When God Moves to the Background

The character of God, until now always at the fore, recedes to the background. A far cry from Creation or the flood, God is now felt in smaller, but critically important, ways from the perspective of the individual. 
Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century.
The character of God, until now always at the fore, recedes to the background. A far cry from Creation or the flood, God is now felt in smaller, but critically important, ways from the perspective of the individual. Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century.

This week’s portion marks an important shift in the Biblical narrative: the character of God, until now always at the fore, recedes to the background. God’s covenant with Abraham sealed, Abraham’s love/faith in Him proven, the stage is set for the coming generations. God has already told Abraham of the period of slavery that his descendants will experience in Egypt (“You shall know that your seed will be strangers in a land not theirs and they will enslave them… and then they will leave with great wealth… the fourth generation shall return here”).

So now God takes a step back and lets the story play itself out. God will appear only very occasionally to Isaac and Jacob and while they hear God, there is almost no conversation with Him.

This shift is manifest in this week’s portion, which consists of two stories – Abraham’s buying a cave to bury Sarah, and the journey of Abraham’s servant to find a wife for Isaac – both interesting stories but ones which could easily been summed up in a few passages each. Yet the Bible plays them out, especially the search for a wife for Isaac, which is particularly detailed with all the trappings of a melodrama – loyalty, suspense, a beautiful maiden, Providence, riches and dealing with the future in-laws.

The control of the narrative by Whoever wrote the Bible is stunning, and the indulgence in detailed storytelling, when it appears, is, in my view, very deliberate. So what it is about these two stories that the Bible feels compelled to spend so much time on?

This week’s portion dwells on the story of making Aliyah, with Abraham the archetype of the new immigrant to the Land of Israel. Propelled by the voice of God or “faith,” Abraham moves to the Promised Land. He doesn’t mix well with the locals and he is reluctant to settle down permanently — he never “buys an apartment.” It is only when he is forced to, with the need to find a place to bury his wife, that Abraham makes an actual purchase of land, a transaction which the Bible makes a point of describing, thus cementing his presence in his adopted homeland.

The story then continues with finding a wife for Isaac. With the first Jew, comes the first worried parent as to who his child will marry. Little has changed since. And this is precisely why the story of a servant searching for the “perfect match” is so timeless. But the instructions Abraham gives to his faithful servant are paradoxical yet familiar to an immigrant to Israel: on the one hand, Abraham orders his servant to “go back to my birthplace” to pick a wife who will have a similar cultural/family background, yet he stipulates that she must be willing to “make Aliyah.” If she insists on staying where she is – forget it.

These stories are a far cry from the earlier manifestations of God in the stories of the Bible until now: creation, the flood, the destruction of Sodom, near-sacrifice of Isaac. At the same time, they are much closer to home: buying a grave site, finding a bride.

Yet the presence of God is felt in these things which are very small from the universal perspective, but critically important, from the perspective of the individual. We cannot help but be moved by the hard-to-conceal joy of Abraham’s faithful servant as he recounts the success of his mission: “And I bowed down to God, and I blessed God, the God of my master Abraham, who guided me on the path of truth…”

This may be a far cry from the act of Creation or the flood — but for the individual, it is no less impactful.  The servant’s loyalty to Abraham, his determination to carry out his mission as an act of duty and faith, mimics Abraham’s loyalty and trust in God. And as God’s munificence is writ large with Abraham, it is also manifest, in a more modest but not less touching way, with Abraham’s servant.

In a word, with God in background, the Bible story becomes more personal – and, in that respect, perhaps more relevant. These stories may give us hope that we today might just find some small manifestations of God’s munificence, as Abraham’s servant did. That God has moved from the foreground to the background in the Bible story, does by no means indicate that He is not present.

About the Author
Jacob Dallal, who lives not far from where Jonah set sail in Jaffa to escape God, is writing on the Bible portion, focusing on its characters, especially on the character of God.
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