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Politics of Scripture

Developing Ancestral Living

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ “I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” –let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.’ “Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.” And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Living in human society means living with the past generations of our ancestors, not just with one another in the current moment. As the COVID-19 pandemic unmasks the individualism of Western society for the harmful narrative it is, texts from the Hebrew Bible challenge us to redefine what it means to live socially.

The literature of the Hebrew Bible is conscious of ancestral living in ways that can re-educate Western views about cross-generational connection. The Bible constructs a kinship history for the ethnic groups that passed down the literature in the Old Testament, creating an identity based on common descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The narratives depicting these ancestors in Genesis show them in all of their complications and conflicts, reminding us that our ancestors, like us, are both dark and light. Rebekah is conscious of this when Esau and Jacob are yet in her womb: “And the LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger’” (Gen. 25:23). Ancient Israel, reflecting on their history, acknowledged descent from individuals who would produce generations in conflict.

The ethical ambiguity present in the origin stories of Israel, as represented in Jacob’s trickery, establishes the necessity to repent on behalf of one’s ancestors. Although this practice has become lost to many Western Christian spiritualities, it is regularly maintained in Jewish liturgy. Numerous prayers throughout the Hebrew Bible model intergenerational repentance for us: Psalm 78, Psalm 106, Jeremiah 14:20, Ezra 9:5-15, Nehemiah 9:6-37. 

The Hebrew Bible recounts the history of Israel as a progression of cycles which require repentance, as each generation commits new injustices:

“Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly”

Psalm 106:6

These cycles are complicated by the fact that ancient Israel remembers itself as both colonizer and colonized. In both cases, I will observe: Israel was never free of the need to repent, in either position of power.

For each successive generation, the need to make restitution was compounded, as their actions added to the consequences of previous generations’ choices. The ambivalent memory of trickster Jacob as a founder of Israel stayed with them through the ages. If a community like ancient Israel, who never had any great political power, constantly had the responsibility to repent for injustice, how much more do those in greater power have that responsibility?

As a person of mixed race descent, I struggle with how to live ancestrally. How can I decolonize myself as an Asian American, since I also have descended from Europeans who claimed Native American lands for themselves? How can I repent for my European ancestors, since I benefit from the intergenerational wealth that I have received from their colonizing actions?

In my experience, it is common in white American society to present yourself according to your ancestors who migrated to the U.S., but it is very rare to hear any acknowledgement of the power dynamics or privilege present in that migration. My Scandinavian American grandmother wrote a family history, which notes that Oceti Sakowin (commonly known as Sioux) people had previously lived in Minnesota. However, she avoids commenting on any injustice underlying the fact that her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. for the purpose of claiming “free” land offered in the Homestead Act of 1862.

If we are on the side of those in power, how can our experience be analogous to colonized Israel? We are the colonizer Israel and the empires of the Bible, who are also called into account for their actions. How can we who have power prioritize telling our stories with truthful accounting of the power dynamics, and educate ourselves about the holes and biases in the historical accounts we have inherited?

“Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt.”

Ezra 9:6b-7a

Despite immigrating to the U.S. at roughly the same time as my European ancestors, the Chinese American side of my family has been much more aware of the power dynamics that have affected our thriving in the U.S. During World War II, my grandmother had to wear a patch identifying herself as Chinese, and not Japanese, in an effort to avoid the hate and oppression directed at Japanese Americans at that time. My parents would not have been able to marry had they been born a generation earlier under anti-miscegenation laws. We know we have lived in a position where our rights and identities could be taken away, and we would have no say in the matter.

When we are on the underside of the white patriarchal system, we cannot pretend to ignore the power dynamics. How can people of color in the U.S., like colonized Israel, remember and repent for any injustices our ancestors have committed, while seeking restitution for injustices brought upon us and others by those in power? How can we in Asian American communities face the fact that many have supported anti-blackness and perpetuated systemic inequities?

“We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you”

Jeremiah 14:20

The consequences of cross-generational injustices go far deeper than the visible socio-economic and political effects. Psychological and sociological research in recent years has been exploring the many ways in which major group trauma, experienced over successive generations, affects later generations of a community. Professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, Rachel Yehuda, has pioneered this research in descendants of Holocaust survivors, while social work expert, Teresa Evans-Campbell, and others have explored the effects of historical trauma in Indigenous American communities.

Historical trauma is experienced by the whole of a community, and this shared experience is transmitted cross-generationally. As such, its effects manifest themselves in embodied ways, both in the genetic makeup of individuals in the community, as well as in health trends community-wide and their relationship to their historical lands. In other words, the use of colonizing force has profoundly enduring effects on the colonized.

Biblical literature maintains many fractured memories of the loss of land and agency that takes place through successive conquests and colonization (see Tim Langille’s work on Second Temple Jewish traumatic memory). The prayers in Lamentations and Psalm 137 are prime examples of the human need to process collective trauma across generations. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah further construct community resilience to historical trauma, by narrating a reclaiming of historical lands and identity.

From this research into historical trauma, we learn that we are not only interconnected to our ancestors by family culture that has intentionally been passed on to us – we are also connected to them in ways we might not see. Colonizers are connected to the force our ancestors have executed upon others, and colonized are connected to the force that has been executed upon us.

Biblical accounts of ancestry acknowledge some seed of this fact, by purposefully remembering this range of strengths and weaknesses in descent. Ancient Israel looked back and saw their ancestor Jacob vying with his own twin brother for power while still in the womb – and this certainly was not the last of Jacob’s questionable actions. Likewise, we know we live with the consequences of our ancestors’ actions, both good and bad, as colonizer and colonized, and we must maintain a habit of repenting for the harm they have incurred. 

In order to acknowledge and connect to the legacies of our ancestors, we must learn about the power dynamics of those legacies. Understanding these power dynamics should inform who we relate to in the biblical texts, and which injustices we have to repent for. 

I know I have much yet to learn about both streams of my descent. Who else in my lineage was a Jacob, coercing his brother to relinquish his rightful heritage by withholding basic nourishment (Gen. 25:29-34)? What other consequences have stemmed from such grabs for power?

As a descendant of Europeans who claimed Native American lands for their own, and as someone who currently benefits from the intergenerational wealth this unjust theft produced for my family, I resonate with the penitential prayer in Nehemiah 9:

“Even in [our ancestors’] own kingdom, and in the great goodness you bestowed on them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you and did not turn from their wicked works.”

Nehemiah 9:35

Even when Israel experienced a wealth of privileges that they had not earned, they did not live justly. Even if I recognize that I do not merit the privileges I have inherited, I need to constantly challenge myself to live justly. The modeling of cross-generational penitential prayer offers a way forward: we must acknowledge that our current generation cannot claim moral superiority to previous generations. Like our ancestors, we can and should continually repent, relearn our history, and restore that which we have unjustly established in the past.

One thought on “Developing Ancestral Living

  1. A remarkable piece of scholarship, reaffirming the central role that the Hebrew Scriptures can play in our lives.

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