Genesis: Who’s Your Favorite?

I’m writing something on each book of the Bible, and for some books this is easier than for others.  Genesis definitely falls in the more difficult category.  It’s a relatively long book (the third longest or so, there being different translations and ways to count), and can’t really be summarized, and the stories in it are so rich that I’d hesitate to list the lessons each teaches.  But here’s an exercise I’m up to:  deciding which of the many interesting people we learn about is my favorite.

I’ll take the Academy Awards approach and pick a male winner and a female winner, but there’s no affirmative action in my doing so, and I’ll disclose at the outset that the overall winner would be a woman.

Here, by the way, are the basic storylines:  Adam and Eve and their (most immediate) descendants; Noah and the Flood; the Tower of Babel; the adventures of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the life of Joseph.

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Let’s start with some easy cuts from the list.  Certainly we’ll pick neither Adam or Eve, the tragically flawed first couple, who are the source of all our woes — she for gullibility and he for failing to mansplain.  Not Cain the murderer, of course; and while Abel was a good guy (4:4), he’s like the first one killed in a war film or horror movie — just not around long enough to be our favorite.  We never learn much about Seth, and lots of others fall into this category after him — all those guys and gals who begat or were begotten, with little if anything else said about them (e.g., in chapter 5), and Noah’s wife (though she gets an honorable mention since she must have gone through a lot; speaking of which, certainly not Lot’s wife), as well as the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah.  Noah’s boys did not seem to have distinguished themselves as much as the old man.  You can call him Ishmael, but we aren’t told much about him in our Scripture.   Not sleazy Uncle Laban or his dumb-jock nephew Esau.

Nothing wrong with being a good hunter like Nimrod (10:8-9), but that won’t get you the prize, and who knows who Melchizedek really was (14:18-20)?  The kings Abimelech (chapters 20, 21, and 26) seem decent enough, but we really can’t give the prize to a Philistine now, can we?  You can’t pick someone (Joseph’s brothers) who conspires to kill or sell into slavery a brother, no matter how obnoxious he is, or someone who has sex with his daughters, even/especially if he’s so drunk he doesn’t know what he’s doing (Lot, who was also willing to turn those daughters over to a bunch of randy Sodomites).  The pharaoh in the Joseph story was a good talent spotter and an equal opportunity employer, yet probably at best only cruel but fair (remember the baker, 40:22).   Potiphar chose well in hiring Joseph but not in firing him or picking a wife.

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On to some more promising candidates.

You could make a case for Hagar, but I’m afraid both she was too catty in her pregnancy success with Sarah.  As for Sarah — meh.  Beautiful, and loyal to her husband, and long-suffering but ultimately successful in becoming a mom, sure.  But nasty to Hagar, willing to have her husband and herself commit adultery, and a liar to God’s face (18:15).  Sorry, no.

The other great female rivalry in Genesis is between two sisters, Leah versus Rachel.  Why in the world are their more girls named after the latter than the former, I wonder?  Rachel is certainly a thief and maybe a secret idol-worshiper (31:19, 34), as well as jealous and envious in her relationship with Leah, and seems to have little to recommend her except her beauty.  On the other hand, I have a hard time finding anything to fault Leah for, and she was certainly a patient wife with an unloving husband.  I don’t think Leah has enough in the way of positive achievements to recommend her over Tamar and certainly not over Rebecca — I discuss the two of them below — but she seems altogether more likable than Rachel.  She gets a special award for most underrated woman.

Jacob, that unloving (to Leah) husband, is the poster boy for the guy who got everything wrong except the One Big Thing, though that One Big Thing was ultimately what mattered.  As his name portends, all his life he was a “grabber”– taking advantage of his dumb-jock brother, cheated by but then cheating his father-in-law, putting everyone in his household but himself in harm’s way when his caravan meets Esau, and playing favorites among his children.  But he knew God.

I’ve heard it said that Isaac apparently never got over the trauma of nearly being sacrificed, and for whatever reason he generally does not come across as a strong guy, is quite ineffectual in handling the Esau-Jacob rivalry, and cannot in any event be ranked ahead of his father Abraham (he shares with him the fault of being afraid with foreigners to admit his relationship with a beautiful wife (26:7-10), although with him no adultery actually results).

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So for the men we’re down to Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph.

Technically you can’t really dispute that Enoch should get some kind of prize; he’s one of only two people to get to Heaven without dying first (the other is  Elijah).  The trouble is, we really know so little about him.   So let’s agree that he’s a very good man, but we don’t know enough to rank him as “favorite.”   (By the way, of course I’m talking about the Enoch of Genesis 5:18-24, not Cain’s son, fleetingly mentioned at 4:17-18.)

Regarding Noah and Abraham, I exchanged emails with a good friend I’d posed the question of this post to, namely his favorite male and female characters in Genesis.  My friend picked

Noah, because he was the first vintner, and Cain’s wife, because she was innocent of the crime yet stayed with her husband, the world’s first felon despite the hardships that came her (and their) way. …

If Noah had invented beer or bourbon, he would have been a hands down favorite.  I just like the anonymous, long-suffering wife of Cain, the every-woman who “stands by her man” before it became a C&W song.

I couldn’t pick Abraham because he was, in a manner of speaking, a three-time loser.  He made three mistakes: (1) He slept with his wife’s assistant (even though Sara agreed); (2) he sent her out into the desert when Sara complained; and (3) he almost killed Isaac.  As to that last point:  The only appropriate responses to God’s command to take an innocent life were (a) the “Ricky Ricardo Response — “God, ju got some splainin’ to do!”; (b) telling God that he was not the God that he (Abraham) thought him to be; or (c) if someone had to be killed, plunging the knife into his (Abraham’s) own chest.  Abraham whiffed on three pitches.  That is why God had to become man in Jesus, to teach the world that love is self-sacrifice.

I have to disagree with my friend when he says that Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac, but he’s right about the first two strikes, and Abraham had other failings as well to put him out, like twice putting his wife into adulterous situations in order to save his own skin (12:10 and 20:2).

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So, then,  in the male finals:  Noah or Joseph?  That’s a tough call.  You can’t really fault Noah for anything except getting drunk once (cursing his son Ham, 9:22-27, seems overwrought to me but is not so characterized) and, if my friend is right about Noah being the first vintner, he can be excused for that since he might not have know about that about his invention’s effect (this is the first time wine is mentioned in the Bible).  And it won’t do to say that Noah did nothing admirable except build the ark, since the reason God picked him for this task in the first place is (6:9) because he “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.”   And it’s especially hard to be righteous when everyone else in the world isn’t, as was apparently the case.  Consider, too, that the first thing Noah does after the Flood was build an altar and offer sacrifices to God.  When we’re introduced to Joseph, on the other hand, he’s a young twit and a tattletale  (37:1-11).

Still, I’m going to pick Joseph as my favorite, in part precisely because his character improves, and more generally because of his resilience and faith in the face of more than one disaster.  He’s sold into slavery, by his own brothers, no less; he comes back from this to head Potiphar’s household, but then is thrown into prison on a false charges of sexual harassment; he ends up running the prison (!), too, but remains there despite the promise of the cupbearer to get him out; he finally is released and quickly rises to become the de facto ruler of the whole country, which he saves from starvation; and with great human emotion he saves his brothers, forgives them, and reunites his family.  Through it all, God is with him, and he always credits God, too, and keeps a strong faith.  He does so in spite of his travails, and in spite of the fact that it must have been tempting as he rose in Egyptian society — which, remember, was the height of sophistication compared to Joseph’s rube origins — to have put his backwater faith behind him.

Let me end this discussion with an interesting parallel in the way the Bible itself ends the Noah’s ark section and tells of Joseph’s death. Noah’s faith moves God to promise never to destroy the earth again (8;21-22), and Joseph promises that his descendants will eventually leave Egypt and be restored to the Promised Land (50:24).  So the legacies of these two men are still with us.

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And in the female finals it’s between Rebecca and Tamar.  While the male contest between Noah and Joseph is a close call, there’s really no contest here.  Sure, you do have to admit that Tamar had moxie, but no more than Rebecca and we don’t know as much about her; Rebecca has a whole lifetime to commend her.  She has beauty, boldness, bravery, and brains, along with a clear-eyed feminine ruthlessness.  Without her, the Hebrew narrative would have ended quickly and badly.

Abraham’s chief servant in the finding-Rebecca story (chapter 24), by the way, gets the award for best supporting character.  After meeting Rebecca he gives one of the most succinct and persuasive sales pitches in the Bible when he explains his mission to her family (24:34-49).  But the best line goes to Rebecca.  After handwringing among the old folks on whether or not she should leave home and go far away to marry Isaac, they finally summon her, and she says simply (24:58), “I will go.”

That shows her bravery and boldness, and of course the way she wins Isaac’s blessing for Jacob shows her shrewd decisiveness.  But you can see the latter at 27:42-46 as well (getting Jacob out of Dodge), and her bravery at 27:13 (“let the curse fall on me”).

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I said at the outset that, if it had to come down to one person, the grand prize winner would be the female champ, namely Rebecca.  She was Joseph’s grandmother, and my googling suggests he was only six when she died; since he was born when Jacob was still working for Uncle Laban (30:22-24), it’s not clear if they ever met.  But I like to think she got to play with him, and saw her spark in him and fanned it.