We’re studying some key portions of Genesis 10-12 for Sunday, October 14. We end with Genesis 12:1-4, which people often refer to as “the call of Abraham,” even though Abraham is named Abram at the time.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT – THE GENEALOGIES: Chapters 6-9 have told the story of Noah, Noah’s family, and God’s destruction and salvation of the created world through the flood and the ark. The text needs to get us from this re-beginning to the more specific beginning of the story of Israel, and it will do that by means of the genealogies, with a little detour into the story of the tower of Babel at the beginning of chapter 11.
This is the very stuff of Bible jokes (“and X begatteth Y and Y begatteth Z and …”) and reading-out-loud-in-church nightmares (NAMES – the horror), mostly because modern readers don’t see the point of the genealogies.
But as Johanna van Wijk-Bos points out in Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, the genealogies are not “random;” they “structure the movement of the text” in its “momentum that drives toward the emigration of Abram and his family from Mesopotamia to Canaan on instruction from God” (95).
In addition to the plot-structuring function of the genealogies, these lists of names are significant in their own right, in several ways:
First, lists of ancestral families provide a kind of ordering of the past. They impose structure on what may seem random and chaotic. … Second, anchoring present generations firmly in the past provides a group with identity: this is where we come from; these are the ones to whom we belong. We may note that the ancient Israelite community was careful to locate its roots in the context of the peoples of the entire world and that these peoples in themselves were also of interest to the ancient believer. … Finally, specific names are often significant. In many cases, this significance is lost to us today, but at times we may still receive a glimpse of what were once references to a more profound truth than the merely obvious. In the end, ancestor lists belong also to myth. They do not primarily pass on information, but in their own way they tell the truth of the tale to those who come after. (95-6)
Genesis 10:1-32 focuses on the stretch from Noah to Joktan, which creates the context of the peoples of the world. [Bos notes that the longest section lists the descendents of Ham, and that this part of the text is (a) actually neutral to positive and (b) in connection with the tale in chapter 9, has had a deeply disturbing subsequent history.]
Genesis 11:10 picks up after the Babel incident – so, different people are now speaking their unique languages – with the descendents of Shem [whose name means, literally, Name], reminds us of some territory that was already covered at the end of chapter 10, and then in v27 shifts its pattern and highlights the family of Terah [whose name might, literally, mean something like Spirited or Inspired, according to one source] by telling the family story in a little more detail (vv27-32). The text names wives (Sarai and Milcah); there are tragedies (v28 “Haran died in the presence of his father”) and ominous foreshadowing (v30 “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child”).
There is A LOT of midrash that fills in gaps about the early time in the life of the family, that shows up in the Talmud and also the Qur’an. [Terah is an idol-maker, and a chief priest of Nimrod, the idolatrous king of Ur/Babylon, who keeps trying to have Abram killed – to no avail, of course.]
In 11:31 the family ends up in Haran – which is not exactly on the way to the land of Canaan from Ur/Babylon – and in v32 Terah dies there. If we do the arithmetic, we will notice that this is out of order chronologically, because if Terah is 70 when Abram is born, and Abram is 75 when he leaves Haran, and Terah is 205 when he dies in Haran, he has 60 years to go after the events in Genesis 12:4.
Rashi explains this by pointing out that it wouldn’t do for us to think Abram didn’t honor his father and mother, so the text tells us Terah dies, and then Abram leaves; and this works, because the wicked are called dead even when they are alive, just as the righteous are said to live even after they die.
[Terah doesn’t look good from the perspective of the midrash.]
THE CALL: YHWH is the caller; the text of vv1-3 is YHWH’s direct speech. Direct “saying.” A three-fold command to “go”: from country, from kin, from father’s house. We might read this as: from every kind of rootedness and security except that provided by God.
A many-fold promise (so, the promises at least equal, and probably outnumber the sacrifices here): you will have land, you will be great, you will be blessed, your name will be great, you will bless people, I will bless and curse people on your behalf, and you will bless all the families of the earth. The incentive is very great; but it is prospective, not obvious.
The root “bless” is repeated five times in this speech. It’s the emphatic point of the speech: the blessing that Abram will experience, and will pass on to others.
Abram did what YHWH said.
It does not seem to count against Abram’s doing what YHWH says that Abram doesn’t leave his kindred entirely behind in Haran, that his nephew Lot comes with him [although it might make sense to say “but Lot went with him”]. Lot is going to be the occasion for some wrinkles in the story as it goes forward, after all.
The editors of the Uniform Series encourage us to notice that the text implies that God is working over a LONG stretch of time through the life of humanity to move from Noah to Abram and that turning point in the story. That is, we could derive from this reading a vision of God as constantly present and active … even in the long and superficially meaningless stretches of “ordinary” genealogical time … which suggests that they’re not meaningless after all.
van-Wijk-Bos, Johanna. Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. Eerdmans, 2005.