Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah

Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah

by

Howard Adelman

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

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Donald Trump Antisemitic Facilitator – Part II: The Iranian Dimension

Donald Trump Antisemitic Facilitator – Part II: The Iranian Dimensionby

by

Howard Adelman

SUMMARY

Connecting a non-antisemite (Trump) to a charge that the same person contributes to the rise of antisemitism is very difficult in the best of worlds. However, given the toxic discourse of the American political scene, it is even more difficult. I bracket Donald Trump initially and begin with a detailed case study of two writers, both Iranian-Americans, who accuse four other American writers of aggregating Donald Trump’s anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric, thereby adding to and exacerbating an atmosphere of intolerance generally. That, in turn, foments antisemitism. I analyze the charge in detail to demonstrate that the accusers are, at a minimum, guilty of gross distortion and unsubstantiated allegations that open up the possibility that they may themselves be contributors to antisemitism even if that may not have been their intent, raising the question of whether, both because of those targeted, the manner of their argument and their substantive declared objective, they may be border-line antisemites or even unconsciously deeply antisemitic.

If Donald Trump is unequivocally not an antisemite of any type, does Donald Trump bear some responsibility for the increase in antisemitic incidents? He has often expressed antisemitic tropes, targeting other groups. He also refused for the longest time to condemn the racists who supported him. Moreover, he is also prone to Jewish stereotyping, once referring to Jews at a Jewish event as a people focused on making money and, like himself, dealmakers. He called the people in the room, “negotiators” and said, “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money.”

However, among the political right, antisemitism is a dying creed, especially since the antisemitism targeting the billionaires who “control” the economy of the world as well as the media outlets has now become a major component in the ultra-left wing of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, there is still more than enough coming from the right. A TV ad aired in Trump’s campaign for the presidency pointed a finger at “a global power structure that that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class and stripped our country of its wealth.” And who were the villains? All Jews – billionaire currency speculator George Soros, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve and Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Unleashing xenophobic furies possibly creates an atmosphere which makes hatred of minorities more acceptable. But the connection to antisemitism can be more indirect where actions in the name of criticizing hate stir reactions. I am not referring to the extremists on the right, such as David Duke, who greets every attack by Donald Trump on Muslims with loud cheers.  I want to raise the subtler case of border-line antisemitism which may contain a strong strain of prejudice and distortion that could readily be interpreted as antisemitism.

In a Kansas bar in February, Adam Puriton shot and killed one Indian engineer and wounded another thinking they were Iranians. In response, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, (NIAC) and Tyler Cullis, a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (a different NIAC) legal fellow at the National Iranian American Council, wrote a piece in The Huffington Post called, “Trump Didn’t Start The Anti-Iranian Fire.” The article began by connecting the Puriton incident to Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric. However, the article went on, insisting that the problem predated and went deeper than Donald Trump and declared Trump “nothing but the most outward symptom of an affliction that has long plagued our country.” In other words, there was a “deep state,” or, at the very least, a “deep society” behind the Trump anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The article then named the culprits at the deeper level. “For more than a decade, there has been an organized effort on the part of groups like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), The Israel Project (TIP), Secure America Now, and United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and propagandists like Michael Rubin, Eli Lake, Adam Kredo and Josh Block to push war with Iran in the most hyperbolic terms, all the while defaming those – most particularly, those in the Iranian-American community – who urge a peaceful resolution to the historical tensions between the two countries.” Their thesis was that these culprits had demonized the Iranian regime and were thereby responsible for provoking Puriton’s murderous intent and actions.

I was puzzled by the attack. What do the well-known anti-Iranian positions of the above institutions and, more specifically, Michael Rubin, Eli Lake, Adam Kredo and Josh Block, have to do with arousing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric? Michael Rubin wrote a comment in Refugees Deeply (https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/articles/2016/11/04/expert-discussion-president-donald-trump-and-the-refugee-crisis). The comment appeared right after those of my pro-refugee colleagues’ strong criticisms of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric. The three preceding criticisms of an anti-refugee bias were written by Michelle Mittelstadt from the Migration Policy Institute, Lavinia Limon, president and CRE of the U.S. Committee for Refugees who coined the phrase “warehousing” to depict the refugee camps (holding pens is a more accurate phrase) funded by the international community, and Jessica Brandt, a fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Rubin then wrote: “Trump’s deference to dictators – be they in Syria, Turkey or Russia – may convince them that they can commit atrocities without consequence. This might have the net effect of increasing refugee problems. And, because stemming immigration has been such a central part of his populist appeal, the willingness of a Trump White House to address refugees beyond basic provision of aid seems unlikely.” Though not in the same league as the three other denunciations of Trump’s anti-refugee policy, it is almost impossible to read this comment as an endorsement of Trump on refugees.

In Eli Lake’s 2015 article, “Crisis Looms for Refugees Taken in by Iraq’s Kurds,” (Bloomberg), he wrote, “The current refugee crisis created by the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars has received significant attention in recent weeks as hundreds of thousands of refugees have sought new lives in Europe. But it’s the countries in the Middle East that are suffering the most as a result of the ongoing war.” Again, this is virtually impossible to interpret as an anti-refugee screed.

Adam Kredo, on the other hand, did write a number of pieces about vetting refugees and expressed a concern, similar to Trump’s, that the Obama vetting procedures were not known and could be inadequate. He also wrote about a Texas decision to withdraw from the refugee program because of concerns over terrorism, criticized claimed plans under the Obama administration to cut screening times, and, most seriously, claimed in an 8 January 2016 piece that a member of a terrorist cell captured in Texas allegedly entered as a refugee without providing a piece of evidence to substantiate the allegation. The piece supposedly implied that the 113 individuals thus far implicated in terrorism were evidence of a flawed immigration and vetting policy.

Josh Block, as far as I know, has not written on refugee policy. He has written about the connection between Islamicism and, more specifically, ISIS and terrorists attacks in the U.S. particularly the San Bernardino killings. That earned this response by the Iranian-American writers in an article, “Top Israel advocate uses San Bernardino killings to attack Islam” (http://mondoweiss.net/2015/12/advocate-bernardino-killings)

“Josh Block, who is paid to be an advocate for Israel, spends much of his Twitter feed attacking Muslims wherever they are. The more time he spends attacking Muslims, the less his audience can reflect on occupation/dispossession.” But all the quotes were about extreme Islamicists and terrorists, not Muslims. Further, the terrorists who killed 14 and wounded 22 others were Muslim extremists. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were, according to the FBI, “homegrown violent extremists” inspired by jihadism. There was nothing said in the article about refugees, about immigrants or about Muslims in general.

Adam Kredo wrote an article for the Washington Free Beacon in January (http://freebeacon.com/national-security/muslim-brotherhood-ally-falsely-smears-senator-block-terror-designation-bill/) allegedly criticizing CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations billed as a Muslim advocacy group, for its intervention with Congress to prevent lawmakers from designating the Islamic Brotherhood as a supporter of terrorism. However, even the most superficial reader of the article soon learns that the criticism was of CAIR’s claim, quoting CAIR directly, that the author of the Cruz legislation was a disgraced former FBI agent “who made a career out of bashing Muslims and Islam.” Based on the evidence cited, the article concluded that there was absolutely no connection between the legislation and the former FBI agent. It was not an anti-Muslim article. The article was not an anti-Muslim screed.

Eli Lake did write an article in the National Post (10 February 2017) that criticized the link between Trump’s “ban” and abetting radical Islam. However, the argument made by the Iranian-Americans was against the straw man claim that Trump’s ban directly enhanced Islamicist terrorism. The charge was that Trump’s proposed ban (stayed last night by a Hawaii judge who reiterated that it was anti-Muslim based on Trump’s own words) contributed to the Islamicist ability to attract more adherents.

Michael Rubin also has been attacked as an Islamophobe in pieces in ThinkProgress and identified with a “fringe undercurrent of right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry.” (https://thinkprogress.org/the-american-enterprise-institutes-islamophobia-problem-690f500df285#.rin0xyq7c) “Rubin has long maintained relationships with Islamophobes.” The charge was guilt by association. No evidence was offered for Rubin being anti-Muslim.

Look more closely at the culprits. Michael Rubin’s PhD thesis from Yale University was entitled The Making of Modern Iran, 1858–1909: Communications, Telegraph and Society. It won the John Addison Porter Prize in history. He has since published books on Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Rubin is a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, and instructs military officers scheduled for deployment there. Rubin is not a detached observer, not just in the ideological sense, but has drawn his conclusions on Iran not only from scholarship but from direct experience with the Iranian regime. He lived in post-revolution Iran (1996 and 1999) after six months in 1995 in Yemen, taught in pre- (2000-2001) and post-war Iraq, and even lived with the Taliban before 9/11. He knows a thing or two about Islamic extremism.

Rubin is certainly a neo-con and a hawk with respect to both Iraq and Iran. He is a hardline supporter of Netanyahu’s and Trump’s criticism of the Iran deal. So are Eli Lake, Adam Kredo and, to a much lesser extent, Josh Block who is neither a neo-con nor a hawk.

At least three of the four grew up in Pennsylvania. At least three of the four grew up in Jewish leftist households. Michael Rubin was even sent to a Quaker School for fourteen years. All appear to have started out left of centre. But the most common feature of all four is that they are all Jewish. There are a plethora of non-Jewish neo-cons. Why are the only four named critics of Iran and the nuclear deal Jewish? Why are they falsely identified with anti-refugee and anti-Muslim positions?

“A decade of messaging like this, though, has now had its payday: Adam Purinton walked into a bar and shot to kill what he believed to be Iranians,” wrote Parsi and Cullis. The implication of the article can easily be interpreted to mean that Jews were to blame for the killing the Indian engineer and wounding of another just as they were behind the movers and shakers of the economic order, especially since none of the myriad of non-Jewish neo-cons were mentioned, and that the criticisms were identified with a defence of Israel.

Anyone who has read my writings knows that I am far more sympathetic to the political positions of Parsi and Cullis. I have defended the Obama nuclear deal with Iran and criticized the neo-con opposition. I opposed the war in Iraq and am certainly opposed to any pre-emptive attack on Iran. But all my reading, in spite of all my criticisms of the positions of Rubin, Lake, Kredo and Block, would never suggest that anyone of them was anti-refugee or anti-Muslim even when I may criticize some points they may make on these issues.

The question is, are Parsi and Cullis guilty of fostering antisemitism when they falsely accuse the Jewish-four of being anti-refugee and anti-Muslim?

With the help of Alex Zisman

To be continued.