By Simon Gordon
“…God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children. For the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
And the Lord remembered Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived...”
What purpose does the Abimelech episode serve in the Abraham and Sarah narrative? Is there a link between God’s restoration of Philistine fertility and His long-awaited award of a child to Sarah, recounted immediately afterwards?
The encounter with Abimelech seems identical to that with Pharaoh, described in last week’s sedrah. Why go through the same rigmarole again? Indeed, ultimately, we get the same or a similar story three times, with the third involving Isaac, Rebecca, and Abimelech later on.
For source critics, these analogous accounts highlight the multiple authorship of the Torah. In his Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis, E.A. Speiser identifies the Abraham/Abimelech story as the first connected narrative of the E (Elohist) source, which synthesises the other two, both of which derive from the J (Yahwist) source.
He points out that the Isaac/Rebecca/Abimelech/Gerar story parallels the Abraham/Sarah/Pharaoh/Egypt story, with no cast or location overlap, or indeed narrative inconsistencies. By contrast, the Abraham/Sarah/Abimelech/Gerar story not only borrows cast and location equally from the other two, but also introduces problems. Sarah, by this point, is ninety. So how can she attract the attentions of Abimelech? And why does Abimelech – who comes across as wise the first time round – fall for the same ruse again with Isaac?
“As soon as they are traced back to two separate sources”, writes Speiser, “all the contradictions and inconsistencies are resolved automatically.”
Maybe. Or maybe that just begs the question. Even if the Abraham/Abimelech story is a later synthesis, why, in the final redacted Masoretic version of the Torah, does it appear here, right before the birth of Isaac?
In his book Inheriting Abraham, Jon D. Levenson remarks that whereas it is ambiguous whether Pharaoh consummates relations with Sarai, Abimelech is prevented from doing so. The E version, therefore, could be an attempt to dispel any possible doubt about Isaac’s parentage.
But perhaps we can find a better explanation by stepping back from the source criticism, and taking a more holistic approach.
In his study of the book of Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, the philosopher Leon Kass explains the stories surrounding Abraham and Sarah’s relationship as a divine education in the sanctity of marriage.
By leasing Sarah to harems and using her handmaid Hagar to father a child, Abraham has, in Kass’s terminology, “unwived” Sarah – undermining not just her status but the bond between them. But Abimelech, with the restitution he makes for Sarah, re-establishes her dignity. Writes Kass: “Just as Shem and Japheth, covering Noah’s nakedness, restored his social status as their father, so Abimelech, covering Sarah’s eyes, restores Sarah’s reputation and status as Abraham’s wife – not just for his fellow Gerarites, but for Abraham himself.” Only once the marriage has been thus repaired can Isaac be born.
Kass’s interpretation provides a reminder that God’s covenant with Abraham presages the covenant at Sinai. The story of Abraham and Sarah is itself part of a wider narrative, and a foretaste of teachings to come.
Like Abraham and Sarah’s relationship, the Torah is more than the sum of its parts.
Simon Gordon is a professional writer and was formerly assistant editor of Mosaic Magazine. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.