Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah
I began this series as an attempt to interpret the meaning of the binding of Isaac. I took seriously the first introductory words of that section: “After the words that appeared before.” I suggested that those words referred to a frame provided by the previous four stories. One side of the frame was the story of Sarah’s inward laughter when she learns of God’s promise that she would bear a child in her old age. The second side was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third side is now before us – a seemingly unrelated tale of Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech. The fourth side of the frame will be analyzed in the next blog, which covers the tale of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, sent into exile in the wilderness with the probable outcome that they would both die.
Review the previous tale when God destroys Sodom. Abraham was portrayed in the first side of the frame (Sarah’s Laughter) as an individual who was extremely hospitable. In the destruction of Sodom, he is pictured in the second side as a self-righteous defender of high ethical standards with his insistence on proportionality between the number of innocents killed and the effort to uproot evil through violence. If there are at least ten just men who would be sacrificed, the destruction should not take place. The members of a rich city, the mob of Sodomites, are on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Abraham was the epitome of hospitality, the Sodomites were the reverse. They appear to be driven by an enormous inchoate rage and ridden with xenophobia. They blame whatever anxiety and stress they are under on others, in this case, on two strangers. As God rattles his saber, as God expresses his extreme discontent and grievances at what this segment of humans have done – at least it is no longer all of humanity as in the story of the flood – Abraham appeals to evidence-based action and diplomacy while insisting that action be governed by ethical principles.
The story of Abraham’s diplomacy with humans as distinct from God begins with a new tale of how he deals with Abimelech, King of Gerar, as Abraham crosses the latter’s turf with his entourage. Sarah reappears in the extended narrative that forms the frame. Presumably when Abimelech’s minions confronted Abraham as he crossed the territory of Gerar, Sarah did not stay hidden in the tent eavesdropping on the conversation between Abraham and the men who confronted him as she had in the tale of the divine messengers. She was brought forth from the tent and introduced as Abraham’s sister.
Abraham did not say that she was his half-sister. Further his hospitality went a step further than it did with the three messengers. Presumably, either because of her stunning beauty, as had been described much earlier, or simply because Abimelech did not know she was infertile like his own wives, or for both reasons, she is taken by the soldiers back to their king. Abraham acquiesces.
Before the king could take advantage of the newly arrived concubine, God revealed himself in a dream and warned, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is married.” Abimelech responds by declaring his innocence – innocent of any act and innocent based on his ignorance that Sarah was married. As Abimelech pleads for his life, a reader cannot help but hark back to Abraham’s pleas on behalf of the people of Sodom, not because of their innocence, but because of the possible presence of a minyan (ten men) who are just living among the xenophobic mob. Abimelech confronts God, not based on an abstract ethical principle of proportionality, but on facts. He had not slept with her. “Oh Lord, will You slay people even though innocent?” Not only did Abraham lie to him, but Sarah evidently backed up the half-lie by insisting that Abraham was her brother. When Abimelech took Sarah to be included in his harem, his heart, he claimed, was blameless and his hands clean.
God never relented when Abraham pleaded with Him to spare Sodom if ten just men could be found to be living in the city. This time, God not only relents, but surprisingly takes the credit for Abimelech not sleeping with Sarah right away. God never let Abimelech touch Sarah. Abimelech’s heart was blameless and his hands clean. As a consequence, Abimelech would not die. Nor would his whole tribe have to be killed. Abimelech would only have to restore Sarah to Abraham, clearly a necessary condition if Sarah were to be able to eventually bear a child by Abraham.
God had clearly not absorbed and taken up the ethical principle of proportionality and the importance of weighing the consequences of death on the innocent in comparison to the number of evil men killed. In fact, merely because one man had allegedly sinned, the whole tribe would have to die. But God knew of his innocence. So why did God vex and try Abimelech in this way?
What did Abimelech do? He told his citizens the whole tale, presumably lest they lose their faith in him. Further, he called Abraham before him and accused him not only of abusing the hospitality of his hosts, but bringing such a great risk on the people of Gerar because of his offer of his wife and the half-lie that she was his sister. How does Abraham justify his action? This is not Sodom. The people had no need of fearing God, or so Abraham declared. But Abraham was afraid that, like the Sodomites, the people of Gerar would kill him to have their way with his wife.
If that were true, the people of Gerar, and, by extension, Abimelech, would have been no different than the people of Sodom. Further, it was God who told him to become a sojourner and when he did, he got Sarah, his half-sister, to promise that she would not disclose that she was his wife but would tell a half-lie and say she was his sister, even though she was only his half-sister. (They shared the same father but not the same mother.) Sarah promised not to tell any strangers that they encountered that she was married to Abraham.
Observe the progression of the characters. Observe the development of the themes. Abraham began as an obedient servant of God who followed God’s command to leave his homeland for the land of Canaan. However, although obedient, he remained an ordinary questioner when suggestions were made that occupied a realm beyond plausibility – namely that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age. The sceptic became a man of self-righteous principle and defender of sinners on the basis that innocents might be harmed. From an obedient servant to a self-righteous moralist, in the Abimelech story, he revealed himself to be a cynical coward, someone who would surrender his wife and half-sister to another simply out of the belief that strangers might murder him to have their way with her.
In another dimension of his character, he began as a generous host, progressed to become an intermediary between two forms of inhospitality, that of God who was intolerant of sinners and that of the Sodomites who were intolerant of strangers. Then Abraham himself became a stranger in the land of Abimelech. From one, who was the epitome of hospitality to strangers, he became a pleader before God, in effect, on behalf of xenophobes and then became himself a stranger. One who had once challenged and stood up to God’s judgement, had become a supplicant to a mortal king.
Sarah changed as well. She began hiding from strangers and treated a divine but implausible promise as it were a big joke. In the Sodom and Gomorrah tale, she was hidden altogether and made no appearance on stage. In the story of Abimelech, she came into the open and revealed herself to be a fellow liar alongside Abraham lest they risk Abraham’s life. If in the story of Sarah dealing with an implausible promise, her inner and outer being eventually joined hands to overcome her own self-image, in the story of the destruction of Sodom, she had no image at all. She did not appear. In the Abimelech tale, she revealed herself to be obsequious before her brother but wary of all others. From a hidden eavesdropper, she changed. But unlike Lot’s wife who looked back and became frozen in space in the form of a sculpture of salt, Sarah developed into an agent of change even if she was still subservient to her half-brother and husband.
However, in one interpretation, they are also both cursed for their joint lie. Abimelech may reward them with silver, slaves and animals and permit them to sojourn on the land, but he also curses them. In the Plaut translation, Abimelech addresses Sarah in Genesis 20:16. The text reads, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver that will serve as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” However, in a footnote, Plaut explains that “as vindication” literally means “a covering of the eyes.” The covering of whose eyes – those of the public who will no longer judge her for a believed transgression? Or does the “blindness” literally refer to the curse that will also accompany the payoff because, it is prophesied, Isaac will become blind in his old age? Or is the reference very ironic. Since I naively fell for your lie, Abimelech asserts, your offspring (Isaac) will be cursed with naiveté for his entire life.
Of course, there is a double irony. In the earlier verse from Genesis (12:3) in a chapter which tells the tale of another wife-sister narrative, then with the Pharaoh, God promised that, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you.” But Abimelech in the interpretation above both blessed AND cursed Abraham and Sarah. If so, Abimelech must also be both blessed and cursed, blessed because his wives become fertile and cursed because his kingship will be riven with strife and, more importantly, envy. (See the third wife-sister narrative, then with Isaac and Rebekah, in chapter 26.) Abimelech realized this for in verse 20:9 he confronted Abraham and asked, “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done you that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to have been done.”
Through these three stories put before us in the run-up to the Akedah tale, natural needs and desires vie with abstract ethical principles with very different outcomes. Impossibility vies with plausibility. Faith in or skepticism of the other competes with faith in oneself. The significance of this side of the frame will await the analysis of the story of the binding of Isaac.
To be continued
And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part B
Who then was Jacob? What was he like? I have tried to indicate that he was far from just a passive patsy. The struggle he had with the so-called angel was not an epiphany in which a new person was born, but an event in which Jacob came to realize himself in his full potential. His character did not fundamentally change as Wiesel suggests. Nor was this simply and simplistically a marking of a new point of maturation as the visiting rabbi to our Torah study group had suggested. Rather, the very same character was subjected to an ultimate test, a test that proved that he was worthy of being renamed Israel.
Who was the stranger, the man with whom he fought? He was not an assailant or an aggressor as Elie Wiesel depicted. For the struggle is NOT about aggression. It is about using one’s body to achieve a meeting of hearts. Why then did Jacob insist on receiving the stranger’s blessing before he released him. Did Jacob believe that the stranger had an inheritance to bestow upon him? If so, what was the inheritance? To be God’s messenger. The man was NOT an angel, NOT a messenger, but God in an embodied form. He did not bring a message but a blessing with enormous consequences in history.
Why did the man or God not want to continue the wrestling match beyond dawn (שָׁ֫חַר)? It was at the dawning of a new day that the angels urged Lot to rise and take his wife and two daughters and flee Sodom. (Genesis 19:15) It is after dawn that God wracks havoc on the world. With the exception of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, fasting begins on all other fast days at dawn rather than when the sun sets the evening before. I believe that it is because neither Yom Kippur nor Tisha B’Av are about mitzvot. Mourning requires twenty-four hours. Blessings begin at daybreak, at sunrise (netz hachamah), at the moment when one can see and recognize another. For mitzvoth are always intersubjective. Catastrophes tend to be individually or collectively singular.
But what about shabat? Is it not a blessing in itself? Does not shabat begin at sunset (shkiah)? Do we not welcome shabat like the return of a dearly beloved at the Friday evening service? It is not only because we need the full night to recover from a week of work so that we can truly celebrate and enjoy the day of rest. We need to be completely inside a new metaphysical time zone, a time that requires a radical shift in the unconscious to appreciate. Whereas our usual habits in the day are to be seekers and acquisitors, we require a very different bodily and mental state on shabat. Friday night is used to rejuvenate ourselves, to cocoon away from external stimuli.
But that is not how Jacob and the stranger spend the night. They wrestle until the dawn of day. And not to collect speckled and streaked and mottled sheep. But to what end? So that Jacob can prove he can last. So that Jacob can prevail. So that Jacob can be recognized for who he truly is and be blessed with a new name to signify that recognition. So that Jacob can be reborn in full self-consciousness of who he is. The sun rises on its own account. Out of the darkness, out of the sea of the unconscious life, Jacob will now rise higher and higher in the sky to look down upon a much bigger world. Jacob comes to recognize his own significance, why he was placed in this world. Jacob will have his own gunfight at noon. But he will not shoot. He will not be shot at. He is now destined to reach the zenith of who he is and will be ever after. The rest will be the responsibility of his descendants. The rest will be commentary as his twelve sons and daughter carry the responsibility for the continuation of his lineage.
But is this not Elie Wiesel’s thesis, that Jacob is reborn a new man? Yes and no. I argue his character is unchanged. It has just gone through its final stage of fulfillment. He does not become a new man such that his personality changes. He retains the name of Jacob while Abraham discarded the name Abram. But he becomes a new man because he comes to full self-consciousness of who he is and who he is destined to become. Abraham was promised that he would become the father of a great nation. So was Isaac. But neither absorbed that message into their inner being. Because both remained beholden to God and dependent upon Him. Abraham was even willing to sacrifice his son because he was told to do so. Jacob acquires his own place in the sun. Jacob, in contrast, stood up to God. Jacob wrestled with a man he had come to recognize at dawn was God.
God’s vanity was not damaged in the process, as Elie Wiesel contends. There is not even a hint of that in the text. Further, it is what God wanted for the forefathers of the Jewish people. It is not that Jacob’s task was any different than that of his father or grandfather. It was the same task. But only Jacob made it part of his entire being. Only Jacob absorbed the full responsibility for achieving that task. Jacob all along was neither a coward nor a rash individual. He was truly courageous because he calculated his chances, he figured the odds and he took steps to mitigate untoward damages. But most of all, he was unstinting. He would not give up. He would not even surrender to God’s will as his grandfather had. For faith and trust are not irrational leaps but must be earned. And it must stand on the ground of love, not a rational calculation. This is what he had been taught by his two wives and was a lesson that neither Abraham nor Isaac ever learned. Hence the schisms of their children instead of a unity that absorbed and raised up differences.
A reader, and esteemed writer in his own right, after my last blog, wrote me as follows:
I’ve come to think of the ‘man’ as the embodiment of Jacob’s physical insecurity; the embodiment of his abiding terror in the face of physical courage, which Jacob, the younger brother, and naturally somewhat in awe of Esau’s primordial power, feared he lacked. Before meeting Esau, he had to face his terror and overcome it, leaving him wounded but brave. The irony is that Esau turned out to be such a mensch. No doubt, he had a match the night before, too, not a wrestling match, but a brilliant debate, which he won.
That is dead on. The historical rabbinical portrayal of Esau as the embodiment of evil is so mistaken. Esau was a mensch. He was an honest down-to-earth guy, ruddy in complexion and hairy like an animal. But he certainly was not a beast. He loved his brother and could forgive him even for the most heinous acts in terms of everyday ethics. But Jacob had a higher, a loftier destiny that he took into his very being. He struggled with God and prevailed because he took on the responsibility for the future of the world, for the future of humanity, for the future of a people destined to be a light unto the nations.
Elie Wiesel said that Jacob, before Peniel, was honest and anxious to avoid risks. He was neither honest and only anxious to take unnecessary risks. He was courageous, as Aristotle recognized, because he was not rash. He was a second-born. He had proven his dedication. He had proven he was a man in his own right and not the weakling manipulated by others in Elie Wiesel’s depiction. He did not simply obey. He figured out how to get around and use the treachery of his uncle Laban. He figured out how to earn the loyalty of both his wives so that they clung to him rather than their own father. Finally, rather than being “incapable of initiative,” it was he as well as the stranger, who would be revealed at the dawning of the next day to be God, who initiated the historic battle and emerged a winner, not by defeating God, but by fully absorbing God’s creativity, God’s sense of responsibility, God’s sense of service to the future of his own nation and that of humanity. The lesson was embedded into his very being.
Esau was the mensch. Jacob was the father of a different nation, one that would have to survive by wile rather than natural strength or numbers, one that would have to create wealth rather than wrest it out of an unforgiving ground. That requires political calculation, not naiveté. That requires not risking all even when your brother demonstrates he is a mensch of the highest order. For a mensch can turn on you if you cross him. His righteousness can turn on a dime into a withering critique and determined opposition. And as a leader, Jacob would be required to make tough decisions. So rather than a follower, he had always been a leader. In the battle with the stranger, he came to realize who he was and what his responsibilities were. He could not risk it all in reconciling with his brother. That is why Esau comes across the next day as the very opposite of the evil one, as the trues mensch in the story.
A reader of my blog sent me the following referenced to Delacroix’s depiction of Jacob wrestling with the “angel” that can be found in St. Sulpice in Paris
This portrait captures the essence of the battle. There is no winged angel on one side larger than life wrestling with Jacob or dancing with him in a loving embrace. Love and struggle can be soul mates. They are not opposites. Rachel’s reciprocal love for her husband and Leah’s unreciprocated love for the same man did not end up ultimately in contestation, but in giving Jacob the strength to realize who he was, the strength to found a nation in which there may be disputes, in which there may be differences, but in which there should be no civil war, a nation in which even a dandy like Joseph could become a great leader. So much for the vision of a warrior king!
Let me repeat what my correspondent had written. The struggle was the embodiment of Jacob’s physical insecurity; the embodiment of his abiding terror in the face of physical courage, which Jacob, the younger brother, and naturally somewhat in awe of Esau’s primordial power, feared he lacked. Before meeting Esau, he had to face his terror and overcome it, leaving him wounded but brave. Does not Delacroix capture this combination of inner and outer struggle, this metaphysical battle that was so physical in the struggle with both God and man?
Elie Wiesel was correct. Jacob’s father, Isaac, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Isaac was blind to the crisis that he had undergone, blind to the merits of the younger twin so enamored was he by Esau’s strength and physical acumen. Even though Isaac had relegated himself to a life of “serenity and meditation,” even though it was he who was the nebbish, not Jacob, that very blindness in the cunning of history would produce a Jacob. Isaac loved the older twin, blind to the merits of the younger which Rebecca could clearly see.
Who would not grow up insecure when you had a father who seemingly did not love you.? But who would not also grow up very secure, more secure even than Esau, with a mother so devoted not only to you but to who you were destined to become. Jacob was vulnerable. But he was also strong. How do you capture and portray both aspects of his character? Delacroix in the end, as much as he humanizes both Jacob and God, ultimately fails because he portrays Jacob as a muscular man rather than as one who wins by guile and calculation, through feints and thrusts like a master of the martial arts. Jacob was more a Bruce Lee than a Sampson figure. Jacob recognized that in battle, and life was a battle, deceit and feints were as important if not more important than blatant honesty. In the end, Jacob proved he was the superior one, proved he had what it took to be a leader because, at his foundation, he was a dreamer. He was a visionary. Abraham may have had visions, but he was not a visionary, merely God’s obedient lackey.
When Jacob had his ladder dream, he was not ready to climb up the ladder. He had to learn that his quest was not upward, not to be a God in heaven, but to be an earthly leader. He had enough sense not to envision climbing the ladder, but enough sense to realize that angels climb down as well as ascend. Unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob did not pledge unstinting trust in God. It was and remained conditional. The proof is in the pudding and not in the recipe, not in the words and promises, however tantalizing. If God delivers, I too will deliver. It will and must be the same in dealing with other individuals and nations. There can be peace between us, but only if in your heart and in your deeds you are peaceful and not because you sign a piece of paper. There must be concrete reciprocity. And to get that, Jacob had to prevail – not kill God, but prove both that he could survive and that he could do so as a self-conscious individual.
Elie Wiesel might trivialize Jacob’s quarrels with Laban, his concern with labour contracts, his mundane preoccupations and his commonplace conversations with his wives and concubines. But the devil is indeed in the details, not in grand metaphysical visions. Jacob was not a man without will or authority, but was a man who knew how to bide his time and wait for the right moment. He allowed Laban to search the belongings of his entourage when Laban caught up with him instead of insisting that he be regarded as innocent until there was some proof that he or someone in his entourage had stolen Laban’s idols. He did not stand on a soapbox and preach the right to privacy when faced with the military might of his father-in-law. This was not crass cowardice, but clever calculation. Jacob always showed he knew where and when to stand his ground and when to retreat.
Wiesel is so down on ordinary worldly matters that he is as blind as Isaac. What is viewed as a shortcoming is Jacob’s strength. For Jacob, this life is an embodied life. For Jacob, his God is an embodied God. And one prevails by taking over the responsibility from God for the embodied world. This does not mean, as rabbinic commentators were prone to do, showering Jacob with virtues he did not possess. Wiesel, in spite of his superior reading, is prone to do the same when he dubs Jacob honest. Jacob is not the just man. Jacob is not pure. Jacob is not a man of traditional piety. Jacob was very far from being righteous. Jacob was very far from being Jesus.
And what about Esau? Commentators usually go to the opposite extreme, portraying him as evil when he was just physical, portraying him as an enemy when he was nothing of the kind. In fact, he was too kind and not overwhelmed by his own strength. He could have easily grabbed the lentil soup from Jacob instead of trading his birthright for it. He did not use his strength to get his own way. For Rachel and Leah had also taught him that love was more important than strength. But Rebecca realized that his very virtues made him unsuited to be a leader of people. It is not that she loved Esau less and Jacob more, but that she had the clear-eyed vision, which her blind husband lacked, to understand and see who her children were. Honesty and justice and fairness were not the supreme virtues. Realpolitik was more important.
But realpolitik leaves its scars. Jacob limped after the battle and would be forever wounded. Not just anywhere, but in the sinew of his thigh. Why is the portion between the hip and the knee so important? Because without your leg working, you cannot stand on your own two feet. God wrestling with Jacob touched the hollow of his thigh, tore the elastic tissue connecting the muscle to the femur and the pelvic bone as well. When that happens – as currently I know all too well – you cannot walk except in extreme pain and dependent on another for help.
But this was not only a physical handicap with which Jacob was left. Recall that when Abraham sent his servant to search out a wife for his son, Isaac, he made that servant press his hand under his thigh to prove that he would keep his word. (Genesis 24:2). Abraham’s thigh stayed in position and his servant fulfilled his pledge. Jacob’s thigh bone was displaced and his sinew torn so that he henceforth walked like a cripple in great pain. (Genesis 32:31) So God was NOT a servant who would allow Jacob to assume an enormous responsibility for his people and for the world painlessly. Like women who bear their children in pain, Jacob and his descendants would always know and always remember when they refused to eat the sinew of the thigh muscle, that assuming such a responsibility comes at great cost and pain. Jacob and humanity were now on their own in a way that they had not been before.
This did not mean that God would not help them. It only meant that they could not, that they should not, count on that help. Even Jesus had to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” because Jesus had not learned the lesson that Jacob had, that God was not a steadfast servant at the beck and call of humans. When Jacob, now renamed Israel, was about to die, he made Joseph pledge by putting his hand under his thigh that Joseph would assume the responsibility of burying his father in the homeland rather than Egypt. (Genesis 49:29) For Jacob was to be the father of a people in a homeland and not relegated for all time to a diaspora existence.
But what of Esau, the mensch, Esau, who had loved his younger brother, who had not used his strength at the time of the porridge incident or when they met again years after their long estrangement to subdue Jacob? When his father, Isaac, had been tricked into giving the blessing he had planned to give Esau but, in the cunning of history, had given it to Jacob, Esau cried out in desperation, “Father, have you but one blessing to give?” Isaac had another. Esau would not be able to use his physical prowess to become master of the world. Esau wept, convinced that his mission in life had failed. But Isaac blessed Esau. “See your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword shall you live but you shall serve your brother.” And then the prophetic warning. “When you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27::39-40)
The cunning of history would play with Isaac’s blessing, for Isaac was a man of laughter and in tune with irony. Esau’s descendants would not enjoy the fat of the earth, but the fat under its surface. And rather than be showered from the dew from heaven, they would use that black and silken “fat” or energy to turn salt water fresh. And they would break free and come into their own, not serving the descendants of cunning and political craft, but committed to fulfilling Esau’s earthly honesty and deep love for his brother.
But that day has yet to come. The cunning of history has yet to deliver.