THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayera – פרשת וירא
November 4, 2017 – טו מרחשון תשעח
This essay is sponsored by Randi & Mark Weingarten in loving memory of Suzanne Lipshitz.
Abraham in a Godless Country
Several times Scripture relates stories that, though separated in time from each other, contain remarkably similar details and/or themes. In this week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah travel to a foreign land. Abraham senses that he faces mortal danger because of his wife’s beauty. To protect himself, he falsely identifies Sarah as his sister, not as his wife. The king takes Sarah into his harem, but is unable to consummate a sexual act with her because God intervenes by inflicting a plague on the royal household. Realizing the true nature of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship, the king angrily confronts Abraham and questions the latter’s deception.
The first variation of this story takes place in Egypt. Scripture prefaces the account by explaining why Abraham and Sarah felt it necessary to travel to a hostile place and expose themselves potentially to grave danger and unwanted amorous advances. “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, because the famine was severe in the land (Genesis 12:10).” Abraham’s descent to Egypt made sense. He was already in southern Canaan; Egypt was not far away. Moreover, Egypt was the breadbasket of the Ancient Near East (see 13:10).
In contrast, Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Gerar is perplexing. What compelled them to travel to a place about which Abraham said to Abimelech, “I thought surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (20:11)? Scripture offers no direct answer to that question.
The difficulty is magnified when one considers the contextual meaning of “fear of God.” The term can connote lofty spiritual standing and extreme devotion to God, as in the case of Abraham at the Akeidah. The angel said to Abraham, “For now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son (22:12).” The term can also connote firmly held religious belief, as in the case of Jonah. He said to his shipmates, “I am a Hebrew; I fear the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land (Jonah 1:9).” But, most commonly, the Biblical phrase “fear of God” simply means ethical human conduct inspired by the sense that a higher power – universal and non-denominational – desires that people behave decently. Joseph released his brothers from captivity after three days, and humanely gave them the opportunity to return to Canaan and feed their families. In explaining his magnanimity toward accused spies, Joseph said “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man (Genesis 42:18).” Shiphrah and Puah refused to kill newborn Israelite males because they feared God (Exodus 1:17). Scripture associates fear of God with such basic ethical rules and social norms as not cursing the deaf, not putting a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14), and treating the elderly with respect (19:32). The Amalekites, who, rather than conducting a legitimate military campaign against Israel instead cut down the weary stragglers, are depicted as “undeterred by fear of God” (Deuteronomy 25:18). Why, then, would Abraham and Sarah venture to a place of barbarism, where even basic human decency was lacking?
The question is further strengthened if one takes into account from where Abraham and Sarah departed. Scripture baldly states, “Abraham journeyed from there (Genesis 20:1).” Looking back several chapters, it is clear that Abraham’s most recent place of permanent residence was in the region of Hebron at the terebinths of Mamre (18:1). Genesis 18 twice mentions departures “from there” משם (verses 16 and 22), a further hint that משם in 20:1 is the same location. Abraham was a stranger in Canaan. He was a Hebrew, having arrived, both geographically and theologically, from “beyond the river.” Yet, in the Hebron region Abraham found a comfortable home and forged an alliance with three prominent local figures (Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre) (14:13). They loyally sided with Abraham and assisted him in his war against the conquerors of Sodom, for which help Abraham insisted that they be compensated (14:24). Why would Abraham walk away from the safety and security of Hebron-Mamre to settle in another region, where he would be reduced to the status of unprotected outsider?
Rashi offers two answers: 1) After the destruction of Sodom and its allied towns in the Dead Sea region, the number of wayfarers passing Abraham’s tent decreased dramatically. Ever eager to offer hospitality, Abraham needed to find a new and busier base of operations for his philanthropy. 2) Lot sullied his reputation by impregnating his daughters. When Lot moved up from the lowlands to the Judean hill country (19:30), Abraham felt it necessary to distance himself from his ignominious nephew.
One might also suggest that Abraham’s seeming recklessness resulted from his reliance upon miracles. That view must, however, be rejected outright. Rabbinic Judaism does not countenance reliance upon miracles (Pesahim 64b), especially not in places or situations where there is foreknowledge of danger (Kiddushin 39b). More importantly, Scripture never indicates that Abraham anticipated a miracle. Rather, he used cunning to save himself. Rabbenu Bachya cited Rabbenu Hananel, who posited that Abraham divorced Sarah ahead of their arrival at Gerar so that he might not be a target for murder even were she to be taken from him for sexual purposes, but that God nonetheless provided a miracle because He did not want Sarah to be ravaged or her union with Abraham to be permanently dissolved. Rabbenu Hananel’s suggestion is fanciful and finds no support in the text, yet it is consistent with the idea of Abraham’s acting proactively to lessen the chances of danger to himself. Yet his interpretation fails to explain why Abraham chose to go to Gerar.
A close reading of Genesis 20:1 shows that Abraham did not settle in Gerar. “And Abraham journeyed onward from there to the Negeb region and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar.” Kadesh was an oasis, 75 kilometers south of Beer-Sheba. It was a gathering point for pastoral nomads, serving both as a cultic center — Kadesh, meaning sacred – and as a place for adjudicating disputes. (See Genesis 14:7, where the location is identified as עין משפט, the spring of judgment.) Shur was near Egypt, and likely referred to a wall of fortifications built in the Eastern Nile Delta. (See Genesis 16:7 where Hagar was found by the angel “on the road to Shur,” meaning that Hagar attempted to flee to her native Egypt.) Abraham settled somewhere on the trafficked line between Kadesh and Shur.
At some point, and for unexplained reasons, Abraham journeyed to the regional capital of Gerar, 24 kilometers northwest of Beer-sheba. Nahum Sarna comments, “He may have wanted to trade pastoral products and purchase supplies in the city, or the rich pasturelands in the vicinity may have been an attraction.” Later in Scripture, the Simeonites ventured to the same patch of land, seeking pasture for their flocks. They found rich good pasture land formerly inhabited by Hamites (I Chronicles 4:39-40). Genesis 10:19 identifies Gerar as Hamite territory. When the Judahite army under King Asa defeated Gerar, it captured many sheep and camels (II Chronicles 14:14). Presumably, Abraham left his relatively isolated desert abode, temporarily, for commercial purposes.
Why did Abraham choose to dwell in the extreme southern reaches of the Promised Land? In part, Abraham wished to fulfill the Divine command that he traverse the entire length and width of the land vouchsafed to him (Genesis 13:17). But even before God issued that command, Abraham had already begun a series of intra-Canaan migrations with the purpose of spreading belief in God. When Abraham first arrived in Canaan, he built an altar at Elon Moreh (12:7). Then, he built an altar between Beth-el and Ai and called out in the Name of the Lord (12:8). Ibn Ezra explains that Abraham prayed and invited others to join him in worship of the true God. After his sojourn in Egypt, Abraham returned to that altar and again called out in the Name of the Lord (13:4). Having completed his missionary work in the center of the country, he moved further south and stopped at Hebron where he built a third altar (13:18). Abraham continued his march southward into the Negeb, with the same intention of attracting wayfarers to proper religious belief. Sforno notes that Abraham encamped between two large cities, on the Egypt-Canaan desert highway, to maximize his proselytizing opportunities.
Abraham was not timid. To advance his religious agenda he was willing to take risks and live in remote, ungodly areas. It would be a misreading of the text, however, to think that Abraham knowingly entered the most dangerous town on earth. Abraham admitted to Abimelech that he had an ongoing arrangement with Sarah: “Whatever place we come to, say there of me: ‘He is my brother’ (20:13).” There was nothing especially egregious about the behavior of the Gerarites that led Abraham to engage in deception; rather, it was his general practice to do so when entering a town for the first time. Upon realizing that his dim view of the Gerarites was mistaken, Abraham was receptive to Abimelech’s offer of continued residence in the region (20:15) and later sealed a covenant with him (20:32). Abraham was able to continue his religious work by planting a cultic tamarisk at Beer-sheba and calling out to the Everlasting God (20:33). Abraham must have developed an affinity for the region, because he chose to reside in the Land of the Philistines for “many days” (20:34).
Abraham wrongly suspected the Gerarites of lacking fear of God. In the rabbinic tradition, he who wrongly suspects his fellow of iniquity is subjected to bodily punishment (Yoma 19b). In Abraham’s case, the Talmud says that he suffered from the taunts of his neighbors, who claimed that Isaac was actually sired by Abimelech, but that God defended his honor by having Isaac look just like him (Bava Metzia 87a).
The success of Abraham’s mission to bring people to knowledge of, and belief in, the Hebrew Deity was dependent, in large measure, on his reputation as a paragon of virtue. Abraham was charitable, respectful, deferential, brave, and a defender of the innocent. And yet, in the Abimelech episode, Abraham outright lied, even though he had a legitimate excuse because he feared for his physical safety. In this respect, Abraham’s experience foreshadows those of later generations of Jews living in an inhospitable diaspora. We are bidden to be a “light unto the nations” by exhibiting the finest moral values. And yet that can be difficult or impossible under adverse conditions in a barbaric or bigoted society. Unfortunately, some Jews assume the worst about gentiles (as had Abraham at Gerar), leading themselves to justify deceptive and even scandalous behavior, thereby causing the profanation of God’s Name. We should learn from Abraham’s understandable and well-intentioned miscalculation of the moral standing of others, but we should endeavor not to emulate it.