07 Jan

Chapter 01: The Selection of Abraham

1.1 The Selection of Abraham

The first portion of the Torah that tells the story of Abraham is called “Lech Lecha,” literally, “go for yourself” or “leave,” and it depicts Abraham leaving the constraints of a previous world in order to create a new, never seen before phenomenon—a chosen nation. This very moment marks the beginning of Western, monotheistic civilization, and the Book of Genesis describes it in the following way:

(1) Now HaShem said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. (2) And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. (3) And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’

In other words:

(a)  Abraham must abandon his homeland and family, so he can become the forefather of a new people.

(b) The creation of this people and the realization of the mission of his existence are possible only in the Land which God will show Abraham (in the future Land of Israel).

(c)  This people will become numerous and renowned.

(d) The mission of this people is universal: to bring God’s blessing to all the tribes of the earth.

(e) The attitude toward this nation will be the criteria that will define the fate of all the other nations of the world: those who bless the chosen people will be blessed; those, who curse them, will themselves be cursed.

Since this moment, four thousand years have elapsed. In general, this is exactly how things have played out in history.

1.2 God’s Plan vs. Abraham’s Plan

The journey begins with Abraham’s readiness to leave his familiar, intelligible world for an unknown future. Needless to say, Abraham was internally ready for this, otherwise, it is not likely that he would have received the Divine command to leave. However, as we shall see from the text, this readiness did not mean in the least that accepting the command came easily or naturally to Abraham. On the contrary: God’s command turned out to be so radical that Abraham was not immediately prepared to understand and accept it. The Torah continues:

(4) So Abram went, as HaShem had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. (5) And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

We usually understand these two verses as Abraham’s fulfillment of God’s command, without conveying any profoundly new information. However, if we read them carefully and compare them, we will see that they contain an important contradiction. In verse 12:4, everything accords with the command given to Abraham (“So Abram went, as HaShem had spoken unto him”)—Lot tagged along on his own initiative. But in 12:5, we are shown an entirely different picture (“And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son”). Why specifically mention that Abraham took his wife—is it not obvious? Even more confounding is why Abraham took Lot along—used his own initiative to invite him! Was he not instructed to leave his family at home? Moreover, he took along not only “all their substance that they had gathered” but also “the souls that they had gotten in Haran”—yet God had not mentioned anything of the sort!

“And they went forth to go into the land of Canaan”—but did God tell Abraham the name of his destination? Earlier on, in 12:1, it says only “’Get thee out … unto the land that I will show thee,” but the name of the land was left unspecified.

In order to understand these inconsistencies, we must examine the aforementioned verses in a wider context—then we shall see it was not Abraham at all who began the journey to Canaan. In verse 12:5 it is emphasized that “And they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.” But a little earlier in the text of the Torah (11:31) we have already read that, “And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there…”

In this way, verse 12:5 portrays the journey of Abraham to Canaan as a continuation of Terah’s journey (11.31), and not at all as Abraham’s fulfillment of the Divine command (12.1). Terah was unsuccessful in realizing his plan because he got stuck in Haran, so Abraham continued the journey and completed the work begun by Terah.

Thus, verses 12:4 and 12:5 are not simply contradictory, but look at the same event from two different angles. On the one hand, Abraham does everything by God’s command; on the other, he has his own original plans and is not ready to abandon them; he goes to Canaan for the purpose of completing the project which Terah had begun.

In other words, Abraham had his own plans, and although he was able to make them compatible with God’s command, he was not by any means heeding this command in its entirety. How and why did such a situation arise?

1.3 The Difficulty of Transitioning from Cosmopolitanism to “National Universalism”

The original name of the spiritual forefather of humanity was Abram, not Abraham. He only receives the extra “hey” at the end of the “Lech Lecha” section.

The Midrash interprets Abram’s name as “Av Aram”—“the father of the Arameans”—that is, the spiritual leader of the people of Mesopotamia, and the expression “the souls that they had gotten in Haran” it understands as a reference to the multitude of his disciples.

We have previously cited the Midrash, which relates that Abraham had already embraced monotheism, broken idols, and campaigned against King Nimrod in Ur Kasdim. Thus, Abraham is a dissident, who stands up against official ideology and calls on people not to worship idols from his youth, and later, in Haran, acquires a multitude of disciples. In this perspective, Abraham’s departure from Haran is a typical Jewish dilemma: should one dedicate one’s life to perfecting the ethics and spirituality of the nations of the world, while living amongst them; or, is it better to occupy oneself with solving specifically Jewish problems in one’s own land? It is precisely this dilemma which the Midrash considers to be Abraham’s first trial.

Jews are always striving for universalism, for interaction with all humankind. This tendency is quite natural because it corresponds to our national character: after all, the Jewish nation was specifically created to carry God’s blessing to humanity. The temptation, however, lies in equating the universal with the cosmopolitan—i.e. in claiming that “for everyone to exist,” everything particularly nationalistic needs to be rejected. But God commanded the opposite: you must be ethnic; you must put effort into creating your own people—for it is precisely by means of the ethical, and not through rejecting it, that the path to the universal lies.

By comparing verses 12:4 and 12:5 we see that initially there were two different plans for advancing humanity towards monotheism: there is God’s plan, and there is Abraham’s plan. God’s plan consists of creating a nation out of Abraham: “I will make of thee a great nation.” At first, Abraham’s plan was different: it consisted of creating a cosmopolitan monotheistic religion which would re-educate humanity. For this reason he brings his disciples with him, something which God had not at all instructed him to do.

 1.4 The Departure From Haran As a Trial

We have mentioned above that Abraham’s main characteristics correspond to the category of hesed. Abraham spent his life teaching ethical monotheism to the people surrounding him and spreading the teaching of perceiving life as a dialogue between man and God.

However, Abraham’s primary work for humanity turned out not to be his preaching but the creation of the Jewish people, or the “faceting of hesed”: by undergoing his trials, he was limiting and faceting his own hesed, cutting off its “superfluous” parts, in order to retain the right kind of hesed, which could eventually serve as the basis for the Jewish national soul.

Instead of the amorphous category of hesed, i.e. instead of the unlimited desire to give and render kindness, it was necessary to create the right kind of category of hesed, that is, to learn to give only when it leads to goodness, as excessive kindness can easily lead to evil as well. To do this Abraham had to learn to sometimes act against his nature, against hesed, against the striving for an all-embracing bliss.

As far as hesed is concerned, a nationless religious group would have been more natural, as it would have been open to everyone. However nationality, by definition always contains restrictions—some people are born into it, while others are not. For this reason, God’s demand that Abraham should become the founder of a nation was a trial for him. In other words, the test (nisayon) consists here of not only separating from his relatives and the accustomed surroundings, but also in limiting the spreading of his ideas and in re-focusing himself from all of humanity onto one, single people.

Abraham, the spiritual leader of the Arameans people, had to leave this place, the country he wanted to develop, and the people who considered him their spiritual leader. “Lech Lecha,” the address of God to Abraham, can be translated as “leave for yourself” or “leave to yourself”—that is “leave that cosmopolitan work you are doing in Babylon and occupy yourself instead with your own nationalistic work.” For Abraham, this restriction was a significant problem.

Jewish tradition teaches an important principle: “The deeds of fathers are a sign for the sons.” The deeds of the forefathers are prototypes, models of that which occurs later on with us. Looking at Abraham’s trials through the lens of the past millennium, we can see his departure from Haran is a typical Jewish trial. Time after time in Jewish history the situation repeats itself when Jews wanted to help all of humanity at once, in the spiritual, educational, and material realms—but what they were really required to do is to stop engaging in that and start occupying themselves with their own Jewish problems.

To solve this conflict in the right way within our own soul, we must understand that the transition from the “cosmopolitan” outlook to a “national” one is not at a betrayal of universalism—on the contrary, it is a progression towards it. Universality is achieved not through cosmopolitanism but through a correctly-oriented nationalism; the path to the universal lies not through a rejection of the national, but rather through a full national realization, open to the world but autonomous from it.

These words still sound too harsh for some people today; all the more so it was difficult for Abraham to accept that the universal would not be achieved through spreading his teachings to everyone at once, but through the creation of a special people; the address to all of humanity would become possible only much later, and it would be based on the path which this special nation had already trodden. Only gradually does Abraham transition from his original plan to a full acceptance of God’s plan.

1.5 To Change the World, a Nation is Needed, Not Just a Group of Disciples

“God said to Abraham, ‘Get thee out of thy country… unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation.” The key word and concept here is “nation.” We have already mentioned that Abraham was not the first monotheist; the idea of a single God as the basis of morality (ethical monotheism) was professed prior to him by, for example, Noah, Shem, and Eber, but the concept of an entire “monotheistic nation” never arose. It is presented to mankind for the first time at the moment of Abraham’s selection.

This approach is novel and unusual because from this point on holiness will no longer be an individual concept but a national one. Holiness is no longer for individual righteous people but also for regular people, not only for those “immersed in spirituality,” but also for those who occupy themselves with all sides of material life in society. Holiness on the level of the individual was known even before this; individual righteous people existed in all ages, but attaining holiness on a nationwide level was an unthinkable idea—for all of humanity and for Abraham.

It must be mentioned that, despite the past millennium, even we understand the concept of individual holiness as ordinary and apparent, while a nationwide righteousness is still perceived as unusual, unattained by anyone, and barely comprehensible even to ourselves. However, as a general rule, any phenomenon can only be influenced by a phenomenon similar to it; therefore, for the rectification and spiritual advancement of humanity that consist of the nations of the world, the level of nationwide holiness can be—and must be!—achieved by a single nation. Only then will “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (12:3). Only when nationalistic holiness is attained, can holiness be spread to all of humanity.

1.6 The Conflict between Abraham’s Plan and God’s Plan

Disciples are necessary if one is building a teaching, a religion, or a philosophical school. Having one’s own children is not required for this. Things are quite different if one needs to build a nation—then, descendants are mandatory.

We see the entire group of Abraham’s disciples left no legacy (and in the Torah they are mentioned only in passing); everything humanity receives from Abraham was passed down through his son Isaac, and subsequently through Jacob and his children.

However, initially, Abraham did not realize this. He had no children, but he had disciples, and therefore he wanted to spread his religious system with the help of his disciples. At first, he did not view not having children as a problem, since they are not required for the creation of a religious teaching. Thus, the entire chapter of “Lech Lecha” portrays the conflict between these two plans: Abraham’s plan to create a religion, and God’s plan to create a nation.

1.7 The Founding of the City of Shechem

(6) And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. (7) And HaShem appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land’; and he builded there an altar unto HaShem, who appeared unto him.

“Unto thy seed will I give this land.” The word “this” (zot) always implies something visible, something at which one can “point a finger.” This means, that from the spot where Abraham stood, the entire country was visible. In the region of Shechem such a place exists on Mount Eyval (940m above sea level; this spot opens up a spectacular view of over 100km in every direction and it is on this specific mountain that almost 500 years after Abraham, during the war for the conquest of the land, Joshua would set up an altar in memory of Abraham’s altar (Joshua 8:30).

In the description of Abraham’s arrival in the country (verse 6), the ruling nation is specified right away. The geo-political situation at the time these verses are written (“the Canaanite was then in the land”) contrasts with God’s promise (“unto thy seed will I give this land”). This means the question of national-political power in the Chosen Land appears quite essential from the Divine perspective.

The Torah says “Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem,” and not “until Shechem.” It seems that when Abraham arrived there, the city of Shechem did not yet exist, and was simply the location of the future Shechem.

And here Abraham receives a new prophecy which outlines more precisely the realm of his activity. At first, when God said to Abraham “I will make of thee a great nation” (12:2), Abraham could still think that the foundation of his nation could be his students; hypothetically, he could consider them his “foster children.” For this reason, although Abraham goes to Canaan following God’s command, he brings with him the “acquired souls,” intending to create a nation out of them, that is, planning to integrate his plan with God’s command. But now God tells him more specifically, “’Unto thy seed will I give this land’” (12:7)—this means the people will be created on the foundation of Abraham’s descendants, not his disciples. For this reason, as we see later on in Genesis 12.8, Abraham continues his journey with only his family.

One can then assume, that Abraham left his students here. If the city of Shechem did not exist prior to this, then, evidently, Abraham’s students were the ones who founded the city. They remained in Shechem by themselves to develop it further, without Abraham’s influence.

Understanding that Shechem was built and settled by Abraham’s students, emigrants from Babylon, is essential for analyzing the further history that unfolded in this place.

1.8 Babylon and Egypt

Two fertile areas and two great civilizations located on either side of the Land of Israel have been inextricably linked to it throughout ancient history. These are Babylon and Egypt, and we can see alternate Jewish “exoduses” from both. Abraham leaves Babylon, stays in Egypt for a while, and then leaves it too. Jacob comes to Babylon to visit Laban, returns from Laban to Canaan, and at the end of his life descends to Egypt with his family. Several centuries later, the Jewish people go through the Exodus from Egypt. And a few centuries later, the Babylonian captivity occurs followed by an exodus from it. In the next cycle of history, already in the period of antiquity, Egypt and Babylon become the leading powers of the Jewish Diaspora; the spiritual center moves to Babylon, and there the Babylonian Talmud is created. In some sense, the Jewish nation can be compared to a pendulum, moving back and forth between Egypt and Babylon.

While Babylon stands on two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, Egypt is sustained by the Nile River.

The importance of Babylon and Egypt as the main centers of human culture is noted right at the beginning of the Torah, in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, as part of the description of man’s stay in the Garden of Eden, when, it would seem, there could be no talk of geography. The Torah says:

(10) And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads. (11) The name of the first is Pishon; that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; (12) and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone. (13) And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Cush. (14) And the name of the third river is Tigris; that is it which goeth toward the east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The “four heads” represent the four main directions of human culture that separated after a single “a river went out of Eden.” The Tigris and Euphrates rivers converge in Mesopotamia, but while the first is associated with Assyria, the other is associated with Babylon. The Gihon is the Nile, whose sources flow through the Land of Cush (Ethiopia); it is a symbol of Egyptian culture. (Varying opinions exist about the fourth river, Pishon, so we will leave this discussion to a more fitting occasion.)

The Land of Israel is located between Egypt and Babylon, and so throughout ancient history we find ourselves between these two major centers of civilization, two spheres of influence which were continually competing with one another.

At the time of the Forefathers, the borders of these spheres of influence fell along the length of the Jordan River: Canaan, the mountainous part of the country, was under Egypt’s rule, while the lowerlands, the Jordan Valley and the area around the Dead Sea (together with Transjordan), fell under the Babylonian sphere of influence.

The main cultural difference between the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon was that Babylon was a lunar civilization with a lunar calendar (subsequently, Islamic culture, which also runs according to the lunar calendar, would be founded on the basis of Babylonian cultural heritage), while Egypt was a solar civilization with a solar calendar (subsequently, Egyptian culture and the solar calendar would become the foundation for the Greco-Roman and Christian civilizations)[1]. The Jewish civilization is a combination of the Egyptian and the Babylonian cultures, and our calendar is lunar-solar.


1.9 Abraham between the Sun and Moon

With this in mind, it is interesting to review an aggadah describing Abraham’s childhood, which we have already referred to in chapter 3. It says the following:

From birth, Abraham was hidden in a cave. At age three Abraham left the cave and, after looking around the world, began to contemplate who created the earth and the sky and himself. Fascinated by the appearance of the sun, its light and its warmth, he spent all day praying to the sun. When the sun set and the moon appeared in its place, surrounded by a myriad of stars, Abraham was amazed by its beauty. He thought, “this luminary is clearly a deity!” All night he sang hymns to the moon. But then morning came; the moon set in the west, and the sun appeared in the east. “No,” said Abraham. “I was wrong. There is Someone who holds power over both the sun and the moon. To Him I will direct my prayers.”

When we read this aggadah, out first impression is that Abraham’s reasoning appears somewhat childish and naïve. He looked at the sun and decided the sun was a god; he looked at the moon and decided that the moon was a god; and then he decided there is Someone who is above both the Sun and Moon. Is everything really that primitive? In addition, the aggadah indicates that Abraham went out of the cave. From what cave did Abraham leave? Why was he living in a cave in the first place?

To understand this aggadah, we must remember that it was not written at the time of the forefathers, but much later, in the Talmudic era. It is not a record of real events of Abraham’s childhood, but a special form through which the sages of the Talmud convey to us their interpretations of the Torah. Abraham’s “cave” refers to “Plato’s cave,” an allegory which likens life in this world to life in a cave where people can see only shadows on a wall; these shadows give the people inside only a remote idea of the real life that goes on outside the cave.

Abraham, having left such a “cave,” that is, having realized the insufficiency of conventional notions, searches for the real content of the universe. And what does he see? There is the sun and there is the moon. This of course does not mean the physical sun and moon, but the world of ideas surrounding him: Egyptian (solar) and Babylonian (lunar) civilizations. Abraham is fascinated by both, in the sense that he sees in each of them something important and relevant to himself. He understands that he must learn something from each, but at the same time to overcome them, ascend to God who controls the Sun and the Moon. For this reason Abraham tries to build his own monotheistic concept that would be tied to some degree to both Babylon and Egypt, to take pieces from both and then to ascend to the sources of that single river that flows from the Garden of Eden. According to the aggadah mentioned earlier, Abraham had a conflict with Nimrod, the Babylonian king, when still living in Babylon. Abraham considers the Babylonian civilization to be important, and it is exactly for this reason that he tries to influence the king, to persuade him to fix the defects of the Babylonian civilization. However, this attempt is unsuccessful, and Terah’s family leaves Babylon.

Jewish tradition tells about Shem, Eber, Terah, and other monotheists before Abraham, but does not mention any conflicts with their surrounding society. They lived their lives and taught their ideas only to those willing to listen. But Abraham was a rebel, and could not make peace with the surrounding idol-worship[2]. After his conflict with Nimrod, Abraham leaves Babylon and goes to the Land of Israel and then even past it to Egypt—that is, to the “solar” civilization—and afterwards, in light of his conflict with Pharaoh, leaves there as well, thereby preparing his descendants for Exodus from Egypt and “extracting sparks from Egypt” for their integration into Judaism.

Ancient Egypt’s legacy is later on brought out through antiquity, Christianity, the West, the solar civilization and the solar calendar, power, expansion, rationality, openness; Babylonian legacy emerges through Islam, the East, the lunar civilization and the lunar calendar, hopes, dreams, and magic.

Judaism, centralized in the Land of Israel located between Egypt and Babylon, must integrate both of their achievements, and therefore the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar.

1.10 Three Jewish Capitals: Shechem, Hebron, and Jerusalem

The dynamics of Abraham’s relationship with Babylon and Egypt is reflected in the geography of the Holy Land. At first, Abraham acquired students in Haran, located in the Babylonian region, then brought them with him to the Holy Land, and finally left them in Shechem. In other words, Shechem is the “representative of Babylon” in the Holy Land. In the future, Shechem will become the city of Joseph, the capital of Samaria, the northern tribes, and the Northern (Israeli) Kingdom.

Subsequently, Abraham descends into Egypt and then leaves it with new supporters and followers. He settles them (and then leaves them) in Hebron—the city that is the “converse” of Shechem. Hebron is the capital of Judea, the southern tribes, and the Southern (Judean) kingdom, and is the representative of Egypt in the Land of Israel.

The mutual capital, uniting Shechem and Hebron, is Jerusalem, located on the border between the northern and southern tribes, and from there Judaism spreads outwards, for “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3). These three cities (two “inner capitals” and one “outer”) have been, and are currently, the chief cities of the Land of Israel throughout its history.

1.11 Abraham Moves Southward

(8) And he removed from thence unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east; and he builded there an altar unto HaShem, and called upon the name of HaShem. (9) And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.

The phrase “pitched his tent” is used in the singular form, and this indicates that his numerous students are no longer accompanying him, and he is now travelling only with his family. The students whom he had led from Babylon, he left behind in Shechem. Having separated from them, Abraham strengthens his bond with the Land: near Shechem he could only “build there an altar,” whereas now he can even “call upon the name of HaShem.”

Abraham’s journey takes place in the spiritual world as much as in the physical, so it is important to track both on a map: Abraham goes from the north (Haran) and first arrives at Elon Moreh, Mount Eyval, and the future city of Shechem; then he moves southward, toward Bethel, and stops “to the east of it” (verse 8)—apparently, on Mount Baal Hazor, the highest point in Samaria (1016 m above sea level). The entire country is visible from this mountain—from Mt. Hermon in the North to Mitzpeh Ramon in the south, all of the coastal plain in the west, and the Transjordanian Highlands in the east. From Mt. Baal Hazor, unlike Mount Eyval, one can also see Jerusalem, situated below the surrounding mountains.

In this way, it is possible to form a connection to the heart of the country, Jerusalem, at this site. Because of this tie to the Land, Abraham can not only “build an altar here,” as was mentioned earlier, but also “call upon the name of HaShem”—that is, spread ethical monotheism, this time through a bond with the Holy Land.

Abraham specifically pitches his tent in this location to occupy this central area of the country. Nevertheless, the future Jewish people will not be able to develop properly until they integrate the second pole of the world, Egypt. Since Abraham has already taken those spiritual elements which were necessary for the creation of the Jewish synthesis from Babylon, he is now set on going to Egypt—and heads southward. In the past his activity was unsuccessful in Babylon—but maybe now he will be able to convert Egypt to his faith?

Since Abraham decided to head towards Egypt, God helps him go in this direction: a severe famine occurs, and Abraham goes down to Egypt out of necessity.

(10) And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.

Ostensibly, God’s actions seem contradictory. God tells Abraham to go to the Land of Canaan, but a famine occurs there, and Abraham is forced to leave. But this is only seems a contradiction: God’s aim is not to have Abraham settle in Canaan, nor to reward or punishment him, but to teach Abraham a lesson: Abraham perfects himself through the process of solving the problems which God sets before him.

1.12 Abraham and Sarah in Egypt

(11) And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife: ‘Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon. (12) And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive. (13) Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister; that it may be well with me for thy sake, and that my soul may live because of thee.’

The story in which Abraham calls Sarah his sister is very problematic. Some attempt to explain this story by saying that “Abraham was a prophet and knew ahead of time that nothing would happen to Sarah,” but this approach does not seem correct to us. If Abraham knew everything, then the very problem of making decisions does not exist, there is no development of Abraham as an individual—and, more importantly, there is no lesson for us to learn from his actions: after all, we know what will happen, and so cannot learn anything from this story. In this way, the attempt to “whitewash” Abraham’s actions results in the Torah losing its meaning as a teaching. For this reason, we will try to understand this story without such assumptions.

We must note that some Jewish commentators harshly criticize Abraham’s behavior. For example, Nachmanides (Ramban) condemns Abraham for having called Sarah his sister, and considers Avraham’s descent to Egypt a mistake. According to Nachmanides, Abraham should have stayed in the Land of Canaan and attempted to wait out the famine there. However, other commentators make less severe demands on Abraham.

Abraham’s proposal that Sarah call herself his sister is apparently related to the fact that life around them was regulated by the laws of Hammurabi. Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, is not mentioned in the Torah, but we know from archeological findings that he instated a system of laws that spread throughout the entire Near East and became accepted across-the-board. All the forefathers’ relationships with the world surrounding them were within the framework of this legal system.

In particular, one of Hammurabi’s laws states that if a woman has a brother or father, one could not marry her without their permission. If Abraham is considered Sarah’s brother, then he would be legally responsible for her, while everyone would see Sarah as eligible for marriage. In this case, the Egyptians would try to find favor with Abraham and ask him for permission to marry Sarah. Yet if they considered Abraham to be her husband, he becomes an insurmountable obstacle to marrying her and his life is endangered because the Egyptians might want to kill him to remove this obstacle. For this reason, Abraham announces that he is Sarah’s brother, so that his presence in Egypt would be safer, while keeping control of the situation.

However, the heart of the matter is that Abraham’s behavior cannot be explained merely by the need to escape hunger. We see Abraham suggests that Sarah call herself his sister not just to stay alive, but also “that it may be well with me.” What does Abraham hope to gain? Why does Abraham go to Egypt in the first place? Seemingly he does so because of the famine, yet even before the famine, Abraham was moving in this direction, “going on still toward the south.” That is, “the famine” here has a double meaning—shortage of food, but also a desire to acquire Egyptian wisdom, and possibly, to influence Egypt.

By calling Sarah his sister, and thereby tricking everybody around him, and possibly endangering Sarah’s life, Abraham ostensibly behaves problematically from a moral point of view. Yet his behavior has a deep meaning, and we will discuss this in more detail below.

1.13 Abraham and Pharaoh

(14) And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair. (15) And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.

That is, Pharaoh did not ask for permission from “Sarah’s brother.” This scenario was not foreseen by Abraham.

(16) And he dealt well with Abram for her sake; and he had sheep, and oxen, and he-asses, and men-servants, and maid-servants, and she-asses, and camels. (17) And HaShem plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife. (18) And Pharaoh called Abram, and said: ‘What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? (19) Why saidst thou: She is my sister? so that I took her to be my wife; now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.'(20) And Pharaoh gave men charge concerning him; and they brought him on the way, and his wife, and all that he had.

Thus, previously Abraham had left all of his students who had come with him from Babylon, in Shechem, and went to Beth El and descended to Egypt with only his family. And now, again, by the will of Providence, he has gained a large number of souls, livestock, and property.

Although Pharaoh reproaches Abraham, they part ways on friendly terms—Abraham remains Pharaoh’s “ally,” which will play an important role in the future.

Abraham’s slaves were not slaves in the Greco-Roman sense (that is, “speaking tools” deprived of rights). Rather, they were more like his surroundings and “court.” These were people who could become his new students.

According to the Midrash, one of the people given to Abraham was Hagar, Pharaoh’s daughter. Abraham who “invoked God’s name” was renowned as an exceptional individual. Pharaoh felt Abraham’s greatness and wanted to unite with him. It is precisely for this reason that he initially tried to marry Sarah, Abraham’s “sister”—and when it turned out this was impossible, he gave Abraham his daughter Hagar as a slave.

Of course, the Midrash should not always be understood literally: rather, one should focus on its overall message. In this case, the Midrash wishes to convey that Hagar was “the representative of Egyptian culture in Abraham’s family,” and for Abraham his union with Hagar was his union with Egypt, as we will discuss further below.

[1] More precisely: the initial Babylonian calendar was purely lunar, although solar elements were later added to it. The secular calendar of the Western Christian world (first the Julian, and then the Gregorian calendars) is purely solar; yet the religious Christian calendar is dual: those elements which have their roots in Judaism (Computus), are founded, like everything on the Jewish calendar, on a lunar-solar basis, but Christian additions to it (Christmas) are   based solely on the solar calendar.

[2] We should note that the aggadah which relates about Terah’s idol-making workshop (which we discussed in chapter 3), does not state that Terah believed in these idols. It is more likely the opposite was the case, that he did not believe in them but only manufactured them for selling. Terah, like Eber, was a “non-militant monotheist,” while Abraham was a “militant monotheist.”

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