“Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1, NKJV).[i]
In this opening chapter in Genesis, we see that God has chosen Avram (Abram), yet it gives us no indication of what motivation? Noah’s election in previous chapters is obvious for the Lord said that Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. He had found favor in God’s eyes and was chosen to save a remnant of humanity. But this scripture gives us no background information. The following Mashal seeks to fill in the missing gaps and answer a fundamental question, why did God choose Abram?[ii]
The opening words or words that start (dibur hamat’hil):
And God said to Abram: Go, you, from your land (Figure 1)…
The prooftext, e.g., a verse from another part of the bible used for commentary (Petihta):
R. Yitzhak opened: “Listen, daughter, and see and turn your ear and forget your people and your father’s house” (Psalm 45:10).
The Midrashic story, i.e., narrative expansion and parable (Mashal):
R. Yitzhak said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress illuminated/burning.
He said, “Will you say this fortress has no governor?”
The master of the fortress peeped out at him.
He said to him, “I am the master of the fortress.”
The explanation of the Midrashic story (Nimshal):
Thus, because our father Abram would say, “Will you say this world has no governor?”
The Holy One Blessed be He peeped out at him and said to him, “I am the Master of the world.”
The concluding verse from Psalms with commentary:
“And the king will desire your beauty”—to beautify you in the world;
“because he is your master and bow to him,” (Psalm 45:11) that is, “And God said to Abram…”
In clarifying the translation of the Mashal’s words, “fortress” and “burning,” we realize in the context of the Tanach, they mean “capital city” and “illuminated.” In contrast, we might read: “This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw an “illuminated capital city.” In this Midrash, the rabbis have intentionally chosen a more ambiguous translation. We will unveil its duplicity.
Let us draw some deeper conclusions of this story about Abram as we match the Mashal and the Nimshal. This will allow us to reveal the metaphoric elements as they relate to our biblical understanding:
As we can see, there are several missing elements in the Nimshal. With an understanding of both Old and New Testament scripture, let us fill them in (parenthesis):
It is clear from even linear interpretation (Peshat), that Abram is a nomad, having left his home and family in Ur of the Chaldeans, he is traveling to the land of Canaan. He is the one passing from place to place when he sees a fortress that is burning. Abram’s travels are more than physical. He is on a spiritual journey as well, asking questions about God. He can see the things of this world. It is a world that is burning or turning to ashes, being destroyed by sin and human corruption. Abram’s question is rhetorical: “Will you say this world has no governor?” He is not looking for information, rather stating the obvious: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). But why is this master allowing the fortress to burn?
The master of this fortress peeps out, seemingly hidden from this world, and responds: “I am the master of this fortress.” When God reveals Himself to Abram, it is both as creator and His immanent presence in the world. God has been hiding in this world waiting for an Abram to whom He can reveal Himself. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
So, Abram is asking this question: “I see a beautifully created world burning and turning to ashes, yet its invisible attributes speak to a divine creator and governor. Is there a master who is in control of this fallen world, and does this master have a plan to save it?” A skeptical society assumes that God has abandoned the world He created. But the master has already stated: “I am the master of this fortress.” It is a response that says: “I am sovereign over my creation, and I will do with it as I will.”
Here we unveil the duplicity when we understand Abram’s quest to comprehend God’s motivation for allowing a fallen world to continue in its corruption; we would also understand that God’s choosing Abram was exactly for this reason; that Abram was searching for a different spiritual reality. Abram was searching for a city whose builder and maker is God, a capital city that is not burning to ashes but is illuminated and shining with the glory of God.
In the book of James we read: “By faith he [Abram] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10). Where did this language come from for it is not mentioned in the Old Testament? It was most likely derived from the Jewish disciples’ knowledge of Midrash in their context of trying to understand the hidden meanings contained with scripture. We now can understand the word of God with the revelation of the New Testament. And so know this capital city is the New Jerusalem, the place from which God the King will govern the whole earth. “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).
The last point of the Mashal to unfold is the opening and closing Psalm: “Listen, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house; so the King will greatly desire your beauty; because He is your Lord, worship Him.” (Psalm 45:10-11). God commanded Abram to leave his father’s house, his people, and his land. But Abram in his quest for the seeking the creator of this world had already opened his heart to this possibility and abandoned his past before God ever spoke to him. God can now speak to Abram as master since Abram has acknowledged God by seeking Him out.
God desired that Abram become a source of blessing to the whole world, setting before him a moral imperative to obey His commandment to leave everything of this world behind. This correlates with the next two verses in Genesis: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). Thus, the answer to our original question, why did God choose Abram is answered in this Midrash. God chose Noah because he was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. But when God was searching for a man who would bring the hope of salvation to the whole earth, He needed someone who himself had already yearned to bring that message to humankind. God revealed Himself to Abram because Abram was searching for God. And, God chose Abram because Abram had already chosen God.