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.