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