This Bible portion begins with a bang.
God says to Abram (he gets a name change only later on): Go “to the land I will show you and I will turn you into a great nation… and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”
Just like that. No quid pro quo. And we know almost nothing about the man Abram. With Noah, the story was predicated by the Bible’s description of Noah as “righteous” who found favor in God’s eyes; only then does God speak to Noah and tell him to build an ark.
There is little we know about Abram before God addresses him so generously; but we learn in the previous portion of Abram’s lineage and his relocation.
First we know that Abram is the descendant from Shem, Noah’s firstborn. There is an incident after the flood in which Noah gets drunk and naked and Noah’s youngest son, Ham “father of Canaan,” calls his brothers to come look. The brothers, rather than look, cover their father up. When he wakes up and realizes what happened, Noah curses Canaan, Ham’s son, saying he will serve Shem. And now, generations later, God is making good on Noah’s words, telling Abram, Shem’s descendant, that he will inherit the land of Canaan. (Incidentally, Mitzrayim (Egypt) is Canaan’s brother and God’s antipathy for Egypt is on display throughout the Bible, including in this portion when God “plagues Egypt great plagues” for innocently mistaking Sarah as Abram’s sister, not his wife.) So it seems God has some scores to settle that are beyond Abram, the individual.
Second, we know Abram’s journey began long before God commanded him to get up and go “from your birthplace.” Abram’s father took his two sons from their native Ur Casdim (Ur of the Chaldees, in southern Iraq of today), following the unexplained death of a third son there “in front of Terah his father.” So Abram’s father leaves with him and his brother and their wives with the intention of going to Canaan, but they make it is far as Haran (Syria of today) and settle there. So when God’s calls on Abram to leave “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” Abram is in fact midway through that journey already.
While this background is interesting, it does not sufficiently explain why Abram merits such an overwhelming address by God.
As the story unfolds – and God repeats his promise to Abram that his offspring will be as innumerable as the stars and the sand – we learn more about Abram: he worships God (“calls out in the name of God”); he is very determined and courageous (rescuing his nephew Lot with 318 men, chasing a large army of several nations to near Damascus, vanquishing them); he is very adroit and wary of others (refusing to take any spoil, arguing “I won’t take a shoelace lest you say ‘I have enriched Abram'”); he is very rich; he has a very beautiful wife; he is quick to do what God tells him (circumcising himself and all the males on the very day God tells him) and, in the next portion, very hospitable to strangers. (In a word, the prototype for the Chabad rabbi.)
But the one thing God keeps reiterating to Abram on several separate occasions over the span of years is that Abram will have innumerable offspring. When Abram finally addresses God for the first time he says: “Adonai Adonai what can you give me when I am childless?” (Adonai Adonai is an unusual rendition of God’s name, which will appear again when God reveals to Moses His Thirteen Attributes.)
So this is the paradox in which Abram has been living for years: God tells Abram that he will have innumerable offspring; God even changes his name to Abraham which, according to God means, “father of a multitude of nations” – yet the reality is Abram is childless.
Rather than being magnanimous as it seems, God is putting Abram in a very tough situation: believe Me or believe reality.
What would we do? Believe God (essentially a voice in our head) or accept reality, thus rejecting that Voice in our head as unrealistic or non-sense – literally.
Abram does not reject God / the Voice in his head: “And he believed in God.”
In the end, Abraham does have children – including with his barren, post-menopause, 90-year-old wife, Sara. The unrealistic turned real, however unlikely by the rules of nature.
So the dialectic between God and Abraham is much more complex and loaded than God heaping blessings on Abraham and Abraham being faithful to God.
God is challenging Abraham to believe in the unrealistic. Abraham does, and the unrealistic becomes reality.
(But the challenges God poses to Abraham don’t end here, as will see in next week’s portion.)