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On Second Glance (Chayei Sarah)

The following are some quick ideas on this week’s Parshah, Chayei Sarah, building upon last week’s article, “Willful Blindness.” For the 2015 article on Chayei Sarah, “Unfinished Business,” please click here; for the 2014 article, “A Patriarch’s Plea for Privacy,” please click here.

A professor of mine once mused that “to a dog, everything looks like a bone.” It was his funny way of saying that we tend to see the things we’re used to seeing. Last week, we spoke a lot about the theme of “seeing” in connection with Avimelech, king of the Philistines—the man who abducts Avraham’s wife and steals Avraham’s water. Our basic observation in that piece was that Avimelech is often described as “covering his eyes,” in one form or another, during his interactions with Avraham. Avraham, by contrast, is a man who is constantly found “lifting his eyes.” To realize this, we suggested, is to begin to appreciate that Avimelech has a much larger role to play in Avraham’s story than we generally attribute to him. Though Avimelech himself only appears in a couple of short scenes, he emerges, through his behavior in those scenes, as no less than Avraham’s antithesis: whereas Avraham searches for truth, Avimelech turns a blind eye to it; whereas Avraham digs wells of water (literally: “eyes” of water),[i] Avimelech shuts them sealed. They’re not just fighting over people or property. They’re presenting two vastly different perspectives for how we view the world and our role in it.

And once you’ve looked at Avimelech’s relationship to Avraham through this lens, once you’ve began to see Avimelech as Avraham’s foil par excellence, you start to notice Avimelech everywhere in Avraham’s life—even in those chapters that seem to have nothing to do with him at all. Last week, we read two episodes in this light: Avraham’s hosting the angels (Gen. 18) and Avraham’s binding of Yitzchak (Gen. 22). In these chapters, we found a slew of parallels to the Avimelech chapters—striking similarities in language, theme, and plot—which strongly suggest that what we have here is not a series of disconnected events, but rather a single saga spread over many acts, all of them intertwined, and all part of the same overarching conflict which pits Avraham against both the person Avimelech and the attitude which he represents.

So now we come to a new Parshah: Chayei Sarah. The bulk of our Parshah recounts how Avraham, and his agent, Eliezer, found a wife for Avraham’s son, Yitzchak. It is the very last account we have of Avraham’s life before he dies; Avimelech isn’t mentioned in it even once. And yet, after spending so much time last week tracing Avimelech’s influence through that Parshah, I can’t help but notice him hiding him “behind the scenes” this week as well. There are, in fact, some remarkable ways in which Avraham’s search for a daughter-in-law recalls his earlier experiences with Avimelech. Consider:


desertwellThe last time Avimelech and Avraham meet, it is to negotiate a treaty proposed by Avimelech. What prompts Avimelech to initiate this treaty is his recognition that Hashem has blessed Avraham with “everything:” Now it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol his general said to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in everything [בכל] that you do” (Gen. 21:22). It is the very same recognition which, in this week’s Parshah, introduces Avraham’s efforts to find a wife for Yitzchak: And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything [בכל] (Gen. 24:1).


Avimelech presses Avraham to seal the covenant between the two of them by taking an oath that will be binding upon both of their descendants: “And now, swear to me here by God [השבעה לי באלוקים]… ” (Gen. 21:23). There is only one other time in his life that Avraham is involved in oath-taking—when he tasks his servant, Eliezer, with finding a wife for Yitzchak: “And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, “Please place your hand under my thigh. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth [ואשבעיך בה’ אלקי השמים ואלקי הארץ]… (Gen. 24:2-3).


The oath with which Avimelech adjures Avraham concerns the fate of Avraham’s descendants in the land of Canaan: “And now, swear to me here by God that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson;[ii] according to the kindness that I have done with you, you shall do with me, and with the land of your sojournings.” And Avraham said: “I shall swear” (Gen. 21:23-24). The oath with which Avraham adjures Eliezer focuses on the same issues: And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, “Please place your hand under my thigh. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. Rather, you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac” (Gen. 24:2-4).


Prior to their treaty, Avimelech and Avraham have a rocky history: Avimelech abducts Avraham’s wife under the impression that she is his sister and is punished by Hashem for doing so. Asked to explain his behavior, Avraham offers the following weary account of how he ended up in Canaan, to begin with:  “And it came to pass, when God induced me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to [my wife]: This is your kindness, which you shall do with me: whither we come, say about me, ‘He is my brother’” (Gen. 20:13). The only other time we hear Avraham reflect upon Hashem’s command to come to Canaan is in this week’s Parshah—and this time, the note he strikes is much more positive: “The Lord, God of the heavens, Who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and Who spoke about me, and Who swore to me, saying, “To your seed will I give this land”—He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there” (Gen. 24.7). Before Avimelech, Avraham almost seems to doubt whether providence continues to guide him; in our Parshah, those doubt have been categorically dispelled.


When Hashem confronts Avimelech for retaining Avraham’s wife in his palace, Avimelech protests that he is “clean” from transgression: “Did [Abraham] not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she said, ‘He is my brother.’ With the innocence of my heart and with the cleanliness [נקין] of my hands have I done this” (Gen. 20:5). In our Parshah, meanwhile, Avraham informs Eliezer that he will be “clean” from transgression as long as he does not allow Avraham’s son to be retained in another land: “And if the woman will not wish to go after you, you will be clean [נקי] from my oath; only do not return my son back there” (Gen. 24:8; see also 24:41).  This term, “cleanliness,” is an extremely rare one; it appears in only three contexts in Sefer Bereshit, and only in the two contexts cited here does it appear with connection to Avraham.


To decide whom he should choose as Yitzchak’s wife, Eliezer stands by a well of water and develops a simple test: “And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You proven [הכחת] to be for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master” (Gen. 24:14; see also 24:44).  Significantly, the conduct which for Eliezer would “prove” [הכחת] that Rivkah was suitable for Yitzchak is the exact inverse of that behavior over which Avraham had once “reproved” [הוכח] Avimelech: And Abraham reproved [הוכח] Abimelech about the well of water that the servants of Abimelech had forcibly seized (Gen. 21:25).  Eliezer learned from his master, it seems: Avraham would not enter into covenant with Avimelech until Avimelech returned the water he had stolen from Avraham’s wells; correspondingly, Eliezer’s would allow into Avraham’s family only a girl willing to give to Avraham’s animals water from her own well.


Avimelech “takes” Sarah, Avraham’s “wife,” because he believes she is his “sister:” And Abraham said about Sarah his wife, “She is my sister,” and Abimelech the king of Gerar sent and took Sarah (Gen. 20:2). In fact, Avraham clarifies, Sarah is indeed “my sister, the daughter of my father” (Gen. 20:12). Later, Avraham’s insistence that Eliezer travel to Avraham’s native land to find a wife for his son lead Eliezer to “take” for Yitzchak a “wife” who is “the daughter of Avraham’s brother” (see Gen. 24:48), and who is referred to throughout the episode as a “sister” (Gen. 24:30; 59-60). Indeed, this will serve Yitzchak in good stead: one day, he will tell Avimelech that his wife is his “sister,” just as his father once had, and spare her life in this way (Gen. 26:1ff).


The Torah stresses that Avimelech had not [as much as] approached Avraham’s wife (Gen. 20:4), and Hashem likewise declares that “I did not let you touch her” (Gen. 20:6). In similar fashion, it portrays Rivkah as a maiden who had known no man (Gen. 24:16). The significance of this connection is best appreciated, perhaps, in light of a Medrash—a Medrash highly plausible even in the plain-sense of the text—which records that, following Avraham’s sojourn in Gerar, his contemporaries began to peddle rumors about his wife’s illicit union with Avimelech, even going so far as to label Yitzchak the illegitimate product of that union (see Rashi, Gen. 25:19). If Yitzchak grew up dogged by these spurious claims, then the detail which the Torah shares about Rivkah’s marital status may be its way of pre-empting those claims from following Yitzchak into the next generation.


camels_in_the_desert_1920x1440Before Avimelech sends off Avraham and Sarah, he showers them with lavish presents as reparation for his trespass: And Abimelech took flocks and cattle and menservants and maidservants, and he gave [them] to Abraham… And to Sarah he said, “Behold I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother…” (Gen. 20:14-16). As such, these possessions do little to improve the filial ties which Avimelech has undermined. Yet they do end up playing a role in helping Avraham reconstitute his family, for it is these same sorts of gifts, now displayed before Rivkah’s family, which Eliezer uses to convince her brother and father into accepting his marriage proposal: And the servant took ten camels of his master’s camels, and he went, and all the best of his master was in his hand (Gen. 24:10);  And the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]… (Gen. 24:22); And the servant took out silver articles and golden articles and garments, and he gave [them] to Rebecca, and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother (Gen. 24:53).


At the heart of Avraham’s interactions with Avimelech lie expectations surrounding the “performance of kindness.” Avraham requests that Sarah “perform kindness” for him by playing along as his “sister” before Avimelech: “And it came to pass, when God induced me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her: This is your kindness which you shall perform [חסדך אשר תעשי] for me: whither we come, say about me, ‘He is my brother'” (Gen. 20:13). Later, Avimelech appeals to Avraham to repay “the kindness I performed for you” by entering into a treaty with him: “And now, swear to me here by God, that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson; according to the kindness that I have performed with you, you shall perform with me [כחסד אשר עשיתי עמך תעשה עמדי], and with the land wherein you have sojourned” (Gen. 20:23). Neither of these “acts of kindness” produce particularly “kind” outcomes for Avraham or Sarah: the former leads to Sarah’s abduction; the latter—presuming it refers to the gifts Avimelech gave Avraham—is not a gesture of genuine generosity but a bona fide bribe whose explicit purpose is to coax Sarah into overlooking Avimelech’s wrongs (Gen. 20:16). By contrast, the “kindness” which Avraham’s servant asks others to “perform” on his master’s behalf do indeed lead to felicitous ends for all parties involved. He asks Hashem to “perform kindness” by helping him find a wife for Yitzchak: And [Eliezer] said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please… perform kindness [עשה חסד] with my master, Abraham… And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed kindness [עשית חסד] with my master” (Gen. 24:12-14). He later asks Rivkah’s family to “perform kindness” by allowing Rivkah to marry Yitzchak: “And now, if you will perform kindness [עשים חסד] and truth with my master tell me, and if not, tell me, and I will turn to the right or to the left” (Gen. 24:49).


As she is journeying with Eliezer, Rivkah spots Yitzchak and “covers” her face: And Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she let herself down from the camel. And [Rivkah] said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field towards us?” And the servant said, “He is my master [Yitzchak].” And she took the veil and covered herself [ותתכס] (Gen. 24:64-65). Of course, Avimelech had also been involved in an act of “covering:” And to Sarah he said, “Behold I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother [=Avraham]; behold it is to you a covering [כסות] of the eyes…” (Gen. 20:16). But whereas Avimelech pressures Sarah to “cover her eyes” against her will, Rivkah “covers” her face of her own accord. And whereas Avimelech’s act of “covering” undermines marital fidelity—he wants Sarah to ignore the wrongs committed to her—Rivkah’s act places her marriage on firm spiritual foundations: with it, she invites her husband-to-be to look beyond the superficial and to see her for who she truly is.

Though we don’t often think of it in this way, the connections compiled here leave it clear that Avraham’s endeavor to find a wife for Yitzchak was substantially moulded by his history with Avimelech—in ways both planned, and guided by providence. Throughout Avraham’s life, Avimelech had fought to undermine Avraham’s agenda at every turn. Perhaps this was destined to be. Avimelech, after all, was a man whose very name meant “my father is king;” he was, from birth, a champion of the old guard, a defender of established norms, a valiant preserver of the status quo. By contrast, Avraham’s name meant “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5); he was a man who had smashed his own father’s idols (Gen. Rabb. 38:13), a man who had vanquished entire kingdoms (Gen. 14:1ff), a man who had arrived in Canaan on a mission to bring blessing to “all families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), regardless of social or economic standing, and a man who “instruct[ed] his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord and perform righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19).

Now “old, and advanced in years” (Gen. 24:1), Avraham began to think about who from his household would speak truth to power, would faceoff with Avimelech, when he himself could no longer. It would not be easy to ask this of Yitzchak; Yitzchak had grown up seeing his father suffer through his struggle with Avimelech, and had himself suffered as a result of their conflict. So, to prepare Yitzchak for his task, Avraham did what he had always done best: he found a way to “lift his eyes,” and the eyes of those around him; he found a way to bring new perspectives to old realities. As a child, Yitzchak had watched his father quarrel with Avimelech over water. So Avraham sought Yitzchak a wife who freely offered water to strangers. Yitzchak had watched his mother’s fidelity disparaged on Avimelech’s account. So Avraham found Yitzchak a partner about whom it would be impossible to cast such aspersions. Yitzchak had watched Avimelech bribe his parents with money and livestock. So Avraham disposed of these possessions to arrange for Yitzchak’s wedding. Once, when speaking to Avimelech, Avraham seemed to wonder whether Hashem was still guiding him; now, speaking of it to Eliezer, Avraham insisted that He was. Once, Avraham had taken an oath binding his descendants to act loyally with Avimelech; now, he took another oath, to make it clear where the limits of this loyalty lay.

Yitzchak and Avimelech might become allies. But they would not become family. For though Yitzchak was to dwell in this land, he was not to marry a woman from this land. Instead, Yitzchak was to marry Rivkah: a woman who, from the first moments we meet her, is busy “gathering her fill” from the “eye of water” (Gen. 24:16), busy drawing sustenance from its depths (c.f. Gen. 24:18-20), thus mirroring the earlier efforts of Avraham, YItzchak’s father, to “dig deep” in his own way. And as Avraham’s story draws to a close, his children, following his lead, both “lift their eyes” as well—first Yitzchak (Gen. 24:63), and then Rivkah (Gen. 24:64)—with hope for the future that Avraham leaves behind. It is each other who they find; and, together, they set out to carry Avraham’s legacy into the next generation.

 Shabbat shalom!


[i] I am indebted to Dr. Rachel Adelman for pointing out that the “eye imagery” we are tracing throughout this and last week’s article extends even to “wells of water.” In reply to last week’s article, Dr. Adelman writes: “You could strengthen this argument on the basis of the metaphor — wells are called ‘ayin, or ‘eyn ha-mayim, literally an “eye” of water (Gen. 16:7) — these same wells, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth (Gen. 26:15).”

[ii] Though Avraham’s descendants are not explicitly mentioned here, their inclusion is implied: surely this is a covenant between “my descendants” and “your descendants,” not “my descendants” and “you alone.”

Thoughts? Questions? Insights? Please feel free to share them in the comments below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated!


  1. Yael Unterman says:

    Great piece. Though Avimelech always seemed to be quite a good guy according to the pshat, no?

    • Alex Maged says:

      Thank you!

      It’s an interesting question. I’ve seen a lot of commentators take a sympathetic view of Avimelech because he gets “duped.” But this is not in itself a reason to view him favourably. And what I’m trying to highlight in these pieces is that Avimelech didn’t *really* get duped, anyways; if anything, he duped himself.

      For me, the key piece of evidence here is the way he speaks of the money he gives to Avraham and Sarah as compensation for having abducted Sarah: “it shall serve you as a covering of the eyes.” Avimelech is bribing his victims to turn a blind eye to his wrongdoings. This not the behaviour we expect from someone as righteous (and ignorant!) as he claims to be. It’s very hard to believe a man’s claims of ignorance moments after we watch him actively encourage others to feign ignorance themselves.

      Other points to consider:

      1. Even *if* we believe that Avimelech acted ignorantly when taking Avraham’s wife–

      Avraham later confronts Avimelech over the fact that Avimelech’s officials stole Avraham’s water. There too Avimelech’s retort is, “I didn’t know about it.” How many times can Avimelech credibly play the ignorance card? Are we to believe that Avimelech knew no better in *both* of these cases?

      2. Even *if* we were to believe that: Well, *why* didn’t Avimelech know any better? As king, should he not be expected to do his own due diligence? Surely he be should staying on top of the activity of his officials.

      3. Even *if* we want to give Avimelech a pass on this point, too–There’s really no getting around his explicit involvement in the stealing of *Yitzchak’s* water later on (see Gen. 26:15-16). There, Avimelech doesn’t even feign ignorance; on the contrary, he acknowledges his motives explicitly: “And Avimelech said to Yitzchak: “Leave us, because you have grown too great for us.”” With this remark, Avimelech reveals the mindset that has been guiding him all along.

      Of course, we can say all this and still be troubled by the way Avraham dealt with Avimelech in the wife/sister incidents (as several mefarshim are). But Avraham does not bear the responsibility for Avimelech’s actions; Avimelech does, despite his persistent attempts to argue otherwise. That being the case, there is little room to view Avimelech positively in his interactions with Avraham–even if we are tempted, at times, to feel sorry for him. (Though I do believe Avimelech grows more favourable by the tail end of his interactions with Yitzchak; but that’s because he’s undergone a careful transformation, not because he had been this way all along. See last week’s article for more on this).

      Anyways: that’s all for now. If you’d like, feel free to make the case for Avimelech, and I’ll be happy to consider it/offer a reply.

      Shabbat shalom!


      Sent from my iPhone.

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks so much for the insights Alex!!! Shavua Tov!

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