Traditional commentators shy from labeling the Torah as a book of history or science and reject attempts to describe it as literature, notwithstanding as a reporter of lives lived, challenges met and events unfolding, it most certainly is. Importantly, it advises on identity and purpose. It is written in a purposeful fashion that is inspiring and enigmatic, meant to provoke discussing and continual interpretations. The narrative of Abraham, whose telling begins in Parsha Lech-Lecha, proves an excellent example.
The Rambam labeled Parsha Lech-Lecha, as the true story of creation – the birth of Israel, the nation that was destined to inherit the task of Adam and Eve. Abraham, the protagonist is a seventy-five year old childless desert chieftain, who at the point of entry is residing in Haran, having settled there with his father whilst en route from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. God, Who appears to have detached from human contact since the days of Noah, ten generations past, spoke to Abraham and demanded of him that he complete the journey to Canaan. There, God promised, He would make of Abraham, through his descendants, a great nation. God further pledged to Abraham, that He would: “bless those who bless you and, in him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you”.
Abraham, without a question, gathered his family and entire retinue (of some three hundred men of fighting age), and travelled to Canaan. There God “appeared” to Abraham and bequeathed to him and his descendents the land of Canaan. He further vowed: “I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered”. God later made further assurances to Abraham, the most pointed of which, and the most enigmatic, is the Prophecy of the Egyptian Exile: “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land not their own they will enslave them, and they will oppress them four hundred years. And Also the nation that will enslave, I shall judge…”
Thus, the arc of Jewish history began with the promise of a future marked by greatness and prosperity but also with the oracle of a harsh period of suffering and servitude. For Abraham and his progeny, residing in the Promised Land would prove an immediate challenge. It was extremely prone to drought and famine, and a goodly part of the lives of Abraham through to his great grandchildren, would take place outside of the Promised Land, much of it in Egypt.
The Torah does not explain for what purpose God chose Abraham, nor why indeed Abraham was the one chosen. Abraham is later described in an inspiring way; a man, unique in his age, totally devoted to God, and prepared to follow His every command, even to the point of preparing his son for sacrifice to a demanding, or perhaps, a testing God. Yet, the text is bereft of writing that tells of his beginning and most importantly why he was chosen by God. Nor, as matters unfold, does it expound on why Abraham’s descendants would have to suffer a period of servitude.
Therein lays the real literary strength of the Torah. It is written in a fashion that is enigmatic, designed to provoke conversation and stimulate interpretation.
Jewish exegetical literature frames Abraham’s story of as that of a man constantly tested yet consistently meeting the challenge. In the ongoing elucidation seeking the meaning of the Torah, Abraham became the man who had been able to prove his worthiness as the forefather of a people. In the creative imaginations of the early Jewish writers, a viewpoint adopted by many Traditional commentators, Abraham was transformed into and became enshrined as the seminal Jew The lessons that were derived from their interpretation of Abraham’s life were used to ground basic Jewish typologies; devotees’ of absolute faith and servants to God, whose life practices were the quintessence of divine service.
Equally, it is possible to discern from Abraham’s experiences, and those of his descendants, the challenge laid down in the Torah, for future generations of its adherents. Jewish experience is but a continuation of the promise, or more appropriately, the premise, first articulated in Parsha Lech-Lecha. Jewish History can arguably be seen as an ongoing cycle of challenges; the challenge of enslavement and the challenge of redemption; the challenge to capture the Land and the challenge of governance; the challenge of geopolitical weakness and the challenge of the “others”; the challenge of destruction and reconstruction; and the challenge of change. And it is to the inspiring yet enigmatic text that we can turn to for understanding; a body of literature that has easily surpassed the measure of time.