God’s Call to Abraham
Verse 1 is one of the ten trials of faith which God tested Abram, all of which Abram withstood. The commentators differ on the precise identity of the ‘ten trials’, for more than ten incidents in Abram’s life could be so designated.
According to Avos d’Rabbi Nosson 33 he was tested:
- Twice when he had to move (once here, and again in verse 10 when, after God’s glowing promise of a good life in Canaan, Abram was forced to go to Egypt in the face of a famine);
- Twice in connection with his two sons (the difficult decision to heed Sarah’s insistence that he drive away Ishmael (21:10) and second, in the supreme test of binding his beloved son Isaac to the altar in preparation to sacrifice him (22:1-2);
- Twice with his two wives (when Sarah was taken from him to Pharaoh’s palace (12:15); and when he was required to drive Hagar from his home (21:10). (An alternate interpretation includes the banishment of Hagar with that of Ishmael as a single test. In its place among the list of the trials is the abduction of Sarah to the palace of Abimelech 20-2);
- Once, on the occasion of his war with the kings (14:14);
- Once, at the Covenant between the Parts (15:7) when he was told that his descendants would be enslaved and exiled for four hundred years);
- Once, in Ur Kaskim (when he was thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod); and
- Once, at the covenant of Circumcision (17:9) (which was an unprecedented act and, at his advanced age, a dangerous operation).
12:1 “..to the land that I will show you” – In order to keep him in suspense and thereby make the destination more beloved in his eyes, God did not specify it at the time of the command. God also wished to reward him for every step he took.
Midrash Tanchuma adds that having Abram embark on a journey and withholding the identity of the goal made the trial even more difficult. It called for unqualified devotion, and it carried with it much greater reward. As Malbim explains – It is less of a hardship for one to relocate if he knows his destination. It was already Abram’s intention to head toward Canaan, and had God revealed His will that Canaan was, indeed the final destination, his journey would not have proven selfless devotion to the will of God.
12:2 “..I will make of you a great nation;” – Rashi notes that God gave Abraham the assurances in this verse to reassure him regarding three detrimental results usually caused by travel: it diminishes the possibility of having children; it diminishes one’s wealth; and it lessens one’s renown (because while traveling one cannot easily perform deeds deserving of fame (Maharzu). Abraham therefore needed these three blessings: God promised him children, wealth, and fame.
“I will bless you,” – This interpretation is based on the Midrash. The basis for the relationship between ‘blessing’ and ‘wealth’ may be the verse in Proverbs 10:22: “The blessings of Hashem makes one rich…” which is interpreted to mean that a blessing, unless its nature is otherwise specified, is assumed to make one rich – “prospering in God”.
“and make your name great,” – The Midrash explains that this promise of greatness meant that Abraham’s coinage would be accepted throughout the world like that of the greatest kings, a distinction held by only four persons: Abraham, Joshua, David, and Mordechai.
“and you shall be a blessing.” – According to Rashi, following the Midrash, the meaning is: the power of blessing will be in your hand and you will bless whomever you wish – you shall become the synonym of ‘blessing’.
Is there a greater blessing for a father than that his name and memory should remain upon the lips and hearts of his descendants for all time?
12:3 “I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you..” – “Those” who bless you are in the pural: “him” who curses you is in the singular for they will be few. (Ibn Ezra)
Ramban discusses the connotation of God’s blessings to Abraham in these verses. Touching upon a theme from his commentary to 11:28 Ramban notes that before recording God’s promise to Abraham that he would be totally provided for, the Torah should have explained that Abraham was deserving because of his righteousness and love of God (or by recounting his miraculous salvation from the furnace of Kasdim thanks to his total faith and self-sacrifice.) Obviously, the rewards are too great and unprecedented to be accounted for simply because Abraham left his native land. We must seek the guidance of the Oral Tradition to justify them.
Ramban continues that the intent of the verses may be that God would now compensate Abraham for the suffering and evil perpetrated upon him by wicked people of Kasdim. God would establish Abraham in Canaan where he could worship God and proclaim His greatness. Then those who formerly abused and cursed him would appreciate his greatness and bless themselves by him. The Torah, however, did not provide us explicitly with this background in order not to elaborate on the opinions of idolators in their controversies with Abraham regarding issues of faith, just as it dealt only briefly with the sinfulness of the generations of Enosh (4:26) and their innovations in instituting idolatry.
12:4 “…and Lot went with him.” – Since Lot’s father, Haran, had died in Ur Kasdim for having sided with Abraham, the orphaned Lot remained in the care of his uncle, Abraham.
According to the Midrash, there was anger in heaven against our father Abraham when he asked his nephew Lot to leave his company. “He makes everyone cleave to Me,’ said God, ‘yet he does not make his nephew cleave to Me!’
Why then did Abraham show compassion for Lot? Because he foresaw that David and the Messiah were destined to descend from him, so he took him along. Also, because it was in defense of Abraham that Haran was killed, and Lot orphaned. Lot was his brother’s son and his wife’s brother, and Abraham showed compassion, but God was nevertheless displeased. The compassion was misplaced.
12:5 “Abram took his wife Sarai..” – ‘Took’ means that he persuaded her to accompany him, with soothing, gentle words, because a man is not permitted to take his wife with him to another country without her consent. He therefore persuaded her pointing out to her the evil deeds of their contemporaries.
“and the people they had acquired (made)..) – This refers to those whom they had converted to the true faith and brought under the ‘wings of the Shechinah’, for Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women. They (the converts) are therefore regarded as though they (Abraham and Sarah) had ‘made’ them. This explains the plural form: they had made, for both Abraham and Sarah had roles to play in the conversions (Midrash). The verse, as it is written, is to teach you that he who brings near to God and converts him is as though he had created them.
12:6 “..through the land to a place called Shechem..” – Rashi comments that Abraham went to Shechem in anticipation of the future, in order to pray in behalf of Jacob’s sons, who would one day fight against Shechem.
In addition to the reason given by Rashi, that he prayed for his grandchildren, Abraham’s encampment there (even before the promise of verse 7 that he would be given the land) was an indication that Shechem would be the first place to be conquered by his descendants (the sons of Jacob, 34:25) even before they would merit full possession of the land, an event that was not to take place for about another three hundred years later. For this reason it states that the Canaanites were then in the land, (to indicate that he symbolically took possession even though they were not yet ousted.) From there he journeyed and encamped between Beth-El and Ai, the latter being the first place conquered by Joshua (by use of the sword. The fall of Jericho was with the aid of a miracle.) The story of the Patriarchs will be filled with such symbolism. (Review the Overview on the Patriarchs.)
Radak points out that the significance of including the information in the narrative is to let us know God’s miracles. Abraham, a stranger, sojourned in the land with his family, herds of cattle, and ‘souls’ he made in Charan – an imposing entourage. His cattle would graze in strange areas and his people would require sustenance. But, although the Canaanites were then in the land, they did not harm him – a miracle.
Abraham is told by God to leave his home and family with the promise that he will be blessed and a great nation will spring forth from him. The trial is great and he journeys to Canaan, as his inner spirit guides him. He tours the land, awaiting a divine word, a sign, but all the Torah tells is ‘the Canaanites were then in the land’. The land would not be Abraham’s for the taking. What of God’s promise? Others were living in the land! – But Abraham’s faith was not shaken. When God’s promise is communicated to him in the following verse, Abraham does not doubt for a moment that his children will, indeed, inherit the land.
Ramban, on the other hand, sees this reference as alluding to the fear felt by Abraham when he saw the Canaanites, that bitter and impetuous nation dwelling there. Abraham needed God’s assurances in the following verse, after which he built an altar to God and worshipped him openly and fearlessly.
Additionally, this detail prefaces why Abraham found it necessary to move on again after God had appeared to him. The Canaanites were there, and engaged in battle, and Abraham felt it necessary to keep moving (Bertinoro).
There is something further implicit here: The Canaanites were then in the land, but in the future they will not be there. That is why in the very next verse he is promised ‘to your seed will I give this land’.
12:7 “Hashem appeared to Abram..” – Hashem made Himself visible to Abram: The stress is strongly on this visibility. The expression states that, not only was the Voice of God heard, but God Himself, so to speak, appeared, emerging from invisibility to visibility; revealing Himself. This is of far reaching importance because the Torah thereby specifically refutes the view of those who deny actual revelations and consider them products of human imagination and ecstasy. The means by which God spoke to human beings is an eternal mystery. It is enough to recognize that He did indeed speak and reveal Himself to them in some tangible way (Hirsch).
The commentators also point out previously, that outside the Land, Abraham had heard only the divine voice. When he arrived in the land that was destined to be dedicated to the service of God, he was given the additional privilege of a Divine vision, the nature of which is not described. This occurred in the year 2023 – after the first two millennia from the time of creation. Then began the period leading up to the giving of the Torah. Only then did God reveal Himself to the Patriarchs of the nation to whom He would give His Torah.
Since God appeared to him there, Abraham knew that it was a site worthy of an altar. He built an altar and offered upon it a sacrifice to give thanks that God had appeared to him. This was the first time God had appeared to him in any form of prophetic vision. The command to leave his home came to him in a nocturnal dream or through the Holy Spirit…..And he thus showed his gratitude for having been privileged to reach a level of prophetic vision.
12:8 “From there he relocated..” – He chose the hill country to escape the battles that were raging throughout the country at the time (Arbarbanel; Malbim). Sforno suggests that he worked also to situate himself between two cities so that many people would come and hear him call upon the name of Hashem.
“..and he built an altar..) – He prophetically perceived that his descendants would stumble there through Achan’s transgression (see Joshua, Chapter 7), he therefore prayed for them. (Rashi) His prayer proved indispensible. As the Talmud, Sanhedrin 44b comments: “One should always offer up prayer before misfortune comes; for had not Abraham anticipated trouble and prayers between Bethel and Ai, there would not have remained of Israel’s sinners (at the battle of Ai in the days of Joshua) a single survivor.
Ramban elaborates further, interpreting that Abraham publicly proclaimed Hashem’s Name before the altar, teaching people to know God and recognize His Presence. In Ur Kasdim he did the same but they refused to listen. Now, however, after arriving in the land concerning which God promised him “I will bless them that bless you” (v3), he made it his practice to teach of Hashem and proclaim His Majesty.
12:9 The Torah does not specify the exact reason for Abraham’s moving on. Perhaps the Canaanite civil war (Chapter 14) reached the vicinity of Ai…or perhaps having proclaimed God’s Name publicly and thus drawing many supporters, Abraham’s preaching was sought by others who thirsted for God’s Word, influencing him to move on to other areas, spending a short time in each to further spread the true faith.
Abram in Egypt – Immediately after Abram settled in Canaan, God forced him to undergo a new trial. Famine compelled him to leave the Land and move to Egypt. There Sarai was put at risk – but Hashem saved her from Pharaoh, and she returned safely to Canaan with her family. There, at the very same altar that he had built in Bethel before going to Egypt, Abraham proclaimed the Name of Hashem demonstrating that, though sorely tried, his faith in God was undiminished.
The Midrash comments that God said to Abraham: ‘Go forth and tread out a path for your children.’ Thus you find that whatever is written in connection with Abraham foreshadowed the future.
Abraham went down to Egypt to sustain himself during a famine, the Egyptians oppressed him and attempted to rob him of his wife for which God punished them with great plagues; Abraham was then loaded with gifts and Pharaoh even ordered his men to see that he left the country safely.
Similarly, his descendants went down to Egypt because of a famine; the Egyptians oppressed them with the intention of eventually taking their wives from them, this being the purpose of Pharaoh’s edict to spare the daughters (Exodus 1:22). They were to be spared for immoral purposes. However, it is clearly implied from Scripture and explained by the Sages that Israel maintained its morality. But God avenged them by inflicting great plagues, and He brought them forth with great wealth, as the Egyptians finally pressed them to leave the country.
12:10 “There was famine in the land..” – This was one of the ten trials; it was the first famine that had ever occurred since Creation, and its purpose was to test whether Abraham would protest God’s justice. For Abraham had followed God’s command scrupulously: he left his father, his relatives, and his native land and went to Canaan where he had received God’s blessings. Yet, scarcely upon his arrival there, he was forced to leave it. One might have expected him to doubt God; but instead he went down to Egypt to sojourn there. Egypt was not affected by famines because it is irrigated by the Nile and its fertility is not dependent upon rain water.
12:11 As they drew nearer to their destination, certain realizations and apprehensions surfaced in Abraham’s mind. As Sforno notes, Egypt was known for its immorality. Abarbanel points out that Abraham was only a sojourner, and at the mercy of the Egyptians who might lust after his wife and do away with him.
Ramban suggests that Abraham grew fearful because they were approaching a royal city where it was the custom to bring a very beautiful woman to the king and, if he was pleased with her, to slay her husband through some contrived charge.
12:12 “then they will kill me,” – The commentators ask: If both murder and adultery are prohibited, is it not out of place to think that the Egyptians would commit the crime of murder in order to avoid the crime of adultery? Why wouldn’t they spare Abraham and simply take Sarah away from him? The commentators explain that Abraham was convinced that the immoral Egyptians would rationalize and decide that it is better to murder once, thereby freeing a woman from her husband, then it was to let him live and commit countless acts of adultery with his still married wife. Abraham further feared that if they murdered him, she would remain without a protector. Therefore, at all costs, he must remain alive.
“they will keep you alive.” – A euphemism!! They will keep you alive for a fate worse than death (Hirsch).
12:13 “Please say that you are my sister,” – Was she then his sister? She was his brother’s daughter (11:29). But a man often calls his kinswoman ‘sister’. (Midrash haGadol)
Ramban suggests that it would seem from the literal meaning of the verses that Sarah did not consent to describe herself as Abraham’s sister, but that it was Abraham who gave the information (verse 19). She was taken to Pharaoh without being asked about her relationship to Abraham, and she offered no information. Therefore, when her identity was discovered, Pharaoh blamed only Abraham for the deception. But Pharaoh directed no accusation against Sarah, for it was proper that she not contradict her husband, but instead remain silent.
Abraham’s choice of deception instead of fighting to protect Sarah was not a resignation of his responsibility for her safety. On the contrary, he knew full well that were he to be killed defending her – as would have been a virtual certainly – then her own plight would have been hopeless. She would have been at the mercy of the depraved Egyptians.
12:14 “with Abram’s coming to Egypt..” – Note that only Abraham is mentioned as coming into Egypt. In a verse where Sarah is clearly of prime concern and she certainly should have been mentioned along with Abraham, unlike many of the previous verses where it sufficed to mention Abraham alone as the head of the family, Rashi cites the tradition that Abraham had hidden Sarah in a trunk. She was discovered when it was opened by the customs officials to assess the duty to be paid.
Rashi’s explanation is based on the Midrash: Where was Sarah? He had locked her in a chest. When he came to the customs house the officer demanded that Abraham pay the custom duties. Abraham agreed. ‘You carry garments in that box’, he said. ‘Then I will pay the duty on garments’, Abraham replied: ‘You are carrying silks’, he asserted. ‘I will pay on silks’, Abraham replied. But the officer grew suspicious and insisted that Abraham open the chest so he could personally inspect the contents. As soon as he opened it the land of Egypt was irradiated with her beauty. Sefer haYashar notes that putting Sarah into the chest was Abraham’s additional scheme in addition to his brother-sister plan, to minimize Sarah’s exposure at all cost.
12:15 Midrash Tanchuma records that when Abraham saw his wife being taken he wept and prayed and so did Sarah. God answered that nothing would befall either of them, and further, He would make an example of Pharaoh and his household (verse 17).
12:16 “He treated Abram well for her sake,” – The Talmud derives a moral lesson from the word – for her sake – indicating that prosperity in the home as well as the blessings of home life are dependent upon the wife. It homiletically perceives God (not Pharaoh) as the implied subject and source of the goodness described on account of his wife, as it is written: “and he dealt well with Abram for her sake.”
Later Abraham vehemently refused to accept anything from the king of Sodom (14:23, even though he rightfully deserved a reward for having come to the Sodomite king’s aid), while here he accepted many valuable gifts from Pharaoh. This apparent inconsistency must be viewed in the context of Abraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister and the implication that he would allow her to marry a suitable person. Had he refused gifts, he would have aroused Pharaoh’s suspicions. (Hoffman)
“…slaves and maidservants..” – Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah wrote: Because of Pharaoh’s love fore Sarah he wrote her a document giving her his wealth – in silver, gold, manservants, and land. He also gave her the land of Goshen as a possession. Therefore, the children of Israel later dwelt in the land of Goshen (47:27), which belonged to our mother Sarah. He also gave her Hagar, his daughter from a concubine, as her handmaid.
As the Midrash (45:1) comments: When Pharaoh saw what was done on Sarah’s behalf to his own house (next verse), he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying: ‘Better let my daughter be a handmaid in this house than a mistress in another house.’
12:17 “Hashem afflicted Pharaoh..” – Rashi explains that Pharaoh was smitten with the plague of raathan (a debilitating skin disease) which makes cohabitation impossible. This plague assured that Sarah’s chastity would be safeguarded from Pharaoh. The others in his household were afflicted with other plagues and according to the Midrash, Sarah herself was the only one in the palace complex not afflicted. This is what led Pharaoh to question whether Sarah was indeed unmarried.
The night that Pharaoh was afflicted (with a plague that forced him to free Sarah) was (what would later be) the night of Passover. This paralleled how God would later greatly afflict the Egyptians to force them to free the children of Israel.
(This, then, is yet another example of ‘whatever happened to the Patriarchs is an indication of what would happen to their children’.)
..because of Sarai, the wife of Abram.” – The literal Hebrew translation of ‘because of’ is ‘by the word of’. This follows the Midrash which interprets ‘by the word of Sarai’ as: ‘by the prayer of Sarai’ or ‘by the order of Sarai’.
All of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face crying, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth from his land on Your assurance while I went forth with blind faith: Abraham is without this prison while I am within!’ God answered her, ‘Whatever I do, I do for your sake and all will declare “It is because of Sarai, Abram’s wife”.’
Rav Levi said: That entire night an angel stood, whip in hand. When she ordered, ‘Strike!’ (i.e. inflict him) he struck, and when she ordered, ‘Desist!’, he desisted. Why was Pharaoh punished? Because she had told him she was a married woman, yet he would not leave her. Furthermore, the Zohar adds that with each blow the angel said, ‘this is because of Sarai who is Abram’s wife!’ On learning that she was indeed Abram’s wife, Pharaoh immediately called for Abram.
“..wife of Abram” – This verse comes to teach us that although Sarah gave the others the impression she was Abraham’s sister, to Pharaoh (as noted above) she revealed the truth thinking that the king would never stoop so low as to defile her if she told him she was a married woman. But she was wrong; he would not heed her, saying that she was telling him this merely to put him off. Therefore, God punished him with a debilitating skin disease which prevented any contact between the two.
12:18 Pharaoh pondered upon this strange and sudden outbreak of disease, which coincided with the time Sarah was taken to his house. He suspected that Sarah was telling him the truth and the plague was indeed associated with her so he called Abraham and accused him. He was not certain she was his wife but he made the accusations in order to draw the truth from Abraham (Ramban).
12:19 So, why did Abraham not answer Pharaoh – as he later did to Abimelech under similar circumstances (20:11,12) – and justify his actions by expressing his fears and explaining that, as his niece, she could truthfully be called his ‘sister’?
Abraham knew that he should not run the risk of further provoking the king’s anger by engaging him in conversation. He did as the king told him: he took his wife and possessions and departed. Compare this to the exchange in Chapter 20 where Abimelech conversed with Abraham and did not immediately permit him to leave. There, Abraham did respond to the king.
Furthermore, Pharaoh’s order to ‘take her and go’ presents a striking parallel: As pointed out several times, the entire episode of Abraham in Egypt – when a successor of Pharaoh would say to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 12:32) ‘take..and go’.
12:20 “..and all that was his.” – Pharaoh let them leave with all their property intact. He did not even suggest that Abraham had taken the gifts under false pretenses and should therefore return them.
That he did not do so was one of the greatest miracles of the entire incident (Ramban).
It was thus God’s providential Mercy that not only did Pharaoh not punish Abraham, or even take back his gifts, but that Pharaoh was so afraid of incurring further punishment from God, that he even had his men escort Abraham and Sarah lest anyone molest them (Malbim). It was also at this time that Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah as a maidservant.
Abarbanel summaries that among the moral lessons to be learned from the entire incident is that there are many plans in a man’s heart, but it is the purpose of Hashem that shall prevail (Proverbs 19:21. Witness the course of events: Abraham planned to escape a famine by fleeing to Egypt and save his wife with his scheme. But events did not work out quite as he had planned, and in a short time he found fimself back in Canaan, sustained for the balance of the famine by the generosity of God “Whose eye is upon those who fear Him, upon those who hope in His loving kindness’ (Proverbs 33:18..)