A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter
There are two fascinating parallel stories about Abraham, one in Genesis 12 and one in Genesis 20. In each of them, Abraham travels to a foreign land for a temporary stay, once in Egypt and once in Grar. In each of them, Abraham says that Sarah is his sister instead of his wife. In both stories the king takes Sarah and God intervenes to let both Pharaoh of Egypt and Avimelech of Grar know that Sarah is really Abraham’s wife. However, there is an interesting difference.
In Chapter 12, Pharaoh calls Abraham and he says:
“What have you done to me? Why did you not tell me that she is your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ even when I took her as my wife? Well, here is your wife. Take her and go.”
Abraham says nothing in response—he doesn’t answer Pharaoh’s question; he just gets up and leaves the country.
In Genesis 20 Avimelech asks Abraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?”
This time, Abraham responds with a full, complete answer—it actually is 3 verses long.
Why the difference? Both kings ask him for an explanation of his behavior, but Abraham ignores Pharaoh’s question and answers Avimelech. Why?
Rabbeinu Bachye, a transmitter of ancient Jewish wisdom, notes that Pharaoh’s question wasn’t a real question. It was a rant. The proof is that his final line is “take her and go.” Pharaoh was letting off steam with all his questioning but he wasn’t truly interested in a dialogue. He just wanted the situation over. And so, the polite, respectful thing for Abraham to do was to get up and leave quickly and quietly.
Avimelech on the other hand asked a meaningful question and waited for an answer, which Abraham respectfully gave him. Isn’t that a beautiful distinction?
This balance of knowing when a question should be answered and when the situation should just be remedied without discussion is one that all mothers work on. There are many times that our children ask us something and they truly want to hear our perspective. There are other times when they ask us something but they are only letting off steam. They don’t want our explanations; what they really want is the situation to change. We have to work at knowing the difference, knowing when to answer a question right away, when to defer an answer until a later time when the child will be more receptive, and knowing when to not answer at all.
It also goes the other way when we question our children. There are times we ask questions just to let off steam, “Who left the door wide open?” or, “Why did you do that?” Most of the time when those words come to my mouth, it isn’t because it really matters to me who or why, I’m just expressing that I’m upset. And I work on trying to bite my tongue because I don’t want to ask my children questions that aren’t really questions. I also don’t want to ask my children questions that they are incapable of answering such as, “Why did you do that?” Most kids and adults aren’t self-aware enough to answer that one without a lot of reflection. Why ask something that they can’t answer? We want to show our kids that when we ask them something, we are honestly engaging in dialogue. We want to hear from them, like Avimelech and unlike Pharaoh.
May God bless us with the wisdom and self-control to know when to answer our kids and when to be quiet, when and how to ask our children true questions and when to refrain.
2 thoughts on “What’s the Question?”
I don’t think it hurts to ask children “why did you do that?”. Even though they may not be able to verbalize an answer, it makes them think and question their motives. Even if they only reflect on it inwardly, it may change their behavior.
Linda, I think the tone of voice matters a great deal here. “Why did you do that,” can be an authentic, non-emotional question while, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT????!!!!” is a release of emotion. I think Rebecca was thinking of the second, but I will pass your comment on to her.
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