November 6, 2014
There is an amazing comment by the Netziv this week on Bereishit 20:11.
Abraham arrives at Grar, land of the Philistines with his beautiful wife, Sarah. In order to protect himself from lustful, violent men ready to kill a husband so as to claim the wife, Abraham and Sarah assume the guise of siblings. Avimelech, King of Grar, claims Sarah for himself. God intervenes, warns Avimelech in a dream, Sarah is returned to Avraham and all continue with their interesting lives.
Avimelech however confronts Abraham and asks him why they lied about their identity. Abraham responds that he didn’t see “fear of God” amongst the Philistines.
The Netziv on Genesis 20:11 states something surprising. He claims that the Philistines were actually a civilized, moral people and would not under normal circumstances capture a married woman or resort to murder that they may claim her. However, Abraham sensed that their morality was relativistic and not absolute. That it came from social convention and not from belief nor subjecting oneself to Divine command.
Because of this “natural” morality, Abraham knew that the Philistines would have a much harder time resisting temptation. He knew that they would rationalize the permissibility of killing Abraham in order to get Sarah. That’s what he was afraid of: a “morality” without God’s directive. Man-made morality has been and always will be suspect.
George Washington put it so well. “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”