So I was wrong. Not only will we not make it to Chapter 22 by Rosh Hashanah, but in fact, we will step back, yet again, and in yet another way – to look at our current Chapter 20 in the context of those immediately before and after.
The process reminds me of another vestige from the past – those questions on an IQ test in which we needed to find the one word, figure, number – or in this case Torah chapter – within a group of others, that didn’t fit with the pattern set by all the rest.
So, which of the following chapters in Genesis seems to not belong with the others?
- Chapter 18 – three angels approach Abraham at his tent
- Chapter 19 – two of the angels approach Lot in Sodom
- Chapter 20 – Abraham travels to Gerar, offers Sarah to the king, who realizes in a dream that he has been fooled, then sends Sarah back while challenging and chastising Abraham, who is about to leave with newfound wealth
- Chapter 21 – the birth of Isaac
- Chapter 22 – the binding of Isaac
Give up? The answer sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. But as usual, rather than be thrown off by this chapter, or simply fast forward through it, our goal is to ponder its meaning – why is it here, and what is it trying to each us? As we tend to do with everything from a errant vowel to an entire chapter, things that might strike us as odd or misplaced do not provide a problem, but rather an opportunity to learn.
Wish us luck.
And to Sarah he [Abimelech] said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold! Let it be for you an eye covering for all who are with you; and to all you will be vindicated.”
AND TO SARAH HE SAID
That is, Abimelech said out of honor to her, in order to appease her, “ ‘Behold!’ I have done you this honor; I have given wealth to your brother,’ that is, him of whom you said ‘He is my brother.’ Behold, this wealth and honor is for you, ‘an eye covering for all who are with you.’ They will cover their eyes, in that they will not belittle you. For if I would have returned you to your husband empty handed, they could have said, ‘After he abused her, he gave her back.’ Now that I needed to spend great wealth and to appease you, they will know that against my will I returned you, and by means of a miracle.”
If we ever needed our friend Rashi to help us unpack a verse, and our study group to unpack Rashi, this would be it.
Among the many noticeable aspects of this single verse – it seems unusual that Abimelech would speak to Sarah at all, let alone about Abraham (referring to him, perhaps sarcastically, as her ‘brother’). And why would he be giving gifts at this point, let alone these particular gifts (silver to Abraham, an eye covering for Sarah) – is it a ‘face saving’ effort for her, or him, or Abraham, or again, all of the above?
Rashi seems to conclude that Abimelech’s actions here seem to be very much a public announcement, being done in the presence, and for the benefit of, the many people who were probably watching his every move – both his followers and Abraham’s. By appeasing Sarah, he appeases Abraham, gets his blessing, and it all looks good. Whatever his motives, it seems like a savvy and necessary political move.
Very Clintonesque, in fact. We can almost hear Abimelech swearing “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Sarah.”
We have here an entire chapter in which it seems that each actor is motivated by his or her self interests, with each seeming to talk past the others, leading to more disconnects and questions than answers – yet somehow all adding to the intrigue leading up to the birth of Isaac.
Back to the bigger picture – in the chapters leading up to this Monty Python-esque scene (as if the others are normal), we began with angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, with the first angel assuring them that they would soon bear the son that had been promised to them, though both now well into their 90’s. That angel’s job being done, he takes his return ticket home (angels only having a single task, for reasons we can explain someday), and the two remaining angels continue on to Sodom, saving Lot and what they can of his family.
Then leapfrogging to the actual, and long awaited birth, then binding, of Isaac, and the corresponding promise he provides us all – why else would those two chapters be chosen as the Torah portions that are read on Rosh Hashanah – we take this odd detour to Gerar. Sarah seems to enter the town old, and infertile, and exit it younger, and fertile (and perhaps already pregnant?).
If there is a common theme to Torah, and the verses since Abraham first being sent by G-d from his home town, then sent off again by Pharaoh from Egypt, and sent away again by Abimelech, there seems to be no common denominator except perhaps his trust in G-d. These various events seem to provide his biblical GPS, which did not tell him where he was going, but only to move on, yet again. At this point we can almost hear it calling out to him – “recalculating!” In spite of the many challenges they encounter along the way, though they may themselves chuckle at times (as we do at “recalculating”), they seem to press on, inevitably it seems based on little more than their faith and confidence in G-d – and in turn, giving us ours.
Ultimately, it seems that this verse teaches us, as it may have taught or confirmed for Abraham and Sarah, that indeed G-d is the author of fertility, the one who ‘opens the womb’, both figuratively and perhaps literally as well. Speaking of eggs …