Torah Metaphors: Chayei Sarah

Just to make it absolutely clear, this is not a standard Torah commentary based on the teachings of the rabbis that one would obtain in a yeshiva. My background is in English and comparative literature and what we will be doing in this series of articles is examining the Torah in a similar fashion one might examine the writings of Shakespeare. Accordingly, if you wish to make a comment on the article, I would like to request that you present your arguments utilizing an academic format, based on the text, and not quote outside sources. It is the purpose of these articles to introduce an alternative and, hopefully, a fresh perspective to what is written in the Torah and not merely to reheat and serve up the same ideas that have been presented again and again during the last thousand years. Finally, I would just like to add that the inspiration for these articles comes from the works of the English psychologist Maurice Nicoll and that the source I used for the Torah was the website:

Genesis: 23:1 – 25:18

Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion begins by discussing the death of Sarah with the word for life. In previous articles we have talked about Eve’s name and we touched upon the concept of life noting that in the Torah the word life is used as a metaphor for understanding. In addition, we pointed out that in modern times the lack of brain activity is used as the legal definition of death. Thus the phrase: “Eve is the mother of all the living” means that Eve, as a spiritual medium, was the source of all understanding and we pointed out that Eve thanked God for the birth of her children, which suggested her children were metaphors for messages from God. Accordingly, we also discussed that the “battle” between Leah and Rachel was not really about who could produce more sons, but was in fact a contest to determine which of the two sisters was the more powerful medium. One point we did not touch upon, however, was the similarities between the punishments of Adam and Eve.

We have shown again and again that different types of foods are metaphors for different types of knowledge. So, for example, we discussed that in Hebrew the word  for “a bee” shares the same root as the word for “a word” and thus honey could be considered a symbol for the teachings of God. If one accepts this interpretation, then the punishment of Adam does not really deal with the production of food, but rather is a metaphor suggesting that all his efforts to produce knowledge from the school of the earth will result in frustration. We have also repeatedly discussed the relationship between fruit, children and the word of God as represented in the Holy Day of Shavuot. We shall later see that the embryo in Rachel’s womb is described as fruit (this same image can also be found in the New Testament). Eve will have pain bearing children, which then becomes a metaphor for producing knowledge represented by the fruit of Adam’s loins. Thus Adam suffers frustration from producing fruit and Eve suffers pain from producing fruit. The link between the two curses is the well known term: “mother earth”.

Another point we did not discuss fully was that the Hebrew word for animals shares the same root as the word for living, thus they could be described as “the living ones” which would imply that each animal in the Torah is a metaphor for one with understanding of a specific specialty. Hence, the Garden of Eden with its fruit trees was really a school or an archive. Adam, whose name means ground, was the head of the school and the animals were the scholars assigned to help him. Accordingly, when we are told that Adam “named” the animals, this can be compared to officers of a corporation or a government being “named” to office. Expanding on this idea, Noah’s ark then can be seen as a religious seminary or monastery and it was the function of Noah to preserve the accumulated knowledge of mankind by allowing the animal/scholars enter into his school during the time of crisis. We have discussed in other articles that water is a metaphor for explanations about God; hence the ark of Noah was a school whose teachings were based on these explanations, but which was at a higher level.

Thus, in this week’s Torah portion what is being described is the end of the influence of the teachings of Sarah and the acceptance or merger of ideas of the Hittites with the teachings or beliefs of Abraham. Thus, Sarah’s death is associated with the number: one hundred and twenty seven which can be interpreted two ways. We saw that Abraham is one hundred years old at the birth of Isaac, whose name means laughter. We discussed briefly that the name Asher means happiness and that, as the second son of the first wife, he should be associated with the number ten. Since we have shown that a son should be associated with a message of God, what we seen then is that Abraham was joyous (i.e. religious ecstasy) to have received a revelation from God via Sarah and thus is symbolized by the number one hundred. Nevertheless, Sarah had a troublesome relationship with Hager and, because of Sarah, Abram had problems with both the Pharaoh of Egypt and King Amimelech of Gezer. When God punished the Children of Israel and forced them to wander in the desert for forty years he declared that those under the age of twenty would not be punished because they did not know the difference between good and bad. This statement is significant for two reasons: a) it suggests that there is no such thing as “original sin” since God himself has declared these younger Israelites to be similar to Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit. b) It suggests a connection between the number twenty and sin.

Since the number two can be associated with dichotomy and the number ten can be associated with both the Ten Commandments and the ten plagues (actually called “hits” in Hebrew), this then implies that the number twenty should be associated with the knowledge of good (the commandments) and evil (the hits/plagues).

The second interpretation of the number one hundred and twenty seven can be based upon ten times twelve and, in my opinion, the number twelve should be associated with Jacob’s son Naphtali, who was the second son of the second wife. In short, Naphtali received his name as a result of the jealous struggle between Leah and Rachel.  Throughout ancient times the number twelve is associated with quarrels and disagreements. Thus Jacob’s twelve sons argued, the twelve disciples of Jesus argued and the twelve gods on Mount Olympus argued.

Therefore, using either interpretation, the number one hundred and twenty represents a combination of good with bad. It is good to be a messenger of God, but this invites jealousy and conflict from others. Hence, when God limits the life of men to one hundred and twenty years, he apparently is saying there is a limit to how much quarrelling and jealousy he will accept from mankind.

The final number in Sarah’s life is seven and we have shown that this number should be associated with communications from God since King Solomon spoke, as God’s chosen king, from the seventh step of his throne and Joseph, who as the first son of the second wife, represented Jacob’s seventh son and he interpreted God’s messages. Thus, putting the three numbers together, we see that the life of Sarah should be interpreted as her being a medium of God who brought a joyous message to Abraham about God’s laws. Nevertheless, because she was an extraordinary medium, which we pointed out in other articles was why she was described as “very beautiful”, Sarah made Abraham a source of jealousy amongst other leaders thru her ability to brings God’s messages only to him (Here it should also be recalled that in the writings of Plato he spoke at great length about the concept of beauty).

Accordingly, what I believe we are seeing in this week’s Torah portion is a ceremony to “bury the hatchet” so to speak, and, with the passing of Sarah, Abraham is now able to come to some sort of compromise with the Hittites. Thus, Abraham “buys their field” and we have already discussed that the earth and fields are metaphors for schools. We are also told that the field has “trees” which we noted in other articles was a source of knowledge and the field has a cave, which we know from stories like Elijah and Mohammed, should be considered a symbol for a religious shrine.  (i.e. a cave represents “the mouth” of the mountain of knowledge). So, in the case of Mohammed, the answer to the riddle is: “The mountain (of knowledge) came to Mohammed since Mohammed had a revelation while he was in a cave”. Moses, on the other hand, “went” to Mount Sinai and ascended. Since the name Sinai means scholarship, this suggests that Moses first had to attain a high level of understanding thru his own efforts, before God provided him with additional knowledge. So, once again, I am not saying that studying in the yeshivas is a waste of time or is irrelevant. We must work for six days a week and rest on the Sabbath. Accordingly, as the story of Moses suggests: we study in the yeshiva for six days, but on the seventh day we rest and God will provide the final pieces to the puzzle.

If all these explanations are correct, then what we are seeing in this week’s Torah portion is that Abraham is merging his ideas with the Hittites. Here it should be noted that Zepron the Hittite and Uriah the Hittite both have names which are associated with light and this suggests the Hittites were a highly evolved spiritual people. Apparently then, the death of Sarah represents the willingness of Abraham to give up some of his cherished beliefs and incorporate his religious ideas into one of the schools of thought of the Hittites. In the commentary Vayeira we discussed the association between the number one hundred and doubt. Since, in modern times, we have the expression: “not a shadow of doubt”, this replacing the doubt associated with Sarah’s revelation with the light associated with the names of the Hittites, might suggest a possible motive for Abraham’s acceptance of the Hittite’s religious ideas.  Thus the name: Machpelah means double, which implies that the combining of two equal ideas or that Abraham’s influence, as a result of coming to an understanding with the Hittites, has been doubled. Furthermore, even in modern times, the concept of “buying” is associated with accepting ideas and one can hear quite often the phrase: “I don’t buy it”, when one rejects an idea. Since Abraham did indeed buy the field of the Hittites, this suggests he accepted some of their religious concepts into his own belief system. Thus, the cave of Machpelah is located in the city of Hebron and this Hebrew name means: alliance.

The next issue to consider is the number four.  We have already discussed this number in relation to Yom Kippur, but it doesn’t hurt to review. Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and his name means praise God. We have already discussed that the number one hundred is connected to the happiness of receiving a message from God. Thus, in my opinion, the number four hundred should be associated with convincing others to accept your religious ideas. Hence, the Amalikite Haman was furious when in the Book of Esther Mordichai refused to accept his religious beliefs and the Amalikites are related to the number four hundred because we are told that four hundred Amalikites escaped from the army of David on camels.

Esau, the brother of Jacob, is also associated with the number four hundred men and later he will to convince Jacob to come “to live in his land” (i.e. to study in his school). Probably the most important reference is that the Children of Israel will be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. What these three references suggest to me is that the number four hundred should be associated with the mixing or joining together of religious ideas. Hence, as we just mentioned, the name Hebron means alliance.

In the New Testament there is a parable about: “The Workers in the Vineyard”, basically, the parable deals with how much money they will be paid, but the crucial point is that in the time of the 2nd temple there was a famous religious school located at Yavne and the scholars there referred to this school as: “The Vineyard”. If a vineyard represents a religious school and work is a metaphor for study, then money represents teachings or knowledge. Thus, Abraham paying four hundred silver shekels is a metaphor and it implies that Abraham gave a religious lecture to the Hittites in order to demonstrate that he was qualified to take over and operate the Hittite school.

The last issue we shall discuss for this week’s Torah portion is: Who will replace Sarah? Upon the death of Sarah, what then is needed are two replacements: one for Isaac and one for Abraham. The interesting point about the search for Rebecca is that the slave Abraham sends selects ten camels, but nothing is mentioned about the men who go with him until almost the very end of the story. One would think that both the Old and New Testaments, being centered in the Middle East, would have many stories about camels, but, except for the story of Joseph, these animals are hardly mentioned at all.

In order to understand the significance of the camels in the story of Rebecca, it is important to remember that Joseph came to Egypt with a caravan of spices and that Pontiphar is described in the Torah as a cook (The translations saying he was captain of the guards are incorrect). The other important point is that the Hebrew word for meat is the root for the word for preaching and gospels. Thus, Joseph arriving with spice laden camels made the meats of Egypt more palatable (i.e. Joseph knew how to spice up a religious sermon).

All this is extremely important in relation to Rebecca, because later we are told that Isaac loved the meat of his son Esau and it is Rebecca who prepares the goat’s meat which helps persuades Isaac to bless Jacob. Thus, Rebecca, like Joseph, is associated with camels because she knows how to make meat taste better. Furthermore, since we have already mentioned the connection between the number ten, wine and spiritual happiness we can then see that Rebecca is a spiritual medium since ten camels were sent to bring her to Isaac. Finally, since the Ark of the Covenant at first will be housed in a tent, there is absolutely no doubt as to what the function of Rebecca will be, since we are told after arriving she is immediately ushered into the tent of Sarah.

Another important element of the story of Rebecca is water. Moses said that his words were like a heavy rain and, basically, Moses told his father in law that his function was to explain the laws of God. Therefore, water becomes a metaphor for religious explanations and there are several references in the Old Testament to the Israelites forsaking the living waters and to broken cisterns which hold no water.

What also has to be understood here is that we mentioned that Adam worked in the Garden of Eden and we said this meant that Adam was a scholar in the archive. The Torah, however, also says that at first there was no rain because there were no men to tend the garden. Thus rain was created to help men; men were not created to serve the rain. These references then explain why the slave of Abraham wanted to see whether or not Rebecca would give water to his camels (In other words: He could have asked God that Rebecca give grass to the camels as a sign, but he selected water because of its religious significance) .

Switching to Abraham’s wife/concubine Keturah (one place she is described as a wife and then later as a concubine) I would just like to mention that I do not agree with the scholar known as “The Rashi” that Keturah and Hagar were one and the same person. Basically, Hagar would have been at least seventy years old at the time of Sarah’s death, but in addition to this the Torah clearly lists the descendants of Keturah and Ishmael is not included. Finally, Keturah’s children were not present at Abraham’s funeral, but Ishmael was present. So, if Hagar was indeed Keturah, why was only this son granted special status?

The name Keturah means incense and this implies that she was a source of inspiration for Abraham. Since she “only” gives birth to six sons, however, this suggests that there is no connection with the Sabbath. Keturah’s beliefs and teachings, like Leah’s six sons, should be associated with the six days of work. This is why her sons do not share in the inheritance of Isaac, who should be associated with revelations from God and the number seven (we discussed in previous articles that Joseph, as the first son of the second wife, should be considered the seventh son of Jacob).

This week’s Torah portion also raises two important questions:

1) Why is there space in this week’s portion to repeat the entire story of: “Rebecca and the water”, yet there is no place in the Torah to mention a procedure for conversion?

2) How is it possible that seven of Abraham’s own sons were expelled from the house of Abraham and were given no share in Isaac’s inheritance, yet the rabbis believe that they can convert gentiles and make them one of the Children of Israel? (What is crucial to understand here is that Moses said the inheritance of Israel was the Torah. Since rabbis generally teach converts the Talmud and not the Torah, this implies they are not really sharing the inheritance of Israel).


Regardless, all the examples we have discussed seems to clearly indicate that the theme of this week’s Torah portion is about accepting new ideas and new sources of knowledge….


Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.

About the Author
Dror Ben Ami has studied English and Comparative Literature at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Haifa. Building on research begun almost forty years ago, Mr. Ben Ami has written a complete commentary on Biblical Law (i.e. the Hebrew Torah) and is currently working on a complete commentary of the four gospels. Living in Israel since 1980, Mr. Ben Ami brings a unique perspective to scripture, answering many questions that few people have the background, or the knowledge, to even ask....