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B'resheet/Genesis 21:34 And Avraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.
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Avraham has just made a covenant with Abimelech, the king of Gerar, at Be'er Sheva - "the well of the oath" - a covenant of mutual non-aggression. Avraham plants "a tamarisk tree" (B'resheet 21:33, ESV), which might suggest that he intended to be there for some time, and then our text tells us that Avraham sojourned there - in the land of the Philistines - many days. Gordon Wenham suggests that the Philistines didn't arrive in Canaan until around 1200 BCE1, so it is unlikely that these were the same people that contested the Land during the times of the Judges and were subdued by David. Other commentators, based on B'resheet 10:14, suggest that these may have been the Caphtorim, ancestors of the Philistines.
The verb - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the hollow root with a vav-conversive construction for past-tense narrative sequence - is translated here using the slightly quaint word 'sojourn', "and he sojourned". The Oxford Dictionary of English defines this as "to stay somewhere temporarily", matching the Hebrew noun , listed by Davidson as a "foreigner, alien, stranger, sojourner". Other translations offer an insight into the way the word is being used in this verse: "resided as an alien" (NRSV), "lived as a foreigner" (NLT). Avraham did not make his permanent home there; in modern terms, he didn't have permanent right of residence, just a temporary visa.
There is some debate about the last phrase , literally "many days". Some modern translations retain those words, others choose "a long time" (e.g. CJB, NIV, NLT). But how long was it?Rashi, citing Seder Olam and B'resheeet Rabbah (54:6), claims that "More than in Hebron. In Hebron he spent twenty five years, so here in Be'er Sheva, twenty six." Ibn Kaspi explains that the biblical metaphor "many days" is exactly that: a metaphor expressing an indefinite but non-trivial period of time; and could be a relatively short period. The story of Elijah's battle with King Ahab sets up the show-down on Mt. Carmel by saying, "After many days the word of the L-RD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, 'Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth'" (1 Kings 18:1, ESV), limiting the time to just three years. King Ahasuerus' feast at the beginning of the book of Esther is even shorter: "He showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days" (Esther 1:4, ESV), while Daniel, in the active service of King Belshazzar, reports after a vision, "So I, Daniel, was stricken, and languished many days. Then I arose and attended to the king's business" (Daniel 8:27, JPS). It would have to be a very indulgent king to allow his minister more than a few weeks off from state affairs! Gunther Plaut sums up, saying, "the verse should not be read as an end to the passage but should be detached and taken as a general postscript to the preceding chapters and as an introduction to what follows. In other words, during this time of his life, Avraham lived in the area later known as Philistia."
OvadiahSforno, on the other hand, commenting on the previous verse - "there [Avraham] proclaimed the name of the L-rd, the G-d of Eternity" (B'resheet 21:33), says, "He proclaimed and made known to the populace that the Almighty is the G-d who not only directs time, but preceded and created it, a concept contrary to that of early and later scholars of the nations." This would have taken time; it was not something that could be undertaken overnight. While, like all missionaries, Avraham always intended to move on, he needed to stay as long as it took to proclaim HaShem's name properly for all the people to take notice and have an opportunity to respond in some way. Perhaps Avraham had learned the lesson later to be taught by Qohelet: "Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it" (Ecclesiastes 11:1, JPS). The prophet Azariah challenged King Asa to seek the L-rd, after Judah had spent many years in idolatry and turning away from the L-rd, "Israel has gone many days without the true G-d, without a priest to give instruction and without teaching" (1 Chronicles 15:3, JPS).
The Greek Scriptures also use the metaphor in the gospels and Acts: . In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Yeshua says that, "Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country" (Luke 15:13, ESV); this is surely a fairly short time. On the other hand, "[Simon Peter] stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner" (Acts 9:43, ESV), which may have been a period of several months, perhaps even years, before he was called to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to bring him the message of salvation in Yeshua.
So we have a number of characters from the Bible going through indefinite periods of time varying from several days to perhaps a number of years, waiting until their current task was completed before being moved on by the L-rd. During that time, although they knew that they were not to settle permanently, they had no idea when the time to move on would come and they were to some degree dependent on the hospitality, indulgence or forbearance of others. They were not at home; rather, they were in someone else's home or territory.
In parasha Lech L'cha, we read about the call of Avram; that he was called to leave his home, his family and the country in which he was living and go to a land that G-d would show him when he got there. The writer to the Hebrews explains, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8, ESV). Avram was given a promise, "all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever" (B'resheet 13:15, ESV) and although the land was not his, he was told to exercise ownership rights over it: "Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you" (v. 17, ESV). What did he do? "By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise" (Hebrew 11:9, ESV). The Hebrews writer emphasises that although city-building technology was known in those days - walls, gates and other architectural features have been found in Israel, Haran and Ur from before those times - Avraham lived in a tent; in other words, he was a nomad. He had no fixed abode, no permanent structure or foundation other than his faith in G-d: "For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is G-d" (v. 10, ESV). The only piece of real estate he ever owned was a burial site and he couldn't live there.
"Yeah, yeah, right," everyone says, "so he was a nomad; he lived in a tent. That was the normal lifestyle choice in those days; everybody did it. Lots still do. What's so special about that?" With the people and wealth that he had, Avraham could easily have chosen otherwise. He could have put down roots, built a small city and put his feet up. That would surely have been easier than always moving on, constantly packing and unpacking; not to mention that sense of never belonging anywhere, always being a stranger, always on the outside. Our village was listed in the Domesday Book and families in some areas of the country can trace their names even further back to Anglo-Saxon times; they still live within ten miles of the same village or manor. They just belong there; they are as much a part of the landscape as the trees, the hedgerows and the river that runs through the village. But, you see, Avraham had a vision; he knew where he was going; not where he was going, but where he was going. And He knew who had called him to go there and he knew better than to settle down and dig in. Avraham and his descendants "all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13, ESV).
Now, there's a very important balance that must be maintained. Did you notice what Avraham did once he had made a covenant with Abimelech? He planted a tree, a tamarisk tree, which can grow up to thirty feet in height; eventually. Avraham had two visions: a long-distance pilgrim vision and a short-term engagement vision. He could see what Jeremiah was later to write to the exiles in Babylon: "Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the L-RD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7, JPS). The exiles didn't want to hear that, since their vision was to get home, back to Israel, just as soon as they could. G-d had to correct them. Yes, He would allow them home, but not for seventy years - that's two to three generations - and in the meantime they had to live and, in order to be any witness to the people where He had now planted them, they needed to engage and integrate without losing their long-term vision.
We have the same calling: to balance our long-term calling to be citizens of heaven, with our short-term mission to actualise the kingdom of heaven here on this earth in and through our lives. We have to live in the tension of being always ready to move on, while planting trees and developing relationships with others to grow the kingdom now. We mustn't waste today for the sake of a tomorrow that may not be here for many days to come.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary 2, Genesis 16-50 Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN: 1994), page 94
Further Study: Isaiah 40:28-31; Ephesians 2:19-22
Application: Do you have your eyes on the ground in front of you or the sky above you? Too much of either and you'll fall flat on your face. Ask the Great Surveyor to correct your balance today and start living kingdom life in the here and now.
Comment - 13:58 26Oct14 Tom Hiney: The balance is tricky, but the uncertainty of being an exile or a citizen is made easier by rememembering that we are all Temples of G+d/Holy Spirit. We are still weary but G+d is not and it may be G+d's way of making us understand how long we should seek/wait for the Lord --- many days or a short time. We all have the PROMISE and we may have to live in our tent for longer than we would wish.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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