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B'resheet/Genesis 11:31 ... and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and they settled there.
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Unusually, the narrative block B'resheet 11:27-12:9 spans both a chapter and a parasha boundary. Both tradition, which starts the next paraha - Lech L'cha - at 12:1, and scholarship, which sees the call of Avram as the starting point of the nation Israel andHaShem's particular relationship with His chosen people, mark a significant break at this point in the overall narrative. Nevertheless, the text contains clues that we should instead see the break some verses earlier. Our attention is first caught by the appearance of the formulaic , "these are the generations", that is repeatedly used by the Torah to mark a new section in the narrative, forming a link with the past, but drawing a line across the historical page: "These are the generations of Noah" (B'resheet 6:9), "These are the generations of Shem" (11:10) and - in our case - "These are the generations of Terah" (11:27). After a few verses setting the scene and introducing the characters, our verse starts the active narrative of the block, "Terah took his son Avram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Avram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there" (11:31, NJPS).
Our next clue comes in the first two words of our particular text - the second part of verse 31. is the Qal prefix 3mp form of the root , to go out, with a vav-conversive to denote part tense and the start of the next narrative event: and they went out. The second word, , uses as a preposition, 'with', with a 3mp object: with them. As the verse starts with Terah as the subject taking Avram, Lot and Sarai, we would expect to see a singular verb - where the 3ms subject, 'he' - matches Terah and the 3mp object, 'them', matches Avram, Lot and Sarai. So why is the verb plural - 'they' - what is it trying to tell us.Rashi tells us that "Terah and Avram went out with Lot and Sarai", while Mizrachi explains that "'they' of 'they departed' refers to those who initiated the journey - Terah and Avram. 'they' of 'with them' refers to those who went with them - Lot and Sarai.
Why should Terah and Avram both be thought of as initiating the journey? Jewish tradition maintains that while Terah was the father of the family, so by protocol is credited with leading the travellers, it was actually Avram's idea and - in particular - Avram's call that started the move from Ur to Canaan.Ibn Ezra firmly states that "this demonstrates clearly that the L-rd's command to Avram to go to Cannan must have occurred before Terah 'took' him out of Ur." According to this, it was Avram who heard the call from HaShem and persuaded the others in the family circle to come with him on the journey.
So far so good. Terah's party, co-led by himself as the head of family and Avram as the vision holder, accompanied by Sarai - who, as Avram's wife, could hardly have been left behind - and Terah's nephew, Lot, leave Ur with the specific intention of going west around the fertile crescent to the land of Canaan. We don't actually know why the family migrated from Ur - chapter 11 does not tell us; it is not until the beginning of chapter 12 that we learn that HaShem directly spoke to and instructed Avram in the matter. Nahum Sarna tells us that, at a human level, "the migration could have been prompted by the gradual decline of the city and the increasingly harsh economic conditions, along with over-population, known to have been its lot in the course of the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2100-1600 BCE)." We do know that Ur was an important centre for the moon-god cult.
After some weeks of travelling - whole families, with servants, livestock, children and so on, move very slowly - they arrived in Haran according to the second phrase of our. Haran is not a natural way-station on this journey; it is a little too far north and we would have expected them take a more southerly arc with a shorter journey time, but that is where they reached. Sarna tells that "Haran - whose name means 'route, caravan, journey' - is an important station along the main international trade routes from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea. Like Ur, is was also a centre of the moon-god cult." Unexpectedly, instead of pausing for perhaps a week or two to organise food and enjoy a few days' rest from constant travelling, the last phrase in our text tells us that they settled there. They pitched their tents, organised grazing rights for their livestock and started integrating into the resident community rather than remaining in the state of "passing through".
What derailed Terah's intention to travel on to Canaan and settle in Haran? Rabbi DavidKimchi suggests that "though Terah had left Ur with the intention of going to Canaan, when he got to Haran he could not find it in his heart to leave his native land completely. So he settled in Haran, which is on the border, near Canaan, to be closer to Avram, who continued on to Canaan as commanded by G-d." Perhaps this is the difference between Avram and his father. Avram felt the call of G-d and, although he needed a firm reminder in the next chapter, was committed to making the whole journey and reaching G-d's destination. Umberto Cassuto proposes that Terah, by contrast, "influenced by Avram ... also felt an inner urge - yet not sufficiently strong or clear - in the spiritual direction towards which Avram was set with all his heart and soul." This was not strong enough to overcome the attraction of idol worship, so Terah was unable to "abandon the world of paganism; he did, in truth set out of the journey, but stopped in the middle of the way."1 As Bruce Waltke puts it, "instead of pressing on to Canaan, Terah and his family settle down at another centre of moon worship."2
We can see something of this by comparing our text - "they set out for the land of Canaan but when they came to Haran they settled there" (11:31) - with the account of Avram's activity after HaShem spoke to him directly: "they set out for the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan" (12:5). While Terah was distracted and resistant to too much change, stopping far short of the goal, Avram persisted and - despite the cost of having to leave his father behind - arrived at his destination. He earned his name "Avram the Hebrew" (14:13), Avram the boundary-crosser, because he was prepared to cross over the cultural and geographic boundaries to get to where G-d had commanded him to go.
Yeshua's parable of the Sower provides a vivid portrayal of how G-d's word can work in our lives. Let's see how that corresponds to the Terah/Avram narrative surrounding our text. Yeshua talks about the seed that is sown - or perhaps dropped - on the path; "the birds came and devoured it" (Mark 4:4, ESV). There is no direct match with those in our story; perhaps we might think of it as other people in Ur who Avram told why they were leaving, but they simply didn't believe that G-d had spoken to him and laughed at the whole idea. Yeshua's second example is seed that fell on rocky ground so, although "it did not have much soil ... immediately it sprang up" (v.5, ESV) but when the sun rose, it withered because it had no root. This corresponds to Terah who, although he sensed Avram's call, had no real sense of conviction so when - after some time of travelling - they reached Haran, he abandoned the journey and settled for what he knew. Yeshua's third set of seed is those that "fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain" (v. 7, ESV). Jumping ahead in the story, perhaps this corresponds to Avram's nephew Lot who chose the Jordan valley and the cities of the plain, barely escaping with his life.
Avram, on the other hand, is described by Yeshua's fourth set of seed, which "fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold" (v. 8, ESV). He received and believed the promises of G-d, was rewarded for his faith and - despite his human frailties - became the father of Yitz'khak and the physical line that would lead to David and to Yeshua. From his grandson, Ya'akov, sprang the tribes of Israel, G-d's ancient people. To him are added those from the nations who are called in Yeshua because "it is those of faith who are the sons of Avraham" (Galatians 3:7, ESV). Disciples of Yeshua - like Yitz'khak, the child of the promise - , "are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (v. 29, ESV). Like Avram, we must not get distracted from the journey to which Yeshua has called us: making disciples for Him everywhere we go and teaching them to obey His voice (Matthew 28:19-20).
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1984), page 281.
2. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 201.
Further Study: Romans 4:9-12; Philippians 3:12-14
Application: How often are you tempted to settle for a little bit of peace and quiet, an easier way and a place to settle down without arguments, rather than pushing through the obstacles with which the enemy tries to trip you up and distract you, in order to finish the race that G-d has set before you and called you in Messiah?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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