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Abraham said, 'I swear' (21:24).
The text relates how Abraham made a promise on oath to Abimelech, King of the Philistines. That was that Abraham would return the kindness and hospitality given to him by the Philistines, who hosted him when he was a stranger in their land: 'treat me and my people according to the kindness that I have shown you' (21:23), to which Abraham replied 'I swear (that I will)' (23:24).
Yet the very next verse relates the details of Abraham having to dispute with Abimelech over a stolen source of water. Hardly a good start. And indeed, the promise was not sealed as a covenant until after the matter was investigated (23:26-7).
Why then did Abraham promise Abimelech on oath to treat the Philistines kindly - unconditionally? On first sight, it appears rather rash. For Abraham made that promise before raising the issue of the stolen well. Why did he not first deal with that awkward business, and then - on its satisfactory conclusion - make the oath?
This issue may be resolved by considering the object of the dispute - the stolen well. It was not just theft, but 'a well that Abimelech's servants had stolen' (23:25) - by implication, theft that was in his power to prevent, and also resolve.
The story of Noah relates that 'the land was corrupt before G-d, and the world was filled with violence' (6:11). Rashi brings the tradition that the word 'violence' (Heb. Chamas) means theft - as he explains: 'the fate of the Generation of the Flood was sealed because of theft'.
Thinking this matter over makes it quite logical. Society cannot flourish or even function unless there is a degree of trust between its members. Theft is hardly tolerated in even the most primitive societies, yet Abimelech's servants being able to get away with it implied a certain degree of corruption under his very nose. Because they were the king's servants, they could get away with it. Lesser mortals would not. As the Latin proverb translates: 'what goes for Jupiter does not go for the ox'. In other words, if you are important and well-connected, you can get away with just about anything.
That was Abraham's standpoint. Yes - on one hand he was treated hospitably by Abimelech and his entourage (20:14-15), albeit after a most 'unpromising start'. It would have been wrong to refuse to return the gesture - thus Abraham said 'I swear'. However, the full extent of Abraham's kindness could only be realized in a society where corruption was not tolerated - otherwise benefits given by the wealthy Abraham might reach Abimelech and his household, but not 'the land' - the subjects of his kingdom… As Abimelech himself had indeed wanted (21:23)
A message today that a society benefits from outside aid to a greatest degree when its laws and practices are just and fair for all…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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