Imagine you’re an elderly man living a backwater town, say, in Texas. You’ve got a wife, a job and a small home next to your parents. It’s simple but comfortable. And one day a heavenly voice tells you in a dream to leave it all and move. Where would you go, which direction? What do you tell your wife and parents? How do you explain your move without having them call the local insane asylum?
To understand Abram, later Abraham, is to study his past. He came from Shem, the middle son of Noah. After the Flood, Noah divided the world and gave a portion to each son. Japheth, the eldest, took the Mediterranean region. Ham, the youngest son, was given Mesopotamia and Africa. And Shem received the Levant, including what was later the Land of Israel.
Shem was the weakest of the three. Ham soon took advantage and grabbed Shem’s portion. That left Shem empty and homeless. He stayed with his father in Mount Ararat, where the ark rested. Conditions were difficult with high winds, severe cold and poor soil.
Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, said Noah and Shem decided to initiate a new order about 100 years after the Flood. They had nothing to lose. They declared themselves universalists — one world, one language, one belief. That later extended to thought. There would be one opinion, dictated from on high. Intelligence was dismissed. The wise and the fool were the same. The individual had no rights, but that also meant that anybody could define himself any way he wished. A “he” could be a “she.” A “she” could be a “they.” Nobody cared.
It was in this period, known as the Generation of Division, that Abram grew up. His father was a senior minister to the dictator Nimrod, a descendant of Ham. Under Nimrod, the subjects built a huge city called Ur Kasdim, believed located in present-day Iraq. The city would contain a tower that could reach the sky. The idea was that anybody, no matter how far away, could see the tower and know where he was and reach civilization.
Then, Nimrod, like dictators after him, claimed divinity. That was too much for the young Abram who recognized G-d’s presence at age five. He rebelled against his father, Terah, who took care of Nimrod’s idols. Terah was concerned for his life, let alone his job. He turned in his son to the dictator. Hitler, Stalin and Xi would have been proud.
But Abram was saved by G-d, and he and his family fled to Charan. Even Terah joined. It seemed they were out of Nimrod’s reach. Abram was 75 years old. Maybe he should retire.
And then G-d spoke.
And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
Abram was accompanied by his wife Sarai, his nephew, Lot, and a cast of thousands who recognized G-d and rejected all imitators. They went west to the Land of Canaan, the son of Ham, who had seized the territory from Shem hundreds of years earlier. Abram had long wanted to make the move, but now he was operating under G-d’s commandment. Terah, however, did not want to leave Charan. He was still prominent and wealthy. The entire world knew that their escape was because they believed in G-d rather than Nimrod.
Abram left his father. He was driven by belief in one deity. He was also determined to reverse the theft of the land of his forefathers. G-d told Abram that this would be a long process. But he would no longer act merely as an agent of Shem. He would become a leader of a nation whose entire raison d’etre was belief in G-d. Universalism was out.
And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.
Nimrod watched all this from his palace in Ur Kasdim. Abram threatened Nimrod’s global domination. He formed a coalition and initiated a war along the border of Canaan. The coalition of four kings conquered an alliance composed of five kings. No one in this war believed in G-d. Their faith was power and greed. Abram did not intervene, even when the fighting approached his territory. This was not his war. His job was to build a nation of believers.
Finally, Nimrod saw his opportunity when he saw Lot, now living in Sodom. Abram’s nephew was abducted and the emperor hoped that this would draw Abram into a fight.
Abram did not disappoint. This was now personal. With just his servant, Eliezer, at his side, Abram routed Nimrod’s coalition, rescued Lot and the king of Sodom. The commentators say Abram was aided by G-d’s new rules. Until Noah, G-d responded to man’s inhumanity to man. Now, G-d would avenge any persecution of Abram and his family.
The king of Sodom approached Abram and offered a deal: Keep my possessions but return my men. Sodom would never have had the nerve to ask had he not witnessed Abram’s generosity to Malchizedek, the high priest. Abram said no and gave the king everything.
Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, ‘I have made Abram wealthy.’
Abram went home to continue his mission to build a nation of believers. This nation would not be dependent on others. It would not require the approval of other nations. There would be no need for alliances. G-d would supply everything. He would take the barren and elderly Abram and Sarai, change their names and give them children. Within four generations, those children would become a nation.
After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram; I am your shield; your reward is exceedingly great.”