A Life at Arm’s Length

Abraham was the perfect host. So was his nephew, Lot, the one who lived to the east, near the plains of Jordan. Those Terah boys come down from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan and Haran and back again may have left their father’s houses with only a few possessions, but they packed etiquette in their saddlebags.

When you live among strangers, they learned, it’s important to be nice. Overdo the hospitality. When you see a guest, run, bow down. Don’t take no for an answer. The men — angels, some say, with The Most High among them, dressed in ordinary cloaks and sandals — who stopped by for lunch at Abraham and Sarah’s were promised morsels of bread and given cake hot from the oven, freshly slaughtered meat from the choicest animal and a place to rest in the shade.

That Abraham and his nephew, Lot. They made feasts where a simple snack would do.

Of course, neither man could see what was directly in front of him. Looking out from his tent, Abraham squinted; his visitors were silhouetted in the sunlight, dazzling. For Lot, it was different, nighttime; his guests had already bedded down as the mob at the locked door clamored in the darkness.

But that old reflex of hospitality, of following the rules, is what blinded them. Blame the roof in Lot’s adopted city for casting that shadow. He so wanted someplace to belong. Don’t rape my guests, Lot said, bargaining. Rape my two virgin daughters, if you want. Do whatever is good in your eyes, because these guests are lodged in the shadow of my roof.

(Sight petrified Lot’s wife. One last memory to burn through the rain of brimstone from heaven. She looked to see what had happened to her neighbors, the life she was losing. The bitterness of her standing bones fertilizes a salt field where nothing will grow.)

Abraham saw destruction long distance, from the safety of his tent and land. He didn’t want the cities destroyed, of course not. What if there were a quota, a quorum of good people to be counted in this metropolis, in this big, bad world? He thought he had done his part for justice and mercy, marshaling evidence, negotiating on behalf of a saving remnant that he calculated out of temerity and thin air. But he didn’t warn, he didn’t intervene. He didn’t witness the lives of these strangers. He stood too far away to smell the sulfurous cloud rising over Sodom and Gomorrah like fumes from a furnace stoked with houses and their furnishings of human bones.

Abraham specialized in experiencing his life at arm’s length, at the distance of history. Divine voices, angel’s visits, it was all part of the fabric of deniability. Sarah’s fault to send Hagar and his son, Ishmael, into the wilderness to die with only a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. Someone else’s command to butcher Isaac and offer him like a sheep on the mountain. An angel’s dictate that he stay his hand. Abraham! You call this place, “On the mount of the Lord there is vision.” Did it take standing at the edge of crime to teach you to lift up your eyes and recognize that you never fought for Ishmael and Isaac the way you fought for Sodom and Gomorrah?

Isaac and Ishmael will join their sorrowing hands at the gaping dark of your tomb, but neither Sarah nor your two sons will speak to you again. Abraham, you fulfilled your debts to God but shirked your obligations to love. Your sons’ descendants will be numerous as the stars, but the message you left their generations is that their father cannot and will not ever protect them.

Debra Cash writes cultural criticism for WBUR Online Arts and elsewhere. Her poetry has been anthologized in Anita Diamant’s books on the Jewish life cycle.

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A Life at Arm’s Length

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