It feels so abrupt and out of the blue. Abraham is THE patriarch of the Jewish people, as well as the progenitor of Islam and Christianity, but before Lekh Lekha, we are told virtually nothing about him. We are told that Noah is: “a righteous man, blameless in his age,” that “Noah walked with G-d.” (Gen 6:8-9). We learn all about Moses’s back story, but very little about Abraham. So why don’t we know more? Why did G-d choose a 75 year-old man to be the father of our people?
Broadly speaking, there are two theories as to why G-d chose Abraham. The first perspective argues that Abraham did nothing on his own to merit G-d’s grace; this paradigm tends to be favored by Christian theologians. Not surprisingly, the Jewish tradition tends to take the opposite view. Of course Abraham did something to merit being chosen!
So, if Abraham merited to be chosen by God, what did he do? There are many midrashim about Abraham’s early life and they generally reflect one of two main themes. Either that Abraham was an exemplary man of faith or that he was unique in his powers of logic in service of God.
Bereshit Rabbah 39:10 argues for the former, that Abraham was a model of faith:
There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham, and God spoke only to Abraham. R. Berekhiah taught in the name of R. Nehemiah: [God sifting through the generations until he found Abraham] may be illustrated by the parable of a king who, while traversing from place to place, lost a pearl from the crown of his head. The king halted and had his retinue halt. When a passer-by asked, “What is going on here with the king and his entire retinue?” they were told, “A pearl has fallen from the king’s head.” What did the king do? He heaped the soil in a number of piles, brought sieves, and sifted the first pile, but did not find the pearl…[He did the same with the second, third, and so on, until when] he sifted the tenth pile, he found it. Then the passersby said, “The king has finally found his precious pearl.”
Likewise, the Holy One said to Abraham, (Lekh lekha) “Go–for you.” (Gen 12:1), it was for you that I was waiting. Otherwise, what need had I to record this [lengthy] genealogy of? Was it not on account of you? Hence it is written in Nehemiah, “You chose Abram…because you found his heart faithful before you.” (Nehemiah 9:7-8)
Here Abraham is compared to a pearl, the perfect man of faith, polished by time. G-d waits for Abraham and Abraham merits to be chosen because of his faithfulness.
In Midrash Ha-Gadol (The Great Midrash), a14th century Yemenite midrashic compilation, we get the other perspective, that Abraham merited to be chosen for his powers of reason:
And Abraham would roam in his mind, thinking, “How long shall we bow down to the work of our hands? It is not right to worship and bow down to anything but the earth, which brings forth fruit and sustains us.” But when he saw that the earth needs rain, and that without the sky opening and sending down rain, the earth would grow nothing at all, then he thought again: “It is not right to bow down to anything but the sky.” He looked again and saw the sun which gives light to the world, and brings forth the plants, and thought, “It is not right to bow down to anything but the sun.” But when he saw the sun setting, he thought, “That is no god.” He looked again at the moon and the stars that give light at night, and thought, “To these it is right to bow down.” But when the dawn broke, they were all effaced, and he thought, “These are no gods.” He was in distress at the thought: If these phenomena have no mover, why does one set and the other rise?”…When Abraham saw the appearance and the disappearance of phenomena in nature, he thought, “Unless there were someone in charge, this would not happen. It is not right to bow down to these, but to the One in charge.” – Midrash Ha-Gadol, Genesis 12:1 (translation by Avivah Zornberg, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, p. 83)
Here, Abraham is chosen, because he possesses superior logic, above anyone in his generation. He is able to reason his way toward an understanding of G-d. This ability earns him the right to be called on by G-d.
However, I don’t buy either argument. I do believe Abraham merited to be chosen, but I think the Torah tells us exactly what we are supposed to know and no more. The first thing we have to remember is that Abraham did not come from nowhere. At the end of chapter 11, in Genesis, we read:
“Terah took Avram, his son, and Lot, his grandson, the son of Haran, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, the wife of Avram, and they went forth with them from Ur-Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan…” (Gen. 11:31).
Abraham was a good choice because he had a head start. He had already left his land and his birthplace. Crucially, he didn’t do it all alone. He is in many ways continuing a journey that his father began. Abraham may have been a complete rebel who smashed his father’s idols, but he did not create something out of nothing. I think we all know this truth from our own lives. We all came from somewhere. We all are indebted to someone for something.
In addition, G-d, chose Abraham because he was ready to hear and to serve. This is an insight that I got from Noam Zion and Steve Israel of the Hartman Institute. What do we actually know about Abraham before “Lekh lekha”? We know that his brother died. That his wife was barren. And that his family moved.
Any of us who have experienced even one of these things know how challenging they can be. It is not hard to imagine that Abraham suffered. He knew loss and pain, loneliness, fear, and dislocation. He was bent, but not broken. He is chosen, because he has empathy and a different perspective.
From this perspective, the question of Abraham’s merit is cast in a very different light. His suffering did not earn him the right to be chosen by G-d, but it is clear that the choice was not random. He proved worthy of the call, because he was ready to hear it and prepared to respond.
Daniel Schaefer is second-year student at the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College.