You probably didn’t notice anything unusual about the first verse in Lech Lecha. God bestows prophesy upon Avraham and speaks to him ..וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הֹ’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ “And God said to Avraham go forth..” (Bereishis,12:1)! We learned in fourth grade that Avraham is someone who embodies Chessed – loving kindness – so we think nothing of this sudden gift of prophecy. However, the Midrash Rabbah On Parshat Lech Lecha is more discerning.
At this point, all we know about Avraham is some brief genealogical information and the fact that his family was traveling to Canaan but settled in Charan. At least in the case of Noach, before God spoke to him, the Torah tells us that וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃ “Noach found favor in God’s eyes” (Bereishis, 4:8). In the case of Moshe, it was no surprise that God reached out to him to lead the exodus. After all, Moshe he gave up a comfortable life in Pharaoh’s palace to identify with his downtrodden brothers – וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם “He went out to his brothers and saw their suffering (Shemot 2:11).
Earning prophesy by questioning God’s fairness
So what did Avraham do to merit prophecy? What’s most unusual is that the Midrash’s answers are not predicated on anything that Avraham did previously. Rather, what Avraham was going to say in the future when God was about to destroy Sodom . Furthermore, Avraham seems to have earned prophesy by questioning the way God administers judgment?
In the opinion of Rabbi Acha, Avraham accuses God of breaking his promise to never again bring a flood to the world:
מַבּוּל שֶׁל מַיִם אֵין אַתָּה מֵבִיא, מַבּוּל אֵשׁ אַתָּה מֵבִיא
“Although you’re not bringing a flood of water, you are bringing a flood of fire.”
Rabbi Levi offers a novel interpretation of Avraham’s famous pleaהֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כׇּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט ׃ “Will the (supreme) judge of the world not render justice (Bereishis 18:25)? However, according to Rabbi Levi, Avraham’s question can be interpreted as a declarative statement:
אִם עוֹלָם אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ אֵין דִּין, וְאִם דִּין אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ אֵין עוֹלָם, “if God wants the world to survive, there can’t be strict judgement. And if You insist on strict judgement, the world cannot survive” (Bereishis Rabbah 30:15).
It seems that instead of earning the ire of God, these arguments earned him God’s enduring love and God bestowed prophecy upon him. The Midrash sums it up with a beautiful verse from Tehillim:
רַבִּי עֲזַרְיָה מִשֵּׁם רַבִּי אַחָא פָּתַח (תהלים מה, ח): אָהַבְתָּ צֶדֶק וַתִּשְׂנָא רֶשַׁע עַל כֵּן מְשָׁחֲךָ אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן שָׂשׂוֹן מֵחֲבֵרֶךָ “Rabbi Azaria in the name of Rav Acha started (the discussion with the verse) ‘You (Avraham) love righteousness and hate wickedness therefore the Lord your God anointed you, over all your contemporaries with the oil of joy.’” (Tehillim 45:8).
Needless to say, it was no issue for God to bestow his love (and prophesy) on Avraham based on a future event. God is above time. Past, present and future are one. However, it is truly beautiful to reflect on the fact that God loved Avraham’s fierce dedication to honesty, fairness, and righteousness. Which even extended to those whom the rest of us write off as wicked people who got what they deserved.
What is the “oil of Joy?”
Perhaps this can be explained by the commentator, Eits Yoseph, who described the nature of prophecy. It brings joy to the one receiving it because the person experiences the ultimate in the pursuit of truth – the world of God. Furthermore, it’s joyous for the prophet because prophecy is primarily designed to strengthen the Jewish people’s faith in God.
In the case of Avraham “oil of Joy” could be an anthropomorphic expression of God’s joy to have found someone who defended mankind as much as Avraham.