Shelach-Lekha: Paran vs. Chevron

June 2, 2021 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Joshua, Shelach-Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment

All the Israelites in the Torah are descended from one man, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel).  Jacob emigrates from Canaan to Egypt in the book of Genesis, but when he dies his sons bury him back in the family plot, and a memory of allegiance to Canaan is passed down through the generations for four hundred years.

When God liberates the “Children of Israel” from slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “give” them the land of Canaan.  They travel as far as Mount Sinai in Exodus, then continue north toward Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

Route of Scouts

This week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), opens when the Israelites and their fellow-travelers have crossed the Wilderness of Paran and camped at its northern edge, facing a range of hills on the southern border of Canaan.  The people are understandably nervous about marching in to conquer the inhabitants of Canaan.  So God calls for a scouting party.

Paran

Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Send men for yourself, and they shall reconnoiter the land of Canaan ,which I am giving to the Israelites. You shall send one man from each tribe of his fathers, and every one a chieftain among them.”  And Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the word of God, all of them heads of the Israelites.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:1-2)

Paran (פָּארָן) = a particular mountain in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula; an uninhabited area including that mountain.1

In the book of Numbers, Paran is a wilderness, a large desert with no settlements.  The Israelites cross it safely without encountering any other people.

In the book of Genesis, Paran is where Ishmael lives after his father, Abraham, has exiled him from the family camp at Beersheva.2

And God was with the young man, and he grew big, and he lived in the wilderness and he became a bowman.  And he lived in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 21:20-21)

Meanwhile Ishmael’s half-brother, Isaac, grows up in Abraham’s camp.  During his life he moves to three other locations, but he never leaves the region of Canaan.

At least one modern scholar has argued that Paran was inserted in the story of Ishmael by a redactor of Genesis in the 6th to 5th century B.C.E., a period when nomadic Arab warriors controlled commerce in the desert between Judah and Egypt.3

But the contrast Genesis sets up between the outsider Ishmael living in the Wilderness of Paran and the insider Isaac living in the civilized land of Canaan also informs the story of the scouting party in this week’s Torah portion.  The use of the place-name Paran reminds us that the Israelites are still outside their promised land, still nomads with no permanent home.

Chevron

Following God’s suggestion, Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land of Canaan, one for each tribe of Israelites.4

And they went up into the Negev and they came to Chevron, and there were … the Anakites.  (Numbers 13:22)

Chevron (חֶבְרוֹן) = the site of the modern West Bank city of Hebron.

When they return to the Israelite camp forty days later, ten of the twelve scouts report that Canaan is impossible to conquer, with its fortified cities and imposing warriors.

“All the people that we saw in it are men of unusual size.  And there we saw the Nefilim, descendants of Anak from the Nefilim!5  And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes!”  (Numbers 13:32-33)

The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, declare that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God will be on their side.  But the people despair and decide not to cross the border.  God does not give them another chance at the conquest of Canaan until they have been in the wilderness for forty years.  Then Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads the people across the Jordan River into northeastern Canaan.  Year by year, Joshua conquers the lands of petty kings and drives Anakites out of the hill-country6.  Caleb offers to conquer Chevron and dispossess the Anakites there.

Therefore Chevron became Caleb’s … because he remained loyal to God, the God of Israel.  And the name of Chevron was previously Kiryat Arba; the man was big among the Anakites … (Joshua 14:14-15)

Kiryat (קִרְיַת) = town of.

Arba (אָרְבַּע) = four.  (But Joshua 14:15 implies that Arba was also the name of a large or important Anakite.)

The book of Genesis also identifies Chevron with an earlier town called Kiryat Arba, but in Genesis the residents of the area are ordinary Hittites, not Anakites.  Adjacent to this town is the grove of Mamrei, where Abraham and Sarah are camping when three “men” who turn out to be angels visit and announce that Sarah will have a son at age 90.7  Abraham moves his household to Gerar and then Beersheba, but at some point Sarah returns to Mamrei without him.

And Sarah died at Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan …  (Genesis 23:2)

That is where Abraham buys the field containing the cave of Makhpeilah as a burial site.  Eventually he is buried in the cave next to his wife Sarah.  So is their son, Isaac, who moves there from Beersheba after he is old and blind.

And Jacob came to Isaac, his father, at Mamrei, Kiryat the Arba, which is Chevron; Abraham and Isaac had sojourned there.  (Genesis 35:28)

Isaac and his wife Rebecca are buried in the cave, Jacob buries his first wife, Leah, there, and in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Jacob’s twelve sons carry their father’s embalmed body back to Makhpeilah and bury him there.8

The graves of six key ancestors of the Israelites are in a cave near Chevron in Canaan.  This should make the city a magnet that draws the people home to where their forebears lived and died.  But in this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, the Israelites are overwhelmed by the fear of giants living there.

The use of the place-name Chevron emphasizes that the land the Israelites are refusing to enter is their own ancestral homeland, not just the land God promised to give them.  By turning away from Canaan, they are choosing to be permanent outsiders.

*

After murmuring about returning to Egypt, the Israelites choose to settle for several decades at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea on the northern edge of the Wilderness of Paran.  In the Torah they make that choice because they do not trust God to grant them victory in the conquest of Canaan, not because they have any sympathy for the Canaanite tribes minding their own business in their own land.

But what if the land you think of as home is also the home of people who have been living there for hundreds of years?  Jews faced this question in 1948 when the present nation of Israel was founded.  The question still has not been answered.

  1. Mount Paran is cited as a place where God appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 and Habakkuk 3: 3. In an Islamic tradition, Paran (or Faran) is the desert extending down the east side of the Red Sea, and includes Mecca.
  2. Ishmael is Abraham’s son with an Egyptian slave named Hagar. After Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finally has her own son, Isaac, she insists that Abraham must drive out Hagar and Ishmael, so that Isaac will be the sole heir.  See my post Shavuot, Vayeira, & Ruth: Whatever You Say.
  3. Yairah Amit, “Ishmael, King of the Arabs”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/ishmael-king-of-the-arabs
  4. The scouts and their tribes are listed in Numbers 13:4-15. In this list the twelve tribes bear the names of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) in the book of Genesis.  Levi is omitted, since Moses has designated that tribe for religious work.  And instead of a single tribe named after Jacob’s son Joseph, we get tribes named after Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.  They become legitimate founders of tribes in Genesis 48:5-22, when Jacob adopts them.
  5. The Nefilim are demi-gods mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
  6. Joshua 11:21. Also see Judges 1:19-20;
  7. Genesis 18:1-15.
  8. Genesis 35:27-29, 49:29-32, and 50:13.

Naso, Lekh-Lekha, & Vayeira: No Jealousy

May 21, 2021 at 11:02 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Naso, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Marriage as always been a strange institution.

The default marriage in the west today is an exclusive covenant between two people who care for one another and restrict their sexual activity to one another. This arrangement is feasible and rewarding for many couples, but not for everyone. So some people try polyamory or “open marriage”, some cheat on their covenant by secretly having sex with others, and some opt for divorce.

The default marriage in the Torah is a different kind of contract. A man with sufficient wealth can take multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves. Another option is to pay prostitutes.  A woman who is not a prostitute is expected to restrict her sexual activity to the man who owns her.  A girl or unmarried women is supposed to remain a virgin and live with her father until he either sells her as a slave,1 or accepts a bride-price for her.

Elkanah and His Wives, from musicformass.blog

In this unequal kind of marriage, one wife might feel jealous of her husband’s other wife because she has some advantage: more children, or more affection from their husband. 2  But a wife does not complain that her husband is unfaithful to her when he takes another woman.

A husband, however, considers it a serious breach of contract if one of his wives has sex with another man.  In the Torah, if a married woman is witnessed committing adultery, both she and her lover get the death penalty.3  A man expects exclusive possession of any woman he purchases, as a wife or as a slave.  If he merely suspects his wife has been unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to prove it, he can divorce her; a man can divorce a wife for any reason.4

What if she has been in an apparently compromising position, but there are no witnesses, and he does not want to divorce her?  The question arises both in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”) in the book of Numbers, and in the book I am writing on moral psychology in the book of Genesis.

Naso in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar

A spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she defiled herself, or a spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she did not defile herself.  Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring an offering over her, one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour.  He shall not pour oil over it and he shall not place frankincense on it, because it is a grain-offering of kena-ot, a grain-offering of an acknowledging reminder of a bad deed.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)

kinah (קִנְאָה) = jealousy, envy; passion, fury, zeal.5  (Plural: kena-ot, קְנָאֺת.  In all cases kinah is a powerful feeling that may overwhelm reason.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he is jealous, envious, zealous.

Ceremony of the Suspected Adulteress, by Matthijs Pool, 1686-1727

The priest pronounces a curse on the woman, asking God to inflict a particular physical calamity on her if she did lie down with a man other than her husband.  (Biblical scholars do not agree on the exact nature of the calamity, which involves her belly and her crotch; it may be a miscarriage.)  The woman must say “Amen, amen!”  The priest writes down the curse, then rubs the lettering off into water mixed with dirt from the floor of the sanctuary and makes the woman drink it then and there.

After this impressive ordeal, the verdict is up to God.

When he has made her drink the water, it happens: if she defiled herself and she was unfaithful with unfaithfulness to her man, then the water will enter her, inflicting a curse for bitterness, and her belly will swell and her crotch will fall, and the woman will become am object of cursing among her people.  But if the woman has not defiled herself and she is pure, she is cleared and she will bear seed.  (Numbers 5:27-28)

Her husband no longer has any reason for jealousy, and becomes able to trust his wife again.  The rest of the community also accepts that she is innocent.

Vayeira in the book of Genesis/Bereishit

In the book of Genesis, Abraham puts his wife, Sarah, in a compromising position twice by telling a king that she is his sister, accepting the king’s bride-price, and cheerfully sending her off to the king’s harem.  Is he incapable of jealousy?

On the first occasion, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his household travel to Egypt to escape a famine.  Abraham asks his wife to lie when they reach the border of Egypt.

“Hey, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.  And if the Egyptians see you and say, ‘This is his wife’, then they will kill me and let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will remain alive on account of you.”   (Genesis 12:11-13)

Abraham’s extraordinary request assumes that Egyptians abhor adultery, but have no qualms about killing a man in order to marry his wife.  The pharaoh himself makes Sarah his concubine and pays Abraham a lavish bride-price.  Then God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with a disease.  The pharaoh scolds Abraham and has him and Sarah escorted out of Egypt, but they get to keep the bride-price.

Avimelekh Returns Sarah to Abraham, by Elias_van_Nijmegen (1667-1755)

So Abraham tries it again with King Avimelekh of Gerar in the Torah portion Vayeira.  This time God speaks to the king in a dream after he has paid the bride-price and welcomed Sarah into his house.  God threatens to kill Avimelekh, who protests his innocence due to ignorance.

And God said to him in the dream: “Also I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and I, even I, restrained you from erring against me.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.  And now, restore the man’s wife.  Since he is a prophet, he will pray for your benefit and life.”  (Genesis 20:6-7)

The early commentary assumes that the king of Gerar also executes husbands in order to marry their wives, so Abraham’s deception is once again justified.   Furthermore, since God calls Abraham a prophet, both the Talmud and Bereishit Rabbah conclude that Abraham knows ahead of time that God will protect Sarah.6   Therefore he is not guilty of pimping his wife.

I disagree.  After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember the bizarre ethics of Egyptians?   It is more likely that he gets a brilliant idea for acquiring a lot more wealth in livestock and slaves—if his scam comes off.  That would also explain why he does not return the bride-price after the pharaoh discovers his scam.

He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, is exposed as a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be in question.  He is careless about her reputation and does not even consider her self-esteem.

Years later, Abraham uses the same scam to swindle Avimelekh of Gerar—apparently for no reason except that he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor stops him, nor does any consideration for either his wife or the afflicted king.

Abraham is an amusing trickster, and nobody is killed on his account.   He happily prays for healing for Avimelekh—once he has received the king’s gifts.   But he fails to meet his moral obligations either to his wife or to the kings of the countries where he is a guest.

Abraham does, in effect, pimp his wife.  Why does he feel no jealousy?  If marrying the two kings were Sarah’s idea, then he might be granting her the freedom he enjoys as a man.  But Abraham, not Sarah, is the one who initiates the scam both times.

If he knows ahead of time that God will prevent both kings from touching Sarah, then he is spared from jealousy over his property, i.e. his wife.

Or perhaps Abraham does not really care what happens to Sarah.  The Torah says Isaac loves his wife, Rebecca,7 and Jacob loves one of his wives, Rachel,8 but it does not say Abraham loves any of the three women he has children with.9

There is more than one way to avoid jealousy in a marriage.

  1. In Exodus 21:7-11, sexual duties are part of the job description of a daughter sold as a slave.
  2. For example, in Genesis 29:31-30:24, Leah envies Rachel because their mutual husband, Jacob, loves Rachel more. Rachel envies Leah because Leah regularly bears Jacob children. In 1 Samuel 1:1-8, Hannah is jealous of her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, because Peninah has children.2
  3. Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The Talmud later added so many extra requirements for conviction of adultery that the death penalty was no longer practiced. A man is free to have sexual intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin as long as he then pays her father a bride-price and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28).
  4. Deuteronomy 24:1.
  5. Kinah for God is usually translated as “zeal”, and kinah of one human over another human is usually translated as “jealousy”. God’s kinah regarding humans is often translated as “fury”, though Isaiah and Zecharaiah refer to God’s kinah meaning God’s zeal to ensure a good future for the Israelites (Isaiah 9:6, 11:11, 37:32; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2).
  6. Talmud Makkot 9b, Bereishit Rabbah.
  7. When God tells him to obey Sarah and send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, he is only troubled about Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-12).
  8. Genesis 24:67.
  9. Genesis 29:18.
  10. Sarah (Genesis 21:2), Hagar (Genesis 16:15), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).

Shavuot, Vayeira & Ruth: Whatever You Say

May 15, 2021 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Ruth, Shavuot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

Barley sheaf

At first Shavuot (שָׁבֻעֹת = weeks) marked the end of the seven-week barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.1 Then it became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals in Jerusalem, the day to bring gifts of first fruits to the temple, and it came on fiftieth day after Passover/Pesach.2 After the fall of the second temple, the rabbis decided that day was the anniversary of God’s revelation and transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16. Some Jews will stay up all night studying Torah—including the book of Ruth,3 which touches on both the barley harvest and the acceptance of the Torah.  The celebration at the end of the barley harvest is the night when Ruth risks everything.4 She also embraces the religion transmitted at Mount Sinai; she leaves her own land, Moab, to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, saying:

from The Story of Ruth, Thomas Matthews Rooke, 1876

“Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; and your god will be my god.” (Ruth 1:16)

Although Naomi discourages her, and the Israelites do not welcome her at first, Ruth’s embrace of her new life is as wholehearted as her attachment to Naomi.

During the barley harvest, she feeds herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of kind landowner named Boaz.  Naomi identifies Boaz as a potential “redeemer”, a male relative who can fulfill two duties for a widow: buying back her deceased husband’s land, and giving her a son in her deceased husband’s name, thereby giving her a place in his family.5

But although Boaz is generous toward Ruth in the barley field, it does not occur to him that he could do more for her and his kinswoman Naomi. He may be holding back because he expects Ruth to marry one of the younger men in the town; later in the story, he praises her for not going after them.6

Ruth at Boaz’s Feet (a polite version), William deBrailes, ca. 1250

So when the barley harvest ends, Naomi comes up with an audacious scheme. She tells Ruth to hide near the threshing floor and wait until Boaz has feasted, drunk, and dozed off.

“Then go over and uncover his ‘feet’ and lie down. And he himself will tell you what to do.” And [Ruth] said to her: “Kol that you say to me I will do.” (Ruth 3:4-5)

kol (כֹּל) = all, everything, whatever, anything.

Ruth is risking her whole future on Naomi’s desperate plan. Boaz could treat her as a prostitute rather than an honorable woman. Or he might cry out in surprise when he wakes up and finds her, and then the other men sleeping on the threshing floor would awaken and discover her in a compromising position.

But Ruth has attached herself to Naomi so completely that she does exactly what her mother-in-law says—and more. When Boaz wakes at midnight, startled, he asks (presumably in a whisper) “Who are you?”

And she said: “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wing over your servant, because you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:10)

Now she is telling Boaz what to do. He is rich and powerful in his community; she is an impoverished foreigner, dependent on his good will. But she does everything she can to carry out Naomi’s plan successfully.

Ruth courageously follows all of Naomi’s instructions and more because she has committed herself completely to her mother-in-law.

*

Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham is not nearly as committed to his wife, Sarah.  When she tells him to have a child with her slave-woman, Hagar, he goes along with her request, but disregards the reason she gives.

And Sarah said to Abraham: “Hey, please, God has kept me from bearing a child. Please come into my slave-woman; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abraham heeded Sarah’s voice. (Genesis 16:2)

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stomer, 17th century

Sarah politely informs him that she wants a child, even if she must adopt the child of her husband and her slave, Hagar. Abraham heeds her request long enough to get Hagar pregnant, but by the time Sarah complains that Hagar is belittling her, he has lost interest. Instead of intervening to put Sarah’s adoption plan back on track, he merely says:

“Hey, your slave-woman is in your hand. Do to her what is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:6)

Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away and has a conversation with God. Although she returns to Abraham’s camp, her newborn baby is not placed in Sarah’s lap to signify adoption.7 The boy is named Ishmael—not by Sarah, but by God and then Abraham.

Abraham loves his son.8 But when Ishmael is an adolescent Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. She tells her husband to cast out Ishmael, along with Hagar.

The thing was very bad in Abraham’s eyes, on account of his son. And God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes concerning the young man or concerning your slave-woman.  Kol that Sarah says to you, heed her voice, because through Yitzchak descendants will be called by your [name]. And also the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation [out of him], since he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

Only when God tells him to do whatever Sarah says does Abraham send away Ishmael and his mother.

And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he took bread and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar, placed them on her shoulder and the boy[’s], and he sent her away … (Genesis 21:14)

Abraham is a rich man; he could easily afford to give Hagar and Ishmael a donkey or two loaded with provisions and trade goods. And for all he knows, Sarah would not object; she says she does not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham’s estate, but she does not say anything about parting gifts.

Yet Abraham sends off his older son and his concubine with only bread and a single skin of water. They get lost in the desert, the water runs out, and Ishmael is about to die of dehydration when God sends an angel to intervene.9

Abraham can safely assume Ishmael will live long enough to have at least one son, since God promises to “make a nation” out of him. But even if he is not risking Ishmael’s life, Abraham is still responsible for making Ishmael and his mother suffer from thirst and agony in the desert. His neglect is unnecessary and unethical.

Why is he so mean? Abraham is not wholehearted about either Ishmael or Sarah. He obeys God by doing what Sarah says, but he does it grudgingly and badly. Perhaps he closes his heart in order to obey Sarah, and then his heart remains closed. He no longer wants to love Ishmael.

*

Ruth, on the other hand, is so wholehearted in her attachment to Naomi that her heart is open to Boaz as well.

Naomi introduced her threshing floor scheme by saying:

“My daughter, should I not seek for you a tranquil place where it will be good for you?” (Ruth 3:1)

She wants Ruth to have a better life. But Ruth knows that Boaz is kind-hearted enough so that if he redeems her and gives her a tranquil place in his home, he will not leave Naomi out in the cold. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth makes what amounts to an offer of marriage to Boaz.

When she reminds him that he is a potential redeemer, Boaz says:

“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. Kol that you say to me I will do for you.” (Ruth 3:11)

Like Ruth, Boaz does exactly what he is told, and more. He helps her sneak away from the threshing floor before dawn, and sends her back to Naomi with a gift of threshed barley. In the morning, in order to make sure nobody can question his acting as the redeemer, Boaz sits with the other elders in the city gate and hails the only relative of Naomi’s who is closer to her on the family tree. The other elders serve as witnesses that the other man refuses to be the redeemer, and that Boaz is now acquiring the land and Ruth.

Boaz opens his heart to Ruth and Naomi, and takes extra steps to make sure his marriage to Ruth is legal and recognized by the whole community, even though she is a Moabite. The book ends with Boaz and Ruth’s newborn son sitting on Naomi’s lap. Naomi has become his adoptive mother, the role Sarah wanted but never got.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s half-hearted compliance with Sarah’s requests signals his shrinking love for both Sarah and Ishmael, and foreshadows his willingness to sacrifice Isaac without a protest.10 In the book of Ruth, Ruth does everything Naomi says and more, while Boaz does everything Ruth says and more. The result is a tranquil household in which all three adults are loving and generous.

May we all learn to be as open-hearted as Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz became.

  1. For seven weeks after Passover we count the omer (עֺמֶר), a measure of barley. Click here to see my post: Omer: Counting 49.
  2. Numbers 28:26-31 (the maftir reading for both days of Shavuot) and Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16:16-17 (part of the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot).
  3. The rabbis of the first millennium C.E. assigned a biblical book to reach on each of the pilgrimage-festivals: The Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.
  4. Ruth 3:1-18.
  5. For more on the role of a redeemer, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6 and Genesis 38:6-26, or my post Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law.
  6. Ruth 3:10.
  7. The adoptive parent holds the infant on his or her knees as part of the adoption ritual in Genesis 30:3-13 and Genesis 48:5 and 48:12.
  8. Genesis 17:18-21.
  9. Genesis 21:14-17.
  10. Genesis 22:1-13.

 

Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, & Vayeira: Incest

April 22, 2021 at 11:20 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Taboos against incest exist in all cultures; what varies is which relationships are considered incestuous. This week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, includes two overlapping lists of family members who are forbidden as sexual partners. Yet father-daughter sex is not mentioned.

Both lists are addressed to men. The first begins:

Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6)

Both lists are about incest between men and females; homosexual incest is not considered, perhaps because both Torah portions also forbids lying down with a man “like lying down with a woman”.1

Together the two lists forbid “any man” from “lying down with” his mother, another of his father’s wives, his mother-in-law, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his aunt (by blood or marriage), his brother’s wife, or his daughter-in-law.2 A man is also forbidden to marry a woman and her mother.3

Abraham says his wife, Sarah, is his half-sister when he is explaining himself to King Avimelekh.4 But since he previously deceived Avimelekh by pretending Sarah was unmarried, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the truth.

Neither list mentions sex between a man and his niece. Was it acceptable? In the book of Genesis, Nachor marries his niece Milcah.5 In Joshua and Judges, Caleb’s daughter Achsah marries Otniel, but it is ambiguous whether Otniel is Caleb’s younger brother or younger kinsman.6 Midrash from the first millennium C.E. turns some other marriages in the Torah into uncle-niece unions without real support from the biblical text. The Talmud, however, approves of a man marrying his niece on the ground that he is already fond of her:

One who loves his neighbors … and who marries the daughter of his sister, a woman he knows and is fond of as a family relative and not only as a wife … about him the verse states: “Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). (Yevamot 62b-63a)7

Ø

The most egregious omission in the incest lists in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim is sex between a father and his daughter. Yet we know, from a story in the book of Genesis, that calling someone a child of such a union is an insult.

When God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two angels pull Lot, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters out of their house in Sodom and urge them to flee.  Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt, but the other three travel on and move into a cave in the hills above the fire-blasted plain.

And the older one said to the younger one: “Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come into us in the way of all the earth. Go, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie down with him, and we will stay alive through our father’s seed.” (Genesis 19:31-32)

They take turns, the older daughter lying with him on the first night, the younger on the second night.

And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. And the child of the older one was a son, and she called his name Moav; he is the father of [the people of] Moav to this day. And the younger one, she also became pregnant with a son, and she called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the children of Ammon to this day. (Genesis 19:36-38)

The political point of this tale is to denigrate the neighboring kingdoms of Moav and Ammon by claiming that their founding fathers are the children of incest.8 It was probably all too common for men to molest their underage daughters then, as it is today. But a story about adult women molesting their father might seem both humorous and sordid to the ancient Israelites—and therefore an effective way to bias the listeners toward supporting the Kingdom of Israel’s occasional wars with Moav and/or Ammon over territory on the east side of the Jordan River.9

Within the storyline of Genesis, Lot’s daughters are not disobeying God.  There are no divine laws against incest until this week’s double portion in Leviticus, and the only statement in those lists that could apply to a father-daughter liaison is the introductory “Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness”. The book of Genesis does not use this general divine rule retroactively; Nachor’s marriage to his niece and Abraham’s claim that he married his half-sister pass without censure.

If the decision of Lot’s daughters to use their father in order to have children does not count as disobeying God, does it count as an immoral act?

I examine this question in the book I am writing about moral psychology in Genesis, and conclude that even if there really were no other men in left alive on earth, it would be wrong to produce children who would have no opportunity for satisfying lives in an empty world. Lot’s two daughters are understandably traumatized (and not thinking clearly, or they would realize the earth is not entirely depopulated). But they would be more righteous if they denied themselves the comfort children could bring them.

Ethical reasons for avoiding incest include drawbacks for the children of the union (although in most cases the drawback is an increased chance of genetic diseases). But there is a compelling ethical reason to avoid incest even when no children result: the combination of incompatible roles. The worst combination is when a parent, who exercises authority over and responsibility for a child, has sex with the child, who tries to please the powerful parent and cannot give free consent. This is child abuse, and plainly unethical, whether God condemns it or not.

When Lot’s daughters render their father helpless through drink and then take advantage of him, are they committing elder abuse?

  1. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
  2. Leviticus 18:7-16, 20:11-12, 20:17, 20:19-21. Genesis 38:6-26 makes an exception to the rule about sex with one’s daughter-in-law.
  3. Leviticus 20:14.
  4. Genesis 20:12.
  5. Genesis 11:29. Nachor is Abraham’s brother. Subsequently Abraham’s son Isaac marries their granddaughter Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed. Then Isaac and Rebecca’s son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughters and his own first cousins.
  6. Caleb is listed as “ben Yefuneh” in Numbers 13:6. Judges 1:13 says: And Otniel, ben Kenaz, the younger achi of Caleb, captured it for him, and he gave him Akhsah, his daughter, for a wife. Ben (בֶּן) = son of, male descendant of. Achi (אֲחִי) = brother of, kinsman of.
  7. William Davidson translation, sefaria.org.
  8. The names of the two sons are examples of folk etymology. Moab, Moav (מוֹאָב) in Hebrew, is explained as m- (מְ) = from + av (אָב) = father.   Ben-Ammi (בֶּן־עַמִּי) means “child of Ammon” or “Ammonite”, but it is also ben (בֶּן) = child of, son of + ammi (עַמִּי) = my paternal relatives.
  9. See Judges 3:26-30, 11:29-33; 1 Samuel 11:1-13; 2 Samuel 8:2, 12:26-31; 2 Kings 3:4-27.

 

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.  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, 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 brought 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 is for the purpose of  sexual intercourse to make her his wife or concubine.)

Why did he want her?  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 actually 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.  So Sarah tried to secure her own son’s future by telling her husband to exile Ishmael and his mother, Hagar.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?  Two other possibilities would make more psychological sense: either that Abraham sent her back to Hebron because he resented her for making him exile Ishmael and Hagar, or that Sarah left her husband only after she learned that he had tried to slaughter Isaac.

Whenever Sarah moved away to Hebron, she lost contact with her son.  Isaac continued to live with his father in Beersheba until the attempted sacrifice.  Then he walked away alone from the altar, 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.  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 wife.

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.

 

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