Genesis 18 – 22
Political Terminology Aside, Avraham Avinu Was the First Progressive
As we begin this weeks parsha it is important to look at the very reason we go through the Torah on a circuit; week by week, making our way through the designated section. The reason is because context is everything. Though the Torah is given to us as a great story, it was written in an ancient time where both writing medium and method were not easy to implement, so it does not concern itself so much with normal narrative. It was important first off to be concise. One of the ways of being concise is grouping things of relevance together, in order to give meaning to the narrative and the common concepts. It was not important for the authors to necessarily be historical, as much as it is to convey the ethic that is at the heart of the story.
When this parsha begins we are immediately thrown into an encounter between Abraham and G-d’s messengers, melachim. We figuratively understand these to mean angels but it is true that this word means nothing more than a messenger. In fact, the suggestion of a malach (angel) does not appear until chapter 19. Here it only refers to the visitors that Abraham encounters and anashim; men, nameless and anonymous men.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this point, but Abraham as the master of Semitic virtues of hospitality did not concern himself with the identity of these men, nor his own situation when he takes in these strangers. He felt obligated to care for the wandering stranger. In fact when these travelers come upon Abraham it is immediately after his circumcision, we are told in Talmud Bava Metzia 86b that this is just three days after Abraham’s circumcision while he is still in pain and caring for his wounds. In the Talmud the story is related that Abraham feels so driven by his ethic of caring for the traveling stranger that he sends his servant Eliezar to look for other nomads. When he comes back with no one to host Abraham decides to prop himself up at the entrance of his tent and look for visitors himself. Though deterred by the heat of the day and his physical limitations Abraham had no intention on slacking on his responsibility, so G-d sends the angels in the form of men to visit with him.
We have a picture of Abraham as the angels appear, wrapping his bandages around himself, barely able to move, prostrating himself on the floor and begging for their patience as he provides basic accommodations for them. Though they seemed ready to move on so as not bother Abraham in almost embarrassment of his humility, Abraham begs for them to stay with him. To the merit of our father Abraham he did more than just provide the bare necessities, instead he waits upon them bringing multiple courses both of a nourishing dairy meal and then even a feast of a fattened calf. This is the example that is set before us of how one is to care for a guest and a stranger. This is why this is presented to us. Though the announcement of Isaac’s birth is mentioned in this encounter it is not the primary topic that we have moving into this parsha, the promise of making Abraham a father of many nations is already a given.
This is clearly stated within our text. For as often as our scriptures go out of their way to not waste unnecessary words on redundant phrases, here twice in chapter 18 alone we see the certainty of the promise to Abraham. First during the meal it is stated by one of the messengers of G-d that “Shov ashuv aylecha kaeit chaya / Certainly I will return to you at this season / v’hinai ben l’Sarah ishtecha / and behold Sarah your wife will have a son” (v.10) and again in verse 18 it is mentioned among the messengers themselves “v’avraham hayu yehiyeh l’goy gadol v’atzum / Since Abraham will become a great nation, that is enormous/numerous…”. This visit might have been the setting in which the announcement of Isaac’s birth was presented but it was not the central reason for this encounter, it’s the symbol of the hospitality which take up about 10 verses, the discussion about Isaac’s birth takes up only about 5 verses. This encounter is about showing us the moral context of that age and culture, not interested in giving us a chronological story. Because notice that one year later when Isaac is born we do not see in the scriptures any mention given of the angel returning; it’s not an error on the part of the writer, it’s just not important in comparison to the central theme which is going to be the treatment of a sojourner in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Later in the story Lot is going to show he still maintains his cultural sensibilities in welcoming in strangers, which is going to result in the inhabitants of Sodom showing total ethical decay in seeking to harm these visiting strangers. Their disregard for the stranger in their midst is spelled out for us in their cry of “ha-echad ba la’gur vayishpot shafot / this one came as a sojourner, and now he must sentence us as a judge?” But it is precisely because Lot was a sojourner that he knew what the experience of being a stranger was. And being a nomad most of his life he offered hospitality to guests as the custom required and out of sympathy. This commandment to care for the stranger would be one of the most often repeated commandments given in the scriptures, being made even more personal for the people of Israel later on in the words, “You shall neither mistreat nor oppress the sojourner, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:21. You will also see this echoed in Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Deuteronomy 27:1, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Zechariah 7:9-10, and Malachi 3:5.
This is an ethic that is going to be firmly maintained throughout Jewish history and will be clearly summarized in prophetic judgment against Jerusalem by the prophet Ezekiel some 14 centuries later:
“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister |
Sodom: pride, |
fullness of bread, |
and careless ease was in her |
and in her daughters; |
neither did she strengthen |
the hand of the poor and needy. |
They were haughty, |
and committed abomination before Me; |
therefore I removed them when I saw it.” |
הִנֵּה–זֶה הָיָה, עֲוֹן
הָיָה לָהּ וְלִבְנוֹתֶיהָ,
וְיַד–עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, לֹא הֶחֱזִיקָה.
וַתַּעֲשֶׂינָה תוֹעֵבָה לְפָנָי;
Now you might wonder why I seem to disparage the name of Lot. Quite frankly I don’t really see him as all that impressive of a person. I surely would not, in my own personal opinion, count him as someone who is a saint (the title which he holds in Catholic tradition for example). Lot is mentioned here not necessarily for his goodness, but almost as an example of one who is mediocre in his morality and still seems to benefit in spite of himself. In last weeks parsha we learned that Lot was the nephew of Abraham, and was one of the few people to leave the homeland with him (Gen. 12:4-5). At the time when Abraham left he was already 75 years old. Lot, his brothers son, became like a son to him. They would journey together and reach the land that was promised to Abraham. And at that time, despite the promise that Abraham had of becoming a great nation he still considered Lot as his only possible heir. For this reason Abraham granted him an inheritance and split the promised land, Abraham going to north and west of the present day Dead Sea toward Hevron and giving Lot the inhabited lands of the south and east. Lot wanted the city life, so Abraham took the plains.
However, we quickly learn that Sodom, where Lot had settled, was invaded and he was taken as a captive slave along with his possessions. (Gen. 14:11) This should not come to too much as a surprise because in chapter 13 verse 13 we are told that the inhabitants of Sodom were very malicious and sinful people, it appears that trouble had quickly come knocking at their door. Abraham then rescues Lot and liberates the land, subsequently Lot returns to Sodom and does not join again with Abraham. So disgusted with the ways of Lot Abraham must have been. He apparently didn’t think Lot was going to make it to be much of an heir so he began to consider the fact that Eliezar his slave could end up being his only heir, and then considered even naming any male born in his house as heir (chapter 15). But nonetheless Abraham loved Lot and it was well established by the example that he had set earlier that he was going to rescue this kinsmen of his at any risk to himself. This is why the Torah went out of the way to tell this story of Lot’s rescue earlier, to show the motivation of Abraham’s heart to save his beloved relative.
When the angels arise in verse 16 and start to head towards Sodom, Abraham is said to escort them along the way, all the while Rashi tells us he still believed they were just nomadic travelers. At this point the narrative changes:
“And Hashem said,
‘Shall I conceal from Abraham
that which I am doing?'”
| Va’Hashem amar
| hamechaseh ani me’Avraham
| asher ani oseh
At this point we see a truly remarkable move, one that stands out as an astonishing moment in the history of interaction between G-d and man. G-d begins to consult with man, He begins to reveal His ways to Abraham. But something more dynamic is happening here than just that, we have seen G-d speaking to humans many other times leading up until now. The truly interesting part is that G-d is actually considering the reactions of Abraham to His plan, and even more exemplary Abraham is responding with true conviction of his position.
In verse 19 we have what appears as a verse of praise of Abraham’s directing his clan towards living a life of righteousness and doing justice, but it is also an indication that Abraham had his people always ready, on command, like a standing army to act in the aid of others. At the first indication of trouble in Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham would send help. Verses 18-19 are a very complicated way of saying that if G-d does not warn Abraham he is going to take his clan in a rescue and risk getting carried away in the destruction. Therefore he needs to be advised what is going take place.
This is what I find so amazing about this story, that Abraham was so reckless in his pursuit of doing righteousness and justice that G-d needed to plan around Abraham’s reactions. Abraham was living up to the call made on him by G-d in chapter 17:1,
“I am the Almighty,
walk before Me and be wholehearted.”
| Ani el shadai
| hit’halech lifnei vehayeh tamim
Walk Before Me
Now, I’d hate to sound trite in bringing up the often considered distinction made between the righteousness of Abraham and that of Noah; but it is needfully important for us to consider it. All you faithful Torah students, humor me just for a while as we look at this once again.
In the face of the past cataclysmic form of judgment we saw enacted by G-d through the great flood, we see the description of Noah as “Et elohim hithalech noach / Noach walked with G-d.” Actually it says a bit more, it first says “Noach ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav / Noach was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation.” And this is where our frequently mentioned Midrash takes over. It’s not just a best loved point in our day, it was so in the Talmudic age as well because we see it mentioned in Sanhedrin 108a, Midrash Rabbah 30 and Midrash Tanchumah 5; which is likewise noted by Rashi, which is why most of us know this point. The point being that understanding the nature of Noah’s level of righteousness was held in the words “in his generation.” It’s noted that the best that can be said concerning Noah is that if he had lived among other righteous people he might have been a better person, but for his generation he wasn’t such a bad guy. But Rashi seems of the opinion that it is blatantly derogatory towards Noah, saying “but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”
If we go back to the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 108a we are told that the School of Ishmael is of the opinion that G-d was sorry he made all flesh on account of their corruptness, and the judgment being carried out rightfully included Noah; but nevertheless Noah was shown favor by G-d that He should save him, in spite of himself. Noah is one of the sinners.
Midrash Rabbah 30:9 makes the most interesting of descriptions when it comes to Noah, trying to sum up opinions presented in the Talmud section mentioned above us tries to bring this home to us in the age or Torah living, saying: “Had he lived in the age of Moses, he might be compared to a tightly closed vial of perfume lying in a graveyard, which nevertheless gave forth a fragrant odor; how much more then if it were outside a graveyard!”
In fact in all the commentary of Noah there is only one Rabbi that comes to the defense of Noah, Rabbi Yose of Cesaria who claims that Noah as a righteous man surely reached out to the people in order that they repent and to save them from judgment. But in unison the Rabbis reply that they don’t see it, that is precisely what he did not attempt to do at all.
What we have is the image of a Noah that once the destruction was pronounced by ha-elohim, G-d using His name of judgment and authority, Noah is in step with it and never challenges it nor questions it. There is no intercession on behalf of the people, nor is there any evidence of an attempt to save anyone else. Not to get sidetracked, but that was one of the interesting things about Noah’s situation was that all he had to do was create the ark. Everything else would be taking care of by G-d Himself. In fact that was one of the stipulations of the covenant that G-d made with Noah in return for his obedience for building the ark, that He would cause the animals and his family to come into it and be saved. He didn’t need to do any saving, G-d was going to do the saving he just had to make the room (Gen. 6:18).
Our Midrash, brings us back to Abraham now in contrast to Noah saying:
“NOAH WALKED WITH G-D. |
Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nechemiah, |
Rabbi Yose said: |
This may be compared to a king |
who had two sons, |
one grown up and the other a small child. |
To the child he said ‘walk with me,’ |
but to the adult, ‘Walk before me.’ |
Similarly, to Abraham, whose |
[moral] strength was great [He said] |
‘Walk before Me’; |
of Noah, whose strength was feeble |
[it says], ‘Noah walked with G-d.” |
את האלהים התהלך נח
ר‘ יהודה ור‘ נחמיה
משל לשר שהיו
לו שני בנים
א‘ גדול וא‘ קטן
אמר לקטן הלך עמי
ואמר לגדול בא והלך לפני
שהיה כחו יפה
והיה תמים אבל נח שהיה כחו רע
את האלהים התהלך נח
Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 30:10
Noah is presented as being a feeble, almost sickly child needing to be helped along. But Abraham in contrast is one that goes before G-d as an mature adult, leading the way of morality.
Our Rabbis come to this conclusion of Abraham, though without directly saying, because of his vigorous debate with G-d at this point concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact even before we get to the debate it appears that the messengers needed to try to get the shake on Abraham because he’s not gonna like what he has to hear.
The messengers get up to go and one of them stops to speak with Abraham, revealing who they are and what the plan is. G-d spells it out for Abraham, not just the judgment, but also that but he is going to “descend and see, have they done everything implied by the outcry that is coming before Me? If not, I will know.”
As Abraham is being distracted in conversation, we read, “vayifanu misham ha-anashim / and the men turned from there / vayahlchu sidomah / and went toward Sodom.” We are told that messengers had to divert their path. Why? “v’Avraham odenu omed, lifney Hashem / because Abraham stood before Hashem.” Though G-d is revealing He is going to send His messengers to know for certain and witness the situation, Abraham is still not satisfied and tries to stand in front of them. The angel speaking with Abraham disappears, the others have left so now he takes up the issues with G-d directly referring to Him by His name of mercy and in a personal tone as “adonai.” (note: not YHVH, though that is who is being addressed he only calls Him “adonai,” showing He understand the nature of the coming Torah and relationship even though it isn’t fully revealed yet)
Abraham begins to plead on behalf the souls of the people within the five towns of Sodom, that G-d forgive the entire population on behalf of a small number of upstanding people. And so begins a process of persistent haggling between G-d and Abraham, beginning with him considering 50 righteous people. Notice there is no attempt for them go look for these people, they stay there as though they are considering the names of people. As Abraham is unable to come up with that count he decreases the number to 45, 30, 20, and 10; they can’t even come up with an average of two righteous people per city of Sodom! Here the haggling ends. The angels continue on their way; one angel to rescue Lot and his family, and the other to enact judgment on the towns.
Though Abraham’s appeal did not have the result of saving the towns as he desired, he is credited forever for putting up a fight before G-d Himself to act justly, using the words “Far be it from You to do this thing, to slay the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You, shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly (mishpat)?” Abraham is so bold to say that G-d is the ultimate Judge, and since the ultimate knowledge of the law is in Him, He should reconsider the case. He understood that part of being a judge is to adjudicate (mishpat) which is not just to sentence but to also acquit; G-d should find a way and he, Abraham, is going to try to help Him find the way.
With this in mind we reach the heart of the message I take away when reading this parsha at this time, here in the second clause of Midrash Rabbah 30:10. As is the case most often in rabbinic discourse the best is save for last, as Rabbi Nehemiah is quoted as comparing Noah to a man who is the friend of a king, the man is wandering in the darkness of an alley and stumbling in filth. So the king says to his friend to come and walk with him instead. Noah walk’s with G-d because he needs to find his way, to hold him up. G-d is his crutch.
In contrast, the Rabbi says of Abraham that the example is in the opposite manner. It is as though the king, who we clearly understand as being G-d, is the one that is stumbling in the darkness. He calls to His friend who has a candle to come out and help Him find His way, to go before Him and help Him and guide the correct path.
And this is the remarkable point of the story that G-d is calling Abraham, and us as extension by being children of Abraham, to walk before Him. Not just to be in step with the morality of G-d but to also exceed it, to go before it.
Now liberal scholars will point as this being a maturing point in the development of the scripture’s description of G-d. I’m not much of a liberal in that regard, but I will agree with the likes of those who would see this as not so much a development on the part of a personal G-d but a development of the state of godliness in man, that we reflect as being made in the image of G-d (betzelem Elohim). However I think, that here Abraham having a personal experience with G-d through mercy, likewise expected such justice to be shown to others.
Maybe the minority is right. Maybe Noah isn’t such a bad person, he lived in a terrible age and among terrible people. It was a dog eat dog world. Survival of the fittest was the rule of the land. As with the previous description he was perfume in a cemetery, a treasure in the most obscene smelling place imaginable.
The problem though, in my understanding, is that Noah was a bottle that was sealed tight. There is no issue of not being strong enough to overpower the funk of the smell of the rotting around it, but there is a big problem in that as a vial of perfume the last thing one should be is sealed tight with no ability to have an impact on it’s surroundings. It’s existence is sad, in that it doesn’t even live up to it’s true usefulness. Is that how we are going to be? So afraid of wasting and tainting ourselves, by mingling with the putrid around us, that we have no impact for the benefit of others? If so the midrash identifies the type of person that we are, the kind that uses religion as a crutch.
Or are we going to be as Abraham. A person who goes before G-d. A person who persistently pushes the bounds of justice and mercy. How I wish that there were more of us, willing to take this Torah so seriously and the promise of Abraham, that we are not embarrassed to be spazzed; running after G-d, standing in His way, pleading with Him and bartering with Him on how to show mercy to those that are under judgment and oppression.