Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Vayera B’resheet (Genesis) 18 - 22

Vayera,” which is translated "he appeared," actually means "and he showed himself," and even more literally: “and he caused himself to be seen.”  “Yera” stems from the root r.a.h. (resh, alef, hey), meaning to "see."  Some of its other derivatives are: "seen, to show, to be seen, and sight." Certainly, "seeing" plays a major role in this Parasha.  Yes, YHVH does show Himself to Avraham – but it was up to the latter to do the seeing.  The opening statement in 18:1-2 reads thus: “YHVH appeared to him… and he lifted up his eyes and saw… three men!" This peculiar wording indicates that while looking Avraham had to see beyond what met his eye. 

The principle promulgated by Yeshua in Matthew 25:40, namely, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me," is apparent throughout this chapter.  Avraham appears to be keenly aware of the fact that by entertaining strangers, one could unknowingly (or knowingly), be entertaining (at the very least), angels… (ref. Hebrew 13:2).  These strangers, whether one of them is or is not YHVH Himself, are greeted by their host, in word and deed, with great respect and homage not unbefitting royalty. 

The passage at hand (in chapter 18) contains significant interchanges between singular and plural,* as in verse 3 Avraham addresses the three men whom he had just seen, calling them "Adonai" (“Lords”) saying: “…If now I have found favor in your [single person] sight, pass not away from your servant," while verses 4 and 5 employ the second person plural.  In verse 10, however, where the promise of the son who is to be born to Sarah within the year is pronounced, there is a switch to singular again (“and he said I will return,” italics added). The name YHVH is actually mentioned in verses 13 and 14, as the One addressing Avraham (relating to Sarah’s response), while in 16 the “men rise up” and get ready to leave. Starting with verse 17 the scene changes altogether.  In the passage which commences here (describing Avraham's intercession on behalf of the cities of Sdom and Amora – Gomorrah, vs. 23-32), YHVH, and the men who until now seemed to represent Him, are referred to as totally separate entities: “And the men turned their faces away from there, and went toward Sodom. But Abraham still stood before YHVH” (v. 22). The blurred distinction within the three-person party (in regards to YHVH) leaves us baffled as to ‘who is who’ here, and raises the question whether there is a hidden message in this unusual and enigmatic text formulation. Later on, when Lot and the members of his family are being led out of Sdom by the messengers-visitors, there is a similar lack of distinction between YHVH and His ‘agents’ (ref. 19:16-21 with another interchange between singular and plural)*.  Thus, although this Parasha is characterized by ‘seeing,’ the reader’s vision is often quite impaired (or challenged).

Back to chapter 18, where Avraham’s guests stand and view Sdom from a distance, while the Elohim who "showed Himself" to Avraham determines (v. 17) to not (literally) "cover" His plans from His servant, and to inform him what He was about to do (to Sdom and Amora).  YHVH then declares that He Himself aims to "come down and see if they had done according to the outcry that had come" to Him (18:21 italics added).  In this instance, the "seeing" is a symbolic "inspection," or a declaration of intention that will obviously be followed by action on YHVH’s part. 

Following Avraham's bargaining scene with YHVH, we meet his nephew Lot as he is sitting in the evening by the gate of Sdom (whereas his uncle had been sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of day).  Now it is his turn to "see" (19:1).  Lot greets the two messengers (quite likely of the same “three” who had visited his uncle) by rising up and bowing down, just as his relative had done.  He too offers to have his guests' feet washed, and is anxious to supply them with refreshments.  As it is evening time, Lot also offers them a place for the night, which they are very reluctant to accept (or are they simply testing him?), and do so only after much imploring on the part of their host.  The meal served by Avraham under the tree was far more peaceful than the feast at Lot's house in the city of Sdom (up until now each reference to “city” has been connected to wickedness, Kayin built a city, ref. 4:17; Nimrod’s was a city builder, ref. 10:11-12, the tower of Babel builders intended to build a city, ref. 11:4).  Before Lot’s guests are about to retire, the town's evil men surround the house (ref. 19:4, 5). The messengers, however, quickly and supernaturally blind the eyes of the would-be-assailants (ref.  v. 11). Next, Lot tries to talk his family into leaving town, but his sons-in-law perceive it to be a joke ("laughing", is the word in Hebrew in verse 14). This laughter, however, is only short lived, as in verse 25 YHVH overthrows the two cities and in verse 28 Avraham is watching (literally “seeing” - “vayar” - of the  root r.a.h) “the smoke of the country.”

Laughter was also part of the above-mentioned scene with Avraham and his guests.  The three visitors came in order to reaffirm, once again, the promise of a son. Sarah, who overheard this conversation, laughed in her tent and later denied it (18:12-15).  What’s more, this is not the last time that she is seen laughing.  After giving birth, exactly within the year as YHVH had declared, Sarah says, "Elohim has made me laugh, and everyone who hears of it will laugh at me" (21:6 italics added).  “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking” (the word is again “laughing,” v. 9, italics added). "Seeing" this “laughter” results in the banishment of Hagar and her son Yishmael (Ishmael).  The banished handmaiden wanders in the wilderness by Beer Sheva, and when her drinking water is used up she places her son under a shrub and exclaims: ”Let me not see the death of the boy.  And she … lifted up her voice and cried" (v.16 italics added). “And Elohim opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave drink to the boy” (v. 19 italics added).

Hagar's eyes are opened in the wilderness of Beer Sheva. The episode that follows (21:22 – 32) expounds on the meaning of that town’s name.  Beer Sheva is literally "the well of seven".  The words “adjure, charge, and oath” share the same root (sh.v.a, shin, bet/vet, ayin). “Satisfaction, or to have had enough” (especially regarding food), is “sovah,” being of the same root (although the letter “shin,” “sh” sound, is modified to a “sin,” “s” sound).  The usage of the number seven is often indicative of “fullness” and “completeness,” and as such it is also a solemn promise, or an oath that could be guaranteed simply by repeating it seven times (or by using multiplications of seven).  The connection between these two words ("seven" and "oath") is well illustrated here in our story, namely in Avraham and Avimelech's settlement.  Avraham places seven (“sheva”) ewe lambs in front of Avimlelech, as a witness to the fact that he had dug the well that was now under dispute.  Following this action "he called that place Beer Sheva, because there the two of them took an oath (sh'vu'ah, v. 31)".  In Matthew 18:21, we see Peter proclaiming that the act of forgiving up to seven times is sufficient.  Yeshua, of course, goes beyond that, but He too stays within the ‘realm of seven’, saying…"up to seventy times seven” (v. 22).  Truly, “…The words of YHVH are pure words; as silver… refined seventy times" (Ps.  12:6). The figure ‘seventy’ tells us that His words promise to guarantee full satisfaction.  "…On the day when YHVH binds up the fracture of His people and heals the bruise He has inflicted… the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days" (Is. 30:26).  Again, the guarantee of fullness in the form of "sevens" renders it like an oath.  The sunrise and sunset dictate the formation of any given day, just as the sun and the moon control the length of the months and seasons of the Biblical year.  The seven-day week, however, seems to be quite arbitrary - but is it?  Elohim chose to create the world in six days and then to add one more at the end, which He set apart for rest, remembrance, and declaration.  The sanctification of the seventh day, the commemoration of the number "seven" (in naming the “week” “shavu’a”), the fullness and completeness of what Elohim has accomplished, and its guaranteed fulfillment are all innately expressed in the Hebrew language by the root sh/s.v.a: "In Your presence there is fullness ("sova") of joy; I will be satisfied (“es'be'ah”) with Your likeness when I awake" (Ps. 16:11 & 17:15). To seal off the episode of Avraham’s test, YHVH declares: "By Myself I have sworn – nish’ba’ti - ’ says YHVH, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your seed…” (22:16-17 italics added)    

This blessing is the culmination of Avraham’s test, known as the "binding of Yitzchak (Isaac)," or “Akedat Yitzchak.”  After a three-day journey with Yitzchak and two of his servants “…Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar…” (22:4 italics added).  Responding to his son's question, as to the whereabouts of the lamb for the sacrifice, Avraham says, "Elohim will see for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (v.8 literal translation, italics added).  YHVH does indeed "see" (translated as “provide”) a substitute for Yitzchak in the form of a ram…  "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns.  And Abraham called the name of the place ‘YHVH Yir'eh - will see’ - as it is said to this day - 'it shall be seen on the mountain of YHVH'" (v.13-14 emphasis added). 

In the opening verses of our Parasha we saw Avraham “seeing” YHVH using his 'inner eyes' and discernment, even when looking upon the three men.  YHVH is also seen as the One who reveals His "secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7) prior to judging Sdom and Amora, though not before doing His own "seeing" of the state of affairs there (ref. 18:21). Further, His messengers' aura of light impairs the vision of the spiritually blind.  Avimelech sees YHVH in a dream which prevents him from sinning with Sarah (ref. 20:3, 4).  What the latter “sees” (ref. 21:9) causes her to send Hagar and Yishmael away, but their needs are “seen to” by YHVH in the wilderness (ref. 21:014-19).  Finally, YHVH is the One who “sees” (present tense) for Himself the sacrificial Lamb provided by Him for all time (ref. 22:8, 14). And so, as it is in the beginning so it is at the end of the Parasha - YHVH reveals Himself.  More on Avraham’s, this time long range vision… Yeshua declared to the Pharisees with whom He was conversing: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).

Earlier we noticed that Avraham was sitting at the tent door “in the heat of the day” (18:1), while Lot was sitting at the gate of the city of Sdom “in the evening” (19:1). But in the Parasha as a whole, it is the expression “early in the morning” that keeps reoccurring. In three out of four times it relates to Avraham (19:27; 21:14; 22:3), and one time to Avimelech (20:8). “And he rose early” is rendered each time, “va’yashkem” of the root sh.ch.m (shin, kaf/chaf, meme) which is also applied to the word “shoulder.” This is illustrated very graphically in 21:14: “And Abraham rose up early  - “va-yashkem” - in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder -”shichma” -  (italics added). The connection of those two identical terms is thought to be imbedded in the very reason for rising early, which is to put one’s shoulders to work. However, the two examples (out of the three) of Avraham’s early rising and setting to do as he is told (“Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice,” – 21:12; and “… so Abraham… took… Isaac his son… then they came to a place that Elohim had told him, 22:3, 9), have a common theme. In each of those Avraham is told to give up his son, his firstborn. But whereas in the first instance, which appears to be a rehearsal for the second, he contests the word (21:11), when the second episode comes round he obeys implicitly (see 22:12b). 

In 19:37 and 38 we learn of the origin of the Moabites and the Amonites. The fact that they are the product of an incestuous relationship is expressed by the name of the oldest of the two. Mo’av” stems from “m’av,” meaning “from a father,” as the boy had been begotten by his mother’s father (his own grandfather). The second boy’s mother names him “Ben Ami” (Ammon), meaning “son of my people,” which is also a reference to the close family tie. Lot’s daughters’ conduct is not surprising, as earlier on, when the men of Sdom demanded that he hand over his guests to them, their father attempted to offer these two daughters in place of the visitors (ref. 19:4-8). If Ham, and especially his son, Kna’an, were cursed for revealing the father’s nakedness (Gen. 9:24, 25), the same, and more, would be applicable to Lot’s descendents, Moav and Amon.

*In all these cases this is much more pronounced in the Hebrew original than in the translations, one reason being that in English there is no distinction between you singular and plural, which Hebrew has.