The Character of Abraham (Lech-Lecha: Gen. 12:1-17:27)

Drash by Stan Satz

Three of the most popular and almost identical apocryphal (that is, non-Biblical) stories about Abraham are found in pre-Talmudic lore, as in the The Book of Jubilees Chapter 12, second century BCE; in the Talmudic midrash Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 38; and in the Koran Sura 21: Abraham, in a moment of righteous wrath, smashes his father’s idols and accordingly is flung into a raging cauldron from which he miraculously escapes unscathed. But in Genesis, Abraham is not a mythical superhero: he is at times all too human, as we witness in the first twenty verses of Lech Lecha, when we first meet Abraham.

Initially, Abraham selflessly and unequivocally obeys God’s directive to leave Haran (in Mesopotamia) to settle in Canaan, his new homeland to be:  “Go forth (lech lecha) from your native land 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 and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.’’ What an honor, what a legacy! While exploring the boundaries of Canaan, Abraham builds altars to praise God.  At this point, Abraham demonstrates that he is an obedient servant following God’s will.

Soon, however, his trust in God falters. When a famine ravages Canaan, Abraham sojourns to Egypt with his alluring wife, Sarah: our first example of how God’s chosen one stumbles and falls. Abraham had other options: he could have tried to tough it out, having faith that God would ultimately provide for him and his household. Or he could have humbly called upon God, his benefactor, for some guidance. Or he could have questioned God’s plan. Or he even could have indignantly chastised God for making his reconstituted life so miserable so soon.  Instead, he abandons Canaan, the country that God had commanded him to dwell in, the country that Abraham had committed himself to. Unilaterally, he stumbles and falls.

Not only does Abraham jeopardize his God-given patrimony. He is cowardly and conniving. Assuming that Pharaoh will kill him to get his desirable wife, Abraham convinces Sarah to say that she is his sister. Accordingly, she becomes Pharaoh’s concubine, and Abraham is spared. But why is Abraham so afraid that he will be killed? He is childless, and didn’t God promise him that his offspring would inhabit Canaan? Evidently, he doesn’t believe (or perhaps he has forgotten) that God will keep him alive to fulfill that promise. At least until he has children, he should feel invincible—as long as he believes in God’s word.  Instead, he relies on Pharaoh for protection. If Abraham had more faith in God, he would not have sacrificed Sarah to ensure his well-being—and he would not have graciously accepted Pharaoh’s reward for pimping out his wife: he readily receives abundant livestock and slaves. Abraham, after blatantly succumbing to self-preservation and being tempted by earthly rewards, stumbles and falls.

We don’t know how long Abraham would have enjoyed his largesse in Egypt or how long Pharaoh would have enjoyed Sarah. After God afflicts Pharaoh with a barrage of plagues, Pharaoh realizes that he is being punished because of Abraham’s double dealing. Pharaoh accordingly banishes the couple, and they return to Canaan, which is now fertile again.

There is no indication in Lech-Lecha that Abraham regrets prostituting Sarah, a shameless ploy that the illustrious Jewish medieval scholar, Nachmanides, better known as Ramban, explicitly calls a sin in his commentary on Genesis Chapter 12, verses 10-20: “Know that Abraham our father… committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life.  He should have trusted that G-d would save him and his wife and all his belongings, for G-d surely has the power to help and to save.”  Ramban then asserts that Abraham’s departure from Canaan to Egypt was also “a sin he committed, for in famine G-d would redeem him from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.”

When Abraham reaches the northern tip of Canaan, where he had first worshipped at the altar of God, he again invokes the name of Hashem. We don’t know Abraham’s motive. Is he just being dutiful or is he being devout? Is he contrite or is he proud that he outsourced Sarah and outwitted Pharaoh?

We can find fault with Abraham all we want, but God gives him a lot of latitude. Instead of condemning Abraham for deserting the Promised Land and degrading Sarah, God renews his pledge, his ongoing blessing: Abraham’s innumerable descendants will forever populate Canaan. Abraham, grateful for God’s abundant indulgence, a gift that he must know he hasn’t deserved, once more builds another altar to God, this time in Hebron.

All of these altars don’t alter the fact that Abraham’s righteousness is at best a work in progress. And that is what makes the Hebrew Bible so real, so relevant. Its Jewish heroes have magnificent attributes. But they aren’t perfect—they have moral failings:  Jacob, conspiring with his mother, Rachel, one of the four renowned Matriarchs, impersonates his older brother Esau to get a death-bed blessing from his blind father, Isaac; Aaron, the High Priest, sacrilegiously helps fashion the Golden Calf; God afflicts Miriam with leprosy because she gossiped and griped about Moses’ Cushite wife (a woman of color). Moses himself disobeys God by performing a miracle, creating life-giving water from a rock in order to placate the inveterately disgruntled Israelites; Samson, fondly overcome by Delilah’s  persistently enticing exhortations, reveals his secret strength that has until then protected his people from the Philistines; King David treacherously sends Uriah the Hittite to certain death in the front lines to satisfy his lust for Uriah’s wife Bathsheba; King Solomon at the end of his reign repeatedly desecrates the temple with idols worshipped by his heathen wives, most notoriously the Queen of Sheba.  Jonah, convinced that God will ultimately save the depraved pagans in Nineveh, tries to subvert God’s decision to have him first warn them of their impending demise.   Elijah, threatened by the idolatrous Queen Jezebel because of his unrelenting doomsday prophecies, flees to a cave in the desert to escape her wrath, thereby at least temporarily thwarting God’s woeful mission for him. King Hezekiah, who successfully weaned his subjects from worshiping pagan gods in Judah, later became obsessively enamored of his wealth. He even vaingloriously displayed the gems in his royal treasury to Babylonian envoys, prompting Isaiah to accuse Hezekiah of the sin of excessive pride, adding that all of these riches as well as his own children would ultimately be taken captive to Babylon.

I can’t think of any other saga in religious literature (pagan or post-pagan) that humanizes its protagonists as much as the Hebrew Bible does.  But despite their transgressions, God never deserts his Chosen People. God always leaves a little wiggle room for redemption.

And so this is my message for this Shabbat.  We are flawed children of a loving, patient, compassionate God who offers us abundant life, lifting us up when we stumble and fall. Amen.

Shabbat Times