More questions than answers: Revisiting Abraham through Parshat Noah, Lekh Lekha, Vayera and Hayyei Sarah

Revisiting Abraham : More questions than answers

Our minds are programmed to assume that Abraham’s departure for Canaan came like a bolt out the blue, with G-d asking him to abandon all that was familiar, and move to an, as yet unnamed, destination – a move that would require an enormous leap of faith:

And G-d said to Abram go to you from your land, from your birthplace and from the home of your father, to the land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1

Even were we to ignore the obvious fact that Abraham is by nature peripatetic and has no fear or inhibition about frequently uprooting himself and seeking, if not greener, than certainly different pastures; G-‘d’s request surely was not so exotic and farfetched. After all, in the closing verses of the preceding Parsha (Noah) we see that Abraham’s father had already exhibited a powerful desire to live in Eretz Israel:

And Terah took Abram his son and Lot son of Haran his (Abrahams) nephew, and Sarai his daughter-in-law wife of Abram, and he went out with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the Land of Canaan and they came to Haran and they settled there.
Genesis 11:32

That Terah hadn’t fulfilled his dream of living in Canaan, instead gotten sidetracked in Haran, is beside the point. He was like so many Jews in our time who are always about to make aliyah but somehow never quite make it, but whose children do live out their parents’ dream.

Nevertheless, to say that the destination of Canaan was first under consideration in Parsha Leh Leha is patently wrong. What’s more, we can assume that Terah wholeheartedly approved of Abraham’s fulfilling a dream that he himself had had. And certainly Abraham was not leaving his birthplace which was Ur Kasdim. He was leaving Haran which was merely a way-station en route to Canaan.

Clearly, too, it was Terah’s vision to bring Abraham to Canaan, not his other son Nahor. Evidently Terah, pagan though he may have been (or was he?) had some sense of destiny, that Abraham, alone among his children, belonged in the Promised Land.

If this is the case, then can it be that Abraham was not entirely sui generis; that his father was his inspiration, and that unlike the conventional wisdom, Abram’s father was himself a spiritual man approaching, if not actually achieving, the degree of enlightenment that Abraham reached?

It is worth noting that later on, G-d tells Abraham:

And G-d said to him, I am the Lord that took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you to inherit this land Genesis 15:7

What greater evidence do we need that Terah’s departure from Ur Kasdim was engineered by G-d with the express intent of bringing Abraham to the edge of Canaan – with Terah’s active complicity?

And now that Abram has made the leap of faith and crossed over to Canaan, virtually the first thing we find him doing is leaving for, of all places, Egypt – the most detestable culture to a man who believes in one G-d.

And there was hunger in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to live there … Genesis 12:10

How can it be that Abraham abandons the land that I will show you without first clearing this with G-d? Where was his faith? If G-d were to speak to us personally and tell us to go to Eretz Israel would we dare go anywhere else? To Egypt no less? What, exactly, is happening here?

By going to Egypt, a notoriously corrupt culture, Abraham knows he is placing his wife Sarai is serious moral jeopardy. Why doesn’t this probability prevent him from crossing that border?

Tell (the Egyptians) you are my sister, so that I will benefit because of you, and my life shall be spared on your account Genesis 12:13

Interestingly Abram makes it Sarai’s responsibility to lie to the Egyptians – a strange thing indeed in a society in which women were kept under wraps and had no real speaking part.

But what is most puzzling is that Abram seems far less concerned about Sarai’s welfare than he is about the business opportunities in Egypt. Does he appear a bit coldhearted in his calculated use of his wife; “so that I will benefit because of you ?

And indeed he does benefit by passing Sarai off has his sister and allowing her to be taken as a wife by Pharaoh:

… and the wife was taken to the house of Pharaoh (12:15) And Abram benefited because of her, and he had sheep and cattle and donkeys and slaves and maidservants and mules and camels Genesis 12:15,16

We know Pharaoh took Sarai as a wife, because he says so:

(Pharaoh) … and I took her to me for a wife, and behold how she is your wife, take (her) and go Genesis 12:19

Can anyone rationalize Abram’s behavior, his being so sanguine about allowing his wife to be used by another in part, if not primarily, because “business is business”?

Nevertheless, when Abram goes to Egypt and passes Sarai off as his sister thereby enabling Pharaoh to have his way with her, it can be rationalized as piukah nefesh, on account of the great famine in Canaan.

But what possible excuse is there for a reprise of this subterfuge when Abraham, for no apparent reason, decides to relocate to Philistine territory under the rule of Abimeleh?

 …and (Abram) lived in Grar (20:1) And he said to (of?) Sarah his wife “she is my sister”… (20:2)

What could prompt such a move? What could motivate him, especially now that Sarah is pregnant with Isaac, to make such a major and, for her, a physically and morally dangerous move? After all, by now Abraham was indeed a very wealthy and powerful man who suffered from no shortage of cattle and slaves.

Even more mystifying is the fact that Isaac later follows both geographically and behaviorally in his father’s footsteps”

… and Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines to Grar Genesis 26:1

And Isaac settled in Grar Genesis 26:6

And the local people asked about his wife, and he said “she is my sister” Genesis 26:7

Never has the famous Yogi Berra malapropism “déjà vu all over again” been more appropriate. What was Isaac thinking? Hadn’t Abraham warned him against such an itinerary? Or was he trying to prove himself to his father who was still very much alive at this point?

A literary detour

 After Isaac is born Sarah is quoted:

And Sarah said; G-d has brought me laughter whoever hears will laugh with me (21:6) And she said; Who would have said to Abraham, Sarah will suckle children yet I have born a son in his old age (21:7).

 Has anyone noticed that these two verses are actually poetry written with the same sensibility and rhythm as other great verses in TaNaKh?

If we were not beholden to the belief that the Torah is literally the word of G-d, wouldn’t it appear as if these lines were borrowed from a longer poem in which the poet imagines Sarah’s effusive joy at the miraculous birth of Isaac?

Tshok asa li Elohim

   kol ha-shomea yetsahak li

Mi millel l’Avraham

   heinikah banim Sarah

ki yaladeti ben lizkunai

This is not normal speech, hardly the way any woman would express herself, nor is there any hint as to whom she is speaking. I ask everyone to examine these lines and let me have your feedback.

We now have the episode of the Akedah when G-d tests Abraham’s faith with a request to bind Isaac. In the present discussion I will avoid any speculation about the Akedah which has been analyzed and commented upon every which way.

What happens after the Akedah is what interests me here. Abraham had left Sarah in Hebron, yet he does not return to her. Instead:

And Abraham returned to his youths and they rose and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba Genesis 22:19

This is strange behavior indeed. Not only is Isaac nowhere to be seen (the Midrash deals with this extensively, going so far as to say Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac who was then resurrected and went off to the Academy of Shem and Eber to recuperate from his trauma.)

Instead of returning to Sarah and comforting her, Abraham abandons his wife entirely and settles in the relatively distant town of Beersheba.

What are we to make of this?

And Sarah lived one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life Genesis 23:1

And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba which is Hebron in the Land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to mourn he Genesis 23:2

It is only after Sarah dies that Abraham returns to Kiriat Arba to bury the mother of his son. We are not told how long it took until he learned of Sarah’s death, but we can assume, at the very least, Sarah’s body languished for several days before Abraham arrived to arrange her burial.

What exactly was Abraham doing alone in Beersheba? Or indeed was he alone with his ‘youths’ or was Beersheba where Keturah lived? Inasmuch as there is no historical sequence to the Torah (ein mukdam umeuhar baTorah) can it be that Abraham maintained a parallel household with a more favored bride with whom he had a whole new passel of kids?

And Abraham added (this seems to indicate that it was while Sarah lived) and took a wife and her name was Ketura (25:1) And she bore him Zimra and Yaksan ad M’dan and Midia, and Ishbak and Shuah (25:2)

(One thing however, is clear, Isaac had made his way back to his mother’s home and was likely there when she died. Certainly he was not with his father. And one has to wonder why he did not make the necessary burial arrangements in his father’s absence. After all, he was nearing 40 years of age at this point.)

Having returned to Kiriat Arba in order to bury Sarah, Abraham remains long enough to entrust his servant Eliezer with a task that rightfully should have been his – namely to find a bride for Isaac.

And Abraham said to his senior household servant (Eliezer)(24:2) … do not take for my son a wife from the daughters of Canaan among whom I am settled (24:3) Rather you should go to my land and my birthplace, and you should take a wife for my son for Isaac (24:4)

 

It is interesting that Abraham refers to Ur Kasdim as “my land” – apparently he has not fully assimilated the idea that Canaan is his land – despite G-d’s repeated assertions to this effect.

It is odd, too, that Isaac is totally absent from this discussion. Here he is, a man approaching forty, yet his father cannot be troubled to include him in a conversation concerning the choice of a bride? Does this appear a bit strange? Is it because Isaac is deficient? Or is it because Abraham has no desire or ability to communicate with this son?

Is it only me who finds it strange that Abraham seems to have dropped Isaac entirely following the Akedah? And then when Isaac is orphaned of his mother, he hands off the task of finding a bride to his servant.

Abraham understands that his destiny and legacy will be passed on through Isaac. This is G-d’s wish. Yet at this point Abraham doesn’t seem to have any, let alone a normal, father-son relationship with Isaac, nor any patience to fulfill his normative paternal obligations.

When Eliezer dutifully returns with Rebecca one would naturally expect him to first speak with Abraham. After all he is Abrahams servant. He went out on the quest for a bride at Abrahams request. And yet when he returns to Kiriat Arba with Rebecca, Abraham is totally absent.

And Rebecca raised her eyes and she saw Isaac, and she fell off her camel(24:64) … And the servant told Isaac, everything he had done (24:66) And Isaac brought her to the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca and she became his wife ….(24:67)

 

We can only assume that, having entrusted the business of Isaac’s shidduch to Eliezer, Abraham headed back to his other home in Beersheba.

The Torah is very honest in its accounts, it does not sweep the dust under the carpet. There are numerous instances of dysfunctional family relationships among our greatest patriarchs and leaders – between husbands and wives, between fathers and sons.

Can it be that G-d has his plans, and that these plans may not always be congenial to those who must carry out His orders?

Can it be that Abraham was married to Sarah because this is what G-d wanted? And that his father Terah somehow either knew or intuited this? … Can it be that Terah understood that his personal destiny was Eretz Israel VIA Abraham and Abraham alone? Hence his setting out on an aborted journey to Israel which Abraham completed? … Can it be that Abraham was not particularly enamored of Eretz Israel, but yielded to G-d’s will, sort of? … Can it be that Isaac was not Abraham’s favorite child, but Abraham accepted within the letter, if not within the spirit, what G-d required of him with regard to Sarah’s child.

I have no answers, only questions. These and many more. And I look forward to your insights.

Thank You

 

 

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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