When we study the life of Avraham, the question often arises, why him? Out of all the people in the world, why did God choose Avraham, what made him so special that even today he is the most revered figure in Jewish history, his merit keeping the Jewish people from destruction even to this day? One of the answers to that question is found in this weeks readings.
"I (YHVH) have loved him because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of YHVH, doing charity and justice..." There is no question that Avraham himself was a godly man, he kept God’s torahs and statues himself. That in and of itself is unique, to go against the tide of wickedness in the world and stand for truth and righteousness. But that is not enough. I once heard a preacher say that Christianity is always one generation from extinction. That is true of every religion and philosophy, Torah faith is no different. It is crucial that we teach our children the ways of YHVH so that they may continue in the ways of God and teach their children. It is said in Jewish homes that to have children who follow Torah is important but you only know if you have succeeded if your grandchildren are brought up in it too.
What then is the way of YHVH we are to teach our children? To do charity (tzedikah) and justice (mishpat). Tzeddikah is not charity like we think of in the NT-emotional love. It is the act of doing righteousness. In it’s ancient meaning, we can break it down like this. Tzade is to hunt or chase, dalet is a door or way in, and the qoph is a rising or setting sun, that which shrinks the darkness. Tzaddik then is to run after the way of shrinking the darkness or chaos, the way of the Son. This is what Avraham was commended for in ch 15. Deut 6:25 say that if we do the commandments, we show we are on the way. Ps 5:8 and Prov 12:28 clearly demonstrate that Tzaddik is a way of going, a path one takes. God’s ways are often described as righteous and we tell of it. This means that we tell of God’s activities that are in that path, which, of course, they all are. We are then to follow that example.
What then is mishpat, justice? It is used in the scriptures as a synonym for the commandments and to describe the way of dealing fairly with our brothers and sisters. Isa 5:7 contrasts justice with oppression/bloodshed. In its ancient meaning, mem is water/chaos/unknown, shin is teeth or sharp, peh is the mouth/open/speak and the tet is a container/basket or surround. The chaos is pierced by the mouth that contains. In other words, when a proper judgement is given, chaos loses ground, it is contained. As you can see, it goes hand in hand with tzaddik. On the earth before the flood, the world had been void of these two things. No one follows the path of taddik, save Noach, and the whole world was filled with bloodshed, the opposite of justice. The result was total chaos upon the earth. Avraham was loved because he would ensure that his posterity would uphold these two crucial principles. We have a duty to follow in his example wherever we can. We must speak up for justice and fairness and steadfastly follow the way of righteousness. Ps 33:5-He loves righteousness and judgment, the earth is filled with the steadfast love of the YHVH. Micah 6:8 What does YHVH require of you but to do mishpat, to love chesed and to walk humbly with your God-taddikah. This is our duty and goal.
During the course of his nomadic travels, Avraham is in contact with the indigenous peoples of Canaan fairly often. A nomad had to keep good relations with such people for the purposes of trade and so he could use the surrounding land unharassed. If relations were good, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. After the locals had brought in their crops, the nomads would graze their flocks over the stubble and the flocks would fertilized the land for the next season. Each group had items that the other needed so trade was an important part of the relationship as well. One of the people Avraham was in contact with quite often was Avimelech, the king of Gerar.
Gerar is located in an area south east of Gaza, which is why Avimelech is associated with the Philistines although he is not of the same line as the warlike ‘Sea People’. These were the people who invaded and settled here after the time of the patriarchs and harassed Israel through the peroid of the judges and David. It is hard to imagine that the all powerful Philistines of a later time would have sent Isaac the nomad away because ‘you are more powerful than we’. The name Avimelech itself is probably not a proper name but a title which means ‘my father is king’ or ‘royal father’, not unlike the title ‘Pharaoh’ or ‘Caesar’. This would explain the association of this ‘name’ with several kings of this region.
We are all familiar with this first encounter. Avraham tells Sarah to say she is his sister rather than his wife so they don’t kill him to take her. Avimelech, struck by her beauty (at around 90!) takes her to be his wife, probably adding to a harem. YHVH closes every womb in Gerar and appears to Avimelech who promptly returns her to Avraham with gifts. We need to look at Avimelech a little more closely. What kind of man is he? No where in all the accounts of him, at least the king in Avraham’s time, is there ever any negative portrayals. In fact it is Avimelech who chastises Avraham for deceit. When he finds out about some of his herdsmen stealing a well, he promptly returns it. A look at his conversation with YHVH will tell us even more about this man.
First, there is a conversation which does not surprise Avimelech. He is not fearful of the act of communicating, only the message. Avimelech had a relationship with God that allowed him to recognize his voice and the character to obey it. It was also a close enough relationship that, like Avraham pleading for the righteous in Sodom, he could argue with God for a ‘reduction in sentence’ which was also successful. Why? Because he was a righteous man. Avimelech says that he did these things in the ‘innocence of his heart’ and the ‘integrity of his hands’. The word translated innocence is ‘tom’ or perfection, order. Psalm 26:6 “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about thy altar, O LORD”. The word for ‘integrity’ is ‘niqayon’ which is clean, free from punishment. It is a word that is used to describe men like Jacob, David and Job. He uses two terms to demonstrate that both his actions and intentions were pure. By doing so, Avimelech is putting himself on what we may consider a very high level of righteousness. God does not disagree. In fact, God informs him that it was He who kept him from tarnishing his righteousness unaware by not allowing Avimelech to touch her.
Why is all this important? Because it destroys our prejudices. Avraham must have thought he was the only righteous man of his time. He went to Gerar assuming that ‘there was no fear of God’ in the place. He was wrong and his error brought pain and sorrow not just to him but to all the people of the city. Avraham had the same mentality we often do. We look at the people around us and assume that because they don’t look like us or believe like us or are part of our group, they don’t know God. We walk around believing that we are the only righteous people we know. Such a belief causes pain and isolation. We miss out on relationships that could be beneficial to all. This is one time we do not want to emulate Avraham. We should not go around assuming ‘there is no fear of God in this place’. There just may be. It may not be as developed as ours or it may be on such a high plane we don’t recognize it. But we should be optimistic until proven otherwise instead of assuming the worst about people and dealing with the pain and embarrassment of being wrong.