Sodom and Jerusalem
Parashat Lekh Lekha presents to us to the progenitors of the Jewish people, Avraham and Sarah. After a brief introduction at the end of Parashat Noach, where Avraham is announced as the son of Terach descendant of Shem and Sarah as his wife, the Torah now shifts its focus exclusively to the description of their momentous odyssey of faith. Called by God while yet at Ur to leave everything behind, they begin their journey towards the Promised Land, perhaps uncertain about their fate, but never hesitant. Soon they arrive in Canaan and begin to traverse the country along the highlands that topographically constitute its central spine.
"Avram traversed the land until Shechem, also called Elon Moreh, but the Canaanite was then in the land" (12:6). Stopping first at Shechem in the Samarian Hills, they continue southwards, eventually to arrive at Chevron. At every stop, they are strengthened by God's assurances of support and protection, and they respond in kind with sacrifice and prayer. At first, unsure of the Canaanite reaction and wary of arousing their ire, these outward expressions of their allegiance to the true God are tentative and cautious. As Avraham and Sarah acquire more confidence, though, they publicly proclaim His name. As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) comments,
The text states that "Avram traversed the land until Shechem, also called Elon Moreh, but the Canaanite was then in the land." This is to suggest that although Avram had entered the land of Canaan, God did not immediately indicate to him that this was the land that He had promised him. Avram came to Shechem and the threatening Canaanite was then in the land. Avram was frightened of them and therefore did not erect an altar to God at that time. When he arrived at Shechem, at Elon Moreh, however, and God appeared to him and promised him that land, then his fear dissipated because he had already been buoyed by God's words concerning the "land that I will show you," and he therefore built an altar to God to worship Him openly (commentary to 12:6).
THE ENCOUNTERS WITH PHARAOH AND AVIMELECH
Avram and Sarah do not long remain in the land. When Canaan is visited by one of the famines that periodically make their appearance in its arid environs, the couple and their nephew Lot go down to Egypt, where the Nile more predictably provides sustenance. Avram is apprehensive about their descent, for he fears that the Egyptians will be attracted to Sarah's unusual and striking beauty, and he attempts to avoid danger to his own life by claiming that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. Indeed his fears soon materialize, and while his ruse is initially successful, it is soon exposed. The ministers of Pharaoh take Sarah to join his harem, and it is only God's miraculous intervention that ensures her safety and secures her speedy release. Pharaoh and his court are stricken with painful ailments and he quickly realizes that only by freeing Sarah will he be granted relief. This he does, and the couple soon makes their way back to Canaan.
Interestingly enough, it will not be the last of Avram's encounters with temporal rulers who threaten either his well-being or that of his wife. During the course of the two parashiyot of Lekh Lekha and VaYera together comprise the major part of the Torah's account of the lives of Avraham and Sarah, they will come into contact with at least three monarchs, each hailing from a wildly divergent background, but all constituting some sort of a menace to them and to theirs.
In the aftermath of Sodom's overthrow, described next week, Avraham and Sarah journey to the "land of the Negev, between Kadesh and Shur, and they dwell in Gerar" (20:1). The town of Gerar, towards the Mediterranean coast on the way to Egypt, is located in the land of the Pelishtim (Philistines) whose king is Avimelech. In a scene reminiscent of the earlier encounter with Pharaoh, Avraham again announces Sarah as his sister and she is again taken by the king to become one of his wives. Again God intervenes, this time through the medium of an ominous dream, and again Sarah is released. Avimelech expresses indignation over Avraham's subterfuge, but in contrast to Pharaoh, he nevertheless offers the couple the right to settle in his land, and there they remain for some time.
THE KING OF SODOM
These two episodes of Pharaoh on the one hand and Avimelech on the other, both of them feared and respected monarchs whose pronouncements can spell life or death, neatly bracket Avraham's third encounter, this time with the king of Sodom, who dwells with his criminal cohorts in the parched plain near the Dead Sea. The people of Sodom, of course, have already acquired their infamous reputation as "greatly evil and wicked in God's sight" (13:13). Chronologically, the episode of the king of Sodom described in this week's Parasha unfolds at an indeterminate time after Avraham and Sarah have arrived in the land and Lot has abandoned them to seek his fortunes elsewhere, but structurally the Torah directly places it between Egypt and Philistia.
The background to the encounter is the cryptic "War of the Kings," a regional conflict that breaks out between the five vassal rulers of Sodom and its satellite towns, and their four powerful Mesopotamian overlords, led by a certain shadowy Kedorla'omer, who are incensed at finally having their demands for tribute rebuffed. The four arrive in a punitive campaign, and these five local kings of the Dead Sea region are quickly routed. Lot, who has lately taken up residence on the outskirts of Sodom, is taken captive by the four kings along with the other inhabitants of the defeated town. When Avraham receives word, he immediately raises a militia composed of his own household and local allies and quite unexpectedly defeats the easterners, pursuing them all the way to Damascus.
He (Avram) won back all of the booty, as well as Lot his kinsman and his possessions, and the women and others who had been taken captive. The king of Sodom came out to greet him after he had returned from smiting Kedorla'omer and the other kings who were with him, at the plain of Shavei, namely the King's Plain…The king of Sodom said to Avram: Give me the captives and keep the spoils for yourself! Avram responded to the king of Sodom: I raise my hand and swear by God the most powerful of gods, Who fashioned heaven and earth, that I will take neither a string nor a shoelace nor anything else at all that belongs to you, lest you claim that you made Avram wealthy. Not for me! Rather, let my lads and allies that accompanied me, namely 'Aneir, Eshkol, and Mamre, take their portion.
THE LOCAL CONTEXT
Considering the Sodom encounter in its own right, we notice that it too is bracketed, this time by a dual Divine promise concerning the land. The episode is preceded by Lot's departure that precipitates God's solemn proclamation: "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look to the north, south, east and west. All of the land that you see I will give to you and to your descendents…" (13:14-15). It is followed by the famous "Covenant Between the Pieces" where it is again a promise of land that constitutes one of the central themes: "on that day, God made a covenant with Avram saying 'I give this land to your descendents, from the river of Egypt all the way to the great Euphrates…" (15:18).
Summing up the subject thus far, we have seen that Avram's entry into the land is marred by an unpleasant encounter with Pharaoh king of Egypt, while his later peregrinations bring him into potential conflict with Avimelech king of the Philistines. In between, he makes the acquaintance of the unsavory king of Sodom, where the latter episode seems to be associated specifically with God's oath to Avram that his descendents will one day possess the land. How are we to make sense of this rather deliberate textual structure?
THE UNEXPECTED APPEARANCE
The key to unraveling the matter, to beginning to appreciate Avram's repeated run-ins with absolute rulers, dictators and tyrants of various shades, is a striking aside that is startlingly inserted squarely in the midst of Avram's short dialogue with the king of Sodom. While earlier, I mentioned only the relevant text, the full passage reads as follows:
He (Avram) won back all of the booty, as well as Lot his kinsman and his possessions, and the women and others who had been taken captive. The king of Sodom came out to greet him after he had returned from smiting Kedorla'omer and the other kings who were with him, at the plain of Shavei, namely the King's Plain. MALKI TZEDEK KING OF SHALEM BROUGHT FORTH BREAD AND WINE, AND HE WAS A PRIEST TO THE GOD MOST HIGH. HE BLESSED HIM BY SAYING: 'BLESSED BE AVRAM TO THE MOST HIGH WHO FASHIONED HEAVEN AND EARTH. AND BLESSED BE THE MOST HIGH WHO DELIVERED YOUR ENEMIES INTO YOUR HANDS', AND HE (AVRAM) GAVE HIM A TENTH OF ALL. The king of Sodom said to Avram: Give me the captives and keep the spoils for yourself! Avram responded to the king of Sodom: I raise my hand and swear by God Most High, Who fashioned heaven and earth, that I will take neither a string nor a shoelace nor anything else at all that belongs to you, lest you claim that you made Avram wealthy. Not for me! Rather, let my lads and allies that accompanied me, namely 'Aneir, Eshkol, and Mamre, take their portion.
Here we note that Avram's encounter with the king of Sodom, a freestanding dialogue that is perfectly comprehensible in its own right, is unexpectedly divided up by a reference to "Malki Tzedek king of Shalem." This is the first and only mention of Malki Tzedek in the Pentateuch, who is described as a priest of "God Most High, Who fashioned heaven and earth." The fact that Avram himself invokes this very appellation in his oath to the king of Sodom indicates that "God Most High" is the very same Absolute and One God whose existence and involvement Avram and Sarah have championed since their early days at Ur. In other words, it is a reference to the Creator, thus making Malki Tzedek a fellow monotheist and spiritual ally. Not surprisingly, the Rabbinic sources therefore identify Malki Tzedek with "Shem the son of Noach" who survived the Flood and was blessed by his father with the hope that "God would dwell in his tents" (brought by Rashi, 11th century France, on 14:18).
As for "Shalem," it is none other than an early and concise reference to the city of Jerusalem (Yerushalem/Yerushalayim), as borne out by the proof couplet of Tehillim/Psalms 76:3 – "His (God's) shelter was in Shalem and His habitation in Zion." While "pharaoh" means "great house" and refers to the absolute power of that king's court, and "Avimelech" means "my father is king" and refers to a dynastic succession, "Malki Tzedek" means "My king is righteous" and refers to that priest's noble aspirations. In glaring contrast, the king of Sodom is "Ber'a" (14:2) that literally means "steeped in evil"!
A GLARING STUDY IN CONTRASTS
This then is the significance of the episode. Avram overpowers the eastern kings and wins back the spoils of Sodom. He is coolly greeted by Ber'a, who offers no thanks, no blessings, and no words of encouragement. The petty ruler, bested in battle and only alive due to Avram's victory, is too craven to demand the return of the booty, but does ask for the captives. His coarse remarks, constituting only six short words in the original Hebrew, are a rare study in ingratitude, self-interest and stealth. Avram is only too aware of Ber'a's infamy and will have no share whatsoever in the spoils of Sodom, for to possess those illicit gains is to be tainted by the possession.
How stunningly different is the greeting and blessing of Malki Tzedek, who brings forth not only bread and wine but also noble and gracious words. He is the ruler not of vile Sodom but is rather the priest-king of righteous Jerusalem. He cares not for a share of the spoils but is preoccupied with God's deliverance. In short, Malki Tzedek is the complete antithesis to the king of Sodom, and his glowing message is the perfect counterbalance to Ber'a's mute indifference to all that is holy and good.
Avram returns from battle, this time waged against actual enemies and not intangible ideologies, and on the plain he sees two solitary figures approaching him. Drawing near, he notices that one wears his rumpled but regal robes of kingship, while the other is bedecked in a diadem of priesthood. One bears a tray heavy with food and drink while the other comes empty-handed. One sullenly scowls while the other smiles. Meanwhile, though his head still rings with the din of the battle, Avram can clearly recall God's reassuring words: his children will one day possess this land, settle it, and carve out their place among the nations. In his ears, he can still hear God's promise. Before him, a fateful moment is about to unfold as a stark contrast greets him, the concentrated embodiment of all of the choices with which his descendents will struggle as they define their national identity and decide on their path.
Will Avraham and Sarah's children bear the burden of ethical monotheism, to champion ideas that are profound, ennobling, transformative but seldom popular? Or will they instead abandon their forefather's legacy to embrace the carefree callousness of Sodom, establishing their state on the shifting foundations of an enchantment with the material, the temporary and the profane? God's promise of the land revolves around this encounter, and Avram's categorical rejection of all that Sodom represents is coupled with his silent entreaty that his children persevere. When Avram invokes in his oath the words of Malki Tzedek and then offers him a tenth of the spoils, he tangibly expresses the hope that his descendents will build their land and their capital predicated upon the very ideals that Malki Tzedek represents: righteousness, kindness and fidelity to God.
In the larger context, Avram's not-infrequent confrontations with the great and powerful rulers of his day are expressions of the same struggle that animates the episode at the Plain of Shavei. Authority divested of Godliness is a cruel pretense indeed, a tool brandished by brutes to achieve their selfish and nefarious ends. Is it any wonder that Pharaoh and Avimelech both attempt to take Sarah by force, leaving Avram in fear of losing his own life? But, the text indicates, there is a God – an Absolute God – who redresses wrongs and intervenes to save. The encounters described in these parashiyot make it crystal clear that although Avram and Sarah seem to be at a marked disadvantage, since they lack the concrete might that the tyrants possess and wield so ruthlessly, in the end their ideas will prevail. God's promise and pledge will continue to sustain long after the Pharaohs, Avimelechs and especially the Ber'as have long since left the stage of human history, to be finally replaced by Malki Tzedek and the vision of a restored and righteous Jerusalem.
Note: this essay is based in part upon the lectures of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, that the author had the pleasure of attending in the Fall of 2000.