10/31/2006

The Prehistory of Abraham

We introduced to Abram at the end of Parashat Noach, but we don’t learn a whole lot about him. There’s a bit of ambiguity as to where Abraham was from (see Ramban and Ibn Ezra ad loc), but it’s clear that he migrated from Lower to Upper Mesopotamia (Ur Kasdim to Aram Naharayim) as a member of his father’s family, having planned to reach Canaan, but not quite making it. We’re given a basic description of Abraham’s lineage and immediate family, or, more precisely, we’re given a description of Terach’s family, of which Abram is a member. Then, all of a sudden, Abram is chosen by God to become a great nation and become the focus of the brachot to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ at the beginning of Lech-Lecha.

The midrashim attempt to fill in the gaps of the Abram story, and there’s a wealth of material describing his activity in Mesopotamia, which serve as a great sugya in themselves. However, they can’t obscure the essential fact that the Torah itself gives us nothing of Abram’s achievements prior to his selection by God. His election is completely out of the blue.
The midrashim then address the most basic and obvious question – why did God choose Abram? The various Midrashic answers, and interpretations of those answers, are a broader topic (and will probably be the subject of another post). However, these Midrashim tend to obscure the jarring fact that the Torah gives us NO REASON for Abram’s selection!! Thus, there is a second question that must arise when studying these sections: why doesn’t the Torah tell us outright why Abram was selected?

The easiest and most intuitive answer to this question is that, for the Torah, the REASON for Abram’s election is of relatively little importance next to the FACT of his election. To put it in a contemporary context, le-havdil, books can and have been written about George W. Bush’s election as President of the USA. Nevertheless, endless discussion of the 2000 elections cannot change the unalterable fact that George W. Bush is President of the United States, for better or worse. Similarly, when addressing God’s choice to enter into a covenant with a man, the realness of that covenant, its over-arching importance to the life of that man and his posterity, the utter transformation of the man who enters that relationship, completely overwhelms considerations of his ‘previous life’, of the process by which he became a ‘candidate’ for this election. Abram’s story, even if it begins when he was three years old, really only begins when God taps him on the shoulder (and remember that until that point it wasn’t Abram’s story, it was Terach’s story).
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