What is Midrash? – The Story of Abraham and the Idol Shop

Lesson 1 

1a. Who is Abraham? The Biblical Evidence

כו וַיְחִי-תֶרַח, שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד, אֶת-אַבְרָם, אֶת-נָחוֹר, וְאֶת-הָרָן.

כז וְאֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת תֶּרַח–תֶּרַח הוֹלִיד אֶת-אַבְרָם, אֶת-נָחוֹר וְאֶת-הָרָן; וְהָרָן, הוֹלִיד אֶת-לוֹט.

כח וַיָּמָת הָרָן, עַל-פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתּוֹ, בְּאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים.

כט וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים:  שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה.

ל וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי, עֲקָרָה:  אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד.

לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.

לב וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-תֶרַח, חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח, בְּחָרָן.  {פ}

Genesis 11

24 And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begot Terah. 25 And Nahor lived after he begot Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and begot sons and daughters. {S} 26 And Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these  are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. 29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child.

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran. {P}

Introduction

In this passage, we have a biography of Abraham’s life before his mission to go to Eretz Canaan.

  1. What are your impressions of this biography? What questions does it answers? What does it leave unanswered in your mind? What problems might this biography create?
  2. Look at verse 28, pay attention to the most innocuous character in this passage. We will see him the midrash.
  3. Take notice as well of the words “פני על”, translated as “in the lifetime of” (NJPS), but be aware that it can also be translated as “in the presence of”. We will need this later.

1b. Filling in the biography

In Joshua’s final address, we learn another detail about Abraham’s background.

יהושוע פרק כד

ב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם, תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר; וַיַּעַבְדוּ, אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.  ג וָאֶקַּח אֶת-אֲבִיכֶם אֶת-אַבְרָהָם, מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר, וָאוֹלֵךְ אֹתוֹ, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וארב (וָאַרְבֶּה), אֶת-זַרְעוֹ, וָאֶתֶּן-לוֹ, אֶת-יִצְחָק.

Joshua 24

2 And Joshua said unto all the people: ‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3 And I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac.

A Question

What details does this passage from Joshua add that we did not know from the Genesis passage?

2. Genesis Rabba 38:13

Genesis Rabba is what we call a classical Amoraic Midrash, composed in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Talmuds (3-5 century CE). Its midrashim are largely exegetical, namely, they interpret the verses of Scripture, noting details which will prompt the process of midrash. It is also an anthology, meaning that its midrashim are not the product of a single hand or mind but rather a collection of sometimes disparate ideas and visions.

Those of you who try to work this midrash out in the original, will note that it is composed in both Hebrew and Aramaic (Eretz Yisraeli, of course!) This is because these were the two major Jewish languages in Eretz Yisrael during the time of the Talmud.

Questions to thing about while studying

This particular midrash is cued by something peculiar in the verse quoted at its opening. Try to figure out what it is that prompts it. Remember the 3 steps!

There is also an underlying question which this midrash will be trying to answer, something that apparently irked the rabbis. Try to figure out what is it?

בראשית רבה לח,יג

ג וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו, רבי חייא בר בריה דרב אדא דיפו תרח עובד צלמים היה, חד זמן נפיק לאתר, הושיב לאברהם מוכר תחתיו, הוה אתי בר אינש בעי דיזבן חד והוה א”ל בר כמה שנין את, והוה א”ל בר חמשין או שיתין, והוה א”ל ווי ליה לההוא גברא דהוה בר שיתין, ובעי למסגד לבר יומי, והוה מתבייש והולך לו, חד זמן אתא   איתתא טעינה בידה חדא פינך דסולת, אמרה ליה הא לך קרב קודמיהון, קם נסיב בוקלסא בידיה, ותבריהון לכולהון פסיליא, ויהב בוקלסא בידא דרבה דהוה ביניהון, כיון דאתא אבוה א”ל מאן עביד להון כדין, א”ל מה נכפר מינך אתת חדא איתתא טעינה לה חדא פינך דסולת, ואמרת לי הא לך קריב קודמיהון, קריבת לקדמיהון הוה דין אמר אנא איכול קדמאי, ודין אמר אנא איכול קדמאי, קם הדין רבה דהוה ביניהון נסב

ותברינון, א”ל מה אתה מפלה בי, וידעין אנון, א”ל ולא ישמעו אזניך מה שפיך ומסריה לנמרוד, א”ל נסגוד לנורא, א”ל אברהם ונסגוד למיא דמטפין בוקלסא נסגוד למיא, א”ל אם כן נסגוד לעננא דטעין מיא, א”ל נסגוד לעננא אומר, נסביה לרוחא דמבדר עננא, א”ל נסגוד לרוחא א”ל ונסגוד לבר אינשא נורא, א”ל נמרוד את משתעי אני איני משתחוה אלא לאור, הרי אני משליכך א”ל אם כן נסגוד משתחוה לו ויצילך הימנו, הוה תמן הרן קאים פלוג, אמר דסביל רוחא, א”ל מילין אנא אמר מן דאברהם אנא ואם נצח נמרוד אנא אמר בתוכו, ויבא אלוה שאתה מה נפשך אם נצח אברהם

דנמרוד אנא, כיון שירד אברהם לכבשן האש וניצול, אמרין ליה דמאן את, אמר להון מן
אברהם אנא, נטלוהו והשליכוהו לאור ונחמרו בני מעיו, ויצא ומת על פני תרח אביו,
הה”ד (שם /בראשית/ יא) וימת הרן על פני תרח וגו.’

“And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah” Rabbi Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came in and wished to buy one. ‘How old are you?’ Abraham asked the man. ‘Fifty years old’, was the reply. ‘Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘ you are fifty years old and would worship a day old object.’ On another occasion a woman came in with a plateful of flour and requested him, ‘Take this and offer it to them.’ So he took a stick and broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest.’ When his father returned he demanded, ‘What have you done to them?’ ‘I cannot conceal it from you,’ he rejoined. ‘A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. ‘I cannot conceal it from you, her rejoined, ‘A woman came in with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One  claimed, ‘I must eat first,’ while another claimed, ‘I must eat first.’ Thereupon, the largest arose, took the stick and broke them.’ Why do you make sport of me’ he cried out; ‘have they then any knowledge?’ Should not your ears hear what your mouth has said,’ he retorted. Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship fire, said Nimrod. ‘Let us rather worship water which quenches fire’,  Abraham replied. ‘Let us worship water.’ ‘Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water.’ ‘Let us then worship the clouds.’ ‘Let us worship the wind which disperses the clouds.’ ‘Let us worship the wind.’ ‘Let us worship human beings which can stand up to the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed, ‘ we will worship nothing but the fire.’ Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore       come and save you from it.’ Now Haran was standing three undecided. If Abraham is victorious, [thought he], I will say that I am of Abraham’s belief, while if Nimrod is victorious, I will say that I am on Nimrod’s side.’ When Abraham descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, Nimrod asked him, ‘Of whose belief are you?’ Of Abraham’s, he replied. Thereupon he seized him and cast him into the fire; his inwards were scorched and he died in the presence of his father. Hence it is written, ‘And Haran died in the presence of (al pene) of his father Terah.’

Questions to Ponder

  1. Who is the hero of this midrash? What makes him heroic?
  2. What does his role as hero say about what it means to be a religious Jew?
  3. Why do you think this story is told? What larger question does it come to answer?
  4. Since the story is ostensibly about Abraham (oops), what is the role of Haran in this story? (Think about what you learned about minor characters in Shakespeare when you were in high school.)
  5. What does this say about the Rabbi’s treatment of minor characters in the storyline of the Torah?
  6. Does the second part of the story about the fiery furnace, remind you of a Biblical story? Take a look at Daniel 3:8-33. What is that story about? What did the author of this midrash do with that story? What was his inspiration in the stories of Abraham? (Hint, where does Abraham come from? – Or Casdim [Or– in Hebrew can mean “furnace”] Those rabbis just love puns!
  7. Notice how the passage from Joshua, becomes the grounds for the whole story.
  8. What textual question does the midrash come to resolve? [Hint: Remember what we noted above about the passage from Genesis.]

Something to Ponder

  1. This midrash is known to many of us as a story told to us as children. Is it really a children’s story? What is it coming to teach?
  2. What do you make of Abraham as a religious paradigm from this story?

What Others are Saying

Here you will find the opinions of two Jewish thinkers, Maimonides (the rationalist) and Rabbi Judah Halevi (the poet and non-rationalist philosopher) on whom this midrash had an impact.

Maimonides Mishnah Torah Laws of Idolatry 1:3

3) Once Abraham was weaned, he, as a child, began contemplating and thinking day and night, and wondered how a sphere could follow a fixed path without being directed. If so, who directed it? Surely it would be impossible for it to rotate on its own! Abraham did not have a mentor, but was immersed amongst the stupid idolaters of Ur Casdim, where everyone, including his mother and father, served idols, as did he. In his heart, however, he continued to contemplate, until he realized the way of truth and understood the ways of righteousness from nature, and knew that there is a God who directs the spheres, created the world, and besides whom there is none other. He also knew that the whole world was erring, and knew that what caused the mistake was that they [had] worshiped the stars and figures for so long that the truth had vanished. Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator. Once he achieved this, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him. Abraham also proclaimed that it was fitting to break and destroy all the figures, so that nobody will err on account of them, like those who imagined that there is no God except for their idols did. Since people were listening to him, the king, Nimrod, sought to kill him, but a miracle was performed for Abraham, and he went to Haran, where he got up and proclaimed to the whole world that there is just one God in the world, whom it is fitting to worship. He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, “…and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God”. Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person [in a way] so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him.

Rabbi Judah Halevi – Kuzari 1:95

There were some, however, among them who did not come under divine influence, as Terah, but his son Abraham was the disciple of his grandfather Eber, and was born in the lifetime of Noah. Thus the divine spirit descended from the grandfather to the grandchildren. Abraham represented the essence of Eber, being his disciple, and for this reason he was called Ibri. Eber represented the essence of Shem, the latter that of Noah. He inherited the temperate zone, the centre and principal part of which is Palestine, the land of prophecy…An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage. This is how we regard Terah and others in whom the divine afflatus was not visible, though, to a certain extent, it underlay his natural disposition, so that he begat a descendant filled with the essence, which was not the case with all the posterity of Ham and Japhet. We perceive a similar phenomenon in nature at large. Many people do not resemble their father, but take after their grand-fathers.

Questions

What is the difference between Maimonides’ Abraham and Halevi’s Abraham?

Some Conclusions – Lesson 1

The discussion for the first lesson has been very impressive. Yashar Koah!

As I have noted in one of my responses, please remember that midrash is a textually based discipline. It is interpretative in one way or another, so it is always important to note its textual basis or jumping off point. None textually based lore in the Jewish tradition is known as “agaddah”. As many of you have shown in your correspondence. The textual jumping off point for our midrash involved the verse about Haran. Here we have an obscure character, amongst a list of other such characters, who is singled out with an added biographical detail – his premature death. The midrash uses this as a jumping off point.

There is a larger question looming over the discussion. Abraham, the founder of the tradition does not have a very meaty biography. The question is bound to arise among the readers of the Torah’s account – Why did God choose this guy? Consequently, answers must be found for this question.

Our midrash attempts to face this question. Who is Abraham in this midrash? He is an iconoclast – an idol buster – one firm in the conclusions he has come to. He is someone who is unafraid to confront others with his faith – his truth. He is the “man of faith.” This differentiates him from his father, his environs. It makes him different from his “foil” – Haran – the everyman – who chooses his ideology opportunistically. This is what makes him a hero. This is what makes him someone God should choose.

The second part of the story – Abraham vs. Nimrod has elements borrowed from other stories in order to interpret the name of Abraham’s hometown – Ur Casdim. Since Ur can mean “furnace”, it lends itself to placing Abraham in a story similar to the one in which Daniel’s friends are found. Their faith is tested by being thrown into the fiery furnace – so here is Abraham’s faith tested in the same way. Haran, of course, falls short in this respect and faces the heat. People are sometimes pained by Haran’s fate, but remember in terms of the Torah’s plot, his fate is the one given. Also, the story line wants us to know that equivocators are not rewarded.

Maimonides and Halevi are doing midrash on midrash. Maimonides reworks this story to fit his rationalist theology. He makes Abraham in his own image. Halevi who thinks that prophecy is an inherited quality looks at this story and must explain how Abraham is a prophet who has the truth. He does this with his story of the trait skipping a generation. The contrast between these two thinkers and their interpretations illustrates for us how much interpretation in both exegetical (reading out) and eisegetical (reading in).

Go to Next Class – The Slaying of Abel By Cain

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