The Mishpucha (Family)
As has been seen from the beginning of the human history in the Torah, the family unit is very significant. We enter the Abraham narrative through his family. Who were his forefathers? Who were his immediate family? And why is all of this so important? If we assume that no one comes out of a vacuum, the ground from which he grew should give us some valuable information about the person. Since the focus here is on those secondary characters that surrounded Abraham, let’s look at the picture from a different angle: Who were these people and how did they react to Abraham and his ideas?
View the introductory video below:
Part I: Bereshit (Genesis) 11: 10-32
As we read through this section we are struck by the trouble that the Torah took to give the family tree. The lineage here makes it possible to trace the people at the heart of the Abraham narrative all the way to Adam – the father of humanity.
Why is the family chain so important? Who are the most important links in this chain?
The family tree is given in general terms until Terah, and in great detail from that point onward. To keep track of the family, I suggest that you spend a moment and draw up a family tree. Keep it. We are not done with them yet. The idea of the significance of Mishpucha (=family, as extended as possible) is not a modern invention.
As you look at the family tree, pay attention to the marriage of Nahor. What might it teach us?
Was it a way to take care of an orphaned daughter who might lack status or funds to make her a desirable bride? Was it a way of ensuring a good blood line? Could it tell us something about how the family felt towards the community that lived around them? Should we read future marriage of relatives as being based on the same considerations?
The genealogy story comes to a halt with v. 30 – Sarah is barren, she does not have a child. What is the significance of this statement?
The Torah is not in the habit of providing facts that do not have a deeper relevance. Look at the context in which this is told – genealogy. The statement creates a threat: Will the family come to an end here? We are not informed about Nahor’s children (at this point) and Abraham seems to be in a hopeless situation. Will the line carry on through the children of the dead brother Haran, while the living brothers are childless? The question of heirs will run throughout the Abraham narrative.
Where is Ur Casdim (Ur of the Chaldeans) located?
It might be the well known city of Ur in south-east Mesopotamia. (http://www.rivervalleycivilizations.com/tigris-euphrates.php will give you a map that is reasonably clear.) This identification might raise a technical question since the texts (starting from biblical texts such as Josh 24:2) seem to suggest that Abraham’s family came from ‘beyond the River’(the River =Euphrates). But perhaps that reference is either an indication of the great distance that they traveled, or a reference to the location of Haran. Keep this in mind when reading Nachmanides – Ramban (next section) and remember that he did not have archeology at his disposal. As to the mention of the Chaldeans, that is probably an anachronism.
Back to reading Bereshit carefully: (Some of these questions may not have clear answers or any answer at all, but are still worth thinking about.)
Who was at Ur of the Chaleans, and what were they doing there?
Who initiates leaving Ur of the Chaldeans?
What might have instigated the decision to leave?
Ramban (in part II) will bring you the rabbinic answer to this question, but first try to piece together a picture of the events by yourself.
Why do they stop at Haran – חרן ?
(In Hebrew this is spelled with a Chet – a guttural letter, while Abraham’s brother’s name starts with Heh, making the H sound.)
How long are they there?
Abraham’s birthplace becomes important in 12:1.
Where was Abraham’s birthplace?
As the chapter on Abraham’s “father’s home” comes to a close, we are told that Terah died at the age of 205 years.
How old is Abraham when Terah dies?
Check the math using 12:4 and draw a timeline of Terah’s life, including events of his descendants for which dates/ages are given.
What have you discovered about the Torah’s story-telling method?
(If you want to peak, here are some things to keep in mind:
Terah is 70 – Abraham is born
Terah is 145 – At 75 Abraham leaves Haran (Terah was 70 at Abraham’s birth +Abraham’s 75 at leaving Haran.)
Terah 205 – dies, 60 years without Abraham, who is now 135. (Isaac is 35.)
Interestingly, Isaac marries his cousin once-removed (Rebecca) only after grandpa dies.
Was Terah a hindrance, or was the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca a sign of a desire to keep the family ties also after the common link was gone?
Part II: Other Sources
Now let’s begin by considering how Abraham was perceived by later biblical characters, in this case Joshua:
יהושע פרק כד
(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל כָּל הָעָם כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים. (ג) וָאֶקַּח אֶת אֲבִיכֶם אֶת אַבְרָהָם מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר וָאוֹלֵךְ אוֹתוֹ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וָאַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעוֹ וָאֶתֶּן לוֹ אֶת יִצְחָק:
2 And Joshua said to all the people: ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River*, 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.
* The River referred to in the Tanakh without a specific name is the Euphrates River.
This section may be familiar to some of you as part of the text that is the basis for the Haggada of Passover (the telling of the story of the exodus). It is the opening to the covenant that Joshua initiates at the end of his life.
After reading the text from the book of Joshua, consider the following:
How is the pre-Abraham period perceived in the book of Joshua?
What kind of background did Abraham have from home?
Who are Terah’s children? Who is missing? Why?
How is Nahor perceived?
Where did the family come from?
And here are some questions and ideas raised by medieval commentators, often based on earlier Midrash material:
Ibn Ezra Genesis 11:32
אבן עזרא בראשית שיטה אחרת –פרק יא פסוק לב
(לב) ואמר “וימת תרח בחרן” – אף על פי שלא מת רק אחר צאת אברהם מחרן כמו ששים שנה. להשלים ענינו כי כן דרך המקרא:
And it said “and Terah died in Haran” despite that he did not die [now] but rather only after Abraham had exited Haran some 60 years [earlier]; to complete the topic, for that is the way of the bible.
What problem in our story disturbed the medieval Spanish exegete Ibn Ezra? (I should mention that he was a mathematician.)
To grasp what he is speaking about, return to the family tree and to all the dates that you have collected (or are collecting, including those from the beginning of chapter 12.) What did you discover on your timeline regarding Terah?
What principle of biblical narrative is he clarifying?
Keep this principle in mind for other stories. For example: Did Abraham meet his grandsons Esau and Jacob?
Ibn Ezra Gensesis 12:1
אבן עזרא בראשית שיטה אחרת – פרק יב פסוק א
(א) יתכן שלא נולד אברהם באור כשדים רק במקום אחר, רק הרן נולד שם, וזהו טעם “מארצך וממולדתך” – מהמקום שגדלת בו…
It is possible that Abraham was not born in Ur of the Chaldeans but rather in a different place, and only Haran was born there. This is the meaning of “from your land and from your birthplace” – from the place you grew up in…
How does Ibn Ezra understand the story of Abraham’s family and background?
For everyone who wants a challenge, here is Ramban’s detailed explanation as to the story of Abraham and his family:
רמב“ן בראשית פרק יא פסוק כח
(כח) והענין שקבלו רבותינו בזה הוא האמת, ואני מבאר אותו.
אברהם אבינו לא נולד בארץ כשדים, כי אבותיו בני שם היו, וכשדים וכל ארץ שנער ארצות בני חם. והכתוב אמר “ויגד לאברם העברי” (להלן יד יג), לא הכשדי, וכתיב (יהושע כד ב) “בעבר הנהר ישבו אבותיכם מעולם תרח אבי אברהם ואבי נחור”, ומלת “מעולם” תורה כי משם תולדותיו מאז, וכתיב (שם ג) “ואקח את אביכם את אברהם מעבר הנהר”. וראיה לדבר, כי נחור בחרן היה, ואם היה מקום תרח אור כשדים בארץ שנער, והכתוב ספר כי בצאתו מאור כשדים לא לקח אתו רק אברם בנו ולוט בן הרן בן בנו ושרי כלתו, אם כן היה נחור נשאר בארץ כשדים:
אבל באמת ארץ מולדתם ארץ ארם היא בעבר הנהר, והיא מנחלת אבותיו מעולם….
והנה תרח הוליד בניו הגדולים, אברהם ונחור, בעבר הנהר ארץ אבותיו, והלך לו עם אברהם בנו אל ארץ כשדים ושם נולד לו בנו הקטן הרן, ונשאר נחור בנו בעבר הנהר בעיר חרן…. וזה טעם “בארץ מולדתו באור כשדים” (בר’ יא כח) – כי שם מולדתו של הרן לבדו:
והענין המקובל הזה נמצא גם כן בספר “קדמוני הגוים” כמו שכתב הרב במורה הנבוכים (ג כט), כי הזכירו בספר “עבודת האכרים המצרים” כי אברם אשר נולד בכותא חלק על דעת ההמון שהיו עובדים השמש, ונתן המלך אותו בבית הסוהר והיה עמהם בתוכחות ימים רבים שם, אחר כך פחד המלך שישחית עליו ארצו ויסיר בני האדם מאמונתם וגרש אותו אל קצה ארץ כנען אחר שלקח כל הונו. …
ואמר לתת לך את הארץ הזאת לרשתה, כי מעת הוציאו אותו מאור כשדים היה הרצון לפניו יתעלה שיגדלנו ויתן לו את הארץ ההיא, ותרח אביו ואברהם היה בלבם מן היום ההוא שנצל שילכו אל ארץ כנען להתרחק מארץ כשדים מפחד המלך, כי חרן קרוב להם, ועם אחד ושפה אחת לכלם, כי לשון ארמית* לשניהם, ורצו ללכת אל עם אשר לא ישמע לשונו המלך ההוא ועמו:
וזהו טעם ויצאו אתם מאור כשדים ללכת ארצה כנען ויבאו עד חרן, אשר שם משפחותיהם ואבותיהם מעולם, וישבו ביניהם ונתעכבו שם ימים רבים. ושם נצטוה אברהם לעשות מה שעלה בדעתו ללכת ארצה כנען ועזב את אביו, ומת שם בחרן ארצו, והוא הלך עם אשתו ולוט בן אחיו ארצה כנען. וזהו שאמר הכתוב (יהושע כד ג) ואקח את אביכם את אברהם מעבר הנהר ואולך אותו בכל ארץ כנען, כי בעבר הנהר נצטוה בזה, ומשם לקחו והוליכו בכל ארץ כנען:
Nachmanides (Ramban) Genesis 11:28
…The tradition that our rabbis have here is the truth, and I am explaining it.
Abraham our father was not born in the land of Chaldea, as his ancestors were descendents of Shem and Chaldea and all the land of Shinar are lands of the descendents of Ham. The text says (Gen. 14:13) “and it was told to Abram the Eevri” (Hebrew), not the ‘the Chaldean.’ And it says (Joshua 24:2) “beyond (be’ever) the river your anscestors lived since eternity, Terah the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor.” The word “since eternity” indicates that their history (literally birth-descendents) was from there since then, and it says “and I took your father, Abraham, from the other side of the river.” And support for this: Nahor was in Haran. But if Terah’s place was Ur of the Chaldeans in the land of Shinar, and the text tells that when he left Ur of the Chaldeans he took with him only Abram his son and Lot son of Haran (his grandson) and Sarai his daughter in law, then Nahor would have remained in the land of Chaldeans. [But we find him later in Haran.] But in truth their birth-land is the land of Aram which is on the other side of the River, and which has forever been his ancestral land…
So Terah sired his older sons Abraham and Nahor ‘beyond the River’, his ancestral land, and went with his son Abraham to the land of Chaldeans and there his youngest son Haran was born. Nahor his son remained in Trans-River in the city of Haran… That is the meaning of “in his birthplace in Ur of the Chaldeans” (Gen 11:28) – for there was the birthplace only of Haran.
This tradition is also found in the book The Antiquities of the Nations, as the Rabbi (Maimonides) wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed (3, 29) that it was mentioned in the book “The Work of the Egyptian Farmers” that Abraham, who was born in Cutha disagreed with the masses that were worshiping the sun. So the king placed him in prison but he continued arguing with them for many days. Then the king became afraid that he would spoil his land and remove people from their faith, so he sent him to the end of the land of Canaan after he took all his fortune…
[God] intended to give him that land as inheritance, for from the time he left Ur of the Chaldeans He wanted to raise him up and give him that land. And Terah, his father, and Abraham, had intended from the day he was saved [from prison etc.] to go to the land of Canaan to get far away from the land of Chaldea from fear of the king, since Haran is close to them and they are one nation and all speak one language, for they both speak Aramaic*, and they wanted to go to a nation that does not understand the language of that king and his people.
This is the meaning of “they left with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Haran” where their families and ancestors had lived forever, and they were held up there for many days. There Abraham was commanded to do what he had planned – to go the land of Canaan so he left his father (who died there in Haran his land) and he went with his wife and Lot his nephew to the land of Canaan. Hence it says: (Joshua 24:3) “And I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan.” For [he was still] Beyond the River when he was commanded this, and from there He took him “and led him throughout all the land of Canaan.”
*The Ramban did not have archeology to help him. He was not aware of Akkedian and Sumerian that was used in the area of the Persian Gulf.
Ramban developed his theory by close text reading and rabbinic traditions.
1) Try to reconstruct, based on the Ramban’s commentary, the various travels of Abraham’s family.
2) Note how the Ramban proves that Abraham would not have been a native-born of Ur in southern Iraq, but rather of Haran, farther up the river and closer to the land of Aram. If he is right, what might it teach us about cultural exchanges in the area?
3) What effect could this have on the family’s cultural orientation, their approach to their surrounding society, their approach to religion?
4) Ramban brings the rabbinic tradition about Abraham’s trials and trouble due to his monotheistic faith. How do you think that Abraham’s search for God affected his family, and might his searching have been effected by his family?