Abraham – The Call of Abram (Notes)

In Jewish thought there is the written Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) and the oral Torah which was the interpretative traditions of the written Torah, and which served to bring out the multiple levels of interpretation of the written Torah. Traditionally, this oral Torah goes back to Mt. Sinai, and is first explicitly evident in Nehemiah 8, where Scripture relates that after Ezra read the law to the assembled people, the Levites went among the people “making the Law clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” Neh. 8:8.

From the time of Ezra, the Hebrew scribes, as succeeded by the rabbis, looked at Scripture with four general assumptions: 1) Scripture contains multiple levels of meaning, 2) Scripture contains (allegorical) lessons directed at contemporary readers and was not fundamentally history, 3) Scripture does not contain any contradictions, and must be read in complete harmony, and 4) Scripture is divinely inspired. The scribes and rabbis also began to supplement Scripture with oral traditions and interpretations to fill in the gaps in the Biblical narrative to help illuminate or better illustrate the purpose of the story.

For example, Jesus routinely used these methods of interpretation to apply the Scripture to himself. For example, he tells the Pharasees that “no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matt. 12:39-40. Jonah isn’t simply an historical account about a man and a fish, but has deeper Messianic meaning. As another example, Deuteronomy 25:4 states that “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” which simply means that an animal should be allowed to eat of the fruit of its labor. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul draws upon Jewish tradition in using this verse to justify an apostle being financially supported by the congregation he founded. (The apostle is the ox, and the congregation’s collection is the grain.)
The New Testament also affirmatively references contemporaneous Jewish embellishments to Scripture. For example, Exodus 17:6 says that Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water came out of it so that all the people could drink. Jewish tradition additionally held that the rock followed the Israelites in their wanderings so that they would always have water. Paul references this tradition in 1 Corinthians 10:9, and applies the same to Christ. Or, Deuteronomy 34:6 says that Moses died and no one knows the place of his burial. The non-canonical book “The Assumption of Moses” adds to this narrative by saying that the archangel Michael and Satan fought over Moses body between his death and his burial. Jude 1:9 affirmatively references this tradition.

Over the next four weeks, we are going to explore the stories of Abraham as seen through the eyes of Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and Paul, and applying these lessons to our own reading of the text.

This first week we are going to study the Call of Abraham, and his journey out of Ur of the Chaldeans to the Promised Land as found in Genesis 11:27-12:9. Genesis tells us very little about who Abram was and why God called him specifically to leave his home. At first reading, the story appears as simply a quaint historical account with little relevance today. The book of Joshua and the oral Torah fills in these gaps. The book of Joshua is about Joshua, who succeeded Moses and conquered the land previously promised to Abraham 400 years earlier. At the end of the book, Joshua assembles all the tribes of Israel (Abraham’s decedents) to swear their loyalty to God. At the assembly Joshua says that Abraham’s family served other gods across the Euphrates River in Ur. The oral Torah will take this clue and provide that the reason for Abraham’s call was that he was the first monotheist and called him out of his polytheistic home.

The first reading is from Genesis Rabba which is part of the Jewish midrash. Midrash is collection of ancient rabbinical interpretations of Scripture which was first written down in a collection in about the third century, A.D., although the teachings themselves probably go back several centuries prior. Rabba #38 fills in the blanks of the story of Abraham’s childhood, and tells us that Abraham’s father Terah was an idol dealer, and that Abraham discovered that idols are not gods.

The second reading is from the Book of Jubilees. Jubilees was probably written in about 150 B.C., and provides a chronology of Jewish history based upon a cycle of 49 years. Only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers Jubilees canonical. Jubilees likewise fills in the blanks of Abraham’s background of how Haran dies and how Abraham was convinced of monotheism.

The final readings are from Genesis Rabba #84, and Philo of Alexandria’s On Abraham. These reading provide a deeper allegorical interpretation on the call of Abraham. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus and sought to draw out the allegorical meaning of Scripture. In both these readings, the call and journey of Abraham is likened to the journey of each individual soul away from an old way of thinking based simply upon the human senses and to a new way of thinking based upon an individual growing in the knowledge of God. Philo also provides us with a more thorough understanding of who the Chaldeans were, and thereby gives us a better understanding of the culture that Abraham left behind.

As you read through Genesis and the other readings, think about these things:

1) What does Genesis say about Abraham before his call? Does Genesis itself provide any clues as to why God would have chosen him?

2) Does Joshua supplement or contradict Genesis? Why isn’t the information provided in Joshua also provided in Genesis?

3) What is your opinion on the account of Abraham’s childhood and call in Genesis Rabba and the Book of Jubilees? Does it aid in your reading of Genesis or is it something to be ignored?

4) What are your thoughts on Philo’s application that the journey of Abraham is the same journey that each soul must go on in its quest for the divine?

5) What are the contemporary lessons to be drawn from Abraham’s call and journey? Are these lessons similar to Jesus’s admonition to “Let the dead bury the dead” or that if anyone loves their family more than me, they are not worthy of me. Matt 8:21, 10:37.

6) Why is the curse in Genesis 12:3 singular, but the blessing in the plural? How does Paul apply the blessing in Galatians 3:14?

7) Genesis 12:6 says that “At that time, the Canaanites were in the land.” Scripture still speaks of Canaanites being around as late as 1 Kings 9:16 which is during the reign of Solomon. What does this say about when this account of Abraham was written down?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *