Lech Lecha – God’s Call To Abraham

TIKKUN OLAM BEGINS

When we enter Torah Portion Lech-Lecha, an entirely new period begins. So far, we have seen God’s intervention in judgment: both in the flood and in the story of the tower of Babel, God punished man for his sin and rebellion. But when God called Abram, He personally and actively intervened in mercy, not in judgment. The election and selection of what would become the people of God, begins here. From this point on the relationship of God to the children of Abram will dominate the remainder of the Bible, in spite of the fact that the Bible also makes it clear that the ultimate purpose of this relationship is the restoration of the entire world.

The significance of Abraham in both Judaism and Christianity cannot be overestimated. Many issues central to both religions, are connected to the figure of Abraham. Both Judaism and Christianity claim to be the true descendant of Abraham and both claim the covenant that God initiated with Abraham as their special heritage – however, God’s covenant and God’s promises are understood and interpreted very differently in both religions. As a certain scholar wrote, “to see what the writer makes of Abraham is often to see most clearly what the writer is trying to say”.[1]

 

LECH LECHA

Genesis 12, where our Torah portion starts, opens with God’s famous words to Abraham – Lech Lecha, ‎  לךְ־לְךָ֛  : Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.

Our sages ask: why Lech Lecha? Why, instead of just saying:  Lech, Go, did God have to say Lech Lecha? There are different explanations for this, but there is one in particular that I would like to share with you. Lech lecha might be read as: “go to yourself” – and this is what God says to everyone: Lech Lecha, go to yourself, go inside yourself! Even those who are not called to leave their home or their land, God sends on this inward journey of faith: go to yourself – towards your soul’s essence, towards your ultimate purpose, to this inner land that I will show you!

As we all know, Abram was 75 years old. Why did God choose a man so advanced in age, and why him at all? The text is silent on this matter, but two different interpretations have been suggested.

The first says that God’s reason is not humanly discernible. We don’t know why God chooses Abram, since the Bible says nothing about his righteousness (though it did comment on Noah’s righteousness, for instance). Abram is just the vessel, the recipient of God’s grace, and to our knowledge he had done nothing to deserve it.

The second interpretation says that Abram deserved to be chosen. Just as Noah stood out as a uniquely righteous and moral man in his time, Abram’s unique character caused God to single him out. Generally favored by Jewish tradition, this approach often depicts Abram seeking God from his youth.

I believe that in a sense, both interpretations are right. We don’t know anything about Abram’s righteousness before God’s call – however, we do know how faithful and obedient he was after he was called. And even though generations of rabbis, preachers, and students of scripture have been impressed, encouraged, and inspired by this famous lech-lecha,” for me personally, it is not these words that make this story so special. It is how Abraham responded to these words.

TERAH’S CALL

Let me explain what I mean. In response to God’s call, Abraham went forth to go to the land of Canaan: they departed to go to the land of Canaan,[2] and after a while, they did indeed reach the land of Canaan: So they came to the land of Canaan.[3] Nothing, it seems, could be more obvious and self-apparent than this simple sentence. Doesn’t it go without saying that when people start a journey, they intend to finish the journey and arrive at the place they were heading for? However, just a few verses earlier, at the end of the previous chapter, we read: And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarah, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.[4]

Though the beginning of this passage is the same: they went out to go to the land of Canaan – it ends in a completely different way! Abraham’s father, Terah, also started to go to the land of Canaan; however, he never completed the journey. He never arrived!

Why did Terah start heading for Canaan in the first place? Maybe, before God spoke to Abraham, He had spoken to his father; otherwise, why would Terah leave the very advanced and comfortable city of Ur and start going to Canaan? We know that Terah did not worship the one true God: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”[5] In no way does this mean, however, that Terah had never heard about the one true God, or that he had never heard from the one true God. Perhaps the very first lech-lecha was actually spoken to Terah; perhaps it was Terah who was supposed to have become the father of nations. However, many are called, but few chosen.[6] We all long to hear His voice; we all desire to have a divine encounter, but make no mistake: it’s not the Divine encounter that defines our destiny, but what we do after this encounter. It’s not enough to be called, one must remain faithful to this calling. It’s not what He says to us that defines us, it’s how we respond to what He says!

In this sense, the short verse regarding Abraham – they departed to go to the land of Canaan… They came to the land of Canaan is much more than merely a technical comment. The biblical description of Abraham’s great faith begins here, at Genesis 12:5; not only did he set out to do what he was called and commanded to do––but he completed it. If Terah was called by God – and maybe he was – he responded to God’s call by beginning the journey, but he never finished it. Abraham was called by God–we know that he was–and he responded to God’s call, not by only starting, but actually completing and accomplishing everything he was called to do. This is what faith is all about, and it’s no wonder that Abraham and his father ended up so differently: Abraham became the father of a people and of peoples, while  scripture tells us virtually nothing about Terah, except the fact that he was descendant of Shem and father of Abraham. This is a spiritual law that we should all be aware of: We choose our destiny by the way we respond to God’s call.

[1] Samuel Sandmel, Philo’s Place in Judaism: A Study of Conceptions of Abraham in Jewish Literature, Cincinnati :Hebrew Union College Press,  1956, p.29

[2] Genesis 12:5

[3] Genesis 12:5b

[4] Genesis 11:31

[5] Joshua 24:2

[6] Matthew 22:14

 

The “Terah’s call” piece is taken from Julia’s book Abraham had two sons. To order Julia’s books, go to her page:  https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Deborah

    Amen! May the Lord God Almighty help us to obey Him and to fulfill all that He has commanded us to do and the destinies that He has for us.

  2. Margaret Hurford

    Shalom Julia,
    Thank you for your latest blog entry which stirred up some thinking on inside of me.

    Here are some things I would like to share with you and other blog readers.

    How sad that Terah has never arrived in Canaan and somehow settled down in Haran. As I thought of that I was imminently reminded that the first generation of the children of Israel who left Egypt also never managed to enter the Promised Land. And I just wonder if this can shine some light on Terah’s failure to complete the journey.
    It is possible that like children of Israel Terah also lacked faith in God which was needed for entering Canaan.
    But my question is why did they lack faith ? Both the children of Israel and Terah started the journey of faith and something prevented them from continuation. Again I just wonder if this has anything to do with the exposure to pagan culture. The children of Israel spend over 400 years among god’s of Egypt and of Terah is said that he served other gods. May be this was a real hindrance to their faith ? If that is true then God needed a second generation, which were free from the influence of pagan’s environment. It was Terah’s son Abram and the children of those who left Egypt that entered the Promised Land.
    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of personal journey of faith and the need to watch very carefully for any hindrances in my life which may stand in its way.
    Margaret

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Margaret. It is very interesting that you brought an example of this second generation in the wilderness. I just wrote in my reply to Paul: “we see this pattern throughout all the Scripture: again and again, God uses the younger (sometimes the youngest) brother, or the second generation”. So I think you might be right, Terah and Abraham were part of the same pattern: the first generation started to do something, started this journey of faith, but they were not able to complete it; and then God uses the second generation.

  3. EAPEN

    brilliant!thanks for the insight.

  4. David Russell

    I believe we consciously choose our destiny when we make the concrete decision as to whom we are going to serve at some given point each day in life. Abram made mistakes along the way, i.e., lying to the king about Sarah for example. Yet, he came back to himself and God! Fortunate is the one who does that today! I include myself in that number. Thank you for a great teaching Julia.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, David, he made some big mistakes along the way – but he learned a lot from those mistakes (and so did we). in my next post, I am going to discuss his “Egyptian” episode, so – stay tuned! Blessings!

  5. Marsha Allred

    It was interesting to learn this definition – “go to yourself”. I have, long, been intrigued by the fact that, as I understand, God was first to refer to Abram as “Hebrew”. The definition of Hebrew being, “one who crosses over”. God was not referring to a nationality or racial foundation but to an act on Abram’s part. Adding the definition, “go to yourself” – has caused me to consider the connection. Could it be that God saw that Abram had truly, within himself….crossed over from unbelief in Almighty God but had “crossed over within his very heart to the realization and acceptation of Creator/Father God”? He became, in doing so, a “new man”……and whosoever will…” Lovely and deeply stirring…to see His Heart for us.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Marsha. I agree, the meanings of the original Hebrew words add an additional depth to our understanding of the Scripture. In my next post, I will discuss Jewish exegesis of the different layers of the Scriptures, the technique that helps us see not only plain, literal meaning of the text, but also the meanings that go beyond the literal. Stay tuned, I hope you will find it interesting.

  6. Paul T Rumaker

    Is it possible that Terah did hear and obey the call (either directly from Ha Shem or he recognized the truth of Abram’s call) but, as David could only gather necessities for the Temple but not permitted to build it, perhaps Terah, though obedient, because of his pagan past was not permitted to enter in the Land promise (then very much a pagan land) but only could encourage Abram to make the journey. A similar a similar situation as Moshe bringing the Hebrews to the borders of Canaan.

    1. Julia Blum

      That’s a very interesting thought, Paul. I must admit that I’ve never thought about it. You are right, we do have several similar situations in the Bible – the most graphic example is the one that you mentioned, with David and the Temple. Moreover, we see this pattern throughout all the Scripture: again and again, God uses the younger (sometimes the youngest) brother, or the second generation. So, it might well be that there was the same pattern with Terah and Abraham! Very interesting indeed, thank you so much!