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Notes from Limmud 2005

Meet the Midrash on Abraham

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

[Everyone knows the first half of this mishnah, Lindsey said, but its grisly second half is much less well known. Only in my case I was actually taught it in primary school...]

Is the Midrash alternate history to the Bible, or fairy stories?

Neither, says Lindsey—and the Rambam. They are riddles, parables or analogies. You have to work at them to get out the meaning.

Midrashim were written during the period 200 - 1000 CE; and were afterwards replaced as exegetical tools by Bible commentary.

Characteristics of midrashim:

  • They are based on a Biblical text.
  • Every last detail of the text, down to odd spellings, has meaning and significance.
  • A midrash is a response to something in the text—or something not in it, e.g. Rebecca's death.
  • Intertextuality: the midrash makes use of other parts of the Bible, even completely unrelated books, to illustrate something in the part you are looking at. E.g. the Exodus from Egypt is connected with the Song of Songs: the Children of Israel go after G-d like a young man after his love.
  • Midrash is multiple. It's not nice and tidy; it contradicts itself. E.g. on the first verse of the Akeda [binding of Isaac] Genesis Rabbah offers several contradictory midrashim. There is no authoritative answer; as the mishnah says, these and these are the words of the living G-d. All facets of a jewel contribute to it. All views through a kaleidoscope are valid.
  • The Midrash is playful.

One of the problems the Midrash deals with is that Abraham has no write up. Noah, we are told, is a righteous man in his generation. Abraham has no such write-up; we are never told why of all people, Abraham is chosen.

All we hear is this (Gen. 11:26-12:1):

Teraḥ lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Naḥor, and Haran. Now these are the generations of Teraḥ: Teraḥ begat Abram, Naḥor and Haran; and Haran begat Lot. And Haran died before his father Teraḥ in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Kasdim*. And Abram and Naḥor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Naḥor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. But Sarai was barren; she had no child. And Teraḥ took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Ḥaran, and dwelt there. And the days of Teraḥ were two hundred and five years: and Teraḥ died in Ḥaran.

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Go forth from your land, and your kindred, and your father's house, to a land which I will show you.

* [Linguistic aside: Kasdim is normally translated Chaldaeans, but this is an anachronism: there were no Chaldaeans until much much later. Rather than chalk this up to Genesis being written much later than it is set, Georges Roux, in Ancient Iraq, suggests the word should actually here be rendered "Kassites", another people who were around at the time.]

Almost anyone in the Bible has more lead-up than this!

So here's the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13):

And Haran died in the lifetime of (lit: before/on the face of) [על־פני] Terach his father in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Kasdim.

["על־פני תרח" is very odd; you'd expect to hear לפני.]

And Haran died before/on the face of Terach his father. R. Hiya the son of the son of Rabbi Ada of Jaffa [said]:

Terach was a maker/worshipper1 [עובד] of idols2. Once he went somewhere and set Abraham to sell [idols] instead of him. A person would come, wanting to buy, and he [Abraham] would say to him, "How old are you?" And he [the customer] would say to him, "Fifty", or "Sixty". And [Abraham] would say to him, "Woe to a sixty-year-old who wants to worship [something] one day old." And [the customer] would be embarrassed and go away.

One time, a woman came, carrying a plate of fine flour. She said to him, "This is for you to offer before them [the idols]." He got up, took a stick in his hand, and broke all the idols, and placed the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. When his father came, he said to him, "Who did this to them?" [Abraham] said to him, "Shall I hide it from you?" A woman came, carrying a plate of fine flour, and she said, 'This is for you to offer before them.' I offered it before them, and this one said, 'I will eat first' and that one said, 'I will eat first.'" The biggest one among them got up, took the stick, and broke them."

[Terach] said to him, "Why are you mocking me? Do they know?" [I.e. are they conscious beings?]
[Abraham] said to him, "Don't your ears hear what your lips are saying?"
[Terach] took him and handed him over to Nimrod.

[Nimrod] said to him, "Let's worship fire."5
Abraham said to him, "Let's worship water, which extinguishes fire."
Nimrod said to him, "[Then] let's worship water."
[Abraham] said to him, "If so, let's worship clouds, which carry water."
[Nimrod] said to him, "[Then] let's worship clouds."
[Abraham] said to him, "If so, let's worship wind, which moves the clouds."
[Nimrod] said to him, "[Then] let's worship the wind."
[Abraham] said to him, "Let's worship man, who withstands the wind."
[Nimrod] said to him, "You speak foolishness. I only worship fire. Look, I will throw you into its midst, and let the God whom you worship rescue you from it."

Haran was standing there, in two minds [lit. "divided"].
He said, "מה נפשך [whatever happens]. If Abraham wins, I will say, 'I am with Abraham, and if Nimrod wins, I will say, 'I am with Nimrod'."
When Abraham went down into the furnace of fire and was saved, they said to him, "Whose are you?" He said to them, "I am with Abraham."
They took him and threw him into the fire and his innards were scorched.
And he came out and died על־פני Terach his father.
This is what is written, And Haran died before/on the face of Terach his father.

וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו׃ רבי חיא בר ברה דרב אדא דיפו תרח עובד צלמים היה חד זמן נפק לאתר הושיב לאברהם מוכר תחתיו הוה אתי בר אינש בעי דיזבן והוה אמר לה בר כמה שנין את והוה אמר לה בר חמשין או שתין והוה אמר לה וי לה לההוא גברא דהוה בר שתין ובעי למסגד לבר יומי והוה מתביש והולך לו חד זמן אתא חד אתתא טעינא בידה חדא פינך דסלת אמרה לה הא לך קרב קדמיהון קם נסיב בוקלסא בידה ותבריהון לכלהון פסיליא ויהב בוקלסא בידא דרבא דהוה ביניהון כיון דאתא אבוה אמר לה מאן עביד להון כדין אמר לה מא נכפור מנך אתת חדא אתתא טעינא לא חדא פינך דסלת ואמרת לי הא לך קרב קדמיהון קרבת לקדמיהון הוה הוה דין אמר אנא אכול קדמאי ודין אמר אנא אכול קדמאי קם הדין רבה דהוה ביניהון נסב בוקלסא ותברנון אמר לה מה אתא מפלה בי וידעין אנין אמר לה ולא ישמעו אזניך מה שפיך אומר נסבה ומסרה לנמרוד אמר לה נסגוד לנורא אמר לה אברהם ונסגוד למיא דמטפין נורא אמר לה נמרוד נסגוד למיא אמר לה אם כן נסגוד לעננא דטעין מיא אמר לה נסגוד לאננא אמר לה אם כן נסגוד לרוחא דמבדר עננא אמר לה נסגוד לרוחא אמר לה ונסגוד לבר אנשא דסבל רוחא אמר לה מלין את משתעי אני איני משתחוה אלא לאור הרי אני מכליכך בתוכו ויבוא אליוה תאתה משתחוה לו ויצילך הומנו הוה תמן הרן קאם פלוג אמר מה נפשך אם נצח אברהם אנא אמר מן דאברהם אנא ואם נצח נמרוד אנא אמר דנמרוד אנא ניון שירד אברהם לכבשן האש ונצנל אמרין לה דמאן את אמר להון מן אברהם אנא נטלוהו והשליכוהו לאור ונהמרו בני מעיו ציצא ומת אל פני תרח אביו הדא הוא תכתיב וימת הרן על פני תרח וגו׳׃

This is not the historical Nimrod (if such a figure ever existed), who only gets a brief mention in the Bible; it's the Nimrod of the Midrash: the Midrash runs away with him.

This midrash is built around the following dialogues:

A: Base verse and intro
B: Terach leaves A (scene-setting)
C: Dialogue 1 (Abraham and customers)3
D: Dialogue 2 (Abraham and the woman)4
E: Abraham breaks idols
F: Dialogue 3 (Abraham and Terach)
Sub-plot: Abraham's story
G: Terach hands over Abraham to Nimrod
H: Dialogue 4 (Abraham and Nimrod)
I: Haran's monologue
J: Dialogue: Haran and Nimrod's henchmen
K: Haran's death
L: Retrun to base text

  1. Note the ambiguity here. In Hebrew it can mean worshipper; in Aramaic it exclusively means making/doing. The Midrash is mostly written in Aramaic, but uses both languages. As both a maker and a worshipper of idols, Terach is being portrayed as a hypocrite: he is worshiping something of his own construction.
  2. Heb צלמים: "images". This word is of course used in Genesis for mankind being made in the image of G-d.
  3. This is evidently something which has happened again and again. Are these people genuine believers in idols? A passionate idolater would not give up as easily as they seem to. They don't react with rage, argument or defence. They are embarrassed: they have been shown up. This is a society of hypocrites.
  4. This woman, by contrast, is a true believer. Interesting that Abraham does not try and embarrass her. He doesn't say anything to her; he's recognised that she is a true believer.
    Why is she portrayed as a woman? As a counterpoint to him: she's the only woman in the story. The other customers are male, and hypocrites; she's a woman, and sincere.
  5. This may be a poke at Zoroastrianism.

Note the way Abraham is showing the idols in his story to Terach: he's showing the ideas as petty and and selfish: showing the idols as operating in the same way as their society.

And Terach has nothing to say to Abraham about this. Instead he hands him over to the king, whom he knows will kill him. The ultimate betrayal. (This sheds an interesting light on the Akedah.) And in doing such Terach is acting out the values of his society Abraham had been arguing against. For him, might is right.

On to Act II: in the palace. At first, Nimrod seems tolerant. It even comes across as funny, until the point Abraham suggests worshipping man. This is beyond the pale for polytheism.

Once again, might is right. This is the basis of Nimrod's power. Nimrod worships his own power, and will go to any lengths to preserve it.

By suggesting worshipping man, Abraham is ripping the mask off the system, and showing the whole thing is about power, and Nimrod's power in particular.

Nimrod answers Abraham by a recourse to violence, the same as Terach did.

Haran is the only person in this story who even considers that Abraham may be right. OTOH he may just be motivated by self-interest and survival.

Now note how matter-of-fact Abraham surviving the fact is. It's not even a sentence of its own; it's a subordinate clause! The Midrash is trying to say that surviving the fire is not the true miracle; the true miracle is Abraham's faith. And G-d cares how he behaves.

The use of fire (עור `ur in Hebrew) is also probably a pun: אור כשדים Ur of the Kasdim.

Note also how the onlookers don't fall to their faces like in the book of Jonah, or Elijah's showdown. They so much don't want to change that they go into denial, and turn straight to challenging Haran!

Note how Haran survives to walk out of the fire before dying. He is still divided. His faith is skin deep; it is his innards which are scorched.

Why does Terach leave Ur, then? Because he can't stay in town after all this?

Why does Terach take Lot with him? Because he's been responsible for his father's death. This also explains why Abraham seems to feel so responsible for Lot.

Avraham story

Date: 2006-02-26 06:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
We talked about this story a bid at a Marom evening. It was just shortly mentioned that Avraham's father threw him into the fire but it was in connection with why Avraham sacrifices his son Yitzchak. He tried to do the same with him as his father did.

Re: Avraham story

Date: 2006-02-26 07:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
That's an interesting way of looking at it; thanks for pointing it out to me. Though bear in mind, of course, that the text only talks about Abraham sacrificing Isaac; the incident with Teraḥ and Abraham was a midrashic commentary written hundreds of years later.

Re: Avraham story

Date: 2006-02-26 10:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Yes, I know that Midrash is written much later I just don't know when.

Date: 2006-02-27 12:55 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
A small correction -Its Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz not the other way around
I'll catch up with your postings over the next few days



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