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et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis

 

Abraham and the Opening of the West and the Founding of a New Nation
Bereshith: The Matrix of Life in Covenant


Daniel J. Elazar


The God-induced dispersion as a result of the Tower of Babel incident leads to the beginning of the westward movement that is to produce Western civilization. It begins at the end of Chapter 11 with the westward migration of the Hebrews (the sons of Ever, great-grandson of Shem), beginning with Terah who starts out from Mesopotamia for Canaan and gets as far as Haran in what is today north central Syria, at the beginning of the lands of the West. Terah's migration, which apparently took place in the nineteenth century before the common era, marks a turning point in more ways than one.

Until this point, all the migrations mentioned in the Bible have been eastward (3:24, 4:16, 11:2), or, in one case, northward (10:11). Terah initiates the westward migration of Western civilization, which is to continue for some 3800 years and to become one of the major factors in shaping the West as well as one of its most common themes. That migration, of which Terah is first representative, is to take Western man across the Mediterranean Sea, Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and the American continents to the Pacific, while an offshoot is to turn northward across the Black Sea, the European steppes and then eastward across Siberia and Alaska as far as northern California. There at the very beginning of the nineteenth century of the common era, after circling the globe, the two strands are to reunite at Ft. Ross, a Russian outpost in Spanish territory then being penetrated by Americans. It reflected the conquest of the world by the West, a conquest which was to become very apparent in the course of the nineteenth century, in the course of which the Jewish people, the children of Abraham, were to begin their return to the land promised to him by God.

The beginning of the westward movement is also the beginning of God's effort to control human weakness without destroying humanity through the singling out of a single person and his descendants who will come under His special providence. It is the first step toward what will be the focal point of the Bible, namely the founding and development of a new society, Israel, living under a Divine constitution in a land chosen for them by God, and in covenant with Him. The chapter emphasizes two decisive themes:


the relationship between migration and new starts and
the relationship between the Israelites as a people and Canaan as a land to the two great pillars of the ancient world, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

In dealing with them, it also spells out the elements of primordial human linkage while presenting the first step toward repairing the breach between God and humanity brought about by man's attempt to challenge Heaven at Babel.

The Bible can be read here as the record of a series of Divine experiments. With Abraham God tries a new tack after His earlier failures. God's first effort, with Adam, was to create a creature with sufficient intelligence to manage His garden but naturally innocent and thus uninterested in challenging Heaven. The combination of man and woman, however, undo God's plan. Humans lose their innocence by gaining knowledge of good and evil, thereby arousing God's fear that they will indeed challenge Him.

God tries to remedy this by requiring humans to work hard and make their way in the world only with pain; this is His second effort. But humans show their mettle, are inventive, and soon are in liaison with beings from heaven, gain in power without any more restraint. So God wipes them out by flood, saving only one family for a new beginning.

God makes a third try with Noah and his sons. This time He decides to harness humans through a pact that firmly establishes the partnership and its moral basis. Not only does Noah disappoint Him but, worse, humanity as a whole challenges Heaven at Babel. As we have seen, God strikes back forcefully. So much for the third attempt. Abraham, then, represents a fourth attempt, one which will bring God into a special relationship with one nation tied to Him not only by covenant but through a specific teaching and constitution.