Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his Torah commentary on Lech-Lecha, calls Abraham ‘the Father of the Nation’. At the end of Noach (Gen 11:31) we were told that Terah, Abraham’s father, was taking his family from Ur towards Canaan, but Terah never went beyond Haran, on the Turkish-Syrian border. Only Abraham goes south to Canaan after hearing the call from God. Why didn’t Terah and Nahor accompany him?
Joshua 24:2 provides an answer: “Terah the father of Abraham, and Nahor, they served other gods.” From this verse developed the interpretive tradition that Abraham was the first monotheist, and many Midrashim sought to explain how Abraham’s belief in the one God developed either from the Chaldean interest in astronomy, or from his discovery that the family idols had no godly powers.
So the neo-monotheist Abraham travels towards Canaan to fulfil the promise to be the father of a great nation. This is no youthful road-trip across the near East. He is already 75, and it doesn’t seem to start well. He arrives in Canaan, only to face a famine that requires him to continue to Egypt to survive. On his return to Canaan, he finds a war between nine kings being fought out on the plain of Sodom, where Lot, his hapless nephew, had chosen to live, and is subsequently kidnapped. Abraham dutifully recruits his men to chase the retreating kings as far as Damascus, liberating Lot, and returns to Canaan where he is welcomed by Melchizedek, King of Salem, assumed to be Jerusalem.
God has made many promises to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2); “I will assign this land to your offspring” (12:7); “I give all of the land that you see to you and your offspring forever” (13:15); and “your offspring will be like the stars of the heavens” (15:5). But so far it must have seemed to Abraham as if these promises are suspect. Abraham acted alone to avoid starvation by going down to Egypt, he rescued Lot without any apparent help from God (who is totally absent from Chapter 14), and although he is now wealthy, this octogenarian has still not had any children!
By the time we reach Genesis 15:8, he is having a wobble; can he really trust this voice who keeps making promises but doesn’t seem to be helping him? So, when Abraham asks God “How shall I know that I am to possess (the land)”, God learns something about humans: words alone are not enough. There needs to be action, symbols, and investment to create commitment and belief. Abraham and God enact a strange ritual involving five animals which are sacrificed, halved and set out in a pattern. After a long, vision-filled night, a covenant is made between God and Abraham, and Abraham takes the first action towards his offspring ‘being numbered like the stars’, by fathering Ishmael. The theoretical ideas which led Abraham to reject idols in Ur needed to be made real and actionable by his participation in ritual and symbolism.