Shem to Abraham
“There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham. This demonstrates how patient God is, for all the generations kept provoking Him, until the Patriarch Abraham came and received the reward of them all” (Avos 5:2). The cycle was repeated. There had been ten generations from Adam to Noah, giving mankind the opportunity to fulfill its responsibility to carry out the plan of Creation. They failed, and the Flood wiped them away. Then the mission of humanity fell to Noah and his offspring. The next ten generations failed as well, but this time Abraham was able to prevent destruction. So great was he and so concerned with helping others that he was able to save the world. Simultaneously, he assumed the role that had previously been that of the entire race: He and his offspring would be the people of God and bear the primary responsibility for bringing the Divine plan to fruition. The children of Noah would be left with the seven universal commandments, but Abraham’s would accept the Torah with its 613 commandments.
11:10 “…the descendants of Shem:..” – Shem’s genealogy is repeated now with the emphasis on the descent of Abraham. The account of the years from creation to Noah to Abraham was given to enable us to calculate the age of the world, and thus clarify that the world came into existence as a creation of God at a definite point in time before which there was a total vacuum.
11:11 “..he begot sons and daughters.” – According to Sforno, the deaths of these generations are not mentioned as are those of the generations preceding Noah because all of those died prior to the major historical event of the era – The Flood. The forebears of these generations, however, were all still alive when the major event of their era occurred – the emergence of Abraham, who excelled all others in proclaiming the greatness of God and leading people to His service through his kindness.
Chronology of the Generations (Seder Olam)
- Shem: 1558 – 2158
- Arpachshad: 1658 – 2096
- Shelah: 1693 – 2126
- Eber: 1723 – 2187
- Peleg: 1757 – 1996
- Reu: 1787 – 2026
- Serug: 1819 – 2049
- Nahor: 1849 – 1997
- Terach: 1878 – 2083
- Abraham: 1948 – 2123
11:19 With Peleg, we see a dramatic shortening of the average lifespan early cut in half from his immediate ancestor’s lifespan of approximately 450 years to approximately 230 years.
11:26 “… he begot Abram..” – Abraham was worthy of being created before Adam, but God reasoned: He may sin and there will be none after him to set it right. Therefore I will create Adam, so that if he sins, Abraham will come and set it right. (Midrash 14:6)
Why did Shem and Eber not influence people to destroy their idols? It may be that they protested against idols, but the people merely hid them. Abram, however, destroyed the idols. Alternatively, Shem and Eber lived in Canaan where they taught the way of God while Abram’s activity against idols was in Babel. When Abram came to Canaan, he excelled Shem and Eber by actively traversing the land and preaching that the people repent.
11:27 Only Haran is mentioned as having children. Nahor did not beget children until much later and Abram’s wife was barren (verse 30). Lot is introduced here as Haran’s son because subsequent to his father’s death he accompanied Abram, and would later play an important role in the narrative. Harlan’s daughters are mentioned in verse 29.
11:28 “..Haran died in the presence of Terach..” – Rashi notes that according to the Midrashic interpretation, that Haran died ‘because of his father’. The Midrash relates that Terach had complained to Nimrod because Abraham had crushed his idols and he had him thrown into a fiery furnace. Haran, who was present, could not decide with whom to side, and was prepared to join whoever emerged victorious. When Abraham was miraculously saved from the fiery furnace, Haran was asked to declare himself. He replied that he sided with Abraham, whereupon, he was thrown into the furnace. His innards were seared and he emerged from the furnace and died in his father’s presence. He was unworthy of a miracle since he was willing to defy Nimrod only because he fully expected to duplicate Abraham’s miracle.
Note: Abram’s father, Terach, was a dealer in idols. One day he fell ill and asked Abram to tend the business. Abram, who recognized Hashem when he was only three years old, asked his mother to prepare food. He took it to the room filled with idols as if waiting for them to reach out for it. Then he took a hammer and smashed all the idols except for the largest. When he finished, he put the hammer in the hand of the one remaining idol.
Terach, hearing the commotion, came running. Seeing the carnage, he demanded to know what happened. Abram answered innocently, ‘The small idols took food before the big one. He was angered by their lack of manners and shattered them all!’.
Terach raged, ‘You lie. The idols are dead. They cannot eat or move!’
‘In that case,’ Abram answered, ‘why do you worship them?’.
The result of Abram’s brave denunciations of idolatry was that Nimrod cast him into the furnace from which he was miraculously saved. Ramban asks why so great a miracle is not mentioned in the Torah. His reply will be discussed later in this study of Genesis.
“Ur Kasdim” – (Ur of the Chaldeans) Rashi explains that Ur Kasdim as meaning the fires of Kasdim. It was so called on account of the miracle by which Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace.
11:29 “And Abram and Nahor took..” When Haran died, his brothers Abraham and Nahor, married his daughters to carry on his memory and to ease Terach’s grief.
‘Sarai” Her name was later changed to Sarah (17:15). Just as Abram’s change of name signified a new and greater role for him, so did Sarai’s.
“Milcah” Nahor’s wife is mentioned to establish the ancestry of Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (24:15) (Ibn Ezra).
“..the father of Iscah.” Isaac was Sarah. She was called Iscah (from the word meaning to see, gaze) because she could see the future by holy inspiration, and because everyone gazed at her beauty. Also, Iscah denotes aristocracy, as does her name Sarai, which means my princess.
Maharal explains a fundamental principle in understanding Torah. He raises the question that it would have been more appropriate to allude to Sarah’s greatness in prophecy in Genesis 21:12 where God told Abraham to obey Sarah because, as Rashi comments there, her powers of prophesy were superior even to Abraham’s.
Maharal further explains that the Torah can be understood on many different levels, and it makes no attempt to deliver its great intellectual explanations to readers incapable of understanding them. The scholar will understand the allusion to Sarah’s prophetic spirit in the name Iscah while others are free to assume that Iscah was a different person. No matter how much the Torah makes plain, there will still be profound mysteries hidden within its words.
He comments further that a woman has two missions in life as if she were born twice; the first is hers from birth as an individual, while the second comes with marriage when, if she marries a righteous person, she is elevated to a higher mission.
Sarah’s two names indicate her two missions; one is used in connection with her father and the other in connection with her husband. “Iscah”, the name indicating personal greatness, was Sarah’s for her own mission and it is the one used in telling of her birth to Haran. “Sarah”, indicating that she joined Abraham in leading the world to its ultimate goal, was the name associated with the Abrahamitic mission and it is used from the time of her marriage.
11:31 “..his grandson, Lot..” – Terach took Lot along because Haran had died and Lot was now dependent upon his grandfather.
“..to the land of Canaan;” – Although God had not specified which land to move to, Abraham chose Canaan as his destination because it was the most acceptable of the lands; its climate had not been adversely affected by the Flood as was that of other lands, and it had the greatest potential for spiritual development (Sforno).
“..They came as far as Charan, they settled there.” – Although Terach had originally intended to go as far as Canaan, he could not bring himself to abandon his land entirely. He therefore settled in Charan, which was near the border of Canaan so he could be in close proximity to Abraham.
Ramban explains that from the moment Abraham was miraculously saved from the furnace, Terach and Abraham intended to flee to Canaan, away from Nimrod. When they reached Charan, where their ancestors had always lived they settled there among their family. Abarbanel explains that Nimrod’s dominion did not extend over Charan. It was there that Abraham was commanded to go to the land of Canaan, and so he left his father, who later died in Charan, his native land.
11:32 “..and Terach died..” – In the year 2083; Isaac was thirty-five years old at the time.
Based on various verses, Rashi comments that Terach died more than sixty years after Abraham’s departure from Charan. Nevertheless, Terach’s death is recorded here to avoid the public implication that Abraham disrespectfully abandoned his father in his old age. In another sense, the report of Terach’s death is accurate. The Sages teach that even while alive, the wicked are called dead; and the righteous, even when dead, are called alive. Thus, in the spiritual sense, the wicked Terach was truly ‘dead’.
Ramban comments that it is common for the Torah to record a father’s death before proceeding with the narrative of the son, even though the death occurred many years later, for the Torah records a person’s death when his role is over, Thus, Noah’s death was recorded above, even though he was still alive at the time of the Dispersion.
In a deeper sense, Maharal explains that Abraham was uniquely absolved from the commandment to honor his father because the commandment to him to leave his family and go to Eretz Israel (12:1) inaugurated a new sort of existence on earth. Abraham had ceased to be part of his biological family, for the mantle of ‘chosenness’ had been placed upon him. In this sense, his previous family and homeland had gone out of his life, as if Terach had died.