Sunday, February 19, 2006

Genesis (Bereshit) Part Six

The Wanderings of Abram

Genesis 12:10-13:18

Abram and his people are dwelling in the southern portion of Canaan, in the land of Negeb. They are faced with severe famine and decide to sojourn to Egypt in search of food. By making this journey Abram knows of the consequences. It could bring peril to his life. For Abram’s wife is a beautiful woman and we are told that because of this, he may be killed. He instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister, "that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you."

When the Egyptians saw how very beautiful Sarai was, Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh. She was taken to the royal palace. And because of her Abram acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels.
However because of this Pharaoh and his household were afflicted with mighty plagues on account of Sarai. We are told that Pharaoh determines that Sarai is indeed Abram’s wife. He calls Abram and confronts him. He then sends Abram and Sarai and all that Abram possesses off from Egypt.( This is a precursor for things to come.)
Abram is now a very rich man. He proceeds gradually from his home in Negeb to Bethel, the place that he formerly dwelt. Bethel is where he had erected an altar and called upon the Lord.

Lot, the nephew of Abram was grown by now and had flocks, herds, servants and tent of his own. Quarrels arose between Lot’s people and Abram’s herdsman. There were also Canaanites and Perizzites dwelling in the land. Abram was wise. He wanted no problems with the inhabitants of the land. He said to Lot, "Let there be no strife between us, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before us? Let us separate. If you go north, I will go south." Lot saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan all the was to Zoar. And that this land was like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.

Abram settled in Canaan (as he was commanded) and Lot chose the Jordan plain and dwelt in the cities of the plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.

After this parting the Lord once again comes to Abram and says, "Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to your and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you."

Abram once again did as he was commanded, moved his tent and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre which are at Hebron and there he built an altar to the Lord.

There is so much information in these few verses that I have condensed. First of all what is the deal with Abram insisting that Sarai tell the Egyptians that she is his sister? This raises some historical as well as moral questions.

It may be very well possible that Sarai was Abram’s sister. Throughout Jewish history and into modern times, intermarriage is prevalent. Sarai and Abram may have had the same father but different mothers. Abram’s brother Nahor marries, Milcah, the daughter of their deceased brother Haran. By Abram telling Sarai to say that she was his sister, she may have been indeed, speaking the truth.

Additionally based on the assumption that Abram lived about 1500 B.C.E (before the common era), the word sister could have had an additional meaning in Hurrian terminology. Today sister could mean Nun, or in French, English and German cultures it could mean Nurse.

In Hurrian culture there are surviving documents that show that a man could adopt his wife as his sister thereby giving her special status. She would be treated as a blood relative of her husband’s family. It may be assumed that such adoptions took place in the upper stratum of society where inheritance and family bonds were important. Thus both Abram and Sarai should be provided with special status in order to provide assurance that both of them would be treated with respect. The Egyptians understood Hurrian culture, therefore no harm befell the couple.

Whatever the reason for Abram’s decision some commentators view this in a different light. Some conclude this was a ruse for Abram to bid for time until the famine ended in Canaan and then he could take his wife and leave Egypt. Others disapprove and note that since Abram could not make a reply to Pharaoh’s reprimand since this had left Abram in a very embarrassing situation of having lied and been rewarded for it. It was a lie. It was sin.

This also raises a moral dilemma. What judgement can befall a man when the choices before him present mortal danger? In these modern times, in our present culture, we cannot begin to understand the issue that confronted him. We are merely presented with the prospects before him. The text states the problem, Abram’s solution and leaves it to the reader to ponder to situation.

Jewish teaching has held that even under duress, no man may intentionally kill or commit a sexual crime on an innocent person. The application of this principal often poses questions that can only be answered in the context of the situation. In the Nuremberg trials after WWll one of the key points was defining the limits of a man’s right to say "I had no choice."

The Arabic reading of this passage goes into more detail. In it we are told that;
Sarai is the sister of Lot and the daughter of Aran, Abraham’s paternal uncle. It is said that she was the daughter of the king of Haran and her mother was daughter of the Kutba, the king of Babylon. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was so beautiful that Abram transported her to Egypt in a chest. When entering Egypt, Abram was obliged to give a tithe of all his goods. At first he refused to open the chest. When he was finally forced to open it an official ran and told Pharaoh.

Abram and Sarai were then taken before Pharaoh and it is here that Abram tells Pharaoh that she is his sister. Upon hearing this, Pharaoh reaches out to take Sarai’s hand with the supposition to marry her. Sarai prays to God that the kings hand would wither if he touched her and that his hand would be restored if he took it away. This was repeated three times. Abram was witness to it. The walls of the kings house became transparent for all to see. Pharaoh comes to understand that Sarai is Abram’s wife and he restores her to Abram. He also loaded her with presents and allowed her to chose for herself one of his slave girls. Sarai chose Hagar.

I do not know if this story is taken from the Koran or from Arabic tradition.

The next passages deal with the decision between Abram and Lot to go their separate ways. This establishes Abram’s claim to the Land. Lot recalls the hardships, the famine, the quarreling, in essence the past. He looks forward with the eyes of man and sees greener pastures and sources of water. Lot has no qualms in leaving and this sets the stage for God to speak with Abram once again and reassure Their Covenant.

All that glitters is not gold for Lot as we shall see in the upcoming studies. The Bible states that Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. When the Bible mentions cities, as we have seen in the past study of Babel, the undertone is that cities are bad places to live. Life in these times were nomadic. Some chose to find land and dwell there to farm and raise their flocks and herds. In those times, the city was a place of evil.

Lots departure reemphasises the fact that God’s gift of the Promised Land was a covenant between God and Abram. Therefore Abram’s claim to Canaan, Zion, Palestine, Israel whatever you will call it is done by this most sacred Covenant with Adonai ha’ Elyon, God most high, the Almighty. It cannot and will not be undone by men. To those that state that this is a matter of faith, they are not taking in to account that for ages and ages Jews have believed that their relationship to the Land has the sanction of Almighty God. This claim is based on thousands of years of possession and loss, presence and absence. The people, despite attempts of annihilation have survived without the Land and the Land without the people, but God and His Word have entered into this special relationship and placed His Seal upon Israel, upon Canaan, upon Zion has the spiritual and physical home of His people, the ones that chose Him.

Despite what happens presently or in the future, we can be certain that any nation that attempts to conquer and over take Israel will be cast out and defeated not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of the Almighty.

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