From January 1st 2015 this blog has provided a daily meditation on the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark. You can follow this series from my archives.
GENESIS 12 from verse 10
Now there was a famine in the land
nad Avram went dow To Egypt to sojourn there
for the famine was heavy in the land.
It was when he came near to Egypt that he said to his wife Sarai:
Now here, know that you are a woman fair to look at.
It will be when the Egyptians see you and say: she is his wife,
that they will kil me, but you they will allow to live
Pray say that you are my sister
so that it may go well with me on your account, that I myself will live to give thanks to you.
It was when Avram came to Egypt tat the Egyptians saw how exceedingly fair the woman was;
when Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her they praised her to Pharaoh,
and the woman was taken away into Pharaoh’s house.
It went well with Avram on her account.
Sheep and oxen, donkeys, servants and maids, she asses and camels became his.
But YHWH plagued Pharaoh with great plagues, and also his household because of Sarai, Avram’s wife.
Pharaoh had Avram called and said: what s this that you have done to me!
Why did you not tell me that she is your wife?
Why dd you say, she is my sister?
So I took her for myself as a wife.
But now, here is your wife, take her and go!
So Pharaoh put men in charge of him, who escorted him and his wife and all that was his.
And Avram travelled up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, and Lo with him, to the Negev.
nd Avram was exceedingly heavily laden with livestock, with silver and with gold.
He went on his journeyings from the Negev as far as Beth-El, as far as the place where his tent had been at first, between Beth-El and Ai,
to the place of te slaughter site that he had made there at the beginning.
There Avram called out the name of YHWH.
Sometimes the discreet charm of the biblical narrative takes your breath away. Here is the story of how Avram prostitutes his wife to Pharaoh in order to protect his life and increase his wealth, but it is all told so delicately that most readers ask no questions. YHWH obviously doesn’t approve of the arrangement; but he plagues Pharaoh, who is innocent rather than Avram who is responsible. This puts YHWH firmly on Avram’s side as regards the increase in his wealth.
Of course the story reminds the experienced Bible reader of another story still to come, that of Joseph and his descent into Egypt, which also ends with its hero gaining great wealth. This Pharaoh is also “plagued” by YHWH as is his successor in the time of Moses. So the narrative serves as a model for other stories to come: famine in Israel, descent into Egypt, successful dealings with Pharaoh, exit from Egypt with wealth or victory.This pattern results from the combination of YHWH’s protection and Jewish resourcefulness.
The reader is assured in a subsequent use of this stratagem by Avram that Sarai has had no sexual relations with the Lord of the harem, but that assurance is not given in this case. Throughout, Sarai is silent but the reader assumes she agrees to do what she is asked. She is the enigmatic centre of the story, which brings discredit on Avram in the eyes of a modern reader, but perhaps may have seemed to the original audience a smart use of resources in a tricky situation. The author wants his audience to note YHWH’s special protection of Sarai, as a sign that he has plans for her.
(Anyone who wants to reflect on the casual inhumanity that comes from the possession of slaves could have a careful look at the sentence, “sheep and oxen, donkeys, servants, maids, she-asses and camels, became his.”)
14 And Herod the king heard Jesus (for his name had become public), and said, John the baptist is risen from among the dead, and on this account works of power are wrought by him.
15 And others said, It is Elias; and others said, It is a prophet, or one of the prophets.
16 But Herod when he heard it said, John whom I beheaded, he it is; he is risen.
17 For the same Herod had sent and seized John, and had bound him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her.
18 For John said to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have the wife of your brother.
19 But Herodias kept it in her mind against him, and wished to kill him, and could not:
20 for Herod feared John knowing that he was a just and holy man, and kept him safe; and having heard him, he was disturbed but he heard him gladly.
21 And a holiday being come, when Herod, on his birthday, made a supper to his grandees, and to the chiliarchs, and the chief men of Galilee;
22 and the daughter of the same Herodias having come in, and danced, pleased Herod and those that were with him at table; and the king said to the girl, Ask of me whatever you wish and I will give it you.
23 And he swore to her, Whatever you ask me I will give you, to half of my kingdom.
24 And she went out, and said to her mother, What should I ask? And she said, The head of John the baptist.
25 And immediately going in with haste to the king, she asked saying, I desire that you give me directly upon a dish the head of John the baptist.
26 And the king, while made very sorry, on account of his oaths and those lying at table with him, would not break his word with her.
27 And immediately the king, having sent one of the guard, ordered his head to be brought. And he went out and beheaded him in the prison,
28 and brought his head upon a dish, and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.
This is the longest passage in any Gospel from which Jesus is absent. That gives it great importance, particularly as it is designed by Mark whose overwhelming purpose is to present Jesus as the crucified and risen Son of God. In the previous passage (see yesterday’s blog) Mark told how Jesus began to extend his mission by sending messengers of the “kingdom” round the land. Such an action would of course have had political implications, a sense that Jesus was claiming some sort of rule over his people. Mark has already mentioned the adherents of Herod as seeking Jesus’ death along with the Pharisees, so here, with great skill, he gives his readers a portrait of Herod the King as a weak, corrupt ruler, who consumes his own people, both by the lavish wastefulness of his court and by the blasphemy of having a dead man’s head brought to a dinner table. This almost cannibalistic image serves to define Herod, the false ruler, over against Jesus the true ruler, who in the next episode, feeds his people. Herod is depicted a an anti-messiah, as possessed by evil which he does not fully desire but cannot reject.
The passage shows great restraint of composition. There is no expression of moral judgment on Herod and his court, just a sober and horrifying account of their corruption and its result. Mark has been careful to demonstrate the character of Jesus’ religious opponents; here he gives a character sketch of the political opposition.
There is a model here for those who wish to denounce corrupt politicians. No amount of rhetoric will do as good a job as a sober account of what they have done. People in the UK may argue about Tony Blair’s politics, but a clear account of the half-truths and outright lies by which he justified a war in Iraq, will be enough to reveal his real character. The long delay in making such an account available to its citizens is a disgrace to the United Kingdom.
Mark’s distinction between rulers who consume their people and those who feed them is of permanent value.