Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel

November 13, 2019 at 11:06 am | Posted in Vayeira | Leave a comment

I wrote this new post on the “akedah”, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, because I keep thinking about two paintings I saw on the subject last week, one at the Archivio di Stato in Siena and one at the Uffizi in Florence.  How does one transform a brief and enigmatic written story into a painting?

Vincent van Gogh, 1885

The words

Abraham almost kills his son Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“and he saw”).  God tells him to do it.

And after these events, God nissah Abraham.  And [God] said to him: “Abraham!”  And [Abraham] said: “Here I am.”  And [God] said: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there as a rising-offering on one of the hills that I will say to you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 22:1-2)

nissah (נִסָּה) = tested, evaluated, assayed.

The phrase I translate here as “go for yourself” is lekh-lekha, which could also be translated as “get yourself going” or even as “go to yourself”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  This week’s Torah portion gives the place-name Moriyah a folk etymology explaining that it means “the vision of God”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem.)  A “rising-offering”, my literal translation of olah, is one that is completely burnt up into smoke.

The next sentence begins with Abraham getting out of bed; perhaps he heard God’s request in a dream.

And Abraham got up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey and he took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac and he split wood for the rising-offering and he stood up and he went to the place that God said.  (Genesis 22:3)

The Torah appears to list everything Abraham does between hearing God’s request and arriving at the hill in the land of Moriyah.  It does not say that he speaks to his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother.  It does not say that he tells anyone where he is going, or why.  It does not say that he wonders why God, who promised him many descendants through Isaac, now tells him to kill Isaac even though the young man is still unmarried and childless.  It does not say that Abraham has any second thoughts, or any thoughts at all.

Maybe Abraham finds God’s request so incomprehensible that he is incapable of thought.  He can only go through the motions as if in a trance.

He does not know that God is testing him.

The journey from Beersheba to the designated hill takes three days.  When they arrive, Abraham leaves the two servants and the donkey at the bottom of the hill and walks to the top with Isaac, who is carrying the wood.  Abraham carries a fire-stone and a knife.

Then Isaac talked to his father, Abraham, and he said: “My father!”  And he said: “Here I am, my son.”  And [Isaac] said: “Here is the fire and the wood.  But where is the sheep for the rising-offering?”  And Abraham said: “God will see to the sheep for the rising-offering, my son.”  And the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8) 

Next we see Abraham, who was already 100 years old when Isaac was born, building an altar.  (Altars in the book of Genesis are made out of big stones.)

Tintoretto, detail

And they came to the place that God said.  And Abraham built an altar there and he laid out the wood and he bound his son Isaac and he put him on the altar, on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand and he took the knife to kill his son.  (Genesis 22:9-10)

Abraham, who argued with God earlier in this week’s Torah portion about destroying Sodom,1 still does not question God’s request that he use his own son as an animal offering.  He simply picks up the knife.

Then a malakh of God called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham!  Abraham!”  And he answered: “Here I am”.  And [the malakh] said: “Don’t you stretch out your hand against the youth, and don’t you do harm to him!  Because now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.”  (Genesis 22:11-12)

malakh (מַלְאַ֤ךְ) = messenger, emissary.  (A messenger from God is often translated in English as “angel”.)

The text says the divine malakh speaks to him, not that it appears to him.  It has to call Abraham’s name twice before he pays attention.  Then the malakh delivers its message referring to God in the third person, then switching to the first person, as if God is talking directly to Abraham by the end of the speech.

All of these divine communications are auditory, not visual.  When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram in the bushes behind him, not a malakh.  Hearing the voice of a malakh is a far cry from seeing a burning bush, like Moses,2 or a crowd of six-winged serafim with faces, hands, and feet, like Isaiah.3

And Abraham raised his eyes, and he saw, and hey!  A ram, behind [him], caught in the thicket by its horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and sent it up as a rising-offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels, 1285, Uffizi

The pictures

The climax of the story is the moment when Isaac is on the altar, Abraham is holding the knife, and the angel stops him.  This is the scene that artists have depicted over the centuries, often with a ram in the lower background.  But a painting needs a visual representation of God’s malakh.

In medieval Europe, Christian artists conflated a malakh from God with Isaiah’s serafim, and started a tradition of humanoid angels with bird wings, as in this 1285 painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:

Bible subjects were not supposed to be depicted realistically in the Middle Ages; their purpose was to stimulate awe and worship through symbolic images.  When the Renaissance began in Florence (circa 1380-1420) artists shifted their focus to realism and science, even in religious paintings.  Although the Renaissance spread all over Europe, the artists of Siena, a city south of Florence, stuck to the older tradition for another century.  Here is how Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra painted the Sacrifice of Isaac in Siena in 1485:

Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra, 1485, Archivio di Stato, Siena.  Photo by M. Carpenter

The angel in this miniature has bird wings, but they melt into the clouds, leaving a general impression of the sky as heaven.  It is more important that the angel’s clothing is diaphanous, in contrast to the opaque fabric that the fully-human Abraham wears.  Isaac is mostly nude with a diaphanous loincloth, ready for the transition from life in this world to life after death.  His discarded clothes lie on the ground to his right, and a ram grazes calmly to his left, but Isaac is prepared to leave the physical plane.

Although Isaac’s face looks pained, his hands are in a Christian prayer position, indicating his consent to the sacrifice.  He kneels on a sculpted marble altar that looks almost like a halo floating off the ground; the painter is not interested in depicting a realistic stone altar like the ones in Genesis.

Abraham is raising a sword, not a knife, implying that he is striking a blow in a metaphysical battle.  The angel reaches for it rather lackadaisically, while its right arm hangs limp; the mere presence of this manifestation of God’s power is enough to stop the action.

At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence I was arrested by a very different depiction of the same scene.  Tintoretto (a.k.a. Robusti Jacopo), a Venetian High Renaissance painter, created more than one version of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Here is the one in the Uffizi, which he painted in 1550-55:

Tintoretto, 1550-55, Uffizi Gallery.  Photo by M. Carpenter.

The cascading composition creates dramatic interest rather than a contemplative mood.  Isaac looks as though he would fall off the woodpile if Abraham let go of his shoulder, and although he looks passive, he is not praying.  He half-sits on the woodpile, a more realistic indication of the altar than da Volterra’s floating marble oval.  But like da Volterra, Tintoretto omits the biblical detail that Isaac is bound.

The angel’s bird wings are mostly out of the picture, and appear solid, not at all like the clouds.  The angel and Isaac both wear white fabric wrappings that are as opaque as Abraham’s more colorful costume, bringing all three characters into the physical world, along with the bemused ram looking up from the bottom right.

Tintoretto shows Abraham holding a knife; it is not a symbol, but a real detail from the biblical story.  The angel stops him by lightly laying a hand on his arm, as a human being might do to get someone’s attention.  The focus of the painting is the glance between the angel and Abraham.  As their eyes meet, the angel’s expression is gently admonishing, while Abraham’s is stunned, not yet enlightened.

Tintoretto painted the climax of the story in terms of its emotional drama, employing realism, a  composition fraught with tension, and a choice of details that all emphasize Abraham’s human dilemma.  I am sure I am not the only viewer who has responded to this painting by imagining myself in Abraham’s place, and wondering what his choice means.

Da Volterra, on the other hand, took the medieval approach of turning a biblical scene into an object of worship.  He referred to the story by including its main elements, but he freely added details such as the sword and the floating marble oval to increase the symbolism.  His angel is as passive as the clouds around it, merely a symbol of God’s contact with the world.

*

Does either painting address the question of whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test?  Da Volterra’s version implies that Abraham is simply carrying out what God has ordained.  I think he must have taken the divine words “now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me” as evidence that Abraham passed God’s test.  Abraham’s unselfish—and unquestioning—obedience was the right thing to do.

But for a Renaissance man like Tintoretto, and for me, the interpretation of the test results is not so easy.  Tintoretto’s painting leaves the question open.

And in the context of the whole Torah, in which God appears to enjoy arguing and bargaining with first Abraham4 and then Moses5 when lives are at stake, I think God wants Abraham to question the command to sacrifice his son.  I propose that God did not actually want him to kill Isaac; after all, God sent an angelic voice to stop him in time.  Since Abraham failed to do what God really wanted, he failed the test.  And that is why Abraham never heard God’s voice again.

  1. Genesis 18:23-33.
  2. Exodus 3:2.
  3. Isaiah 6:2-6.
  4. Genesis 18:23-33.
  5. Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-17, and 34:8-10.

 Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3

November 8, 2018 at 11:25 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 2 Comments

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And Isaac stayed in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say “my wife”—“lest the men of the place kill me on account of Rebecca, since she is good-looking.”  (Genesis 26:6-7)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, pulls the wife-sister trick twice, once in Egypt and once in Gerar(See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)  Now Isaac moves to Gerar and starts the process a third time in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The Torah tells us he is afraid; he believes that people in Gerar are so immoral they would kill a man in order to marry his wife—perhaps because he heard the story from his father.  (The assumption is that marrying an already-married woman is so sinful, not even foreigners would do it.  Murder is the lesser sin.)

Abraham’s feelings about passing off his wife as his sister are omitted; we do not even know if he believes he would be killed, or if he sees it as a way to get rich.  At least Abraham has a reason for moving to Egypt.

A famine happened in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt lagur there, because the famine was heavy on the land.  (Genesis 12:10)

lagur (לָגוּר) = to live as a resident alien, to sojourn.1

In the second tale, Abraham goes to Gerar for no apparent reason—except maybe to get richer.

And Abraham pulled out from there to the land of the Negev, and he settled between Kadeish and Shur, vayagar in Gerar.  And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister.”  And Avimelekh, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:1-2)

vayagar (וַיַּגָר) = and he lived as a resident alien, and he sojourned.  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

After the king of Gerar discovers the ruse, he showers gifts on Abraham and Sarah in order to induce Abraham to pray for him and compensate Sarah for any loss of honor.

In the third iteration of the wife-sister tale, Isaac faces another famine, and goes to Gerar even though he believes the men of Gerar are exceptionally lusty and murderous.

Then a famine happened in the land, apart from the first famine that happened in the days of Abraham.  And Isaac went to Avimelekh, King of the Philistines, to Gerar.  And God appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt.  Stay in the land that I say to you.  Gur in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father.”  (Genesis 26:1-3)

gur (גּוּר) = Live as a resident alien!  Sojourn!  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

What is “the land that I say to you”?  Canaan is the land God “shows” Abraham.2  But perhaps Isaac interprets God’s words as an order to stay in Gerar.

When Isaac tries Abraham’s wife-sister trick with the second Avimelekh3 of Gerar, the reader or listener expects the same outcome: the king will marry Rebecca, God will afflict the king and his household with a disease, and he will discover that the cause of the affliction is the sin of marrying an already-married woman.  Then the king will restore Rebecca to Isaac, along with some movable property as compensation, and they will return to Canaan richer than when they left.

But this time it does not happen.  The new king of Gerar merely watches and waits.  After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.

Abimelech Spies Isaac Fondling Rebecca, by Bernard Salomon, 1558

And it happened because the days were long for him.  Then Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked out the window, and he saw—hey!  Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife.  And Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: “So hey!  She is your wife!  Then why did you say: ‘She is my sister?”

And Isaac said to him: “Because I said (to myself): ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”

And Avimelekh said: “What is this you have done to us?  Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?  Then you would have brought guilt upon us!”  (Genesis 26:8-10)

Even though Rebecca is beautiful, not a single man in Gerar has attempted to bed her or marry her.  The only moral transgression that occurs is Isaac’s deception about their relationship.

Then Avimelekh commanded all the people, saying: “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death.”  And Isaac sowed that land, and he obtained that year a hundredfold.  And God blessed him.  And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he became very great.  (Genesis 26:11-13)

This king does not need to shower Isaac with gifts.  God makes Isaac rich.

This new ending for the tale raises questions about all three explanations in The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Traditional commentators take the wife-sister tales as literal history, and also assume that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than any of the kings.  They do not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants and kill their husbands if they happen to be married.

But when Isaac tries the wife-sister trick and nothing happens, their attempts to prove that the foreign king and his men are immoral prove feeble.  Nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Isaac’s concern was not unfounded; for as soon as the true relation between Rebecca and Isaac became known, Avimelech found it necessary to protect them by a decree of the death penalty for any assault.”4

However, Avimelekh might issue the order, “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death” simply in order to reassure the fearful Isaac, not because there is any real danger.  If Rebecca were at risk for sexual assault, why would so much time pass without any man making the attempt?

Early commentary interprets Avimelekh’s question “Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?” as proof that the king was at least planning to lie with Rebecca.  Rashi interpreted the phrase achad ha-am (אַחַד הָעָם),one of the people” as “the most prominent of the people, meaning the king”.5  And 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno claimed Avimelekh means he can bed Rebecca whenever he wants because the king “is singular among his people”.6

But although these commentators strained to paint the second Avimelekh in a bad light, the most they could say was that the king thinks about having sex with Rebecca, but does not do it.

Abimelech Sees Isaac and Rebecca, by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

Meanwhile, they find Isaac and Rebecca’s behavior scandalous.  Rashi, following Bereishit Rabbah, wrote that when Avimelekh saw Isaac and Rebecca “fooling around”, they were actually engaging in marital relations.7  They were doing it during the day where they could be seen; married couples are supposed to do it at night and in private.

Thus the efforts of traditional commentators to exculpate the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and paint foreign kings and their male subjects as immoral, break down when it comes to the third wife-sister tale.  The king of Gerar and his men think about sex, but do not do anything wrong.  Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are guilty of unseemly behavior in public.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern scholars view the three wife-sister tales as three iterations of an ancient folk tale, casting first Abraham and then Isaac as the trickster husband.  But why did the people who wrote and edited most of Genesis during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. choose to include these tales in the first place?  Perhaps they would encourage readers to believe  that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan, and that foreigners are dangerous.8  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2)

Alan Segal argued that the first wife-sister tale reinforces other warnings in the Hebrew Bible against dealing with Egyptians; the second tale “stresses God’s promise to live in the Canaanite land in which the patriarchs wander; the third shows that Hebrews were also invited to live on land controlled by the Philistines, both with their flocks and to raise crops.”9

Isaac does gur for some years in Gerar, which this Torah portion refers to as Philistine territory.10  There he copies his father by pretending his wife is his sister, and by redigging his father’s wells.11

Yet the second Avimelekh actually does not invite Isaac to stay.  Isaac apparently takes Avimelekh’s command to his people not to touch him or Rebecca as a free pass to engage in any lawful activity in Gerar.  The next sentence says he plants seeds and harvests an excellent crop.  The Torah does not say who, if anyone, owns the land Isaac farms, but it does say he uses wells that his father’s servants had dug during Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar.  As Isaac becomes richer, the native Philistines become envious, and they plug the wells with dirt.12

And Avimelekh said to Isaac: “Go away from us, because you have become much more mighty than we are.”  (Genesis 26:16)

This is the opposite of an invitation to stay.  Only after Isaac has moved to Beer-sheva does Avimelekh come over with his councilor and his army chief to make peace.  They say politely:

Abimelech Visits Isaac, by Wenceslas Hollar

“We see clearly that God is with you, and we say: Let there be, please, an obligation by oath between our sides, between us and you, and let us cut a covenant with you: that you will do no harm to us, as we have not touched you, and we did only good to you and sent you away in peace.  Now may you be blessed of God!”  (Genesis 26:28-29)

Thus the third wife-sister tale implies that the Israelite kingdoms can co-exist peacefully with Philistine states, not that Israelites have a right to use Philistine land.  The peace treaty, rather than instilling xenophobia, demonstrates that Israelites can get along with at least some outsiders.

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

If the Torah is presenting three versions of a trickster tale as an entertaining way to teach a moral lesson, then the third wife-sister iteration must be the climax, the one with a turn that makes us think.

The new turn in the tale is that after the patriarch passes off his wife as his sister, nobody tries to get her into bed.  Every man of Gerar, including the king, is circumspect and sexually virtuous.  (I can imagine the second Avimelekh remembering what happened to his father, and being especially careful to avoid strange women.)

The funniest part of this version is when Isaac and Rebecca are fooling around right under the king of Gerar’s window, and the king pops his head out, looking outraged. Then he questions Isaac, just as the previous two kings questioned Abraham.  But he does not need to pay them anything, since he did nothing wrong, and God has not afflicted him.

All three kings in the three wife-sister tales respect the moral law that one must not poach a married man’s wife.  There is no indication that any of them resort to murder to fix their domestic affairs.  And when they find out they were deceived, none of them take revenge.  They ask the trickster to leave the country, but let him take his wife and his new riches with him.

The king in the bible who actually does kill a man in order to marry his wife is not a foreign king at all, but the second king of Israel, David.

David Sees Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

While King David’s men are off fighting the Philistines, David looks down from his rooftop and sees “a very good-looking woman” bathing.  He finds out she is Bathsheba, another man’s wife, but he has her brought to his bed anyway.  After he has impregnated her, he tries to get her husband to spend a night with her, but he fails.  So David has her husband killed, and then marries her.13

Is it a coincidence that King David actually commits the moral crimes that Abraham and Isaac claim the kings of Egypt and Gerar would consider committing?  Or is the book of Genesis making an implicit criticism of Israel’s legendary king?

The wife-sister tale in Toledot demonstrates that a foreign king, even a king of Israel’s enemies the Philistines, can be more virtuous than an Israelite king.

It is not enough to say:

And you must love the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, resident alien, sojourner.  Plural geirim (גֵרִים).  (From the same root as lagur.)

We should not only love foreigner and immigrants, but also remember that some of them are better than we are.

  1. All three patriarchs in the Torah are sojourners: temporary resident aliens, staying in countries where they are not citizens. After Abraham leaves Charan, his homeland in Mesopotamia, the bible describes him as “sojourning” in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Gerar (20:1), Beersheba (21:34), and Hebron (35:27).  Isaac lives most of his life in Beer-sheva and Beer-lachai-roi, but he “sojourns” in Gerar (26:3) and Hebron (35:27).  Jacob grows up in Beer-sheva, then sojourns with his uncle Lavan in Charan during his prime (32:5), and in Egypt during his old age (47:4).
  2. Genesis 12:1, 12:5-7.
  3. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”: avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh of Gerar may be the first one’s son and successor.
  4. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 566.
  5. “Rashi” is the acronym for 11-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  6. Ovadiah Sforno, Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, translation and notes by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1993, p. 136.
  7. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E. “Fooling around” is one translation of metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = amusing oneself, fooling around, playing around with; from the root tzachak (צָחַק) = laughed, which is also the root of the name Isaac (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
  8. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  9. Segal, p. 33.
  10. Scholars agree that the reference to Philistines (Plishtim) is an anachronism, since these people did not cross the Mediterranean and settle between the Negev and the sea until circa 1200 B.C.E., much later than the putative time of the three patriarchs. The Torah may use “Plishtim” here to indicate the geography, or remind the reader of one of Israel’s old enemies.  The term “Canaan” in the Torah refers to a region that always includes the west bank of the Jordan and the Negev desert, but only sometimes includes the Philistine states as well.
  11. Genesis 26:15-18.
  12. Genesis 26:14-15.
  13. 2 Samuel, chapter 11.

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2 

October 31, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 3 Comments

Abraham has a low opinion of two kings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit: the Pharaoh of Egypt, and Avimelekh of Gerar.  Yet he emigrates to both their countries with his wife Sarah: to Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha and to Gerar in Vayeira.

Both times, Abraham says Sarah is so beautiful that if men knew they were husband and wife, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister; that way, he figures, he will survive when the king takes her.  And as her nearest male relative, he might even receive gifts.

“Say, please, you are my sister, so that yitav for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.”  (Genesis 12:13)

yitav (יִיטַב) = it goes well, it becomes better.

Both times, the king does take Sarah as one of his wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off Abraham and Sarah with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than before.

Last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1, reviewed “Explanation A”: traditional commentary’s attempt to take the wife-sister stories as literal history while also rescuing the reputations of Sarah and Abraham.  Here are two other explanations of what each iteration of the tale “really” means.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern commentator Alan Segal posits that in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., when most of Genesis was written,1 the editor(s) of Genesis cast Abraham and Isaac as the tricksters in an existing folk tale.  Then they added details to promote the view that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan and should have no dealings with outsiders.2

  1. Pharaoh

In the portion Lekh-Lekha Abraham hears God tell him to leave his hometown, Charan, and move to a new land that God would show him.3  He and his household, including his childless wife (called Sarai at this point) journey south through Canaan.  But there is a famine, so they continue south to live as resident aliens in Egypt.4  (See last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  There Abraham passes off his wife as his sister.

And [Pharaoh] heytiv for Abraham because of her, and he acquired a flock and a herd and male donkeys and male slaves and female slaves and female donkeys and camels.  (Genesis 12:16)

heytiv (הֵיטִיב) = he made it good, he made things go well.  (From the same root as yitav.)

Abraham and Sarah’s return to Canaan with additional movable property prefigures the liberation from Egypt in Exodus.  Near the end of Genesis, their grandson Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites, migrate to Egypt.5  In the book of Exodus, God liberates the Israelites from Egypt and leads them back toward Canaan, enriched by “gifts” from the Egyptians.  Later prophets warn the kings of Judah not to ally with Egypt.

The Torah makes it clear that God wants the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, to live in Canaan.  The first iteration of the wife-sister tale reinforces this idea, and also prejudices Israelites against making treaties with Egypt.

  1. Avimelekh

According to Segal, the second iteration of the wife-sister tale adds the information that the God of Israel also speaks to non-Israelites—at least when it is necessary to promote the welfare of the people of Israel. 6

Then God came to Avimelekh in a dream at night and said to him: “Hey, you are dead, on account of the woman that you took, for she is a wedded wife!”  (Genesis 20:3)

Avimelekh protests that he was an innocent dupe, and God takes credit for preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah.  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.)  Then God tells the king what to do.

“And now, restore the wife to the man, because he is a prophet, and he can pray for you, and then you shall live.”  (Genesis 20:7)

In the morning Avimelekh asks Abraham why he told such a terrible lie.

And Abraham said: “Because I said [to myself] only: there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me over the matter of my wife.”  (Genesis 20:11)

Abraham receives Sarah from King Abimelech, by Nicholaes Berchem, ca. 1665

Abraham appears to believe that any foreign country with a foreign religion must be lawless and immoral.  After Abraham has insulted him, Avimelekh collects himself and bribes the man with lavish gifts.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.”  (Genesis 20:17)

This version of the wife-sister tale repeats the lesson that outsiders are immoral, and also shows that God is in charge everywhere and promotes the welfare of divinely favored people.

I often find that a scholarly analysis of a passage in Torah provides valuable information about the details, but misses the meaning of the bigger story.  In this case Segal shows how the biblical editor(s) used the wife-sister trickster tale for political persuasion.  But why not find a less sordid story for this purpose?  Why does the Torah use the wife-sister tale in the first place?

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

A reader or listener without an agenda, someone who does not require Abraham and Sarah to be saintly or the kings of foreign countries to villainous, might well consider the wife-sister stories humorous tales that raise questions about morality.

  1. Pharaoh

In the first iteration of the tale, Abraham is traveling from Beit-El toward the Negev when he notices there is a famine in Canaan.  He takes his household all the way to the border of Egypt, a journey of about 200 miles (320 km), before he tells Sarah:

“Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister …”  (Genesis 12:11-13)

After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember how immoral Egyptians are?  Or does he get a brilliant idea for leaving Egypt with a lot more wealth, if his scam comes off?  I know which alternative I would believe if I were Sarah.

And the officials of Pharaoh saw Sarah, and they praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:15)

Pharaoh Takes Sarah (at 65!), from Treasures of the Bible, H.D. Northrop

Out of all the beautiful women the border guards detain, 65-year-old7 Sarah is the one who gets referred to Pharaoh.  Abraham receives a generous bride-price, just as he had hoped.  Twentieth-century commentator Pamela Tamarkin Reis wrote, “To the ancient reader, I am convinced, this shady deal was funny.  Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all those livestock and servants for a woman who is not even a virgin. And no spring chicken into the bargain.”8

Then God afflicts Pharaoh with some unmentionable disease.

And God afflicted Pharaoh with great afflictions, and his household, over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me she is your wife?”  (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah never says whether Pharaoh’s disease prevents him from bedding Sarah, but he does discover the truth about Sarah, perhaps because the disease makes him impotent and he wants to know why.  Pharaoh has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—but they get to keep the bride-price, perhaps because Pharaoh wants to avoid publicity.

Caravan of Abraham, by James Tissot, ca. 1900

So Abraham went up from Egypt, he and his wife and everyone that was his, and Lot with him, to the Negev.  And Abraham was very heavy with livestock and with silver and with gold.  (Genesis 13:1-2)

Pharaoh is the dupe in this story, but he is innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing.

Sarah is passive; the Torah does not report anything she says in Egypt.  The custom among Abraham and Sarah’s people is to give a prospective bride the chance to consent or refuse the prospective groom.9  But the Torah does not say Sarah protested against being taken to Pharaoh—and the Torah never depicts her as shy.  Perhaps she is more interested in getting rich than in avoiding polyandry.

Abraham is the chief trickster in this tale.  He lies to the Egyptians at the border, to Pharaoh, and perhaps to Sarah.  He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, appears to be a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be questioned.  Yet despite his moral failings, Abraham goes unpunished.  He leaves Egypt in safety and with riches.  Cleverness, not virtue, is rewarded.

  1. Avimelekh

In the second wife/sister story there is no famine in Canaan, no practical reason for Abraham and Sarah to leave their campsite in the Negev.10  God has recently told them both that in a year Sarah (who has been childless her whole life) will have a son.11

Abraham should be focusing on giving his aged wife the baby God promised, but instead he decides to repeat the wife-sister trick, this time in the relatively nearby city-state of Gerar.  His supposed fear that the men of Gerar would kill him over Sarah is more ridiculous the second time, since Sarah is now 89.

And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)

I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, not caring whether God prevents Avimelekh from bedding her, or uses the arrangement to get Sarah pregnant.  Either way, once the king discovers the truth about Sarah he will have to buy they off to avoid public shame.

This time God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.  Avimelekh protests his innocence.  God is not impressed, and tells him to restore Sarah to Abraham—because Abraham is a prophet who can pray for the king’s life.

When Avimelekh summons Abraham in the morning, his first words are:

“What have you done to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Avimelekh’s outburst is justified; he did not act against Abraham, but Abraham tricked him into marrying an already married woman.  Abraham insults the king by explaining his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds feebly that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.

Prophet Abraham

But Avimelekh does not blow up.  He remembers that he needs Abraham to pray for him, so he gives the man a flock, a herd, slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

At that point in the story we finally learn what God has been doing to Avimelekh.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.  For God had closed up every womb in the House of Avimelekh over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

In other words, God afflicted the king and his household with impotence.  Once again the duped king cannot even enjoy his wedding night with Abraham’s “sister”.

In this second iteration of the wife-sister tale, God forces an innocent and protesting Avimelekh to bribe Abraham in exchange for the prayer of a so-called prophet.  This demonstrates favoritism rather than justice on the part of the God-character.

Sarah is silent again.  And Abraham?  He has no excuse for his behavior.  If he were really worried about being murdered in Gerar, he could simply stay home.  Instead he swindles Abimelekh because he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor or consideration for his wife stops him.  Abraham does not care about the king of Gerar, who is, after all, a foreigner.  But he prays for him anyway, once he has received enough gifts.

*

The first two wife-sister tales in the Torah were undoubtedly derived from an ancient folk tale.  Folk tales love reversals.  In this story, the poor man tricks a rich man into giving him wealth.  The king expects to marry a beautiful virgin and discovers he has taken an old married woman.

Another common feature of folk tales is that men never learn.  Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick.  It never occurs to him that when Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.

Yet the kings in both iterations of this tale try to do the right thing.  When they discover they have been duped, they resolve the situation with generosity rather than death sentences.  Everyone benefits from the righteous behavior of Pharaoh and Avimelekh.

God heals both kings after they have returned Sarah to Abraham, with gifts.  But God does even more for Abraham, the trickster with the shady morals.  He dies happy after a long and healthy life.12

Does this mean God does not care about human morality?

The third time a patriarch claims that his wife is his sister, the story takes a different turn.  See next week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3.

  1. Scholars who subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis consider the wife-sister passages as either J or E, both sources dating from 922-722 B.C.E., the period when the Israelites had two small kingdoms, Samaria (a.k.a. Israel) in the north and Judah in the south. (Scholars who view the sources as more fragmentary do not dispute this dating.) The kings of Samaria and Judah vacillated between paying tribute to Assyria and allying with Egypt, but biblical books from Exodus through Zephaniah opposed cooperation with world powers, the worship of other gods, and intermarriage with other peoples.
  2. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  3. Charan had became an important Assyrian city by the time this passage was written.
  4. Genesis 12:10.
  5. The first three Torah portions of the Joseph story: Genesis chapters 37-47.
  6. Also God warns Lavan in a dream that he must not do anything bad to Jacob (Genesis 31:22-24) and God tells Bilam in a dream that he cannot curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. When Bilam attempts to curse them anyway, God puts blessings in his mouth (Numbers 22:7-12 and 23).
  7. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  8. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, p. 45.
  9. Genesis 24:58-59.
  10. Genesis 20:1.
  11. Genesis 18:10-14.
  12. At age 175. And Avraham breathed his last, and he died at a good old age, old and satisfied.  (Genesis 25:7-8)

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Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1

October 25, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 4 Comments

The Tale

A man and his beautiful wife immigrate to a foreign kingdom.  The man assumes that if the local king knew they were married, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow.  So he asks his wife to pretend to be his unmarried sister.  He knows the king will still take her, but as her nearest male relative the man might live—and receive the customary bride-price.

Sarah is seized (artist unknown)

The beautiful woman does become one of the king’s wives.  Then the hoax is revealed.  The horrified king releases her and sends off the man and his wife with gifts to buy their silence.  The couple journeys on, richer than when the story began.

A version of this sordid tale appears two and a half times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The first time, in the portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”), the husband is Abraham and the king is the Pharaoh of Egypt.  In this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), Abraham and Sarah do it again with Avimelekh, King of Gerar.

And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?  Why did you say ‘She is my sister’, va-ekach her for my wife?”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:18-19)

va-ekach (וָאֶקַּח) = and I took; and I married.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2) … Avimelekh summoned Abraham and said: “What have you done to us?” (Genesis 20:9)

vayikach (וַיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he married.

In a later portion, Toledot (“Lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac passes off his wife Rebecca as his sister.  This time the tale is cut short because the king (also called Avimelekh)1 never takes her as a wife.  The aborted version begins the same way as the first two iterations, but it reverses the lessons of the Abraham tales.

In this series about the wife-sister tales, the first two posts will present different explanations of the wife-sister tales in which the trickster is Abraham.  The third post will show how Isaac’s attempt to use the wife-sister lie challenges the conclusions of all three interpretations.

 

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Early commentary such as Bereishit Rabbah2 takes the wife-sister stories as literal history, and assumes that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than Pharaoh or Avimelekh.  It does not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants, and kill their husbands if they are married.

And it happened, as he [Abraham] was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarah, his wife: “Hey, please!  I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.   And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!”  And they will kill me, but they will let you live.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-12)

Abraham implies that the Egyptian border guards routinely detain beautiful women of all ages (Sarah is at least 65)4 and then kill their husbands if they are married.  With these orders, the guards would have to murder a lot of foreign men.  But perhaps the idea is not so preposterous, given that in 2018 American guards on the border of Mexico jailed the children of would-be immigrants separately from their parents, without making any provision for reuniting the families.  Foreigners have been fair game in many cultures.

from Babylon Marriage Market, by Edward Long, 1875

The first part of Abraham’s claim, that beautiful immigrants will be seized, turns out to be true in both episodes.

And it happened, that Abraham came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  The officials of Pharaoh saw her, and they praised her to Pharaoh, vatukach ha-ishah to the House of Pharaoh.  (Genesis 12:14-15)

vatukach ha-ishah (וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה) = and the woman was taken; and the wife was taken.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”.  And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah.  (Genesis 20:2)

For both stories, the early commentary only needed to explain:

  • why Sarah is so beautiful,
  • why she is never molested by a king, and
  • why Abraham’s behavior is excusable.
  1. Pharaoh

from Bisson, La Fiancee, 1895

Although Sarah is in her sixties when Pharaoh takes her, early commentary maintains that she is extraordinarily beautiful.  Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15a, lists Sarah as one of the four most beautiful women in the world.5  According to Bereshit Rabbah 40, the whole land of Egypt was illuminated by her beauty.

The Torah does not say whether Pharaoh has sexual intercourse with Sarah.  But early commentators wrote that both times when Abraham passes her off as his sister, God protects her from being molested by afflicting the king with a disease that prevents intercourse.

And God afflicted Pharaoh and his household with great afflictions over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?” (Genesis 12:17-18)

The Torah does not describe the nature of the affliction.  Bereishit Rabbah 41 suggested lupus or another disease that affects the skin.  Rashi6 wrote that this affliction made intercourse harmful to Pharaoh.  Whatever God’s affliction is, according to classic commentary it prevents Pharaoh from molesting his new wife, and alerts him that things are not what they seem.  Then Sarah tells him the truth, and he is outraged that he was tricked into marrying another man’s wife.  He sends Abraham and Sarah out of the country, and lets them take all their new wealth with them.7

Abraham and Sarah Before Pharaoh, by Comnenian, Byzantine

Pre-modern commentators differ when it comes to the question of Abraham’s virtue.  The Zohar says that Abraham sees the divine presence is with Sarah, and an angel confirms it, so he knows she will be safe.8  But Ramban wrote: “Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God.”9

Even if Abraham is not guilty of putting his wife in peril, what about his deception?  Some commentators view Abraham’s lie as his only alternative, given the nastiness of the Pharaoh and the famine in Canaan.

  1. Avimelekh

The second version of the wife-sister tale appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, after God has promised Abraham and Sarah they will have a child at last.  They settle in the Negev Desert, but travel west to Gerar to live there as resident aliens for a while.  Once again Abraham calls Sarah his sister.  The king of Gerar, Avimelekh, “takes” her.

At this point in the Torah, Sarah is 89 years old.10  So classic commentary needs to explain why Sarah is still beautiful enough to tempt a king.  Before Abraham takes her to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son.  (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  In Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 87a, Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.

Sarah and Abimelech, by Marc Chagall

In this iteration of the wife-sister tale, God speaks to the king in a dream after he has married Sarah.  God informs him that Sarah is another man’s wife, and declares that Avimelekh and his people must die for this sinful marriage.

But Avimelekh had not come close to her.  And he said: “My Lord, will you slay even innocent people?  Did not he himself [Avraham] say: ‘She is my sister’?  And she even said: ‘He is my brother’!  With a pure heart and with clean palms I did this.”

And God said to him in the dream: “Even I myself knew that you did this with a pure heart, so I restrained you from sinning against me, even I myself.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.”  (Genesis 20:4-6)

How does God restrain Avimelekh from having intercourse with Sarah?  Through “a closing up of orifices” according to Bereishit Rabbah.  Rashi wrote that God closes the orifices of Avimelekh and his household, including their ears and noses as well as genital and urinary openings.

The rabbis of Bereishit Rabbah overlooked Avimelekh’s protest that his intention were good, and give God all the credit for the king’s restraint.  “R. Aibuil said: It is like the case of a warrior who was riding his horse at full speed, when seeing a child lying in the path, he reined in the horse, so that the child was not hurt. Whom do all praise, the horse or the rider? Surely the rider!”11

And Avimelekh summon Abraham and said to him: “What did you do to us?  And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom?  [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)

Abraham explains his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.  Avimelekh then gives Abraham a flock, a herd, and slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar.  He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they gave birth.  For God had shut every womb in the house of Avimelekh on account of the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  (Genesis 20:18)

This is the verse that Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi interpreted as meaning that God had “closed up every orifice”.  Other commentators, including Ramban and 18th century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, wrote that the men’s genitals were also closed, and this proved that Avimelkh could not be the biological father of Sarah’s son Isaac.

Is Abraham’s behavior excusable in this case?  The idea that Abraham knew God would protect Sarah still applies in the story of Avimlekh, but why does he take Sarah to Gerar in the first place, when they could just continue grazing their livestock in the Negev?  The classic commentary has no answer.

*

Traditional commentators assumed the first two wife-sister stories relate what actually happened to Abraham and Sarah.  They talked up Sarah’s beauty to explain why she was brought straight to the king both times, and they worried about and how Sarah and Abraham retained their virtue.  But they offered no insights on why these stories are included in the Torah; traditional commentary views the tales as part of history.

When one considers the Torah as an ancient composite crafted by one or more religious editors, the questions that traditional commentary answered are not the important ones.  What is the purpose of including the sordid story at all?  And why does the patriarch Abraham tell lies and sell his wife to a foreign king—twice?  What kind of sacred book is this, anyway?

These questions illustrate the frequent problems that arise when one both takes the bible literally and believes that the designated heroes are good, and the designated villains are bad.  Some people feel a psychological need to have faith in a religion that contains contradictions, so the classic explanations serve them well.

What about the rest of us?  Next week’s post will examine two other explanations, one from the viewpoint of a modern scholar and one from the viewpoint of a modern storyteller.

  1. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”; avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh may be the first one’s successor.
  2. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E.
  3. 2 Samuel 11:1-17.
  4. Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
  5. The other three beautiful women in Megillah 15a are Rahab, Abigail, and Esther.
  6. 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  7. Genesis 12:20.
  8. Moses de Leon, 13th century Spain, Zohar 1:181b, 3:52a.
  9. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), translated in Etz Hayim, ed. David L. Lieber, Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 73.
  10. In Genesis 17:15-17 and 18:10 Abraham learns that Sarah will give birth at age 90. An alternative to early commentators’ claim that Sarah miraculously regains the beauty of youth is a theory that the border officials single her out for a different reason.  Twentieth-century commentator Savina Teubal (Sarah the Priestess, Swallow Press Reprint edition, 1984) suggests that Sarai was the priestess of a god or goddess in Charan, and her marriages with Pharaoh and Avimelekh were examples of hieros gamos, an ancient ritual in which a high priestess and a king had intercourse in order to enact the coupling of the gods who made the land fertile.  Teubal did not explain why a king would employ a priestess from a foreign land for this ritual, instead of using the priestess of one of his own country’s gods.
  11. Bereishit Rabbah, translation by H. Freedman, Soncino Press, London, 1939.

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Chayyei Sarah: A Satisfactory Old Age

November 10, 2017 at 10:30 am | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Vayeira | Leave a comment

What is a good old age?  What is a good time to die?

Sarah dies at age 127 at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”).

Sarah’s Burial,
by Gustave Dore

And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to lament for Sarah and to wail for her. (Genesis/Bereishit 23:2)

At the end of last week’s portion, Vayeira, Abraham and Sarah lived in Beersheba.  Now Sarah dies in Hebron, 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Beersheba, near the grove where they camped during their first sojourn in Canaan.  Abraham travels there to perform ritual mourning and purchase a burial site.  The couple appear to have separated, and Abraham’s ritual mourning is emphasized, as if he needs to make a show of grief.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham dies at age 175.

And Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and savei-a, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

savei-a (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, sated, with plenty, contented.

Sarah’s death, despite her advanced age, is treated as tragic.  Abraham’s is good.  What makes their final years different?

Sarah’s Old Age

Sarah and Abimelech,
by Marc Chagall

Sarah was already old when she finally had a baby—at age 90, according to last week’s Torah portion. (See my post Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Right after God announced the miraculous pregnancy, Abraham took his 89-year-old wife to Gerar.  She was still so attractive that Abraham passed her off as his sister, and the king of Gerar “took” her.1  (In Biblical Hebrew, when a man “takes” a woman, it means he has sexual intercourse with her in order to make her his wife or concubine.)  In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Chisda explained that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin was rejuvenated, and her beauty returned.

Before the king of Gerar touched Sarah, God told him in a dream that she was married, and unless her husband Abraham interceded, the king would die.  King Avimelekh returned Sarah to Abraham, showered him with gifts, and invited him to live anywhere in the territory.  Abraham and his household settled in Beersheba, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

But at Isaac’s weaning feast three years later, Sarah was full of anxieties.  (See my post Vayeira & Toldot: Laughter, Part 2.)  She worried that people would mock her, and she was afraid that Isaac’s older half-brother, Ishmael, would inherit the firstborn’s double portion of Abraham’s wealth, even though Ishmael was the son of a slave.  So Sarah tried to secure her own son’s future by telling her husband to exile Ishmael and his mother.2  God backed up her request and Abraham obeyed.

Nevertheless, when Isaac was a young man God told Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering.3

According to one strand of classic commentary, Sarah dies of shock when she learns that Abraham almost slaughtered her beloved Isaac.4  This explanation implies that she had moved back to Hebron earlier, leaving Isaac with his father, and that news of the Akedah reached her there.  But why would she separate from her husband and stop watching over her son when nothing else was happening?  It would make more psychological sense if Abraham sent her back to Hebron because he resented her for making him exile Ishmael and Hagar—or if Sarah left her husband only after he tried to slaughter Isaac.

Whenever Sarah moved away, she also lost contact with her son.  Isaac walked away alone from the altar where Abraham almost sacrificed him, and later in this week’s potion we learn that he settled farther south, in the Negev.

At the beginning of Chayyei Sarah, Sarah dies at 127, and Isaac is 37.  He is not present at his mother’s funeral.

What is a good old age, a good death?  When I asked some of my friends, we concluded that the best ending would be:

  • Having fulfilled your mission in life, whatever that turned out to be.
  • Doing something meaningful with your last years.
  • Having a loving connection with someone during your last years.
  • Leaving no unfinished business (such as making amends, arranging inheritance).
  • Dying in a calm state of mind.

Sarah raised a son in her old age, fulfilling the mission God gave her.  But the Torah does not say that she did anything after she moved back to Hebron.  She was alienated from her husband, and out of contact with her son.  She died among mere acquaintances, in a state of either shock or bitterness.

Abraham’s Old Age

Abraham suffered during what turned out to be his early old age in the Torah portion Vayeira.  At 103, he had to drive out his concubine Hagar and his beloved son Ishmael.  And the thing was very bad in his eyes. (Genesis 21:11)

Akedah in an Icelandic
14th cent manuscript

When his remaining son, Isaac, was a young man, he carried out God’s orders to sacrifice him.  Although God stayed his hand at the last minute, he never saw Isaac again, and his wife never forgave him.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies when Abraham is 137, and he still feels guilty about her.5

Yet after that Abraham lives another 38 years in Beersheba.  His first order of business is to send his steward to Aram to arrange a suitable marriage for Isaac.  (He sees no need to consult his son about this; the important point is that Isaac’s descendants are supposed to inherit the land and God’s blessing.  Isaac has to marry a woman from his father’s clan and religious background, so that he can produce those descendants.)

After the steward is dispatched, Abraham takes a new concubine for himself.

And Abraham continued, and he took a woman, and her name was Keturah.  (Genesis/Bereshit 25:1)

Keturah (קְטוּרָה) = incense, smoke from incense.

The name Keturah is suggestive.  Biblical Hebrew, like English, associates heat and fire with passionate emotion.  Fragrant smoke is something to savor and enjoy; the smoke from a burnt offering or an incense pan is the part of an offering that gives God the most pleasure.  Abraham and Keturah have six sons—another indication that at long last, Abraham has a passionate relationship with a woman.

He has already fulfilled his mission in life by moving to Canaan, accumulating wealth to pass on to his heirs, making a covenant with God through circumcision, and producing the correct son to fulfill God’s prophecy that his numerous descendants will own Canaan and be a blessing to other peoples.  He has even furthered God’s plan by getting Isaac married to his cousin Rebecca.

Abraham also does something meaningful in his last years: raising six more children.  We can assume he has a loving connection with them; he certainly has one with Keturah.  And he leaves no unfinished business.  When his sons through Keturah have grown up, Abraham resolves his inheritance ahead of time.

Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac.  And to the sons of the concubines he had, Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still alive he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the land of Kedem. (Genesis 5-6)

Abraham dies not only in a calm state of mind, but savei-a: satisfied, contented.

Our Own Old Age

When we are in the thick of life, we do not know whether we will die like Sarah or like Abraham.  But we can improve our chances of dying “at a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25:8).

During our most active years, may we keep asking ourselves what our true mission in life is, and how we can realign ourselves to carry it out.

May we still do things that are meaningful to us and give us satisfaction when that God-given work is completed (perhaps when we retire from a career, perhaps when a cause or a beloved individual no longer needs our efforts, perhaps when our bodies or circumstances change).

May we keep learning how to love, keep working on the relationships that are worth continuing, and keep making new friends as long as we live.

May we take care of our own business as we go along, so that whenever we leave this world we leave nothing important undone.

And may we cultivate awareness and gratitude, making a calm and contented state of mind a habit that we never lose, even at the end.

Then no matter when death comes, at that moment we can be satisfied with our lives.

  1. Genesis 20:1-3.
  2. Genesis 21:9-13.
  3. Genesis 22:1-12.
  4. Rashi (11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yose in Genesis Rabbah 58:5.)
  5. Moshe Anisfled, “Rashi’s Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, p. 144.

Vayeira & Toledot: Laughter, Part 2

November 7, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

detail from Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse

Laughter is not always happy.  In English we distinguish between the friendly act of laughing with someone and the cruel act of laughing at someone.  A “fool” might be either a professional jester, or an innocent ignoramus who makes people laugh because of the contrast between his serious doings and what his words or actions mean to “normal” people.  All of these meanings of “laugh” and “fool” are captured by Biblical Hebrew verbs based on the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.

The first person to laugh in the Torah is Abraham, when God tells him that he and his wife Sarah will finally have a baby the following year.  His laughter is incredulous.

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.

The first six times a word derived from the root verb tzachak appears in the Torah, it is in the kal stem of the verb and refers simply to laughing.  (See last week’s post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Even the name of Abraham and Sarah’s son comes from the kal stem of tzachak.

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

“Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him …” (Genesis 17:19)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac in English; “He laughs” in Hebrew.

When God reveals the same information to Sarah in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, she too laughs incredulously.

Lot the Fool

Later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham’s nephew Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.

Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: “Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the town!” But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = joking, amusing oneself, fooling around, making someone laugh; a jester, a fool.

Although metzacheik is derived from the same root verb as vayitzchak and yitzchak, it comes from the piel stem.  While the kal stem of the root means laughing, the piel stem means making or causing laughter—and can also indicate someone who makes people laugh.

Lot’s sons-in-law see Lot as a fool who seriously believes something will happen that “normal” people know is impossible.  How could the god of Lot and Abraham wipe out the whole town of Sodom?  The men cannot believe in the miracle that kills them the next morning.

Abraham, standing on the heights above, sees Sodom and Gomorrah being obliterated, and moves his household south, settling near Gerar.

An Embarrassing Birth

Then Sarah became pregnant, and she bore for Abraham a son for his old age, at the appointed time that God had spoken of …  And Abraham was 100 years old when his son Yitzchak was born to him.  And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak about me. (Genesis 21:2, 6)

tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter (noun, from the root tzachak).

yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, he will amuse himself or others (from the root tzachak in the piel stem).

detail from Old Woman, by Jakub Schikaneder

For Sarah, having a baby is a good miracle.  After all, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha she wants a son and heir so much that she gives Abraham her slave Hagar and plans to adopt their baby, Ishmael.  That plan does not go well, but now Sarah has her own son.

However, instead of laughing with joy, Sarah is self-conscious about the laughter she expects from other people.  How ridiculous it looks for a 90-year-old woman to nurse an infant! Sarah expects to be the butt of jokes.

Ishmael at the Weaning Feast

When Yitzchak is weaned, Abraham holds a feast in celebration.  There Sarah observes Ishmael, now an adolescent, doing something that alarms her.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, metzacheik.  And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman must not inherit along with my son, with Yitzchak! (Genesis 21:9-10)

Sarah observes Ishmael metzacheik: “joking, playing, amusing himself”.  But what, exactly, is the boy doing?

Rashi1 suggested three possibilities taken from the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis2: Sarah might have seen Ishmael in the act of sexual immorality, idolatry, or killing people in a contest.  His bad moral character would give Sarah an excuse to exile him, so that her own Yitzchak would become Abraham’s only heir.

Ramban and later Sforno3 wrote that Ishmael is joking that Yitzchak is actually the son of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in chapter 20. This is a potentially profitable joke for Ishmael to make; if Yitzchak really were the son of Sarah and Avimelekh, then Ishmael would be the only son of Abraham, and therefore his only heir.

Robert Alter has pointed out that since Yitzchak and metzacheik come from the same root, “we may also be invited to construe it as ‘Isaacing it’—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.”5

If Ishmael were merely laughing with Yitzchak, his behavior might be innocent.  But since the text says she sees Ishmael metzacheik, making someone laugh, he probably is joking around at Yitzchak’s expense.

Playing with a Sister

What about Yitzchak himself?  Is he named “He laughs” merely because Abraham laughs at the news of his conception?

The Torah never says that Yitzchak himself laughs.  But in next week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Yitzchak creates laugher (in the piel stem).

Yitzchak and his beloved wife Rebecca move to Gerar to escape a drought, and Yitzchak, like his father Abraham, worries that the king of Gerar or one of his men will seize Rebecca for his own harem.  If the men of Gerar know she is married to Yitzchak, he thinks, they will kill him so they can take her as a widow without fear of reprisal.  Thus Yitzchak, like Abraham, calls his wife his sister. (See my post Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife/Sister Trick.)

Abimelech, Isaac, and Rebecca,
by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

But unlike his father, Yitzchak cannot keep his hands off his wife.

And the days became long for him there.  And Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked down through the window, and he saw—hey!—Yitzchak metzacheik with Rebecca, his wife!  (Genesis 26:8)

Here metzacheik means fondling: playing or fooling around sexually.  There is no implication of mockery or meanness in Yitzchak’s behavior.  He is merely in love with his own wife, and touches her when he thinks they are unobserved.

Like the king of Gerar who took in Sarah, this king of Gerar is horrified to discover that an apparently single woman is actually someone’s wife.  The king issues an order:  Anyone who touches this man or his wife shall certainly die.  (Genesis 26:11)  And Yitzchak prospers in Gerar.

*

Yitzchak, “He laughs”, is surrounded by people who laugh and joke.  Both his parents laugh at the incredible mismatch between their extreme old age and having a baby.  Both accept God’s miracle and adjust their lives to it, Abraham by winning God’s reassurance that his older son Ishmael will survive, and Sarah by finding a reason to exile Ishmael and give her own son the inheritance.

Yitzchak’s uncle Lot informs his sons-in-law of a different divine miracle, the impending destruction of Sodom.  His earnest belief in something they think is impossible makes them laugh, and they see him as a fool, a metzacheik.  So they stay put in Sodom, and are annihilated.

May we become more like Abraham and Sarah than like Lot’s sons-in-law: flexible and able to accept the unexpected in our lives.

When Ishmael is metzacheik at Yitzchak’s weaning feast, he is probably making other people laugh at Yitzchak’s expense.  But when Yitzchak is metzacheik with his wife in Gerar, he is probably making her laugh with his playful fondling as he expresses his love for her.

May we become more like Yitzchak than like Ishmael; may we guard ourselves against cruelty, even toward our opponents, when we joke around, and restrict ourselves to generating only loving laughter.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century C.E. French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, who wrote commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible and all of the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. Genesis/Bereishit Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of commentary by rabbis of the first through third century C.E. The three alternatives on page 53:11 are based on the use of similar words in three other passages.  In Genesis 39:17, the verb letzachek (לְצַחֶק, in the piel) is used to accuse someone of attempting sexual seduction.  In Exodus 32:6, letzacheik (לְצַחֵק, in the piel) is what the Israelites do after sacrificing to the Golden Calf.  In 2 Samuel 2:14, the lietwort viysachaku (וִישַׂחַקוּ) is used to mean a tournament or contest in which pairs of soldiers fight to the death.
  3. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides. 16h-century C.E. rabbi Ovadiah Sforno gave the same opinion.
  4. Rachel Adelman, “The Expulsion of Ishmael: Who Is Being Tried?”, thetorah.com.
  5. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 103.

 

Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1

October 31, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Posted in Vayeira | 4 Comments

The first laughter in the Torah happens when God tells Abraham, age 99, that after he has circumcised himself and all the males in his household, he and Sarah, his 89-year-old wife, will have a son.

“I will bless her, and I will even give you a son from her, and I will bless her and she will become nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis/Bereishit 17:16)

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.  (From the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.)

Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch: when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context.  We laugh

* in fun when we are surprised by a joke,

* in incredulity when a mismatch is almost unbelievable,

* in bitterness when we wish both mismatched things were true but cannot believe it,

* in joy when receive unexpected good fortune, and

* in mockery when we point out mismatched traits in a person we resent.

In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations.  But characters in the Bible do laugh in incredulity, in bitterness, in joy, and in mockery.

When God tells Abraham that he and his 89-your-old wife will have a baby, he silently laughs out of incredulity.  He also “falls on his face” into the prostrate posture for communicating with God,1 because he is concerned about how God is planning to fulfill the divine prophecy that Abraham will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky.2  Until this point, Abraham assumed all these descendants would come from his 13-year-old son Ishmael, whose mother is Sarah’s slave.  What if God ignored Ishmael while making these almost unbelievable plans for Sarah to get pregnant?

Abraham said to God: “If only Ishmael will live in Your presence!” (Genesis 17:18)

And God said: “Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Hey! I will bless him and I will make him fruitful… (Genesis 17:19-20)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac, in English.  In Hebrew, yitzchak = he laughs, he will laugh (from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

When God repeats his promise of a miraculous birth, Abraham overcomes his incredulity and goes ahead with the circumcisions.

Abraham Sees Three Visitors
(artist unknown)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), three mysterious strangers arrive at Abraham’s camp while he is recovering from his circumcisionThe aged Abraham gets up and runs to welcome the visitors, who look like men, but turn out to be divine messengers or angels.  Abraham prepares them a meal.  The visitors eat as if they were men, and then make sure Sarah is close enough to overhear them.

And they said to him: “Where is Sarah, your wife?”

And he said: “Here!  In the tent.”  (Genesis 18:9)

Then one of the three “men” lets her know that she will, at long last, have a child.

And he said: “I will definitely return to you at the time of life, and hey!  (There will be) a son for Sarah, your wife.”

And Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; the periods of women had stopped happening to Sarah.  Vatitzchak, Sarah, inside herself, saying: After I am worn out, will I have sexual pleasure? And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:10-12)

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

vatitzchak (וַתִּצְחַק) = and she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

What kind of laughter does Sarah laugh—incredulous, bitter, joyful, or mocking?  Biblical commentary is divided.  Sarah does not seem to be mocking anyone, though she may wonder if the man speaking is mocking her.  I can imagine her inner laughter as incredulous or bitter or joyful.  So I offer these three alternatives, in colloquial modern English, for what she might be thinking as she laughs:

  1. Incredulity:

    What an idiot this stranger is!  He hasn’t seen me, so he doesn’t know what a dried-up old woman I am.  But Abraham’s standing right in front of him, all wrinkled and liver-spotted.  Who would make an outrageous prediction like that, with a time limit, even? Only an idiot—or a prophet.3  That’s it, Abraham’s three guests are a band of traveling prophets!  Well, this is the most absurd prophecy I’ve ever heard.  You’ve got to laugh at such a ridiculous situation.

  2. Bitterness:

    This stranger may know my name, but he obviously doesn’t know my age.  I bet he was trying to give old Abraham a compliment; even a 99-year-old man likes to hear that he’s virile.  But the man overdid it.  I bet he also doesn’t know that I’ve been barren my whole life, and I had to give my slave to my husband just to get a son to adopt.  And that was a disaster.  Now, even if I were still young enough to have some juice, I know Abraham is past it.  I thought I was used to sleeping in a cold bed. But now all I can think about is how long I’ve been alone.  No sex for years, never nursed a baby, and I didn’t even get to be a mother by adoption; nobody treats me as Ishmael’s mother.  Curse that stranger!  He doesn’t realize how much his remark hurts me.  Men are careless like that.  Even my own husband asks me to make fancy cakes for his guests, and then forgets to serve them!  Men never think of women’s feelings.  You’ve got to laugh at these jokers, so you don’t cry.

  3. Joy:

    Who is this stranger?  How does he know my name?  Does he realize how old we are?  Actually, Abraham may have forgotten to serve my cakes to those men, but he’s been running around like a man in his prime.  And not every 99-year-old man could even survive being circumcised.  Or be so cheerful about it. Hey, Abraham even winked at me, when he told me about what he was going to do to himself, and about how God opened up our names by adding the letter hey.  Everything’s opening up now, he said.  I wonder if he was hinting that my womb was going to open, too?  Maybe when God changed our names and ordered the circumcisions, He went on and told Abraham were going to have a child?  Oh, that would be a rich joke, after I’ve been barren my whole long life!  But if God wants to play a joke on us, and give us both a second youth so I can have my own baby— well then, bring on the miracle!

Then God said to Abraham: “Why is it that Sarah tzachakah, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the time of life, and Sarah will have a son.”  (Genesis 18: 14)

tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Now Sarah is alarmed. How could the visitor hear her silent thoughts? Only God could do that sort of thing.  Has she just insulted God?

And Sarah denied it, saying: “Lo tzachakti!”—for she was afraid. But he said: “Not so, for tzachakte”. (Genesis 18:15)

lo tzachakti (לֺא צָחַקְתִּיה) = I did not laugh (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

tzachakte (צָחָקְתְּ) = you (feminine) laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Then the three “men” get up and walk with Abraham to look down at Sodom in the valley below.

*

Both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the idea of having a baby in extreme old age.  But they keep listening to God, get over their incredulity, and accept the transformation of their lives. Abraham is reassured to hear that both his sons will become fathers and patriarchs. Sarah casts off her bitterness and accepts her sudden good fortune after her adoption scheme went so badly. She is prepared to enjoy sexual pleasure again, as well as nursing her own child.  We next see her in the Torah at Yitzchak’s weaning feast.

When you laugh incredulously, do you leave an opening for an unexpected miracle?  Are you willing to accept a new reality? Are you able to move from bitterness to joy?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in October 2010.  Next week I will post part 2, on making laughter in joy and in mockery.)

  1. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  2. In Genesis 15:5 God promised Abraham he will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky. By the time Abraham is 99, God has promised him five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan.  Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar.
  3. 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that Sarah assumes the speaker is a prophet giving a blessing. (Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993)

 

 

 

Haftarat Vayeira–2 Kings: Dance of Pride

November 17, 2016 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:21), and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:1-37.

Elisha is not only a prophet, but a miracle-worker. He and his mentor, Elijah, are the only characters in the Hebrew Bible who create supernatural wonders on their own initiative—yet with God’s approval.

This week’s haftarah relates two of Elisha’s miracles. First the widow of one of Elisha’s disciples begs him for help. She is in debt to a creditor who is coming to take her two sons as slaves. Elisha speaks to her simply and directly, saying:

Jug from 9th-century Israel

Jug from 9th-century Israel

What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house. (2 Kings 4:2)

He has no problem arranging a miracle for the poor and desperate woman, turning her single small jar of oil into so much oil that when she sells it she can pay off her whole debt, with money left over. Magnanimity comes easily to Elisha.

In the next story, the woman who approaches Elisha is wealthy and content. Instead of asking for help, she is determined to help Elisha. He becomes the recipient of someone’s magnanimity.

It happened one day [that] Elisha passed by Shuneim, and there was a gedolah woman, vatachazek him to eat a meal. Then it happened whenever he passed by, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy man of God. Let us make, please, an upper room with a wall, and let us put there a bed for him, and a table and a chair and a lampstand, and it will happen whenever he comes to us, he will turn aside there”. And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room …(2 Kings 4:8-11)

gedolah (גְדוֹלָה) = great, significant, big.

vatachazek (וַתַּחֲזֶק) = and she took hold of, and she prevailed over, and she seized.

The woman of Shuneim is probably gedolah, significant in her town, because she and her husband are wealthy enough to build a walled chamber on top of their roof as a guest room. She may also be called gedolah because she is unusually forceful for a woman in the ancient kingdom of Judah. She does not politely ask Elisha if he would like to come to her house for a meal; she makes him do it, either by refusing to take no for an answer or by actually grabbing him.

But feeding Elisha is not enough for her. So she politely tells her husband she wants to build and furnish a guest room for him. Her husband’s reply is not recorded, but judging by the rest of the story, he never stands in her way. In the next sentence, Elisha’s guest room is complete.

What is the woman of Shuneim’s motivation for this extreme hospitality? One clue is that she calls Elisha a “man of god”, an ish elohim. Maybe she is religious, and sees taking care of a man of God as a way to contribute to the cause of glorifying the God of Israel.

House in ancient Israel

House in ancient Israel

And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room, and he lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his manservant: “Call that woman of Shuneim.” And he called her, and she stood before him. (2 Kings 4:11-12)

Elisha is already famous in the kingdoms of both Judah and Israel. Now he has his own servant. He sends Geichazi to summon her, instead of going downstairs himself.  He does not refer to his hostess by name (and we never learn it). When she climbs up the ladder to his room, he is reclining on the bed as if he were a king.

Putting on even more airs, Elisha does not speak to her directly, but only through his servant.

And he [Elisha] said to him: “Say, please, to her: Hey! You have troubled yourself with all this trouble for us. What is there to do for you? To speak for you to the king? Or to the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13)

There is no indication that the woman needs anything from the king or the army commander. I believe Elisha is showing off, letting her know that he has influence with these exalted persons.

The woman is unimpressed. She merely replies:

I am dwelling among my own people. (2 Kings 4:13)

She does not need Elisha’s influence because she is already well-known and respected in Shuneim.  She then goes back downstairs, making it clear that she does not want any favors from the “man of God”.

And he [Elisha] said: “Then what to do for her?” And Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” Then he [Elisha] said: “Call her”. And he called her, and she stood in the doorway. (2 Kings 4:14-15)

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James Tissot

Geichazi assumes that the woman’s husband is too old to have successful intercourse with her. This story is a good match for the Torah portion Vayeira because in Vayeira, Sarah stands in the doorway of the tent and laughs silently when she hears a guest tell her 99-year-old husband, Abraham, that the following year she will have a son.

The guest, who is actually divine, hears Sarah’s thoughts and tells Abraham:

Is anything too extraordinary for God? Lamo-eid hazeh I will return to you, ka-eit chayyah, and Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:14)

lamo-eid hazeh (לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה) = at this appointed time.

ka-eit chayyah (כָּעֵת חַיָּה) = in the same season of life. (An idiom for “at the same time next year”.)

Elisha borrows language from the Torah portion to announce his own miracle, and finally addresses the woman instead of confining his remarks to his servant.

And he said: “Lamo-eid hazeh, ka-eit chayyah, you will be embracing a son.” Then she said: “No, my lord, Man of the God. Don’t you lie to your maidservant.” (2 Kings 4:16)

Through the language of this annunciation, Elisha is comparing himself with Abraham’s guest, an angel who turns into the voice of God. I suspect that the woman of Shuneim rejects his message because she knows Elisha is only a man of God, not an angel. She puts him in his place.

She may not even want a son. Most women in Biblical times needed a son to support them in old age, since they rarely had property of their own. But as commentator Tikva Frymer Kensky pointed out, the woman of Shuneim appears to be independent, and may even own the land her husband farms for her.

Nevertheless, she has a son the following year. When the boy is old enough to follow his father around outside, but still young enough to fit on his mother’s lap, he suddenly has a pain in his head. His father does not take it seriously, and merely tells a servant to carry him back to his mother.

And he sat on her knees until noon. Then he died. And she took him up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and she closed [the door] behind him, and she left. (2 Kings 4:20-21)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

Elisha and the Shunamite Woman (artist unknown)

The woman realizes that now she does need a favor from Elisha, and she has a right to demand it. When she reaches him on Mount Carmel, she brushes off Elisha’s servant Geichazi.

And she came up to the man of God on the mountain, vatachazek his feet… (2 Kings 4:27)

Once again the woman seizes Elisha, but this time instead of making him accept a favor from her, she requests one from him.

Geichazi tries to pull her away, but Elisha tells his servant:

“Leave her alone, because her soul is bitter, and God has hidden it from me and has not told me [about it].”

Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say: Don’t you be careless with me?” (2 Kings 4:27-28)

Elisha's Servant Geichazi, engraving by Bernhard Rode

Elisha’s Servant Geichazi, by Bernhard Rode

That is enough of a clue for Elisha. He realizes her son has died, and he gives his staff to Geichazi with orders to place it on the boy’s face. But the woman knows that will not work.  She insists on taking Elisha to her house in person. He still does not speak to her directly, but he follows her. When they arrive, the boy is still laid out dead on Elisha’s bed.

Elisha’s pride has taken two blows; first God did not tell him anything was wrong, and then his idea for a miraculous revivification did not work. His benefactress knew more than he did.

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunemmite, by Frederic Leighton

All he can do now is imitate one of his mentor Elijah’s successful miracles, and hope it works for him, too. He goes into the guest room, shuts the door on Geichazi and the woman, and prays to God. Then he climbs up and lies down on the boy, mouth to mouth and hands to hands. (Too much time has elapsed for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Elisha is attempting to send some of his own life-spirit into the child.)

After he does this a second time, the boy sneezes and opens his eyes. Elisha calls Geichazi and says: “Call that woman of Shuneim.”  It sounds as if Elisha is resuming his proud distance from his benefactress.  But when she arrives, he speaks to her, saying: “Pick up your son.” (2 Kings 4:36)

And she came and she fell at his feet and she bowed low to the ground and she picked up her son and she left. (2 Kings 4:37)

Although she bows to him, it is only his due as a man of God who has brought a dead child to life. She retains her dignity by rising and carrying her son away.

Does Elisha give up some of his prickly pride about receiving help from the woman of Shuneim? The story ends here, but later the second book of Kings reports:

And Elisha spoke to the woman whose son he had revived, saying: “Get up and go, you and your household, and sojourn wherever you will sojourn, because God has called for a seven-year famine, and even now it comes to the land.”  And the woman got up and did as the man of God spoke… (2 Kings 8:1-2)

God is speaking to Elisha, and Elisha is speaking to the woman of Shuneim, treating her with consideration, even if she did once force him to accept favors from her.

*

Maybe I see this haftarah as a story of prickly male pride because I was born in the 1950’s and I’ve seen that dynamic again and again—though less often in this 21st century. On the other hand, I sometimes find it difficult to accept help myself, because I, too, want to appear competent and in control, not weak and needy.

This week’s haftarah demonstrates that there are times when even the great woman of Shuneim, or Elisha the man of God, needs help. In order for we humans to do our work best, we need three things: the strength to ask for help when we need it, the strength to accept help whether we need it or not, and the compassion to give help when we can.

 

 

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Joshua, Lekh Lekha, Samuel 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Next year in Jerusalem!” is the phrase that concludes both the Passover seder and the holy day of Yom Kippur.  For more than two millennia, Jews have referred to Jerusalem as their holiest place and ultimate home.

Yet the city we call Jerusalem in English, and Yerushalayim (יְרוּשָׁלַיִם‎) in Hebrew, is a Jebusite city in the Hebrew Bible until the second book of Samuel, when King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital.

An Egyptian vassal city

So far, the oldest reference archaeologists have found to a place in Canaan called something like Jerusalem appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

A place called Shaleim

Abraham is blessed by the king of Shaleim in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”).  And in this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount.  Both of these place-names hint at the future Israelite city of Jerusalem.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with the booty and all the southerners they can round up as slaves.  One of the kidnapped southerners is Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners, defeat them, and head back south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, the southern king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = peace, safety, wholeness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

If Shaleim is a shortened name for Jerusalem, then the Valley of Shaveh may be the level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have pointed out that Shaveh also means “level”.

And he blessed him and he said: “Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand”.  And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle.  (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: New Names for God.)  Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

Why would Malki-Tzedek give a tithe of the booty, when he is not listed as participating in the battle?  Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of his booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in Jerusalem centuries later.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

A place called Moriyah

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.  After Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac has grown up and become a young man, God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  “Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, [the one] which I will say to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh; a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, vision, apparition, mirror.

After a three-day walk from his home in Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, some firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is one of the hills surrounding Jerusalem,  then Abraham and Isaac would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the two servants Abraham brings along carry the firewood, and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = he sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, will become visible, will appear.

In this story Abraham connects the place-name Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) with the word mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.

The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written several centuries later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

Moriyah is not mentioned in 2 Samuel, an earlier book that includes an account of Solomon building the temple.  But this retelling of the story in 2 Chronicles (written circa 400-250 C.E.) firmly identifies Moriyah as a hill in Jerusalem.

A placed called Yerushalaim

The Hebrews conquer much of Canaan in the book of Joshua, but even though Joshua executes the king of Jerusalem, he cannot conquer the city-state itself.

As for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalaim: the children of Judah were not able to dispossess them, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah in Yerushalaim to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Yerushalaim (יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔םִ) = Jerusalem; yeru (יְרֽוּ) = (possibly from of yarah (יָרָה) = “he founded” or “he shot arrows”) + shaleim.1

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent Jebusite enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He moves the ark to his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-17), and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

*

The story of Abraham and Malki-Tzedek, set in Shaleim, prefigures the requirement to donate a tithe to the priests in Jerusalem, first mentioned in the book of Leviticus/VayikraShaleim is also were Malki-Tzedek blesses Abraham, as priests later blessed people.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac establishes the principle of burnt offerings of animals only, which later became the central form of worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  The  name Moriyah and its folk etymology at the end of this story make this the place where humans see and are seen by God.

So Jerusalem is supposed to be a place of blessing, and a place where humans meet God.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.

  1. In Genesis Rabbah 56:10, Yerushaleim is interpreted as a combination of yir’eh, “He will see [to it],” and shaleim, the city of King Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18.

 

 

Chayyei Sarah (& Lekh-Lekha): A Holy Place

October 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Lekh Lekha, Vayeira, Vayeitzei | 2 Comments
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What makes a place holy?

The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe.  Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy.  The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).  Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people.  Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.

Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being.  At two of the locations where God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and later someone returns to the same place to connect with God.  These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must surely count as holy!

Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”).  But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.

When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant.  Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt.  But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt.  A messenger of God  finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road.  God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.

And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)

ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.

be-eir = well, watering-place.

lachai = for the living one.

For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives.  Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael.  Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.

Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.  At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off.  After that, Isaac did not go home with his father.  In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence.  Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son.  Apparently they are not on speaking terms.

Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.

And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev.  And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!  Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)

lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning.  Lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate.  It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something.)

I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to.  Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar.  Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.

Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes.  Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.

Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to lasuach.  Maybe Isaac senses the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks back through the field slowly to absorb the experience.

Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching.  He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him.  The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac.  They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.

Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north.  Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.

And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)

The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English).  In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time.  When Jacob wakes, he says:

Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but Beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)

yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.

Beit El = the house of God.

For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.

Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El.  More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El.  Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household.  Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on.  By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.

*

Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew.  But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed.  Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.

Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God.  It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky.  I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.

Sometimes we go back later, and find God again.  Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart.  Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.

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