In the lectionary readings from the Torah, we skip right from Noah to Abram with no explanation in between. If you are a new Christian or don’t know much about the Bible it may seem like a random collection of stories. Who are these people, and where do they come from? Are they related at all, and what can we know about them?
The history of Noah is easy enough. He was the last of the antediluvian patriarchs, the tenth generation of the world. In ten more generations Abram was born to Nahor, and from Abram, the twelve tribes of Israel were born. So, these people are all related.
Today’s leading man, Abram, was a direct descendant of Noah. He made an appearance at the end of chapter 11 as a member of Terach’s household which moved from Ur and settled in Harran. Terach was Abram’s father. By chapter 12, Abram was all grown up, at age 75, married, and as best we can tell from the text, without a child.
But there is a story behind the text. In the oral tradition, Abram’s father, Terach, was the prince of Nimrod’s army and when Terach’s third wife had a son, he was named Abram. All might have been well except that one of Nimrod’s astrologers predicted that this child, Abram, would be greater than Nimrod. Nimrod did what anyone fancying themselves a king or a god would do. He ordered that Abram be killed. Terach hid baby Abram and his mother in a cave. And, to satisfy Nimrod, he took the child of a slave and offered it to be killed instead of his own son. Terach visited the cave every month with supplies for his third wife and their first child together. Terach would not have taught young Abram about the Lord God, but his mother might have. Either way, by the age of three, Abram had begun to understand that there was only one God. When he emerged from the cave, at age ten, Abram was the world’s first monotheist. This one idea, that there is only one God, and one is enough, is the uniting theme of the world’s three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is the one thing we all agree on.
Why do I think that Abram’s mother might have taught him about monotheism? Well, there’s another story about that. My own suspicion is that she was not too happy about having been exiled to the cave with an infant son for ten years. During that time, she must have turned against Terach, and maybe against all his gods too. When she and Abram went back into polite society, she helped Abram prove that his father’s idols were not real gods. First, she made some food for the idols to eat, but the idols did not eat the food. Young Abram took it from there. He felt betrayed that his father had lied to him about the idols. They couldn’t even eat, how could they have created the world? So Abram destroyed all but one of the idols with a hatchet, then he placed the hatched in the hand of the idol that he had not destroyed. Terach was furious and asked Abram why he had done it. “It wasn’t me,” said Abram, “It was your idol, the one with the hatchet. He destroyed the others.” It was a clever trap and Terach walked right into it, declaring that it was impossible. The idol couldn’t have destroyed the other idols. “How then could it have created the world?” asked the victorious Abram. Did Abram work out the idea of monotheism on his own, deep in the cave, or did his mother help him along the way? It doesn’t matter now. The point is that God revealed the unitary nature of itself to a young boy who became the father of a nation.
Next week the Torah reading will be from Exodus, and the next week it will be from Numbers, and on the fourth and fifth Sundays in Lent we won’t have a Torah reading at all, which is wrong, but religion sometimes fails. There are lots of stories that we will miss, lots of connections will be lost between now and June when Track 2 does have a Torah option.
For this week, perhaps it is enough to recognize that even if we read the Bible very carefully there is still a lot that we do not know. History, archeology, and linguistics inform our own tradition in ways that we don’t always investigate. Our Jewish and Muslim kin have their own stories which enrich and enliven our own. And, even if we study all that very hard, there is still just a lot we can’t know.
I often think about this when I am dealing with people, especially at work or in the world where you really can’t know much about one another. I like to remember that what I am seeing is not the whole person. There are histories and stories behind the person in front of me, things I can’t understand. And hopefully, I can find some compassion in that. Maybe you could too.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy practice compassion.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, Saudi Arabia, in the Northern Province.
Image: Call of Abraham
Some Notes of Possible Interest
There are lots of stories about Noah in Midrashic accounts and rabbinic commentaries as well as in the Quran and Quranic commentaries as Noah is considered a very important prophet in both those traditions. The Quran even has a whole chapter named Noah.
Nimrod was a bad guy. He was descendant of Ham, the son of Noah, so he is part of this now-sprawling family tree, but he was a bad apple. He was the king of Babylonia, the one with the bright idea of building the Tower of Babel. He was the one who started wars, and he was a rebel against God.
You can read Genesis Rabbah here. There are no links, just the text in English. You can read it in Hebrew here, with hyperlinks. It’ll tell you all about it. Also, check out Safer HaYashar which will give more information too.