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Abram's Fear

Rav Zvi Shimon

In memory of Mr. Julius Katz, father of David Katz, a madrich
for the Shana Alef talmidim in the Yeshiva.



            Chapter 14, Abram's war against the four kings in order to free Lot from captivity, is followed in chapter 15 by God's appearance before Abram encouraging him not to be fearful.  As you read the following text try to understand the cause of Abram's fear.


            Genesis 14:14-16; 21-24; 15:1-5


14:14. "And Abram heard that his kinsman [Lot] had been taken captive, and he led forth his trained servants, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them until Dan."  15.  "And he divided himself against them at night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them until Hoba, which is to the left of Damascus."  16.  "And he restored all the possessions, and also Lot his brother and his possessions he restored, and also the women and the people ..." 21.  "And the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the souls, and the possessions take for yourself."  22.  "And Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth."  23.  "Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, 'I have made Abram wealthy."  24.  "Exclusive of what the lads ate, and the share of the men who went with me; Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre - they shall take their share."


15:1.  "After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision saying, 'Fear not Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.'"  2.  "And Abram said, 'O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?'"  3.  "And Abram said, 'Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household will inherit me.'"  4.  "And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 'This one will not inherit, but the one who will spring from your innards - he will inherit you.'"  5.  "And He took him outside, and He said, 'Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.'  And He said to him, 'So will be your seed.'"


            Chapter 15 follows an amazing military and moral victory for Avram.  With a small collection of his followers he was able to drive out the four Eastern kings and free Lot from captivity.  He refused to take any of the spoils of Sodom so as not to be associated in any way with the evil kingdom.  Abram, through this victory, evolved from being an unknown wandering shepherd to being a major power broker in the region.  Yet, with all this, chapter 15 does not portray a confident victor, but rather depicts Avram in a state of fright and concern.  God then reassures Avram, saying: "Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield, your reward is exceedingly great."  What is it that prevents Avram from celebrating his victory and basking in the glory of his triumph?  Why is he anxious and fearful instead of being jubilant and ecstatic?  What is the cause of Abram's fear?


            The answer to this question depends on the extent to which one sees the beginning of chapter 15 as connected to the war against the four kings in chapter 14.  Chapter 15 begins with the phrase "Achar (after) these incidents."  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) quotes a midrash (homiletical interpretation of our Sages) on the word "achar" (after): "Wherever [the word] 'achar' (after) is used, it implies immediately after the preceding event; 'acharei' (a longer form of the same word, after) implies much later."  According to the Sages, chapter 15, which begins with the word "achar," is the immediate chronological continuation of chapter 14.  Thus, they connect Abram's fears to the war recounted in chapter 14. 


            Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865), however, disagrees and claims that there is no relation between the two chapters.  He interprets the clause "After these events" as an opening to a new narrative.  This school of thought does not search for the source of Abram's anxieties in the preceding chapter but rather in chapter 15 itself.  The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) suggests that Abram was fearful of two things, one of which relates to the previous chapter but the other completely disconnected.  The second of Abram's fears, according to the Ramban, is the fear of dying without a child.  What prompts Shadal and the Ramban (in part) to disagree with the midrash?  The source for this interpretation is Abram's response to God: "And Abram said, behold to me thou hast given no seed" (15:3).  Abram, already aged, was fearful that God's promise of a child would not be fulfilled and that he would die with no one surviving him to carry on his message to the world.  Progressing in age, Abram began feeling a senselessness to his life's accomplishments.  What good is anything if it has no continuity and is bound to disappear.


            The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abarbanel, Spain, 1437-1508) also posits that Abram's fear was two-fold but he connects both fears to the preceding chapter (chapter 14).  The first fear is rooted in the war against the four kings; however, the second fear is a result of the events which immediately followed the war.  "And Abram said to the king of Sodom, 'I raise my hand to the Lord ... Neither from a thread to a shoe strap nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say 'I have made Abram wealthy" (Genesis 14:22-23).  Abram is not sure that he acted correctly in returning the spoils to the king of Sodom.  Sodom was a wicked city and Abram feared that returning its wealth might help perpetuate this sinful culture.  Would it not have been preferable to keep the spoils which, according to the norms of those times, belonged to the conqueror, and help build with them a more righteous community?  God responds by telling him that his actions are meritorious.  Abram should have nothing to do with the riches of Sodom.  Abram's reward will come from God alone.  The Abarbanel accepts the midrash (cited above) on the word "achar" which ties together chapters 14 and 15.  However, in contrast to the majority of the commentators who connected Abram's fears to the war itself, the Abarbanel takes the midrash's exegetical direction to its limits by connecting the beginning of chapter 15, Abram's fear, to what immediately precedes it, the encounter between Abram and the king of Sodom.


            Three explanations for Abram's fear are offered in the Midrash Rabba (a collection of homiletical interpretations of the talmudic sages):


"'Fear not Abram' - R. Levi explained this in two ways, the Rabbis in one.  R. Levi said: Abraham was filled with misgiving, thinking to himself, maybe there was a righteous or God-fearing man among those troops which I slew. ...

R. Levi made another comment: Abraham was fearful, saying, 'Perhaps the sons of the kings that I slew will collect troops and come and wage against me.'  Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: 'FEAR NOT, ABRAM, I AM THY SHIELD: just as a shield receives all spears and withstands them, so will I stand by thee.'

The Rabbis explained it thus: Abraham was filled with misgivings, saying to himself, 'I descended into the fiery furnace and was delivered; I went through famine and war and was delivered; perhaps then I have already received my reward in this world and have nought for the future world?'  Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him: 'FEAR NOT, ABRAM, I AM YOUR "MAGEN" (shield, here translated as 'gift'), all that I have done for thee in this world I did for free; but in the future, YOUR REWARD SHALL BE EXCEEDINGLY GREAT.'"


            According to the first explanation in the midrash, the source of Abram's fear was his moral conscience.  Abram feared lest there was a righteous man amongst the casualties of the armies he attacked.  Abram's unwavering morality could not tolerate the thought of having killed a righteous person.  The reality of war, of killing unknown human beings troubled his moral sensibilities.


            According to the second explanation in the midrash, the one most widely adopted by the commentators, the source of Abram's fear was not the act of war itself but rather the possible consequences of the war.  War plants the seeds of vengeance and retaliation, and can lead to an endless cycle of violence.  Abram feared that his victory would only be temporary and that from now on he would be a wanted man.  God responds by assuring him: "I am you shield, your reward is exceedingly great."  Abram's war was a righteous one and he therefore merits the protection of God.


            The third explanation in the midrash, offered by the Rabbis, is most perplexing.  "I have already received my reward in this world and have naught for the future world."  What concerned Abram after the war was the seemingly self-centred fear that he might have lost his reward of life in the world-to-come - trifling calculations as to the balance of his merit account with God!?  What is the meaning of this explanation offered by the Rabbis?  Most people tend to magnify their merits and downplay their good fortune.  The righteous, by contrast, downplay their own merits and are fully appreciative of any kindness which God bestows upon them.  Abram performed all the commandments which he was commanded but nevertheless did not hold this to his benefit and still felt completely indebted towards God.  After having been saved and coming out victorious in war, Abram feared that the goodness which God had bestowed upon him far outweighed his merits.  It was not self-centeredness but rather humility and gratefulness which were the source of Abram's fears.  The textual source for this explanation is God's response: "Your reward is exceedingly great" (Genesis 15:1).  God reassures Abram that he is deserving of much reward even beyond the goodness which he has already received.


            The cause of Abram's fear, according to the first explanation, was a moral concern over having possibly killed a righteous person in the act of war.  The second explanation concentrates on the clause "I am your shield" and understands Abram's fear to be rooted in security concerns and his future physical survival.  The third explanation concentrates on the clause "your reward is exceedingly great" and explains Abram's fear as related to his standing vis-a-vis God and the imbalance between his merits and the good which God has bestowed upon him.


            I would like to offer another explanation somewhat on the lines of the first explanation in the Midrash Rabba but with a slightly different tint.  Perhaps Abram's fear was not only of having possibly killed a righteous man but rather it was a fear over having shed so much human blood irrespective of the character of those killed.  Could it be that Abram was suffering from a form of post-war trauma?  Abram cherished all life, even if it be the life of the evil inhabitants of Sodom (see Genesis 18:23 ff), and is described as a source of blessing for all of mankind.  As the father of nations he was overwhelmed by the horrors of war and the destruction of human life.  What future would humanity have if nations continue battling and slaughtering each other.  What can ensure that war will not totally ravage the human race?  Abram's fear is a fear for the future of humanity.  This fear also relates to his own future and arouses in him the concern over not having a son to survive him.  God responds to these fears by promising Abram that his seed will overcome the obstacles, survive and flourish.  "And He took him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.'  And He added, 'So shall your offspring be.'"



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