Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Sons of Isaac, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  The Sons of Isaac.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

The Sons of Isaac is Roberta Kells Dorr’s retelling of the stories of the biblical characters Isaac and Jacob.  A while back, I read and reviewed her book about Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah, and I really enjoyed the book.  The Sons of Isaac was good, too, but I liked Abraham and Sarah a lot more, perhaps because it was chalked with more historical information.  One could say that there is only so much historical information that one can draw on in telling the story of Isaac and Jacob.  Abraham dwelt in the populous area of Ur and traveled to Egypt, where he interacted with the Pharaoh.  Isaac, by contrast, spent most of his time in Canaan, pasturing his flocks and interacting with King Abimelech, whom historians know nothing about.  At the same time, it’s not as if Canaan was a wasteland.  Cities and kings were there, and scholars have sought to learn about Canaanite religion through Ugaritic literature.  Dorr did talk about Canaanite religion, including the deities of El and Baal, but Abraham and Sarah was a lot fuller in terms of historical information.

The Sons of Isaac continues a prominent theme that was in Abraham and Sarah: Why do God’s chosen people have to wait through long seasons of apparent fruitlessness and barrenness, whereas things seem to be much easier for those outside of God’s chosen community?  The Sons of Isaac focuses more, however, on what being chosen entails.  The son of the promise inherits most of his father’s possession and carries with him the promise of his seed becoming populous and inheriting the land of Canaan.  At the same time, there is a deeper spiritual significance to being chosen: becoming a means by which God will bless the world.  A relationship with God is a key element of being chosen, and that is why Isaac was nearly sacrificed in Abraham’s act of obedience whereas Isaac’s brother Ishmael was not, and why Isaac could not marry the Canaanite women whereas his son Esau freely did.  In The Sons of Isaac, the unchosen sons are very practical rather than reflective.  Esau manifests some sensitivity towards the covenant when he seeks to marry a Hittite woman, who deems circumcision to be abominable, for Esau at least recognizes that circumcision is important to his people.  Yet, Isaac and Jacob, the chosen ones, are the ones who are more reflective about life and its larger questions, and that makes them suitable for being the sons of the promise (not that God chose them on that basis, but it does make them suitable).

The Sons of Isaac also attempts to explain certain odd details in the biblical narrative.  Why did Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac, rather than sending Isaac himself?  (Dorr’s answer: Abraham was afraid that his brother Nahor would keep Isaac in Haran, rather than allowing Isaac to return to Canaan.)  Why did the Philistines stop up the wells that Isaac dug in Genesis 26, rather than using those wells for themselves in that time of famine?  (Dorr’s answer: the Philistines opposed the wells because they believed that the wells were trying to circumvent the will of the gods, whom they believed sent the famine, and the Philistines sought to appease the gods to bring the famine to an end.)  Why did Reuben sleep with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah?  (Dorr’s answer: Reuben felt neglected by his father, and Bilhah was lonely now that Rachel had died.)  There was one question that Dorr did not really address: How could the Philistine king Abimelech believe that Rebekah was Isaac’s sister and thus available to him, when Isaac and Rebekah at the time both had children, children who were near or in their teens?  Maybe Abimelech did not notice them, or he concluded that they were someone else’s children!

The Sons of Isaac had some details that struck me as contradictory.  On the one hand, Abraham reflects on his grandchildren Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob is ignored by his father Isaac yet is more like Isaac in being reflective.  You would think that Abraham has somewhat of a preference for Jacob, and yet Abraham is disappointed when he learns that Jacob will be the one taking care of him in his old age.  On the one hand, Jacob appears to be sensitive to spiritual things, for he asks Abraham why he left Ur.  On the other hand, Rebekah reflects that even Jacob did not care much about God.  On the one hand, Laban tries to discourage Jacob from leaving him by saying that Jacob will be departing in poverty.  On the other hand, we are told that Jacob had become rich when he was with Laban.  These may be contradictions, or they may reflect nuance.

The book had beautiful passages.  There was the scene in which Rebekah was finally giving birth to children, after a long time of barrenness, and everyone is paying attention to her firstborn son, Esau.  She, however, falls in love with her second child, Jacob, as he sucks her thumb.  There was the scene in which Rebekah reflected on how she had fallen from being the cheerful, giving woman who watered the camels of Abraham’s servant, to becoming one who would deceive her husband Isaac so that the blessing would go to Jacob.  As in the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, have a fierce rivalry  because Rachel is Jacob’s favorite wife, whereas Leah is having a lot of children.  But a small part of Leah is actually happy for her sister Rachel when Rachel finally has a son and needs to learn the ropes of motherhood.

How The Sons of Isaac handled the story of Dinah (Genesis 34) particularly interested me.  Whereas Genesis 34:2 presents Shechem raping Dinah, Dorr seems to present the act as consensual.  After Simeon and Levi slaughter the Shechemites, Dinah cries and says that Shechem loved her.  Overall, while Dinah’s sex with Shechem is presented as irresponsible in Dorr’s book, Dorr tends to side with the view that Simeon and Levi were wrong to slaughter and plunder the Shechemites.  Jacob actually instructs his sons to return the Shechemite women and the plunder to Shechem, and Jacob feels bad for the Shechemite women who have lost their men.  There are different interpretations of who was right and who was wrong in this story.  Jewish pseudepigraphical literature tends to side with Simeon and Levi, who avenged the rape of their sister.  Other voices have been critical of them.  A famous book about the story that I should probably read is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.

In terms of spiritual lessons in the book, a point that I appreciated was that we should go to God with our requests, especially in times of fruitlessness, so that, when our prayers are finally answered, we will give glory to God.

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