1a. Who is Abraham? The Biblical Evidence
In this passage, we have a biography of Abraham’s life before his mission to go to Eretz Canaan.
- What are your impressions of this biography? What questions does it answers? What does it leave unanswered in your mind? What problems might this biography create?
- Look at verse 28, pay attention to the most innocuous character in this passage. We will see him the midrash.
- Take notice as well of the words “פני על”, translated as “in the lifetime of” (NJPS), but be aware that it can also be translated as “in the presence of”. We will need this later.
1b. Filling in the biography
In Joshua’s final address, we learn another detail about Abraham’s background.
What details does this passage from Joshua add that we did not know from the Genesis passage?
2. Genesis Rabba 38:13
Genesis Rabba is what we call a classical Amoraic Midrash, composed in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Talmuds (3-5 century CE). Its midrashim are largely exegetical, namely, they interpret the verses of Scripture, noting details which will prompt the process of midrash. It is also an anthology, meaning that its midrashim are not the product of a single hand or mind but rather a collection of sometimes disparate ideas and visions.
Those of you who try to work this midrash out in the original, will note that it is composed in both Hebrew and Aramaic (Eretz Yisraeli, of course!) This is because these were the two major Jewish languages in Eretz Yisrael during the time of the Talmud.
Questions to thing about while studying
This particular midrash is cued by something peculiar in the verse quoted at its opening. Try to figure out what it is that prompts it. Remember the 3 steps!
There is also an underlying question which this midrash will be trying to answer, something that apparently irked the rabbis. Try to figure out what is it?
Questions to Ponder
- Who is the hero of this midrash? What makes him heroic?
- What does his role as hero say about what it means to be a religious Jew?
- Why do you think this story is told? What larger question does it come to answer?
- Since the story is ostensibly about Abraham (oops), what is the role of Haran in this story? (Think about what you learned about minor characters in Shakespeare when you were in high school.)
- What does this say about the Rabbi’s treatment of minor characters in the storyline of the Torah?
- Does the second part of the story about the fiery furnace, remind you of a Biblical story? Take a look at Daniel 3:8-33. What is that story about? What did the author of this midrash do with that story? What was his inspiration in the stories of Abraham? (Hint, where does Abraham come from? – Or Casdim [Or in Hebrew can mean “furnace”] Those rabbis just love puns!
- Notice how the passage from Joshua, becomes the grounds for the whole story.
- What textual question does the midrash come to resolve? [Hint: Remember what we noted above about the passage from Genesis.]
Something to Ponder
- This midrash is known to many of us as a story told to us as children. Is it really a children’s story? What is it coming to teach?
- What do you make of Abraham as a religious paradigm from this story?
What Others are Saying
Here you will find the opinions of two Jewish thinkers, Maimonides (the rationalist) and Rabbi Judah Halevi (the poet and non-rationalist philosopher) on whom this midrash had an impact.
Maimonides Mishnah Torah Laws of Idolatry 1:3
3) Once Abraham was weaned, he, as a child, began contemplating and thinking day and night, and wondered how a sphere could follow a fixed path without being directed. If so, who directed it? Surely it would be impossible for it to rotate on its own! Abraham did not have a mentor, but was immersed amongst the stupid idolaters of Ur Casdim, where everyone, including his mother and father, served idols, as did he. In his heart, however, he continued to contemplate, until he realized the way of truth and understood the ways of righteousness from nature, and knew that there is a God who directs the spheres, created the world, and besides whom there is none other. He also knew that the whole world was erring, and knew that what caused the mistake was that they [had] worshiped the stars and figures for so long that the truth had vanished. Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator. Once he achieved this, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him. Abraham also proclaimed that it was fitting to break and destroy all the figures, so that nobody will err on account of them, like those who imagined that there is no God except for their idols did. Since people were listening to him, the king, Nimrod, sought to kill him, but a miracle was performed for Abraham, and he went to Haran, where he got up and proclaimed to the whole world that there is just one God in the world, whom it is fitting to worship. He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, “…and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God”. Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person [in a way] so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him.
Rabbi Judah Halevi – Kuzari 1:95
There were some, however, among them who did not come under divine influence, as Terah, but his son Abraham was the disciple of his grandfather Eber, and was born in the lifetime of Noah. Thus the divine spirit descended from the grandfather to the grandchildren. Abraham represented the essence of Eber, being his disciple, and for this reason he was called Ibri. Eber represented the essence of Shem, the latter that of Noah. He inherited the temperate zone, the centre and principal part of which is Palestine, the land of prophecy An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage. This is how we regard Terah and others in whom the divine afflatus was not visible, though, to a certain extent, it underlay his natural disposition, so that he begat a descendant filled with the essence, which was not the case with all the posterity of Ham and Japhet. We perceive a similar phenomenon in nature at large. Many people do not resemble their father, but take after their grand-fathers.
What is the difference between Maimonides’ Abraham and Halevi’s Abraham?
Some Conclusions – Lesson 1
The discussion for the first lesson has been very impressive. Yashar Koah!
As I have noted in one of my responses, please remember that midrash is a textually based discipline. It is interpretative in one way or another, so it is always important to note its textual basis or jumping off point. None textually based lore in the Jewish tradition is known as “agaddah”. As many of you have shown in your correspondence. The textual jumping off point for our midrash involved the verse about Haran. Here we have an obscure character, amongst a list of other such characters, who is singled out with an added biographical detail – his premature death. The midrash uses this as a jumping off point.
There is a larger question looming over the discussion. Abraham, the founder of the tradition does not have a very meaty biography. The question is bound to arise among the readers of the Torah’s account – Why did God choose this guy? Consequently, answers must be found for this question.
Our midrash attempts to face this question. Who is Abraham in this midrash? He is an iconoclast – an idol buster – one firm in the conclusions he has come to. He is someone who is unafraid to confront others with his faith – his truth. He is the “man of faith.” This differentiates him from his father, his environs. It makes him different from his “foil” – Haran – the everyman – who chooses his ideology opportunistically. This is what makes him a hero. This is what makes him someone God should choose.
The second part of the story – Abraham vs. Nimrod has elements borrowed from other stories in order to interpret the name of Abraham’s hometown – Ur Casdim. Since Ur can mean “furnace”, it lends itself to placing Abraham in a story similar to the one in which Daniel’s friends are found. Their faith is tested by being thrown into the fiery furnace – so here is Abraham’s faith tested in the same way. Haran, of course, falls short in this respect and faces the heat. People are sometimes pained by Haran’s fate, but remember in terms of the Torah’s plot, his fate is the one given. Also, the story line wants us to know that equivocators are not rewarded.
Maimonides and Halevi are doing midrash on midrash. Maimonides reworks this story to fit his rationalist theology. He makes Abraham in his own image. Halevi who thinks that prophecy is an inherited quality looks at this story and must explain how Abraham is a prophet who has the truth. He does this with his story of the trait skipping a generation. The contrast between these two thinkers and their interpretations illustrates for us how much interpretation in both exegetical (reading out) and eisegetical (reading in).