[b-hebrew] Why do Avraham and Sarah leave Hebron? Genesis 20: 1
rosewalk at concentric.net
Wed Oct 17 18:13:20 EDT 2007
The traditional views of why Avraham left Hebron are very credible:
Rashi explains: "When he observed that the cities had been destroyed
and travelers ceased to pass to and fro
[and there were no wayfarers to whom he might extend hospitality] he
went away from there" [he moved to another part of the country]
"Another explanation for his move is that he wished to distance
himself from Lot, who had gained an evil reputation because of his
intimacy with his daughters"
Sforno explains that Kadesh and Shur were very large cities in the
Philistine part of C'naan, and Avraham chose to live there because
the area was heavily populated and would provide him the opportunity
to spread his belief in G-d.
Radak suggests that he settled in Philistia (no, not Palestine) to
establish his presence - and thus the future claim of his offspring -
in another part of the land G-d promised us.
Re Avimelech, Avraham did not expect another abduction of Sarah,
since Avimelech was a righteous king (by the standards of his time),
and Philistia was a more law abiding country than Egypt. That she
was abducted anyway, is one of the 10 tests of faith that G-d gave
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
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
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
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
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.
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