“The Alliance with Abimelech”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, is a rich parasha containing many important topics, including the destruction of Sodom, the birth of Isaac and the Akeida–the near death of Isaac and his rescue. One of the fascinating “side” topics found in Genesis 21:22-34 is the alliance and covenant that Abraham concludes with the Philistine king of Gerar, Abimelech.

In Genesis 20, after the destruction of Sodom, Abraham moves south and settles in Gerar, where Abimelech is king. Abimelech abducts Sarah, but G-d prevents him from harming her. As long as Sarah is held captive, the royal family and the people of Gerar are stricken in their bodily organs, unable to relieve themselves or give birth. Only after Abraham prays for them, are they healed.

Rashi  on Genesis 25:19, citing the Midrash, notes that the birth of Isaac occurred only after the abduction of Sarah. Rumors spread that Abimelech was the real father of Isaac. After all, Abraham and Sarah had been married for many years and Sarah never gave birth. The Midrash states that the baby, Isaac, was identical in appearance to Abraham, quickly putting all the rumors to rest.

Why at this particular time does Abimelech now approach Abraham to seek an alliance and conclude a covenant of peace with Abraham, after all, Abraham had always been known in the region as a kind man and a person of peace?

Some of the commentators speculate that once Abimelech saw that Hagar and Ishmael were cruelly sent away from Abraham’s house at Sarah’s request (Genesis 21:14), Abimelech concluded that there was a cruel side to Abraham that he had never seen before. This raised concerns for Abimelech that perhaps Abraham and his progeny could be dangerous neighbors for his descendants. He therefore sought to seal a covenant of peace with Abraham.

Other commentators note that Abimelech was impressed by the many miracles that G-d had performed for Abraham: That Abraham and his family were not harmed by the destruction of Sodom; that Abraham had defeated the four most powerful kings of the time (Genesis 14); the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham’s old age; and that Sarah was saved from any harm at the hands of two most powerful contemporary kings, Pharaoh and Abimelech.

The Sforno suggests that Abimelech comes to Abraham to tell him that it is only because G-d is with Abraham that he fears Abraham and desires a treaty–not because of Abraham’s wealth or might.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that Abimelech knew that G-d had promised that a mighty nation would descend from Abraham, and now, with the birth of Isaac, he recognizes that this little boy represents the future people of Israel. After the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael, the prophecy was becoming a reality, causing Abimelech to desire a treaty.

The treaty that Abraham concludes with Abimelech is the subject of major controversy among the commentators. Many of the sages considered it improper for Abraham to enter into a treaty in which Abraham limits his descendants’ rights to the Promised Land. Some even conclude, that this oath actually prevented the Israelites in the time of Joshua from conquering Jerusalem where the Philistines had settled (Joshua 15:63).

The Midrash Samuel 12:1 on I Samuel 6:1 stresses that G-d was displeased with this treaty. G-d said to Abraham: “You gave him [Abimelech] seven ewes: As you (Abraham) live, I will delay the joy of your children for seven generations [for the Jews were not able to conquer the land of Israel until seven generations had passed–-Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kehat, Amram, and Moses].”

“You gave him seven ewes: As you live, Abimelech’s descendants will slay seven righteous men of your descendants: Hofni, Phineas, Samson, and Saul together with his three sons.”

“You gave him seven ewes: Accordingly seven of your descendants’ sanctuaries will be destroyed [or cease to be used]. The Mishkan–the tent of meeting, the sanctuaries in Gilgal, Nob, Gibeon, and Shilo, as well as the two Temples [in Jerusalem].”

“You gave him seven ewes: My ark will therefore be exiled for seven months in Philistine territory” (1 Samuel 6:1).

There are even those who suggest that immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses was unable to lead the people through the land of the Philistines directly to the Promised Land because of the covenant that Abraham had made with Abimelech, causing the people to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

Some modern commentators even suggest that the citizens of the State of Israel today are paying the price in contemporary times for Abraham’s improper covenant with Abimelech, which, in some way, obliquely justifies the unjust claims of the contemporary “Philistines”–-the Palestinians.

Thus, we see that all the actions of our great ancestors, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, impact on the future destiny of the People of Israel.

The brief biblical text concerning the alliance between Abraham and Abimelech, continues to reverberate profoundly throughout the millennia of Jewish history.

May you be blessed.