[b-hebrew] Genesis 20: 1

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Oct 17 11:16:23 EDT 2007

This is my second post exploring what help the Amarna Letters may give us  in 
figuring out where Abraham goes, and why, when he leaves Hebron at Genesis  
20: 1. 
3.  Why Do Abraham and Sarah  Go to Gerar? 
The traditional view of chapter 20 of Genesis is not credible.  On the 
traditional view, there is no  reason for Abraham to leave Hebron.  Having left 
Hebron for no reason, Abraham commences to wander in two  deserts, the 
ultra-modest Negev Desert and the horribly desolate Sinai  Desert.  At one point, when 
Abraham  is not too terribly far from Hebron, where Abraham had sojourned for 
years,  Abraham and Sarah are unpleasantly surprised by running into Abimelech, 
who is a  bona fide threat to murder Abraham to get at old Sarah.  Since 
Abraham had been at Hebron for  many years, why wouldn't Abraham have heard of, and 
avoided, a ruler in the  northern Negev Desert who would murder a husband to 
seize the man's wife, even  if the husband had 318 armed retainers, and the 
wife was old and "withered" and  long past the normal age for childbearing in 
the ancient world?  That traditional view of the text simply  makes no sense. 
What was the real reason why Abraham and Sarah left Hebron?  The reason was 
for the express purpose  of interacting with Abimelech of Gerar.  When Abraham 
and Sarah leave the Hebron area, they make a beeline for  Gerar, where Sarah 
is promptly taken into Abimelech's household under strange  circumstances.  
That's what the text  is saying (using the JPS1917 translation verbatim): 
"And Abraham journeyed from  thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt 
between Kadesh and Shur;  and he sojourned in Gerar.  And Abraham said of Sarah 
his wife:  'She is my sister.'  And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and  took 
Sarah."  Genesis 20: 1-2     
Chapter 20 of Genesis is all about fertility issues.  Abimelech desperately 
wants to  impregnate the women in his palace.  Abraham and Sarah desperately 
want Sarah to bear a son to Abraham.  Abraham and Sarah think that they have a  
plan that will solve all of these problems, including Abimelech's fertility  
problem.  Although Abraham's and  Sarah's plan is strange and controversial and 
gut-wrenching, it works.  Abimelech impregnates all the women in  his palace, 
and Sarah bears Isaac to Abraham.  Given that the binding test in chapter  22 
of Genesis is so awkward and unpleasant and controversial, why should we be  
too surprised that the Gerar test in chapter 20 is equally awkward, equally  
unpleasant, and equally controversial?  In both cases, though, there is a happy 
ending, showing divine blessing  of the sequence.  Isaac is not  killed in 
the binding incident, but rather a ram (the symbol of the Egyptian god  Amen) is 
sacrificed instead.  Sarah  is the birth mother of Isaac.  It is  virtually 
certain, if not absolutely certain (at least not for some years), that  Abraham 
is the biological father of Isaac. 
The author of the Patriarchal narratives is not passively recording  actual 
secular history here in chapters 20 and 22 of Genesis.  He is making important 
theological  points.  But the backdrop to all the  stories in the Patriarchal 
narratives is, in my view, the world of the Middle  East in the mid-14th 
century BCE, as illuminated by the Amarna  Letters.  I see Biblical Abimelech  as 
being closely modeled on historical Abimilki of Sur.  The names Abimelech and 
Abimilki are  similar.  The reference to S(h)ur at  Genesis 20: 1 is similar to 
Sur.  Likewise with Qadesh and Qadesh, and Gerar and Garu.  Each of Abimelech 
and Abimilki has a  terrible problem securing access to water wells.  
Tent-dwelling people (habiru or Hebrews)  are an important, ambiguous factor in the 
volatile mix.  Each of Abimelech and Abimilki has only  a very small militia.  
And it  appears that each of Abimelech and Abimilki has frustratingly been 
unable to  impregnate the women in his palace as of yet.  Can all of those 
apparent matches be but  one gigantic "coincidence"?  I think  not. 
4.  Where Do Abraham and  Sarah Go Upon Leaving the Hebron Area at Genesis 
20: 1? 
So to answer your question at long last, I see Abraham  and Sarah as being 
portrayed as leaving the Hebron area for the express purpose  of going to Sur in 
southern Lebanon, in order to interact with Abimelech there,  whom they have 
heard has a pressing fertility problem of his own, that is  something like the 
terrible fertility problem that Abraham and Sarah so  obviously have.  
Abraham and Sarah  do not go south from Hebron, they do not go to any desert, and 
they do no  wandering.  Rather, Abraham and  Sarah head straight north to Sur in 
southern Lebanon, where Isaac is born.   
I see "Qadesh" and "S(h)ur" at Genesis 20: 1 as referencing the  world-famous 
Lebanese city-states that everyone in the Middle East knew at that  time by 
those names.  Read in that  light, I see the reference to "the land of the 
south" at Genesis as meaning the  southern region of the land between the Lebanese 
city-states of Qadesh and  Sur.  I well realize that a  reference to "the 
land of the south" would not normally mean southern  Lebanon.  But if the very 
next  phrase in the sentence is referencing the Lebanese city-states of Qadesh 
and Sur  (which I believe to be the case), then "the land of the south", in 
that  particular context, must mean southern Lebanon. 
The "proof" of my controversial theory is all of the matches I have noted  
between Biblical Abimelech and historical princeling ruler Abimilki of Sur  
("Tyre") in southern Lebanon.  The  author of the Patriarchal narratives is 
creating a story, for theological  purposes, to be sure.  But he sets  that story in 
his own time, in settings with which he himself is intimately  familiar.  In 
my view, the author of  the Patriarchal narratives was a very early Hebrew who 
had lived both near Sur  and at Hebron, and was not a mid-1st millennium BCE 
southern  Hebrew.  All the stories that he  relates in the Patriarchal 
narratives make perfect sense, from an early Hebrew  viewpoint, if viewed as being 
set against the secular historical background of  the mid-14th century BCE world 
of the Amarna Letters. 
Jim Stinehart 
Evanston, Illinois

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