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The Pledge of Avimelekh

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Pledge of Avimelekh

By Rav Michael Hattin




            Parashat Vayera begins with God's unexpected visitation to Avraham, in the immediate aftermath of his punctilious performance of the command of circumcision.  Three dusty wayfarers suddenly appear on the horizon at the heat of the day, and the aged patriarch quickly rises from his tent-flap perch to greet them.  Graciously, he invites them to break bread but then proceeds, with the involvement of his wife and servants, to prepare a sumptuous feast in their honor.  But it soon becomes apparent that the guests are no mere mortals, for they bear joyous tidings from God Himself: Sarah, despite her advanced years, will shortly conceive and give birth to a son.


            Abruptly, the angelic visitors terminate the banquet, and two of them rise and advance in the direction of Sodom and its satellites, as Avraham is informed of their imminent overthrow.  Boldly, he proceeds to engage the Deity in heated negotiation, attempting to win a reprieve for the sinful cities.  God acquiesces to his demands for justice, but in the end, there are not even ten righteous people – the critical mass needed to avert disaster – to be found in their wicked midst.  Sodom and its suburbs are destroyed, but Lot is miraculously spared and spirited out to the hills with his two surviving daughters.  There, in a dark and dismal cave, he writes his epitaph of infamy, by fathering children from his own two girls. 


            Avraham and his household now relocate, pitching their tents in the region of the arid Negev.  There, Avimelekh the king of Gerar seizes beautiful Sarah, but Divine intervention in the form of a threatening dream stays his hand.  After Avraham's intercession on their behalf, Avimelekh and his household are spared.  In the end, not only does he release Sarah, but provides her with generous gifts as well.  And as for Avraham, Avimelekh proclaims to him: "Behold my land is before you, dwell wheresoever you see fit" (Bereishit 20:15). 




            Finally, the Parasha reports the timely fulfillment of the angels' word, as Sarah gives birth to a son called Yitzchak (literally "he will laugh").  Dutifully, Avraham circumcises his son on the eighth day of his life.  Quickly, Yitzchak grows and is weaned, and his proud parents prepare a feast to celebrate the event.  It is then that Sarah decides to drive out Hagar and Yishma'el, after the lad had shown his scorn for all of the attention showered upon his young half-brother.  And with the painful banishment of Yishma'el and his mother Hagar that then follows, Yitzchak's position as undisputed heir is secured. 


            On the whole, then, while the Parasha is filled with many tense and seemingly disconnected but anxious moments, its overall trajectory is plain for all to see: it is the story of God's oft-repeated pledge to aged Avraham and Sarah finally being fulfilled.  As Lot and Yishma'el, the two supposed guarantors of the future, fall by the wayside, it now becomes apparent that it is only through Yitzchak that the legacy of Avraham and Sarah will be preserved and transmitted.  How patiently had the two of them waited for a child, how many painful disappointments had they endured in the twenty-five interminable years since their arrival in the land of Canaan!  But now God had at long last kept His word, and in that knowledge how they now tightly embraced their young and precious son.   


            The final episode of the Parasha, the Akeida or binding of Yitzchak, is now cast in sharper relief, for even as a disconnected event it surely would have represented the sorest test of Avraham's spiritual mettle.  But following as it does on the heels of everything else in the Parasha – most of it a joyous paean to the birth of beloved Yitzchak – the Akeida becomes a faith trial of astonishing proportions.




            Most curious, though, is the passage that immediately precedes the Akeida and directly follows the banishment of Hagar and Yishma'el.  This short and obscure section describes an interchange between Avimelekh and Avraham, their pedantic discussion concerning water rights, and the concluding of a covenant between them sealed by the presentation of seven sheep.  The timing of the section seems, in fact, to compound its obscurity, for it creates an inexplicable thematic wedge between the respective tales of Avraham's two sons.  Both of them experience near-death moments that are averted by sudden Divine intervention and both are vouchsafed a Divine promise of offspring and achievement.  But while Yishma'el the first is driven into the wilderness and rejected as successor to Avraham, Yitzchak the second is proclaimed in the Akeida's aftermath as the father of the budding nation.  Why then should the study in the glaring contrast of their destinies be interrupted by the visit of Avimelekh? 


The section reads as follows:


It was at that time that Avimelekh and Phichol his chief of staff said to Avraham: "the Lord is with you in all that you do.  Now therefore swear to me by the Lord here that you will not deal treacherously with me, nor with my son nor with my grandson.  Rather, you shall act towards me and towards the people of the land in which you have dwelled with the very same compassion that I have shown to you."  Avraham replied: "I will swear an oath." 


Avraham then rebuked Avimelekh concerning the well of water that the servants of Avimelekh had stolen from him.  But Avimelekh said: "I do not know who did this thing, nor did you tell me about it earlier, nor did I hear about it at all before now."  Avraham took sheep and cattle and gave it to Avimelekh, and they both concluded a covenant.  Avraham set up the seven sheep by themselves, and Avimelekh said to him: "what are these seven sheep that you have set up by themselves?"  He responded: "you shall accept these seven sheep from me as a testimony that I have dug this well."  Therefore that place was called Be'er Sheva, for there both of them swore an oath ("nishbi'u"). 


They concluded a covenant in Be'er Sheva, and Avimelekh and Phichol his chief of staff arose and returned to the land of the Philistines.  He (Avraham) planted a tamarisk in Be'er Sheva, and there he called on the name of God the eternal Lord.  Avraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many years (Bereishit 21:22-34).




            The basic components of the passage are straightforward enough.  Avimelekh, who had allowed Avraham and Sarah to dwell in his land, demands that the powerful patriarch provide a pledge that he will not harm Avimelekh's descendents after his demise.  Avraham agrees to do so, but takes the opportunity to rebuke the king of Gerar concerning the theft of a well of water by his servants.  Avimelekh denies any knowledge of the matter but Avraham insists on having his rights to the water formally recognized, and so he initiates an addendum to the pact of non-aggression.  The covenant is sealed by Avimelekh's acceptance of the seven sheep, an expression of his acknowledgment of Avraham's rights to the water.  The passage concludes with Avraham calling on the name of God and with the report that he dwelt in Avimelekh's territory for an extended period of time.


            At the core of the passage is an exploration of the limits of trust between parties that are bound up in some sort of a political but potentially rivalrous relationship.  Avimelekh feels the need to secure Avraham's pledge for the future, while Avraham insists on having his rights enshrined in the treaty as well.  Neither of the protagonists feels that they can afford to leave the fate of their offspring to vague declarations of goodwill and friendship.  Thus the two men conclude a formal covenant between themselves, a binding treaty that carefully and precisely spells out their respective responsibilities.




            Significantly, though, the premise of the treaty itself is intergenerational, for it assumes that the provisions spelled out by its terms will be binding upon the respective offspring of both Avimelekh as well as Avraham.  As Avimelekh states in his preamble: "Now therefore swear to me by the Lord here that you will not deal treacherously with me, nor with my son nor with my grandson…" (21:23). Additionally, we note that it is precisely the matter of Avraham's astonishing success that occasions Avimelekh's overture, a success that Avimelekh unabashedly ascribes to the fact that "God is with you in all that you do" (21:22). 


            And while Avraham is more than prepared to swear to Avimelekh's terms, he is not prepared to do so while overlooking a breach of the spirit of the contract by Avimelekh's servants, even while they are in the midst of sealing the agreement.  If Avimelekh demands that Avraham act towards him with "compassion," then he must be prepared to reciprocate.  Thus, Avraham demands action "concerning the well of water that the servants of Avimelekh had stolen from him" (21:25), and Avimelekh concurs.  Avraham, however, now taking a cue from his ally, insists that his rights to the disputed well at Be'er Sheva that he had dug be recognized in the treaty, and this he graphically reinforces by the presentation of the seven sheep.  These seven sheep introduce an important word play, for their number, "SheVA'" in the original Hebrew, directly relates to the oath or "SheVu'A" that is undertaken at the location.


            Finally, the episode concludes not with the departure of Avimelekh and his retinue, as we might have expected, but rather with Avraham's interaction with his beloved God.  Thus Avraham plants a tree at Be'er Sheva and there he calls out in the name of the "eternal God."  Just as the passage began with a God reference – Avimelekh's amazement (or is it bewilderment?) at Avraham's achievements and his attribution of that triumph to Divine intervention – so too does it conclude, with Avraham expressing profound gratitude to the eternal God who had granted him such goodness.  It seems then that Avimelekh and Avraham are in agreement that it is God who is responsible for the latter's success.




            Underlying the entire passage, of course, is the matter of treaty or covenant, namely that people who swear an oath to each other must obligate themselves to fulfill the provisions of the pledge.  How else can trust be built and fostered between different parties with diverse but overlapping interests, if not by each one of those parties being prepared to abide by the agreed-upon terms?  If Avimelekh cannot depend upon Avraham and vise versa, then any treaty concluded between them, no matter how lofty their respective compliments and how noble their good wishes, is utterly ineffectual and worthless!


            Having thus analyzed the elements of this passage, we may now be in a better position to appreciate the significance of its location in the Torah.  In a short textual moment (though after the chronological lapse of many years), God is about to call upon Avraham to take his beloved son to the land of Moriah.  This is the same God who had pledged to Avraham that a) He would provide him with offspring, and b) He would grant him the land of Canaan, so that the nation of Israel could be crafted from that offspring.  The Divine pledge of children and land had been repeated with great frequency throughout the parashiyot of Lekh Lekha and Vayera, and though we had all (Avraham, Sarah and the reader) been anxious about its fulfillment, God did not disappoint and in the end Sarah had a son that they joyously called Yitzchak, at Divine behest.


            That son rightfully represented in their minds the future, the very same future that Avimelekh foresees when he approaches Avraham and demands the conclusion of a treaty.  "Do not betray me," he insists, "and do not deal treacherously with my son or grandson either."  But then Avraham introduced the matter of the wells, emphasizing that for there to be trust there must be mutual respect, for Avimelekh can scarcely be a signatory to a treaty if he or his servants are in breach of its provisions.  Can one rely upon his fellow if that fellow is undependable?  The implication of this unsettling and rhetorical query is pronounced: what makes my God so reliable, Avraham seems to suggest, is that I know that He will not fail to uphold His side of OUR covenant, of the pledge that He extended to me when I left the land of Charan.  God's word is unassailable and His commitment to His pledge is forever, for He is "God, the eternal Lord."




            Thus it is that although the passage relates the story of the interaction of Avimelekh with Avraham, predicating their mutual trust upon the matter of oaths and pledges, responsibilities and obligations, constancy and dependability, it really serves as a foil for the ongoing story of the interaction of God with Avraham.  Had not that interaction been consistently framed in the same terms?  Hadn't God extended oaths and pledges, communicated responsibilities and obligations, demonstrated constancy and dependability, all of it revolving around the axis of Yitzchak's birth and then his growth and maturation into the progenitor of the nation?  Avimelekh looks towards the future, thinking of his son and his grandson after him, and for the very first time in his long and eventful life, Avraham is able to do the same!  And while Avimelekh fears treachery and betrayal, therefore insisting upon a formal treaty, Avraham fears neither, for his God, the eternal Lord, the transcendent God who champions and demands moral conduct from His adherents, neither deceives nor acts with duplicity.


            In the end, the seven sheep are accepted and the treaty is sealed.  There will no disputes about the ownership of the well and Avimelekh's descendents will be safe.  The Philistine king, his mind at ease, departs with his enforcer, and Avraham turns towards his God in gratitude.  He plants a tree, often (because of its great longevity) a potent symbol of the future, in His honor, and he turns to Him in prayer.  We can imagine his silent words to God as his aged heart overflows with gratitude and appreciation: "thank You God for granting me a son, thank You for fulfilling Your pledge, and thank You for being dependable and worthy of my undying trust.  While Avimelekh may have wronged me, You never have.  And while the treaty that we just now concluded with such fanfare may in the future after my demise be breached, You will never abrogate Your treaty with me, for You are eternal, Your essence is compassion, and Your seal is truth!"




            Enter the episode of the Akeida, for if we thought before our above analysis that the trial represented an astonishing test in light of the Parasha's preoccupation with the birth of beloved Yitzchak, we must now adjust our conclusions not by a few degrees but rather by orders of magnitude.  "God said to him: "Avraham!" and he said "here I am."  He said: "Take now your son, your only son, the one whom you love, take Yitzchak, and go forth to the land of Moriah.  Offer him there as a wholly burnt sacrifice upon one of the summits that I will show you!" (22:1-2). What was to become now of Divine dependability, of the fulfillment of His pledge, of the future of His promise?  How to reconcile now the immutability, trustworthiness and constancy of God's word with His demands for Yitzchak's untimely and cruel return?   Avimelekh's fears of treachery and betrayal, forcefully countered by his own reassurances that one who champions an absolute and ethical Deity can be depended upon, suddenly flooded into the patriarch's reeling mind.  Is not a pledge holy and an oath of offspring sacrosanct?  Ought not God's oft-repeated vow be at least as predictable as a treaty signed by the mercurial monarch of the Philistines?!


            Avraham's willingness to go forward in the fulfillment of God's demand must therefore be understood not only against the backdrop of the Parasha as a whole, but especially in light of what immediately precedes it in the text.  The treaty talk with Avimelekh therefore serves as a jarring juxtaposition, for Avraham's crisis of faith was compounded by the events of the earlier pact.  Avimelekh had approached him and spoken of compassion and trust, and Avraham – thinking of the example set by his own God – had set Avimelekh's mind at ease.  The king of Gerar sought a pledge concerning the future, and Avraham – casting a loving glance towards his precious Yitzchak – was prepared.  The Philistines stressed that treaties and agreements are binding, and Avraham – recalling God's own fulfillment of His oath – agreed.  But now God Himself was poised to break His promise, abrogating the very agreement whose terms Avraham had upheld with such devotion!


            And yet, the aged patriarch betrayed no lack of trust as he dutifully arose the next morning and saddled his donkey, taking his son and the provisions for sacrifice, setting his sights for Moriah and for the unbearable encounter with God that awaited him there.  Thus it is that Avraham's faith at that hour invites us to reconsider our own appreciation of his loyalty to God, surely challenging our unspoken thoughts that perhaps this man is not as exceptional as tradition has made him out to be!  Avraham is now exposed for what he truly is: a possessor of a conviction and a steadfastness so profound that we can scarcely stand the blinding illumination that it throws upon our own sordid doubts!  If Avraham could continue to trust, in spite of all that he and Sarah had experienced, could we dare to dismiss the challenge?  If Avraham could maintain his faith, even as he imagined Avimelekh now scoffing at his unshakable trust – for eternal God now seemed to renege on His word! – then what of us?


            It is instructive to note, and with this we shall conclude, that in the end, the treaty with Avimelekh was not long thereafter abrogated by the king or by his successor of the same name.  After the death of Avraham, when Yitzchak and Rivka were forced by famine to return to the land of the Philistines, Avraham's earlier claims to the well were denied.  In spite of the treaty of friendship that was supposed to extend well into the lives of sons and grandsons, the jealousy of the Philistines won the day:


…all of the wells that his father's servants had dug, were sealed by the Philistines and filled with earth.  Avimelekh said to him: "go away from us, for you have become more powerful than we are!" (26:15-16).


Thus the lesson was driven home most forcefully.  In the final analysis, pledges of people, even when sealed by official treaty and even when extended in friendship, are never ironclad.  New circumstances frequently demand re-evaluations and often the result is an abrogation of earlier promises.  And though we often wonder, especially when buffeted by suffering and hardship, about the dependability of God in our own personal lives, His pledge to our ancestors is above reproach and His commitment to our future as a people is unwavering. 


A voice said: "cry out!," and I said "what shall I cry?" "All flesh is like grass, and all of their compassion is like the flower of the field!"  The grass becomes dry and the flower fades, for the wind of God has blown it, truly the people are like grass.  The grass becomes dry and the flower will fade, but the word of our God shall endure forever (Yeshayahu 40:6-8).