The Making of a Reader — Part II
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with Professor Robert Sacks at St. John’s University in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In his mind, he was fascinated by many things, but, above all, he was a wonderful reader of the biblical text. In fact, he wrote a commentary on reading Genesis entitled The Lion and the Ass. I am fortunate to have a copy of this unpublished work and have learned much from his reading skills.
He introduces the commentary with a very basic assumption that underlies all reading. I present to you an extended quote from this introduction:
Each book has its own way about it, and generally we begin to learn how to read a book by stumbling around in it for a very long time until we find our way. Otherwise we risk the danger of reading the book by a method foreign to the intent of the author.
Reading a book is different from reading a flower. No modern botanist asks the flower how it wishes to be understood, but rather he tries to find a place for it within the modern science of botany. In the eyes of the present commentator, the principal task of the reader of any book is to attempt to discover how the author wished his book to be read. The question of whether that assumption should not equally apply to the flower must be left for another occasion.
If no method is available in the beginning, we can only cast about for possibilities in an attempt to reach the author. If we find that our results begin to solidify into a real whole, we shall have some minor guarantee that some contact has been made between reader and author. This approach will often lead to blind alleys and to disappointments, but any other approach would in essence dictate to the book how it should have been written. We must proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. A book haphazardly written may accidentally lead us into many paths of thought, but if these apparent accidents begin to multiply beyond the limits of probability and begin to point in a given direction, we shall be forced to consider the possibility that what appeared to be accidental was the fruit of forethought.
It is startling how confident he is that the text will teach us to read it, if we just start out and muddle along. So, let us be bold and see what we might uncover when we read the story of Jacob’s and Esau’s births in Genesis 25:19-28.
(19) These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, (20) and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. (21) Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. (22) The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. (23) And the LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger." (24) When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. (25) The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. (26) Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (27) When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. (28) Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. (NRSV)
Look at how much has happened within these nine short verses. We start with the genealogy of Isaac and his wife, Rebekah. Then, in quick succession, we are told that Isaac’s wife is barren, that he offers a prayer, which is followed by conception and a difficult pregnancy. Where there was none, now there are two, and these two cause Mom lots of pain. She asks God: "What’s up with this?" The question is answered by God, with an interpretation that includes a foreboding prophecy. The children are born, twin boys, different not only in appearance, but also, "when the boys grew up" we find that these physical dissimilarities have evolved into different orientations with competing family alignments: Mom and Dad have their favorites.
All this in 9 verses! This important part of a family’s life is condensed into a few brief sentences. Try doing this with your own life. This is typical of biblical writing. Notice, for example, how much time has passed. In several places, we are given specific information about this. Isaac is forty years old when he marries. He is sixty when Rebekah gives birth. Twenty years! Now, return to verse 21: "Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived."
How should we read this verse? It appears, at first glance, that Isaac prays and Rebekah immediately conceives. One follows upon the other. Does this mean that Isaac begins praying in his sixtieth year or has he been praying for twenty years? The author doesn’t tell us how long Isaac prayed. He lets us reflect on this by withholding explicit information. Does the amount of time he might have prayed make any difference? It makes a great deal of difference! Praying for twenty years fills the story with a whole range of human emotions that flow from the yearning for children and the apparent withholding of that gift. Twenty years!
And yet, there isn’t any mention of feelings in the text, at least not in direct and explicit language. Does their absence mean Isaac and Rebekah didn’t have any feelings about being childless? Certainly not! These characters are human beings like ourselves, and, if the story is going to make any sense at all, it must be a human story. Where will all the implied emotion come from? The reader must bring these into the story when they are asked for. Where do the readers get them? We find them in the same place all human beings find them, within our own experience. So, as we read that Isaac and Rebekah wait, we are asked to explore our own experience of waiting for something we have longed for.
I do not have to look far. I have been ill for many months with a nasty disease requiring an equally nasty period of treatment. I want to be farther along in this process than I am. I become impatient with the lack of energy, shortness of breath, and loss of muscle tone. My impatience, however, changes nothing. I cannot speed up the pace of my own recovery. When I step back and allow the process to unfold as it is, then I am surprised with a whole world of feeling and insight that my impatience blinds me to. It is the same when we read these highly condensed texts. When I read with impatience, I miss most of what is happening. When I allow this difficult part of my life to be touched by the story of Isaacand Rebekah, I share with them in moments of hope, despair, frustration, anger, doubt, faith, and confusion.
I have also counseled couples who have been desperate for children, yet were not able to conceive for a variety of reasons. Their anguish is profound. The feelings of helplessness are overwhelming. In my experience, these are couples who would be wonderful parents. So, I become angry and confused when I see others who don’t even want to be mothers and fathers but who have no difficulty conceiving children. There are no simple equations that suggest the birth of children is done fairly.
When I think about these twenty years, I do not understand why God waits. The text is silent. We imagine there must be a reason, but, like Isaac and Rebekah, we often have to live with silence when we search for reasons behind our difficult moments. If we read slowly, allow our own feelings to be touched, we become as helpless as Isaac and Rebekah, bearing with them the growing tension and concern as each month of unfulfilled ovulation passes by. It is not easy to be present to the suffering of another, but it is no small thing when we are.
The important thing to understand is that we cannot sit safely in the audience, unaffected by what is happening in the drama. The text requires us to be active readers. We have to climb onto the stage, into the story, and struggle with what it might be like to be these people.
I used to read bible as I would read a newspaper, skimming across the surface. That’s how newspapers ask to be read. As a result, for many years, I never noticed that twenty years had passed between Isaac’s marriage and the birth of the twins. The author could have cleared this up with a simple statement like: "Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; he prayed for twenty years and then she conceived." But the writer plays with time, as great story tellers do; we make our judgments instinctively—prayer is followed by conception. These are often hasty judgments, as in this case, when we are told only later, that Isaac was actually sixty when the boys were born. The writer intentionally challenges the very assumptions he initially leads us to make. But having made the jump, we must reconsider what we once took for granted.
I return often to this part of the story and to these same questions. Once is never enough. Recently, while thinking about Isaac and Rebekah waiting for twenty years, it dawned on me that I should have been more alert. This has happened before. Isaac’s folks waited a longtime for him to be born. I keep forgetting that I am already reading in the middle of the story. The genealogy in verse 19 is not just a list of ancestors to be skimmed without notice. Each name is a window back into all the stories that help us understand how we got to the present moment.
This is true for all our family histories. Speak a name, and memory is triggered. The mention of Isaac’s father reminds us that for Abraham and Sarah, there was such a long gap between God’s promise of a son and the fulfillment of that promise, so that when God finally tells Abraham that he and Sarah are about to conceive, Abraham falls on his face and laughs (Gen. 17:17).
This is where Isaac gets his name. Isaac means, "he laughs." So, every time we hear the name, Isaac, we are reminded of how long his own parents waited for him. This is my work as the reader. The story-teller simply speaks the name, "Isaac." I take the hint and make the connection. In this way, the flow of the story is not broken by "authorial intrusion." The writer assumes that we want a story that takes some thought and imagination. He needs only to say "Abraham was the father of Isaac." Ah, yes! There it is. I found the clue and can’t help smiling from the delight of this discovery. This is the "fruit of forethought" that Robert Sacks speaks about in his introduction.
So far, we have read only nine verses and I have raised only a single question: how much time has passed? Touch the story anywhere, and it explodes in all kinds of directions. And, in just a few lines, the text begins to reveal how it wishes to be read.
We learn that we have to read slowly, carefully, and with lots of curiosity. We are rewarded quickly for this slower pace by the sure discovery that there is much more in the text than we thought on first reading.
In addition, the text asks us to be active readers, bringing our own lives and experience into the narrative. The text is not complete without us. The first bible readers, the rabbis, likened reading bible to baking bread. The text is the wheat. It requires leavening and kneading by our intellect, imagination, and experience for the bread to provide life and nourishment for the reader.
In the third part of "The Making of a Reader," I will return to these same verses in Genesis, but with different questions. I would like to invite those of you who are interested to join the study by raising your own questions and observations of this text. What do you find in these verses that tickle your imagination or challenge former assumptions?
I suggest that you bring the text to your own bible study or read it with your family. It is particularly wonderful to read bible with children of any age, especially if they know they have the freedom to ask their own questions and arrive at their own point of view. Often first-time readers see things overlooked by those who have been reading these stories many times.
Robert Alter points to the joys of a reading community at the conclusion of his book, The Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age. He writes:
Reading is a privileged pleasure because each of us enjoys it, quite complexly, in ways not replicable by anyone else. But there is enough structured common ground in the text itself so that we can talk to each other, even sometimes persuade each other, about what we read; and that many voiced conversation, with which, thankfully, we shall never have done, is one of the most gratifying responses to literary creation, second only to reading itself. (p. 238)
I would enjoy your notes, letters, or e-mail at the Pietisten web sight (www.pietisten.org) with any insights and thoughts you have. I will include them in the next part of the series. The text forms a community around it—a reading community. Our mothers and fathers called them conventicles.