30 Jan

Chapter 10: Abraham’s Covenant with Abimelech

10.1 Abraham’s Covenant with Abimelech

(22)And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: ‘G-d is with thee in all that thou doest. (23)Now therefore swear unto me here by G-d that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.’

Abraham settled in Beer Sheba, on the edge of the dessert—although located within the boundaries of Abimelech’s kingdom, it was remote from the capital city. He now receives recognition as “a righteous man living in alienation.” Abimelech sees Abraham’s tremendous success and acknowledges the reason for his accomplishment, “God is with thee in all that thou doest,” i.e. Abimelech accepts Abraham as a spiritual authority. Therefore, as a sign of respect, he makes a government visit together with his commander. Abimelech sees Abraham as a strategic threat and therefore decides to make a pact with him which binds their descendents as well.

Abimelech exaggerates his merits when he claims, “according to the kindness that I have done unto thee…” He notes “to the land wherein thou hast sojourned” using the verb gar (to reside as an alien, without any rights). But Abraham pays no attention to these discrepancies and also doesn’t take into account the fact that God promised him the entire Land, and agrees to make this treaty.

The Midrash sees this episode as a sin on Abraham’s part because he had no right to promise Abimelech part of the Land, and claims this covenant resulted in the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac. However, it would be incorrect to understand the connection between these two incidents in terms of “sin and punishment”; rather it should be seen through the prism of faults and their rectifications.

Abimelech, who looks at the situation from the side, understands it better than Abraham: he sees its political aspect and doesn’t want to miss out on any gain; he wants to receive a promise from Abraham that he will not to steal his leadership and the leadership of his descendents. Abimelech sees that Abraham has huge potential and will rule the Land in the future. For Abraham, this aspect is less important, at least until he becomes a nation. What is significant for him is that he spreads his views by teaching people. He knows his descendents will one day become a nation, but he hasn’t internalized it yet. Only later, the Binding of Isaac episode will force him to change his approach.

Abraham accepts Abimelech’s suggestion to be the “religious leader” within the boundaries of Abimelech’s kingdom (“And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer Sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem, the Everlasting G-d.” [Genesis 21:33].) The Philistines were distinguished in sea trade, economic and technological advancements (for example, in the Book of Samuel it mentions that the Philistines already had iron while the Jews still use bronze weapons). For this reason, Abraham envisions that by making a covenant with the Philistines, he will be able to influence the entire world.

It seems that the option of making a treaty with Abimelech is preferable to Abraham over a demanding independent political-military life in Hebron, and therefore Abraham “sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days” (Genesis 21:34).

10.2 Judaism as a Synthesis of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

If we extract from Abraham a purely “Abrahimic” streak (an all-embracing love, hesed, grace, universalism in the cosmopolitan sense, refusal to make claims on political realization, rectification without coercion, aim to unite with Egypt’s leading world culture) i.e. detach Abraham from Isaac and Jacob, we will get some sort of an idealized form of Christianity. And if we extract from Isaac a purely “Isaaic” streak, we will get something analogous to Islam (gevura, self-isolation, rigidity, readiness to self-sacrifice, acceptance of the world as it is without any attempt to improve it, a strict adherence to the received legacy). In other words, if you absolutize Abraham and Isaac individually, then they can be seen as the spiritual forefathers of Judaism’s two daughter religions—Christianity and Islam. In contrast, Judaism is founded on the synthesis of all three forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Some “derivative” branches on the tree of the Jewish ethical monotheism can deviate to either side, but the stem must always remain mainstream, because, in the end, the entire system rests on the stem.

10.3. Abraham’s Oath to Abimelech

(24) And Abraham said: ‘I will swear.’ (25) And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. (26) And Abimelech said: ‘I know not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to-day.’ (27) And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. (28) And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves.

Even after reaching an agreement with Abimelech, Abraham notes that there are still issues they have not solved. Only post factum it becomes clear that Abimelech’s words, “according to the kindness that I have done unto thee” are inconsistent with the fact that Abimelech’s slaves appropriated Abraham’s well. Abimelech doesn’t answer to the point; he claims that he knows nothing about it and will take care of it later. Abraham is left with no choice but to trust him.

This teaches Abraham a lesson not to express eternal hesed and to claim at least that which is rightfully yours. Therefore, this time he puts in a lot of effort to fence in his well in Beer Sheba from attempts of Abimelech’s slaves to capture it.

10.4 The Essence of Beer Sheba

(29) And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?’ (30) And he said: ‘Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.’ (31) Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them. (32) So they made a covenant at Beer-sheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. (33) And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem, the Everlasting G-d. (34) And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.

Thus, an agreement between the political and spiritual powers has been reached: “Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer Sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem.” In other words, he received an opportunity to spread his ideas and therefore “And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days” i.e. he was quite satisfied with his status as a religious leader living in a remote place in the Philistine government under Abimelech’s sovereignty.

Abraham has reached a personal climax but now he has to build his relationship with Isaac. This relationship is not only important for Abraham but for Isaac as well and therefore can be built only when Isaac has grown up. All this time, Abraham has been living in Beer Sheba.

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