Abraham the Prophet

Abraham the Prophet

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Vayera – פרשת וירא

October 23, 2021 – יז מרחשון תשפב

Abraham the Prophet

Upon the arrival in Gerar of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah was forcibly taken into the harem of the local potentate, Abimelech. God appeared to Abimelech in a nocturnal vision and threatened him with death for having taken another man’s wife. Abimelech protested his innocence, noting that he had been deceived, in that both Abraham and Sarah had claimed that they were siblings and had never admitted to being a married couple. God acknowledged that Abimelech had not deliberately sinned and explained to him that, because of that very inadvertence, God had not allowed him to touch Sarah. God then commanded Abimelech: “Now, send back the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will intercede for you, and you may live. And if you do not send her back, know that you are doomed to die, you and all that belongs to you (Genesis 20:7).”   All commentators are struck by the phrase “for he is a prophet.” The Talmud incredulously asks: Had Abraham not been a prophet, would God have allowed Abimelech to keep Sarah? The answer surely must be “no.” Abraham’ spiritual standing had no bearing whatsoever on Abimelech’s basic moral obligation to return a married woman. Rather, the Talmud explains that the phrase “for he is a prophet” means that Abraham had a keen understanding of the low moral scruples of the people of Gerar. When wayfarers arrive in a town, it is appropriate for the locals to inquire of them if they need food and lodging. Instead of offering hospitality, the Gerarites were quick to inquire about Sarah’s marital status. Abraham recognized that he was in a potentially dangerous environment and so he adjusted his words (i.e., he lied) accordingly. The Talmud reads into “for he is a prophet” an implied chastisement of Abimelech and a partial rejection of that chieftain’s claims of complete innocence (Makkot 9b).   The Talmud’s interpretation departs from the plain meaning of נביא. Instead of the definitional notion of a prophet’s being someone who receives direct verbal communication from God, נביא here connotes a wise man (Torah Temimah). This is consistent with the Talmudic assertion that the Divine Presence rests only upon those who are wise, brave, wealthy, and tall (Shabbat 92a). Ever the intellectual with a preference for intellectualism, Rambam ruled that prophecy is granted only to those who are extraordinarily wise (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1).   The word נביא does not always mean prophet. It can have the secular connotation of spokesman, as in the case of Moses and Aaron. Moses had a speech impediment and relied upon his brother’s verbal assistance (see Exodus 4:15 and 7:1). But that reading of נביא is not helpful in parsing Genesis 20:7.   Rashi understood נביא to mean that Abraham knew that Abimelech had not been intimate with Sarah and that, because no egregious sin had in fact occurred, Abraham would be willing to pray on Abimelech’s behalf. Meshech Chochmah commented that among gentiles there is no formal procedure for divorcement; merely separating from one’s spouse with the intent of never restoring the marital bond is sufficient to effectuate the legal severing of that marital bond. When Abraham told Abimelech that Sarah was his sister and effectively forfeited Sarah to Abimelech, arguably his marriage to Sarah had, in that moment, ended. However, since Abraham was a נביא who knew that Sarah would ultimately be returned to him, he never intended to dissolve the marriage. Abimelech’s behavior was unlawful because Sarah’s marital status had not changed. Both Rashi and Meshech Chochmah understood נביא to connote an awareness bordering on omniscience.   Or Hachaim suggested that God’s statement to Abimelech “for he is a prophet” was nothing more than a way of identifying Sarah’s husband. Since Abraham was the only known prophet in the vicinity, identifying Sarah’s husband as a prophet was no less ambiguous than openly stating his name. While it is true that God did not expressly mention Abraham by name to Abimelech, Or Hachaim’s answer seems quite weak; as of earlier verses in the text, Abimelech already appears to know the husband’s identity (when he protests to God that Sarah’s male relative had deceived him about his relationship to her).   According to the Midrash, “for he is a prophet” was God’s way of telling Abimelech that if he solicits Abraham’s prayers on his behalf, those prayers will be efficacious and he will live (Tanhuma 25). In this vein, Rashbam explained that a prophet has a close relationship with God; because a prophet publicizes God’s messages, God, in turn, loves him and attentively hears his prayers. Radak commented that Abimelech was potentially subject to punishment even if he returned Sarah unharmed to Abraham. He would escape punishment only if he also placated Abraham and if Abraham prayed on his behalf.   The Hebrew prophet as an intercessor on behalf of the nation of Israel is a common theme in the Bible. Moses served in that capacity after the sins of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:11) and the spies (Numbers 14:19). At the nation’s request, Samuel cried out to God for salvation from the clutches of the Philistines (I Samuel 7:9). King Zedekiah commissioned Jeremiah to pray for the nation when it faced doom at the hands of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 37:3). The intercessor is decidedly not a lower divine being (as is the case in certain circumstances in the Christian tradition); rather, he is a person skilled in the art of prayer.   The Biblical prophet was also a moralizer, preacher, and chastiser of the people (see Judges 6:8-10). He was someone to whom God revealed His plan for the world. “For the Lord will do nothing without revealing his purposes to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7).” Abraham experienced that very phenomenon when God informed him of His plan to destroy Sodom. “Then the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do (Genesis 18:17)?’”   Another possible reading of Genesis 20:7 takes into consideration that Abimelech was fearful concerning his fate and that of his household. God sought to reassure Abimelech that punishment could be averted and that Abraham, the very man whom Abimelech had aggrieved, would facilitate a favorable outcome. The “prophet” is the kindly personage who yearns for a more moral world, but who can also be counted upon to entreat Heaven for mercy, even for those who are not free of sin.