Torah Portion In Real Time: Lech Lecha

GOD’S NAVIGATOR

The famous chapter 12 of the book of Genesis, where our today’s Portion starts, opens with God’s words to Abraham:  

Now the Lord had said to Abram:
“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1]

When you  try to locate an object on any navigation device, you see a flashing red dot on the little screen. Usually, you’re interested in the “street view,” but you can also zoom out from the street view to the city view, to the state view, to the national view, and finally, to the world view. You will still see the same flashing red dot, but now situated on the map of a city, a country, or on the map of the whole world. Something similar is happening here. As we read the first three verses of this chapter, we can watch God zooming out from the house where one particular family lives. As he zooms out, we see the descendants of this one family become a great nation, and then we see the whole world view, where this family has reached all the families of the earth.

Verse one starts with one particular man, Abraham, standing on one particular street of Haran, next to one particular house–his father’s house that he is now commanded to leave: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Tthe next verse zooms out to the national level. All of a sudden, we see the family of Abraham transformed into “a great nation” with a “great name.” God’s blessing is promised to this nation, and the nation itself is promised to be a blessing. This is the second step in God’s plan: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great.”

And then, finally, God’s zoom moves to the world view and we see the same red dot, flashing against the map of the whole world now. The same man we saw in the “street view” standing on the narrow streets of Haran, and then in the “national view” as the father of a great nation, now we see in the “world view,” as Abraham becomes the Father of many nations.

I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

This promise of God to Abraham is very famous, many  people know these words by heart.  However, the real strength of this promise – that “everyone who curses you” will in turn “be cursed” is lost in translation. The word for “curses you” מְקַלֶּלְךָ  (mekalelcha)  is derived from the root קל     (light – as opposed to heavy). The second word translated “curse”,אָאֹר  (aor) comes from a completely different root that means something like “to utterly destroy”. Taking into consideration these insights from Hebrew, the translation of “I will curse him who curses you” may be presented as follows: “I will utterly destroy the one who takes you lightly”.

We know that everything God promised that day to Abraham, He fulfilled literally. He did make Abraham into a great nation and this nation has indeed become a blessing to all the families of the earth.  However, try to imagine these same words as Abraham heard them 3,000 years ago, when none of that had happened yet: Who would have believed these magnificent promises? I often wonder where this man got his faith–that absolutely unique faith that made him trust the Lord and believe His words  even when they seemed extremely complicated, painful, or illogical. And was he actually the first one to hear those words? Because for me personally, it isn’t God’s words that make this story so special; it is how Abraham responded to them.

 

MANY ARE CALLED, BUT FEW CHOSEN

Let me explain what I mean. In verse 5 we read: Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.[2]  In response to God’s call, Abraham went forth to go to the land of Canaan – and then he indeed reached the land of Canaan. Nothing, it seems, could be more obvious and self-apparent: doesn’t it go without saying that when people start a journey, they intend to finish this 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.[3]

Though the beginning of this passage is absolutely  the same (at least, in Hebrew):  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  comfortable Ur and start going to Canaan? We know that Terah did not worship the one true God: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”[4] In no way does this mean, however, that Terah had never heard about the true God, or even  that he had never heard from the true God. Perhaps the very first lech-lecha–get  out–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.[5] 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 what He says to us that defines us, it’s how we respond to what He says! It’s not enough to be called; one must remain faithful to this calling.  In this sense, the short verse regarding Abraham–they departed to go to the land of Canaan… They came to the land of Canaanis much more than merely a technical comment. The biblical description of Abraham’s character begins here:  not only did he set out to do what he was called and commanded to do– but he actually completed it. If Terah was called by God – and I believe he was–he responded to God’s call by starting to do what he was called to do, but he never finished it. Abraham was called by God–we know 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 the 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.

 

BETWEEN HOUSE OF GOD AND HEAP OF RUINS

In the very beginning of chapter 12, Abraham is willing and able to leave everything and everybody behind in order to obey God. Yet just a few verses later, the very same man who just committed an act of incredible courage shows an  incredible weakness:  he goes down to Egypt to escape famine and lies about his wife in order to save his life.  We are not told whether this little trip was approved by the Lord, in the first place.  In chapter 26, God explicitly tells Isaac not to go down to Egypt; in chapter 46, God explicitly tells Jacob to go down to Egypt. However, in this case God did not say anything. Should Abraham have gone to Egypt?  Humanly speaking, it was a very natural and understandable thing to do: Egypt had the Nile river with its delta, therefore, it was always more fertile and there was always more food in Egypt there than in the land of Canaan. But what about God’s will? Why did Abraham go? And what about his lie?

First of all, in Jewish tradition, Abraham’s journey down to Egypt foreshadows the future Egyptian exile, and his coming out of Egypt foreshadows the story of Israel’s Exodus. There are several parallels -probably intentional – between Abram’s story in Genesis 12, and the story of Exodus: Pharaoh and his household were afflicted with plagues – similar to the story of Exodus; Abram’s family left Egypt with much wealth – just as the children of Israel were rich with the material goods they took from their Egyptian neighbors. In both stories, only the males are in danger; in both stories, Pharaoh is sending them out and they are leaving “with great wealth”.   So, in Jewish tradition, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s sojourn in Egypt foreshadows the future Egyptian Exile and Exodus – and all these parallels spoke powerfully to the first and primary audience of the book of Genesis, the generation of the Exodus:  if God was faithful to their patriarch, He would also be faithful to them also.

However, if we speak of Abraham’s personal journey, this going down to Egypt and lying about his wife exposed Abraham’s weakness which definitely needed to be dealt with.  We can clearly see it from the Hebrew text only: after his Egyptian experience we find him “between Beth-El and Hai”[6]: between “House of God”[7] … and “Heap of ruins”[8]!   It seems that this lack of trust became part of the transformation process, however:  maybe, Abraham would never reach those heights of obedience and trusting the Lord if he did not go through his painful “Heap of ruins” experience!

 

Excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/       Also, I would like to remind you, , that we offer a course on the Weekly Torah Portion, and those interested to study in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, are welcome to sign up for this course or to contact me  (juliab@eteachergroup.com) for more information and for the discount.

 

[1] Genesis 12:1-3

[2] Genesis 12:5

[3] Genesis 11:31

[4] Joshua 24:2

[5] Matthew 22:14

[6] Gen.13:3

[7] Bethel = “house of God”

[8] Ai or Hai = “heap of ruins”

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. Rebecca

    While reading the Torah Portion this week, I had a nagging thought as to why Terah didn’t go with Abram all the way into Canaan……..you definitely gave me food for thought! This is why I enjoy your posts….they get us to look and think deeper into the text;)

    I keep thinking on Abrams Godly line and all the fathers he had who walked in righteousness…who responded to Gods call on thier lives and walked with Him. I wonder when Abram was born, how old was Noah??

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Rebecca, for your kind words. As to your question: Noah was 892 or 894 years old when Abraham was born, their lives overlapped for 58 (or 56) years.

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia for sharing your insight! Some have portrayed the patriarchs as all but divine, but we must relate to them as fellow humans.
    Nick

  3. depatridge

    Your thoughts on the Hebrew studies are so rich, Julia. Kudos

  4. Neville Newman

    “he goes down to Egypt to escape famine and lies about his wife in order to save his life.”

    No matter how many times or ways that I read Abram’s story, I can never find any clear justification for saying that he lied about this. If “daughter of my faher” is literal, then she was truly his [half-]sister. If “daughter” and “father” were loose terms of relationship, then it seems completely consistent to understand “sister” as something different than the way we use the term today. Those two possibilities cover the entire spectrum of his answer.

    1. Dot Healy

      Totally agree with you on this one Neville. This was, after all, the very beginning of Abram’s journey of faith and trust in God’s faithfulness. It is the prototype for our spiritual journey also. I too find it far too judgemental to simply say he lied. There is so much more depth to consider.
      Consider also Song of Solomon: “You ravish my heart my sister, my bride”.
      Is Jesus our brother or our bridegroom? Must not the brother/sister relationship come before the bride/bridegroom?