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B'resheet/Genesis 14:14 When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he armed his retainers ... and gave chase as far as Dan.
This verse comes near the middle of the curious interlude referred to by some commentators as "Avram the Warrior" after Avram has separated from his nephew Lot and before Avram's great statement of faith and the covenant ceremony in the next chapter. Someone had escaped from Sodom and told Avram that Lot had been captured with the rest of the people of Sodom and Avram acts to rescue his nephew. Targum Onkelos retains the Hebrew's word , although strictly Lot is a nephew and not a brother; the word can be used in the wider context of 'kinsman'. Picking up on Avram's statement to Lot as they part ways - "for we are brothers" (B'resheet 13:8, NIV),Hirsch comments that "before the separation, Avram had said, 'we are men who should be brothers', but when he heard of Lot's misfortune, the unfortunate Lot is at once his brother". Nahum Sarna explains that "Although Lot separated himself from his uncle, the ties of kinship remained intact. Avram performs what in rabbinic parlance is termed the duty of 'redeeming the captives'" (b. Bava Batra 8a).
Examining the Hebrew text gives us a measure of how Avram acted. The verb - a Hif'il 3ms prefix form of the root , here in a vav-conversive construction and ahapax legomenon in this form - can mean "to empty, to pour out, to draw out (a sword or spear) or to draw or lead out (troops)" (Davidson). Translated 'mustered' (JPS), 'led out' (ESV, NRSV), 'armed' ( Targum Onkelos, Rashi, , (NKJV), the word is juxtaposed with its direct object , another hapax legomenon, variously translated 'young men' (Onkelos), 'retainers' (JPS), 'trained men' (ESV, NRSV); this speaks of a considerable military force. Sarna points out that the word "occurs in Egyptian execration texts of the 19th-18th centuries BCE in reference to armed retainers of Canaanite chieftains".
The verb - a
Qal 3ms prefix form also in vav-conversive construction, of the
root , to follow
after, to pursue, to chase - is followed by the preposition
, which often means
'until' or 'as far as': "as far as Dan". Avram's pursuit of the raiders was
a lengthy affair. The
As soon as Avram hears that Lot has been taken away captive, he assembles and arms his retainers, his private army, and gives chase for at least 160 miles - a not inconsiderable distance in those days - and then mounts as attack by night to rescue Lot and his family. TheSforno comments that he travelled "in great haste, so as to attack them suddenly". Avram went a long way and he went fast and, of course, at no insignificant personal cost and inconvenience.
Throughout Jewish history, captives have been redeemed at great personal and communal cost, usually ignoring the instructions of the Sages (e.g. m. Gittin 4:6, "They do not redeem captives for more than they are worth"). To this day, it is considered a prime responsibility of the State of Israel to redeem captives at almost whatever the price in order to preserve morale and unity within the Jewish people and the Israeli Defence Forces. In recent years, there has been great public hand-wringing over a number of high profile cases, with conflicting halakhic rulings being issued by prominent rabbis who disagree with each other over the price involved and the message that such redemptions send to the enemies of the Jewish people.
Bringing the issue back to our own lives, however, how far will we go to rescue a brother? Clearly, the Torah speaks about rescuing our neighbours' animals and property - "If you see your fellow's ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it" (D'varim 22:4, JPS) - and tells us to meet the needs of the poor: "If, however, there is a needy person among you ... you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs" (15:7-8, JPS). The prophets speak about G-d rescuing our people: "As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some animals in his flock have gotten separated, so I will seek out My flock, I will rescue them from all the places to which they were scattered on a day of cloud and gloom" (Ezekiel 34:12, JPS). Yeshua Himself said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11, ESV) and told the parable of the shepherd who went out to find the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6). He taught the disciples an example of the lengths to which they should be prepared to go to rescue a brother who is lost. This, however, is all at a physical level: nuts and bolts, bread and water, money and farm stock. Is it supposed to go any further?
"Yes," Rav Sha'ul explains: It goes much further. Yeshua put it into practice - He lived, or should that be died, what He taught: "For while we were still helpless, at the right time, the Messiah died on behalf of ungodly people. Now it is a rare event when someone gives up his life even for the sake of somebody righteous, although possibly for a truly good person one might have the courage to die. But G-d demonstrates His own love for us in that the Messiah died on our behalf while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:6-8, CJB). Without Yeshua, all of us are lost; without Him we are not even brothers and yet He died for us.
But there is yet another level; one with which we are called to engage. We are not all Yeshua; we cannot die for the sin of the world and neither are we expected to. We are nevertheless expected to be involved in rescuing people at a more than physical level. James has the text: "My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20, ESV). When a brother (or sister, James is not being gender specific here, it is a feature of koine Greek) wanders from the truth - that is: looses the plot, stumbles in sin, starts to wobble in fundamental beliefs about Yeshua, even as far as being lost to the kingdom - we are to reach out to them, reason with them, encourage them and bring them back into the fold. This is what Yeshua did during His earthly ministry and continues to do through people like us today. He told the disciples, "If your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault- but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother" (Matthew 18:15, CJB). Rav Sha'ul too emphasizes that duty of care, that role of shepherding, for each believer in Messiah: "Brothers, suppose someone is caught doing something wrong. You who have the Spirit should set him right, but in a spirit of humility, keeping an eye on yourselves so that you won't be tempted too" (Galatians 6:1, CJB).
It is too easy to turn away, to assume that someone else will do it or is already on the case, to believe that we can't or shouldn't help, or simply not to bother. This is not what Avram did; as soon as he heard, he put aside the previous separation, mustered his resources and did whatever was necessary to rescue his nephew. We too, if we are sons and daughters of Avraham (see Galatians 3:7), are called to engage whatever it takes to rescue those of the brethren who stumble or get lost. Yeshua rescued us at the cost of the cross and calls us to do likewise!
Further Study: Vayikra 19:17-18; Ephesians 2:4-7
Application: How good are you at rescuing lost or fallen brothers? Is there someone you know who seems to have fallen through the cracks? Reach out to them today and play your part in restoring your brother to relationship with G-d.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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