Monday, April 24, 2017

Problems with the "Minimal Facts" Approach to the Resurrection

Gary Habermas, whom I respect and count as a friend, has made a mark on scholarship in part by his exhaustive cataloguing of views which scholars have taken towards various facets of the Jesus story, and what can be made of what facts scholars generally concede.  (The oft-cited internet crank Richard Carrier implies that Habermas may not be accurately representing this data base, but I think that tells us more about Carrier than it does about Habermas.)  Habermas explains:

"For more than 35 years, I have argued that, surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, there is a significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical.  The historicity of each “fact” on the list is attested and supported by a variety of historical and other considerations. This motif began as the central tenet of my PhD dissertation.  This theme has continued in virtually all of my other dozens of publications on this subject since that time."

Habermas' work is of great value, and I certainly agree with him that evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is strong.  I am not entirely satisfied with the argument that is commonly snapped together from the pieces of evidence Habermas induces, however. 

In this post, I will explain some of my initial qualms.  Note that I haven't studied this argument in detail, and am open to being corrected if I have misrepresented or misunderstood it in some ways.

William Lane Craig has made effective public use of what has come to be called the "Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus."  Craig has debated numerous leading New Testament scholars on the resurrection, even giving some atheists the impression that he has won.  (And I think he has indeed won most or all of those debates I have watched or read.)  He sometimes uses this approach.  In debate with the Muslim Shabir Ally, for instance, he outlined the argument he was preparing to make as follows:

"In tonight’s debate, I am going to defend two basic contentions:

I. The New Testament documents establish five facts concerning Jesus:

1) His crucifixion
2) His burial in a tomb
3) The discovery that his tomb was empty
4) His post-mortem appearances
5) The origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

II. The best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead."

That, in sum, is the Minimal Facts Argument.  Five simple facts, added together to one dramatic conclusion.

Craig complemented his initial argument with a more complex concluding set of arguments:

"In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts.[25] The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all six of these tests.

1. It has great explanatory scope.
It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power.
It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.

3. It is plausible.
Given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine vindication of those claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived.
It requires only one additional hypothesis – that God exists. And even that need not be an additional hypothesis if you already believe in God’s existence as Shabir and I do.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the belief that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions 1 to 5.
Down through history, various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered, for example, the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the hallucination theory, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of scholars. So on this basis, it seems to me that we should conclude that the best explanation of the evidence is the one that the original disciples themselves gave; namely, God raised Jesus from the dead."

This broader scheme seems to suggest that Craig may find MF more a useful and succinct introduction to the historical arguments for the Resurrection, useful on stage in a brief debate, than a full argument.

In any case, I see several problems with the "minimal facts" approach:

(a) The most common rejoinder seems to be, "What do you expect from Christian or post-Christian scholars?"  Since Habermas has not (it seems) made his full list available, and since many scholars who work in New Testament studies are Christians, or began as Christians and no doubt continue to hold some Christian assumptions, it may seem plausible that if you only count those who were not ideologically inclined to admit some of these "minimal facts," then you would no longer get a majority of scholars in favor.

This is not a claim, it is only a gap in the argument so far as I understand it.  And it is, potentially, an ad hominem critique.  But since the argument itself is an appeal to authority, it seems somewhat susceptible to complaints about the bias or purported bias of the authorities appealed to.

(b) For some of the "facts," Habermas can only cite three quarters or less agreement.  But that would hardly constitute a consensus, even if Habermas is counting accurately and thoroughly.

(c) If all five facts, or say three of them, are required to constitute a given argument for the resurrection, then even if the probability of each is greater than 50-50, it may be that the probability of all five, or of four or three which are required, is less than 50-50.  So if it turns out that 70% of scholars agree on the empty tomb and 70% on Jesus' burial in a tomb, and if we crudely (of course this is silly) say that probability of each fact is the same as the percent of scholars accepting it, then the probability that both these two facts are true would seem to be only 49%. 

(d) Whatever percent you get, it is bound to be low for a doctrine that lies at the heart of Christian faith.  A large cathedral needs a solid foundation.  70% consensus seems to me like building a house on, if not sand, at least on a rock less solid than granite.

(e) Furthermore, one has to add in (or multiply) the background probability of a state of the cosmos which would make Jesus' resurrection plausible.  If one has strong reasons to deny God's existence, for instance, then even if the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection were 90%, it would be trivially easy to conclude, "There has to be some other explanation," and rationally bet on the 10%.

If the claim were only that Peter had caught a big fish that day, a 60% probability might do.  But not that his boss died and came back from the dead. 

(f) Certainly the probability of resurrection would not impress a skeptic who holds to the maxim, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

 So far I've been listing considerations which undermine Minimal Facts from what might be described as a "skeptical" point of view.  But other facts, I think, undermine it from a more biblical point of view. 

(g) In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, I described twelve errors which eminent skeptical Jesus scholars habitually make, and which undermine the value of their scholarship.  They assume that miracles cannot happen, which is inconvenient as well as unphilosophical, because they do.  They also tend to confuse past and future, rely on poor logic and shaky sources, neglect contrary arguments, prefer far-fetched skeptical theories over orthodox truisms, and rely on post-modern assumptions that cloud up minds that admit them, among other errors.

More recently, in Jesus is No Myth, I described numerous elementary errors committed by, among others, Bart Ehrman, the most famous and influential liberal New Testament scholar in America today.  He is not a stupid man, but some of these are really bone-headed mistakes -- like completely misrepresenting the actual text of Life of Apollonius of Tyana on most of the traits which he pretends mark Apollonius as a viable Jesus-double.  Not one or two, but MOST of those traits.

If we recognize these broad patterns of error -- and you are welcome to try to disprove the critical points that I make, if you like -- why should we appeal to such biased and error-prone scholars?  Citing scholars with such a record as the premise in a scholarly argument, would be like citing a known drunk who suffers from hallucinations as a murder witness.

(h) There is a more direct approach to arguing for the resurrection of Jesus:

(1) The gospels are works of enormous historical credibility which, furthermore, support one another on the fact of the resurrection.  (Jesus is No Myth.)

(2) Highly credible works should generally be believed about facts on which they agree, especially which are central to the narratives they tell.

(3) So the Resurrection can be affirmed with high confidence just on Gospel testimony.

(4) I. Corinthians 15 and other early evidence, including for the explosive growth of the Church based on eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection, strengthens that case, as can MF.

(i) Prior Probability and background assumptions about the nature of life, and therefore the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection, must also be considered.  Craig alludes to this realm of evidences and arguments.  I offer a case here that Prior Probability is much higher than generally supposed.  This also addresses the popular skeptical argument that arguing for the Resurrection is somehow "ad hoc" or that only vast evidence for a miracle can possibly challenge skepticism.  (Though I think the evidence for Jesus' Resurrection is indeed extremely powerful, vastly more powerful than even many historical claims that are pretty much universally accepted.)

So those are my initial qualms about the MF argument.  It is an Argument From Authority, which are often good arguments, but limited when the authorities are particularly biased, as they almost all are in this case.  It cannot yield so strong a historical conclusion as we must desire in this case.  But a more direct argument which includes the gospels does, in my opinion, yield far stronger certainty, than any argument that largely bypasses the gospels and their rich evidential resources and proven historical authority.

But as I said, these are initial qualms.  I haven't studied the argument in great detail -- I'm thinking out-loud, not trying to nail down a certain conclusion yet.  Next, I'll see what Lydia McGrew and Matthew Ferguson say about the argument, and how what they say may augment my own intuitions and gut reactions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Valerie Talico and David Fitgerald "Debunk" Jesus

Valerie Talico, a Seattle psychologist, is fond of bad New Atheist arguments.  She doesn't know much about some of the subjects she posts on, but she is open to learning -- from non-scholars like David Fitzgerald -- whether someone named Jesus who didn't play for a Hispanic baseball team ever walked the Earth. 

Here the two are on my birthday, blogging about how my favorite ancient political philosopher never lived.

I doubt she'll read this rebuttal and up her game on the subject.  As Geico would put it, that's not what a clearing house for bad Gnu arguments does.  But refuting such arguments is what I do.  So let's get started.

Putting letters by dubious comments that merit challenge or amendment, I was hoping to make it through their relatively short article before running out of letters.  Pardon if I use some letters more than once, below.

Most people would be shocked to learn how little is actually known about Jesus.

Note: This story was co-authored with David Fitzgerald, (a) author of “Jesus: Mything in Action.”
Before the European Enlightenment, virtually all New Testament experts assumed that handed-down stories about Jesus were first recorded by eye witnesses and were largely biographical. That is no longer the case.
Assuming that the Jesus stories had their beginnings in one single person rather than a composite of several—or even in mythology itself—he probably was a wandering Jewish teacher in Roman-occupied Judea who offended the authorities and was executed.  Beyond that, any knowledge about the figure at the center of the Christian religion is remarkably open to debate (b) (and vigorously debated among relevant scholars).
(b) That there is a debate about Jesus is hardly remarkable.  The gospels describe Jesus in a way that directly confronts the central dogmas of modern materialism to which the Academy is wed: that God does not act in the world, that history is merely what we make of it, that the dead stay dead, and that sins need to be repented of.   Jesus is thus an offense to modern skeptics as to ancient Pharisees.  So why is is surprising that so many feel the need to get rid of him, one way or another?  
Where was Jesus born? Did he actually have twelve disciples? Do we know with certainty anything he said or did? (c-e))
(c) We don't know anything about the past "with certainty."  Certainty is for mathematics (maybe) not history.  But even the extremely liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar, as hostile as it was to Christianity, found many of Jesus' sayings and deeds highly credible and well-evidenced.  That someone somewhere may demur -- as some people demur about the moon landings, or the value of vaccinations -- does not make the most famous and remarkable human being who ever lived completely unknowable.  
(d) And the fact that the phrase "the twelve" is repeated dozens of times in 1st Century records of Jesus' life, would in every other context be described as "evidence."   
(e) Birth records are another matter.  One probably can't place the birth of many ancients in a particular city with much certainty.  Wild stories are told even by good biographers about the birth of someone as famous and influential as Alexander the Great.  So it is rather unreasonable to demand clear and unproblematic birth records for Jesus. 
As antiquities scholarship improves, it becomes increasingly clear that the origins of Christianity are controversial, convoluted, and not very coherent. (f)
(f) If you're going to write about what "scholarship" has found, why don't you co-author with a scholar?    
All history is controversial, convoluted, and sometimes incoherent.  These are clichés that anyone who studies any field of history can trade in.  Now they have finished their introduction and reached their six main points, we'll see what specifics our duo can dig up.  
1. The more we know the less we know for sure.  After centuries in which the gospel stories about Jesus were taken as gospel truth, the Enlightenment gave birth to a new breed of biblical historians. Most people have heard that Thomas Jefferson secretly took a pair of scissors to the Bible, keeping only the parts he thought were historical.  His version of the New Testament is still available today.  Jefferson’s snipping was a crude early attempt to address a problem recognized by many educated men of his time: It had become clear that any histories the Bible might contain had been garbled by myth.  (One might argue that the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of the books of the Bible that they called “apocrypha,” was an even earlier, even cruder attempt to purge the Good Book of obvious mythology.) (g)
(g) On the contrary, the Reformation was more reasonable than Jefferson.  Both were cutting out what didn't fit their dogmas, but the Protestants had additional reasons to exclude the apocrypha, such as weaker provenance and later appearance.  
In the two centuries that have passed since Jefferson began clipping, scores of biblical historians—including modern scholars armed with the tools of archeology, anthropology and linguistics—have tried repeatedly to identify the “historical Jesus” and have failed.  (h)  The more scholars study Jesus, the more confused and uncertain our knowledge has become. Currently, we have a plethora of contradictory versions of Jesus—an itinerant preacher, a zealot, an apocalyptic prophet, an Essene heretic, a Roman sympathizer, and many more —each with a different scholar to confidently tout theirs as the only real one. (i) Instead of a convergent view of early Christianity and its founder, we are faced instead with a cacophony of conflicting opinions. This is precisely what happens when people faced with ambiguous and contradictory information cannot bring themselves to say, we don’t know.
(h) Have scholars failed to find Jesus?  Talico and Fitzgerald seem to be begging the question.  The scholars don't seem to think so. 
(i) But setting them all against one another, as Loftus sets religions against one another in the Outsider Test for Faith, is simplistic.  Human beings are complex creatures, and even skeptical scholars like Marcus Borg suppose that Jesus could have fit into more than one category.  The teacher who roams the pages of the gospels was, at least, one of history's great geniuses.  Who can say a moral genius cannot transcend a category that some simple-minded scholar may try to squeeze him into?  Heck, even experienced cowboys sometimes find sheep hard to corral: so much more the Great Shepherd.
The key word here is "only."  Who would deny the first item on this list, that Jesus was an itinerant preacher?  How does that conflict, say, with "apocalyptic prophet?"  Prophets are usually preachers, and most roamed around a bit.

Complex people can even be contradictory.   Think of Gandhi.  He was certainly an itinerate preacher.  Hindus might call him a Muslim sympathizer, while Muslim fanatics might call him a Hindu preacher.  Others have described him as a follower of Jesus, in some ways truthfully.  Or was he the founder of a commune and a quasi-socialist?  An economic conservative?  A sharp, British-trained lawyer?  A "half-naked fakir?" as Winston Churchill put it?  An international student?  A mystic?  All of these things and more accurately describe Mohandas Gandhi.  Yet he was one man. 
This scholastic mess has been an open secret in biblical history circles for decades. (j) Over forty years ago, professors like Robin S. Barbour and Cambridge’s Morna Hooker were complaining about the naïve assumptions underlying the criteria biblical scholars used to gauge the “authentic” elements of the Jesus stories.  Today, even Christian historians complain the problem is no better; most recently Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith in the 2012 book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.
(j) More like a cliche.  
(i) Pointing out that some scholars hold some opinion, is no substitute for a good argument that that some opinion is true.  
2. The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. (j) Every bit of our ostensibly biographical information for Jesus comes from just four texts – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (k)  Though most Christians assume that associates of Jesus wrote these texts, no objective biblical scholars think so.  (j) None of the four gospels claims to be written by eyewitnesses, (k) and all were originally anonymous. Only later were they attributed to men named in the stories themselves. (l) 
(j) Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses 11 years ago, now.  What excuse does Fitzgerald have for not having read it?  True, he adds the weasel word "objective" here.  He may wish to claim that Bauckham (an eminent scholar, unlike Fitzgerald, who has no relevant scholarly credentials) is not "objective" and therefore doesn't count.  Nor perhaps would he concede that Martin Hegel, N. T. Wright, or James Dunn, eminent scholars who warmly reviewed that book, are "objective."    
In short, T & F's claim is just special pleading, either based on ignorance of contrary scholarship, or on the arbitrary exclusion of eminent scholars who disagree with their claim.  ("All scholars who recognize me as King of Siam, agree that I am King of Siam.  So bow down and render me obeisance!")  
(k) John does claim to have been written by or with an eyewitness. 
(l) Luke wasn't named in the gospels, and Mark only briefly.  So Luke, at least, never was attributed to anyone named in the gospels.  And Mark was a very minor figure.   
"While the four gospels were traditionally held to be four independent accounts, textual analysis suggests that they all actually are adaptations of the earliest gospel, Mark.(m)   Each has been edited and expanded upon, repeatedly, by unknown editors.  It is worth noting that Mark features the most fallible, human, no-frills Jesus—and, more importantly, may be an allegory."
(m) A highly dubious account of what textual analysis has shown.  In fact, scholars recognize that aside from Mark, the gospels rely on at least three other sources.  And no, Mark is not an "allegory:" the comment makes one wonder if these two know what allegory is.    
"All of the gospels contain anachronisms and errors that show they were written long after the events they describe, and most likely far from the setting of their stories. Even more troubling, they don’t just have minor nitpicky contradictions; they have basic, even crucial, contradictions." (n) 
(n) We'll stick with refuting arguments actually given here.  
3. "The Gospels are not corroborated by outside historians. Despite generations of apologists insisting Jesus is vouched for by plenty of historical sources like Tacitus or Suetonius, none of these hold up to close inspection.  The most commonly-cited of these is the Testimonium Flavianum, a disputed passage in the writings of ancient historian Flavius Josephus, written around the years 93/94, generations after the presumed time of Jesus. Today historians overwhelmingly recognize this odd Jesus passage is a forgery. (For one reason, no one but the suspected forger ever quotes it – for 500 years!) But Christian apologists are loathe to give it up, and supporters now argue it is only a partial forgery." (o-q)
So much wrong here.  
(o) The consensus on Josephus' longer passage about Jesus (the TF) is, in fact, that it contains a historical core, with a few additions by a Christian scholar.  Wikipedia notes accurately: 
"The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian expansion/alteration."
That these two commentators are unaware of this general view is troubling, considering how important skeptics like Fitgerald see debunking that consensus to be.  He OUGHT to know better.  He ought to know that it is not "Christian apologists" who are "loath to give up" the TF, and draw the conclusion that most of it was from Josephus himself (personally, I could hardly care less), but mainstream scholars.

This is a serious, and telling, misrepresentation of the state of the scholarship. 
(p) No one but Eusebius quotes the TF?  But Wikipedia against points out: 
"There is considerable evidence, however, that attests to the existence of the references to Jesus in Josephus well before then, including a number of ad hoc copies of Josephus' work preserved in quotation from the works of Christian writers. The earliest known such reference to Josephus' work is found in the writings of the third century patristic author Origen, who refers to Josephus' record of "the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)" in Book I, Chapter XLVII of Against Celsus, including Origen's observations that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as "the Christ" when mentioning him in the "Antiquities of the Jews". 
True, Origen was referring to the other Josephus mention of Jesus -- which DF somehow neglects to mention.  
(q) Personally, I don't care much about these Josephus passages.  I argue in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels that the gospels themselves provide more than enough evidence not merely to prove that Jesus lived, but that he was much as the gospels describe him.   Josephus is petty change, by comparison to the astounding wealth of evidence within the gospels themselves.  
"Either way, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out, the Testimonium Flavanium merely repeats common Christian beliefs of the late first century, and even if it was 100% genuine would provide no evidence about where those beliefs came from. This same applies to other secular references to Jesus–they definitely attest to the existence of Christians and recount Christian beliefs at the time, but offer no independent record of a historical Jesus."
The Josephus quotes, while almost certainly genuine, are not much worth arguing about.   They would be more than enough to prove that Jesus lived, were that a real issue, and were no one motivated to believe otherwise.  But why scramble for a nickel in the street, when you're sitting on a pile of gold?  
"In sum, while well-established historic figures like Alexander the Great are supported by multiple lines of evidence, in the case of Jesus we have only one line of evidence: the writings of believers involved in spreading the fledgling religion." (r) 
(r) Aside from Alexander's followers, do we really have much evidence from within Alexander's lifetime testifying to that life?  And should we toss the writings of, say, Ptolemy on the scrap heap, just because he had motivation to glorify his former boss?   
Anyway, I describe 30 "lines of evidence" within the gospels themselves testifying to their essential historicity.   
4. "Early Christian scriptures weren’t the same as ours.  At the time Christianity emerged, gospels were a common religious literary genre, each promoting a different version or set of sacred stories.  For example, as legends of Jesus sprang up, they began to include “infancy gospels.”(s)  As historian Robert M. Price (t) notes, just as Superman comics spun off into stories of young Superboy in Smallville, Christians wrote stories of young Jesus in Nazareth using his divine powers to bring clay birds to life or peevishly strike his playmates dead." (u)
(s) Anyone who can read the so-called "infancy gospels" and imagine them to belong to the same genre as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is a poor literary scholar, indeed.   I wonder if Talico has even read those works?   
(t) Robert Price has a Masters and PhD in theological studies, not in history.  You might call him a historian, I suppose, since he has been working in that field, according to his lights, but going by his credentials, Price is a theologian.    
(u) Pointing to the stories of Jesus making birds or striking other children dead is another cliché in scholarship.  What is the point?  Some 2nd or 3rd Century Christian wrote obvious tall tales about the child Jesus, so any earlier stories about Jesus must also be fiction? 
Numerous great historical figures in the ancient world inspired such a secondary literature, including Alexander, whom T & F have already mentioned.  Shall we say that because Alexandria Romance is a tall tale, therefore Arrian can't be trusted?  Because George Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree, therefore he didn't cross the Delaware, or serve as president? 
There is simply no sense to such an argument.      
"Early Christians didn’t agree on which texts were sacred, and those included in our New Testament were selected to elevate one competing form of Christianity, that of the Roman Church over others. (Note that the Roman Church also proclaimed itself “catholic” meaning universal.)" (v)
(v) Actually, early Christians did agree on the real gospels quite early.   
"Our two oldest complete New Testament collections, Codex Siniaticus and Codex Vaticanus only go back to the beginning of the fourth century. To make matters worse, their books differ from each other – and from our bibles. (w) We have books they don’t have; they have books we don’t have, like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Barnabas."
(w) Another standard, and irrelevant, cliche.  Read the Shepherd of Hermas, and please explain to me why anyone brings that book up in a discussion about whether we can believe the gospels.   This is like saying:

"Anthologies of C. S. Lewis' writings contain a varying selection of essays.  Therefore his autobiographical Surprised By Joy must be a forgery." 
A mere paeon to irrelevancy. which also underlines the scholarly limitations of Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms. Talico.  There is no relationship between premises and conclusion. 
The present four canonical gospels were recognized as authoritative fairly early in the 2nd Century, and were quoted extensively and widely at an early date.   That is all one needs to know.   The fact that early Christians were less clear about some other works, not having to do with the life of Jesus anyway, is neither here nor there. 
"In addition to gospels, the New Testament includes another religious literary genre—the epistle or letter. Some of our familiar New Testament epistles like 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude were rejected as forgeries even in ancient times; today scholars identify (x) almost all of the New Testament books as forgeries except for six attributed to Paul (and even his authentic letters have been re-edited)."
(x) "Scholars identify?"  Here, again, a claim by favored but unnamed (in this context, to be unnamed is to be favored, one might say!) "scholars" is treated simply as fact.

The gospels are not "recognized as forgeries" by "scholars in general."  Neither are "almost all the NT books." 
5. "Christian martyrs are not proof (if they even were real).  Generations of Christian apologists have pointed to the existence of Christian martyrs as proof their religion is true, asking “Who would die for a lie?” (y) The short answer, of course, that all too many true believers have died in the service of falsehoods they passionately believed to be true—and not just Christians. The obvious existence of Muslim jihadis has made this argument less common in recent years."
(y) What T & F put on the lips of Christians here is a "genuine forgery," if that be not self-contradictory.  The argument which "generations of apologists" have made (I know, I heard it as a young man from Josh McDowell) was not "Who would die for a lie?"  But "Who would knowingly die for a lie?"

Would T & F die for their lie of misrepresenting the Christian argument by dropping this crucial word?  I hope not!  But I don't know if I should hope that they are self-aware enough to realize that they have altered it to make it easier to defeat. 
But what is the actual effect of simplifying opposing arguments like this?  It is like pinning a sign to one's backside: "Sorry, I cannot deal with the argument in its proper form, so let me dump it down and deal with what's left."  If you will only fight a gladiator if he first cuts his arms and legs off,  isn't that a confession of impotence?  
"But who says that the Christian stories of widespread martyrdom themselves were real?  The Book of Acts records only two martyr accounts, and secular scholars doubt that the book contains much if any actual history.(z)   The remaining Christian martyr tales first appeared centuries later. (aa) Historian Candida Moss’ 2014 book The Myth of Persecution gives a revealing look at how early Christian fathers fabricated virtually the entire tradition of Christian martyrdom—a fact that was, ironically enough, largely uncovered and debunked by later Christian scholars."
(z) In fact, even so radical an anti-Christian scholar as Richard Carrier admits that Acts contains numerous facts that are known (and proven) to be historical.  (Colin Hemer names 84 in the last half + of Acts alone, which Carrier seems to concede.)  So this is just wrong.  Ben Witherington, a far better scholar than Carrier or Fitzgerald, makes a strong case for Acts in his two works on the book.  In my doctoral research on Acts 14 and 17, I found Luke a consummate historian. 
(aa) Christian martyr tales only appear centuries later, so much be fake?   Odd.  Tacitus records in his Annals ("the pinnacle of Roman historical writing") the following: 
"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace."
Tacitus was writing Annals during the 2nd decade of the 2nd Century.  Is 116 AD "centuries" after the life of Jesus, which ended in 30 or 33 AD?  It's actually amazing to find such early corroboration about a community that must, at the time of Tacitus, remained tiny.   
Nor is Tacitus the only non-Christian Roman to record the persecution of Christians.  Most scholars also believe Suetonius referred even earlier to persecution of Christians. 
Valerie Talico has chosen her "scholar," and seems determined to stick with him -- no matter that he is no scholar at all. 
6. "No other way to explain the existence of Christianity?  Most people, Christians and outsiders alike, find it difficult to imagine how Christianity could have arisen if our Bible stories aren’t true.  Beyond a doubt, Christianity could not have arisen if people in the first century hadn’t believed them to be true.  But the stories themselves?
"Best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman believes that the biblical stories about Jesus had their kernel in the person of a single itinerant preacher, as do most New Testament scholars.  Historian Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald (co-author of this article) take an opposing position—that the original kernel was a set of ancient mythic tropes to which unsuspecting believers added historical details.  Ehrman and Carrier may be on opposite sides of this debate, but both agree on one important fact: (bb) the only thing needed to explain the rise of Christianity is the belief fostered by the rival Christian preachers of the first century."
(bb) Carrier and Ehrman: the "C" and "E" of the ACE Detective Team which I refute in Jesus is No Myth!  They may disagree about whether Jesus was historical, but that's hardly a debate in scholarship: on more serious issues, they're allies and fellow lost pilgrims, as I show. 
"Witchcraft, bigfoot, the idea that an American president was born in Kenya, golden tablets revealed to a 19th century huckster by the Angel Moroni . . . we all know that false ideas can be sticky—that they can spread from person to person, getting elaborated along the way until they become virtually impossible to eradicate.  The beginnings of Christianity may be shrouded in mystery, but the viral spread of passionately-held false ideas is becoming better understood by the year." (cc) 
(cc) Yes, and if mythicism continues to grow more popular, our understanding of the process of how silly ideas spread will keep marching forward.  
But there is no real argument here.  Our two writers have yet to even engage with the positive evidence for Christianity, or even to hint that they know what that evidence might consist of.   As Jesus put it, they seem to be the "blind leading the blind." 
Keeping Options Open 
"University of Sheffield’s Philip Davies—who believes that Christianity probably began with a single Jesus, acknowledges that the evidence is fragile and problematic. Davies argues that the only way the field of New Testament studies can maintain any academic respectability is by acknowledging the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist.  He further notes this wouldn’t generate any controversy in most fields of ancient history, (dd) but that New Testament studies is not a normal case."
(dd) NT studies certainly is not a normal case, and the likes of Philip Davies (Richard Carrier's publisher) is a case in point.  If anyone claimed Confucius never lived, that would I believe kick up a stir in China Studies- if he were eminent enough that scholars noticed him.  But the evidence for Jesus is vastly stronger than that for Confucius.  The inability for some people to even notice that evidence is what is truly incredible in Jesus studies.  (And also the clumsiness with which scholars in the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Bart Ehrman stumble through the texts which contain that evidence, as I have documented.)
"Brandon University’s Kurt Noll goes even further and lays out a case that the question doesn’t matter: Whether he was real or myth, a historical Jesus is irrelevant to the religion that was founded in his name.
"That is because either way, the Christ at the heart of Christianity is a figure woven from the fabric of mythology. (ee) The stories that bear his name draw on ancient templates imbedded in the Hebrew religion and those of the surrounding region. They were handed down by word of mouth in a cultural context filled with magical beings and miracles. (ff) Demons caused epilepsy. Burnt offerings made it rain. Medical cures included mandrakes and dove blood. Angels and ghosts appeared to people in dreams. Gods and other supernatural beings abounded and not infrequently crossed over from their world to ours." (gg) 
(e)  There is no one at all like Jesus in ancient mythology, legend, novels, or plays.  After a lifetime of studying such literature, C. S. Lewis baldly stated that fact in his great essay "Fernseed and Elephants."  I show how threadbare the comparison is in more painstaking detail, in Jesus is No Myth.  The very parallels that skeptics put forward, demonstrate with special clarity how unique Jesus is, and how strong the evidence for the gospels actually is.  
(f) Magic is not miracle.  The purpose, causes, and nature of the two categories differ dramatically.  The failure by skeptics to recognize the true nature of Jesus' miracles, and differentiate them from the works of Apollonius or the infancy stories, is a serious critical lapse, indeed.  They fail to notice the elephant which stands a few paces in front of them, trumpeting and bellowing, to borrow C. S. Lewis' metaphor.  
(g) No "gods" appear in the New Testament.  And the problem with this whole argument is, miracles continue to occur in the modern world.  Its assumption is that the ancient "cultural context" is quite different from ours.  But it is not.  This failure to recognize events that tens of millions of people around the world have experienced -- including many of my friends -- reflects the blindness that is endemic to this whole tribe of skeptics.  
Real miracles are not so arbitrary and unreasonable as DF and VT depict them.  They again, simply miss the true nature of the phenomena they aim to describe.  
"Who, in the midst of all of this, was Jesus? We may never know."
Not if you keep your eyes closed and cover those eyes with your hands, then climb down into the cellar and turn off all the lights, you won't.  Not even an elephant can break through some walls. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Genesis: "The Two Shall Be One."

I didn't plan to dedicate a whole post to the role of women in Genesis alone -- I wanted to feast on the the entire Torah in one meal.  But the banquet was too large for a single sitting.  Genesis includes both profound philosophical thinking on gender, but also a number of fascinating, and sometimes horrifying, stories.  It contains some of the most famous passages on sex in the Bible, which Jesus would later quote, and obscure stories that we often overlook, but merit consideration.  This is also the book of origins, a unique position which carries unique importance.


Genesis begins with a bang -- the Big Bang, social as well as cosmological: 

Image result for adam eve
"Madam, I'm Adam."
"Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'
   So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
  God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'

The first chapters of Genesis are remarkably elegant: concise, yet full of profundity related in a deep way to many deep issues.  Here we learn that mankind, both male and female, is not merely the object of evolutionary happenstance, but made in the image of God in some sense.  No doubt this refers to our ability to reason and judge, since God's purpose in creating us is to allow us "rule" over the animal kingdom.  (Wise rulers do not obliterate their subjects.)  Furthermore, this guiding role is given to humanity as part of a blessing.  The boundaries of that blessing are the Earth, as little as the ancient Hebrews knew of it.  But in fact, humans had migrated out of Africa and reached the tip of South America some 9,000 years before the writing of this book, fulfilling the command God gave them in it.  

Man and woman together reflect God's nature.   One gender alone was not enough to do that.  There is thus the case of co-mission, that the sexes are complementary, and are called by God to His work together.  

2.7: "Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

Genesis describes God as first creating the first man directly. 

2.16: "The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Having given the man employment, as a gardener and zoologist, God takes thought for his social life.  "Man is a political animal," as Aristotle said.  What would happen to this planet if the apex predator were a creature that hated company, like a wolverine or polar bear?  Our love of society, beginning with the first man and woman, working together to fulfill God's calling, may also be deemed another aspect of how we are created in the image of a Triune God.  (Christians can add to the Jewish tale, here.)  

2.21-25: "So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.22  Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.
24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame."

So male and female are, from the beginning, an organic unity, joined physically not only in the act of sex, but in the intent and design of the Creator.   And there was nothing to be ashamed of in that initial coupling, or in the body, our creature-hood.  Thus monogamy precedes polygamy, serial monogamy, and casual sex.   A life-time relationship is the ideal -- this is the verse Jesus would point to to explain that God did not intend divorce.  

Compare this to Hesiod's more gloomy way of introducing women, as a penalty against man for Prometheus having stolen fire to give to them:

"For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no help-meets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth. And as in thatched hives bees feed the drones whose nature is to do mischief -- by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down the bees are busy and lay the white combs, while the drones stay at home in the covered skeps and reap the toil of others into their own bellies -- even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed."

"So it is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus; for not even the son of Iapetus, kindly Prometheus, escaped his heavy anger, but of necessity strong bands confined him, although he knew many a wile."

So much for the ideal.  But Genesis recognizes both man and woman as capable of choice. 

The Fall

3.1-17: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?
  The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,  but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?
 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
   And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”
  To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.

In this story, three parties sin, and three parties are punished.  The snake is consigned to the dust, and to warfare with the woman's child.  (A theme which is applied to Jesus and the Evil One in the New Testament, especially in Revelations.)  Both man and woman are asked to take responsibility, and they both sluff their guilt off on another party. 

It is possible to read the story of the Fall as a myth, as a story of the distant or undetermined past that explain features of the present.  (It is also possible to read this as a myth in the sense of an "untrue story," but that debate distracts us from what is most interesting about this story.)   It is a fact that women suffer in childbirth, and that that suffering (and danger) comes of the fact that human babies have large heads.   The sin that the man and woman committed was seeking to "know good and evil," and become like gods, "letting their heads get too big," as we say.  Pride is the original sin, the "complete anti-God state of mind," as C. S. Lewis put it, that which by its very nature alienates us from all other creatures and from our Creator. 

Whether or not something quite like this happened long ago, or this is a story designed to tell us something about the human condition, I think it does in fact tell us something profound about that condition.  

We are rendered naked by sin, and try to "cover up," to hide the reality of our sinfulness from other eyes.  So much of human behavior is revealed by that covering!  Adam and Eve were not ashamed at first because, like animals, they had nothing to be ashamed of.  It is by becoming free agents who chose self-will and self-aggrandizement that we become aware of choice, and having chosen selfishly, first feel shame.  But as Jay Budziszewski points out, the more we sin and try to cover up, the greater we need to sin -- killing first animals, then one another, as Cain would do to Abel out of jealousy. 

Whatever you think of the historicity of Adam and Eve, the profundity of these chapters (whose richness I have only begun to dip into) is almost unexcelled. 

What about the notion of blaming women in general for one woman's sin?  Certainly that has been a common theme in Judeo-Christian history, traces of which we uncovered in St. Paul in the last post.  But the couple both sinned, and Paul also writes much of "the first Adam," offset by the "second Adam," who is Jesus Christ.  Jesus comes to undo the effects of primordial sin committed by Adam and Eve.  Really, the notion of blaming one party for the sin of all merely repeats one aspect of the original cover-up which Genesis reveals.  

Founding of Israel

12.1-3: "The Lord had said to Abram, 'Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
 I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.'"

Here is the promise, given to Abraham, but fulfilled through Sarah -- and dozens of subsequent parents.  The promise is not to individuals, but to "peoples."  Indeed, surprisingly (given the chauvinism of the ancient Hebrews, and of the ancients in general), the promise is to all peoples of the Earth -- the promise Jesus ultimately claimed to fulfill. 

But following these grand promises, things begin to get grittier.   

12: 11-20: "As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.   When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Image result for abraham sarah sister When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai a beautiful woman.   And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.   He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai.   So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?   Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had."

This is the first of several cases in which Old Testament "saints" prove unwilling to fight to protect their mates, indeed stoop so low as to make their lovers available for sex with some imposing Alpha Male, or even (in the case of Abraham's nephew, as we shall see) to be raped by a lusty crowd.  God does what Abraham does not, protecting Sarah from these sexual advances.

And then tells Sarah a joke that would make her laugh for years to come.   

18.9-15: “'Where is your wife Sarah?' they asked him.

'There, in the tent,' he said.
 Then one of them said, 'I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.'
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.   So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
 Then the Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, "Will I really have a child, now that I am old?"   Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.'
 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh.'”

Two angels visit Abraham and Sarah, and promise them the son they had long awaited, to fulfill the promise to Abraham.   Sarah is now in her nineties, and cannot believe her ears. 

The focus then switches to Abraham's nephew Lot, two mysterious visitors to his home in Sodom, and a jailhouse mob of rapists.

19.5-8: "They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”  Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.  Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

Now we plunge into one of the most sordid stories in the Bible.  Even though the girls don't get raped in the end, it certainly reflects a very low status for women, and perhaps for children, in society of the time, as well as a cult of hospitality that reached insane levels.  It is hard to be sure what the author thinks of Lot's take-my-daughters -- no really! "solution."  But given that he goes on to tell of more sordid happenings within this "one righteous family in town" one gathers he is not impressed, either:  

19. 14-17: "So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters.  He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.  With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”   When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them.   As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

19. 23-25: "By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land.   Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens.  Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.   But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt."

19.30-38: "Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.   One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth.   Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

   That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
   The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.”   So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
   So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father.   The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today.   The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today."

One assumes that with the story, the Jews were not trying to compliment Moab ("mother of all bastards?") or Ammon.  Certainly this story also reflects the  values of the perversely sexualized community from which Lot and his family had escaped.   Lot tried to pawn his daughters off on strangers: the shame now blew back on him, as the daughters internalized the values they had been taught, both in the community and even in the home.  Meanwhile, their mother showed lack of faith, and lost her life. 

There are no heroes in the story of Lot. 

What this reflects is the chaotic and violent character of ancient tribal cultures, the rough justice that they experienced in pre-state conditions.  (The totalitarian character of the great states which had formed nearby, like Sumer, Assyria, and Egypt, made them less free, more controlled, in effect slavish, as Rodney Stark describes in The Discovery of God.) 

But back to Abraham.  

20.2-6: "Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar,  and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.   But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”   Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?   Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”  Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her."

Nothing new here: the "father of faith" wandering the Levant on feet of crumbling clay. 

Abraham was patriarch of the family, and therefore subject to future veneration.  But both Abraham and his wife are described as flawed human beings, who gave birth to an increasingly disfunctional family that at times seemed to amplify the flaws of their parents.


21. 1-19: "Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him .  .  .  Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”   And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”  The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.   But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

  The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.  But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.  I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
  Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.
   When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
  God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.   Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.
 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.   While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt."

The first story of Sarah has a happy ending, but as in life, it never ends there.  Sarah has her baby that she laughed at God over, and far from being punished (as would happen to others slow to believe), she seems to share an inside joke with her Creator.  "God has brought me laughter." 

But then Sarah, who is no doormat, despite Abraham's occasional self-preserving wiles, wants to kick out her maid, whom she had had sleep with her husband to produce that long-awaited son.  Here the contrast is not between genders but classes.   After all, it is no great thing to be under the thumb of a female oppressor, either.  Abraham wishes to protect the woman and her child, who is his child too, after all.  But he does not have things all his way at home.  His grandson would take the simple expedient of marrying two sisters and their maids, without anyone forced to leave home.  But even with Father Abraham, one gets the feeling that "they shall become one flesh" does not work as well when "they" becomes three or more. 

Yet as He did with Sarah, God looks out for those who are cast aside by society. 

23.1-9: "Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old.   She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.

  Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites.  He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”   The Hittites replied to Abraham,  “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”  Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites.  He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”

Some claim that women are of no value in the Bible or Old Testament.  Michael Coogan, cited by John Loftus, claims that women were "property" to men, who had "virtually absolute control" over their wives.  (God or Godless, 86)   Odd, then, that Abraham was unable to keep his mistress and child in the house.  Abraham also insisted on paying good money for a proper burial place for his wife, which is a strange thing to do with an obsolete piece of property.  

He then arranged a marriage for his son which involved the consent of a spunky and independent-minded bride named Rebekah.  
Image result for isaac rebekah
This is the Hollywood version.  She
expect she was younger.

24. 15-31: "Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor.  The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her.  She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.

   The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”
   “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink.
   After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.”   So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels.   Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
   When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels.   Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?
   She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.”   And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
   Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord, saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.”
  The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.   Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring.   As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring.  “Come, you who are blessed by the Lord,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.'”

This is part of the well-known story of Isaac and Rebekah.  I won't include the whole tale, which runs a full 67 verses.   Notice that Rebekah is no wall flower: she shows great pluck and initiative in interacting with this stranger and his camels. (And hospitality.)   She volunteers to water the camels, and lets the stranger know that there is room for him to stay.  

Nor does Rebekah go to meet her unseen second-cousin Isaac unwillingly:

"Then they said, “Let’s call the young woman and ask her about it.”  So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”“I will go,” she said.

Rebekah is an active, God-trusting, plucky young woman with a major speaking part in this portion of Genesis.  Her family blesses her both by giving her a dowry of jewelry, and by praying to God that she will become the "mother of millions" and defeat her foes.  So Rebekah is shown as playing an outspoken and active role as a heroine who figures in God's plans for the Jewish people. 

25.10: Abraham is buried besides his wife.

25.21-23: "Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.   The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.

  The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
    and the older will serve the younger.

Isaac prays for her wife, then Rebekah "inquires of the Lord," and God tells her the future.  So again, women enjoy a direct relationship with God, not mediated by priest or husband. 

26. 34-35: "When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite.  They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah."

27.5-13: "Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back,  Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.   Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you:  Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.  Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”   Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin.   What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”  His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”

This is, perhaps, the first instance of the "sneaky wife" motif in the Bible.  (If you don't count Eve.)  (Of course, Abraham has already played the role of "sneaky husband.")  Rebekah is plotting with one son against the other and her husband.   As it happens, Rebekah is right and her husband is wrong -- God intends to bless Jacob, and bring blessings to the world through his seed.  She also pulls one over on the lover she left her family to join for life.  There is no record of hard feelings between the two, though the sons take most of two decades to reconcile. 

27.46: "Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”

Again the conflict is not between the genders, but peoples. 

Cheaper by the Dozen?  Not for Jacob!  

Jacob follows his mother's directions, but the result is generations, one might even say centuries, of conflict within the house of Abraham.  It begins with Jacob's wily uncle and his two competitive daughters.  

Image result for jacob rachel"Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.   Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”

 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man.  Stay here with me.”  So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.

 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.
 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast.   But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her.   And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
  When morning came, there was Leah!  So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me?  I served you for Rachel, didn’t I?  Why have you deceived me?
  Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.   Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.
  And Jacob did so.  He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.   Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her attendant.  Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
  When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.   Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.  She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”  She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon.
 Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” So he was named Levi. She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.'"
The story of this long-lasting love triangle provides a fascinating peak into the sexual mores of the ancient Middle East.  Jacob loved Rachel, at least in part because she was beautiful.  But two other characters in the story took thought for the older sister, Leah.  First, her father insisted that his nephew marry the older sister - indeed he cheated his nephew out of seven years of labor by giving him the wrong sister.  (Just as Jacob had cheated his own father and brother -- apparently no one in this family paid much attention to who they were getting meals from, or sleeping with!)  But then God provides the clearest editorial comment on the family drama by comforting Leah with children.  (A modern film-maker, by contrast, would provide her with an alternative love-interest of a different kind.  Which I think suggests that the Bible is written for a more truly mature audience than most modern films.)  After two of the first three sons, Leah tells herself that now her husband will finally love her.  But after the fourth child, she says instead, "This time I will praise the Lord," looking on the bright side of life.  
This is the polygamous backstory to the tale of Joseph and his brothers.  It is Reuben and Judah, Joseph's full brothers, who will later protect him from being killed by his half-brothers when they throw him in a pit.  Reuben indeed intends to rescue Joseph and send him home, but Joseph is sold into Egypt instead.  Sibling rivalry among sons born to the rival sister and the maids burns far more fiercely, it seems, than between sons of the same mother.

And here come the maids.      
30.1-23: "When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”   Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”  So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, and she became pregnant and bore him a son.   Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Because of this she named him Dan.
 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.   Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali.
 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife.   Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son.  Then Leah said, “What good fortune!” So she named him Gad.  Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son.  Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher.
 During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”   But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
   So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.  God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son.  Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.”  So she named him Issachar.  Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son.  Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift.  This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.  Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.
Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive.  She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, 'God has taken away my disgrace.”  She named him Joseph, and said, “May the Lord add to me another son.'”
So "sibling rivalry" begins not with Joseph's generation, but between these two sisters, who are their mothers and step-mothers, and between their father and uncle.  And it descends into tragi-comic proportions, with the sisters selling bed rights for herbs, and ultimately foisting maids on their husband in their kinky game of one-ups-man-ship, when they've stopped bearing children themselves. 

31. 26: "Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war."

Jacob is sneaking off home with his extended family and herds.  Dirty tricks are flying back and forth like spells in the Battle of Hogwarts: brother to brother, uncle to nephew and back, sister to sister, and soon the next generation will snatch up the baton or wand.  But Laban warns: 

 31. 50: "If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.”

Now Laban is thinking of the well-being of both ladies.  Jacob and his wives between them lack equivalent moral sense on this point, encouraging the maids to jump into the patriarch's sack as well.  The whole sordid tale of Joseph, which causes Jacob so much pain in his old age, might be seen as fulfillment of Laban's warning.  If Jacob HAD limited himself to his two second cousins, his beloved son might not have been sold as a slave into Egypt.  

"The two (not three, not five) shall become one."  Laban's advice, and the tragedy that resulted when Jacob ignored it, might be taken as an implicit critique of the excesses of the polygamous system.  So might Sarah's cruel and hypocritical treatment of her servant and the servant's son -- treatment, however, that no one needs to have explained to them.  

"The Dirty Dozen" 

The narrator then tells a tangential story which reveals serious character flaws in the whole new generation.  

34. 1-8: "Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land.  When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her.   His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.  And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.” 

"When Jacob heard that his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the fields with his livestock; so he did nothing about it until they came home.  Then Shechem’s father Hamor went out to talk with Jacob.   Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were shocked and furious, because Shechem had done an outrageous thing in Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.  But Hamor said to them, “My son Shechem has his heart set on your daughter. Please give her to him as his wife.  Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves.  You can settle among us;the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it.

In modern society, raping a woman is not considered a couth preliminary to asking for her sweet hand.  Dinah's brothers didn't find it a promising rite of courtship, either.  Following the family MO, they tricked the men of the neighboring tribe into getting circumcized, demanding it as a preliminary to making a treaty between clans.  Then when the men were recovering from the operation, the brothers attacked, killing the men and stealing everything and everyone else.  

Jacob was horrified.  "You have shocked me, to make me odius to the natives of this country . . . and since we are few, if they united against me, they will slay me -- I and my family will be destroyed."

To which the brothers replied:

34. 31: “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?

Clearly, the sexual mores of ancient Palestine were different from those of modern America.  I would not wish to return to those days, but am not sure the comparison works entirely to our favor.  

The ancient world was roughly divided into two social states: tribes, and royal kingdoms.  Among the former, macho violence, clan rule, and the centrality of honor, were the norm.  The Iliad reveals a similar code, and similar levels of spontaneous violence, among the Greeks, and it is echoed in early works of Greek history as well. Words like "Viking" and "Samurai" and "Brave" remind us what tribal society was like.

"Civilized" societies of the time were, if anything, less pleasant and more deadly.  In Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and then Rome, the lower classes were perhaps better organized and under tighter control, but were probably worse-fed and more slavish.  Thanks to her prophets, I have argued that Israel ultimately evolved a system that preserved the best of both worlds, and that became a sort of bridge from free tribes to modern civilization, across which freedom would pass.  

We see at least three things from this passage: 

(a) That unmarried sex and rape could be taken seriously. (Also, the story of Absalom in a later period.) 
(b) That family honor was involved, which could mean family law and vengance. 
(c) That rape created a problem for the woman beyond what we recognize, the matter of honor and the need to be married to enjoy the respect of the community. (Would men be willing to marry a woman who had been victimized in this way?  Would she have any career options besides prostitution?)

Murdering a family's adult male kin and enslaving the women and children is not an ideal solution to rape, however.  (Nor does the narrator suggest that it is -- in fact, Jacob objects, at least from a strategic perspective, though he may also be horrified at the violence to which his crew is prone.  Can't they make up a football team, instead?)  This is still a savage society in which "the Law" is one's own two fists and whatever gang - made up of near relatives - one can round up.  

What about the crazy idea of marrying one's rapist?  Apparently it was in the air in those days.  But I am not sure it was entirely mad.  In modern America, the average jail time for a convicted rapist -- if it gets that far -- is a bit more than five years.  But in ancient Palestine, jail time for the man would still leave the woman unprovided for, and perhaps unable to provide for herself.  Let's keep this problem in mind, when we come to Leviticus.  

35. 19-22: "So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).   Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.  Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.   While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it."

Clearly Judah's love for Rachel was no flash in the pan.  She was buried, with a memorial to mark the spot, in what would become the hometown of Jesus.  

The affair between Reuben and the mother of Dan and Naphtali is looked on with an implied frown by the narrator, one more in a series of sordid incidents in the family chronicle.  One wonders how much choice Bilhah had in the matter.  Maybe she was looking for love, which she could hardly have gotten much of as a pawn in the sisterly County Fair child-bearing competition.  This seems to be another subtle rhetorical strike against polygamy.  

Also note that this is the sin which Paul was so upset about among the Corinthians.  

But the sexual weirdness in this family has not yet quite run its course.  

38. 6-26: "Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.   But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.  Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.”   But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.   What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.  Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.  After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
  When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,”  she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
  When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.   Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.
   “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.
   He said, “What pledge should I give you?”
“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.   After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.
   Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her.   He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”
“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.
   So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”
   Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
   About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”
Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
   As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
   Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again."

Here is a bounteous bonanza of debauchery to delight any talk-show host or soap opera producer.  Again, the narrator offers no explicit editorial comment, but seems to explicitly say, "This family was really messed up!"  

One brother having died, the custom was for another brother to take his sister-in-law as his wife.  This was a form of social security, and more than that, ensured that the family line did not die out.  

God judge Onan because he wanted the pleasure of sex, but did not want to fulfill his responsibility to his sister-in-law and brother.  He would hardly be the last person to divorce sex from responsibility.  

Judah must have been in the habit of sleeping with temple prostitutes, or his daughter in law wouldn't have tried that trick on him.  Judah's final words are an early indictment of the double standard which he had so cheerfully adopted -- I sleep around, she gets burned to death for sleeping around.  "She is more righteous than me."  It's not clear that anyone in this family is righteous at all -- why God picked these dogs, is a little hard to understand.  

Until Joseph appears on the scene.  

Into Egypt

Joseph comes as a welcome relief: aside from a streak of youthful arrogance, his character shines in contrast to much of this sleazy family history, including in the arena of sexuality.  

We pick up the story after Joseph has been sold as a slave to Egypt by his brothers (some of whom wished to kill him, one of whom planned to rescue him).  

Image result for joseph potiphar's wife39. 6-18: "Now Joseph was well-built and handsome,  and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”  But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.   No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”   And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.

"One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.  She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.  When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us!  He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed.   When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”   She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home.  Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me.  But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”  When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger.  Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.'"
We have witnessed a few rapes already.  Now we witness a false accusation of rape.  Whereas Dinah is a victim (someone was in the kitchen with Dinah, but she forgot to blow her horn, as the song goes), Potiphar's wife is both seductress and schemer who get revenge on a man who does not return her affections.  
If you're keeping score, bad men and bad women seem to even out so far.  Clever and noble women have also been more than in evidence -- we'll chalk up the count at some point in this series.  
The final chapters of Genesis tell the beautiful story of how Joseph and his brothers are reconciled (including more scheming and trickery), and how the first Jews immigrate to Egypt under Joseph's prime ministership.  It's a story of dreams and tears, surprise plot twists, "death" and resurrection, and Joseph is taken in the New Testament as an image or figure of Jesus.  But it doesn't involve too many women, so we need not relate it.   

Joseph marries a local girl.  He appears to only take one wife, and fails to take advantage of the only other sexual opportunity related in the tale.  
In 49. 31-32, after Jacob has blessed his sons, he asks them to bury him on the plot his grandfather Abraham had purchased to bury Sarah, where Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were already entombed.  It is hard for me to reconcile this unity in death with the notion that ancient Jewish men saw "their" wives as "property" -- or much else in Genesis.    
In fact, these burial arrangements look to me like another subtle dig at polygamy.  In each case, husband and wife are mentioned, not husband and wives.  Moses (if he is the narrator) honestly records how men and women violated the original terms and ideal of creation, but he continues to keep his eye on that prize in sometimes subtle ways.  

A. Genesis tells the story of beginnings.  Sex is part of that.  Sex is good and blessed: God made woman out of man, as man comes out of woman, "the two become one flesh," because "it is not good for man to be alone," Moses explains in the grand overture that are the first chapters of this book.  Human beings come in packs, but also families, which are more fundamental.  This is a truth which some ideologies have tried to deny -- Plato, Marx, Hong Xiuquan, Mao.  But history has proven the biblical account true to human nature: families are more fundamental and real than any other social structure.    
B.  It is made clear, in several ways, that polygamy is a kind of social degradation, not the intended "state of affairs," as they say: 
(1) Genesis begins by saying "the two shall become one," not the three or four.  
(2) Families are repeatedly torn asunder by rivalry and even attempted murder due to multiple wives. 
(3) Tom-catting results in repeated conflicts up to murder and near genocide. 
(4)  Practically the only prominent man in this whole narrative who has only one lover mentioned, and shows the most sexual restraint, also happens to be the biggest hero of the story and a figure of Christ -- Joseph.  
(5) Men are buried with one wife each.  
 C. Genesis tells many stories of love gained, love lost, and of lust and its consequences.  The narrator does not usually force his point on the reader -- we are left to figure out for ourselves who the heroes and heroines are, and who the villains.  But the narrator clearly recognizes that sex can cause problems, and that both men and women are often guilty -- though maybe in different ways.  

D. Some social ills are associated with certain Gentile tribes.  The men of Sodom attempt to rape the angels.  Jacob's neighbors rape his daughter.  Potiphor's wife tries to seduce Joseph.  I see no attempt to generalize here, and the Jewish characters get into lots of trouble, too.  But it is plausible to suppose that part of God's promise to bless all families of the world through Abraham's descendant, may involve helping us to make better families.

E. Distinct gender roles are assumed throughout.  This is nothing unusual -- modern liberal society is the outlier in this case.  And in the pre-modern world, without labor-saving devices (aside from slaves), and with high infant mortality, most women could only be tied to the home, or the human species would come to an end.  

F. But people who say the Bible consigns women to ignoble or unheroic roles clearly have never carefully read Genesis.   Females can certainly act with villainy. Eve eats the fruit and brings ruin to her children.  Lot's wife looks back.  Sarah laughs, and like Leah and Rachel, treats her maid like a baby machine, and expects too little from her husband -- then too much.   Potiphar's wife attempts adultery, seduction, and ruin of an innocent man.    
But women are treated as important people with fundamental dignity.  God rebukes Sarah, but also seems to share the joke with her -- she keeps on laughing.  Rebekah is a kind hostess and a precocious young woman who takes the initiative in her relationships.  Dinah and Lot's daughters take the initiative in unhealthy sexual relations, more out of family obligations or dreams than sexual desire per se.  Judah himself recognizes Dinah as more heroic than himself.  
G. In the sordid story of Lot, a strange idea of the Right and Good is assumed.  Lot actually offers his daughters to rapists, in lieu of male guests whom the rapists would prefer.  One gets the feeling Lot is being saved not for his own miserable person, but as a favor to Uncle Abraham.  But even Abraham offers his wife's body to save his own life -- twice!  None of this is explicitly approved of by the narrator.  But neither does he show the horror of Lot's action, in particular, that most sensible modern would feel. 
H. But men do sometimes protect the women they love, even to an extreme.  Joseph's brothers murder all the men in a neighboring clan for a man who had raped their sister.  Laban tells his son-in-law not to marry other women, and to treat his daughters well.
I. God also hears the prayers of women, and sometimes intervenes to protect them where their menfolk fall down on the job.    
So we descend from Genesis' great overture, into the rough-and-tumble of life.  So far, women seem to be mostly holding their own, and God (and some men) are also looking out for them.