Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where do Babies Come From? Pt 1 or Trees!

Reading for the Day: Genesis 18: 1-16

Genesis 18:1 -- Now the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks/terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day.

This passage always leaves me with questions--what is a terebinth? Just how big was the tree? Why does Abraham bow to the strangers? How does he recognize the LORD--by their clothes, their bearing, their wings? 


I imagine a grove tucked into a wide, spare landscape. Scrub brush, dirt, and dry rocks. Sun hot, air heavy, you lower your head and let the afternoon pass. You scan apace from your tent door. Shadows out past the terebinths. Figures flicker in the distance, unannounced.  You squint, blink, wipe your eyes. Guests are coming. You do not let them come. You run to meet them at the trees. Jowels shake, belly bounces, you are old and bounding. They walk steady on. You're thighs tremble, ankles cracking. You're close enough to see them smiling. Yes, these are guests. These one two three. They have come to me. Your clothes fall to the ground, a lump with your body, and for a time you pant and pause. "Do not pass your servant by." 

The hot road will dry where you held your forehead. 


The scene of this meal has been a favorite for artists, most notably in Orthodox iconography. Rubalev's icon is perhaps the most famous. Note the slender tree, the mountain that could be a wave, the half-calf's head on the table. Something holy in this meal. Chagall's rendition is vivid as usual. His tree seems a burning bush. I love his stately strangers' faces. 

According to some, the trees were the site of a Canaanite cultic shrine (read: ancient tree-huggers?). But here, a pagan site, holy strangers come. And near these trees outside the tent, barren Sarah conceives enough to laugh, a suppressed chuckle. Out of earshot might it expand and rise from chortle, cackle, guffaw, to tears in her eyes?

We get the joke, though. Because while one of the strangers quotes Sarah saying, "Shall I indeed bear, when I am so old?" we know she actually wondered, "After I have become old shall I have pleasure, my lord being also?" 

Yes, Sarah, pleasure is where babies come from!

3 comments:

Melissa said...

Happy advent indeed!

I love the hypertext. I want to make my students link me to sources whenever they say "according to some" or "some would say." I like it!

Also, I like the terebinth trees. I want to have a plant and name it terebinth.

sequoia alba said...

Who are the other two strangers, or are all three the LORD? Admittedly I know next to nothing of the stories in the bible so feel free to tell me to beat it when my questions become too trying.

theoxenia said...

I love that you asked, Sequoia! though the truth is I'm not sure. I don't think the text (at least in English) is completely clear about who is who.

Two of the strangers, if you keep on reading the story, go ahead to Sodom where they warn Lot to leave the city [Cue brimstone]. The last one, who is called the LORD, stays around awhile with Abraham to tell him that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed. Abraham haggles with God, presumably face to face (?), for quite awhile, trying to talk him out of destruction.

So the "LORD" figure becomes clearer later in the story, but at the mealtime, his identity is ambiguous for me.