Parashat Vayeira: Continuing Abraham’s Legacy

[This is part four in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]

Following last week’s Covenant of Names in parashat Lech Lecha, in which Abraham and God took turns magnifying each other’s names, we find shemfirmly entrenched with Abraham and his camp. Let’s see what happens with shem here in parashat Vayeira.

Five cities filled with evildoers — most infamously Sodom — are destroyed, despite Abraham interceding on their behalf. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, demonstrates with his hospitality some of the goodness he learned from Abraham and is saved from the destruction. Afraid of what lay in store for him in the mountains, Lot pleads to spend time in the newest of the five cities, knowing it hadn’t yet earned the full measure of God’s wrath like the other cities:

מַהֵר֙ הִמָּלֵ֣ט שָׁ֔מָּה כִּ֣י לֹ֤א אוּכַל֙ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת דָּבָ֔ר עַד־בֹּאֲךָ֖ שָׁ֑מָּה עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרָ֥א שֵׁם־הָעִ֖יר צֽוֹעַר׃

Hurry, flee there, for I cannot do anything until you arrive there. Hence the town came to be called by the name Zoar. (Genesis 19:22)

In this instance shem is used as the name of a place and not a person, and so we don’t see shem the same way, but still each mention is notable.

Unlike when Cain named a city after his son this doesn’t seem to be a case of preserving one’s name, though Lot said he would otherwise die in the mountains, so self-preservation is indeed at play here.

by Lucas van Leyden (1520 A.D.)

Lot and his daughters eventually arrive to the mountains following the cities’ destruction. The Torah is somewhat cryptic about the daughters’ true intentions, and Lot doesn’t come off well here, but consensus among the Torah’s commentators is that the daughters feared the destruction was worldwide and took on the responsibility of repopulating the earth. The only male available for procreation was their father Lot, so they decided to get him drunk — on two consecutive nights — and conceived from that fateful union:

וַתֵּ֤לֶד הַבְּכִירָה֙ בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ מוֹאָ֑ב ה֥וּא אֲבִֽי־מוֹאָ֖ב עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃ וְהַצְּעִירָ֤ה גַם־הִוא֙ יָ֣לְדָה בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־עַמִּ֑י ה֛וּא אֲבִ֥י בְנֵֽי־עַמּ֖וֹן עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The older one bore a son and called him the name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. And the younger also bore a son, and she called him the name Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today. (Gen. 19:37–38)

This is again a story about preserving one’s name but on a much greater scale — the preservation at stake is all of humanity’s, at least as far as the daughters knew. Interestingly, their own names are not mentioned here. The Torah doesn’t tell us what happens to the daughters or to Lot following this episode, but we know these sons became the progenitors of the nations Ammon and Moav as testified in the text ‘father of…until this day.’

There are negative connotations here, though, as the names themselves (‘Moav’ means ‘from father’) bespeak their incestual origins. Furthermore, the Moabites and Ammonites are the only nations whose men may not convert to Judaism (Deuteronomy 23:3–4). Finally, though the commentaries overwhelmingly praise the daughters’ intentions, a simple reading of the older daughter’s rationale, that ‘there’s no man in the land to consort with us’ (Gen. 19:32) and ‘that we may maintain life,’ (Gen. 19:32) may speak to their own legacy rather than humanity’s survival.

Assuming we go with the vast majority of commentators, the daughters’ desire to repopulate the world — or so they thought — is indeed praiseworthy and a great legacy, despite the unsavory circumstances.

The next instance of shem returns to Abraham’s immediate family:

וַתַּ֩הַר֩ וַתֵּ֨לֶד שָׂרָ֧ה לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם בֵּ֖ן לִזְקֻנָ֑יו לַמּוֹעֵ֕ד אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹקים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶֽת־שֶׁם־בְּנ֧וֹ הַנּֽוֹלַד־ל֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָה־לּ֥וֹ שָׂרָ֖ה יִצְחָֽק׃

Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham called the name of his son, whom Sarah had borne him, Isaac. (Gen. 21:2–3)

Finally, after decades of waiting, Abraham and Sarah have a child together. Following in Abraham’s footsteps, this child would become the next torchbearer and generational link of God’s mission for the Jewish people.

Just like shem was used in conjunction with Isaac’s name in the previous parasha, when God foretold his birth to Abraham, it’s used again here. This marks the first time shem is associated with one’s name twice.

Abimelech, king of the Philistines, sees that Abraham is divinely blessed and makes a covenant of peace with him. Following the sealing of the alliance, we read:

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יי אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃

And he [Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheba, and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God / God of the universe. (Gen. 21:33)

Abraham is back to invoking God’s Name, but this time is of a different flavor. Firstly, it immediately follows the covenant with Abimelech and in the same location. Secondly, a special appellation for God is given.

God’s previous title is ‘the Most High,’ mentioned four times in five verses (Gen. 14:18–22). It was used by Malchizedek in praise of God following Abraham’s victory over the four kings, and then immediately repeated by Abraham in his refusal to accept booty from the king of Sodom. In that episode Abraham and Malchizedek stood in sharp contrast to the king of Sodom, and God’s title connotes a Being above and beyond the world of men.

Here in this episode, on the other hand, Abraham makes peace with Abimelech following the latter’s recognition of Abraham’s divine blessings. Fittingly, God’s new title ‘God of the universe’ connotes a Being closer to and more engaged with humanity.

Toward the end of the Binding of Isaac episode we read:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא יי יִרְאֶ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יֵאָמֵ֣ר הַיּ֔וֹם בְּהַ֥ר יי יֵרָאֶֽה׃
And Abraham called the name of that site ‘Adonai-yireh’ whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is vision.” (Gen. 22:14)

Unlike those previous times where Abraham built an alter and ‘called in God’s name,’ seemingly proselytizing, here he uses God’s Name to commemorate an event and name a place. That name would eventually become the ‘Jeru-’ of Jerusalem. As it happens, the ‘Salem’ half comes from Malchizedek, king of Salem.

In its final showing in this parasha, shem makes its strangest appearance yet:

וּפִֽילַגְשׁ֖וֹ וּשְׁמָ֣הּ רְאוּמָ֑ה וַתֵּ֤לֶד גַּם־הִוא֙ אֶת־טֶ֣בַח וְאֶת־גַּ֔חַם וְאֶת־תַּ֖חַשׁ וְאֶֽת־מַעֲכָֽה׃

And his [Nahor’s] concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore children: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.(Gen. 22:24)

The obvious reason for the group of verses leading up to this verse is the birth of Rebecca, the next matriarch of the Jewish people. But shem isn’t associated with her here, rather it’s associated with Nahor’s (Abraham’s brother) concubine Reumah.

All of the people mentioned in this collection of verses are part of Abraham’s extended family, and therefore of historical importance, but only Reumah gets shem here. What was special about her, or about her relationship with Nahor? What is shem doing here?

It’s unclear from the text so I turned to the commentaries. Sforno teaches that Maacah, Reumah’s daughter, was similarly fitting to be Isaac’s wife in case Rebecca wasn’t chosen. We can also analyze Reumah’s name for insight. ‘Reumah’ may be derived from the Hebrew word room, meaning lofty. In addition, ‘Reu-’ is linguistically similar to the Hebrew word raooy, meaning fitting or appropriate.

shem continues to be used in situations revolving around Abraham and his family, though its significance and positive-versus-negative connotations aren’t always obvious from the Torah text. In particular, the uses of shem associated with Lot and his daughters require deeper analysis and shem’s final appearance seems even more obscure.

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