plot. The story ends the exact same way too, with Isaac becoming incredibly wealthy, partly from reaping “a hundredfold” what he plants (Genesis 26:12). I’m no farmer, but even I know that’s impossible.
The Bible also has an annoying habit of naming every village and pile of rocks any character passes and coming up with some story to explain how it got that name. This is common a lot of old myths (the Táin also does this). I can understand why people wanted to know how their village got it’s name so this probably explains the convoluted stories that are created to explain them. A lot of Genesis is spent travelling from land to land with livestock and recording every field they pass and every well they drink from. As nomadic people a good sense of geography is important, but is very dull reading lists of names. There is also the dull and repetitive piles of names of every relation in the family (that is to say, every male relative, the women are never named). This makes Genesis, less a book of religious instruction and more of a general history of the Israelites. Most of it is very dull, so I skip over it and won’t mention it here.
When Isaac was old, blind and dying he wanted to bless his favourite son Esau before he died, but first requested that Esau hunt and cook some game for him (Genesis 27). In one of the weirdest twists in the Bible, Rebekah tells her favourite son Jacob to impersonate Esau and steal his blessing (I’m telling you, the Book of Genesis is really strange. Is the whole Bible as weird as this?). A theme I’m noticing in the Bible is that women are mostly ignored and the few times they are characters, they’re usually the villain. It was Eve who tempted Adam, it was Sarah who mistreated her slave and now it is Rebekah who tells Jacob to fool his father and “let your curse be upon me.” (Genesis 27:13) So Jacob puts furs on his body to impersonate Esau (who was part bear or something) and tricks Jacob into blessing him.
When Esau returns, it is too late, Jacob has already been blessed. Now once Isaac finds out he has been fooled, why not curse Jacob and bless Esau? Contracts enter deceitfully are invalid, why shouldn’t that happen here? Instead Isaac acts as though there is a limit on blessings and used his all up. In traditional Irish culture, anytime anyone entered or left a house, a shower of blessing would be thrown on them, but perhaps in Israel blessing were a rare resource that had to be dug out of mines like gold. The strangest thing is that the blessing is treated as though it is literally true, that whatever Isaac says will happen. This implies that God too was fooled by Jacob or that God does whatever Isaac says, neither of which makes God look good. But if Isaac’s blessing are real, then why not bless his sons with a mountain of gold or make them kings of the world?
But what’s really strange is that the Israelites traced their ancestry from Jacob, not Esau. But why would you claim that your ancestor only got his power through lies and deception? All nations create myths about their founders, why would you create a myth where your founder is a fraud? Why make yourself a villain in your own holy book?
As you can imagine, Esau’s pretty pissed off right now, so Jacob thinks it’s safest to run away. Isaac then blesses Jacob again (why bless a liar who just cheated you?) and forbids him from marrying a Canaanite (Genesis 28). There is some more wandering and dreams and eventually he meets Rachel, his cousin, and falls in love with her (Genesis 29). He tells her father, Laban, he will work unpaid for seven years in exchange for her (because, you know, women are property to be traded by their father). But at the end of the seven years, he receives Rachel’s sister Leah instead. The next morning, he finds out he’s been tricked, but agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. The ancient Israelites were strangely alright with being tricked because I’m really surprised how accepting they are. This guy just cheated me out of a deal I’ve been working on for seven years, but no problem, I’ll just start from scratch again.
When God sees that Jacob loves Rachel but hates Leah, he makes Rachel barren and opens the womb (that’s what it says) of Leah (Genesis 29:31). Why? God seems to intervene randomly just to make things worse or like a narrative device that needlessly puts hurdles in front of the main characters to overcome. Rachel’s infertility causes tension, so she tells Jacob to sleep with her servant. When Leah saw this, she gave her servant to Jacob to have a son (Jacob was having some life with women literally throwing themselves at him, begging to make them pregnant). One day Rachel asks Leah for some mandrakes and offers to let Leah sleep with Jacob in exchange (Genesis 30:15). I’m sorry, but what?!? Why is Rachel prostituting out her husband to someone already married to him and why for all things, for mandrakes? I don’t what the hell mandrakes even are (literally the only mention I’ve ever heard of them was in Harry Potter) and some googling reveals that people used to use them for love or fertility potions. Even still, it was hardly as if Leah had the only supply in the world or that she even needed Rachel’s blessing to sleep with her own husband. The Bible is a really messed up book and we are still in “None of this makes any sense” territory.
Then in possibly the most bizarre story of the Bible (though there are so many even within the Book of Genesis), a man starts wrestling with Jacob in the middle of the night until dawn. Eventually Jacob pins him down and refuses to release him until the man blesses him. At this point it is revealed that the man is God and says that from now on his name will be Israel (Genesis 32:24-8). Out of all the ridiculous stories in the Bible, this has got to be the most preposterous. Not even the most fundamentalist could honestly argue that God is so powerful that he can create the Universe and literally anything he wants, yet can still be beaten in a wrestling match by a single unarmed man! That is not something that happens to an all-powerful God of everything, instead it sounds more like a petty spirit of a single family.
So there we have it. This is apparently the story of a God so small that only a single family worships him and so weak that a single unarmed man can overpower him. It is the story of the man who founds the Israelite nation, mostly through deceit, lies and betraying close family members. Some praise the Bible as book with great teachings and insight into how we should live our lives, but I’m not seeing any of that. I don’t see the power, glory and might of the God that Christians worship, instead I just see a small God and a small people.