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Some Biblical Perspectives on Persuasion, Innocence, and Faith

  • Some Biblical Perspectives on Persuasion, Innocence, and Faith

    Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Vayeira is as rich in patriarchal stories as it is challenging in its sometimes contradictory detail, connection between incidents, and thematically difficult narratives. It begins with the appearance of God, or three men, to Abraham; Abraham and his household's hospitality; and the proclamation that in the following year Sarah will have a child (Genesis 18:1-15). God's intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham's argument with God lead to the visit of two angels to Lot, the subsequent annihilation of those cities, and the birth of the ancestors of Moab and Ammon through the incestuous union between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 18:16-19:38). In Genesis 20, Abraham and Sarah visit the city-state of Gerar, and its king, Abimelech, considers taking Sarah to wife. As a result, he is threatened with punishment, and the women in his household become barren, until he releases Sarah to Abraham. Theparashah concludes with the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Abraham's second wife Hagar and son Ishmael (Genesis 21), and, finally, the Akeidah , the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Repetition is the leitmotif of these stories; yet the differences in repeated story or detail force us to compare and contrast what seems identical on the surface-and draw the religious and ethical conclusions that the biblical writers have shaped so carefully. The repetitions in the comments below-only two of many in our parashah- have to do with "the wife-sister motif" and the echo of Abraham's argument with God in Abimelech's self-justification and plea of innocence.

Scholars have long described three similar patriarchal narratives in Genesis as reflecting the wife-sister motif: (1) Abram and Sarai in Pharaoh's court (Genesis 12:10-20), (2) Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech in our parashah (Genesis 20), and (3) Isaac and Rebekah with Abimelech (Genesis 26:1-11). Broadly speaking, the story outline is this: The patriarch, fearing that the more powerful king will kill him and marry the patriarch's beautiful wife, lies and says she is not his wife but his sister. God intervenes to save the wife and the king sends the patriarch away, usually with gifts, relieved to be rid of the patriarch and his spouse.

Though the frame of the story is similar, early modern biblical scholars classified the source of each case according to the name of God found in it. In Genesis 20, Elohim is the name of the Deity, and the writer is known as the Elohist (E). This contrasts with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the previous chapter and a half (Genesis 18:16-19:38), in which the Deity's name is YHVH, and the writer the Yahwist (J). Such categorization has been important in helping scholars determine the history and development of biblical religion. Nevertheless, scholarly focus on the wife-sister motif and the sources of these stories has drawn our attention away from a remarkable and complex repetition of theme when we read the Abraham-Sarah-Abimelech incident in connection with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 18:16-33, God determines to reveal to Abraham the impending annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham immediately begins to argue with God to spare the cities. We know and appreciate the force of Abraham's argument: if there are only-in descending numbers from fifty to ten-that many "innocent people" ( tzadikim ) in the cities, Abraham forces God to say, "I will pardon the whole place for their sake" (Genesis 18:26), and even, "For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy it" (Genesis 18:32). Plaut correctly observes that "Abraham rises to argue God's justice and questions the divine judgment. His pleading fails not because his moral stance is faulty but because his premise is wrong: There are not enough righteous people [ tzadikim = innocent!] in the cities who could make a difference" (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary , rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 121).

The highly ironic connection between Abraham's argument in the Sodom and Gomorrah story and Abimelech's argument in Genesis 20 is that they are the same! Abimelech, who had not approached Sarah, is told by God in a dream, "Look-you are a dead man because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman!" (Genesis 20:3). But the biblical writer immediately adds: "Abimelech had not touched her" (Genesis 20:4). Abimelech then says to God: "My lord, will you slay a completely innocent [ tzadik ] folk?" (Genesis 20:4). This rhetorical question presumes the clear answer "no."

It is the same answer, phrased positively, that earlier introduced Abraham's question in Genesis 18:25: "Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent [ tzadik ] and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?"

From my perspective, the final editors of the Torah and certainly of Genesis place these chapters together to persuade us that Abraham, the patriarch, and Abimelech, the Canaanite king, share the same deep understanding about the nature of God. It is against God's nature to "kill innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate."

Repetition is a technique of rhetoric, and rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Can we ever be persuaded of the truth the biblical writers, whether Elohist, Yahwist, or final redactors of the Torah, placed in the mouths of Abraham and Abimelech? The type of faith demanded by such statements powerfully appeals to our sense of justice and fairness. It also deeply offends what we know from our experience of life and the cruelties of history. That is a core paradox with which human beings, Hebrew/Jew and Canaanite/gentile, alike struggle.

At the time of this writing in 2007, Rabbi Lewis M. Barth was professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

Examining the Concept of Reward and Just Punishment
Davar Acher By: 
Brian Zimmerman

"If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil-I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle-and thus you shall eat your fill" (Deuteronomy 11:13-15).

These verses highlight the very conflict of which my teacher, Dr. Lewis Barth writes so eloquently. Dr. Barth points out that this week's Torah portion asks us to believe that God and our lives are governed by a clear system of reward and just punishment. As he notes, this belief flies in the face of what we see daily in the world around us.

If this is troubling to study in our parashah ,one can imagine just how uncomfortable it is for anyone in the business of preparing a prayer book. These stories in the Torah can at least lead to serious and thoughtful discussion on the state of our lives. Liturgy, however, asks us to believe and affirm passages that may run counter to the core of our beliefs.

As the new prayer book arrives from the printer, you will discover that many concepts such as resurrection of the dead, once considered antithetical to Reform Judaism, are now presented as acceptable concepts for Reform worship. These changes reflect the changes in our world and the makeup of our congregations. Yet, even as these changes were debated, considered, and finally accepted, the above Deuteronomic passage was included in the earliest draft of Mishkan T'filah but then removed. Perhaps at the end of the day, the concept that God will bring sustenance to the righteous and starve the unfaithful is just too offensive to be considered even as an option for more traditionally inclined Reform congregations.

Is this a core belief of Reform Judaism? Can any prayer book reflect the theological views of a whole movement of individuals? As the new prayer book arrives at your temple, take time not only to marvel at its poetry and beautiful layout, but also to examine which texts have been brought back to life from our liturgical past and which have been kept at a safe distance. Study the book in the same manner as Dr. Barth suggests we study the Torah. For within our new prayer book lie many unanswered and troubling, but very important Jewish questions about us, our world, and the very nature of what we believe about God.

At the time of this writing in 2007, Rabbi Brian Zimmerman was serving as the regional director of the Southwest Council, Union for Reform Judaism in Dallas, Texas.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110