Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Godfather

Genesis 24 

Our bible story this week finds us in the luxurious tent of the Patriarch Abraham.

It’s a history story and all week I’ve been trying to discern its theological significance.

As the scene opens, Abraham is surrounded by the rustic opulence of the rich desert ruler he is. He sits in fleecy comfort, his every whim satisfied by hard-working and loyal servants. Long gone are the poor shepherd’s itchy burlap garments that absorb the desert’s heat and radiate the odor of human sweat at night. Gone are the sand-encrusted sandals that abused his bunions. Abraham has been blessed by God, and he is very comfortable and very rich.

But Abraham is not happy. He is feeling old. He has already passed his centennial and lately he has been fretting about the future.

It’s no wonder he frets because God has been known to toy with him, often maliciously. Last week, the Common Lectionary pointed to a chilling experience earlier in Abraham’s life, the horrifying story of God’s demand that Abraham take his son Isaac to a mountain in Moriah and slit the boy’s throat. This is simply staggering cruelty and it takes some theological acrobatics to comprehend it. Why is God ordering Abraham to kill Isaac, his only son, the one he loves most on earth? What is God, anyway, a dyspeptic deity flaunting unlimited power who wants to see how high Abraham will jump when God yells, “Jump”? Only after Abraham has bound Isaac to a sacrificial altar and just as Abraham raises his blade, does God intervene. Psych! God was just testing your obedience, old man. Good job. On your way.

It’s hard to understand what God did to Abraham in Moriah, and the passage has undergone a lot of exegesis over several millennia. Perhaps it’s a tribal legend that created a good story to tell around campfires at the oasis, an allegory of God’s power and human obedience that made a point while creeping out the kids – and that last-minute rescue of an imperiled victim is a timeless literary device that predates Neolithic tale spinning and will postdate IMAX 3D movies.

There had been other times when God toyed with Abraham. Abraham was 75 when God ordered him to move to Canaan where, God assured him, he would be the primogenitor of a vast nation. God said “jump” and Abraham jumped, possibly winking at his beautiful wife, Sarah, to tell her they’d better get started. But years went by and the nation-starting business was going nowhere and there’s reason to suspect Sarah was wearying of her husband’s sweaty efforts to make God happy. Looking around, she saw her beautiful Egyptian servant, Hagar, and presented her to him as a gift. “She’s all yours, dear,” and Abraham dutifully continued his feverish endeavors to please God. Initially relieved that her vigorous husband was occupied elsewhere, Sarah soon became annoyed by Abraham’s sacred enthusiasm and threw Hagar out of the tent – but not before Hagar was heavy with a child, whom she named Ishmael. Good job, God said. But years passed and God declared that Abraham’s nation-building tasks needed to continue only with Sarah, who thought she had retired from that job and, besides, was far past the normal age of child bearing. And to complicate matters, God had another idea: he ordered Abraham and all the males of his tent-hold to get circumcised. Abraham was 93. Although the bible does not make a point of it, this would correspond to the birth of the world’s second oldest profession, the mohel. No one knows who this fleet-fingered guy was, but he must have been as busy as he was unpopular.

The story continues, along with evidence that in his advanced age, Abraham’s vigor to please God was waning. It so happened that three men came to visit Abraham and Sarah at the tent, and Abraham ordered Sarah to prepare a meal for the visitors. As Sarah was baking cakes and broiling a calf, she overheard one of the men tell her husband, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Maybe it was the guy’s comedic timing, but Sarah burst out laughing. In our gentrified versions of Genesis, in the King James or Revised Standard Version, Sarah’s comment to herself is dignified and grandmotherly: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Earlier translations, including the Book of J, are less polite, quoting Sarah’s comment that her husband’s instrument of nation building has dangled uselessly for years. But all humor aside: the prediction came true, and Isaac was born.

Which, jumping once again over the story of the attempted sacrifice of the adored Isaac-the-miracle-boy, brings us again to today’s scripture: Genesis 24. Abraham, now over 100, is sitting sadly in his tent, fretting once again about the covenant with God to build a nation bursting with more people than there are stars in the sky. Abraham and Sarah have done their part (God knows), but it’s still not happening. Isaac is 37 and he sits around the tent all day playing with his sheep and there is no Mrs. Isaac on the horizon. If a vast nation is to be built, it’s time for the boy to get busy. So Abraham hatches a plan to find his son a wife.

Genesis 24 is the story of that plan. And I’m still wondering what theological pearls may be plucked from this literary oyster.

Maybe the significance would be clearer if the story were contextualized to a more familiar time. The Divine M – my spouse and homiletical mentor – is in Tampa this week attending the general synod of the United Church of Christ, so she is not readily available to shed her usual light on an obscure passage. But before she left, she downloaded the Godfather trilogy to her iPad to while away the evening hours in the hotel. And it occurs to me: what better context for Genesis 24?

Let it play in your head: the theme from The Godfather.

Scene I:  Abraham, The Godfather, sits quietly in his office, drumming his fingers on an immaculately polished mahogany desk. He gazes out a large window and sees his adult son, Isaac, sitting at a videogame, where he has been playing Cars2 for hours. The Godfather frowns, and pushes a button on his desk. Immediately his consigliore, Eliezer, enters the office.

Eliezer: You called, Godfather?

Abraham: Eliezer, we gotta do something about this boy of mine.

Eliezer: Godfather?

Abraham: He sits around all day watching television or playing games. It’s time he grew up.

Eliezer: What d'ya gonna do?

Abraham: Eliezer, my most trusted consigliore, you gotta swear to me …

Eliezer: (self-consciously wiping his hands on his shirt)

Abraham: No, just swear to me.

Eliezer: Anything, Godfather.

Abraham: Swear to me that you will go to Sicily, the land of my birth, and find a nice Sicilian girl for Isaac – not one of these modern New York girls with tattoos and big hair and chewing gum.

Eliezer: You got it, Godfather. But what if she don’t wanna come back wid me?

Abraham: (Shrugs) Then fogeddaboudit. The deal’s off.

Scene II. The airport in Palermo, Sicily. Eliezer watches ten huge bags slide heavily down the belt at baggage claim. The bags are filled with jewelry, shoes, silks, perfumes, iPads, and other expensive gifts. He orders the bags opened and the gifts are placed visible in the backseats of ten Cadillac convertibles.

Eliezer (tipping each of the ten drivers with a $100 bill): This is the Godfather’s way of making friends.

Eliezer jumps in the lead car, and the ostentatious caravan moves slowly out of the airport.

Scene III. Corleone, Sicily, a small, sleepy sheep herding village where the Godfather was born. The crunch of the tires of ten Cadillacs on gravel roads can be heard for miles, and startled farmers stare at the caravan as it makes its way to the center of the village. The cars pull up in front of Bethuel’s tavern, the only visible business in the village.

Eliezer (Shouting):  Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Scuffling sounds can be heard from inside the tavern, and Bethuel emerges, sleepily pulling his suspenders over his shoulders. Bethuel blinks in amazement as his eyes scan the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Eliezer: Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Bethuel continues to stare at the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Bethuel: Momento, Signore!

Bethuel turns and runs back into the tavern. Inside, the sounds of shouting and scraping furniture can be heard. A young woman can be heard raising her voice in protest, followed by equally insistent male shouting. Eliezer leans against the lead Cadillac and checks his watch. Finally, the beautiful Rebekah is pushed out the door. She is carrying bottles of wine on a tray. She begins to place the tray on a small table, but freezes when she sees the ten Cadillac convertibles filled with gifts.

Eliezer: Hey. Can a guy get a drink around here?

Rebekah: Drink? Are you kiddin’?

Rebekah places the tray on the table and pulls Eliezer to a chair and makes him sit down. Eliezer sips his wine.

Rebekah: Anything else I can get for you? Anything?

Eliezer: Well, I gotta get gas in these cars.

Rebekah: You got it, Signore.

Rebekah brushes past Eliezer and signals the drivers of the Cadillacs to pull up to the side of the tavern where a gasoline pump waits. She rolls up her sleeves and begins to pump gas into each car. She squirts water on each windshield and expertly draws a squeegee across them, leaving them spotless. She opens each hood and checks the oil. She finishes the last car, she wipes her hands on a well-used rag. There is a spot of oil on her nose. Eliezer is clearly impressed.

Eliezer: You sure ain't a Manhattan girl.

Eliezer reaches into one of the Cadillacs and pulls out a large golden ring and a bejeweled necklace, which he gives to Rebekah.

Eliezer: For your trouble.

Rebekah: Oh, any time, really.

Eliezer: Pardon me for being so direct, but are you married?

Rebekah: No, Signore.

Eliezer: You wanna be?

Flustered, Rebekah runs back into the tavern. Bethuel and Rebekah’s brother, Laban, run outside.

Bethuel: Is something wrong? Did you get something to drink?

Eliezer: Everything is fine. But let me explain: I’m on a mission from my Godfather to find a wife for his son. I’ve brought gifts for the lucky girl and her family. That girl who ran inside – is she available?

Bethuel and Laban exchange glances.

Laban: Um, well, that’s up to her, you know.

Bethuel: Yeah, right, we couldn’t possibly tell her what to do.

Laban: Yeah. We gotta talk to her.

Bethuel and Laban turn toward the door of the tavern but they are knocked aside as Rebekah bursts through the door carrying two suitcases.

Rebekah: When’s the next flight to New York?

Eliezer takes a final sip from his wine and stands up.

Eliezer: We leave now. My employer is a man who likes to hear good news immediately.

The drivers of the Cadillacs unload their precious cargo and deposit the goods inside the tavern. Rebekah tosses her bags inside the lead Cadillac and Eliezer joins her. The caravan, now empty, turns down the dirt road toward Palermo, where a 747 jetliner awaits to take them back to New York. The theme from the Godfather swells to a crescendo, and the screen goes dark.

The story of Rebekah and Isaac goes on for several episodes. After many fruitless years, Rebekah finally conceives twins – Jacob and Esau – who wrestle inside her womb. The two would continue to fight each other all their lives until Jacob finally stole Esau’s birthright by deceiving his blind father. But these are stories for another day, as the founding family of three major faiths becomes more like the Sopranos.

And what is the theological significance of today’s story about the recruitment of Rebekah?

As my spouse prepared to head for the airport last week, her one comment about the passage was this: “The patriarchs of the Old Testament were terrible models of family values.”

That’s certainly true. Our idea of a standard family – rarely found in real life – is pop, mom and the kids, a relationship made in heaven and inviolable until death do they part. But this standard is more honored in the breach than in reality. We don’t have to look far in our own families to see the deviations brought about by divorce, remarriage, blended families of siblings and stepsiblings, working moms, absentee dads, absentee moms. It’s complicated. And it’s a mistake to look to the great biblical families for guidance. They were dysfunctional parents, disgraceful spouses, sinful collectors of concubines, and often disobedient to the God who covenanted with them.

But – and it’s a large but – God did great and wonderful things with these imperfect creatures. From Abraham’s seed came three faiths and mighty nations, and wherever Christians, Jews and Muslims occupy the earth, they must trace their presence back to this imperfect Godfather, this sometimes powerful and sometimes pathetic Patriarch.

That’s good news for all of is. All of us are imperfect. All of us sin. All of us stray from the paths of righteousness. All of us behave in ways that are not upright. Yet God still loves us and, just as important, God still uses us.

God is still in the seed planting business. Abraham could not have imagined, especially in the years when his procreative efforts appeared useless, just how powerful his seed would become.

And neither can we imagine what seeds God has planted in us, seeds that may not grow to fruition for years or centuries after we are dead.

Perhaps the theological significance of these tribal histories of Abraham and the founding patriarchs is simple enough. When God makes a promise – when God plants a seed – the creator will never desert it.  And when we are discouraged or fretful or doubtful about the purpose of our lives, the lesson of Abraham calls to us from across the millennia: God has planted a seed in us, too. And great and wonderful things will come of it.

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