A blessing is G-d speaking into the present that which He has already observed in the future: likewise a curse.
Israel’s journey has always been one of being set apart from others. It makes sense then that the father of the Jewish people, “the Hebrew” (Ha-Ivri: from Ever – Land beyond) Avram, should begin his journey by obeying G-d’s instruction to set himself and his immediate family apart from his father’s house (extended family), his inheritance and the country of his citizenship. When G-d calls us, He often asks us to leave our temporary comfort and journey with Him to a place of everlasting abundance. Like Avram we may face times of famine (Spiritual and physical), however we are wise to choose obedience to G-d’s instruction, remembering that G-d is both walking with us and waiting for us at the destination He has already prepared.
This parashah (Torah portion), “Lech lecha” is considered by our sages as the beginning of Avram’s ten trials. Of the two lists of trials written by Rashi and Rambam, I prefer that of Maimonides, which finds its examples in the Torah text and avoids the mythos of the Midrashim and Talmudic sources. Both commentators agree on the final trial, that of the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac).
The Rambam’s (Maimonides) list of Avram’s ten trials:
1.) Avraham’s exile from his family and homeland.
2.) The hunger in Canaan after G-d had assured him that he would become a great nation there.
3.) The corruption in Egypt that resulted in Sarah’s abduction.
4.) The war with the four kings.
5.) His marriage to Hagar after having despaired that Sarah would never give birth.
6.) The commandment of circumcision.
7.) Abimelech’s abduction of Sarah.
8.) Driving away Hagar after she had given birth.
9.) The command to drive away Ishmael.
10.) The binding of Isaac on the altar.
We are once again faced with an account of a single righteous man who is chosen by G-d to participate in the fulfilment of His redemptive purpose. Like Adam (Of the earth) and Noach (Comfort, rest), Avram (Father of a nation) was a man who shared an intimate relationship with HaShem.
Jewish thought often refers to the first two thousand years up to this point as the Era of Desolation. This title reflects the many misdeeds that took place over this time period: Adam had fallen, Cain murdered Abel, idolatry had been introduced to the world, ten wicked generations had been wiped out by the flood, and the ten generations from Noach had failed to pursue G-d, instead seeking a name for themselves, seeking to usurp G-d’s authority.
Avram, who was born in the year 1948 from Creation, is said by the sages to have begun to acquire disciples only four years after the dispersion of Bavel. The sages teach that Avram instructed those who would listen regarding the Unity of G-d and subsequently through the emergence of Avram’s ministry, the Era of Desolation gave way to the Era of Torah (Instruction) [Avodah Zarah 9a].
It’s unfortunate that our sages also teach that Avram earned his righteous status through the ten trials he faced (Avot 5:4). In fact the opposite is true, Avram is called by G-d’s grace and mercy and gifted with the blessing of G-d at a time when he had not yet done anything to merit it. Thus the gift of G-d is undeserved grace, mercy, favour. Avram is known as the father of emunah (trust, faith) for this very reason, that he received and believed the gift of G-d. Therefore, prior to the existence of the ethnic people of Israel—although one could say Israel already existed in Avram’s loins--Avram is the father of all who believe by trusting in G-d’s redemptive purpose.
The trials of Avram were not tests but proofs. They were intended to reveal Avram’s character in G-d. G-d, Who knows the end from the beginning afforded Avram a gracious education in self-evaluation. Avram’s journey with HaShem through suffering and prosperity, trial and victory, was one in which G-d shaped his righteous character, revealing the man G-d had already seen completed.
As Genesis 12 begins, Avram and Sarai are 75 and 65 years respectively. They are instructed by G-d to sever all ties to their past and their extended family and begin again. There is much for the believer to learn from this account, both practical and spiritual.
It’s here that G-d begins to implement the royal gifting of the land of Eretz Yisrael to Avram and his descendants. It cannot be over stressed, that in all of earth’s history G-d has only ever gifted a specific piece of land to one ethnic people group, that people (am) being Israel the progeny of Avram via Isaac. Israel are a nation fathered by the great G-d (Av-rabah-am).
Gen 12:1 Now had said, HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) to Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted), “Go, go yourself forth from the land of your relatives, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you:
The past tense, “Now HaShem had said” is the correct reading here as confirmed by the following Scripture quotations:
“And he said, ‘Hear me, brothers and fathers! The G-d of glory (k’vod) appeared to our father Avraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,’” –Acts 7:2
“Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there.” –Genesis 11:31
We note that there is no contradiction between Genesis 11:31 and Genesis 12:1-4: Terah doesn’t travel to Canaan, nor did he have any intention of doing so, the text of Genesis 11:31 should be understood as indicating the greater journey of Avram, hence the phrase, “in order to enter the land of Canaan.” Terah brought them to Haran, the launching point for Avram’s separation from His father’s house. Therefore it seems that it was while Avram was still in Ur of the Kasdim that the L-rd first spoke to him concerning his journey to Canaan.
Maimonides makes the following assertion:
“Abram was brought up, among those who asserted there were no other gods but the sun, moon, and stars; and these Zabaeans say of Abram themselves, that he was educated in Cuthia, and dissented from the common people; and asserted, that besides the sun, there was another Creator; to whom they objected, and so disputes arose among them on this subject” –Rambam: Moreh Nevuchim, par. 3. c. 29. p. 421.
The instruction, “Go, go yourself” can also be rendered, “Go, go for yourself”. In fact this command was indeed for Avram’s benefit. When G-d asks us to do something difficult it is not for His benefit, it’s for ours.
“In trust Avraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” –Hebrews 11:9
The writer of Hebrews affirms the fact that Avram was traveling blind, unfamiliar with the land he was traveling to. This was an act of great trust, faith and courage on Avram’s part.
Gen 12:2 And I will fashion of you a nation that is great, and I will bless you, and make great your name; and you will become a blessing:
A blessing is G-d speaking into the present that which He has already observed in the future: likewise a curse.
The nation G-d is speaking of is Israel. Avram’s name will be great, known by countless millions. His name will also literally be changed from, “father of a nation” to, “father of many nations”. Thus his name will be great in numerous ways. Avraham’s name also unites G-d and man in a foreshadowing of redemption: Av, the Father G-d, sends Rabah, David’s greater Son to redeem Am, a people for Himself. Thus Avram will become a blessing to all humanity, the father of all who trust in G-d through Yeshua the Messiah.
“Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Avraham.” –Galatians 3:7
Gen 12:3 And I will bless them that bless you, and swiftly curse him that curses you: and the blessing in you will be for all the families of the earth (Ha-adamah).”
We note that G-d will bless, “them” that bless Avram (Israel) but will curse, “him” that curses Avram (Israel). This infers a corporate or national blessing on a people who are unified in blessing Avram and subsequently ethnic Israel, whereas the curse will search out the individual among the many who dears to curse Avram and his seed through Isaac and Jacob. In addition to the plain meaning there is also a spiritual application to all who share Avraham’s faith, however, the Christian who curses the ethnic people of Israel curses himself, thus Rav Shaul the Shaliach (Apostle Paul) reminds both ethnic Israel and every follower of Messiah Yeshua, “Bless and do not curse…” (Romans 12:14).
The Targum of Yonatan suggests that the, “him” referred to here is Balaam, who was asked by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites as they passed by the land of Moab (Numbers 22). The present curse may well have Balaam in mind, however it is primarily a general curse which will remain in force perpetually against all who curse Avram and his seed through Isaac and Jacob.
“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” –Genesis 22:18
Obedience is the act of receiving G-d’s gifts.
Gen 12:4 And walking (doing) Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) that which the word directed in HaShem (YHVH: Mercy); and walking with Lot (covering) his nephew (ben): and Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) was five and seventy years old when he departed out of Haran (Mountain climber).
A literal translation of the opening phrasing of this verse reveals the present Messiah as the living “Word in HaShem” Who instructed Avram.
“In trust Avraham, when he was called, obeyed…” –Hebrews 11:9
The writer of Hebrews confirms the faithful obedience of Avram in his response to G-d’s instruction, thus refuting those who claim that the taking of Lot was in contradiction to the instruction of G-d. In fact, given that Haran, Avram’s brother had most likely died by this time (Gen. 11:28), it was Avram’s duty to care for his brother’s son Lot as if he were his own son.
NB: Avram must have been born in the one hundred and thirtieth year of Terah (Spirited, inspired) in order to now be seventy five years of age and is therefore not Terah’s oldest son but is listed first in the previous genealogy (Genesis 11:26) due to his being the protagonist in the subsequent story of G-d’s elect people ethnic Israel.
Gen 12:5 And bringing Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) Sarai (My princess) his wife, and Lot the son (ben) of his brother, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls (nefesh) that they fashioned in Haran; and came out to walk the earth (ha-aretz) of Kenaan (Lowland, Slave, Merchant, Servant); and they came into the land of Kenaan (Lowland, Slave, Merchant, Servant).
Some Jewish scholars (Rashi, Radak) understand the phrase, “the souls (nefesh) that they fashioned in Haran” to refer to the proselytes made during their stay there; that is proselytes to the faith in the One true G-d. This is affirmed by a number of Chaldea paraphrases; one of which, that of Onkelos reads, "and the souls which they made subject to the law in Haran.'' Additionally, the Targums of Yerushalayim and Yonatan read, "and the souls of the proselytes, or which they proselyted in Haran.'' Rabbi Yarkhi agrees with the Targums and further illuminates this idea by saying, "which they brought under the wings of the Shekhinah (feminine manifestation of G-d’s Spirit); Avram proselyted the men, and Sarai the women.''
Gen 12:6 And passing through, Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) the land as far as the place of Shechem (Back, shoulder, responsibility), unto the plain of Moreh (Teacher). And the Kenaani (Lowland, Slave Merchant, and Servant) were in the land.
Rambam states a fundamental principle in understanding the Torah’s narrative of the Patriarchs and their deeds, “Whatever happened to the Patriarchs is a portent for their children.” In the case of each patriarch the Torah relates their journeys and the digging of wells etc. which serve as lessons for future generations. Thus Avram stops at Shechem the first place to be conquered by the Jews (Genesis 34:25), almost three hundred years prior to Israel gaining full possession of the land. The Messiah Yeshua also stopped at Shechem, where he explained to a woman of Samaria the reality that the Jewish people knew what they worshipped, having been given the Torah and the Holy mountain of G-d.
“So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar (that is, Shechem), near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph;” –John 4:5
Avram then stopped between Beit-El, where the patriarch Jacob also encountered HaShem, and Ai, the first place conquered by Joshua.
Each of the stories of the patriarchs detail both the instruction of G-d and the subsequent symbolic acts and physical signs that illuminate G-d’s redemptive plan in spiritual, mental and tactile ways. Like the signs which seal G-d’s covenants, the symbolic acts that the patriarch’s participate in seal the promised blessings of G-d as unalterable realities.
Gen 12:7 And appearing HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) to Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted), and said, “Unto your seed will I give this land: and he built there an altar (mizbeiach) unto HaShem (YHVH: Mercy), who appeared to him.
Judaism, both Biblical and rabbinic has always accepted that G-d, Who is echad (a complex unity) is invisible and indivisible but that He reveals Himself in many ways. For this reason alone, outside of the anti-evangelistic polemic, there is no reason to discount the threefold persons of the G-d head. We Messianics do not deny that He is One (echad, not yachid), we simply assert, along with our orthodox brothers, that He reveals Himself in many ways. The Stone Chumash attributes the following statement to Rabbi R’ Hirsch:
“G-d is not physical, so the means by which He (G-d) speaks and makes Himself visible to people is an eternal mystery. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us that He appeared in a way that was tangible to Abraham.”
One wonders what the commentators of the Stone Chumash think the difference is between tangibility and physicality.
The reality is that the person of HaShem (Mercy), “appeared to Avram”.
If the symbolic act of the patriarch that proceeds from the manifest action of G-d is said to make unalterable the promises of G-d, the significance of the altar which Avram builds in response to G-d’s manifest visible presence cannot be over stated. The Hebrew term, “mizbeiach” meaning, “altar” is derived from the root word, “zabach” meaning to, “slaughter, kill, blood sacrifice”. When the Hebrew, “mizbeiach” is used without qualification it always refers to an altar whose purpose is blood atonement. When the term is qualified its meaning is altered by the qualifying term, e.g. “mizbeiach miktar”, altar of incense (Exodus 30:1). Hence whenever we see an altar being built by a Patriarch or pre-Sinai forefather of Israel and read no qualifying turn of phrase, we must conclude that the altar is purposed for an atoning (covering) sacrifice. Avram sees G-d and realizes the need for covering atonement, hence the altar. One has to close his eyes, block his ears and forget his mind in order to avoid the obvious link to the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah Yeshua.
Gen 12:8 And he moved from there unto a mountain on the east of Beit-el (House of Elohim), and stretched out his tent, with Beit-el (House of Elohim) on the west (On the seas: Mediterranean), and Ai (Ruin: Josh. 7:2) on the east: and there he built an altar (mizbeiach) unto HaShem (YHVH: Mercy), and passionately called upon the name of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy). Gen 12:9 And pulling up Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) walked, journeying on toward the Negev (south).
This is the second altar (mizbeiach) built by Avram. The first altar (mizbeiach) was built in response to meeting the present, tangible G-d (Emmanuel). The second altar was built between the house of G-d and the place of ruin. Both altars symbolize covering/atonement. Hebrew altars are not simply markers/signs, they are built for use (Exodus 29), therefore we must accept that Avram understood the need for the covering atonement of blood and acted accordingly. In the first instance he accepts his need for atonement because his encounter with the Holy G-d exposes his sinful state, and secondly, when he finds himself camped between the idolatrous place he had been and the place where G-d dwells he understands that the only means of reaching G-d’s purpose is through blood covering/atonement.
“He (Yaakov) called the name of that place Beit El (House of Elohim); however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Turn aside, Almond tree).” –Genesis 28:19
Avram pitches his tent on the mountain as a counter point to his having previously pitched his tent in the lowland of the Kasdim (Chaldeans). This in turn expresses the constant choice he must make to obey G-d. His tent is pitched between the House of G-d (Beit-El), which is in the direction he is heading spiritually speaking, and the city of ruin (Ai), which is in the direction he has come from. The allegorical meaning teaches a profound drash (comparative lesson). We must continue to choose G-d’s instruction as we journey, lest we be tempted to return to that which G-d has called us out from.
“Yeshua said to him, ‘No one, who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back, is fit for the kingdom of G-d.’” –Luke 9:62
Avram called upon the personal name YHVH, denoting mercy, rather than the generic noun Elohim, which could be mistaken for a reference to other deities, judges, rulers etc. In calling on the personal name of G-d Avram was recognizing both G-d’s universal authority and His naming of Avram and his seed. Thus He is the merciful G-d of Israel.
Gen 12:10 And it came about that there was a famine in the land: and Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.
This is the second of the trials noted by Rambam. This is seen as a trial because G-d had promised that He would prosper Avram and make his name great, so how is this possible when a man is starving and unable to feed his family? None the less, Avram continues on toward Egypt, believing that G-d will provide. This part of Avram’s journey foreshadows the journey of his grandson Jacob whose sons will seek food in Egypt during a similar time of famine in the future.
Gen 12:11 And it came to pass, when he came near to Egypt (Mitzrayim: Double distress, double stronghold), that he said unto Sarai (My princess) his wife, “Behold, I know that you are a woman who is beautiful to look (mareh) upon: Gen 12:12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when seeing you the Egyptians (Mitzrayim: Double distress, double stronghold) will say, “This is his wife” and they will kill me, but they will keep you alive.
Many commentators judge Avram harshly for this decision, however many of our modern concerns regarding Avram’s actions are revisionist in nature, failing to consider the historical reality and context of his circumstances. As Abarbanel writes, “The Egyptians were notorious for there immoral practices.” It may be that Avram’s fears were well founded and that rather than committing an act of misogynistic self-preservation, he was in fact securing both he and Sarai’s safety with this ruse. In a Hebraic sense Sarai could be considered a sister of sorts (Midrash HaGadol), however strictly speaking she was either Avram’s half-sister (Genesis 20:12) or possibly his niece (Genesis 11:29-31), on the other hand Biblical Hebrew has no word for niece.
I disagree with Rambam’s assertion that Avram was intentionally placing Sarai in danger.
Gen 12:13 Say, I plead with you, that you are my sister (Achotee) [Genesis 20:12]: that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you.
The Gur Aryeh al Ha-Torah explains that the phrase, “that it may be well with me for your sake” refers to the hope that the Egyptians might seek to win the favour of Avram for the opportunity to win his, “sister’s” hand. Thus he would become wealthy and respected, making him a less likely target for foul play.
Gen 12:14 And it came to pass, that when entering Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) into Egypt, the Egyptians (Mitzrayim: Double distress, double stronghold) saw the woman that she was beautiful exceedingly.
The kingdom of Egypt, was set up in the times of Reu, about three hundred years before Avram was there; its first king was Mizraim, a son of Cham (Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 76. 1. Elmacinus, p. 29. apud Hottinger. Smegma, p. 274).
Gen 12:15 The princes’ of Pharaoh (Great house) saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's (Great house) house. Gen 12:16 And he treated Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted) well for her sake: and gave him sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.
This stands in sharp contrast to Avram’s later refusal to accept gifts from the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:23). On that occasion he had been in a position of power, having just defeated the many kings who had come against him, here he is vulnerable and thus accepts those provisions offered to him.
Abarbanel notes that Avram’s actions were not motivated by greed but out of necessity, and that if Avram had refused the herds offered by Pharaoh he would have aroused suspicion and put himself and Sarai in further danger. Thus the subsequent divine actions seem to be the conclusion to a plan arranged in advance in order to make it possible for Avram to reconcile his wife and journey on in safety and prosperity. We should remember that G-d had promised to make him great. All of these events speak of design.
Gen 12:17 And struck HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) Pharaoh (Great house) with plague (Genesis 20:17) that was great and it was also on Pharaoh’s household on the word of Sarai (My princess) the wife of Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted).
Rashi notes that the plague sent upon the household of Pharaoh made it impossible for Sarai to be sexually compromised. We may also interpret the literal translation of the text, “on the word of Sarai” to infer that Sarai had requested G-d’s protection. The plague is of course a foreshadowing of the plagues that will be sent against Egypt in preparation for the Exodus.
Gen 12:18 And calling, Pharaoh (Great house) to Avram (Father of a nation; Father exalted), and said, “What is this that you’ve done to me? Why not tell me that she was your wife?
We should ask, “How did Pharaoh know that Sarai was Avram’s wife?” The text infers that Pharaoh suspected this from the outset and took her into his household anyway. Only when he experienced the plague did he regret his actions and call for Avram. It’s also possible that Sarai, seeing the opportunity afforded by the plague confessed the truth to Pharaoh, hoping he would free her from his household.
Gen 12:19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister?’ So I might have taken her to me for a wife: now therefore behold your wife, take her, and walk away.”
Notice that Pharaoh had not yet slept with Sarai, “I might have taken her”. In both this situation and the latter incident of Genesis 20, G-d protects Sarai from sexual defilement.
Gen 12:20 And Pharaoh (Great house) commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, with his wife, and all that he had.
It is worth noting that Pharaoh and his retinue were significantly fearful of Avram’s G-d following the plague or else why would they let a man who had deceived them safely leave Egypt with all the riches he had acquired?
This is thought by some to be the place of inception for the later Egyptian law forbidding Egyptians to eat with Hebrews (Genesis 43:32).
A Paraphrased overview using the meanings of the Hebrew names of Genesis 12:
Gen 12:1 Mercy said to the father of a nation, an exalted father, “Go, for your own sake, leave the idolatrous land of your relatives and your father’s house. I will show you the land that I’ve prepared for you: Gen 12:2 I will fashion of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will become a blessing: Gen 12:3 I will bless those that bless you, and swiftly curse the one that curses you: and the blessing in you will be for all the families of the earth.”Gen 12:4 So the father of a nation, an exalted father, went and did that which the Word of Mercy had directed him to do; and he went with the covering of his nephew: and the father of a nation, an exalted father, was seventy five years old when he departed out of the place where mountains were conquered. Gen 12:5 And the father of a nation, an exalted father, brought my princess, his wife, and a covering who was the son of his brother, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls they had converted in the place where mountains were conquered; and they went out to walk in the land of the slave, merchants; and they came into the land of the slave, merchants. Gen 12:6 And as the father of a nation, an exalted father was passing through the land he reached as far as the place of responsibility, in the land of the Teacher. And the slave merchants were in the land. Gen 12:7 And Mercy appeared to the father of a nation, an exalted father and said, “Unto your seed will I give this land: and the father of a nation, an exalted father built there an altar of atonement for Mercy), Who appeared to him. Gen 12:8 And the father of a nation, an exalted father moved from there unto a mountain on the east of G-d’s house, and stretched out his tent, between G-d’s house on the west and the place of ruin on the east: and there he built an altar of atonement for Mercy), and passionately called upon the name of Mercy. Gen 12:9 And the father of a nation, an exalted father pulled up his tent journeyed on toward the south. Gen 12:10 And it came about that there was a famine in the land: and the father of a nation, an exalted father went down to the land of double distress to dwell there for a time; for the famine was grievous in the land. Gen 12:11 And it came to pass, when he came near to the land of double distress, that he said to my princess, his wife, “Behold, I know that you are a woman who is beautiful to look upon: Gen 12:12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when seeing you the people of double distress will say, “This is his wife” and they will kill me, but they will keep you alive. Gen 12:13 Say, I plead with you, that you are my sister: that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you. Gen 12:14 And it came to pass, that when the father of a nation, an exalted father entered into the land of double distress, the people of double distress saw the woman that she was beautiful exceedingly. Gen 12:15 The princes’ of the king’s house saw her, and commended her before the king: and the woman was taken into the king's house. Gen 12:16 And he treated the father of a nation, an exalted father well for her sake: and gave him sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels. Gen 12:17 And Mercy struck the king and his household with plague on the request of my princess the wife of the father of a nation, an exalted father. Gen 12:18 And the king called the father of a nation, an exalted father, and said, “What is this that you’ve done to me? Why not tell me that she was your wife?Gen 12:19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister?’ So I might have taken her to me for a wife: now therefore behold your wife, take her, and walk away.”Gen 12:20 And the king commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, with his wife, and all that he had.
© 2016 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.