2 Kislev 5766
Last Spring I mentioned to the Rabbi that I would like to be the darshan when my bar mitzva parasha was read — that was Lekh Lekha, beginning with God’s command to Abram to go forth from his home to a land God would show him. On checking my availability and the BEKI schedule, we found that Lekh Lekha was already committed to someone else and that today was the first available Shabbat after the anniversary of my bar mitzva — the 65th anniversary in fact. So I agreed to speak on today’s parasha, Toldot, or This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham, or These are the generations of Isaac….
Well, I read over the parasha and discovered that it was chock full of interesting stuff — a lot of events, issues, and puzzles (not always in good chronological order), any one of which could be the basis of my talk. There was Isaac meeting and marrying Rebekah; Rebekah giving birth to those competitive boys, Esau and Jacob; Jacob conning Esau into selling his birthright for a pot of lentil stew; Isaac, because of a famine, going to Gerar where Abimelech was king of the Philistines; Isaac telling the locals of Gerar that Rebekah is his sister, so that they won’t kill him in order to take her; later when the King sees Isaac fondling Rebekah, the King explodes, berates Isaac for what might have happened if he or one of his people had taken Rebekah, Abimelech warns his people not to molest either of them; Isaac gets wealthy, has some conflict with the Philistines over water rights which are settled by a treaty between Isaac and the King. Several of these events are repetitions of what had already happened to Abraham. And it goes on — Isaac gets old and, fearing death, prepares to give his blessing to Esau, his older son. At Rebekah’s instigation and with her help, Jacob disguises himself as Esau, deceives Isaac and steals the blessing. The rule of primogeniture, the favoring of the eldest son is again upset, as it usually is in Bereshit. So we have lots of deception and chicanery on the part of the patriarchs. As has already been noted from this pulpit some months ago, the patriarchs are very human characters and are depicted with all their faults and foibles.
Initially, I thought I’d talk about Isaac’s treaty with Abimelech settling the land and water rights — I’ve always been interested in the history of international law and there was certainly the beginnings of international law in the ancient world — in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and among the ancient Greeks and Romans and their friends and enemies. But then Isaac’s deception of the Philistines by calling Rebekah his sister grabbed my attention. I thought I remembered the story — but I remembered it happening in Egypt with Abraham and Sarah misleading the Pharaoh. Could there be two such similar stories in Bereshit? Well, on investigation it turns out there weren’t just two stories — but there are three, two involving Abraham and Sarah (chapters 16 and 20 — one in my bar mitzva portion, Lekh Lekha, and a second in VaYera) and now today, a third, involving Isaac and Rebekah in Toldot. By the way, to avoid confusion (because God changes their names between the first and second stories), I’ll use the enlarged names for Abraham and Sarah in this talk.
I’ve put the three passages into a handout which has been distributed so that you can see them together, and can compare them. I’ve decided to focus on Isaac’s deception of Abimelech along with the two earlier passages of deception. Abimelech had already been deceived by Abraham in a similar scenario a couple of chapters back. Maybe Abimelech had a memory problem — but then Abimelech may be a dynastic name and the stories really involve two different Kings with the same name.
The story in today’s parsha is the last of the three episodes. The appearance in the Bible of two versions of a story is called a doublet — what we have here is sometimes called a triplet, although some scholars deny that these three form a true triplet because they see today’s passage as an independent story simply offering an episode in the life of Isaac.
First let’s compare the three episodes and see where they’re alike and where they differ. The first and third stories involve a famine which causes the patriarch to travel to a foreign land with his beloved wife — the second lacks the famine, no reason is given as to why Abraham and Sarah journey to Gerar which, by the way is between the Biblical Gaza and Beer-sheba. At, or shortly after their arrival, each husband deceives the natives of that place by representing his wife as his sister in order to save his life. Sarah’s age at the time of the first two stories is a little surprising — she was 65 years old in the first and 90 in the second — but apparently still beautiful.
Apparently in those days and places, men would kill a husband in order to take the victim’s beautiful wife for themselves. In fact there are accounts of similar occurrences in Egyptian records and in stories of other ancient peoples. Notes to the first episode in our Etz Hayim humash mention an ancient Egyptian story, “Tale of Two Brothers,” in which a beautiful woman attracts the attention of the Pharaoh, who then hunts her down and has her brought to his palace. There he makes love to her although he knows she is married. And remember the story of King David taking Bathsheva, another man’s wife, by sending her husband Uriah into battle where he was likely to be killed.
Continuing our comparison — only in the first story does Abraham ask Sarah to cooperate in the deception. In the second and third, there’s no mention of the husband consulting with his wife about the deception — he just goes ahead and does it. In the first and second stories Sarah is in fact taken to the ruler — in the first episode, Sarah is taken into the palace, some say even into the Pharaoh’s harem, and Abraham is rewarded with great wealth. Then in the first two stories, God intervenes to save Sarah — although she may in fact already have been had by the Pharaoh. In the first story, God afflicts Pharaoh and the Egyptians with “mighty plagues” which are lifted only when Sarah is released. She and Abraham are then sent away, with all the wealth Abraham has acquired. In the second story, God warns Abimelech in a dream before any harm takes place. Sarah is released, Abraham is again handsomely rewarded — with land, sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and they are sent away.
Today’s story is much shorter than the other two. Rebekah is not actually taken away by the King, and she and Isaac remain in Gerar for some time. The deception is exposed when Abimelech sees them cavorting together — he sees Isaac fondling his wife in public. Abimelech reprimands Isaac, warns his people not to molest them, and Isaac and Rebekah apparently stay in the vicinity. The text adds: Isaac “sowed in that land, reaped a hundredfold the same year … and he grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy.”
So what do we to make of this. Some traditional commentators see the biblical use of doublets or triplets simply as a form of emphasis by repetition. More modern scholars see them as evidences of different versions of one story, taken from different sources. The multiple versions were retained for some reason or for no reason when the many strands which form the Bible were drawn together. The traditional Jewish commentators and even modern scholars offer a variety of explanations but none of them are really persuasive — at least not to me. Virtually every theory or explanation has provoked disagreement from one or more other commentators or scholars. Even to just list them would take us beyond afternoon prayers. So, I’ll tell you, very briefly, about just four different approaches — first, the documentary hypothesis, also called source criticism; then, an explanation based on the ancient historical context of that time and place; next, a summary of feminist interpretations; and, finally, several homiletic views.
The documentary hypothesis argues that the Bible is made of several documents by one or another of four suggested authors. These documents were later combined by an editor or redactor into the compilation we know as the Torah. Scholars advocating that theory do not, of course, accept the traditional, literal notion of the Bible coming directly from God through Moses on Mount Sinai. Source criticism refers to these documentary strands by their several authors who are identified by an initial derived from some common feature of their documents, J as the one who calls God by the ineffable name, Yah-weh, and we call Adonoi; E, the author who uses Elo-him as the name of God; P, who is a member of the priestly school also calls God Elo-him, but has a different style and purpose than J and E; and, for some, there’s also D, the Deuteronomic author; and then some call the redactor or overall editor, R. If you’re interested in dating, the J document is usually considered the oldest, written in the 10th century B.C.E.; and the E strand probably written between 900 and 800 B.C.E.. The redaction or the compiling of the whole Torah is usually seen as occurring in Babylonia between 600 and 400 B.C.E.
For our three passages only J and E are relevant — the first and third passages are usually attributed to J and the second to E. The first account, of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, is most like a folktale; it is the simplest in structure. It shows a darker side of Abraham’s character, his apparent willingness to sacrifice Sarah for his own safety, without any defense for his action, and in fact with substantial reward in wealth and property in exchange for his wife. God levies plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians without warning. Although God doesn’t appear to him directly, Pharaoh suspects the reason for the plagues and confronts Abraham who admits his deception. Pharaoh releases Sarah and sends them away, letting Abraham retain the wealth and property he has acquired.
The second episode is more complex — it raises moral issues and reveals a more sophisticated form of divine justice. Abraham now offers a defense for his deception — that Sarah was in fact not only his wife but also his sister, the daughter of his father although not of his mother. Now we have not only an issue of adultery but also of incest, although commentators indicate that relations with half-sisters might not have been incestuous at that time. In this story, God warns King Abimelech in a dream that he will die if he takes Sarah — the text now indicates that, unlike in the earlier version, “Abimelech had not approached her.” Then Abimelech enters into negotiation with God, somewhat like Abraham’s own negotiation with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God pardons Abimelech who then confronts Abraham. Abraham offers his defense and Abimelech releases him and Sarah, but only after enriching both of them. God lifts the plague of infertility which he had apparently imposed temporarily on Abimelech and the Philistines.
The third story, now describes similar events occurring to Isaac and Rebekah. It is often considered an amalgam of the first two although it is the shortest of the three. Most commentators see this as simply an episode in the life of the weakest and most passive of the patriarchs. Isaac seems to spend a lot of his existence reliving events from his father’s life. God, however, does not appear in this version as he does in the Abraham-Sarah stories. Isaac’s deception is revealed by his own carelessness in fondling or having sex with Rebekah in public or at least where he can he observed by Abimelech. Isaac, as we’ve seen, is often manipulated or at least overshadowed by others. Like Abraham, Isaac come away from the crisis with great wealth — the text says: “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy.” That Abimelech sought a non-aggression pact with him indicates that he must have become a formidable threat.
Analysis of the three stories by this source method provides some interesting insights, but isn’t very satisfying as an overall interpretation. The next approach, viewing the stories in the historical context of that time and place, also fails to offer a full explanation for the triplet or for their differences, but deserves at least some mention. It relates to Abraham calling Sarah his sister and suggests a more innocent explanation for what appeared to be a rather callous deception by our patriarch. Abraham and Sarah shared the Hurrian culture of that time. The Hurrians were a non-semitic people who had small kingdoms in northern Mesopotamia from about 2400 B.C.E. to their destruction by the Assyrians in 1270 B.C.E. A Hurrian man could adopt his wife as his sister thus giving her an elevated status and entitling her to privileges not ordinarily available to a wife. Several scholars explain the first story, by suggesting that Abraham conferred this higher status on Sarah so that she would be treated with greater respect by the local population. Egyptians at that time would have been familiar with the Hurrian custom. The second version reflects the fact that knowledge of the Hurrian concept was no longer widespread and the story then becomes simply one of Abraham’s deception and God’s direct intervention. Later research into documentary evidence of the wife-sister motif suggests changes in the nature of the relationship but they don’t help us understand the stories.
In recent years, feminist interpreters of the bible have focused on these three stories as examples of male oppression and mistreatment of women in the bible. These interpretations note that Abraham’s sole priority was his own well-being and that Sarah’s role is only relevant in its capacity to endanger his welfare. Sarah and Rebekah are silent throughout the stories, except in the second story when Sarah confirms that Abraham is her brother. The wives’ needs are considered unimportant — their silence and their acquiescence were the responses of victims to sexual violence or the threat of same. The beauty of Sarah and Rebekah is a potential risk of danger to their husband/masters — in this sense it is a liability not an asset. The husbands have full responsibility for their wives; the wives have no voice or opportunity to decide their own destiny. The women are objectified by the locals and treated as possessions of their husbands. Sarah becomes the property of the Pharaoh because he has greater status than Abraham and he rewards Abraham when he takes possession. Sarah is released only when her interests and welfare are recognized by God and by God’s intervention, not by Abraham’s.
Some feminists see Sarah’s failure to have a child as a cause of Abraham’s actions. Since she has not fulfilled her primary biological function, she is vulnerable. In a society interested in progeny, Sarah has no power to resist and may in fact be dispensable because she is infertile. Abraham may also be driven by material considerations — he is well rewarded in both of his stories. Note that Rebekah had already given birth to two sons at the time of the third story. So she is not treated as dispensable and is not put into so explicitly dangerous a position by Isaac as Sarah was.
The final way of viewing the stories is homiletic — seeing what moral lessons can be drawn from them. There are wonderful and incredible illuminations and shadings to these stories in the Midrash. Many of the legends and much of homiletic interpretation begin with apologetics or explanations of the patriarchal deceptions which put their wives at risk. However, both Nachmanides and Maimonides are clear in their denunciations of Abraham’s conduct. A footnote to Lekh Lekha in our Etz Hayim humash quotes Rambam as saying: “Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed. He should have trusted in God.” Rambam holds that Abraham also sinned in leaving the promised land on account of the famine, because God would have provided and redeemed him. Rambam suggests that may have been the cause of Abraham’s descendantsÿ’ú painful exile in Egypt.
Even Rabbi Hertz in the traditionalist notes to his edition of the humash condemns Abraham’s conduct saying, “Scripture impartially relates both the failings and the virtues of its heroes.” The stories, however, indicate that Abraham and Isaac’s defects and flaws of character did not remove them from God’s protection. Some see in that a lesson for us — if we have faith in Godÿ’ús ultimate justice, our shortcomings similarly may not cause our removal from God’s protection.
Karen Armstrong, a biblical scholar, is particularly harsh in her comments on the patriarchs, as follows:
The authors of Genesis were certainly interested in ethics, but it was not a primary consideration for them. They do not shrink from presenting the patriarchs in an unfavorable light; they often fail to come up to the moral standards that we would expect to find in a man of God …. Ethical fashions change. Today, for example, religious people are deeply concerned with what they call “family values”; they see sexual morality as crucial to the spiritual quest. But, as we shall see, the patriarchs were not family men. Whatever their other achievements, their domestic lives left much to be desired ….
I confess that I read the Torah as literature — sometimes enlightening and uplifting, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes confusing and even impenetrable. After having gone through more commentary and more explanations than I thought I would have to read in order to understand these episodes, I must conclude that I’ve found no satisfactory answers or explanations. We see again that the patriarchs are flawed but often impressive characters. The moral tangle of their personal lives and their efforts to cope may give us hope or at least consolation in dealing with the insolubles of our own lives. Even the conflict between hating and sympathizing with one’s enemies that I see here is instructive for me. After all, God saves the Pharaoh and Abimelech, and neither the Egyptians nor the Philistines were obliterated as were most of the other enemies of the Israelites. Maybe it seems strange, but I find satisfaction in the Bible’s portrayal of moral ambiguity. There is often uncertainty even when tensions have been resolved and peace is restored after strife or danger — just as in our world today. I think the power of our texts, including these three stories, lies in the unvarnished realities and contradictions they describe.
Email Morris Cohen firstname.lastname@example.org