The Mishnah on daf 92 of Bava Kamma cites an oft quoted principle that forgiveness can only be complete when the attacker apologizes to the victim. The corollary to this idea is that the victim should accept that the assailant is contrite and forgive him:
“Despite the fact that the assailant gives to the victim all of the required payments for the injury, his transgression is not forgiven for him in the heavenly court until he requests forgiveness from the victim, as it is stated that God told Avimelech after he had taken Sarah from Abraham: ‘Now therefore restore the wife of the man; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live’ (Bereshit 20:7). And from where is it derived that if the victim does not forgive him that he is cruel? As it is stated: ‘And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Avimelech,’” (Bava Kamma 92a)
This is an unusual case where the Mishnah does not only cite the law but brings an example to demonstrate the principle. The incident quoted here is from the Biblical story of Avimelech, king of the Philistines, and his encounter with Avraham and Sarah. The Torah tells us that Avimelech mistook Sarah for a single woman and brought her into his household. He is then told by God to return her to her husband (Bereshit 20). This story is almost duplicated with Isaac and Rebecca a generation later when they try to escape famine and go to Avimelech’s area of Gerar:
“There was a famine in the land—aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham—and Isaac went to Avimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.” (Bereshit 26:1)
In Isaac’s case, his relationship with his wife becomes obvious and the story does not go to the extreme that Abraham’s story did:
“When some time had passed, Avimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac fondling his wife Rebekah. Avimelech sent for Isaac and said, ‘So she is your wife! Why then did you say: ‘She is my sister’?’ Isaac said to him, ‘Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.’ ” (Bereshit 26:8-9)
Leaving aside the morality, and indeed the wisdom, of deceiving people in this way, let’s understand where the story takes place. Who is this Avimelech and who are his subjects? And where is Gerar? We know it is in the land of Canaan because God specifically tells Yitzchak not to leave the land and go to Egypt as his father did. It also has to be in a place with water, much of the story is about digging wells. But can we identify an actual place?
Rabbi Yoel Elitzur in his book Places in the Parasha discusses this story and offers some answers. First he points out that the Philistines here are NOT the Philistines we encounter later in Bible, in the books of Judges and Samuel. They do not dwell on the coast, they have Semitic names (as opposed to Achish or Goliath which are Indo-European names), they are not warlike but rather farmers and their origin is not from the sea. Why do they have the same name as that nation that is Israel’s main enemy in the time of the Judges and the early kings? There may have been an earlier wave of settlers to this area that were very different from the later Philistines but shared similar ancestry. Another possibility is that these earlier people lived in the place that the later Philistines claimed and branded with their name, and they are called Philistines because the readers of the Torah identify this area with that (later) nation.
Avimelech, as Rashi points out, seems to have been the title of all kings of his nation, as Pharaoh was for the Egyptians. The Avimelech of Abraham’s time is not the Avimelech of Isaac’s time, and indeed the name just means my father the king, a good name for a ruler.
The location of Gerar is the most interesting question here. Rabbi Elitzur discusses two options for Gerar: one is that it is in the far south, near Kadesh, west of Mitzpe Ramon near today’s border with Egypt. The other option is that it is further north, in today’s western Negev.
The possibility that we are talking about the deep south is supported by Avraham’s trip to Gerar, where it says that he settles between Kadesh and Shur, in Gerar.
ויסע אברהם ארצה הנגב וישב בין קדש ובין שור ויגר בגרר
“Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negeb and settled between Kadesh and Shur. and he dwelled in Gerar” (Bereshit 20:1)
Rabbi Elitzur rejects this southern identification of Gerar, it is not a place that would have been fertile in a famine and it does not fit with Byzantine evidence that Gerar is further north. He explains that settled וישב is not the same as dwelled ויגר and therefore Gerar does not have to be in the same place as Kadesh and Shur. So what other options do we have for Gerar?
If you look at a map of modern Israel you will see a Nahal Gerar in the Western Negev.
Tel Haror on the right (east), Tel Gamma on the left (west), the line is Nahal Gerar
Two sites in this area have been proposed for the Biblical Gerar. A site called Tel Haror, near Netivot is the eastern choice. This is a large tel with a layer from the Middle Bronze Age, the time of the Patriarchs. However it does not have a lot of water and is not very good for agriculture, which would contradict the fact that the patriarchs were able to survive there even in a famine.
Aaadir, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The other site is in a very fertile area. It is to the west of Tel Haror and it is called Tel Gamma. A Byzantine site named Gerarit was located there so the name fits and water sources mean that we have wells and agriculture. Tel Gamma seems to be a more likely candidate for Biblical Gerar.
Bibleage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Tel Gamma may not sound familiar to most of us but its neighbors’ names certainly resonate, at least in the past few months. Tel Gamma is in the beautiful fields between Kibbutz Reim and Kibbutz Beeri. Before the horrors of October 7th, this area was chiefly known for the gorgeous carpets of red anemones that cover it in the springtime. The land is very fertile and much of Israel’s fruits and vegetables come from near there. It makes sense that it would be a refuge in times of famine.
This time of year, the fields are again green and flowers are appearing everywhere. New life has returned to Gerar and with it hope for a better future.
Yehudit Garinkol Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons