After devoting its first two sections, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1–6:8) and Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32), to the first 2000 years of human history, the Torah moves on, in the section of Lech Lecha, to recount the origins of the people of Israel, which it traces to a divine call received by the first Jew in the 75th year of his life:
G‑d spoke to Abram: “Go you from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.
“I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make great your name . . . and all families of the earth will be blessed by you.”
Abram took with him his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions which they had acquired, and the souls which they had made in Charan; they set out to go to the land of Canaan, and they arrived in the land of Canaan.
Abram traversed the land to the area of Shechem, to the Plain of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.
G‑d appeared to Abram and said: “To your offspring I shall give this land.” And he built there an altar to G‑d . . . and he called in G‑d’s name.
The Egyptian Ordeal
No sooner do Abram and Sarai (as they are called until G‑d changes their names to “Abraham” and “Sarah” in the closing chapter of our Parshah) arrive in the land of Canaan, than they are forced by famine to “descend” to Egypt (the Torah refers to all journeys to the Holy Land as “ascents,” and all departures from it to other lands as “descents”). And then the journey to Egypt brings on a new trouble:
As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai: “Behold, now I am aware that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians will see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will kill me and leave you live. Please, say that you are my sister, in order that it be good with me for your sake, and my soul shall live because of you.”
Abram’s fears are confirmed. Sarai’s beauty is discovered and praised as fit for a king, and she is taken to the Pharaoh’s palace. Abram, as her supposed brother, is given “sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, maids, she-donkeys and camels.”
A sudden plague visited upon the royal palace convinces Pharaoh to return the visitor’s “sister” to him, and further compensate him for the suffering caused him. Abram returns to the Holy Land a wealthy man, “laden with cattle, gold and silver.”
The Break with Lot
Soon after the return to Canaan, discord breaks out in Abram’s family. Lot, who had accompanied his uncle throughout his travels and travails, was also enriched in the process; now there developed a conflict between Abram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds.
Abram said to Lot: “Please, let there not be strife between me and you, between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brothers. The entire land is before you—please, separate from me. If you turn to the left, I’ll go right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”
Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, enticed by the fertility of its environs, despite the fact that its residents were “extremely evil and sinful towards G‑d.”
Following Lot’s departure, G‑d again appears to Abram and reiterates His promise of the land to Abram’s descendents:
“Lift your eyes and look from the place in which you stand, to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west; for all the land which you see, I will give to you and to your seed forever.
“I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man can count the grains of dust in the earth, so too shall your offspring be able to be counted. Arise and traverse the land to its length and its breadth, for to you shall I give it.”
The Torah now describes a regional conflict which engulfed the city-states of the land of Canaan.
Twenty-five years before Abram’s arrival in the Holy Land, an alliance of four kings headed by Chedorlaomer the king of Elam conquered the five city-states of the Sodom Valley (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Tzevoyim and Tzoar). After twelve years of subjugation and tribute, the “five cities of the plain” rebelled. For thirteen years they persisted in their insubordination, until Chedorlaomer and his allies decided it was time to put down the rebellion.
The four kings massed their armies and marched to the Sodom Valley. On the way they fought a number of battles, defeating the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, the Horites, the Amalekites and the Emorites. They then proceeded to rout the armies of Sodom and its sister cities. The cities of the plain were pillaged and their inhabitants taken captive. Among the captives was Abram’s nephew Lot. A refugee brought the news to Abram’s camp:
When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he rallied the trained servants of his household, three hundred and eighteen in number, and chased after [the four kings and their armies] to Dan.
He and his servants split up against them by night and smote them, pursuing them until Chovah, which is to the left of Damascus. He recovered all the property; also his kinsman Lot and his property were recovered, and also the women and the people.
The grateful king of Sodom offered to Abram all the recovered property as his reward, asking only that he restore to him the freed captives, but Abram replied:
“I have lifted my hand in oath to G‑d most high, Possessor of Heaven and Earth: Not a thread nor a shoestrap, nor shall I take anything that is yours; lest you say: ‘It was I who made Abram rich.’ Save only that which the lads have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshkol and Mamre—they shall take their share.”
Upon his return from the battlefield, Abram is also greeted by Malki-Tzedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem), who was “a priest of the most high G‑d.” The king (whom the Midrash identifies as Abram’s ancestor, Shem the son of Noah), brought an offering of bread and wine, and blessed Abram; Abram gave him a tenth of his wealth, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of maaser (tithing).
Abram’s amazing victory, in which he and a handful of servants and friends defeated the armies which had terrorized the entire region, evoked in him not feelings of satisfaction and self-confidence, but of humility and inadequacy. Certainly, he thought to himself, the miracles which G‑d had performed for him had more than rewarded all his good deeds; he felt shorn of his merits and no longer worthy of the blessings which G‑d had bestowed upon him.
And of what use are all these blessings, he further mused, if he and Sarai are childless? Abram had passed his seventh decade, and Sarai was but ten years younger; what was the point of their achievements, if there would be no one to carry on their name and path?
G‑d appears to Abram in a vision to reassure him: “Fear not, Abram, I am your protector; your reward will yet be great.” G‑d also reiterates His promise of the great nation which will issue from him. Earlier, G‑d had promised Abram that his progeny shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth; now He compared them to the stars of the heavens:
He took him outside, and said: “Look now toward heaven and count the stars, if you be able to count them. . . . So shall be your offspring.”
The Torah then describes how G‑d and Abram forged a special covenant—the “Covenant Between the Parts”—in which the destiny of the Jewish people was foretold. The Holy Land is bequeathed to them as their eternal heritage, but first they must experience galut (exile and persecution).
[Abram] said: “L‑rd G‑d, by what shall I know that I shall inherit it?” And He said to him: “Take Me three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young pigeon.”
He took to him all these, and he split them in the middle, and he placed each half opposite its fellow; the birds, however, he did not divide.
The eagle descended upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
As the sun was near to setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, a horror of great darkness fell upon him.
And He said to Abram: “Know surely that your descendants shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved to them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.
“And also that nation whom they shall serve will I judge; and afterwards they shall come out with great wealth.”
When the sun went down and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace and a burning torch, which passed between those pieces.
On that day G‑d made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.”
Ten years had elapsed since Abram’s arrival in the land of Canaan, and still Sarai was childless. So she proposed to Abram that he take her handmaid, Hagar, as a wife; “perhaps I shall obtain children by her.”
Hagar conceived, and began behaving haughtily toward her mistress. Sarai responded by asserting her mastery over her maid and treating her harshly, causing Hagar to flee Abram’s home.
An angel of G‑d found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain on the way to Shur. He said: “Hagar the maid of Sarai! From where do you come and where do you go?” And she said: “I flee from my mistress, Sarai.”
An angel of G‑d said to her: “Return to your mistress, and suffer under her hand.”
An angel of G‑d said to her: “I will multiply your seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.”
An angel of G‑d said to her: “Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael (‘G‑d has heard’), for G‑d has heard your affliction.
“He will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand will be against him.”
Ishmael was born in Abram’s 86th year.
A Father of Multitudes
Another thirteen years go by. Abram and Sarai have now been in the Holy Land for 24 years, most of them in the Plain of Mamre at Hebron.
At age 99, Abram’s life enters a new phase. G‑d appears to him and changes his and Sarai’s names:
"No longer shall your name be called Abram. Your name shall be Abraham (‘Father of Multitudes’), for I have made you a father of a multitude of nations. . . . As for Sarai your wife, you shall no longer call her name Sarai, but Sarah (‘Princess’) shall be her name.”
Sarah, G‑d promises, will bear a son, from whom shall spring the great nation which is to issue from them.
Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said in his heart: Shall a child be born to one who is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?
Abraham said to G‑d: “Would that Ishmael shall live before You!”
No, said, G‑d, the nation with which I shall establish My special bond will be the offspring of a child that will be born to you and Sarah, whom you should name Isaac (Yitzchak, in the Hebrew, meaning “laughter”). Ishmael, too shall be blessed: “I will make him fruitful, and multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
The new phase in Abraham’s relationship with G‑d is to be marked by Abraham and his household “setting My covenant in your flesh”:
“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”
The section of Lech Lecha concludes:
Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. On that very day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his household—those born in the house and those purchased from a stranger—were circumcised with him.