Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Adonai Said to Avram
Q: Why did Terah take his son Avram, daughter-in-law (and daughter) Sarai and his grandson Lot from Ur in Chaldeans (Sumer - Shinar)? Why did he stop and stay in the city of Haran and settle there instead? Why didn’t he continue to Canaan as originally intended?
This is an age old question that has been asked by scribes, Rabbis and readers of the Torah for at least from the time of Moshe Rabbenu. There have been various answers to it by the Sages of blessed memory. One such attempt is well elucidated in The Jewish Bible Quarterly’s teaching on “The Role of Terah in the Foundational Stories of the Patriarchal Family” found online at https://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/index/books-of-the-bible/genesis/role-terah-foundational-stories-patriarchal-family/.
Midrash states that Terah was a priest of the pagan god of the city of Ur and received his appointment by the command of Nimrod himself. At some point Nimrod learned of the birth of his priest’s son named Avram and the supposed celestial portent in the sky on the night of his birth indicating that the child would be of great import surpassing the glory of Nimrod, so the King of Babylon ordered the child to be murdered. Unable to persuade his king by reason and after hiding the child and mother away from the king, Terah decided it best to flee. His goal was the Land of Canaan but along the way they stopped in the city of Haran where they settled until the death of Terah. For more on the stories concerning Terah in the Midrash go to: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4529921/jewish/Who-Was-Terah.htm
A non-Jewish source of the life of Terah can be found in the cuneiform Sumerian texts translated by a Russian born, Israeli raised Jewish man named Zechariah Sitchin who spent over 50 years translating and interpreting Sumerian clay tablets of the known earliest writings of the first official advanced human civilization known as Sumer located in the Fertile Crescent of the Mesopotamian region now known as Iraq and Iran. In his writings he claims that Terah of Ur was a priest of the Annunaki god Nannar-Sin.
According to Sitchin’s interpretation Terah moved from Ur to Haran after the main Temple (Ziggurat) of Nannar-Sin was moved to Haran making it the new center of Nannar worship for his followers. Being an important priest of Nannar Terah was transferred to that new area taking his family with him. The Tanakh does specify that Terah was an idol worshipper (Joshua 24:2-4) so some credence may exist for this rendition of the life of Terah by Sitchin. However, speculation aside, we may never know the full extent for why Terah left Ur for Canaan but decided to stay in Haran instead.
Q. Why was the story of the separation of Lot from his uncle Avram so important that several verses of the Torah are spent on it?
In Genesis Chapter 13 a full 13 verses are used to tell the story of the departure of Lot from his uncle. This is quite astonishing since only 3 verses are spent on G-d’s pinnacle of creation, that of Adam and Chavah (Eve). Earlier in the story, after the death of Terah we learned that Avram is called upon by HaShem to take his family, including Lot his nephew, and all that he had acquired since moving to Haran and go now to the Land that G-d would show him (Canaan). He was told that G-d would bless him, make him a great nation and provide him with offspring that would number the stars in the heavens. Avram trusted HaShem and proceeded on his journey.
Once they arrived in Canaan both Avram and Lot began to prosper greatly to the point that the area they had been using for their flocks and herds could no longer sustain them both. So, at that point Avram magnanimously offered Lot first choice and he chose the area surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah two of the wealthiest and most fertile towns in the region. Lot moved his family, herds, flocks and servants away from the hill country where Avram stayed and sojourned. Then we find in Torah something very interesting in Chapter 13:14-18:
”And HaShem said to Avram, after Lot had departed from him, ‘Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one an count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through the length and its breadth, for I give it to you.’ And Avram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an alter there to HaShem.”
G-d had earlier already promised Avram the land and a great multitude of offspring if he would just trust and obey the promise and go to Canaan. What made this continued reiteration of the promise and the leaving of Lot so important? Before this event Avram had the secure promise of HaShem but now he is literally standing on the very ground of that promise, walking the full length and width of the promise with not a single tie, not even a past familial connection to hinder him from seeing G-d do as He had promised. With the departure of Lot, and HaShem reaffirming the promise almost immediately after, it shows that sometimes G-d’s promises are postponed until we remove certain attachments, even familial that may hinder that promise from being fully realized. That doesn’t mean we ignore a duty to those family or even employment attachments but it requires us to put a kind of distance between them and the promises of G-d given to us. We learn to keep everything in proper order from G-d’s perspective in our lives.
Q. Was Avram always known as a Hebrew, and what does being a Hebrew mean?
Avram was not originally a Hebrew. He wasn’t even from the land that would later become associated with the Hebrew peoples (The Land of Israel). He was a Sumerian also known as a Chaldean. However several years later while living in Canaan he became known as “the Hebrew.” (See: Genesis 14:13).
The question then becomes why was he called a Hebrew at this time? The word Hebrew (Ivri) means one who is different, set apart from everyone else that surrounds him or her. Avram is first called a Hebrew because once settled in the Land of Canaan over time the residents of the land became aware that Avram was totally a different person than they were, specifically, he worshipped only one god. Not only one god but one who was totally invisible, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent. And a G-d that was personal, spoke to the hearts of its highest creation, man, without the need of a mediator. That was totally foreign to the ancient world at the time. Nobody had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Even in Egypt which had tried the concept of a one god under the rule of Amenhotep never considered such an idea. Their one god was at least visible, being the Sun god Ra. Avram was totally unique and different and as such was to become and called the first Hebrew.
There will be more on parshat Lekh Lecha later. But I want to close with this final thought: After Avram heeded the advice of his wife Sarai to cohabit with Hagar her servant so she could have a child through that arrangement; Sarai’s attitude toward Hagar changed dramatically once the servant became pregnant. Now it didn’t help matters that Hagar became haughty over her mistress (pride is a hateful thing in the eyes of HaShem) but Sarai’s response wasn’t any better. She beat and mistreated Hagar to the point that the servant fled into the wilderness to escape such harsh treatment by the hand of Sarai. (Genesis 16 - full chapter)
Whenever I read this account and the later story about how Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out of the presence of his father, again at the urging of Sarah once Isaac was born to her and weaned, I have to wonder; Ishmael being the progenitor of the 12 main Arabic families to this age, If Sarai had treated Hagar more humanely perhaps we wouldn’t have the long history of animosity between Jews and some Arabs that continues into the 21st Century. Perhaps we should follow the example of our two forefathers Isaac and Ishmael who came together in peace at the time of their father Avraham’s death to bury him alongside of Sarah in the cave at Machpelah. Just a thought to ponder.
Until next week - Shabbat Shalom.