It seemed too good to be true, two recently rediscovered works by Walt Whitman, written during the same period in which he was writing what would become the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a groundbreaking masterpiece that turned Whitman into a transcendent everyman, or at least a transcendent Every American. We might even think of it as a reconfiguration of the Son of Man trope, the Human One or proto-human figure associated with Jesus in the gospels. Whitman then becomes proto-American, at exactly this moment on the edge of catastrophe when America needs to decide who it will be. Here were these two texts that might just shed light on this cocoon moment as Whitman was about to break forth. Alas, as is so often the case, it was too good to be true. The two works, “Manly Health and Training,” exactly what the title promises, and “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” pulp fiction in the form of urban mystery, shed little if any light on the transformation that was taking place. Their purpose, quite clearly, was to pay the bills.
What to publish and when is quite the question these days, isn’t it? Never mind the whole business of what to tweet. A late life publication by Harper Lee did little to enhance her literary reputation. I’ll take my “Mockingbird” Atticus Finch that looks a lot like Gregory Peck, thank you very much.
An earlier Southern masterpiece, Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” loses some luster when you realize that the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins reduced it by 60,000 words. Would that already massive book have been as good with the additional material? Should Perkins be listed as co-author?
A similar question could be asked about T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I have a volume with facsimiles of the first draft with all of the edits and notes by Ezra Pound. You can literally look at the page and see what Pound has crossed out, which turns out to be a substantial amount. Originally titled “He do the police in different voices,” a reference to Charles Dickens, the final poem post-Pound looks nothing like the original. I know Pound was a mad genius, playing a critical role in the publication of some of the early 20th century’s groundbreaking authors, but he was also a traitor, an anti-Semite, and a Fascist. I do wonder what would have happened if he’d never laid hands on “The Wasteland.” Fortunately, we have later works like Four Quartets to reassure us that Eliot’s is still the voice we hear when we read his works.
Last Sunday’s New York Times included an interesting reflection on the stories we tell ourselves about faith, and in an unlikely place, the Modern Love column in the Style section. Or maybe it is exactly the likely place, for the risk of love is nothing but faith. A divorced mother, no longer practicing Orthodox Judaism, which is to say the religion of orthopraxis, tells her story of wrestling with questions of identity and pizza that isn’t kosher with her 10 year-old son. She writes:
“What had held me inside all those years was the conviction that I needed to be the same person I’d always been. The same as those I loved. This, more than anything, was the iron bar across the exit door. Love was what tied you and kept you inside. Love was what you risked losing if you wanted to choose for yourself.”
Funny how our stories, stories of identity and community, can trap us. We have the power to choose the stories we tell and re-write and edit them as needed, but often choose to be stuck.
Today’s scripture story is just one of many terrible stories from the Hebrew scriptures. Sarah couldn’t have a child so Abraham slept with her slave, Hagar, and produces a son named Ishmael, because nothing says “biblical marriage” like sleeping with a human you own. Then God makes good on a promise and the elderly Sarah impossibly has a son of her own, the Isaac who will later make that terrible trip up the mountain. Concerned that the blessing, which is to say the flocks and slaves, will go to Ishmael, the oldest son, Sarah orders that mother and child be driven away, a journey they almost don’t survive. At least this time it is human cruelty that demands a father get rid of a son. It will be divine cruelty that will demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, that miracle child, even if the twisted tale has the boy saved at the last moment. Killing a son is a thing. Just think of traditional understandings of the crucifixion. Ishmael does survive, like Abraham and Sarah, like his half-brother Isaac, touched by divine promise.
The story of Ishmael and Isaac is etiological in nature. Etiology is the study of causation, and many of the oldest biblical stories are designed to explain why things are the way they are, why people worship at some weird spot, why there is ancient rubble on the top of a particular hill. These tales are often fictions, undermined by archaeology and outside texts, but like the fiction of race, they were fictions that took on tremendous power, that can still bend and transform human existence. Consider the way this story continue to play out at least twenty-five centuries after it took its current form as the Torah was constructed between the Sixth and Eighth centuries Before the Common Era. This story explains why there are people to the south of Canaan who are just like the Hebrews but don’t count as Hebrews, in a region we now call the Sinai as well as Arabia. Muslims understand Ishmael as the forefather of Muhammed, making the battle between the sons of Ishmael, Muslims, and the sons of Isaac, Jews, biblical and eternal, stolen blessing and injustice from the dawn of time. “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” Divine sanction for eternal conflict, maternal jealousy becoming tribal rivalry.
We’re right back here again next week, as Isaac himself is tricked by his spoiled younger son.
We do keep coming back to this question of what to do with these stories, and particularly what to do with these most ancient stories when God comes across as arbitrary and cruel. Maybe it is right that we keep coming back to stories, for the three great monotheisms are all known as the religions of the book, and our faith is not based on abstract philosophical concepts. Nothing against Zen, but we didn’t get this way by staring at a wall. Our belief is grounded in the encounter of human with mystery and of human with human, and both are messy. Our faith is fleshy, with lust and scabs and broken bodies, and we can relate because we have experienced what it describes. Not one of us has escaped the cold claws of irrational jealousy.
As we tell these stories, can we read between the lines and hear the voices of those who have been edited out? Can we be troubled by the text, read against it and wrestle with it?
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called this way of reading, a lover’s quarrel with the text, the “school of suspicion,” though it has come to be known as the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”
What harvest is there in reading these troubling texts? Surely not that children are expendable, though that is all too often the consequence of our politics. Not that we can trust God to take care of those we cast out of society. Not that collateral damage is ever okay, even if we find ourselves so entangled in dysfunction and sin that we do collateral damage all the time.
Maybe the best we can do is to read the story with eyes wide open. It is certainly etiological, smacks of tribalism and exceptionalism. But read against the text, we see yet another story in which God delivers the innocent from human evil.
It is a story of salvation.
Hebrew identity and sense of self aside, Sarah, wife of Abraham, matriarch of the Hebrew people, is evil. She demands that a mother and child be driven out into the desert. She has effectively placed a hit on Ishmael in the way that David would later place a hit on Uriah. She is no better than the legendary Livia, wife of Augustus, who tradition tells us played a hand in the elimination of everyone between her son and the crown. We can take solace in the fact that if we haven’t ordered anyone’s death, we’re doing better than these great biblical figures.
This child sacrifice is not God’s idea. Nor is the text bold enough to say that Abraham went along with Sarah’s scheming. He does not immediately say yes. He found the matter distressing on account of his son. There are no qualifiers. Not distressing on account of the son of the slave… on account of his son.
Let us sit with Abraham in his distress.
We do not know how long this went on. The text gives us no clues. It could have been a single conversation, it could have been months. What is important to note is that Abraham does not say yes. Caught between the wife he loves and the son he loves, he is unwilling to sacrifice one for the other.
We might wish, with our modern concern for the value of each and every life, that Abraham had said “no,” but that was then and this is now and they did not think like we think. Humans were expendable, even your own children could be expendable. But still, Abraham does not say yes. It was distressing to him.
Everything in the text is in the text for a reason. They spent centuries creating, combining and editing these ancient myths. Even when they are trying to tell this tale that justifies their tribalism, their sense that God must love them above all other people, they leave in this subversive bit. For this is what God does, our subversive God. God undermines human cruelty, even when we try to pin the deed on God. “Call yourselves the children of Isaac all you want, but don’t pin this mess on me. This was not my cruelty.”
Abraham acts only when he receives an assurance from God that Ishmael will be okay.
Still we get this whole little scene in the desert, Hagar putting the boy down under a bush, God hearing Ishmael’s distress, an angel of God appearing to Hagar. Don’t try to make it all hang together. It doesn’t. Like the binding of Isaac, the angel-out-of-nowhere is problematic. Do remember this: envy put Ishmael at risk. Divine promise saved him.
Still, we should not let Abraham off the hook too easily. This story follows immediately after one in which Abraham tells people that Sarah is his sister, leading to all sorts of complications and a web of lies, another story that demands suspicion, where we must read against the text. These people are messy.
Maybe instead of focusing on the tribal propaganda associated with the promise of Isaac, we should focus on the divine subversion that is the promise to Ishmael.
Even in the midst of self-justification, lies, jealousy, even in the midst of attempted murder, God is peddling life, is offering promise.
The innocent one is saved. And God made a great nation out of him.
Eliot’s “Wasteland”, pre-Pound and post-Pound, is a refiguring of the ancient Fisher King myth, tied to that of the Holy Grail, a story of fertility, a land as dry as Sarah’s womb. Then, like a well out of nowhere in the desert, deliverance, salvation. Then spoke the thunder.
May the God of the Thunder, of lost boys in the desert, of messy and imperfect prophets, always subvert our stories. May that God move us, may our God move us, this day and always. Amen.