Va-Yera – Abraham vs Abimelech: Part I.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one… Abraham and his wife travel to a foreign country. They’re enjoying the sights, sampling the exotic food, but it doesn’t look good to be attached and so he asks his wife if she can, you know, pretend to be his sister for a few days… And then the leader of the country falls in love with her, abducts her, gets punished by God for his sin, and the couple get out as fast as they can. The end. Some jokes never get old.

We’ve reached the second of the three wife-sister narratives in Genesis. The first wife-sister narrative was in Genesis 12. This time, the guilty party is Abimelech, the King of Gerar.

Biblical Canaan was not a place for tourists. Abraham comes off as being weak-kneed. Read on for more.

First, a recap. After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham traveled south to near the town of Gerar. This country belonged to the Philistines, though Gerar had its own king. As on his previous adventure with the Egyptians, Abraham instructs his wife to claim to be his sister. This way, Abraham would not be killed by men that want to take his wife as their own. And as Abraham’s previous adventure, the King of Gerar, Abimelech, falls for Sarah and claims him as her own. (Despite her old age!)

God does not remain passive in this confrontation. He punishes Abimelech by “close(ing) the wombs” (Genesis 20:23) of his people and preventing Abimelech from “sinning against (God)” (20:6). Presumably, this was some form of divine impotence. But God also visits Abimelech in a dream and warns him that if he continues, God will kill him and his family.

Abimelech gets the hint and calls Abraham to explain himself. Abraham reveals that she IS his sister, really, so he didn’t lie. (This makes the entire Israelite line the product of incest, but given the number of such relationships in the bible that is not surprising.) He also provides Abraham and Sarah a large gift of animals, silver, slaves, and even land. In return, Abraham prayed to God that the curse on Abimelech and his people be lifted.

And that’s it for Round One! Abraham and Abimelech will meet again, after the birth of Isaac. Abraham will even give him back some of his gifts.

On the surface, even ignoring the parallels with Genesis 12 and 26, this story presents a very odd view of justice. I may have justice on the brain after my last couple of posts, but it is odd. Abimelech does seem to kidnap Sarah, which is different from the story with Pharaoh where a dowery appears to have been paid, but this could be a simplification for the sake of the story. Abraham doesn’t appear to benefit from the arrangement though, so it may have been as straightforward as the ruler claiming an attractive woman as his own. And God does punish him for it… but God “prevents” Abimelech from “sinning against Him”, in His own words. That seems to imply that the kidnapping wasn’t really the sin. Is Abimelech punished because he wanted to sleep with Abraham’s wife, but God is forgiving about the kidnapping? It’s hard to understand this in a moral way.

And God’s punishment is a clan-based one. Sure, Abimelech is prevented from performing, but all of his countrymen are either similarly afflicted or otherwise unable to conceive children. God could have just punished the sinner, Abimelech, but he chose to punish the whole town. This punishment does reveal that this incident must have happened over the course of a few months. It’s unlikely that a lack of conception would be noticed immediately. (But if “closed the womb” is literal, I suspect the men would have noticed pretty darned quickly.)

Meanwhile, neither Abraham nor Sarah are punished for their half-truths. Presumably, God felt that they were in the right… And there is no reason to suggest otherwise.

This story also returns Abraham to the state of a wanderer. No comment is made here of his “warrior king” like stature from previous in Genesis, nor his wealth. In fact, if he still had his wealth, it is likely he could have been more successful in keeping his wife safe. This story even suggests, via the gifts at the end, that Abimelech may have been responsible for Abraham’s good fortunes.

What lesson are you supposed to take from this? That sometimes lying is acceptable? That one should put ones wife in harms way to save himself, but that God will make it all better? Abraham wins this round, but I wish he could have been more of a man about it.

I wish he had been more like this guy:

Up next: Isaac is born, what do we need Ishmael for?

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