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There was a famine in the Land (of Canaan). Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the Land (12:10).
Was this the right action on Abraham's part? Abraham's decision to leave the Promised Land to become a temporary resident of Egypt had two questionable aspects. Firstly, G-d specifically ordered him to go to what turned out to be the Land of Canaan, not Egypt. Secondly, as the text implies, his traveling to Egypt would be putting his wife Sarah into the danger of being abducted into Pharaoh's harem.
The Ramban criticizes Abraham for his unilateral decision to leave the Promised Land, stating that he had sinned 'by accident' - he acted wrongly in leaving it in the first place. Indeed, G-d is not recorded to have communicated with Abraham until he came back to the Promised Land.
The Midrash (Tanhuma 5) however claims that Abraham did do the right thing, and understands the whole episode to his credit. The famine was a test of his faith in G-d. Would he accept that G-d had different plans for him that he could not understand at the time - even if they were highly inconvenient and dangerous? Or would he lose faith and bemoan his fate? The text thus relates that Abraham did take his family down to Egypt without any murmur or grumble. And he succeeded in this test, bringing himself closer to the Almighty in the process.
But why did Abraham leave the country in the first place? It appears that all three patriarchs did so because there was not enough water for their way of life - the pastoral nomad. Water-shortage-induced famines occurred fairly frequently in Canaan, forcing the patriarchs to migrate (though in Isaac's case only to the borders of Canaan). And in Jacob's case, the drought forced the entire family down to Egypt, until - generations later - Moses led their numerous descendants back.
Why did Abraham not take the alternative - settle down within of one of the many walled-city states in Canaan, and abandon his migrant lifestyle of a 'stranger and sojourner' (23:4)? The text (and numerous cisterns from the period found by archaeologists) implies that Canaanite city-states were quite well-equipped to store water over long periods. And Abraham, if the Hittite rhetoric is read at face value, had status: he was indeed a 'prince of G-d' (23:6) amongst them. He could have obtained a good price for his sheep and cattle and taken up an urban occupation. After all, he appears to have grown up in the city of Ur (c.f. 11:28), which twentieth-century archaeology indicates to be one of the most advanced and sophisticated civilizations of the age.
An approach lies in the relationship Abraham had with the Canaanites, described in this parasha.
At the beginning, G-d told him that He would give Canaan to his descendants. But the Canaanites were 'then in the land'. They would remain until they had sinned sufficiently for the Israelites to take possession of their territory - and that would be a long time in the future: 'The fourth generation shall return here, for only then will the Amorites' (one of the Canaanite nations) sins merit it' (15:16; see Rashi ad loc).
As such Abraham - a highly moral personality - would take no favors from the Canaanites. Even when one of the Canaanite kings offered to pay Abraham richly for his services, he rejoined with: 'I will take nothing from you - not even a piece of string, or a shoelace' (14:23). And when he (and later Jacob) made a land purchase, he paid in full (and according to some commentaries, well over the going rate).
As the popular proverb goes (I have not found it explicit in any Torah-based source, but I believe it is there somewhere) 'Do not throw a stone in a well from which you have drank'. Indeed, the Torah orders us not to despise the Egyptians 'because you were strangers in their land' (Deut. 23:8). Rashi elaborates: even though they threw your children in the Nile, they gave you hospitality when you were in distress.
So Abraham's ethical policy was to avoid placing himself in any moral debt to the Canaanites. He would not enter their society and become one of them - he was better off doing business over the border, in a 'neutral' country. He would neither harm them nor take benefit from them, until the time and situation were appropriate for his descendants to come into their inheritance.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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