This week, let’s follow Abraham’s servant east. There, we will slip through a crack in the space-time continuum that will take us back to Israel – but seven centuries later.
Genesis 24 tells how “Abraham’s senior servant” (Jewish tradition identifies him as Eliezer of Gen 15:2) goes back to the old home place to get an Aramean wife for Isaac, so he doesn’t have to marry a Canaanite girl. The chapter starts this way:
“Now Abraham was old (זָקֵ֔ן, zaken), getting along in years (בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים, ba ba-yamim).” The beginning of the book of Kings says exactly those same words about King David.
Instead of completing David’s story at the end of 2 Samuel, as we might expect, the first two chapters of 1 Kings interweave the beginning of Solomon’s story with the end of his father’s. 1 Kgs 1:1 says of David exactly what Gen 24:1 says of Abraham: “Now King David was old (זָקֵ֔ן, zaken), getting along in years (בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים, ba ba-yamim).”
There is at least one additional verbal link between these two stories. In Gen 24:16, when the servant eventually finds Rebecca, who’s going to be Isaac’s wife, he notices the girl is very good looking:
וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ טֹבַ֤ת מַרְאֶה֙ מְאֹ֔ד (ve-ha-n’arah tovat mar’eh m’od) ‘Now the girl was very beautiful’
And what happened when David was getting along in years? He could never get warm, so his people sent messages throughout all the kingdom to find him a nice young girl to attend him, whom he could hold in his arms to warm up.
The one they found was Abishag the Shunammite. Shunem is a town in the territory of Issachar (according to Josh 19:17-22); the Philistines encamped there in 1 Sam 28:4 for the battle in which Saul would be killed, opening the way for David to be recognized as king of all Israel. If you’re planning a visit, it’s about a 10-minute drive east of Afula. But when they brought Abishag to Jerusalem, that would have been about an 80-mile walk.
What’s important for our story today is what the text tells us about Abishag: the same thing it says about Rebecca.
וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֖ה יָפָ֣ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד (ve-ha-n’arah yafah ad m’od) ‘Now the girl was very beautiful’
The Hebrew phrase is not precisely the same; nonetheless, it’s surprising to find two such similar phrases in two stories so far apart in time and place. But it should not be. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory, “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern on another.” The Bible sometimes does the same.
I’m not the first person to suggest that the stories of the patriarchs are connected with the story of David and Solomon. When we read over and over again in Genesis about whether the younger son or the older son is going to run things and get the rewards, it’s hard not to be reminded of the story of Solomon who was not David’s oldest son but ended up with all the marbles.
Jewish tradition says this about such parallels: The things that happened to the patriarchs are symbolic of what would happen to their descendants. Nahmanides’ much pithier phrase is מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים mah she-i’ra la-avot siman l’vanim. It’s easy to read many of the stories in Genesis as showing what would end up happening to the Israelites later.
Do Abraham and David really have that much in common? Yes, they do. Abraham, don’t forget, was God’s friend; that’s why his town is called Hebron: “Friendville.” David, of course, was very much God’s friend. Read the story in 1 Samuel 16 to see how impatient God is with Samuel, who keeps trying to choose one of Jesse’s other sons as the king.
And David’s son Solomon is a “friend” as well. In 2 Sam 12:24, he is named Solomon, but in the next verse he is renamed ידידיה (yedidyah or Jedidiah in English), a name meaning “friend of YH.” No doubt David was happy with this name, which sounds something like “David, Jr.”
By the time we get to the book of Kings, though, David is a somewhat pitiful figure. In fact, chapter 1 seems to be intended to show that David is duped by Nathan and Bathsheba into making Solomon king after him. It’s true that in 1 Kings 2 he summons up the last of his strength and does a pretty fair godfather imitation, but in 1 Kings 1 he’s a weak pitiful old man and it’s clear that God just doesn’t care about him any more.
That’s really where Abraham is in this week’s reading as well. After the Akedah, which we read last week, God never speaks to Abraham again. He has found out what he needs to know; he has gotten whatever it is he needs from Abraham, and he drops Abraham like a rag doll. At least this means that Abraham can go back to living an ordinary human life.
Just like David in the book of Kings, Abraham now has Isaac, the hero of the next generation, who will carry the story and the promise forward. Abraham himself, whether you want to view him as a historical person or a character in the story of Israel, is no longer necessary. The story that began when Abram followed God’s command to go to Canaan (or perhaps earlier, when Abram’s father Terah started out for Canaan) can now continue without him.
The same is true of David. Isaac may not be the wise, wealthy, womanizer that Solomon was, but he plays the same role in Genesis that Solomon plays in Kings. Once Solomon’s place on the throne is made secure, David (God’s former crush) isn’t necessary any more, and the story paints him as weak and helpless before ushering him off the pages of history.
And that’s what happens to Abraham too. Once Abraham’s servant has found a wife for Isaac, God’s old “friend” is pensioned off – but happily, with a new wife of his own and half a dozen more children who themselves are pensioned off and sent east. The Bible’s story will continue without them, but also without Abraham. Now, it is Isaac’s job to carry the promise forward.