Vayeira by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Vayera - painting is binding of isaac by Marc Chagall

King Abimelech, Sarah, and Abraham (Genesis 20)

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

 

Greetings, Stranger! You may approach my throne, and touch the tip of my scepter. Why? Why, to show that I am your liege lord and ruler, for as long as you visit my kingdom, that of Philistia, in this, my capital city of Gerar. Yes, I know that my capital is not very large—just my mud-brick hut—I mean, palace—a bit of defensive rampart-wall, and some lesser huts for my followers and warriors. We have also, a number ofsheep, goats, and cattle, of which we are very proud. Gerar is not large, but we will persist: indeed, thousands of years hence, it will be excavated and noted as the Wadi al-Jerdr, in the Valley of Nahal Gerar. It was not strategically sound to build a settlement in a valley—defensive tactics would require us to build on the high ground. One never knows when those pesky Egyptians might come to attack us, again, as they did under Pharaoh Ramesses III. Still, live and let live, say I….

What’s that? Oh, you are curious as to my encounter with that—Hebrew, he calls himself? Abraham? Yes, I recall meeting him and his beauteous wife, Sarah. This, despite scholars of later years claiming that our meeting would have been a chronological impossibility—my people did not arrive in this land from the sea (for we are a seafaring folk, and farming did not come naturally to us) until 1131 BCE, and your Abraham and his mini-tribe flourished in 1921 BCE. Your Torah-book of Genesis plays fast-and-loose with historical dates, does it not? Hey?

Oh, the story—well, can you blame me for falling love with Sarah? My own wife, Baalimah, was a termagant; I married her only to seal the covenant with her father, Amraphel, king of Moab. He was mighty and numerous; we Philistines, alas, were few. But what a bruising did Baalimah give me on our wedding night! She was so impossible to live with, that I sought refuge in my palace, sleeping right here on my royal throne which, truth to tell, is not very comfortable. That bullying wife of mine took over our entire house!

I resolved to die a bachelor. Still, a man grows lonely for female companionship, and when Sheikh Abraham arrived in town with his family and cattle—so many cattle!—he told me that Sarah was his sister. I was too entranced with her modesty and flashing eyes to fully comprehend; I was smitten, can you blame me? Abraham also hinted at establishing a future alliance between his tribe and mine. He reminded me of his military prowess during the War of the Seven Kings(We hear everything that goes on in the neighborhood), when he rescued that hapless nephew of his, Lot. It all sounded very promising.

“I would be highly interested in marrying your sister Sarah, Lord Abraham,” I ventured. It was a win-win, as far as I and my people were concerned; a tribal alliance, along with my gaining a fresh wife (barring Baalimah, that scold and albatross of mine) of passing beauty. Sarah fluttered her eyelashes at me from behind her veil, and Abraham smiled through his beard, that wily desert fox!

The wedding-feast was magnificent—my royal cooks and bakers outdid themselves, truly—and I gently ushered my new bride, Sarah, into our bridal chamber, built specially for the occasion by my most talented contractors. One was the great-great-grandson of a craftsman who had assisted Noah—I spared no expense, I can tell you! I climbed into the bridal bed, but was immediately smitten by an overwhelming fatigue—probably all the barley-beer and honey-mead I had drunk, more than I should have. I tucked my new wifey in, and myself fell into bed, snoring away.

Gradually, I fell deeper and deeper into my slumbers—to sleep, perchance to dream, as my retainer, Shakes-club likes to say—and did, indeed, dream—of the Hebrew God, can you imagine? Thereafter followed the strangest dialogue I have ever had, whether in heaven or upon the earth:

“See here, Abimelech,” the Voice of the Hebrew God said, “you will surely die, for you have taken to wife and to bed another man’s wife.”

“Not so, Hebrew Lord God,” I answered—a great deal more coherent in my dreams than in my drunkenness, I can tell you! “for the man Abraham told me that she was his sister, and why was I not to believe him, Your servant? And furthermore, will you slay the innocent with the guilty? Indeed, I and my people are truly righteous, for I have not approached her; no, not at all.”

The Hebrew God appeared to be thinking, at that point: “Hmm—you are right, Abimelech,” he said, and I inwardly rejoiced; He was not going to destroy my people and me—especially me—after all. “For I know that you have a simple heart (Now, that stung), and did this deed in all simplicity.”

“I thank you, Hebrew Lord,” I said, humbly (at least, in my dream; in my heart, I was angry at Abraham, truly livid, and already thinking of revenge on him for fooling me).

“Nonetheless,” returned the Hebrew God, “lay not a hand upon this man, for he is a prophet, no mistake, and will pray on your behalf to spare your life, on the off chance that I change My mind, which I am known to do.” I gulped. “You certainly do not want your tribe and you to be destroyed by Me, hmm?”

I bowed my head, wishing the dream over, and so it was.

The next morning, I gathered my servants and my household guard, and told them of Abraham, Sarah, and the Dream—a great deal of which they knew about already, for several of them had had the identical dream, edited to include their names in place of mine.

“Summon Abraham immediately!” I ordered, and had a side-chair placed for Lady Sarah, whom I now knew to be Abraham’s wife, not sister. The guards went and fetched him, but, on my express orders, did him no harm; I was well cognizant of his God’s warning. True; but I did give him a tongue-lashing:

“How dare you pass this winsome creature off as your sister?” I raged, while Abraham stood, proud, smug, and impassive—the Hebrew certainly knew himself to be his God’s favorite, and feared no man, least of all me—“And now, I demand an explanation?”

Wily Abraham stated, “It is true that she is my sister, for my father bore her, but not my mother, and the laws against incest do not yet apply, until the future time of the Torah of Moses.”

“Hmph!” I snorted, but had to accept his explanation; after all, his God’s might and power were behind him.

“Boys,” I commanded my soldiers and servants, “Gather a nice flock of cattle, add male- and female-servants, and present them to this fellow.”

My men were aghast. “But, Majesty,” they protested, “This fellow did you a bad turn—why are you gifting him with such largesse?”

“Never mind,” I said, “just fetch the goats and the people, and escort this—this—four-flusher out of town.

Abraham smiled through his beard and turned on his heel to leave, without even a by-your-leave from me, a king. I called to his back, “Lord Abraham! I curse you, for committing the sins of pride and deception. May there be eternal war between your Hebrew tribe and that of my people, Philistia; for we will forever dwell on the Canaanite seacoast, and you will hear from us again. We will come, bearing not cattle, but war, eternal war.”

And the Hebrew God blessed us with children, if not prosperity….


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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