Parshat Vayera 2018
We are all familiar with the negotiations Avraham conducted with God about the fate of the archetypical city of sin, Sodom. How he challenged God by intimating that the Creator of the World might not be doing justice. But in a parsha laden with so many seminal stories about our ancestors – including the birth and near sacrifice of Yitzhak – we often overlook the short episode between Sodom and Yitzhak’s birth in which God’s sense of justice is challenged yet again. That same story also demonstrates (for the second time) Avraham’s ability to bend the truth.
And this is what happened. After Sodom is destroyed, Avraham moves to Grar in the south. As he did in Egypt in last week’s parsha, here too he presents Sara as his sister, not his wife and King Avimelech takes her. God comes to Avimelech in a vision at night and tells him, “You’re going to die for the woman you took, and she is married.” And Avimelech did not come near her, and he responds, “Wait a minute! Are you going to smite me even though I am righteous? I didn’t know she was married. Didn’t he say she was his sister, and didn’t she say he was her brother? I acted in good faith and totally above board!”
God’s response is more measured. Yes, He says. I know you acted in good faith – and that’s why I prevented you from coming close to her. The outcome, as in Egypt, is that Avraham is again showered with gold silver servants and maidservants, and Sara is returned. Avraham prays for Avimelech and a curse is lifted – Avimelech’s wives can give birth again. And unlike the story in Egypt, Avimelech does not banish Avraham. He invites him to stay and enjoy the land. And then comes the story of Sara’s pregnancy.
There are two problematic aspects to the story: We have God appearing to a Canaanite king and again we have Avraham deceiving a king and then benefitting from the deception.
The first problem is not a problem. God speaking to others is not limited only to Avimelech. He appears to Laban, and he appears to Balaam and he appears to any number of individuals of all faiths and nationalities throughout the Bible. In other words, we are not the sole recipients of messages from above.
As to the content. Avimelech’s defensive offensive against God – would you kill one who is also righteous? – sounds suspiciously like Avraham’s words to God about Sodom – would you kill the righteous with the wicked? But it’s an echo, a weak aftershock following an earthquake. Avraham’s resounding accusation is repeated sotto voce and with less potential collateral damage (except for Avimelech, of course).
Perhaps we can view this double-barreled accusation as foreshadowing the story of the Akeida, which ends the parsha. Avraham said – you can’t kill the righteous with the wicked. Avimelech said, I’m righteous, how can you kill me. Avraham then faces the possibility that God is going to demand the killing of an innocent person, who also happens to be the son designated as the future progenitor of the Hebrews! Will He kill a goy – a nation (that has yet to be established) which will be righteous?
This problem seems at a disconnect from Avraham’s actions, which precipitate Avimelech’s predicament. He calls Sara his sister (in fact she is his half-sister) and for the second time she is whisked away by the king. Not bad for a 90 year old woman. Ever wonder what the secret was of her youthful looks?
We can easily attribute Avraham’s behavior to a diaspora mentality. He thought that everyone out there was against him. And we must always remember that just because we are paranoid does not mean they don’t want to kill us.
But Avraham is motivated by a good sense of the realpolitik of the times. “I was afraid,” he says, “because I did not see a fear of God in this place.” In other words, no fear of God indicates no sense of morality. Ariel Seri-Levi, among others, delineates the skewed values that the story reflects and that support Avraham’s claim. In Grar, it is more immoral to sleep with a married woman than it is to kill the husband so that the woman will no longer be married.
Is it true today that morality is based on a belief in God? In Hebrew we say, “He has no God,” which means he has no scruples to limit what he’ll do to attain his goals.
According to Seri-Levi, the idea that a person can act morally without believing in God is daring and new, something our ancestors could not have imagined. By the same token, we can ask how can a person believe in God and act immorally? A look at today’s world shows that religiosity and morality are not synonymous.
What we learn here is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Avraham’s actions are somewhat devious but for good reason (if we ignore the danger he created for Sara). The same can be said for Avimelech.