Abraham, Part 4: Does Holiness Get Lost in the Fog of War?

Abraham, in becoming a patriarch in Canaan, also becomes a sort of political entity. He has “flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and menservants, and maidservants, and camels, and asses.” Like the restored political entity known as modern Israel — a distant descendant of that of Abraham — he has to conduct a sort of “international relations” with the surrounding peoples.

Israel’s conduct of its affairs, of course, seems to arouse more controversy than that of any country except the United States. The political Left — within Israel, in the larger Jewish world, and in the non-Jewish world — accuses Israel of immorality; the Right — mostly within Israel and the Jewish world — accuses it of weakness and cowardice. In fact, upholding a democracy while dealing with rough surroundings is not at all simple and requires a constant balancing act between moral standards and self-preservation.

It wasn’t so different for Abraham. On the one hand, God expresses confidence in him to “do justice and judgment”; on the other, he has to interact with tribal leaders and others who are sometimes decent and sometimes ruthless. Living in Zion, asserting independence, means being connected to the spiritual realm while at the same time having one’s feet firmly on the ground of the “real world.”

Abraham’s first “political crisis” of sorts involves his nephew Lot, who has come with him to Canaan. Lot, too,

had flocks, and herds, and tents.

And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together: for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.

And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle….

Abraham, however, completely rejects this internecine conflict. He tells Lot:

Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren.

Instead he simply suggests that Lot relocate with his holdings to another part of the land; which Lot does, moving to the “plain of Jordan” while Abraham continues to live in Canaan.

That, of course, being essential to a democratic ethos — resolving internal conflict peacefully. Israel has mostly been very successful at it, despite having long been a mélange (less so recently) of fiercely competing ideologies. With some exceptions, it’s been understood across the board that “strife between brethren” is something to avoid.

Sometime later a very different crisis — though also involving Lot — develops. The surrounding region is strife-ridden (what’s new under the sun?), and a battle erupts at the vale of Siddim between an alliance led by five kings and an alliance led by four kings.

Though the vale of Siddim — thought to be the southern shore of the Dead Sea — is not far from where Abraham lives, he seems to have no dog in the fight and stays out of it. Until, that is, the victorious four-king alliance,

took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed….

And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.

There he employs military tactics and deals the enemy a decisive defeat:

And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.

And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.

The same pacifist Abraham then, who sees no reason for strife with his nephew, doesn’t hesitate to turn his household into a war party and himself into a general when that same nephew is kidnapped. He makes peace among his kinfolk, but also knows he has to ensure that they exist at all.

For today’s Israel, the need for such military action — including, sometimes, in the Damascus direction — is of course quite familiar.

And still another kind of situation develops when Abraham (echoing in some regards the earlier episode of his sojourn in Egypt) journeys southward to Gerar, an area ruled by King Abimelech.

Here — self-preservation again kicking in — Abraham employs a ruse. He fears that if the surrounding people know that the attractive Sarah is his wife, he’ll be killed. So he announces: “She is my sister.”

Abimelech indeed concludes from this that the coast is clear, and “sent, and took Sarah” — without harming Abraham.

Abimelech, though, has his own complexity and is not merely a callous despot. God comes to him,

in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.

Abimelech — who, thanks to God’s intervention, has not yet gone near Sarah — is dismayed to hear this, protesting:

Said he not unto me, She is my sister?

This story ends happily. The next morning the perturbed Abimelech reproves Abraham, who explains:

Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.

Abimelech atones for his (unwitting) offense by paying Abraham a tribute, and eventually — after another dispute over a well of water — the two reconcile for good at Beersheva.

Abraham, then, is prepared to reconcile with anyone — whether from within his clan or outside it — who means him no harm. But when real (Lot) or prospective (himself) harm is involved, he doesn’t hesitate to resort to war and realpolitik.

Note, too, that God reproves Abimelech, not Abraham. God seems to accept that moral rules — like telling the truth — sometimes have to be bent on behalf of a larger purpose, like survival.

Every few years the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua incenses American Jews by claiming that Israelis are “total Jews” because they have to deal — as Jews — with the full spectrum of moral issues.

He has a point, though. It’s one thing to theorize at a distance from the action; quite another to run your own fractious polity while also contending with real marauders and mortal threats. Morality becomes less pure — but perhaps, for that very reason, more real.

As we see at the very dawn of the phenomenon of a Jewish polity, Abraham does not become less of a holy man, less of a prophet, by becoming a political and military leader. God does not commune with him any less because he dirties his hands with war and subterfuge. Zion is where one proves oneself.