Friday, January 09, 2009

The Sara vs. Hagar Catfight

I've been reading Thomas Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews, which is (so far) an overly energetic book full of finger drumming and cuneiform polishing as though Cahill's having trouble locating the thrust of his thesis, but it has given me my first glimpse into the shared mythology which surrounds the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Both Jews and Arabs acknowledge each other's descent from Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch:
  • Jews, descendants of Sara, Abraham's wife, and mother by the first of many old age births in the Bible — miraculous considering what an anachronism Viagra would have been three or four thousand years ago — of Isaac, father of Jacob, later called Israel (aha!).

  • Arabs, descendents of Hagar, Abraham's concubine but Sara's Egyptian slavegirl, and the mother of Ishmael, Abraham's first natural son, the one with primogeniture if not legitimacy.

    (Hagar's son Ishmael was intended to be Sara's old age insurance policy, her Social Security as it were, until Isaac came along beyond all expectations. The catfight was born during the years Hagar and Ishmael took center stage in Abraham's household, supplanting the legitimate but barren wife.)
That's the mythology, not an explanation. From that point on, it is an excuse, as the two polemics apparently damn each other mutually as first one lineage and then the other receives "the Curse of God," which was apparently a prefiguration of Mercutio's plague on both their houses.

The Blessing of God seem not to have occurred to anyone, except perhaps Hagar. But in a harem, knives within arm's reach are sharpest.

(On the face of it, for example, kosher and halaal are virtually identical dietary restrictions — so similar that questions come up all the time. But if you scout around the web, you discover mutual prohibitions: Jews can't eat Muslim foods, Muslims can't eat Jewish foods. From an outsider's point of view, it sounds like schoolyard cootie avoidance.)

Meanwhile, Cahill, struggling hard to ignore all this patently obvious internecine strife and all its pregnant implications for the modern era, seems to feel that the "first gift of the Jews" was Abraham's willingness to "go forth" from Sumeria into Canaan. He contrasts the cyclical time worldview held by the Sumerians (and, allegedly, everyone else!) with "The Journey" of Abraham, which begins in Sumer and ends he knows not where.

I.e., was Abraham's the gift of linear narrative — of past, present and future? But the Greeks had this idea so long ago its cognate appears among the thoroughly pagan Vikings. Linear narrative, the Arrow of Time, Fates and Norns woven into the fabric of prehistory, is pre-Vedic even in India. Our view of Time has more to do with spinning and weaving, with the patterns at the bottom of the loom, the middle and the top, than with any wheel-like epiphanies seen above the ziggurats of Sumeria.

(I skipped ahead in the book, just to check this out. Yup, that's what Cahill thinks all right, rather ethnocentrically in my opinion. I doubt that a people as historically inclined as the Chinese — who seem to think history is too important not to slash and burn occasionally — ever bothered to look up "Jerusalem" in their introspective Boddickers.)

Memo from Mother Nature: Next time, no brains for apes.



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