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929 Project: Genesis 12 – mandatory and voluntary

July 30, 2018

Genesis 12:10:

ויהי רעב בארץ וירד אברם מצרימה לגור שם כי כבד הרעב בארץ

And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.  (KJV)

The commentary on the 929 website by Matthew Kritz on this passage is quite good:

The (In)consequential in Genesis

Should Avraham have gone to Egypt? Was his decision righteous,wicked, or neutral? Throughout the biblical text, we have two clear indicators of when someone has done right or wrong: God can give a directive prior to the act, and God can bestow a reward or a punishment upon the doer following the act. Clear examples in Avraham’s life include the journey to Canaan (12:1-9) and the binding of Yitzchak ([22]:1-18); in both cases, God gives an instruction, Avraham (mostly) follows through, and God bestows a reward.  We could read much of Genesis this way, and using these indicators, we could determine who has acted well in the stories, and hence what it would mean for us to act well.

Neither of these indicators is present, though, when Avraham descends to Egypt. We are simply told that he chose to journey south due to a famine. But if a purported goal of Genesis is to teach us how to live, by providing examples of right and wrong, how shall we read an account of a key character taking action with neither divine directive nor divine response?

Later interpreters find a reward, such as the wealth Avraham earns (Tanchuma), or a punishment, such as the descent of Avraham’s children to Egypt, leading to their servitude (Ramban), lurking within the story, allowing them to judge Avraham favorably or harshly.

On the surface, however, Avraham simply goes, leaving no clear indication of whether he made the right choice, as the telling of a story does not, on its own, tell us whether the characters are positive or negative role models.

This suggests that some stories in Genesis (namely, those that lack both of the evaluative components) are not recorded in order to teach an actionable lesson,  but for some other reason. So at the core of this exegetical exploration of a brief step in Avraham’s journey lies an essential question in reading Genesis specifically, and narrative components of the Torah in general. Need there be a message? If there are stories that aren’t trying to teach lessons, then what are they trying to do? And what bearing does this have on how we understand the function of Genesis, and the Torah, as a whole?

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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