We now get into the story of Abraham, the man who tradition has it was the father of monotheism. Rather than giving you an introduction or a piece of a lecture on him and how he came to this understanding and what he did and meant, rather I want us all to come to our own awareness of all this through exploration and discovery in the Text. Let's follow the flow of the narrative very closely, episode by episode, as written and edited in the Bible and come to our own sense of who he was and why he was so significant to our faith tradition. Ok? Let's go.
I. Read 12:1-3. What does it mean to go forth from your native land and your father's home to a land that I will show you? Both here in the drama in the Bible, and extend it out more broadly to carry its meaning to you and us in our lives? It is indeed a movement from a land to another land, but it has oh so many levels. Let's explore them!
As you formulate your answer, keep in mind that the great sages played off the Hebrew to create several variations in translation from "go forth" to "journey for yourself" (this benefits you), to "go for yourself" (believe in what you can become), "go with yourself" (you carry forth value for others in your way of life and faith), "go to yourself" (go forth to find your true self, one you are meant to be, on a journey to the root of your soul), "go by yourself" (only a person with the courage to go alone can worship the God who is One).
1) The emergence of a person who will bear a family, then a people, and ultimately a society that follows the One God on the Divine path and in quest of the Divine mission,
2) A break from Abram's environment - the place, the earth, its customs and landscape, familiarity, material habits, that in our families and lives we move from ways that are not God-called to being a person whose life is more a response to the call of God,
3) Leaving "the predictable, the unfree, delimited" (Sacks) to become father of an eternal people that transcends attachment purely to the material, to "the idols of the age," the mores and customs that may currently fit the times in order to be true to God and God's ultimate sovereignty.
4) We're to move to a land God will show us (appear to us), a "home" where we will be blessed (commanded, as much as promised), where our "name" is to be associated with God's Name .
(let's talk more about what this means, if it hasn't already been covered well.)
5. The start of an epic journey in search of God's ways and truths - especially those headed to justice, righteousness, and loving kindness - that are the central themes of the Biblical enterprise,
6. Moving on in life after parents, maturing,
7. Completing or going on to the next level "in the work,"
8. Finding new and better ways of fulfilling God's will,
9. Moving more and more toward Torah, toward God's way > blessing and uniting our name with God's, as in On that day, God will be one, and God's Name will be one. (These insights in 6, 7, 8, and 9 came to me in study in my mother's hospital room. Do you see how study can be a form of prayer?)
A lovely midrash: Abraham comes across a palace with illuminated windows and muses to himself: "is it possible there's no lord of this palace?" At that moment, God appears and says "I am lord of this palace!" ( Gen. R. 39:1).
II. "I will make of you a great nation, bless you and make great your name, that it may be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those that curse you, and through you shall bless themselves all the communities of the earth."
What does this mean?
Jews? People of God? Those who choose God and the Divine Way with the freedom we have to choose? Those who spread the word of God? The birth of the faith for any and all of responsibility based upon an order of God's command and the human response?
As we have discussed in the Prophets, the aim here is life built on the principles of righteousness, justice, and loving kindness spreading from a person through a family through a people to the whole world. In this way, our name is linked to God's; in this way we're blessed, and in this way all people who come to this way of life are blessed as well.
III. The extraordinary power of this account of our "father" is due, in part, to his humanity, perhaps even to possible frailties and imperfections. It's his faith and his decisions in favor of meeting God's expectations that are vital, perhaps made even more so by the circumstances that confronted him and his sometimes possibly flawed reactions.
Let's read 12:10-13.
What? Directed to go to the land of promise, and first sign of a famine, he's out of there? What's this all about?
Then he gets to Egypt and passes his wife off as his sister, putting her and the Pharoah and/or other courtiers in a position of having relations? What's this all about?
(Was he showing a lack of faith or rather preserving himself to do God's work? Did he commit a sin by putting his wife to a stumbling block of sin for fear of his life, or was there some ancient custom of the wife-sister relationship we moderns don't appreciate [apparently there was] OR this was choice by necessity and a faith in God (through the "plagues" that occurred) that they would be protected and even enhanced?)
IV. Abram's Treatment of Lot
Once back, the herdsmen of each begin quarreling over limited pasture land for their abundant flocks.
So, how did Abram resolve the dispute? And what was God's response?
(Model for dealing with friction, settling disputes, "leaving some on the table," drawing God's blessing. By the way, what did Lot choose and thus "win" for himself in the deal? Sodom and Gomorrah!)
V. We'll not spend much time on the very unique chapter 14. Where in the world did this discussion of the kings and this war come from? Lots of scholarship here, but not for us today. We do want to take away from it a sense of a side of Abraham that we don't elsewhere see - a warrior, successful in battle, rescuer of kin, appreciated by "neighbors," generous (not taking riches as rewards), loyal to, and supported by God,
Any thoughts on your part about this text?
VI. Further covenant language. We won't spend much time in chapter 16 either. But let me share with you the highlights. It's important at least to "look quickly at the painting." We are reading of a covenant of the Creator with the ancestor of a nation who is ordained as our forebear in shaping our faith and the history of the world. As my grandmother used to say in many contexts, this is "a big deal."
God as shield. Great reward to one who serves God - one who trusts in God is deemed righteous-merit on his part (Abraham, that is, according to Rashi; God, according to Ramban). Descendants who will carry this on - offspring will be as the countless stars in the heaven. Land. Possessions.
Note in 8 that Abram is the first human being to use the name of Adonai in address to God - a sign of a special and, to this point, unique relationship and then makes an offering, symbolic of later expected offerings (or of nations that will conquer the tribes, or something else?). Then, in a slumber, Abraham sees from God a vision of his future and death as well as an enslavement of his people before a redemption and a return. Finally, more words of covenant.
VII. In chapter 16, I want us to dwell on one aspect of the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Read 16:13-16.
What happens here, and why is it significant?
(Hagar calls out to God, i.e., God is there for the call of ALL people, just as God later hears the cry of the baby, Ishmael, and heeds the cry, provides water from a well, and hope and a future (21:17-21). Very important, especially for the future. She calls to Adonai, the personal, comforting, nearby God. She is the first to give God a name, here El-roi, God of seeing, stirred to see after God saw her, after God was conscious of her needs, the needs of the downtrodden.
This happens at a well. Always be on notice about wells! Access to waters (spirituality? Waters from the rivers in the Garden of Eden? Sustenance from God). And the well is call beer-lahai-roi, the well of vision, God's seeing, maybe well of the living sight, perhaps the well of the Living One. Isaac later comes to reside here! To seek reconciliation? Who knows?
VIII. Chapter 17: the covenant is fulfilled. Read 17:1-5.
A. Why at 99 years? (maybe at end of wisdom gathering years and time to begin fully to teach humanity what God-ordained life can be).
B. The meaning of the name El Shaddai?
(perhaps the God who says Dai (enough!) as if it's time for humanity to stop acting like children and to be expected to exhibit righteous behavior and live in accord with God's ways, literally to walk in God's ways OR, according to Rashi, "He whose G-dship suffices for every creature," OR simply Almighty, OR "He who is sufficient" OR we don't know!)
Ramban says it is used here to say that with it are done the hidden miracles for those who are righteous and live in God's ways. Thus, for Abraham, it will involve a son, descendants, a people, and a way through which God will be in the world, guiding us in the way in which we are to walk.
C. How many Bibles translate tamim as perfect? King James does, and this is the source of a serious misperception.
(More like: "whole," or with the "whole self," wholehearted with God (the best). Thus, the meaning is that we are to believe fully in our heart that God is the One whose presence is sufficient for all creatures, Who does us good; that we are whole-hearted in our lives with God. Perhaps, too, there is a notion of striving to live as God expects, without defects or blame in straying OR seeking when we do to cure or turn back or make right (as in Yom Kippur)).
D. What's with the change of name from Abram to Abraham? (The addition through the "h" of God-infused destiny, a major turn in life and purpose.)
E. The matter of laughter comes up toward the end of the portion. More to come on laughter!
CONCLUSION: so what do we make of Abraham's journey so far?
(inspired by Jonathan Sacks: whatever the Divine promise, it is not fulfilled quickly. Profound change takes time and effort. Abraham's journey, beset with obstacles, fraught with diversions and hard/poor choices. "Faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in the promise, experiencing disappointment without losing hope, to know the road between the real and the ideal is long and yet be willing to undertake (and stick with!) the journey.
We keep faith alive in the midst sometimes of struggle and despair. And faith keeps us alive.)
Next week we return to the story of this remarkable man and woman, Abraham and Sarah, as they live, teach, and guide us in the ways of God.