A view of the front and back cover

On Calvin and Hobbes and Building Character

The “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip by Bill Watterson ran from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995. One recurring theme was his father telling six-year-old Calvin, “It builds character.” The things he said build character include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bug bites
  • Camping
  • Numb toes
  • Starvation
  • Shoveling the walk
  • Playing sports (baseball)
  • Enduring cold weather
  • Food
  • Suffering a tough life
  • Learning to ride a bicycle.

So basically, any time Calvin had to do something he didn’t like, his father said, “It builds character.” One in particular stands out to me. Calvin complained that it was cold in the house.

Calvin: It’s freezing in here!! Why can’t we crank up the thermostat?!

Dad: Consuming less fuel is good for the environment and it saves money.

Calvin: Oh.

Dad: And being cold builds character.

Calvin: I KNEW IT!!

https://www.reddit.com/r/calvinandhobbes/comments/83o3q6/being_cold_builds_character/

Blame it on Paul and James

I imagine, like Calvin, the last thing you want to hear about this crisis is it builds character. So I won’t do that. I’ll let Paul do it.

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope …

(Rom 5:3-4 NRS).

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. So Paul agrees with the dad. Sorry, Calvin.

But when we’re going through suffering or trials of any kind, it’s hard to see anything positive. It’s hard to “count it nothing but joy,” as James said (1:2). It’s hard to think about the perspective and maturity you will gain when all you want is for it to be over. After you go through a few trials, though, you can look back and see, “Yes, I am a better person for having gone through that.”

At some point, we all ask something like, if God loves us, why is there so much suffering? Why won’t God get rid of the Coronavirus? If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), why is God allowing all the chaos and suffering of this pandemic? We think love wants to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. And that is true, to an extent (Mat 7:9-11). But that is only part of the picture. My experience living with clinical depression and Irritable Bowel Syndrome has convinced me that God’s love cares more about our character than our happiness. I wouldn’t have chosen those trials and the crises of faith that came with them, but they made me more compassionate and wiser. They stripped away any what’s-in-it-for-me aspect of faith I had before. And they resulted in a WD Award Winning book.

A view of the front and back cover
I was pleased with how the front and back cover looked.

As wonderful as that is, what I really hope for is people telling me after they read my book, they got diagnosed, or they started counseling, or they now understand why their son, daughter, spouse, or parent acts the way they do. In other words, that it really helps others living with depression. That is often where perspective and wisdom happens. God allowed me to go through this, so I can help others who are going through the same thing.

A New Prayer for Perseverance

The only way your faith can mature is to go through trials and experience God’s faithfulness through them. James said it this way.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

(Jam 1:2-5 NRS)

In that spirit, I wrote this prayer I am using to get me through this, and I hope it helps you.

“God, you said through your servant James that the trying of my faith would produce perseverance and wisdom. I would rather you remove it from me. For that matter, I would rather You remove it from my family, from my neighbors, and from the world. I am facing the brutal facts, and they are overwhelming. But if You choose not to remove it immediately, I know there must be a reason. There must be a lesson in this, even if I can’t imagine what it is right now. I confess that I am lacking wisdom in this trial. You promised to give me this wisdom, the perspective I need, if I ask. So I ask You to give me wisdom to see as You see, and to use this until You choose to remove it. Amen.”

Don’t Call It “The New Normal”

I added the word “immediately” because God will remove this at some point. Or our medical experts will find a cure and/or vaccine. We can take some comfort in knowing historically, no pandemic lasts forever. The plagues of the 14th and 18th centuries did come to an end, as did the Spanish flu of 1918. That is why I refuse to use the words “new normal.” New normal implies this is what life is going to be like from now on. Social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces several times a day are all good for flattening the curve. And the sooner we get everyone on board with that, the sooner it will be over.

But it won’t be like this forever. One day, it will be safe to gather together again. We’ll be able to go back to church, movies, and concerts with our friends and family, and without masks. We’ll be able to shake hands and hug those we love. I and others will be able to seek out speaking engagements in person rather than on screen. But for now, the loving thing to do is to protect each other by stopping the spread of the virus however we can. Remember who you are doing this for. I socially distance from you, so I don’t have to socially distance from my wife. No offense, but I’d rather get close to her than to you.

So stay safe and six feet apart. If you can’t do that, wear masks and wash your hands. And remember the words of Paul and James I shared with you. They had it right. Suffering and the trying of our faith does produce perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, so that the trying of our faith makes us mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Ask God for wisdom to see how this is forming your character to conform to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Because as bad as this may be, the only thing that could be worse is if we have to go through this and not learn what God wants us to learn from this trial.

Grace and Peace to you.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.

Urban Legend film promotional poster: What you don't believe can kill you.

The Meaning of the “Wife-Sister” Stories

In my last post, I talked about the “wife-sister” episodes in Abraham’s saga. I pointed out they are problematic in these ways:

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once or twice, but every place they went (Gen 20:13)?

I’m going to answer those questions in this post. But first, there is one more nagging question. Why didn’t God reprimand Abraham?

From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.

But we don’t see God reprimanding Abraham in any of God’s appearances, even when it looks like he needs it. In his assessment, Dr. Ralph F. Wilson says,

Perhaps, these two stories aren’t intended to teach us about either ethics or faith. Perhaps these stories are intended to teach us about the intervention of God to keep his promises, regardless of the worthiness of his servants [bold mine]. God is sovereign and will keep his promises — in spite of us, if need be. God has made a covenant with Abraham and will allow nothing to prevent its fulfillment.

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

These “sister-wife” episodes don’t present Abraham and Sarah as heroes in any fashion. But they do show God keeping God’s promises to Abraham.

  1. God promised, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse”  (Gen 12:3 NRS). When Abimelech took Abraham’s wife, God warned him he’d better return her to him, or he was a dead man. Promise kept.
  2. God had just promised Abraham and Sarah, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10 ESV). Sarah has been infertile her whole life, but God has just spoken her fertility into existence. What if she’s not pregnant yet? If Abimelech makes her pregnant, the promise to Abraham is broken. Therefore, as God said, “it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6 NRS). God is keeping that promise to Abraham.
  3. God told Abraham, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year” (Gen 17:21 NRS). In some parts of the world, people believed that if two men lay with the same woman, the child could be begotten of both fathers. I don’t know if this was the case in Abraham’s culture, but even if it wasn’t, God wanted it to be clear. The child born of Sarah (Isaac) came from Abraham. If she had just become pregnant, that question would always be uncertain. If that is the case, God is again protecting the bloodline of the Messiah.

You might have an issue with how God acted here, protecting Abraham and Sarah without reprimanding them for their deceit. It’s easier to understand with Pharaoh than here. When they went to Egypt, God speaking to Abraham was still new. For us looking back, it’s easy to say he should have trusted God more. But trust is something that is built over time.

By the time we get to the Abimelech episode, Abraham has had twenty-five years walking before God to learn this lesson. God promised to curse those who curse you, so why do you still not trust God? Do you still think you have to pass your wife off as your sister?

I admit I have the same issue. But as I said in earlier posts, I’ll say it again. I’m not interested in justifying the motivations of these characters, whether it be Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Abimelech, or even God. I’m interested in understanding their motivations. That’s the writer in me. We need to understand our characters, even if we disagree with them.

That is another way I agree with Dr. Wilson. This is not a lesson in ethics or faith. It certainly is not a “Go and do likewise” passage. It is about God keeping God’s promises. That is something God will always do, “regardless of the worthiness of his servants” (Wilson). So here is a little more from Dr. Wilson.

The Apostle Paul summed it up well in this saying: “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

We disciples are to learn that God…will keep [God’s] promises to us and to the human race. [God] is more powerful than any force that comes against us. We can trust [God].

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

But Did This Really Happen?

In my last post I also said I have a hard time believing this is real because

  1. Sarah is ninety at this point. Is she really going to attract the attention of a king who already has a harem of young, beautiful wives and concubines?
  2. Abraham said he did it every place he went, because he thought there was no fear of God in any of the cities of Canaan. Yet there are clear examples in his own story where that is just not the case.
  3. I haven’t found any evidence outside the Bible where the kings of Egypt and Canaan made a habit of killing the husbands of beautiful women, so they could claim them for their harem. After twenty-five years of wandering in Canaan, Abraham should have noticed this.
  4. How could he have gotten away with telling this fib every place he went, when word certainly would have spread along the trade routes? That kind of ruse could not have fooled the kings and their officials for so long.

So why did the author do this? Why tell the same story twice when even once made their founding ancestors look so bad? And why tell it in a way that strained credibility to the breaking point?

New Word: Doublet

Oxford Online Biblical Studies defines a doublet as

A second version of a saying or of a narrative. [For example] Mark 8: 1–9 is regarded as a doublet of the previous account (6: 35–44) of the feeding of the multitude. But when small units are repeated it is not always easy to know whether these are doublets or deliberate repetitions for stylistic effect.

Doublet

It is generally accepted among scholars that these stories circulated orally for hundreds of years before they were written down and collected into what we call the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. We have two different stories of Abraham and Sarah telling kings she is his sister because they fear the king will kill him if they know he is her husband. There is even a third such story involving Isaac and Rebekah, also with Abimelech of Gerar (Gen 26). How did he get fooled the same way twice? Could we be looking at an ancient “urban legend”?

Here’s my take on it. It started as one story of Abraham and Sarah, either in Gerar or Egypt. That story got passed down orally. In different places, some of the details changed over time. Three versions of the same story were preserved in the Torah.

  1. Abram and Sarai with Pharaoh of Egypt.
  2. Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech of Gerar.
  3. Isaac and Rebekah with Abimelech of Gerar.

Dr. Wilson believes this is not a doublet (or a triplet in this case). There are so many differences in the details that they could not be merely three versions of the same story, he claims. Yes they could, if the same story were told in three different locations over hundreds of years. The differences are significant. But they are exactly the kind of differences that happen when the same tradition is preserved orally in different communities.

Urban Legends

Urban Legend movie poster
Urban Legend: What you don’t believe can kill you.

This story also has a lot of marks of what we call today “urban legends.” Snopes.com gives this definition.

Urban legends are best described as cautionary or moralistic tales passed along by those who believe (or claim) the incidents befell either folks they know … or acquaintances of friends or family members.

-David Mikkelson, Urban Legend Definition

Wikipedia says:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, especially as having happened to a friend or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These legends can be entertainment, but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. They may also be moralistic confirmation of prejudices or ways to make sense of societal anxieties.

Whereas legends usually take place in the distant past, urban legends are contemporary to the speaker and the audience. The teller claims it really happened, but no further evidence exists. Over time, the details change as the setting changes. For example, in one place, Egypt changes to Gerar, or vice-versa. Abram and Sarai change to Abraham and Sarah, because the Gerar incident is reported after God changed their names. Maybe in another locale, instead of Abraham and Sarah, they say it happened to Isaac and Rebekah. One teller says Sarah slept with Pharaoh. Another is not comfortable with that, so they say God intervened to stop Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah.

Most cultures have urban legends in some form. They are usually cautionary tales against behavior the listener might be tempted to do. The Snopes article says,

The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous.

– Mikkelson, Urban Legend

In ancient times, they were transmitted orally, and some of them were written down. There is usually a moral and/or a theological component to them. Even though, as I said above, these wife-sister legends do not show proper ethics, there are moral components to them:

  1. Kings need to be wary of bringing a strange woman into their harem.
  2. Adultery is unacceptable, even for a king.
  3. Using deceit to protect yourself may bring guilt on the innocent.
  4. Our fears of the “other” are not necessarily true.

The theological lesson is quite simple: God keeps God’s promises, sometimes even in spite of our unworthiness.

Modern examples

Today with the Internet, an urban legend can spread all over the world in an instant. Recently, two people who don’t know each other told me Steve Perry, former lead singer of Journey, was dead. Turns out, he is very much alive. How did they hear the same “fake news”? Someone started a rumor on the Internet, a rumor which had no basis in fact. I don’t know if that qualifies as an urban legend, but it shows how something salacious or shocking can spread quickly, whether it’s true or not.

Perhaps a better example is one from my childhood. Around Halloween, we would hear stories of people in a nearby neighborhood hiding razor blades in candy. It wasn’t just from other kids. Some adults told us that, so it must be true. Then you heard kids who moved from other towns telling the same story about neighborhoods in their town. Did it ever really happen to anyone? As far as I know, there was never any evidence of it happening anywhere. But just about every kid had heard it as if it happened close to them.

What was the purpose of telling us that? Not to teach us a history lesson about our neighborhood. It was a cautionary tale against trusting others too easily. It warned us there are evil people out there who would enjoy doing harm to us. And unfortunately, you just have to watch the news to see that is true. It’s part of the whole lesson they tried to teach us, “Don’t talk to strangers.” And don’t just dive into a bag of candy you collected from strangers. At least, let your mom look at it first. Maybe you should look for signs of tampering. And bite into it carefully.

With most urban legends, there could have been some real life inspiration. For example, the legend involving a serial killer with a hook could have originated with a series of “lovers’ lane” murders in Texarkana in 1946.

This scared the pants off me when I was young.

So my conclusion is, since these “wife-sister” episodes have all the hallmarks of an urban legend, that’s how we should read them. There might have been a real incident one time, but the story spread so far and wide, there is no way to tell when, where, how often, or even if it really happened.

For Writers: Plotting

When it came to the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the author had two different traditions regarding Abraham passing off Sarah as his sister (plus the one about Isaac). Even if they were urban legends, they were both sacred traditions and needed to be preserved. This is not the only instance in the Abraham saga where it looks like there are two different versions of similar stories. Sarah drives Hagar and Ishmael away twice. God promises Abraham he will have a son with Sarah twice. There are two stories involving Lot in Sodom. Why all these doublets?

Besides coming from two different traditions, I believe the answer has to do with plotting. It turns out there is a way of plotting stories in the Bible that works well in this kind of situation.

It’s similar to the plotting of many popular stories today as well. In modern writing classes, when they teach about plot, they usually teach the most common pattern called Freytag’s Pyramid.

The story starts with Exposition, setting the scene for the protagonist (the main character). There is an inciting incident (the point where the line turns up) that takes him out of his ordinary life and forces him to pursue a goal. In the Rising Action, there are obstacles along the way. Often, though not always, there is an antagonist (villain) who opposes him. The action and peril keep rising until the story reaches a Climax (often the direct confrontation with the antagonist), the moment or conflict to which the Rising Action has been leading. After the Climax, there is Falling Action that leads to a Resolution.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the climax is when Dorothy and her friends are trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle, and Dorothy (protagonist) defeats the witch (antagonist). {Sorry for the spoiler, but this is one story I assume we all know}. But her goal was not to defeat the witch. Her goal was to get home. After the climax, the falling action is what she does to get home. The Wizard is revealed to be a fraud. Even so, he helps the Lion get his courage, the Tin Man get his heart, and the Scarecrow get his brain. The resolution is when Dorothy, with help from the Good Witch, makes it home.

In some stories, the resolution can be very short. One short story I’d say is must reading for any author is “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, first published in Collier’s on January 19, 1924. The climax happens near the end of the story, and the resolution is literally one sentence. So after the Climax, the falling action and resolution are where unanswered questions get answered and loose ends get tied up. How long is it? It is as long as you need it to be, whether it’s one sentence or several chapters. However, audiences today are used to fairly short resolutions. In Connell’s story, one sentence was enough for both the falling action and the resolution.

Plotting, Biblical style

In Biblical times, they found a longer resolution more satisfying, especially when each key event came full circle. In the diagram below, you can see how this pattern is played out in the Abraham saga. There is rising action leading to a climax, but each key event in the rising action is somehow mirrored in the falling action and resolution.

Story of Abraham events that form a pyramid
If we rotate left, it would form a pyramid. X marks the climax of the story–Expulsion and rescue of Hagar, Gen 16:1-16.

Sorry if it’s hard to read. I don’t have a drawing program (or I probably do but don’t know how to use it), so I couldn’t make this a true pyramid. But you see how each event from A to G builds to a Climax marked X. After the Climax, the events in the Resolution are marked with a prime and follow the same order (mostly) from G to A. The story began and ended with a genealogy (A and A’). The wife-sister episodes are marked D and D’. Each key event leading up to the climax is either echoed or resolved in the Resolution, and mostly in reverse order.

This diagram shows the first instance of Hagar leaving as the climax. I would have thought the climax would have been the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1-7). That was the event all the action had been building to. But that would throw off the symmetry that’s clear in the diagram. This pattern of storytelling is common in the Bible, so it’s safe to assume the original audience would have found this story structure satisfying.

The episode with Abimelech is placed after the promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah, some twenty-five years after the episode with Pharaoh. Taken on its own, the story sounds like it should have happened earlier. Abraham sounds very inexperienced in terms of his faith in God, not too surprising in Egypt, but by now you really think he should know better.

Here’s my take. I think this was originally early in the story, but the author moved it to the D’ position to create a more enjoyable story experience for his audience. However, if he did this for the two wife-sister episodes, why did he place the border dispute with Abimelech (E’) in the “wrong” position? I don’t know. But if you remove E and E’ from the diagram, the overall story of Abraham follows the pattern perfectly.

Furthermore, the author placed the Abimelech story after the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son within a year. They are fertile and sexually active again. God had to keep Abimelech away from Sarah to protect the bloodline of the Messiah.

Finally, this episode also takes place after the destruction of the Cities of the Plain. When Abraham looked down on the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, it probably revitalized fears that “there is no fear of God in this place.” So while the details of the Abimelech story don’t make sense, the placement of the story here fits well with the overall story pyramid.

Conclusion

So to answer the issues I started with,

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but. However, the stories are not about their heroism. They are about how God kept God’s promises in spite of their unworthiness.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened. These are examples of urban legends. Therefore, any lessons we are supposed to glean from them have nothing to do with whether or not they “really happened.” The lessons are in the stories themselves.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way. See #2.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once but twice (Gen 20:13)? The story is about how God keeps God’s promises, which was always an important theme to the Jewish people. The author had a doublet of what appeared to be the same story and wanted to preserve both versions. Ancient Hebrew story practices allowed him to do that by placing one in the rising action and the other in the falling action.

Resources for Writers

A list of American urban legends

Show Don’t Tell: checklists for showing different emotions

Plot Diagram Templates

Abraham’s Field of Dreams

This is continuing the genealogy that began with Noah’s son Shem (Gen 11:10ff).

map of Abraham's world
Abram went from Ur, Northwest up the Euphrates River, to Haran. Then from Haran, Southwest to Canaan (Genesis 11:31-12:9).

When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

(Gen 11:26-28 NRS)

Terah is the father of Abram (later renamed Abraham), who is the protagonist for the next several chapters of Genesis. Ur, an ancient city located in southern Mesopotamia. Chaldeans, a Semitic people of Mesopotamia, possibly spoke Aramaic.

Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah.

(Gen 11:29 NRS)

Nahor, the name of Abram’s grandfather (v. 24). Abram’s brother Nahor was probably the oldest, since he was named for the Patriarch.

Milcah…was the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. We are told of one son (Lot) and two daughters (Milcah and Iscah) of Haran, Nahor and Abram’s brother. So Nahor married his niece, Milcah. Later, we are told Sarai was Abram’s half-sister, the daughter of his father but not his mother (Gen 20:12).

This world was different in a number of ways. It was not taboo to marry a blood relative. Later, it will be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But this is a different time, even from Moses’ day.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

(Gen 11:30 NRS)

This one detail is going to dominate most of Abraham’s story.

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

(Gen 11:31 NRS)

Terah set out for the land of Canaan. Why? Terah settled in Haran instead of Canaan. Why? To write a novel, you would have to answer those questions. You mean write something into the biblical story that’s not in the Bible? The Bible often does not give all the details. If you want to make it into fiction, you have to fill in some of those details.

Haran, a Hurrian city in Northern Mesopotamia. Was it coincidence that the town name was the same as Terah’s dead son? Haran was born and died in Ur of the Chaldees, so most likely he never lived in the city that bore his name.

Terah might not have wanted to leave Haran because the name reminded him of his son. A father being told of the death or imminent death of a son figures into the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well.

Abraham’s midlife crisis

poster Field of Dreams 30th Anniversary

The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

(Gen 11:32-12:1 NRS)

The days of Terah were two hundred five years. In a previous post, I talked about how the trend of lifespans from Adam to Abraham was going down. Abram’s grandfather Nahor lived to one hundred forty-eight. His father Terah lived to two hundred five. And Abram will live to one hundred seventy-five. So his lifespan is about average for this time period in Genesis.

This is the first time the LORD appears to Abram. It often makes me think of Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsela. He hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” Somehow, he knows the “it” he is supposed to build is a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield.

{For an irreverent look at the movie, check out “Nick Offerman presents lengthy, hilarious list of errors in the very lousy movie ‘Field of Dreams.’”}

He wants to do it, because, as he says, “I’m thirty-six years old. I love my family, I love baseball, and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my life.”

And he is afraid of becoming like his father. He says, “I never forgave my father for getting old.” He thinks his father must have heard voices too, but he didn’t follow them. He never did a crazy thing in his life. He’s having a midlife crisis, in other words.

Field of Dreams cornfield
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1 NRS)

Is this Abram’s midlife crisis? He’s seventy-five, but for a man who will go on to live to one hundred seventy-five, this is midlife. He knows his father heard voices. He followed a voice that told him to go to Canaan but then gave up. Is this part of what’s driving Abram? His father had a crazy dream then gave up halfway there? Maybe Abram is thinking he doesn’t want that to happen to him.

It says Abram heard the LORD call him after his father died. The way they tell it here, though, the math is off. Terah had Abram by the time he was seventy. Abram was seventy-five when he left (verse 4), so his father should have been no more than one hundred forty-five. If he lived to two hundred five, he should have still been alive when Abram left the city of Haran. Confused? If you’re reading the Bible, get used to it. This type of logical or mathematical impossibility happens more often than you’d think.

Go from your country and your kindred…, Does this mean they were originally from Haran? I always thought it meant it was their country because that is where his father’s house settled. Some commentators believe it means this is Terah’s land of origin, so at some point he migrated to Ur of the Chaldeans. If that’s true, settling in Haran was a homecoming. That would help explain why Terah never finished the journey to Canaan. He was home again. It would also explain why one of Terah’s sons was named Haran. I can’t be sure, but it does seem to make sense. Again, if you want to make a novel of this, these are details you need to consider.

God continues addressing Abram.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 (Gen 12:2-3 NRS)

There is a command: Go from your country and…your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Turns out the land is Canaan. Why didn’t God tell Abram that? That was where he thought he was going when they left Ur in the first place. Maybe God wants to make him practice obedience, even when he doesn’t have the full plan. That will be important for him later.

The LORD promises blessings on Abram.

  1. I will make a great nation of you.
  2. I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
  3. I will bless those who bless you.
  4. I will curse the one who curses you.
  5. In you all families of the earth shall be blessed.

That’s a good deal, isn’t it? How would you like to have God promise these things to you? The promises had to be big. It is never easy to leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. In those days even more than today, your country and family, including your extended family, were the most important factors for knowing who you were. God wants Abram to leave them behind to follow a new destiny. He doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?” But he does have to trust that God will keep God’s promises.

Looks like he’s got a bright future ahead, and all his dreams will come true. It won’t be as easy as it sounds, though. A hero’s journey never is.

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

(Gen 12:4-5b NRS)

Lot was Abram’s nephew. We were told Lot’s father died before they left Ur of the Chaldees. It looks like Abram became a father figure for him.

Abram was seventy-five years old, but he is still active. He is not ready for the nursing home by any means. He is not “as good as dead” yet.

The persons whom they had acquired in Haran. This would include slaves, servants, and those who believed in Abram’s God. They came with his family along with their other possessions. Abram seems to have prospered in Haran, so the whole family probably did as well.

When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

(Gen 12:5c-6 NRS)

The oak of Moreh is near Shechem, an important city at this time. The Canaanites were in the land. They were troublesome to Abram’s descendants.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

(Gen 12:7 NRS)

To your offspring I will give this land. The promise will be repeated in chapter 15. The promise of this particular land to Abram’s descendants is a major theme throughout the Torah and important to the descendants of Abram listening to this.

He built an altar to the LORD, something he does when the LORD appeared to him. These altars seem to be serving as landmarks (cf. v. 8; 13:3-4, 18; 22:9, 14, 24), a practice which Isaac and Jacob continued (26:25; 28:19; 35:1).

From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

(Gen 12:8-9 NRS)

He moved from Shechem to the hill country between Bethel and Ai (cf. 13:4; Jos 7:2; 8:9), and built another altar.

[He] invoked the name of the LORD. This sounds significant. Cf. Gen 4:26. Why does it only say in certain places Abraham invoked or called on the name of the LORD (13:4; 21:33)? I will have to investigate that further at some point.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.

(Gen 12:10 NRS)

Anytime the land of Canaan was in famine, people seemed to flock to Egypt, because they usually had plenty of bread. The banks of the Nile were so fertile.

What’s in it for me?

So how about that? God told him to go to this land. He arrived, and the famine was severe in the land. “You sure this is the right place, LORD?”

Ray Kinsela talks to Shoeless Joe Jackson
Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Gordon/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884738r) Ray Liotta, Kevin Costner Field Of Dreams – 1989 Director: Phil Alden Robinson Universal/Gordon USA Scene Still Baseball Drama Jusqu’au bout du rêve

This sounds like another Ray Kinsela moment. After he built the baseball diamond, the ghosts of past players appeared, wanting to play. Among them was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, someone who figured in Ray’s last fight with his father before he left home for good. At a point where Ray is wondering about the purpose of it all, he asks Shoeless Joe about it.

Ray: I did it all. I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask, what’s in it for me?

Shoeless Joe: What are you saying, Ray?

Ray: What’s in it for me?

“Field of Dreams”

For writers: the moment when all is lost

This is typical for a “hero’s journey.” The hero hears the call to adventure. They see the foolishness of it, but they follow it anyway (often after resisting at first). They reach a point when all looks hopeless, and they feel like a fool for starting this adventure in the first place. They wonder if the sacrifices they made were worth it. They want to go back to life before the adventure, but they have crossed a point of no return. They wonder what was the purpose of it all when it was doomed to failure even before they began?

{Side note: I’m using the “singular they,” because writing he/she over and over again gets really awkward. To those who say, they is wrong because it’s plural, he is wrong because the subject is not masculine. It’s gender-neutral. So whoever is in charge of enforcing the rules of grammar, either accept the singular they or come up with a singular personal pronoun that is also gender-neutral so we don’t have to do he/she all over the place.}

Abram is not yet at that point. He did not ask what was in it for him, but God told him anyway (vv. 1-3). After all the big promises God just made him, how did he end up in a place with no food for miles and miles? Did his wife say, “I told you so”? He might be feeling the same frustration Ray did.

Did Abram forget he had a Terminator?

Like everyone else in the territory, Abram decided to bring his whole household to Egypt. This is the beginning of a controversial episode in Abram’s saga.

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

(Gen 12:11-13 NRS)

Sarai is beautiful in appearance, we are told here. Jewish tradition names her as one of the exceptional beauties of the Bible. Abram believes she is so attractive that the Egyptians will kill her husband just so she will be available. He wants her to say she is his sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life will be spared.

As her closest living male relative, they would have to respect her brother. Anyone who wants to marry her would have to negotiate with him. It’s not exactly a lie. She is his half-sister (Gen 20:12). But the fact that she is also his wife is a pretty big detail to omit.

I’m not going to be too hard on him for that. Any man in that situation would like to think he would tell everyone she is his wife, and fight to the death if anyone tried to take her away, but would you really? Lots of men are brave until they have a knife at their throat.

The biggest problem I have is I’m not sure this is real. Did the pharaohs ever really tell their soldiers and border guards, “If you see a beautiful married woman, kill the husband and bring her to my harem”? I’ve never heard of that outside the Bible.

Then again, the people coming to Egypt are desperate. There is no food where they came from. If this is the only place they can live, the Egyptians could impose pretty much any demands on them. It’s possible.

Another point is, God had just promised Abram, “The one who curses you, I will curse.” Did Abram not believe that? Why didn’t he think of telling them he is a prophet of the LORD, and if they harm him or his wife, they will face the wrath of his God? Egyptians did not worship the same God as Abram, but they still feared the gods – even ones that were not from their own pantheon. He could have been like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

Edoard Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2
“My own Terminator! Cool!”

Maybe his confidence is shaken because the LORD sent him to a land in famine. Can he really trust the LORD to protect him from the might of Pharaoh? So far, after such big promises, he is off to a pretty inauspicious start. Of course, as Terah already demonstrated, how you finish is more important than how you begin. What happens next is really controversial, but let’s pause now to observe how the author is speaking to his audience.

For Writers: Know your audience

The author(s) of Genesis do(es) some things that would make publishing it today difficult. For one, readers today generally don’t consider the genealogies to be the most exciting parts of the Bible, but they make up a major portion of Genesis, especially the early chapters. I talked about how the author effectively used the genealogies for foreshadowing, but I think most editors would look at that and say, “That’s too subtle, and too long for the payoff.”

Editors today want you to start with action, not backstory. That’s why they don’t like Prologues. But for this author, his audience would have wanted to know this. Since traditions were passed down orally long before they were written down, stories often had to serve several purposes. You want an exciting story, but part of the purpose of these stories was to pass on vital information for future generations.

In this case, the genealogy of Abraham was their genealogy as well, so this information was not boring or unnecessary to them. It was a different world and a different audience, but the rule held true then as it does today: know your audience.

The story of Abraham officially begins with the genealogy going back to Shem. To the original audience for this story, all people and nations traced their origins to one of three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, or Japeth. The Jews were descended from Shem, which is where we get the term Semite.

But editors and readers today don’t want to start with a history lesson. They want to start with action. Because of that, if I were making this into a novel, chapter 12 of Genesis would be my chapter 1.

More for writers: know your protagonist

When we get to Terah, Abraham’s father, he potentially could have been the protagonist. It seems God wanted to get him or Abraham, maybe both, to Canaan, but Terah stopped short. We haven’t had a real protagonist for a while. Adam was at first, but he died in the fifth chapter. Noah appears to be a hero but comes to an ignoble end. Then we go through many generations with no one doing anything significant except bearing children to keep the bloodline going until we get to Terah, who starts something significant but doesn’t finish it. That is left to his son, Abram, and finally our protagonist emerges.

So far, we know Abram’s most significant family relationships.

  • Abram’s grandfather was Nahor. He was twenty-nine when he had Terah, and died at one hundred forty-eight years old.
  • The family trekked with Terah from Ur to Haran, a few hundred miles journey. He might have come from Haran originally, but his sons lived in Ur all their lives.
  • Sarai, Abram’s wife, is gorgeous and childless.
  • Haran, his brother, died in Ur.
  • Lot, his nephew, left Haran with Abram.
  • Nahor, his elder brother, is among their father’s household, but he appears to have stayed in Ur (Gen 11:31).
  • Nahor married their niece, Milcah. We will learn about their children later.
  • He has gathered possessions and people in Haran. Every indication is he is well off.

In a novel, you would not start out telling your reader all of this at once. You can give as much or as little of this as you feel necessary. You can intersperse parts of it into various points of the story as they become relevant. But you need to know your protagonist before you start writing. This author has shown he does, and we have a fascinating protagonist to follow in this story.

{For another take on the similarities between Abram and Ray Kinsela, see “Let’s go to the movies: ‘Field of Dreams.'”}

Writing exercise

  1. An often repeated rule of writing fiction is “Show don’t tell.” The author “told” us Abram’s significant relationships and extended family in Gen 11:24-32. Write a scene (or maybe two) “showing” this through action, dialog, and the characters’ interactions with each other.

The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

Moira in handmaid's uniform, let them think they control you
Samira Wiley plays Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Part one of this character study showed how Sarai and Hagar mirror Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale. That post ended with Hagar running away from Sarai. Problem was she was running through a desert. Out there in the middle of nowhere, she finds a spring of water. I’m guessing not a moment too soon. And then she receives an unusual visitor.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

(Gen 16:7 NRS)

Who is the angel of the LORD? It appears a few times in the Bible. Sometimes when God wanted to appear to someone, the angel of the LORD showed up there instead. This Angel seems to be a divine figure who can stand in for God when God’s personal appearance would be impractical. Some Christian commentators believe it was a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Christ.

In the ancient world, people believed no mortal human could look on God’s face and live (v. 13; cf. Exo 33:20). It wouldn’t do if God wanted to give a message to someone, and they died the moment God appeared to them, would it? It seems, though, the Angel could speak to people face to face safely (cf. Gen 32:30; Jud 13:22). Are these direct encounters with God or with the angel of the LORD? Hard to know just from the text. But the Angel speaks to Hagar.

And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

(Gen 16:8-9)

I know what you’re thinking. This is not God endorsing slavery or Sarai’s harsh treatment. You’ll see that when we talk about the story in its context. Keep reading.

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(16:10-12)

What are you thinking now? Gee, thanks God (for nothing). Again, context makes all the difference. There’s a reason God says this. Keep reading.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

(16:13)

This goes back to what I said about the angel of the LORD earlier. She is surprised (shocked, probably) that she saw God and was still alive. She believes it was God, but we are told it was the angel of the LORD. Which was it? In scenes like this, the text is usually ambiguous about it, like when Jacob wrestled the Angel. Or was it God (Gen 32:30)?

{***SPOILER ALERT***}

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend to close her eyes and not look? While they kept their eyes closed, everyone else melted in the LORD’s presence like statues at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. How did he know anyone who looked at God would die? My favorite line in the movie: “Didn’t you boys go to Sunday School?” {End Spoiler}

Indiana Jones and his girlfriend don't look
No matter what happens, don’t look!

Finally, we should notice that she gives God a name. I can’t think of anyone else in the Bible who both saw God and gave God a name. Jacob asked for God’s name, but the Angel would not give it to him (Gen 32:29). God’s name to the Jews was (and still is) too holy to speak, so this is remarkable. NRSV notes say El-roi means “God of seeing” or “God who sees.” Some translations say “the God who sees me” (see Translation Notes below, if you’re into dissecting Hebrew and Greek).

For Hagar, her reason for the name is that she “has seen God and remained alive.” That stresses her seeing God, so by that reckoning, we might translate it “the God who appeared to me.” In context, either meaning would fit. God has both “seen her” and “appeared to her,” and she lives. This is a God who subverts common expectations.

I like “God who sees (me),” because it pairs well with her son’s name, “God hears.” Putting seeing and hearing together also echoes what God said to Moses when God sent him to deliver the people of Israel:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed (or seen) the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”

(Exo 3:7-8a NRS)

God saw Hagar and heard her. God knew her sufferings and gave an answer to her cry.

Then the author tells us the name of the well where she saw God still bears the name of this encounter.

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

(Gen 16:14 NRS)

NRSV study notes say Beer-lahai-roi means “the well of the Living One who sees me.” Beer is not beer like we think of. It is the Hebrew word for well (sorry). The Living One was sometimes used to refer to God. In an earlier post, I discussed the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son and name him Isaac. A little side note here: After Abraham dies, Isaac lives in Beer-lahai-roi for a time (Gen 25:11). Did he know the history it represented for Hagar and Ishmael?


There are still probably two big questions on your mind right now.

  1. Why did God tell Hagar, Return to your mistress and submit to her?
  2. Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse? This story is a perfect illustration of why it is so important to read the Bible in its original context.

Why Did God Tell Hagar to Return to Her Mistress and Submit to Her?

Think about Hagar’s situation here. When the Angel asks her, Where are you coming from and where are you going, she has an answer for the first question (I am running away from my mistress) but not the second. This was obviously an impulsive decision. She had no plan for how to escape beyond running away. What are her options?

  • A. Try to survive alone in the wilderness while pregnant. And when the baby comes, give birth with no one to help her. Then try to figure a way to provide the needs of her and her baby out in a hot dry place with no food and no shelter, and predatory animals who would love to make a meal of them, if she has survived that long.
  • B. Return to her mistress and submit to her.

This was not a blanket approval of slavery. All the Angel is telling her is B is preferable to A. There, the basic needs for her and her baby—food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety from wild animals—will be met. If she is submissive toward Sarai, she will most likely be less harsh with her. This is a survival strategy, one which slaves throughout history adopted. But God/the Angel gives her a reason to survive. God has a destiny and a promise for the son she is carrying.

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. The same promise God gave to Abram’s seed, which he is, a son of Abram’s own issue. God gives him a name, and I talked in an earlier post about the significance of God naming someone.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael in Hebrew comes from shema`, meaning “hear,” and ‘El, meaning “God.” So the name means, “God hears.” If she ever needs to be reminded that God hears her in her affliction, it’s right there in her son’s name.

Now we come to verse 12 and the second question from above.

Was Verse 12 a Blessing or a Curse?

To review, verse 12 says, “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

Ladies, how would you feel if God appeared to you while you were pregnant to tell you this? Would you wonder why God was punishing you? Before you judge, remember Hagar’s circumstances were very different from yours. How would she have heard this?

He shall be a wild ass of a man. He will be strong, independent, and able to survive in harsh conditions.

…with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. He will bow down to no master. He will enjoy the freedom and autonomy she longs for.

…and he shall live at odds with all his kin. She might not like the idea of him being at odds with her, but who else are his kin? Abram. Sarai by law, though not by blood. Anyone related to Abram. She knows they will not fully accept him, so why shouldn’t his hand be against them?

Legally, he will belong to Sarai. But Hagar will always be his mother by blood. He will feel that tension along with her, and it will come back on Abram and Sarai’s heads. He will not be a compliant child like a “good slave” should. She will be there to teach him the destiny God has for him, and that destiny is freedom from anyone who would make him a slave. What better justice could she ask for?

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum

I can picture the scene. Ishmael is a toddler. Hagar is playing Pattycake—or whatever games they played with little children back then. Sarai comes in and says, “I’ll take him now.” Ishmael lifts up his arms, and she picks him up. Abram tousles his hair affectionately. Sarai carries him out, saying, “What a sweet boy.”

And all the while, Hagar is thinking, “So, my master and mistress, you think he is the answer to your prayers. No, he is the answer to my prayers. You think he is sweet now? Just wait until he grows up,” and she laughs. “Just you wait.”


Do you see now what a difference reading in context makes? To our modern ears, the Angel’s words sound like a curse. But for a slave-girl like Hagar, in the land of Canaan somewhere around 2000 BC, these words were life.

The Angel gave her a strategy for survival—submit to her mistress. That would not be easy for her, but it would ensure both her survival and her son’s. And the Angel gave a promise worth living for—her son would be a free man. For the sake of that promise, she accepted slavery for herself.

Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11 “because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS). So did Hagar, which again tells me she should have been included in the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

Translation Notes (for Bible Geeks Like Me)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13 NRS)

The translation of El-roi is uncertain in the Hebrew. WTM (The standard Hebrew text) includes a note that says ro’i is a noun (Masculine Singular Absolute) and can mean “appearance” or “appearing.” This might give the translation, “God who appears to me.” When Hagar comments she saw God and lived, that would point to God appearing to her rather than seeing her.

BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) says it generally means “looking, seeing, or sight.” It translates the name as “God who sees,” which would be appropriate, because God sees Hagar’s affliction.

However, KJV, NAS, and NIV translate it as “the God who sees me.” The entry for Job 7:8, same word and form, says it is a Verb, Qal Participle (Masculine Singular Construct), with a 1st person suffix, which would affirm that translation. It is also how the LXX (Septuagint) translates it.

 ὁ θεὸς ὁ ἐπιδών με  (Gen 16:13 BGT); ho theos ho epidon me.

ἐπιδών verb (participle aorist active nominative masculine singular) from ἐφοράω fix one’s glance upon, look at, concern oneself (with) Lk 1:25; Ac 4:29.* [pg 71]

The Septuagint adds the personal pronoun me, which shows they understood El-roi to mean “the God who looks at me,” or “the God who sees me.” We see another example in Job 7:8.

The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.

(Job 7:8 ESV).

Ro’i is translated him who sees me. So it appears we have either “God who appears to me,” or “God who sees me.” The verb could also be Past tense rather than present, so it could also mean “God who appeared to me,” or “God who saw me.”

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

In last week’s post, I talked about how God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The difference between Abram and Abraham is subtle but meaningful. However, I commented that the difference between Sarai and Sarah was not readily apparent. Both mean “princess” or “queen.” One possible explanation comes from Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a professor of the Hebrew Bible, who says “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.” If he is correct, Sarai would mean “my princess,” or perhaps “my queen.” Sarah would mean simply “princess” or “queen.” Like the change from Abram to Abraham, a subtle but significant difference, one that marked a change in the trajectory of both their lives.

When I’m analyzing characters or stories, I don’t necessarily go in chronological order. Last week we were in chapter 17 of Genesis. This week we will look at chapter 16. With the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in its third season on Hulu, I thought this would be an interesting scene for many people.

Genesis Chapter 16

Now, we are going back to a time when they were still called Abram and Sarai. In chapter 15, God promised to give Abram a son “of his own issue,” and to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. Chapter 16 picks up about ten years later. Abram and Sarai have been trying to have a child, and they are no spring chickens. Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66 when God first made that promise. Sarai never had a child of her own, even when she was young. Now they are 85 and 76, respectively. Sarai is afraid if Abram is limited to her, he will never have a son of his own issue, no matter what God said. To borrow a phrase from Atwood, no matter how many times she said, “Blessed be the fruit,” the LORD was not opening. So she approached her husband.

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store.
A scene from the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

(Gen 16:1- 2 NRS)

Hagar is Sarai’s slave-girl, also called a handmaid. In Abram and Sarai’s culture, this seems to have been an accepted practice. If a man’s wife was unable to conceive, the man could obtain children through his wife’s slave (presumably, if the wife permitted it). But as we already know, Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body or the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. So he told Sarai, “Just calm down now. God promised us a child, and God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises. We don’t need a plan B.” You know I’m kidding, right?

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

(Gen 16:3 NRS)

…and [Sarai] gave her to her husband Abram as a wife? I doubt that “wife” is a good translation here, because clearly in the rest of the story, Sarai was Abram’s one and only wife. She would not have let Hagar forget that. Perhaps “concubine” is more accurate.

Here is the mistake God made when God spoke to Abram in chapter 15. God told Abram he would have a son “of his own issue,” but God did not specify it would be through Sarai (15:4).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

(16:4-5)

Okay, if I’m Abram, at this point, my first thought is, “Oh, it’s all my fault? And whose idea was this in the first place?” And how she describes the wrong done to me, when you look at it in the Hebrew, reveals a lot about her.

The Hebrew word for “wrong” here is chamas. It is occasionally translated “wrong” in a general sense. But more often, it means specifically “violence.” For example, Jeremiah says this to Babylon after they conquered Jerusalem: “’May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,’ The inhabitant of Zion will say” (Jer 51:35 NAS).

One of the authors of the Psalms says this, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends” (Psa 7:16 NRS).

One of Gideon’s sons killed all seventy of his siblings, with the help of the men of Shechem, to make himself his father’s heir. But later, the men of Shechem “dealt treacherously with Abimelech…so that the violence done to the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) might be avenged” (Jud 9:23-24).

The word for “violence” in all these passages is chamas. Sarai equated the wrong Hagar was doing to her with mass murder.

May the LORD judge between you and me.

People only used this expression when they were 100% sure that the wrong, or the violence, done to them had no cause or justification. The responsibility of the other party was so obvious, they knew God was on their side (cf. 1 Sa 24:12, 15; Exo 5:21; Jud 11:27).

If you invoke God to judge between you and another, you’d better be right, because God will judge justly and with no partiality. I don’t buy for one second that Sarai did nothing to provoke Hagar in this. And Abram bears some responsibility, but certainly not all of it, as she claims. Hagar may have done wrong to her, but Sarai is blowing it way out of proportion, just like many wealthy and privileged women do. And she is not even considering the wrong she did to Hagar.

Abram gives her the same advice a wealthy slaveowner would give.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

(Gen 16:6)

“Sarai, dear, did you forget who is the master and who is the slave? You don’t have to take it from her if you don’t want to.”

And Sarai is like, “Oh yeah. Time to remind her who the queen of this household really is.” She strikes back at Hagar, and Hagar runs away.

What Are We To Think of Hagar?

When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress? Because she’s just a “B-word, rhymes with witch”? That is a question you really have to think about if you intend to turn this episode into a fictionalized account, especially if you want it to be as good as Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. You would have to consider her situation and how that would affect her attitude. You would have to flesh out just how she showed contempt for her mistress in what she said and did. And then you would have to flesh out what Sarai did when she dealt harshly with her. Whatever it was, it would have to be bad enough to make her run away, while pregnant, with nothing but desert around her.

Let’s start with that question, “Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress?” You could go with the B-word explanation, but that would ignore critical details about Hagar’s situation. She is a slave. She has already experienced the dehumanization of being sold or given to Abram and Sarai like a piece of chattel and taken from her home in Egypt (Gen 12:16-13:2). Then she is told her master will come in and lie with her, because her mistress decided that for her. Did they ask her if she would help with their fertility problems? She might have been willing if they had asked, and she saw how desperate they were to have a child.

Today, some women are willing to be surrogates for infertile couples. They negotiate the terms of conception (usually in-vitro, but that was not an option then) and what kind of care or compensation they receive. Hagar never had that chance. You didn’t negotiate with your slaves. You ordered them. “My husband needs to have a son. The LORD has withheld me from having children, so you’re going to do it in my place.” That was the negotiation.

Abram and Sarai saw nothing wrong with this. Your slave-girl is in your power. You can do with her as you please (Gen 16:6). They expected Hagar to accept this, because that was the way it was in their world. Many other slaves had to do the same, and they accepted it. It probably never even occurred to them she might have feelings about this. The most intimate decisions regarding her own body were taken from her, and something in her knew it was wrong. She would not accept the status of being property and not human. Like most slaves, she obeyed out of self-preservation.

The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer's character Janine, caption reads: Your body is no longer your own.

But when she conceived, that gave her a leg up on Sarai. She finally had a chance to let out the resentment she had kept inside, because, Don’t upset her. You don’t want to hurt the baby she’s carrying. Her resentment was not just at Sarai and Abram. It was at the whole system that did not recognize her rights as a woman or as a human being. Let’s not sugarcoat it. What was done to her was legitimized rape. Should we be surprised she showed contempt for her mistress?

And yes, it was no different for her than for countless other slaves. You could legally do anything to your slave you wished. They did not recognize at that time that slaves were human, made in the image of God, and as such had certain inalienable rights. Hagar was one of those independent souls who, over time, forced us to come to terms with an entire institution whose purpose was to dehumanize others. If you ask me, she should have been on that list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Serena and June Anyone?

If you’re familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably think this saga between Sarai and Hagar sounds like the relationship between Serena and June. June went along with the system in Gilead she was forced into, but she resented it. She resented the system that took away her husband, took her daughter away, made her the handmaid of Serena and Fred Waterford, and in every way possible told her that her only value was her ability to receive Mr. Waterford’s seed, get pregnant, and bear a child for Mrs. Waterford. The child she was forced to conceive would not even be hers. It belonged to Fred and Serena. It was primarily for Serena’s benefit, because she could not have children of her own. June’s family, career, autonomy, and even her name were taken from her, so a wealthy, powerful, childless family could use her womb, and she had no say in it.

There are a few moments of connection between her and Serena, but Serena is mostly harsh with her. She’s a little jealous that June can give her husband something she can’t and takes that frustration out on her. June engages in little acts of defiance, quietly, and mostly behind their backs, but gradually she becomes bolder with it, especially after she conceives. She milks the concern for the baby for all its worth. And she aims some insults right at Serena’s greatest insecurities.

In her introduction to the novel, Atwood does not name this particular scene but rather the episode where Rachel gives her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob, so she can have children (Genesis 30:1-8). But as I described the characters of Serena and June, don’t they sound just like Sarai and Hagar? I’m not knocking Atwood for lifting these characters from the pages of the Bible. On the contrary, I think what she did is a fantastic example of the potential of Biblical Fiction for creating compelling drama.

Biblical Fiction Vs. Christian Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale is not Christian Fiction, in case you were wondering. There’s too much sex, cursing, and graphic violence for it to be Christian Fiction. Biblical Fiction, you have to understand, is not the same as Christian Fiction. Christian Fiction has strict rules about what kind of worldview and morality your characters can present and endorse. Characters can be morally ambiguous at first, but in Christian Fiction, they usually convert to a Christian worldview and morality by the end. But hopefully, you see in this Biblical text all of the characters are morally ambiguous, and there is no “conversion” for any of them. Therefore, I say Biblical Fiction does not have to follow the same rules as Christian Fiction, because the Bible doesn’t.

Atwood lifted these characters from the Bible and placed them in a modern dystopian setting with new names. She did not take the Christian approach of turning Abraham and Sarah into heroes and Hagar into a villain. She kept all of their moral ambiguities intact. That is why Atwood’s story works so well. Her approach not only makes the characters more believable and human. It is a more faithful rendering of the Biblical text than the rules of Christian Fiction would allow. It highlights how unjust and dehumanizing the society of Gilead is. June acts like a fiercely independent handmaid would in a society like Gilead, and so does Hagar. The Waterfords act like members of a privileged class who want a child would act, and so do Abram and Sarai.

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Remember Hagar ran away to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment? What happened to her? The saga continues in the next part of this character study. If you are interested in buying a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can follow my affiliate link here. My “Recommended” page has links to this and other excellent examples of Biblical Fiction.

Thoughts on the Game of Thrones Finale. **SPOILERS**

Alright, I didn’t want to pile on about how disappointing it was, but I’ve got some things I just have to get off my chest. The biggest problem was they needed to make the season longer. I was worried when they said there would only be six episodes in this season. “How can they resolve everything there is to resolve in six seasons?” I thought. Turns out they couldn’t. Really, trying to resolve everything in six episodes, they were setting themselves up for failure. So let me join the chorus of wailing and gnashing of teeth one last time.

The Battle of Winterfell

This is not one of my complaints. I don’t understand why folks were disappointed in the Battle of Winterfell. What? You wanted it to be longer? Stretch it out over two episodes? You mean a full hour-plus episode of a bloody, gory battle with Night Walkers and dragons, back and forth, ups and downs, seesawing between hope and despair wasn’t intense enough? You needed your blood curdled and nightmares for two weeks, not just one?

But the Night Army crumbled so easily. Of course the Night Army crumbled. We all knew killing the Night King was key, and Arya (perfect choice for the job) did it. It took every army and every knight in Winterfell to pull it off. Two characters who needed redemption – Theon and Melisandre – found it. I don’t see how they failed there.

The Battle of King’s Landing

After cheering for Danaeris Targaryen so long, after she had overcome so much to get to this place where King’s Landing and the Iron Throne were in her grasp, she reverts back to her mad ancestry and burns everything to the ground. I was disappointed in her. I think they could have set that kind of turn better (if they hadn’t made the season so short), but in the end it felt like the kind of twist I had come to expect from Game of Thrones. She had just enough reasons that I understood it, though that does not seem to be the consensus among fans.

But then we get to the final episode, and that was just wrong in so many ways.

Bran the Superfluous

Bran’s character was unnecessary. All he did was pass on information. They could have done the entire series without him. If they were going to take that turn, his character needed to be developed much better. And he knew all along he was going to become king? If so, why bring up that Jon Snow is really Aegon Targaryon and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne? Why present his brother as an alternate to Dany if he knew all along he would be king? If that was the turn they were going to take, 1) they needed to develop Bran into a full character, and 2) they needed to make the end for Jon not so dreary. Either have him claim the throne or die fighting for his people, but going back to the Night Watch after you’ve flown dragons just is not the way to end his story arc.

Earth shattering revelation (Eh, not so much)

Jon Snow was the guy everyone wanted to be king, and turned out he was the rightful king. Sure put a monkey wrench in Danaeris Targaryen’s “inevitable” march to the Iron Throne, and turned her lover into her rival. That could have set up a much more dramatic showdown, if they had not cut the season so short.

But they raise the expectations that Jon will (if reluctantly) be revealed as Aegon Targaryen and have to take the throne, only to send him back to the Night’s Watch? He led armies to victory over the Wildlings (including a giant), the Boltons, and the Night Army. And did I mention he’s one of two people in the world who can ride dragons? That ending for him, after building our expectations for much more, was just not right. It feel like they cheated just because they had to end it.

Winter is coming?

They forgot about winter that had been all the talk for the first half of the series. If they had used it, that could have added another layer to the threats.

Dany

They could have done more to make her story arc feel complete. I think Kristen Lamb said it well. If they had added even a couple more episodes,

The writers could have:

a) Made the battle against the White Walkers more than the single largest disappointment since New Coke. {I disagree about that being the biggest disappointment, but leads to further points.}

b) Ratcheted the ‘end of the world’ feeling that WOULD entice characters make utterly STUPID decisions.

I’m looking at you, Jaime Lannister.

c) With heightened doom—losses against the Walkers and weather, Cersei refusing to render aid, and the sheer emotional stress that Dany was failing those she’d promised to save—Dany’s final acts of madness would have felt far more organic.

Her zealotry could have grown from subtle (which they already HAD) but then her fanaticism would’ve had a bit more time to bloom in proportion with the threat.

–“Game of Thrones: A Song of ‘I Literally Can’t Even’” https://authorkristenlamb.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones-storytelling-cautionary-tale/

Even though I said I understand her scorched earth strategy at the end, I think Lamb’s suggestions would have made it more understandable, even if we did not like it.

Arya

She became one of the most badass characters on all of television. But except for killing the Night King, she looked weak most of the time. She had always been in complete control, able to slip in and out of any situation at will. But she looked scared of the zombies in her castle (The after-show explained her head injury made her dizzy and not quite as confident). She looked as lost as the city-folk running through King’s Landing. Then they ended Episode 5 with her rising from the ashes to find a white horse, ride it out of the city, thus setting her up to be… I don’t know, maybe a mythical figure of death akin to one of the Horseman of the Apocalypse. You think badass Arya has returned. Again, set up, no pay off.

If you ask me, she should have been the one to kill Dany. She could have done the deed, stood in front of the Iron Throne and let Drogoro burn her with the Iron Throne, sacrificing herself for the peace of the Realm, and opening the way for Jon Snow to be revealed as Aegon Targaryen, and take the, uh, we’ll have to make a new throne, but you get the idea.

Maybe they thought that was too predictable. But if they wanted to give us a surprise at the end, it had to be better than Bran the Broken. And whatever the surprise, they had to do a better job of setting it up. Which means my fears were founded. They could not bring everything to a satisfactory end, or even close to it, in just six episodes.

The Short Season

Having to wrap up everything in six episodes made the ending feel rushed, like they forced characters to do unnatural things just to get to the end. Of course, GoT is known for having characters surprise us. It’s one of the things that made it so addictive. But those surprises still have to feel organic. When you end with characters we’ve followed throughout a series doing things that don’t feel true to them, surprises are not good. When you give the reader a set up (like Jon Snow is Aegon Targaryen), there needs to be a pay-off. Bran as king and Jon Snow moping back to the Wall does not feel like a pay-off at all.

Maybe they thought Jon becoming king would have been too predictable, but at least I wouldn’t have felt cheated. If they didn’t want that, they shouldn’t have set us up for it.

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For us as authors, we can learn a lot about storytelling done right from the earlier seasons of GoT. But the fans’ universal outcries of disappointment provide some important lessons as well. My biggest takeaway is this is a reminder not to rush your ending. Most often, it is what readers remember most after they read and/or watch. Take the time you need to develop the character arcs and the story arc so that it feels right. You don’t want it to be predictable, but you don’t want it to be inevitable. The best reaction you can get from the reader at the end of your story is, “I should have seen it coming.” The worst reaction you can get is, well, if you’ve read this far, you have a pretty good idea.

Now for a more satisfying way to end that saga, here’s a link to a performance of the GoT theme song featuring Tom Morello of Audioslave/Rage Against The Machine, Scott Ian of Anthrax, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Brad Paisley, and Game Of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi. Very Cool.

Led Zeppelin sermon

September 7 marked the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s first live performance. They have been my favorite band since I was sixteen. It seemed a good time to follow through on something I told my friends in college, that I could make a sermon out of Led Zeppelin songs, so here goes. There are 79 songs in here. See if you can find them all.

50 years since the first gig. Led Zeppelin. September 7th, 1968

Feeling dazed and confused ‘cause you’re trying to find your stairway to Heaven? Ten years gone, and you’re still searching for the houses of the holy? You’re out on the tiles, sick again ‘cause you got the hots on for nowhere. Life is wearing and tearing on you. You can’t sleep because of what is and what should never be. When you’re under the Crunge, life can feel like you’re being trampled under foot. It ain’t nothing but a communication breakdown between you and your creator.

Whether it’s in the evening or on some night flight to a southbound suarez, it’s like I told Darlene, my black country woman, “Your time is gonna come.” Oh that living loving maid. She’s just a woman. When she left me down by the seaside, I cried, “I can’t quit you, Baby,” but she just said, “Hey, hey, what can I do?”

Life was lonely as tea for one. I sailed away and threw myself into the ocean, waiting for Moby Dick to swallow me. But in the darkest depths, I heard God say to me, “Fight for your life.” And for the first time I knew, I mean I really knew, God is with me always.

So believe me when I tell you, friends, it doesn’t matter if you’re a rover and an immigrant, traveling the riverside and singing the blues. You can go over the hills and far away to some misty mountain hop, and God is there for you. You can travel to the black mountain side of Bron-Yr-Aur, and God is there. Even in the ozone, baby, God is there. How many more times must I tell you, God is with you through good times, bad times, even when the levee breaks.

Poor Tom. He thought the Devil was his rock and roll, but that black dog don’t give no quarter. He wants you to keep wandering, lost in the rain. I know because I faced my own devil, and I had to admit to him, “You shook me.”

Oh yes! Oh yes! It’s nobody’s fault but mine. But I’m free today because I told that old heartbreaker, “Babe, I’m gonna leave you,” and I left my wanton ways behind.

Hats off to Roy Harper. He took Walker’s walk to the gallows pole, where he made Achilles’ last stand. In his time of dying, he cried out, “Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus!”

So stop being a fool in the rain and step in the light. Because wherever you are, going to California or Royal Orleans or Kashmir or D’yer Maker, the song remains the same.

I don’t mean to ramble on, so let me bring it on home. I’m gonna crawl if that’s what it takes for you to understand. I’m sending you all of my love to let you know this is how you win the battle of evermore. Not with four sticks, but two, joined together. He took that cross on himself to show he’s got a whole lotta love for you, and he won’t never quit you.

Do you feel it now? Do you hear that Carouselambra of the Spirit? Hot dog! This is your celebration day! Are you wondering what you should say? Thank you would be a good start. We’ll boogie With Stu. I’ll bring lemons and tangerines and give a Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, because these are your dancing days. You’ll be like a kid in a candy store rock. That’s the way you get through this life. Beloved, I tell you a mystery. You don’t need to search anymore, because you are all houses of the Holy. God bless all of you.