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Arts and Culture

Jonathan Kirsch on ‘The Woman Who Named God’

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Posted on Oct 23, 2009
bookcover

By Jonathan Kirsch

Here and there on the front lines of the clash of civilizations, we can glimpse a few pockets of compassion. One example is the revisionist reading of a neglected passage of Genesis that depicts the tragic fate of an Egyptian slave named Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s first son and, by tradition, the matriarch of the Arab nation. Modern commentators have rescued Hagar from obscurity and reinvented her as a feminist icon and a symbol of reconciliation among the three religions that claim Abraham as a founder.

According to the Bible, Abraham (still called Abram at this point in the biblical narrative) is sent into Hagar’s bed by his own wife, Sarah (still called Sarai), because she is incapable of giving him children. But when the fecund young woman gives birth to a son, Ishmael, Sarah turns suddenly jealous and vengeful. And when God later bestows a child on Sarah in advanced old age, Sarah urges Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die—a demand that God is shown to endorse. Yet God ultimately spares the victims of Sarah’s wrath: “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand,” God tells Hagar in the wilderness, “for I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 21:18).

Poet and biographer Charlotte Gordon, author of “The Woman Who Named God,” insists that the story of Hagar is “a creation story as important as the Garden of Eden,” if also “one of the most frequently misinterpreted of all western stories.” She concedes that it is the starting point of the historical enmity between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but she also implores her readers to ask one of those “what-if” questions that reframe all of our conventional wisdom: “What if Abraham had chased after his mistress and firstborn son, begged Sarah to forgive his betrayal, and urged Hagar to forgive Sarah’s jealousy, so that they might raise their sons together? Would we be any better at living in peace?”

 

book cover

 

The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths

 

By Charlotte Gordon

 

Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages

 

Buy the book

Gordon’s provocative question hints at a more intimate aspect of the story of Hagar. She sees it as a wedge that allows us to crack open the politics of human relationships, “the problem of fidelity not only in marriage but also in relation to God.” Unlike Bruce Feiler (“Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths”), she does not ask us to assume that any of these characters are based on flesh-and-blood human beings. Rather, she declares herself to be a “literary interpreter” and confines herself to what we can learn by deconstructing the biblical text and comparing it to the facts on the ground as revealed by historical scholarship and the unfolding of history itself.

Her sources range from Joseph Campbell to Jack Miles, from Mark Twain to William James, from the erotic poetry of the ancient Canaanites to the “Vision Quest” of the Lakota, all in an earnest effort to place the biblical text in a context that includes other moral, philosophical and religious artifacts. But she mostly draws on Jewish, Christian and Islamic exegesis to point out the tendentious meanings that pious readers have extracted from the text over the last 20 centuries and to show why they have created such tensions among the Abrahamic religions.

Thus, for example, Gordon points out that Abraham is shown to dine with an obscure king named Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible, but the Christian Bible suggests that Melchizedek was actually a mystical precursor of Jesus, thus reducing Abraham to “a primitive example of what is to come in the New Testament.” Gordon cites an Islamic hadith in which Hagar is shown to refer to the God of the Hebrew patriarchs as Allah, and the author points out that “the Muslim portrayal of Hagar is of a woman who is in many ways Abraham’s equal.”

Gordon joins other revisionist readers of the Bible in elevating Hagar to a lofty status that is denied to her in both the Scriptures and the exegetical traditions of Judaism and Christianity (if not Islam). “She began her life as a slave and ended it as a free woman who gave rise to a proud nation,” writes Gordon. “Hagar’s partnership with God took her far, but so did her initiative.”

Perhaps the single best example of how Gordon rereads and reinterprets the biblical text is the one that inspired the title of Gordon’s book. According to the Bible, after God encounters Hagar and Ishmar in the wilderness and reveals the nation-building role he has assigned to Ishmael, Hagar is shown to address God using a name that she has apparently coined at that moment: “You are El-roi,” says Hagar to Yahweh. “Thus Hagar reveals an originality, a willingness to break from convention, and an eagerness to connect this bewildering deity that sets her apart from every other Biblical figure, male or female,” writes Gordon. “Clearly, rules did not matter to this servant woman.”

The Bible, it has been said, is the least-read best-seller of all times. But there is a whole literature devoted to reconsidering the ancient text, a literature that is full of shocks and surprises, wholly unexpected cross-wirings of religious traditions, and illuminating flashes of insight and wisdom. On that shelf you will find Gordon’s book, a superb example of how to approach the Bible as a work of human authorship rather than the revealed word of God.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of seven books on the history of religion, including, most recently, “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God” (HarperOne).


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By gerard, October 28, 2009 at 2:06 pm Link to this comment

Well, after a long absence I have to get back in here long enough to say:  “A confession of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”

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By laura t., October 28, 2009 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

wow, purplegirl, a powerful post. you should be the religion scholar writing books, but then, you evidently are quite the scholar. bravo for your critique. ~laura xoxooxoxo

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By Leefeller, October 28, 2009 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

Davezx3

“I guess, in the end, we will find out the answers to everything, and about half of us will be fools.”


The telling in the end, shows the hand. No it is not proselytizing, one could say subliminal or sideways evangelizing?

Dave, it is one thing to believe in something, but when one shares it with others sort of spewing or preaching, this is sharing a belief otherwise known as evangelizing, the hard sell, an intended sales pitch. Using absolutism’s from ones belief is preaching Dave, you know it, my cat knows it and I know it.

Why do you deny it?

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By ardee, October 28, 2009 at 5:01 am Link to this comment

You are right, religion will never unite anything.  But God is not religion.  God never established the multitudes of religions, because they are, or have become anti-God.  Few, if any, of them actually even follow the words in their own man-made books.

The concept of at least one god is as essential to a religion as it gets. One may , of course, as does Dave apparently, believe in a god without need to join a like minded religious group, but then, what is the point? Then Dave spoils his somewhat comprehensible position by stating:

The Bible teaches that God will unite man.  It does do that.

So, Dave, unless you believe that the bible was handed down intact from some burning bush or mountain top you must agree that this bible of which you speak is the product of an organised religious group, do you not? It is, as most know, the product of many centuries of interpretation, mostly from the political necessities of the era in fact, written primarily to shore up power for one of those religious groups of which you decline membership.

So I am puzzled, Dave, granted that my deteriorating speed reading may be responsible. You profess no religious affiliation yet cite as an authority a book the sole purpose of which is to advance the cause of said group? I do not suggest you not believe whatever it is you wish, but you claim god will unite us all yet refuse to unite with any god believing group yourself.

I think uniting is a problem for society not superstition.

I cannot tell you how eagerly I await your response…..

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By DaveZx3, October 28, 2009 at 4:26 am Link to this comment

By Che J, October 28 at 2:26 am #

“Gordon’s book, like the rest of what passes for political and sociological thought these days, takes us back before the 19th century when at least humans knew religion itself was a con job”.

What planet were you living on?  That is one of the most absurd statements I have seen lately.  But no more absurd than the rest of the post.  Where could you possibly have dreamed this stuff up?

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By DaveZx3, October 28, 2009 at 4:16 am Link to this comment

ardee, October 28 at 6:36 am #

“Dave seems to propose that only through religion can Mankind unite. Funny, history has taught us that religion is the single most divisive force known to man”.

ardee, your speed reading skills are starting to dimish.  If you have read any of my complete posts on the subject, you will find that I am totally anti-religion, believing that religion is the invention of man, and that is why there are so many of them and they are so different. 

You are right, religion will never unite anything.  But God is not religion.  God never established the multitudes of religions, because they are, or have become anti-God.  Few, if any, of them actually even follow the words in their own man-made books. 

Much as we cannot scientifically prove the existence of electrons but can prove the existence of an energy force or power which seems to come from electron movement, we cannot scientifically prove the existence of God but can prove the existence of a spiritual force or power which seems to come from a supreme being.

If there were absolutely no power in the concept of God, then it would not have persisted.  People can’t get away with lies forever and ever and ever.  It is not just as simple as saying large chunks of humanity, except a few intellectual elitists, are completely stupid and misled.  It is not intellectually sound to deny the existence of God just because you have not experienced the power of God.  For that is about as narrow-minded and intolerant as a man get get. 

I am not afraid to discuss the subject, though it has become politically incorrect, and I welcome the bashing I will take for doing so.  I would also welcome a rational debate on the subject, because I have become well armed.  Not fanatical, but intellectual.

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By ardee, October 28, 2009 at 3:36 am Link to this comment

Dave seems to propose that only through religion can Mankind unite. Funny, history has taught us that religion is the single most divisive force known to man.

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By Che J, October 27, 2009 at 11:26 pm Link to this comment

Gordon’s book, like the rest of what passes for political and sociological
thought these days, takes us back before the 19th century when at least
humans knew religion itself was a con job.

The idea that religion as we know it in modern times was current in earlier
history is false.  Earlier cultures recorded history and science in a careful set of
oral stories as legitimate as any written history, perhaps more so.  The history
of the Hebrews is no more than a bastardized mix of these stories, most names
and places borrowed from other cultures.  Because so much of the history was
borrowed there are necessarily confusing references to earlier feminist myths
they had to include in order to achieve legitimacy in a time when people knew
those earlier stories.  However earlier people did not conceive of any kind of
‘god’ such as later modern peoples did - they had a metaphysics far more
similar to the Hindu one without one single godhead, either male or female.

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By Night-Gaunt, October 27, 2009 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

We can unify without losing our individuality or the characteristics of each county, for our mutual benefit. But can we? That is the question of our evolution at this time. Yes, evolution, it is behavior too that is important in survival as much as morphology. But can we pass this crucial test for a Type 0 civilization if we ever hope to reach a Type I level or become extinct?

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By DaveZx3, October 27, 2009 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

Leefeller, October 27 at 2:47 pm #

My statements which you are commenting on:  “The Bible teaches that the one God is the only one who can unite humanity and bring about a change in their poor behavior.  I tend to give a lot of creedence to this, because it is evident there is no tribe which will ever have the power to unite man.”

“Without unification, man is doomed to inevitable extinction.  Who can deny this idea?”

Are extremely clear, non-proselytizing, and a subject for inellectual and rational debate. 

Without unifcation man is doomed.  Self-explanatory statement.  You can’t keep waging war forever before somebody obliterates the world. 

There is no group of humans (I used the word tribe) which will ever have the power to unite man.  Fairly self-explanatory in the sense that it is being tried consistently, and war is always the result, because people are unwilling to give up their ways to go under the ways of another culture. 

The Bible teaches that God will unite man.  It does do that.  I did not comment on the value of the teaching, only that I am starting to give it creedence based on the performance of man over recorded history.  I have lost faith in one thing, so I feel entitled to replace it with something else. 

I am not recruiting you, but even if I was, I would not apologize for it.  Because I am entitled to my opinion about what it would take to unite man and end war.  And I have a right to express it openly. It is a right that I am guaranteed in the constitution of this great country. 

I am constantly recruited to join the forces behind the global warming remediation theories.  I have looked into the science, and I rejected the theories.  So they call me a fool.  They have a plan to save mankind, I don’t believe that it is sound, so I become a fool.  That, my dear sir, is proselytizing at its absolute worst.  As I said in another post, I got similar treatment from the Jehovah’s Witnesss. 

I guess, in the end, we will find out the answers to everything, and about half of us will be fools.

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By Leefeller, October 27, 2009 at 11:47 am Link to this comment

DaveZx

A lot or a little credence would seem proselytizing in the sense there seems value in a story to be told, (in this case by you)  of the bible, it seems some find it necessary to to promote selected parts of the bible, as evangelicals or in a subtle way, in this case, though I feel both are the same.

Region is not the issue it could be politics, if one gives credence to something as done in the first quote below, it suggests more than a casual comment.  Instead a belief, it would seem, belief is not the same as opinion?  Admitted acceptance or credence in this case seems more belief than opinion.

“The Bible teaches that the one God is the only one who can unite humanity and bring about a change in their poor behavior.  I tend to give a lot of creedence to this, because it is evident there is no tribe which will ever have the power to unite man.”

At first look, the quote below may seem opinion, but the question of statement seems also to be qualifying belief.

“Without unification, man is doomed to inevitable extinction.  Who can deny this idea?”

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By DaveZx3, October 27, 2009 at 10:53 am Link to this comment

Leefeller, October 27 at 11:14 am #

“It is one thing to believe in something, it is another to proselytize it”.

Most everyone who posts an opinion or writes a book about their theories is guilty of the broader definition of proselytizing.  Converting to ones way of thought. 

But for the narrower, more accepted definition, you are talking about converting someone to your religious way of thought.

If you have accused me of that, I would have to disagree, since I am not a member of a religion, so what am I going to convert people to? 

But as to whether or not God exists, that is not a matter of religion, but a matter of personal experience.  Which can certainly be opined about, but personal experience cannot be taken away by opinion.

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By Leefeller, October 27, 2009 at 8:14 am Link to this comment

DaveZx3,

It is one thing to believe in something, it is another to proselytize it.

To belong is important for some [ep[;e for they may prefer not to us reason, do not like themselves, feel incomplete as individuals, need company of agreement, so they join a movement, any movement, religious, political or sewing bee.

Evolution portrayed from one perspective according to interpretations of stories and fables seems most comforting in convenience.

It is one thing to read a story any story, it is one thing believe it, but when one believes it as blind belief and proselytizes it, then it becomes another thing. One can respect other peoples beliefs, only in mutuality.

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By DaveZx3, October 27, 2009 at 4:54 am Link to this comment

Every tribe, every culture, every nation and every religion has their heritage, traditions and beliefs.

Evolution indicates that man popped out on the evolutionary scale at a single time and a single place.  Evolution is much too complex for multiple versions of man to have been popped out in different places at different times.  Essentially that means that at the beginning of man there was one man, one tribe.  There were no Semites, no Africans, no Caucasians, no Orientals, and there was certainly no religion.  There was just man. 

Everything from that point was the invention of man, apparently.  The tribal stories were passed down but obviously changed as populations grew and became diverse. 

Questions arise, was the original story based on any truth at all, or was it completely made up?  Secondly, can a people which inherit a story, which is ingrained into them as absolutely true, be totally at fault for acting on it? 

It does absolutely no good to categorize and blame the stories (religions) as though some are good and some are bad.  They are all bad in that they were probably conceived in the defective mind of man.  The results may be better in this one than in that one, but that does not make the process of making up stories, traditions etc a good one. 

Man is wholly and totally at fault for his condition, whether he be Buddist, Christian or whatever.  For all nations and cultures and religions have found opportunity to weild the sword to one extent or another, and it is not an exageration to say that the world has been at war perpetually since the origin of man. 

Each religion can’t have a separate God.  There is not a smorgasbord of true Gods running around that we get to pick and choose.  There may be ET’s, there may be Heaven, but I am inclined to believe there is either one God or there is a whole bunch of would be gods, those invented by the religions of men. 

I have very good reason to believe there is one God who transcends the universe.  The Bible is the story of one tribe that has let Him down completely.  It mentions others only in so far as them come in contact with the subject of the story.  The subject of the story was not chosen due to any superiority, but arbitrarily chosen to prove that even when given special priveliges by God, man is incapable of producing good results.

The Bible teaches that the one God is the only one who can unite humanity and bring about a change in their poor behavior.  I tend to give a lot of creedence to this, because it is evident there is no tribe which will ever have the power to unite man.

Without unification, man is doomed to inevitable extinction.  Who can deny this idea?

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By hourglass, October 26, 2009 at 8:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

hello gerard,

the way i put it was lame, or the indoctrination is so generational that the
point was missed completely. if your bloodline is not Semite, then it is not
your tribal story ... not your heritage ... you are not of the Abraham or Abram
line and you are free from all the dogmatic constraints found and bound in
these books and their religions. your tribe was conquered and tribal story was
substituted by the victors.

you may call yourself a Christian but if you are from Europe or Asia or the
Americas the tribal story of Abraham in the Bible is not your story. If you’re not
an Arab, the tribal story borrowed from the books of Abram’s Yahweh found in
the Qur’an are not yours.

Cain left Eden for the land of Nod, found a wife, built a city and and lived
happily ever after. ... ah, Cain was the son of who? There was a place of human
inhabitation other than Eden?  Adam and Eve are the first of who, what, where,
and when?

i may be wrong, but i don’t think so ...

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By DaveZx3, October 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm Link to this comment

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of the greatest little stores in the Bible, and completely, absolutely misunderstood as to its meaning by the casual reader. 

But it is always nice to see so many people commenting on something they have little, if any, experience with or knowledge of, including Charlotte Gordon, whose book, hopefully, is listed in the fiction section. 

You might try and realize at least one thing, religion is an invention of man.  That’s why there are so many of them, and they are so different. It has been said by really great men of God, that you don’t really know anything of God until you transcend religion.  At that point, there is a manifestation of truth, which cannot be ignored, and it is not expressed or understood by words, but is expressed and understood by the Spirit.

I think since most of us have not been there, we would do well not to comment, and certainly not turn Bible stores into fiction novels.  But of course that is what religion is all about; man making God and His story into an image which is acceptable to man.  Pretty stupid thing to do, but a lot of people make money off of it, so how bad can it be?

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By Leefeller, October 26, 2009 at 2:30 pm Link to this comment

Gerard, your following comment was mine for a long time, but not only asking about religion, the question may be asked of politics and any other belief, cause or mass movement.

Gerard comment:

“understand why many people from all these Abrahamic faiths insist upon the exclusive sanctity of their interpretations”,

If one looks at all causes the people who join them and why they join, many questions are answered.

Originally I asked your same question myself, about people and why they ignored what I perceived as reality or even what seemed to me common sense.

Of course I do not have all the answers, but a very good explanation is in Eric Hoffer’s book “The True Believer ” possibly I may be the only one who finds his work enlightening, though I do not believe so for his book is still somewhat popular, I find it relevant even today, though it was written almost 30 years ago!

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By gerard, October 26, 2009 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment

In these comment lines it is well to keep in mind that not everything is to be taken seriously.  For instance:  “What’s your heritage? Your tribal story? Knowing this will keep you safe from any attempt at
brainwashing.”
  Some of my best friends had their heritage so brainwashed into them that they have spent years trying to find their way out.  Others thus trained are still confined within the beliefs of their grandparents even though what they believe has very little to do with reality.  They may never get “outside their box.” 
  Maybe that’s okay, but I doubt it. True, they may not be brainwashed (again), but they may not learn anything relevent to today’s world either.  You pays your money and you takes your chances, I guess. Problem is, we’re all in the soup together and what you don’t know does hurt you—and others.

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By Leefeller, October 26, 2009 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

Dudu101,

Your comment:

“I want to read comments specifically about Charlotte Gordon’s book and/or the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar”.

Seems maybe you should buy the book?

If I wrote down what I wanted, my list would be eminently longer then yours.

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By ardee, October 26, 2009 at 3:55 am Link to this comment

Dudu101, October 25 at 2:42 pm

Well good for you, but others seek deeper than you do apparently, as is our right.

Clue needed…...get one.

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By hourglass, October 26, 2009 at 2:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“But there is a whole literature devoted to reconsidering the ancient text, a
literature that is full of shocks and surprises, wholly unexpected cross-wirings
of religious traditions, and illuminating flashes of insight and wisdom. On that
shelf you will find Gordon’s book, a superb example of how to approach the
Bible as a work of human authorship rather than the revealed word of God.”

There they are ... words heretical ... blasphemous ... that have ignited many a
stake burning, stoning, image desecration, temple destruction and vest of
pellets packed with C4.

The 5 Torah - 8 Nevi’im -11 Ketuvim, Bible and Qur’an are texts of three
branches of the most savage, contentious, calamitous and dysfunctional tribe
of creatures to walk erect. Most of the human race is not of this Semantic line.
While Judaism does not convert, the two latter branches of this tribe have
slaughtered millions in destroying other peoples’ customs and beliefs by force
in a quest to rule the whole of humanity based on their telling of stories of
their tribal origins or beginnings. The most recent fanatical branch still on a
conquer quest.

The only ones of major consequence to have survived the onslaught are those
with stronger story lines, or traditions as ancient and deep as the fanatical
hordes that came to convert or kill them. Hindus have emerged ever stronger
after several hundred years of Islamic and, later, Christian insults. It’s younger
brother, Buddhism, although 5 centuries older than Christianity and about a
millenium before Islam, has lost ground on some fronts [the destruction in
northern Afganistan comes to mind], but survives and grows elsewhere.

What is growing and evidenced by empty pews in Europe and America is
atheism. This worries orthodox clergy no end ...

What’s your heritage? Your tribal story? Knowing this will keep you safe from
any attempts at brainwashing.

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By Leefeller, October 25, 2009 at 8:07 pm Link to this comment

Where is Christian96?  Since I believe in believing only in Urban Legends and having my house full of bibles, I found them to be useful coasters for my beer cans and Tequila bottles until clean up day, which will happen sometime in 2012!

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By gerard, October 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

“But she mostly draws on Jewish, Christian and Islamic exegesis to point out the tendentious meanings that pious readers have extracted from the text over the last 20 centuries and to show why they have created such tensions among the Abrahamic religions.”
  That’s a direct quote which tells specifically about this book’s purpose.  Probably those who comment are interested in understanding these “tensions” more deeply or finding ways to lessen or eliminate the friction.
  Maybe more urgent is to understand why many people from all these Abrahamic faiths insist upon the exclusive sanctity of their interpretations, and the degree to which they are willing to go to insist upon their own version as the literal “words of Gods and prophets.”

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By Dudu101, October 25, 2009 at 11:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

hark: “I don’t understand this obsession with the Bible…”
ardee: “Entertaining, possibly, well written, probably, meaningful, not at all.”

I don’t understand why people with these attitudes bothered to read this book review, let alone post a comment here.

I have no interest in collecting postage stamps or reading about it, but I don’t desire to discourage stamp collectors discussing their hobby.

I want to read comments specifically about Charlotte Gordon’s book and/or the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar.

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By ardee, October 25, 2009 at 6:27 am Link to this comment

An interpretation of an interpretation written centuries ago concerning events that took place vast centuries earlier.

Entertaining, possibly, well written, probably, meaningful, not at all.

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By Anarcissie, October 24, 2009 at 3:27 pm Link to this comment

hark:
‘I don’t understand this obsession with the Bible, unless, of course, you truly believe it is the literal word of God. ...’

Most of the universe is unknown, like what the person next to you is thinking, and we can’t deal with the unknown through facts because we don’t have the facts, and yet we have to deal with it.  Hence the need for myths, legends, magic, weird tales, spirits, and the like: they make life possible.

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By gerard, October 24, 2009 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment

Words: The sound of the breath of living two-legged creatures walking somewhere centuries ago,in a faraway forest or a field.  One points and says “Ugh!”
  The others assume what it means by watching his/her face. Mouth twisted in disdain, one hand holding throat as though to vomit.  “Not good, not nice, ugly, dangerous” or “wonderful, strange, “funny.” Fountains of words to be invented later,—tens of thousands of words, in thousands of languages, every word the living breath of a human being—being born, being nurtured, being taught, being loved, being sick, being killed, being (how mysterious it all is!) dead.
  A strange sound is heard.  What is that?  Wind?  A fierce animal?  The ghost of our Grandmother?  God?
All words and meanings invented—by the tens of thousands, each one different, each one at first a limited, almost empty contaner, filled by centuries of experience and story-telling to overflow with different ideas—all more or less true, more or less false. 
  For time proved that words,no matter how wonderful, are not the same as real life, but only a faint echo, an approximation, a “finger pointing at the Moon,” a manner of speaking. An ex-press-ion, a pushing out of thought and emotion, a question into the unknown, a prayer, a song. 
If you listen carefully you can still hear the roar of the primitive in the syllables of Je-hoooooooo-vaaaaaah!  And the long winds of the desert in AlllllaaaaaaaH!  Salaaaam Aleichemmmmm!  And the incessant chanting of barefooted priests in the mountains of Asia: Namuuu Amiiidaaaaa Buuuuddhaaaaaa!
  Words are magical and dangerous, the sound of them is bewitching.  Easy to misunderstand, easy to use as weapons, easy to believe, easy to manipulate.  Beware of words. They kill and they giveth life. They may seem divine at times, but they are all too human, crumble and fall to earth when a strong light is thrown upon them.

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By Night-Gaunt, October 24, 2009 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment

It addresses the fear of death, and its conquest, and the removal from this painful messy place we call life, to a better ordered place. I think it is directly related to evolution and survival. There are always a few in any given population that have deviations from the norm, like lack of any need for belief in any kind of god, as a means to keep the species flexible to survive if their particular characteristic would turn into a useful one.

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By hark, October 24, 2009 at 8:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t understand this obsession with the Bible, unless, of course, you truly believe it is the literal word of God.  And then you have to explain why this god only revealed himself to primitive peoples in one small part of the planet, thousands of years ago.

Otherwise, it’s just a collection of myths, legends, and historical accounts among hundreds of others that didn’t make the final cut.  Literally billions of hours have been spent interpreting these tales, squeezing meaning and revelations from them that never went into them in the first place.  And English, of course, was not the language that these stories were written in.

And how many originated orally, handed down from generation to generation before they were composed in writing, centuries after the supposed and original “revelations”?  I’m guessing the Biblical versions bear little resemblance to the originals.

It seems more likely that we are putting meaning into the Bible, rather than extracting it, according to our particular religious views.

How do we know, for example, that creation legends weren’t just simple tales made up by the elders sitting around a campfire for the amusement of curious children, that they have no significance whatsoever, and never did?  That there weren’t dozens of wildly diverse tales that ultimately got melded into the narratives we find in Genesis 1 and 2?

We don’t.

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By Robert, October 24, 2009 at 1:12 am Link to this comment
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What about Lilith?

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By Dudu101, October 23, 2009 at 11:47 am Link to this comment
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Purple Girl’s notion that Sarai only offered Hagar to Abram and was offended when Abram gladly accepted her offer, is a good speculative explanation. My Christian Sunday School explanation was that Sarai wanted a baby as much as Abram, and it was a custom to use a slave as a surrogate mother. Sarai could hold Hagar in her arms as she gave birth and then claim the baby as her own. Also, polygamy was acceptable back then.

But in Genesis 16, Sarai is unhappy as soon as Hagar conceives. Treated badly, Hagar runs off into the desert before giving birth, but returns.

Now here is a Jewish twist. I may be wrong, but I believe there is a Jewish oral tradition that has Abraham (Abram) marrying Hagar after Sarah (Sarai) dies. He marries Keturah (Genesis 25), who bares him six sons. Keturah is actually Hagar. If true, then Abram had more interest in Hagar than just wanting to accommodate Sarai’s wishes. Also, Ishmael could have visited Abraham and Keturah after Sarah passed away.

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By Night-Gaunt, October 23, 2009 at 8:48 am Link to this comment

But then the Bible reads like a huge episodic stage play and epic. So the drama it is.

I find it of interest but there are many here in the fundamentalist community who are notorious for being against any changes to their strict interpretation of their holy writ. Such mythological stories are used to inform those reading it, or hearing it, as to why things are now.

I will put it in my interest file.

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By Maggie15, October 23, 2009 at 8:40 am Link to this comment
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Jonathan Kirsch does not address the issue of “God is shown to endorse” Sarah’s
demand that Abraham send Hagar & Ishmael into the desert to die.  That God later
rescues them is a good thing.  “...[If] Abraham had chased after his mistress..” etc.
he would have been defying God’s “endorsement.”  How could he have known that
God had rescinded his endorsement of death for Hagar & Ishmael?  Isn’t the issue
of conflict between religions the issue of “What does God want?” with each
religion believing it has the true answer & each religion claiming a different
answer.

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By Anarcissie, October 23, 2009 at 7:12 am Link to this comment

I haven’t read the book, but from the description above it looks like Charlotte Gordon has translated the legend of Hagar into a highly conventionalized modern soap opera.

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By Ivan Hentschel, October 23, 2009 at 6:57 am Link to this comment
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I am a-religious, and a resident skeptic/cynic about books such as this one, but, 1)this book would appear to be an exploration of the potential useful re-interpretations of mythologies, without (thank “god”) an axe to grind, and 2) we would all do well to read the book before launching into pontifications. If you have not yet read the text, don’t start telling me how wrongly it addresses your personal viewpoint. You should check the water level in the river before you jump from the bridge.

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By Donna Cayote, October 23, 2009 at 5:34 am Link to this comment
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To oldog: Adam and Eve are not specific to the Catholic religion. It’s part of the Old Testament and it is not even the creation story of the OT. Genesis tells that story. Adam and Eve are the part about becoming frail and faulty humans, cast out of the garden of Eden. Where the Catholics enter the picture is their use of the story to invent original sin and the need for Jesus to come down from MT. Olympus to die for our sins.
    Now, I ask, why do so called born agains and evangelicals keep using the OT to justify their frail and faulty dictums against the rest of us mortals. The New T was supposed to fulfil the OT and move humans beyond the angry, rathful and vengeful god to a more forgiving, loving god. HUH?

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By Purple Girl, October 23, 2009 at 5:12 am Link to this comment

Sarah Ran off Hagar because she bore the proof of Abrahams weakness.Sarah had offered Abraham a selfless gift of producing a child, but he would have to foresake her,(the one that had been chosen for him,By God?). Sarah merely offered the idea. It was Abraham who could choose to refuse out of a sense of love and devotion to her. But he accepted the ‘gift’.
Did Abraham offer Hagar a child. Did he give her a choice? Or did he consider her an object to be given and taken without regard?
Perhaps Sarah was more upset by Abrahams lack of committment to her and his apathy towards Hagars wishes. It was not jealosy- but shame. Ishmael is proof of Abrahams selfishness.
Perhaps God did not only decided Sarah should not bear children- but neither should Abraham. He’d ‘given’ Abraham Sarah as a lawful wife (‘in the eyes of God’), they were ‘married’. Of couse Sarah really had no right to offer such a ‘gift’ if she too had adhered to the sacred vow of marriage. Abraham was not really hers to give.God had picked Abraham to be Sarah’s husband- ‘A match made in heaven’. They were stuck together to endure what ever God had intended for them. Thus both had to abid by the decided- including being a childess couple.
Hagar and Ishmael are evidence that Abraham is not devoted to either his ‘Eve’ or the God who choose her for him. And neither was Sarah for arranging it and,initially, condoning it.Hagar and Ishmael are as much her proof of Sarah’s disobedience as Abrahams.
Did Hagar welcome Abraham into her bed? Agree to usurps Gods decision,about them, and herself. Perhaps her destiny was to have another man’s child? Or no child at all.
This is more a story about reverence for the ‘Will of God’, then anything.
Which leads me to the question- What proof,then, is ‘marriage’ of devotion to the one that you speak the vow with or the One you are taking it before?
If marriage is such a sacred union, not just recognized by God but pre determined, you would accept whatever destiny that unfolded. God had decided Abraham and Sarah’s blessed union would not be allowed to be ‘fruitful and multiply’. If God determines the Birth of a child, then the lack of one is also a Divine decision.
The angish Abraham’s must have felt banishing his only son may have been punishment for his lack of adherence to Gods Will. And perhaps Sarah was meant to have a child in the next year- but jeporadized it and had to wait until near the end of her life as pennence. And ,of course, Hagars stuggling through exile alone with a child could be seen as punishment.
Isn’t this really a story of how humanity continues to ‘eat the apple’regardless of their proclaimed Faith and so called reverence for the Almighty?
This story is an indictment of all three religions concept of ‘marriage’. If Abraham is the precusor to Christ (christianity),and Hagar the ‘birthmother’ to Islam, then Sarah must be the the unchanged Jew. So this story tells more the Weakness in these three ‘faiths’ then their strengths and adherence.

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By montanawildhack, October 23, 2009 at 3:11 am Link to this comment

I’ve read the Bible and I’ve read Aesop’s Fables and as for providing “illuminating flashes of insight and wisdom” old Aesop’s got God beat hands down. 

Take the story of the grasshopper and the ant for instance….  Today is a beautiful fall day and I should be taking advantage of it by cleaning out my gutters… But no, like the grasshopper, I’ll be lounging in the backyard drinking beer, smoking weed and reading “song of the dodo.”  But my neighbor, the ant, will be out taking advantage of the warmth and sunshine making certain his gutters are ready for winter…  And sure as shit, I’ll be out there on a cold ass drizzly day in November hands freezing while scooping the goop out of my gutters…  It happens every year… 

So boys and girls for real flashes of insight and inspiration drop that copy of the Bible and “the woman who named god”, go to your local library and pick up a copy of Aesop’s Fables… You’ll thank me while you’re sitting by your warm fire on a cold drizzly day in November watching your dumbass neighbor cleaning out his gutters…

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By oldog, October 23, 2009 at 3:10 am Link to this comment

I love the Catholic version of a creation myth. Eve,
and then Adam, eat of the ‘tree of knowledge’ (the
knowledge of good and evil) and are cast out of the
‘Garden of Eden’ for disobedience.

Religion sets a premise that we once lived in perfect
harmony with god, and we must return to that obedient
state.

As animals, we did live in the perfect harmony of
instinct, where god made all the decisions. But with
that first act of disobedience (original sin) humans
began to question that ‘perfect’ existence.

I love being a heretic. Perilous as life is when each
individual makes their own decisions about good and
evil, (and must suffer the consequences with no one
else to blame) I for one have no intention of going
back.

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