VaYera: Genesis 12 – The Reprise
Last week’s parashah is called “Lekh Lekha” from the words God said to Abram near the beginning of Genesis 12, לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ ‘Get going’. Genesis 22 begins with God saying exactly those same words, lekh lekha, to Abraham (as he is called by now).
It’s no coincidence. There is actually a very significant parallel between Gen 12:1 and Gen 22:2, the two verses where this expression occurs. Both not only include this command by God, they also command Abraham to do something else – and they do it in triple fashion.
Here’s Gen 12:1 again:
The LORD told Abram: Get going …
- מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ me-artzekha‘from your country’
- מִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ mi-molad’t’kha‘from your home’
- מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ mi-beit avikha‘from your father’s house’
to the land that I will show you.
(In Modern Hebrew, that word moledet means “homeland,” but in Biblical Hebrew it more often means “family.” I use “home” to combine both meanings.)
Abram, then, is being told to leave three things behind: #1, the country he is living in; #2, his home; and #3, his father’s house. He is also told to “go” to one place: “the land that I will show you.”
The story of the Akedah has a similar threefold command. In v. 2, God tells Abraham (as he is by now) to take …
- אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ et-binkha‘your son’
- אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ et-yeḥidkha asher ahavta‘your only one, whom you love’
- אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק et-yitzḥak‘Isaac’
and לֶךְ־לְךָ֔ lekh lekha ‘get going’ …
on one of the mountains that I will tell you.
You might think “take” is followed by four phrases here and not three. I have lined them up to match the three places Abram must leave “from” (mi– or me-) in Genesis 12 with the three et direct object markers in Genesis 22 to show the pattern. But one of them is twice as long as the others, seemingly adding a fourth part to the threefold command. (The pattern in Gen 21:3 also suggests this.) This could be deliberate. It would copy a pattern we know from other writing in the ancient Near East: the n/n + 1 pattern. In this pattern, you take (say) three things and add another one to them to make it even more so.
For example, Prov 30:18:
Three things are beyond me
Four things I cannot fathom
In this case, 3 + 4 does not mean there are 7 incomprehensible things. It means a lot of things – three, even four, and perhaps it could be more. We know that because the unfathomable things are listed in the next verse, not seven of them, but four:
1 the way of an eagle in the sky
2 the way of a snake on a rock
3 the way of a ship in the heart of the sea
4 the way of a man with a maiden
The beginning of the book of Amos is famous for this same pattern: “for three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four” (Amos 1:3, and the same pattern repeats through the chapter and on into chapter 2). In Genesis 22, et marks three phrases, but the famous midrash in which Abraham responds to God reads four. God says, “Your son,” and Abraham insists, “I have two!” “Your only one.” Abraham says, “Each is his mother’s only son!” God presses further: “Whom you love,” to which Abraham responds, “I love them both!”
“Isaac” – and Abraham cannot respond.
Then God says the words that preceded the command in Genesis 12: lekh lekha.
I said last week that those words mean something like “Get a move on” or “Get going!” They’re followed in our text by instructions to go to the land of Moriah and to “offer him up” there, followed by yet another link to Genesis 12: “on one of the mountains that I will tell you.”
The result, then, is that there are three separate things that link the beginning of Genesis 12 and the beginning of Genesis 22:
- lekh lekha– 1/2/3 – “I will show you”
- 1/2/3 – lekh lekha– “I will tell you”
Now, at the end of Genesis 11 Abram’s father Terah was already bringing the family west, bringing Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot out of Ur of the Chaldeans with him, on their way to the land of Canaan.
When they get to Haran, instead of continuing to Canaan, they stop and settle down. Eventually, Terah dies. Nonetheless, when the Lord tells Abram to “go to the land that I will show you,” it may well be that Abram heard the words lekh lekha to mean not “get going” but “keep going” – “keep going, finish your father’s journey.”
This parallel instruction at the beginning of Genesis 22 – apparently, to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice – is surely not something that Terah had set out to do. But if Abram heard lekh lekha in Genesis 12 as “keep going,” he may also have understand this matching command from God in the same way: Keep going on the path that you have been following and on the journey that you and your father set out on all those years ago.
Now we must ask: If lekh lekha means “keep going,” was Abram chosen as the son of Terah, who had made the original decision to go to Canaan? This would certainly fit in with Genesis 15, the story of the “covenant between the pieces,” where God seems to want someone who will raise a family to become a nation that will replace the current inhabitants of Canaan.
If Terah was already trying to bring a family to Canaan, the command at the beginning of Genesis 12 was perhaps not much of a challenge for his son. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This harder test in Genesis 22 may have been a way for God to find out whether Terah’s son would go the extra mile.
But there is one more question which will have to remain unanswered for now. Why was it that Terah decided to move to Canaan? If we understood that, we might understand more about the mysterious back story that the Torah does not quite provide – the reason this family, of all the families of earth, became the people of Israel.