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Understanding Our Origins: A Survival Strategy

  • Understanding Our Origins: A Survival Strategy

    Lech L'cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
D'var Torah By: 

In one form or another, all ancient civilizations were typically defined by (1) sojourn in a designated land; (2) a governance structure that was at once autonomous and indigenous; and (3) a religion organized around well-defined cultic sites, usually administered by a priestly guild or caste. The smaller"nations"of the ancient world were sooner or later swallowed up by larger conquering forces, leaving traces of their existence only in literature or buried beneath the sands of history for archaeologists to excavate. Israel should have been no exception. When Jerusalem fell in 586 b.c.e. to the Babylonians, Israel should have ceased to exist like all other conquered peoples, given that each of the rubrics we just identified as typical of civilizations was undermined: a substantial portion of its people was exiled; its monarchy was eliminated; and its central and countryside cultic sites were destroyed, with its priests suffering the effects of displacement. Torah speaks of Jebusites and Amorites, Perizzites and Kenites, among many other"nations"; none of them can boast of a minute vestige in the world today. Of course, there are other ethnic groups that have managed to defy the dominant rules of history. However, they are very few in number and generally survived at the margins of civilization (such as the Basque and Gypsies). The Jews stand unique even among this rare cluster of survivors. They survived not one, but multiple conquests and millennia of frequent persecutions. Differentiating them yet further is the manner in which they survived. This occurred not along the margins of civilizations, nor in remote regions of the world. Jews developed independent cultures while remaining engaged with the cultural and economic structures of their host societies.


What can account for this extraordinary feat in antiquity? The Jews developed an innovative cultural system that was able to sustain a people without those standard societal rubrics noted above: land, king, and fixed cultic sites. They replaced those standard rubrics with a most unlikely substitute-a literature and a method for disseminating its contents. This is to say, a cluster of wordsTorahwas offered as a solution to the traumas of history. As preposterous as it might sound to suggest that a literature is what saved our people, I see no better explanation. The goal here is not to be gratuitously booster-ish for Jewish survival, but to understand the dynamics of our survival both initially at the very moment in time that Judaism should have succumbed to the overwhelming forces of history and then repeatedly throughout subsequent eras.

Why would I think to discuss the parashah that treats our origins as a people—Lech L'cha—with the extraordinary feat of survival after 586 b.c.e. as the primary focal point? Quite simply, survival was the focal point for those who composed Genesis. The Genesis writers recognized that stories of origination could foster a strong sense of ethnic identity. The past would serve as a foundation for the development of solidarity in the face of the chaotic circumstances of dispersion. Exile undermined everything stable in traditional cultures. The Torah in general, and the Book of Genesis in particular, was created to counter that instability. It sought to nurture a sense of (collective) self that would transcend the traditional structures of place, leadership, and cult. Genesisand by extension, Torahis about survival.

In the aftermath of the conquest of the sixth century b.c.e., the architects of Torah chose three literary themes as rallying points for the formation of our people's consciousness in a transitional era: (1) the story of ancestors (Genesis); (2) the story of an exilic sojourn and redemption (Exodus); and (3) the story of a prophet through whom God speaks (Deuteronomy). Each of these themes contributed to the development of an ethnic identity at a time when traditional notions of identity were under siege. And each of these stories is about Israel in exile.To understand the Book of Genesis one must understand the circumstances that evoked its creation. Those circumstances are not part of the history of Abraham's era; rather, they derive from the contemporary affairs of the authors' own day. Abraham is not some real historical figure to whom the events of Genesis happened; Abraham conveys the author's own voice as it struggles to lend meaning to the experiences of his own generation. These three themes originally developed independently of one another. Different imaginations came up with different solutions. Eventually they were fused together into what is now Torah. This means that Genesis was just one part of a broader array of literary endeavors, each pursuing distinct approaches to the same issue: How do we create a sense of solidarity when everything we took to define ourselves is in a state of crisis? Our task here is to focus on how the Genesis authors participated in this project of cultural re-invention.

The stories we now have in Genesis were originally part of a narrative that included many more episodes. By dropping some elements and incorporating yet others, the redactors ended up with a narrative that lacked an intrinsic continuity. To create that continuity they sometimes built what might be called "narrative bridges." A prime example of a narrative bridge is the Joseph story, which quite literally bridges the experience of the Patriarchs with the sojourn in Egypt. More pervasive is the integration of two ideological strands throughout the narrative. The first we already mentioned with regard to Parashat Noach: the idea of genealogical continuity. The second emerges in this parashah: the idea of covenant between God and Abram's descendants. Through these strands—which together form what I have referred to as the "ideological overlay"—Genesis helps its audience develop a sense of self without the traditional social and political institutions intact. In effect the Genesis author is saying to his audience: if Abram could do it, we can do it!

In Genesis 15 God's promise to Abram is elucidated in all of its parts. Abram will have a future of prosperity, progeny, and land ownership. These are the three components of the covenant for the Genesis author. Other authors envisioned the covenant differently. For instance, in the stories written by the author commonly referred to as the Deuteronomist, Israel's rights to its "ancestral lands" were contingent upon fulfillment of a rather detailed regimen of laws and social customs. That is, the covenant for the Deuteronomist was a bit different from that expressed in Genesis. His involved commandments. No such idea exists in Genesis.

There are many theories as to why shifts in the ideology of covenant took place or why there may have been multiple approaches to covenant in a single generation. Unfortunately, we do not have the space to consider those theories in this context. Suffice to say, the authors of the three different allegorical approaches to Israel's past-ancestors, exile, and prophet-had distinct agendas in devising their particular approaches to covenant. However, it should be understood that the idea of a covenant with a deity was not unique to Israelites. All ancient civilizations saw their rulers as having been divinely "chosen." This would have been true of Israel's monarchs as well. The difference with our Torah literature is that the covenant is no longer between a God and his chosen king, who then "represents" the people; the covenant is between God and the people directly, through an intermediary called a "prophet." This constitutes a radical departure from the ancient paradigms of covenant.

So on the one hand, Israel was like other nations in having the idea of "chosen-ness," but it was quite unlike the other nations in that it offered an innovative approach to covenant that constituted a radical departure from traditional paradigms. This did not happen overnight. The Israelite idea underwent an evolution of its own, as I've already indicated when contrasting Genesis and Deuteronomy. However, like many conflicting images within Torah, the various ideologies of covenant did undergo some harmonization in the hands of the redactors who put the entire book together. So, for instance, when we get to the end of Deuteronomy (30:19-20), we read:

I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving the Eternal your God, heeding God's commands, and holding fast to [God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

One of the great inner tensions of Torah is that "the promise" of land, progeny, and wealth articulated in Genesis was never realized in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. Consequently, the transition from Egypt to Canaan cannot be conceptualized as a restoration, for the land of Canaan never became "Israel" at any previous point in the story. Thus, all the Deuteronomist could do was mention what had been sworn to the Patriarchs, without giving too much detail as to the contents of that oath. The unsuspecting reader of Torah will do all of the harmonization required, perhaps never noticing just how much dissonance should be emitted by the forced fusion of a covenant based on commandments and a patriarchal covenant that had no such contingencies.

I want to emphasize that this is a literary dissonance and not some real historical dissonance. People frequently confuse these things and often abuse the text by misconstruing its status as representing befuddled images of some real-life events. The original Book of Genesis likely ended with the fulfillment of the covenant as it is first presented in Parashat Lech L'cha; that is, with the twelve tribes living happily ever after in Canaan. Once the Torah redactors saw Genesis as a potential ancestral history that led up to the Egyptian sojourn story-written by a different author for different purposes-the dynamics of the narrative were permanently transformed. It was the process of integrating Genesis among the books of the Torah that resulted in"inconsistencies. "That is, when you take stories that originally have nothing to do with each other and you force them into a sustained narrative, you are bound to end up with some rough edges. The ideological tension between the notion of covenant in Genesis and the idea of covenant in Deuteronomy is just such a "rough edge."

Were you to relate to the stories of Genesis and Exodus separately, as never having been fused into a single volume, just as you relate, say, to the story of Jonah and the Book of Genesis separately, you would not think of them as "inconsistent." You would simply see them as two approaches to the same overwhelming problem: how can we transcend the chaos of dispersion? To give people hope, both stories demonstrate that Israel's ancestors had already survived dispersion—indeed, all of the formative episodes in the Torah take place outside of the Land of Israel.

As noted, the writer of Deuteronomy integrated "remembrance" of the patriarchal covenant into his narrative. Yet other, more aggressive steps were taken to harmonize the various strata of the literature. For instance, in Parashat Lech L'cha, the editor added verses to the story line that anticipate the integration of the Genesis and Exodus stories. In Genesis 15:12-17, he inserted an excuse for why the land would not be secured according to the surface meaning of God's promise during the era of the Patriarchs. It reads as follows:

Then, as the sun was setting,  Abram fell into a deep sleep, and lo! a powerful dark dread was falling upon him! [God] said to Abram, "Know that your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. But then I will bring judgment upon the nation they are serving; after that they shall go out with many possessions. And youyou shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in good old age. The fourth generation shall return here, for not until then shall the iniquity of the Amorites be repaid." Now, when the sun had set and it was dark, loa smoking oven and a fiery torch were what passed between these pieces!

The second of the two emphasized phrases is what textual critics call a "resumptive clause" [or Wiederaufnahme]. It was common in antiquity to emend texts, but there were various customs for accomplishing this. Frequently, when some kind of explanation or elucidation was added to a text, the editor resumed the narrative after his insertion with an aspect of the phrase that occurred just before his insertion. If you read Genesis 15 omitting the verses presented here, you will find the story reads quite smoothly and true to the dominant themes of Genesis.

Notice that the insertion here does not make direct mention of Egypt, per se. Also notice that the duration of the sojourn is given as 400 years—a vague "estimate" that would have been understood to mean "very many." This figure will be adjusted in the actual Exodus narrative to the more specific duration of 430 years (see Exodus 12:41). The vague references to an enslavement in a strange land and its duration are meant to prepare the reader for "history" beyond the Book of Genesis, while also shifting one's expectations with regard to this book's ending.

Now, I do not wish, in this context, to discuss the theological tensions created by this particular anticipatory passage, which, in many respects, are more troubling than the narrative dissonances it sought to resolve. (For instance, why would God think to subject his people to so horrendous a fate?) But I do wish to emphasize that all of these tensions emerge as a result of the anthologizing process that created Torah. This compositional process did not only result in tensions between stories that were originally distinct. Sometimes, the redactors chose stories because of their underlying themes, but subsequent editors found something within them problematic. They took it upon themselves to offer correctives. Two examples of this phenomenon can be drawn directly from this parashah.

Consider that the very first story after the introduction of Abram as a character (12:1-10) involves removing Abram and Sarai from Canaan and placing them in Egypt (12:10-20). How does it make sense to have the very first episode after arriving involve the displacement of the protagonists from Israel? After all, the pretext for leaving Mesopotamia was procurement of the land of Canaan. First, let's make clear that the wife/sister story in 12:10-20 is a story about wealth acquisition. The covenant involves three components: progeny, land, and wealth. Obviously, the redactors found this story valuable because it left Abram rather well-off. Later editors were not quite so sure of the redactor's choice. This story not only dislocates the protagonists from the Promised Land, but it places them in Egypt. On the one hand, they will want to reserve that kind of displacement for another story (Joseph), and on the other hand, they will want to avoid displacement altogether. Instead of having the couple move to Egypt, the rewritten versions of this story in chapters 20 and 26 have the couple "visiting" Gerar, which ostensibly is still within "the Land." Moreover, the subsequent versions of the story repair some of the thematic awkwardness of chapter 12 (Abram, after all, is portrayed as a liar in order to save his own skin). This is not the place to go through in detail the way chapters 20 and 26 revamp the original tale, but I've engaged this example to make abundantly clear that within the Book of Genesis we find various voices in dialogue with one another. Keep in mind that the anthological character of ancient literature motivates editors to emend and add materials, but not to remove materials that had already gained a certain stability within the literary tradition.

Similarly demonstrative of the book's anthological character are fragments of stories that hint at now-lost narratives. Consider the following verses taken from Genesis chapters 11 and 12 respectively:

Then Terah took his son Abram and his brother's son Lot son of Haran and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and they all left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; but they got as far as Haran and settled there. (Genesis 11:31)

The Eternal One said to Abram, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

According to the verse in Genesis 11, it was Terah, not Abram, who actively left Ur of the Chaldeans for a distant land. How, then, shall we understand Genesis 12:1? Clearly it involves an added incentive—the gift of a landand there is divine intercession, something not suggested with regard to Abram's father, Terah. By the time we get to chapter 15, where, as we noted, the covenant's components will be fully elucidated, the notion that it was Abram who left Ur rather than Terah, his father, is well integrated into the narrative. There we read:

"I am the Eternal who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land as an inheritance." (Genesis 15:7)

Those well versed in the text of Exodus will hear echoes of this verse's verbiage in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2): "I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. . . ." In effect, we have the exact same literary trope, easily adapted for both stories, because at their core, both stories are vaguely about the same thing. At some point in our people's history, the idea emerged that all movement from a state of displacement to a state of rightful sojourn could occur only by divine will. As such, the revisers of Genesis, by using this very imagery, depicted the journey from ancient Ur as a kind of redemption, in some sense similar to the redemption from Egypt as developed by the authors of Deuteronomy and Exodus. Abram traveled from an exilic state in Ur (later called Babylonia) to the land of Canaan, and centuries later, Israel, under Moses, journeyed from exile in Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah's foundations rest on this notion of displacement and journey.

What do we do with this very notion—we Reform Jews who are entrenched in the Judaism of diaspora? The fact remains that most Jews living in the Diaspora do not feel they are "displaced" like Abram of old; nor do they feel as if they are dwelling in an exilic state allegorically equivalent to Egypt. Unbounded love for the State of Israel, unequivocal support for Israel, has not translated into massive emigration since 1956. In what might strike some as an odd twist in interpretive history, I shall argue that Torah was written precisely for those in antiquity whose lives paralleled our own. Torah was written to re-create a people for survival in diaspora. With this understanding, our reading of the text proves radically different from more traditional approaches. And it is with this understanding that our comments on the parashiyot to follow will be developed.

© 2008 David H. Aaron

David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. At the time of this writing in 2008, he was professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His most recent book at that time was Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006). Contact: daaron@huc.edu.

Continuity from One Generation to the Next
Davar Acher By: 
Julie Pelc

In his commentary to Lech L'cha, Dr. Aaron notes that the stories in Genesis "create a narrative bridge" of genealogical continuity from one generation to the next. He goes on to illustrate how this narrative bridge leads to the creation of a covenant between God and Abram's descendants. Dr. Aaron writes,"Genesis helps its audience develop a sense of self . . . saying: if Abram could do it, we can do it!"

One important (and physical) way that this covenant is passed through generations is through the ritual of circumcision. Through b'rit milah, contemporary parents and children are linked in a chain of Jewish parents and children dating back through millennia, across space and time to our biblical ancestors. B'rit milah is a participatory act of both ancient and contemporary history. As we pass through the rite of circumcision as parents, inviting our own children into the tradition, we gift them with an identity steeped in the richness of the past, a vested commitment to the present, and a promise of the future.

Although circumcision has been practiced in different cultures for over three thousand years, in Judaism this act has taken on special significance and represents bringing a child into the divine covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Descriptions of circumcisions are found in the Bible. In Genesis 17:9-13, God instructs Abraham to circumcise male children on the eighth day throughout the generations. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent's obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. Today, a mohel or mohelet is routinely designated by parents to fulfill this custom.

As inheritors of a rich tradition, we also are responsible for enriching it and reinterpreting its meaning for a new generation of Jews. One way we have done so in recent history is to create a ritual wherein daughters are entered into the covenant of the Jewish people in their own parallel, albeit different, ritual, the b'rit bat.

In essence, these rituals allow us to join hands with Abram as he sets forth on a journey into the unknown in Lech L'cha, to laugh with Sarai when she learns she is pregnant, to journey with Joseph into Egypt, and to cross the sea with Miriam and Moses as they take a chance on freedom. We can imagine how it felt for Abraham as he prepared to offer his own son to God, and we share in the wash of relief he experienced when an angel called out, "Abraham, Abraham!" (Genesis 22:11), enabling him to pause, reflect, and change course. When we participate in the ritual of b'rit milah and create ceremonies of b'rit bat, we, in essence, declare, "Yes, if Abram could do it, we can do it!" We place our trust in the One God, and we elect to walk alongside our ancestors in the path of Jewish life. We invite our children to follow and pray that they will choose to welcome their own children into the covenant after them.

At the time of this writing in 2008, Rabbi Julie Pelc was serving as the assistant director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health and the director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism.

11/08/2008
Reference Materials: 

Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84