The Rabbinic Chronology of Lech Lecha
Abraham Leaves His Father 60 Years before He Dies
At the end of Parashat Noach, Genesis chapter 11, Abraham’s father Terach dies in Haran. In the very next verse that now begins Parashat Lech Lecha, Abraham is told to leave his homeland, his birthplace, and his father’s house – that is, Haran – and to go on a journey to the land that God will show him. A surface reading that is accentuated by the division of theparshiyot gives the reader the impression that the command came to Abraham after his father died, but, as Chazal (the classical sages) point out, a look at the math indicates otherwise.
Here is what the biblical text states and implies:
a. Terah was 70 years old, and he engendered Avram, Nahor, and Haran (Gen. 11:26).
According to this verse, Avram appears to be Terah’s eldest son, and, hence, the gap between Terah and Avram is 70 years.
b. And Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran (Gen. 12:4).
Thus, given that Terah was (at least) 70 years old when Avram was born, he would have been 145 (70 + 75) years old when his son, Avram, left Haran.
c. The days of the Terah were 205 years; and Terah died in Haran (Gen. 11:32).
This verse, combined with the calculations above, means that Avram abandoned his father in Haran for the last 60 years of his life. This is never explicit in the text, and is ethically dubious, at best. The current division of the text into parshiyot, separating chs 11 and 12 masks this problem.
Two Rabbinic Resolutions to the Problem of Abraham Abandoning His Father
The rabbis in Bereishit Rabbah were bothered by Abraham’s abandonment of his father. They resolve this problem in two steps (Ber. Rab. 39:7); the first step deals with the intrinsic problem, the second with the appearance (or מראית עין) of a problem.
- The wicked are considered dead while still alive.
This maxim, which appears many times in rabbinic literature, is used here to show that, since Terah was a wicked man, Terah was considered dead already. Hence, Abraham had no obligations to his father and had not really “abandoned” him in the latter’s old age.
- Abraham our father was afraid, thinking, “When I leave, others will consider that I have desecrated the Name of heaven and they will say, ‘He abandoned his father and left him in his old age.’” So, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “lekh lekha – go, and as for you, I will absolve you from the commandment of honoring your father and mother but I will absolve no one else. Further, I will recount his death before your departure as it says, ‘Terah died in Haran’ (Gen. 11:32) and then ‘Go from …’ (Gen. 12:1).” (Ber Rab. 39:7)
The rabbis interpret that Abraham was sensitive to the what others would see as an unethical act vis-à-vis his father and, reading the Hebrew lekh lekha, not as an emphatic but as two separate words with two separate meanings (a device common in midrash), the rabbis take the passage as an explicit exemption from God for Abraham from the ethical command to honor his father and, hence, to stay in Haran.
The second word lekha—“for you,” thus reflects a personal exemption given to Abraham concerning honoring his father. According to the rabbis, this is the reason Terah’s death is recorded in the Torah before the command to leave Haran. That is, Chazal believe that the Author, by ordering the verses this way, was telling readers that Avram left while his father was still alive but that he did so with the explicit permission of God so as not to imply that he had not properly honored his father.
Modern scholars, who ascribe all three of these verses to P, the Priestly Source, and thus in theory could discuss the same problem that some of the rabbis highlighted, do not anachronize the Decalogue, and do not assume that all of Abraham’s behavior was positive and a model for later generations. They, therefore, see no issue with Avram abandoning his father for a new start.
Abraham’s Age at the Covenant of the Pieces Later in the Parasha
The Length of Israel’s Slavery
Later on in the parasha, we are told that Abraham has a covenant with God, called in rabbinic literature the Covenant of the Pieces (ברית בין הבתרים), based on v. 10. How old was Abraham at the Covenant of the Pieces (Gen. 15)? Genesis 15:13 reads:
Know for sure that your seed will be a stranger in a land that does not belong to them; they will make them slaves and oppress them for 400 years.
According to this, the slavery (presumably a reference to the slavery in Egypt) was to last 400 years. Exodus 12:40, however, states that the slavery lasted 430 years:
And, at the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord left the land of Egypt (Exod. 12:40).
So, how long did the period of slavery last?
The Thirty Year Gap
Bereishit Rabbah answers this question by suggesting that two clocks are at work – one which ends at 400 years and one which ends at 430 years, and both are accurate.
The 400 Year (Historic) Clock: A close reading of Gen. 15:13, the authors of Bereishit Rabbah claim, shows that the 400-year clock starts when Abraham has seed; i.e., when Isaac is actually born. Now, Gen. 22:5 states that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. By calculating the ages of the patriarchs from Isaac’s birth to the Exodus, the rabbis arrive at 400 years as predicted in Gen. 15.
The 430 Year (Prophetic) Clock: The rabbi’s answer that the 430-year clock began to tick the moment that the Covenant of the Pieces prophecy was given. Since we know that Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born (Gen. 22:5), the rabbis conclude that Abraham was 30 years younger at the Covenant of the Pieces, i.e., 70 years old.
Following this “rabbinic math,” the chronological sequence is now clear: Abraham is 70 years old when the Covenant of the Pieces is cut (Gen. 15). At that time, he is given a prophecy that his descendants will be in slavery for 400 years beginning at the time that he has seed; i.e, from the time that Isaac is born, which occurs when Abraham is 100. Both verses, Gen. 15:13 and Exod. 12:40, are, thus, true.
Modern scholars, unencumbered by the need to reconcile Gen. 15:13 and Ex. 12:40, do not follow the 400-year calculation of the duration from Isaac to the Exodus and do not need to assume the difference between the prophetic and the historic clocks. They simply assume that the “prophecy” in Gen. 15 is a general allusion to a long period of slavery that, itself, cannot be calculated accurately and, hence, cannot generate any mathematical conclusions about the age of Abraham at any given moment in his life.
Abraham Leaves Haran Twice
Returning to the rabbinic interpretation: Combining the Scriptural account of Abraham’s age when he left for Haran as 75 (Gen. 12:4) [Part One above] with the rabbinic interpretation of Abraham’s age at the Covenant of the Pieces as 70 [Part Two above], we now have a real problem: Abraham appears to have been in the Holy Land for the Covenant of the Pieces (age 70) before he arrives there on his initial journey (age 75)!
The rabbis solve this problem (Ber. Rab. 39:8) by returning to their split interpretation of the Hebrew lekh lekha, reading it as lekh lekh, “Go, Go”; i.e., go twice to the Holy Land, once for the Covenant of the Pieces and once for the arrival. This is facilitated by the fact that the consonantal shell of the two words is identical.
The first time, Abraham goes, at age 70, he goes alone, while the second time he goes, at age 75, he takes his whole family. The return to pick up his family is not explicitly recorded in Genesis, although Rabbi Nehemiah posits (Ber. Rab. 39:8) that the return trip between these two goings is a miraculous one, as God “made him fly from the Covenant of the Pieces [back] to Haran.”
The full rabbinic chronology is, now, as follows: At age 70, Abram goes to the Holy Land to participate in the Covenant of the Pieces and the prophetic clock of 430 years of slavery begins to tick. God, then, miraculously returns Abraham to Haran and his father. At age 75, Abraham receives the command to leave his elderly father and take his family and depart for the Holy Land, which he does. Twenty five years later, at age 100, Isaac is born and the historic clock of 400 years of slavery begins. At age, 175 Abraham dies and is buried in the Holy Land (Gen. 25:7).
This midrashic reading poses some interesting problems and opportunities for reflection. Although the most obvious issue posed by the rabbis is the ethical problem of Abraham abandoning his elderly father, I want to focus my final words on a theological problem that is often missed. Most of us think of Abraham’s journey with God as beginning with God’s command that Abraham leave his father’s house and strike out for a new land that he does not yet know. This feels like a heroic beginning for the protagonist Abraham. In the rabbi’s interpretation, however, the Covenant of the Pieces occurs before the departure for the Holy Land.
Whether the rabbis intended this as a theological move or just as a solution to a biblical “math problem,” reordering the stories does emphasize the centrality of the unbreakable covenant. In other words, if the Covenant of the Pieces predates the lech lecha command, it means that this covenant with Abraham and his descendants has precedence and would have been enforced irrespective of Abraham’s obedience to the command of God to leave his homeland, his birthplace, and his elderly father.
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October 28, 2014
August 27, 2020
Prof. Rabbi David R. Blumenthal is the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Professor Blumenthal is most well known for his books, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest and The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition.
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