Torah Portion of the Week: What Makes Abraham Go?

Parashat Lech Lecha.

'Abraham and the Angels' by Aert de Gelder (1680-85).
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Our patriarch Abraham arrives in Canaan in the seam line between the end of last week’s Torah portion and the beginning of this week’s, Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). Why does Abraham go to Canaan, and when does God first reveal himself to him? According to the famous narrative in this week’s reading, God’s first words to Abraham are: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). God then promises Abraham that after he journeys to Canaan, God will turn his descendants into a great nation, which the Almighty will bless: “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him” (Gen. 12:4).

Obeying God’s sudden, surprising command and abandoning his family, Abraham journeys to an unknown destination: Canaan. However, toward the end of last week’s Torah reading, we read: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there ... and Terah died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32). According to these verses, Abraham’s sojourn to Canaan has nothing to do with God, but was part of the original plan of Abraham’s father, Terah. Terah’s family sets out for Canaan, but for some reason, the journey is suspended when the party arrives in Haran, where Terah dies.

Ostensibly, we can resolve the contradiction of the two Torah portions by arguing that, when God turns to Abraham in the opening passage of Lech Lecha, he is simply calling upon the patriarch to continue the journey his father began, and which had been interrupted by the latter’s death. However, this argument is at odds with the commandment, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham does not have to leave his homeland, because he has already done so. Nor does he need to leave his father’s house, because his father has already died. Finally, Abraham is not required to journey to an unknown land, because his father has already determined the family’s destination.

As in the two previous portions, there are two intertwined narrative threads. Each is the continuation of one of the stories of Creation and the subsequent events, and each offers its version of Abraham’s migration: In the one, Abraham’s sudden departure is described as the consequence of a divine command (this narrative is a continuation of the opening narrative thread of the second Creation story), while the other describes an ordinary, human, family journey, where life’s circumstances are the reason behind both the setting out and the various delays along the way (this narrative is a continuation of the first Creation story).

It is hypothesized that, in the original story of Abraham’s sojourn, before it was intertwined with the commandment narrative, the verse, “The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran” (Gen. 11:32) is followed by the following description: “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan ...” (Gen. 12:4-5). Terah’s and Abraham’s departures are depicted with similar wording – “[he] took,” “they set out” and “they arrived” – and a narrative sequence links them. Both of their departures stem not from a divine revelation but from a human decision.

Let us return to the story describing Abraham’s journey to Canaan as a form of compliance with a divine command. In this version, Abraham tours Canaan, worships God, and receives his blessing: “Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I will assign this land to your heirs.’ And he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name” (Gen. 12:6-8). We are impressed by the ongoing connection between God and Abraham, a connection that predates Abraham’s arrival in Canaan and continues thereafter. God’s involvement in Abraham’s life is also reflected in the punishment meted out to Pharaoh for kidnapping Sarah when she and Abraham have to journey to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan.

In the other story – about a journey that is not a consequence of a divine command – Abraham sets out from Haran for Canaan on his own initiative at the age of 75. Sarah is barren and gives Abraham her maidservant Hagar (this event is also described in the second version). The text notes: “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Gen. 16:16). Only in the next passage does God finally reveal himself to Abraham, for the first time in this narrative thread: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai [God Almighty]. Walk in my ways [or before me] and be blameless’” (Gen. 17:1). God turns to Abraham, introducing himself (as is customary in a first meeting); describes himself with a name we have not yet heard – “El Shaddai”; and enters into a covenant with Abraham – a covenant that obligates the patriarch and his descendants to circumcise themselves, and obligates God to increase Abraham’s progeny and to give them the land of Canaan.

Abraham finds it hard to believe that his life will dramatically change and proposes that God allow him to have a more realistic existence: “Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live by your favor!’” (Gen. 17:17-18). But God insists, and Abraham, who thought he had already created a family, takes “his son Ishmael, and all his homeborn slaves and all those he had bought, every male in Abraham’s household”, and circumcises all of them without delay: “on that very day” (Gen. 17:23).

According to this narrative thread – which describes Abraham’s sojourn to Canaan as a human decision, not as a means of obeying a divine command – Abraham first encounters God at age 99. He has journeyed within Canaan for 24 years without fathering a child – like a landless immigrant who has no heirs from his wife; only now does God reveal himself to Abraham for the first time. This is not the dramatic act described in the other narrative about Abraham’s departure from his homeland and father’s home in response to a divine command (apparently at an early age, although the text does not specify Abraham’s age). This is a covenant that Abraham enters into as an elderly individual who is on the brink of despair, and thus Abraham’s total, rapid response is an act that is no less dramatic.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.