For a book that is so often concerned with numbers, the Torah is generally very ambiguous when it comes to chronology – so much so that for the Rabbis, certain vignettes in Torah make much more sense in relation to each other only if we understand that the narrative order is not always the chronological order. Perhaps we can address that more directly in another post. For now, I am more interested in vague statements of the passage of time, and how the tradition makes sense of these statements to produce a practical chronology that answers contradictions, rather than causing contradictions.
Take, for example, a seemingly innocuous verse just before the last section of Parashat Vayeira:
Avraham resided in the land of the P’lishtim many days
The following verse begins the well known story of the Binding of Yitzhak, by stating: “It was after these things…” Two vague statements of time juxtaposed must mean something significant, so how can we explore just how much time has passed between Avraham’s treaty with Avimelekh and Phikhol, and his bringing of his son up the mountain?
First, we can establish what we know: Avraham was 99 when he circumcised himself, and Yitzhak was born one year later when Avraham was 100. We also know that when he left Haran he was 75, so we then understand that he had spent a total of 25 years in the land before he left Hevron. Rashi tells us that the reason the Torah uses the language of “many days,” or in Hebrew yamim rabim, is because he spent more days in the land of P’lishtim than he had spent days in the land of Kena’an up until that point. If, then, Avraham spent more than 25 years in the land of the P’lishtim, how can we deduce exactly how many?
In Parashat Hayyei Sarah, we learn that Sarah dies at the age of 127. We know that when Yitzhak was born, Sarah was 90. Tradition holds that Parashat Vayeira ending with the Binding of Yitzhak and Parashat Hayyei Sarah beginning with the death of Sarah teaches that Sarah died from grief over what her husband had done with their son. We can then deduce from the math that when Avraham brought Yitzhak up the mountain to sacrifice him, Yitzhak was 37 years old. Well, I don’t have to break down the math, there’s a midrash crafted well over 1500 years ago which does that for us:
אבינו יצחק היה כשנעקד על המזבח בן ל”ז שנה, ויגר אברהם בארץ פלשתים ימים רבים (שם כא לד), הימים הללו מרובים על של חברון שהיו עשרים וחמש שנה, והללו עשרים ושש שנה
Yitzhak Avinu was 37 when he was bound on the altar, “and Avraham resided in the land of the P’lishtim many days,” those days were more numerous than the 25 years he was in Hevron, so these totaled 26 years…
We then can deduce, and Rashi confirms, there are a total of 12 years between Avraham’s return from the land of the P’lishtim and his bringing Yitzhak up the mountain.
So we might ask what Avraham was doing in the land of the P’lishtim for 26 years? Well, the numerical value of God’s name, YHVH, is 26, and the penultimate verse of Chapter 21 tells us precisely what he did for 26 years (spoiler alert: it’s the same thing he did in Parashat Lekh Lekhah):
Avraham planted a tamarisk-orchard in Be’er Sheva; and he called-out there in the name of Hashem, God of the Universe
So you thought the 26 years was just a random number? It’s never random.