[b-hebrew] Why do Avraham and Sarah leave Hebron? Genesis 20: 1

Shoshanna Walker 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 
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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