The Making of a Reader - Part III
A good story must capture our attention and hold it. This is accomplished as much by the artful telling of it as by the content. A good story, told badly, becomes an uninteresting story. In contrast, an ordinary story told well can be very engaging. Listen to Bill Cosby describe a simple visit to the dentist or making breakfast for his children. It is his art that draws us in, releases our imaginations, and fills us with good laughter and mutual understanding. The writer also draws from a variety of skills to keep the narrative lively and our interest engaged. When this happens, as it does often in the biblical landscape, the effects are mesmerizing and often profound.
One method involves careful timing in revealing important information. For example, in the birth narrative of Jacob and Esau, Genesis 25: 21, we read: "Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer and his wife conceived." We discussed, in the last chapter (Fall, 1999), how we are led to assume that one follows the other; barrenness, prayer, answer, conception. It is only at the end of the birth sequence that we are told that 20 years have passed, requiring us to adjust our hasty assumption to the possibility that it might have been 20 years of prayer before conception. The writer might have saved us this effort but preferred that we learn this lesson through the artfulness of the writing—in this case, the deliberate placing of critical information. It is this intentional design that keeps us alert, surprised, caught off guard. We experience enjoyment at having been manipulated, as in an unfolding of a mystery.
Sometimes, the opposite happens. We are given information others in the drama do not have or, at least, we are not certain they have. One of the most compelling moments, an instance of this technique, follows the anointing of the young shepherd, David in I Samuel 16. Samuel, prophet and anointer of Kings, is given the job of finding a new successor to the recently rejected Saul, the first King of Israel. Samuel, trudges off into the provinces searching for the chosen one. He is surprised and chagrined when the choice turns out to be a lad, smallest of Jesse’s litter, but "ruddy, with beautiful eyes and handsome." The scene quickly shifts to the private chambers of the Old King. Saul is fighting with overwhelming depression following his renunciation. We watch and listen to his servant draw close and describe to him a shepherd boy whose lyre playing has earned a reputation. Perhaps, the musician might soothe his torment. The list of attributes ascribed to the lad are plentiful: skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him (I Samuel 16:18).
Indeed, the Lord is with him! What a profound understatement. Neither the servant speaking, nor Saul hearing, knows what we know. Tension stirs within us, created by this disparate knowledge. We watch the tormented king, fearing the loss of his own royal calling, invite his successor into his own household. Imagine this scene on film! Imagine the level of feeling as the two come to fill the same frame of the camera. And what about David? What does David think of this invitation to soothe the old monarch. These things the author will not tell us. Whatever David is thinking or feeling is locked tightly within the boy. This characteristic of the new king will continue throughout the narrative following his exploits. Unlike Saul, whose most secret and troubling thoughts are revealed to our eyes and ears, David remains one of the most opaque characters in the Hebrew text.
Sometimes vital information that is revealed to one is then withheld from another central character. These situations create their own unique energies which we can experience because, as readers, we have the privileged position of knowing more than any single character. One exceptional example of this occurs in the 17th Chapter of Genesis.
God announces to Abraham:
As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations, kings of peoples shall come from her." Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?
"...said to himself"?—not quite. The narrator has taken us close enough to hear the old patriarch mumble under his breath. Look at the wonderful contrast. He falls on his face—a bold and impulsive response to the announcement. Then, in a hush, face in the dirt, he whispers to himself. Does he imagine he can speak low enough that the Lord would not hear? Abraham’s wild response is forever etched into his memory as God names the child, Isaac—"he laughs."
At this point, the story is only half over. Sometime later (chapter 18), strangers show up at Abraham’s encampment and reiterate the birth announcement. Sarah, in the tent cooking for the guests, overhears the conversation.
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" The Lord said to Abraham, " Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh yes, you did laugh." (verses 10-15)
Notice the parallels with the earlier scene between Abraham and God. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh when they hear the news of a child. Both complain that they are too old to have kids. Both think they are whispering to themselves, as if no one could hear them. We hear both. So does God!
The underlying question is this: Why does God ask Abraham why Sarah laughed? Why not confront Sarah directly? Could it be that since both reacted with laughter the first time they hear that they are going to be parents, God is actually confronting Abraham for failing to inform Sarah of their prior conversation? "Why did Sarah laugh?" really means, "why is Sarah hearing this for the first time?"
Is it possible that Abraham didn’t share the vital information concerning the coming of the child with his wife? If he didn’t, when did he plan on telling her? Sooner or later she would know anyway. Or, does he withhold the revelation because he doubts its truth, delaying the word until he has more assurance? After all, he had been hearing for a long time about children but, to date, has only conceived Ishmael, whom he begs God to accept as his legitimate heir. Is he afraid to come to Sarah with yet another promise, sparing her another disappointment?
These possibilities, and others, circle through our minds. In the end, we can never be certain because his reason for not telling Sarah is withheld from us. This ambiguity, created by withholding the details from us, is also deliberate. We can only speculate, test out our assumptions, and explore the various reasons couples might not share essential information with each other, for this is not a new situation. It is present in all relationships. We do not always share critical information; we wait for the right moment or for the right words and are often caught in the act. Far from judging the characters in this story, we discover a warm intimacy with their circumstance. This familiarity is created by allowing us to watch the scene unfold as it does. We care for this old couple, feel the struggle between them, and find that they have blessed our own lives in the process.
From their experience, we may be able to better understand when similar situations rise within the next generation. We read that Isaac and Rebekah also waited for sometime before their children were born. Isaac was not one hundred, but he was sixty. The difficulty in conceiving does not end with the long-awaited conception. Rebekah, experiences an arduous pregnancy:
And the children clashed together within her, and she said, "Then why me?" and she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her: "Two nations in your womb, two peoples from your loins shall issue. People over people shall prevail, the elder, the younger’s slave."
And when her time was come to give birth, look, there were twins in her womb. And the first one came out ruddy, like a hairy mantle all over, and they called his name Esau. Then his brother came out, his hand grasping Esau’s heel, and they called his name Jacob (25:22-26a). (Translator, Robert Alter)
Rebekah inquires of the Lord about the tumult in her womb. She is given more information than she expected. She is not only bearing children, but whole nations. As these kids are clashing within her, so will the peoples who follow. Most important of all, comes the news that the older son will be the slave, meaning that the older will serve the younger, a reversal of the roles of natural birth order. This is mind-boggling information, essential for the unfolding of the entire story. What does she do with this revelation? Does she tell Isaac? The text, without commenting directly, leaves us to assume that she must have told him, because the knowledge is too critical and important for her to withhold. Everything is at stake here: the blessing, the power which flows from inheritance, the future! The ancient system of primogeniture is being overturned. No reason is given for the change, only the facts.
Esau is first, the older. Jacob comes second, the younger, holding onto his brother’s heel. Thus he is named, Jacob, "heel-holder." Anyone present, including us, knows this much: Esau is the older, if only by seconds. Position is everything in this world. But not this time. We also know what Rebekah knows and cannot be certain if anyone else has this critical information.
We carry whatever assumptions we have made with us into the unfolding tale: " The lads grew up, and Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents. And Isaac loved Esau for the game that he brought him, but Rebekah loved Jacob" (25:27-28).
Do these family alignments indicate anything about the vital information passed on from the prophecy? Or, are we simply viewing what is true for all families: a special bond is created when the interests of one parent coincide with the interest of one of the children. Such a bond does not need to be interpreted as exclusive of the other siblings. However, we still cannot be certain if Isaac has heard the prophecy. This allows us to flirt with the idea that Jacob remains a "dweller of tents" because that’s where mom is, and mom has nurtured this special bond because she has the inside information of who is going to be the son with the inheritance.
Then, without warning, chapter 27 opens with the surprise announcement that Isaac has decided to pass on the blessing, investing the chosen child of the next generation with the prerogatives and responsibilities that derive from all the family wealth.
Behold Isaac’s intention! It appears that he means to give the blessing to Esau, the first born son. Has he forgotten or has he never known what the intentions of the Lord were on this matter? Did Rebekah tell him or not? Each time I read this story, I ask this question. I look for any hint that Isaac is aware or that he remains a dupe. So many wonderful possibilities flow out of this question. Could the whole tragedy of stealing the blessing and the subsequent exile been avoided? What causes Rebekah to panic and orchestrate the hasty but complicated plan? Why not, even at this late date, tell Isaac what the Lord has said to her concerning the children? Her bold action vaults her onto the stage as a central character, much like her mother-in-law, Sarah, who offers her servant, Hagar, to her husband, so that they could at least have one child before they died.
Is this lack of faith, or strength of character? We are captivated by the twists and turns, so much a part of real life, and revealed to us in the biblical narrative.
I don’t think it is possible to know for certain if Rebekah told Isaac. I do know that the pleasure of trying to solve this wonderful mystery will last well into my old age.