This week’s parashah introduces us to the life of Abraham. It begins with Abraham’s journey to the promised land and includes God’s covenants with him involving the future of the land and the rite of circumcision. Abraham has a brief and enigmatic encounter with Melchizedek and we hear the difficult and troubling story of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham’s relationship with them.
Abraham’s religious life will be very different from that of Noah whom we discussed last week. Noah’s world is characterised by clarity, simplicity and coherence: he knows what is about to happen and why; he is given very precise instructions and does exactly as he is commanded, emerging safely from the ark when the flood waters have subsided.
For Abraham, matters are rarely, if ever, clear or straightforward. At the age of seventy five he is told to leave his homeland and journey with his family to a distant country, where he would be a blessing for all the families of the earth. It was a journey to an unknown destination – “a land which I will show you” – and he would presumably know when he arrived that the journey was over. He reaches the Promised Land and promptly has to leave for Egypt in order to take refuge from a famine. Abraham frequently finds himself in challenging situations where what he must do is quite unclear – the greatest of these is when God will ask him to offer his son as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
The Rabbis see Abraham’s life as a series of trials that culminate in the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. Some of the trials involve Abraham having to overcome his natural inclinations – he has to go to war in order to rescue his errant nephew, Lot, from local tribesmen. The Akeidah went against the grain of all that he believed and loved about God and was a supreme challenge to his faith. In chapter 15, Abraham is told that his descendants would inherit the land, but only after centuries of suffering and slavery in a land that is not theirs. Before hearing this, he has a vision of a great and fearful darkness, but again there is no explanation, and no reason is given.
Against this background, Abraham develops a relation with God of extraordinary depth and constancy that leaves him deeply engaged with the world beyond the boundaries of his own faith. God recognises this and in 17:5 Abraham, who was formerly Abram, is given his new name: “Your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” (Abraham comes from the Hebrew av hamon amim – father of many peoples.)
From the beginning of the parashah – Abraham as a blessing for all the families of the earth – it is clear that he is to be of universal significance, and this is borne out in the way that he chooses to live.
In what appears to be a minor episode of our parashah (13:5-10), there is a quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and the shepherds of his nephew, Lot, which eventually leads to Abraham and Lot parting and going their separate ways.
The text does not tell us what the quarrel was about and Rashi draws on the Midrash to provide an explanation which is very plausible. The Midrash takes its cue from the textual reference to the Canannites and the Perizites who were then in the land, as Abraham at that time did not have an heir, and they felt free to graze their flocks on land belonging then to the local tribes people. Rashi describes this as an act of wickedness that was a form of theft, and Abraham’s shepherds rebuked the shepherds of Lot but to no avail – thus the quarrel between Abraham and Lot and their ultimate separation.
In next week’s parashah a remarkable Rashi commentary further illustrates the universality of Abraham’s spiritual fatherhood. In 18:17-19, God does not wish to hide the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah from Abraham, in whom “all the nations of the earth would be blessed”. In 18:17, Rashi explores this and paraphrases the verse to say that Abraham is their father and “how can I not tell him of what is to befall his children when he is my beloved friend (Isaiah 41:8)?” What is remarkable about this is that the two cities are the epitome of wickedness and corruption but even that does not put them beyond the boundaries of Abraham’s concern, and he will continue to pray for them.
The depth of Abraham’s engagement with humanity is further illustrated by his hospitality, which we will look at again next week. Briefly, Abraham and his family set up home in a tent whose primary purpose is to serve as a place of succour for weary travellers. The Midrash locates the tent at a crossroads, with entrances on all four sides. Abraham sits outside in the heat of the day when he is unwell in order to welcome passing wayfarers and looks after them.
Abraham’s story begins when he is asked to leave behind his land, birthplace and family roots – the key markers of social identity and stability. In his new life he would have no certainties, only the faith and hope of a covenantal existence. His life would have no overall coherence: he would respond in faith and love to the demands of each situation in the hope that that was what God wanted of him – unlike Noah, he had no set of instructions and his new life did not come with a user’s manual. In a life marked by uncertainty and spiritual trial, Abraham develops a religious devotion that is quite extraordinary and a compassionate engagement that knows no boundaries. His life was neither conventional nor comfortable, but in setting aside all the norms of his time, he truly found himself and became a blessing for all the families of the earth.