Scholars call the first 11 chapters of Genesis “the Primeval History.” It’s about the beginnings of human life on planet Earth. Individual characters do appear for brief episodes, but the continuity in the story, the main character with whom God interacts, is the human race as a whole. For a while – as we read last week – that consisted of just Noah and his family, but soon enough they too once again multiplied and filled the earth.
Now, with the beginning of Genesis 12, we focus in on one character from one family of all those on earth: Abram. From this point on, there is a more or less continuous story about him and his descendants that goes all the way through Genesis and into the first paragraph of the book of Exodus, where the family changes into the people of Israel, the subject of almost all the rest of the Bible.
In Gen 17:5 Abram’s name will be changed to Abraham, with an extra ה, but for most of this week’s reading, he is still named Abram as he was in Parshat Noach, and that’s what I will call him. Not just Abram’s name, but three Hebrew words from last week’s reading help shape this week’s reading too.
More or less out of the blue, at the beginning of Genesis 12, the Lord says to Abram the famous words that give this week’s reading its name: לך לך lekh lekha – “Get a move on!” And Abram just does it. How he’s acquainted with God, and what his experience was when God spoke to him and gave him this command, we don’t really know.
Fast forward to Genesis 15, and the land Abram goes to is promised as a gift to him and his descendants. V. 18 summarizes what has happened:
On that day YHWH made a covenant with Abram: ‘To your offspring, I give this land – from the River of Egypt to the great River Euphrates.’
There is a lot to say about this promise, and the ten nations that are listed after it, and about the chapter as a whole, but we have still not been told: Why was Abraham given this gift? Here is where the first of the three words that point back to last week’s reading comes into play.
If you were to compare Abraham and Noah, I think most people would say off of the top of their heads that Abraham was probably the more righteous of them. But that’s not what the Bible says. The Bible tells us, almost as soon as Noah is introduced into the story, that he was a righteous man (צדיק, tzadik) – something that Abraham is never called. The one expression that comes close to saying this is in our chapter, in Gen 15:6, where a similar-sounding word, צדקה tzedakah, is ascribed either to Abram or to God, it is not clear which.
Another word that links the two stories is התהלך hithallekh, grammatically the Hitpael of the common verb הלך halakh, which means “to walk” or simply “to go,” the same verb that gives us the lekh of Lekh Lekha. When you put this verb into the Hitpa’el pattern, you are no longer going anywhere in particular. It is the action of walking that matters, not the destination.
But in the Torah you must be someone special to “walk” in this way. The first to do it is YHWH, who frightens Adam and Eve when they become aware that God is strolling through the garden in Gen 3:8. The next is Enoch, who “walked” with God for 500 years (Gen 5:22) and then “was gone” because God took him (Gen 5:24). The next is Noah.
The same verse that tells us Noah is righteous, Gen 6:9, also tells us that Noah “walked with God,” using this special form of the verb. Abram is told to do so, in Gen 13:17 in this week’s reading, and others assert that he did so, in Gen 24:40 and 48:15, but the Torah itself never says he did so.
Noah, however, was righteous – indeed, perfect (תמים, tamim, our third connector word) and walked with God. Yet in the last chapter of this week’s reading God must still command Abram: “Walk [hithallekh] before me and be perfect [tamim].” Why is this mysterious covenant being made with Abram and not with Noah, when Noah already was what Abram had to be told over and over again to be?
In this third episode of Genesis, it seems, God has realized that neither creating someone perfect nor picking someone perfect has helped move the plan forward. See Genesis 9, where Noah, the perfect, righteous man who walked with God, comes out of the ark and gets drunk.
Instead, God seems to have decided, “I need to pick somebody I can work with. If I just choose someone and leave them to their own devices, the plan will not succeed.”
The Torah never makes clear why God created the world and what God anticipated would happen – yet there is clearly some purpose to it all, something that God wants. In next week’s reading, Abram, his name changed to Abraham, will go along (but not walk along) with God’s apparent command to sacrifice his son. Whether or not that is a good thing, the introduction to that story hints that it is part of God’s way to understand this new, and by then long-standing, relationship.