Exploring the other side of ancient Israelite culture and the Old Testament
The traditional Sunday school stories of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) are well-known: the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Moses, Jonah and the whale, etc. Lesser known, though often more entertaining, are the seedier stories of the Bible, the ones that aren’t taught in Sunday school. The meanings of these stories are sometimes obscure and sometimes strange but they’re always interesting.
For example, how many people know about Abraham – the great Jewish patriarch and, to Christians, a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ – pretending his wife was his sister? Or when Noah’s son Ham sees his father’s nakedness and evidently does something really shameful that leads to a curse? Sodom and Gomorrah is a well-known, although misunderstood story, but how often is it mentioned that Abraham’s brother Lot offers his virgin daughters to a sex-crazed crowd? Or that later his daughters get him drunk and are both impregnated by him? As I heard the “proper” stories in Sunday school I also flipped through the rest of the Bible and read these stories, sometimes with my mother (imagine how awkward that was).
Modern scholarship has dug up some interesting insight into these stories. Recent archaeological discoveries shed light on the story of Abraham pretending his wife is his sister. The Nunzi tablets, an ancient list of laws, describe the practice of a husband adopting his wife in order for her to have concurrent legal status with him. This doesn’t explain why Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister but it does shed light on the cultural context. It may seem odd to a contemporary audience but it fit in the culture of the time.
The story of Noah cursing the descendents of his son Ham because he saw him naked is easier to explain. Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan with slavery. Why he curses Ham’s son and not him isn’t explained, but it is known that the Canaanites, described in Genesis as the descendants of Canaan, were slaves to the Hebrews. This story explains that the Hebrews made the Canaanites their slaves because their immorality left them cursed.
Abraham’s brother Lot offering his two virgin daughters to a sex-crazed crowd, and then those same daughters getting him drunk to impregnate them, is the most interesting of the stories. It says a lot about how funny, clever, and, well, pretty mean the ancient Israelites could be.
According to the story both of Lot’s daughters has a son – Moab and Ammon, whose descendents are the Moabites and the Ammonites. Although this is not mentioned in Genesis the Moabites and Ammonites were the traditional enemies of Israel. It’s very funny, then, if understood as a tongue-in-cheek description of their enemies. It’s not enough for the ancient Israelites to simply say “we don’t like these guys”; instead they make up a story about their ancestors being twisted and incestuous. The story of Lot offering his daughters to the sex-crazed crowd is a further twist of the knife, as it implies that this type of distasteful action is typical of Israel’s enemies.
Studying the Bible is hardly boring. These are only a few of the interesting, often seedy stories that are found throughout the Bible, especially in the book of Genesis, that prove how creative ancient Israelites were.
Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. Ramblin’ On catalogs his writings on culture, music (including his own projects), sports, religion, and many other topics. You can reach him via email here.