That week's Torah portion was the third in the yearly cycle of readings. Two weeks earlier, the parsha told the story of Creation, which teaches us that all the world is subject to one rule, one set of laws, natural, spiritual, and ethical, that there is an underlying unity and coherence to the universe. And it teaches us that all of humanity is one large, extended family, all descended from the same ancestors, all children of Adam and Eve.
The idea that we are all blood relations is reinforced in the next Torah portion, which relates the story of the flood, and tells us that we are all descendents of Noah and his wife (who is not referred to by name in Genesis). Ten generations after Noah, Abraham is born, marries Sarah, and migrates along with his father Terah, and his orphaned nephew Lot, from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia towards the land of Canaan. This is where the previous week's parsha ends.
The third Torah portion is called Lech Lecha, which means Go Forth, and it begins with God giving Abraham his marching orders. Ten generations have gone by since anyone has heard God's voice. The Torah makes it clear that divine revelation is not a common occurrence, that after establishing his covenant with Noah, God remained silent for approximately four centuries.
In our time, during the 20th century, God's silence became a troubling question for many people of faith. Does it signal God's disapproval, or disinterest in us, or perhaps serves as evidence that God does not exist, or as some said, that God is dead? I remember God's silence being the subject of much discussion when I was growing up during the sixties. Some said that it was not God who was silent, but rather that with all of our modern technology, the world had become too noisy, drowning out the voice of God. (There is some discussion of this in The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History by the Jesuit priest and media ecology scholar Walter Ong.) Or that we had simply forgotten how to listen for it. Others argued that there are times when God is distant as well as silent, turning away from us, just as there are times that we turn away from God, so that God goes into eclipse, as Martin Buber put it. And then there was the often repeated little poem, an anonymous statement of affirmation found scratched into a wall in a concentration camp during the Holocaust:
What the Torah tells us is that Abraham was the exception, not the rule. So we shouldn't expect God to summon us, instruct and command us, in a booming voice from the heavens, or through a telephone call, or by way of engraved invitation. This implies that we have to do the work ourselves, seek God out through study and introspection, to search within ourselves, to find the quiet time when we can listen to that still, small, clear voice, to hear the echoes of the divine within ourselves, and in the world all around us.
So this week's parsha begins with God breaking his four century-long silence, and saying to Abraham:
Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)
At this time, Abraham was not yet known by that name—he was Abram, and his wife's name was Sarai. And as this Torah portion opens, they had already left the city of Ur, and were dwelling together with his nephew Lot, and his father Terah in the land of Haran. It was sometime after Terah's death that God tells Abraham to go forth, and the Torah portion tell us that
Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. (12:5)
So who were the souls they had acquired? Slaves, servants, handmaids, and the like, as was the practice back in ancient times. And while this may not harmonize with our contemporary democratic, egalitarian sentiments, I think it is important to understand that when God tells Abraham, I will make of you a great nation, the beginnings of that nation, the House of Abraham, is a household, an ancient concept that includes not just the blood relations such as Lot, and the relations by marriage such as Sarah, but also everyone else who is associated with this family, this clan, who is, in the language of the IRS, a dependent on the head of the household. We can see here, in the very beginnings of the story of the Jewish people, a pluralistic notion of what we mean by referring to ourselves as a people.
Abraham and his household settled in Canaan, but after a time they were forced to be on the move again, as the parsha relates:
And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land. (12:10)
So Abraham's journey extends from Mesopotamia in the north to Egypt in the south, before returning to Canaan for good. And in this way, the story of Abraham bridges the areas where the earliest civilizations appeared, first Mesopotamia, and then Egypt. What we have come to know as western civilization or western culture begins with the first settlements in these two regions, along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the north, and the Nile in the south. There, the first cities appeared, and the first writing systems were invented. The story of Abraham then represents the meeting and binding together of the world's two earliest civilizations, resulting in a kind of hybrid energy a synthesis and synergy out of which the west was born.
The Torah portion goes on to relate that Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife for themselves, so he told them that Sarah was his sister, and she was taken by the Princes of Egypt and given to Pharaoh. At this point, God intervenes, and the Torah relates:
And the Lord plagued Pharaoh [with] great plagues as well as his household, on account of Sarai, Abram's wife. (12:17)
In this way, the story of Abraham foreshadows the story of the exodus (to consider it in literary terms), and provides Abraham with his own version of the very experience that defines the Jewish people generations later.
But more importantly, this portion of the Torah communicates in the form of a story what is later expressed as laws and commandments, that you shall not covet, or commit adultery, or murder. As an abstract rule, you can say, thou shalt not… But in a narrative, you can't express a negative concept, except by showing the rule being violated, and the guilty party punished. Abraham is not guilty, because his fears are well-founded. Killing a man and taking his wife was far from unknown in ancient times. In fact, King David was guilty of this sin, although in that case the murder was indirect, sending Bathsheba's husband to the front lines, where he was killed. And as a result of his transgression, David was punished severely for it.
The lesson is reinforced over and over again in the Bible, that it is a sin for those in positions of power to abuse that power, for the strong to take advantage of the weak. And while God is the ultimate source of justice in these stories, what they also should teach us is that we ourselves share in this obligation to protect those in need, to fight for social justice.
As the story continues, Abraham returned to Canaan, and his household prospered and grew, but this was not without its problems. So the Torah portion relates:
And also Lot, who went with Abram, had flocks and cattle and tents. And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot's cattle, and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. And Abram said to Lot, "Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left." (13:5-9)
Here we find here the idea of making peace by dividing up the land, an idea that has some resonance with contemporary concerns in that region. But this also reflects a different way of life from that of Pharoah's Egypt, or the Mesopotamian city of Ur. It is a tribal, nomadic form of life, as opposed to city life where people crowd together in the same place, and the number of people living together can increase dramatically as more and more are packed together into the same space. In the older, tribal way of life, if the population increases past a certain point, groups split up, and go their separate ways.
What we find here, and throughout the Torah, is a depiction of Abraham and his descendents as rejecting the cities and the way of life that they represent. Abraham leaves Ur, and has trouble in the city where Pharaoh dwells. In next week's parsha, the cities of Sodom and Gommorah are destroyed for their evil, and in Exodus the Israelites are enslaved to build cities for the Pharaoh, while God is encountered in the wilderness, at Mount Sinai. In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites take on the city of Jericho. It is not until David conquers Jerusalem, and Solomon builds the Temple there, that we see the negative view of city life start to change, and even then, the prophets come from outside of Jerusalem, from out of the wilderness, while the city of Babylon is associated with the tragedy of the first destruction of the Temple. (This is discussed by the Protestant theologian and media ecology scholar Jacques Ellul in The Meaning of the City.)
So Abraham (much like Abel whom God favored over Cain according to the story told earlier in Genesis) is depicted as an individual who was close to nature, who had what we would call today an ecological sensibility (the ancient Greek root word from which we get ecology, ekos, means household). And in case that incident in Egypt leads you to believe that he was not a brave man, this Torah portion also tells us about war going on between the many different nations or tribes that inhabit this region, and how Abram comes to the rescue when Lot is taken captive:
And Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, and he armed his trained men, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued [them] until Dan. And he divided himself against them at night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them until Hobah, which is to the left of Damascus. And he restored all the possessions, and also Lot his brother and his possessions he restored, and also the women and the people. And the king of Sodom came out toward him, after his return from smiting Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, to the valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king. And Malchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God. And he blessed him, and he said, "Blessed be Abram to the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth. And blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand," and he gave him a tithe from all. (14:14-20)
This parsha also includes the story of how Sarah couldn't bear children, and gave Abraham her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael, who is considered the ancestor of the Arabs. Sarah then gets jealous, and drives away Hagar and her son, but they are protected by God. Again, we have a lesson in justice, and learning to live together in peace.
Through the many episodes contained within this Torah portion, Abraham has been going through what the mythologist Joseph Campbell called a hero's journey. It begins with a geographical migration, but at the same time it is very much a spiritual journey. Abraham has answered God's call and gone forth, leaving his home, and then gone through a variety of trials, and is finally ready for his initiation and rebirth. And so the Torah says,
And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, "I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly." And Abram fell upon his face, and God spoke with him, saying, "As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God." And God said to Abraham, "And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations, one that is born in the house, or one that is purchased with money, from any foreigner, who is not of your seed. Those born in the house and those purchased for money shall be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin-that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant." And God said to Abraham, "Your wife Sarai-you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her. " And Abraham fell on his face and rejoiced, and he said to himself, "Will [a child] be born to one who is a hundred years old, and will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael will live before You!" And God said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year." (17:1-21)
Circumcision is the mark of identity, a tribal rite of initiation denoting membership in the tribe; of course there has also been ample evidence that it confers a variety of health benefits as well. But here it is established as the sign of God's covenant, it is literally God's mark that is inscribed upon the human body. All other forms of alteration to our bodies, such as piercing and tattoos, have traditionally been taboo in Judaism, the idea being that the human form is made in the image of God and must not be altered, but this is the one exception, an exception for the very reason that it is ordained by God.
The initiation and change in status is reflected in the renaming of Abraham and Sarah, which can be connected to the difference in dialect and language between Mesopotamia and Canaan. But we can also find a modern parallel in Ellis Island, and the renaming that took place for many immigrants coming to America. After all, Abraham and Sarah were also immigrants, and that kind of move represents a change of identity as well as residence. Name changes are also traditionally associated with marriage, and with the adoption of children, and the covenant with God constitutes a kind of marriage and adoption. But it is also the case in many cultures that a new name is given following an initiation ceremony, and in this story Abraham together with Sarah have been initiated into a new stage of life, in their covenant with God.
But what of God's promise that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations? And earlier, God had said to Abraham: "Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed." (15:5).
Today, estimates place the population of the Jewish people between 13 and 15 million, in one sense many more than can be counted, so it is not inconsistent with the metaphor of the stars in the sky. But at the same time, our numbers represent such a tiny percentage of the population of the world, it seems somewhat at odds with what the passage seems to indicate. It gets a little better when you add the descendants of Ishmael, the Arabic peoples, whose numbers are estimated in the vicinity of 450 million. But even then, we still are left with a small portion of the over 7 billion people in the world today.
But when we count Abraham as a father not by blood, but by ideas and inspiration, of the three great monotheistic religions, then the prophecy especially seems to come true. Today we use the adjective Abrahamic to refer as a group to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whom claim Abraham as our spiritual father. The Torah relates that the Jewish people are the inheritors of his covenant and his household through Isaac and Jacob, and it is a legacy that we should be proud to share with over four billion others, over half the population of the planet, all of whom are a part of our extended family in that line of descent symbolized by Noah and his wife, and Adam and Eve.