Avraham and Terach's Migration to Canaan

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





By Rav Yonatan Grossman

Avraham and Terach's Migration to Canaan


The beginning of our parasha surprises us with God's sudden revelation to Avraham (still named "Avram" at this stage). Until this moment we have learned nothing of Avraham's personality or his uniqueness, and the very fact of God's revelation is unexpected. The content of the revelation is even more surprising, considering that we find here the most significant selection made in all of Tanakh – the selection of Avraham and his descendants: "And I shall make you into a great nation and I shall bless you."

Apparently, the text seeks to portray an absolute selection, not based on specific actions – for then one could imagine that if these actions ceased, so would the selection. Avraham's selection seemingly is dependent on nothing and therefore cannot be questioned.

It is clear, however, that Avraham found favor in God's eyes, and that the Holy One approved of his actions. The text itself hints at this (prior to the destruction of Sedom): "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will observe the way of God, to perform justice and judgment" (18:19). In other words, Avraham's world is based on strong moral foundations. Such a person, who places morality at the center of his children's education, is a suitable messenger for the values that God wishes to introduce. And so Avraham is asked to build this world of ethics in Eretz Yisrael – the land that is special to God. But it is specifically the fact that later on the text hints at the reason for Avraham's selection, which makes its absence here so striking.

In this discussion, we shall focus on the second part of the text – in other words, not on the lack of details about Avraham prior to his selection, but rather on what we are told about him, in the background to his aliya to Eretz Yisrael.

We heard something of this background at the conclusion of last week's parasha:

"And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot, son of Charan – his son's son, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, wife of Avram his son. And they departed with him from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and they dwelled there." (11:31)

It seems that Avram was not the first member of the family who thought of going to Canaan. Terach, his father, had begun a similar journey ("to go to the land of Canaan"), and even took part of his family with him. But he never completed his intended journey; he remained in Charan.

The Torah then tells us of Terach's death, and immediately thereafter describes God's revelation to Avraham and His command to go "to the land which I will show you." At first glance, it seems that the command is meant simply to tell Avram to continue in the endeavor started by his father, to continue the journey to Eretz Canaan. If this is so, one could logically claim that in fact the story of the selection of the Israelite nation begins with Terach, and not with Avraham.

Before starting a discussion comparing the aliya (or attempted aliya) of Terach to Canaan and that of Avraham, let us take note of another surprise contained in these verses. After the text describes how Terach dwelled in Charan (in the middle of his journey towards Canaan), we read: "And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years, and Terach died in Charan" (verse 32). This information concludes parashat Noach, and the text moves directly on to God's revelation to Avraham. We may thus summarize Terach's life, using all the information supplied explicitly in the text, as follows:

At age 70: his children – Avram, Nachor and Charan – are born.

At age 205: he dies in Charan.

We may add one more detail: when Avraham leaves Charan for Canaan, the text tells us: "And Avram was seventy five years old when he departed from Charan" (12:4). If Avraham was born when Terach was 70 years old, then when Avraham left Charan for Canaan at God's command, Terach would have been 145 years old (75 + 70). In other words, Avraham leaves Charan and heads for Eretz Canaan while his father Terach is still alive and living in Charan.

Various Rishonim, such as Rashi, note this calculation. But if Avraham indeed went to Canaan while his father was still alive, why does the text depart from the chronological order, describing the death of Terach prior to God's revelation to Avraham and his aliya? Rashi addresses this problem:

"Why does the text describe Terach's death prior to Avraham's departure? So that it would not be immediately apparent to all and that they would say, 'Avram did not treat his father with respect, for he left him in his old age and went on his way.' Therefore the text refers to Terach as dead, for wicked people are called dead even during their lifetime..."

Rashi's interpretation is quite strange, for if it is indeed not proper to behave thus – to leave an aged father in order to obey God's command - then why did Avraham do it? A literal reading of the text does not seem to reveal the slightest criticism of Avraham concerning this act. On the other hand, if a person is required to fulfill the command of his Maker even at the expense of abandoning aged parents (and it should be kept in mind that God tells Avraham explicitly, "Get you out of… YOUR FATHER'S HOUSE"), and Avraham indeed does so, then why is the text trying to hide this from us? It would seem that, on the contrary, this would be an opportunity to stress the magnitude of Avraham's test – that he had to leave his father while he was still alive!

It would seem, though, that beyond this specific problem there is a fundamental unease with Rashi's explanation as elaborated by the Ramban after he quotes Rashi's words:

"[These are] Rashi's words, and they are to be found in Bereishit Rabba. But I am astonished at their words, for it is common throughout the Torah that we are told about the father's lifetime and about the birth of his children and then about his death, and then we start to read about the son. Throughout all the generations this is the style of the text. Noach himself was still alive during Avram's days; likewise Shem, his son, was also alive throughout Avram's lifetime."

In other words, Sefer Bereishit introduces characters one at a time, and only after completing its description of one's life does it move on to the next character – even if historically the next character in line started his adventures while the previous one was still alive and active. In our case, too, the text first describes Terach's life, and only after describing when and where his life ends does it move on to the next character who appears in the literary spotlight – Avraham – even though in fact much of Avraham's life is lived in parallel to that of Terach.

This point is particularly significant for an understanding of the comparison between Terach's journey to Eretz Canaan and that of Avraham. We do not know why Terach decided to gather his family members, leave his country and wander off towards a distant land. It may be that economic factors lie behind this transition, or perhaps even theological considerations connected with the types of religious worship practiced in each place. We may raise many different possibilities, but after all of them we remain amazed at the coincidence that Terach decides to go to the land which "incidentally" happens to be the same land that God chooses as an inheritance for the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.

The coincidence is so astonishing that we are led to think that perhaps Terach himself wished to go to Eretz Canaan because of the Divine command to Avraham his son! The suggestion here is that one day Avraham approached Terach and told him of the revelation which he had experienced, in which God demanded of him to go to a different country. It is reasonable to assume that revelations of this sort were rare, and this was perceived as an exciting and significant event. It is possible that Terach decided to join Avraham in his journey to Eretz Yisrael, and that he followed him. It is true that the text first describes Terach's journey on its own – prior to God's revelation to Avraham, but this is simply another example of the literary phenomenon common to Sefer Bereishit, whereby the text describes each character and his adventures independently. Obviously, there is also a deeper message which the text seeks to convey and which we shall discuss below.

Previously we asked whether Avraham was merely continuing the journey undertaken by his father, and whether this perhaps constituted the entire significance of God's revelation to him. At this point we propose precisely the opposite: that it was not Avraham who walked in his father's footsteps, but rather Terach who journeyed in the wake of the revelation to his son. Thus it is no coincidence that the land to which Terach journeys is the same place to which Avraham is commanded to go.

It would seem that the text itself hints gently to the fact that Terach was not the sole initiator of the journey from Ur Kasdim to Charan. We refer here to the change of subject in verse 31: "And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot, the son of Charan – his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, wife of Avrahm his son. And they departed WITH THEM from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan." At the beginning of the verse the subject is Terach: It is he who takes, and it is to him that all the participants are related ("his son," "his son's son," "his daughter-in-law"). Hence we would expect the text to continue by saying, "And they departed WITH HIM from Ur Kasdim." However, by using the expression "with THEM," the text hints that those who went along (Sarai and Lot) were going along with AVRAHAM and with Terach, and not with Terach alone. According to what we have said above, the Torah hints here that even though the character currently in the spotlight is Terach, the journey itself was Avraham's initiative, and so Lot and Sarai were joining Avraham no less than they were joining Terach. (Indeed, after Avraham leaves his father and continues towards Canaan, the other participants – Lot and Sarai – continue with him.) Ibn Ezra (11:29, 12:1) proposes this understanding.

But the idea of the command to Avraham preceding Terach's journey seems to bear more significance than just a solution to the local problem of these verses. It solves at least two more difficulties concerning the continuity of the text.

  1. In God's initial command, there is a description of the place that Avraham is told to leave: "From your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house." It is difficult to apply these terms to Charan, where the family had settled only relatively recently. It seems more likely that such terms would describe the place where a person was born, where he grew up and was educated. We certainly feel more comfortable reading this command as having been given to Avraham in Ur Kasdim, where he was born and grew up, rather than in Charan after the family moved there.
  2. At the beginning of the Berit Bein Ha-betarim, God says to Avraham: "I am God who took you out of UR KASDIM to give you this land as an inheritance" (15:7). Here God states explicitly that it was He who took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim; it was not his father, Terach who did so. To put it differently, God took him out of Ur Kasdim, not out of Charan!

As we noted above, the greatest difficulty solved by this explanation is the fact of Terach's journey to Canaan, his destination "coinciding" with that of Avraham who travels at God's command. But we still need to explain why the text devotes an entire unit to Terach's journey to Canaan if indeed he is simply following his son, Avraham. Why does the text treat him as a literary character who deserves a focus of his own, rather than simply as part of the story of Avraham's aliya to the land?

It would seem that the text seeks to compare these two aliyot: that of Avraham at God's command, and that of Terach who identifies with his son and goes along with him. If we read the account of these two aliyot, each against the background of the other, the comparison becomes immediately apparent:


"So Avram departed, as God had spoken to him.

And Avram took

Sarai – his wife, and Lot – his nephew

And all their possessions which they had acquired, and the souls that they had gathered in Charan

And they departed to go to the land of Canaan,

And they came to the land of Canaan."


"And Terach took

Avram - his son, and Lot, son of Charan – his son's son, and Sarai – his daughter-in-law, wife of Avram his son

And they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan

And they came as far as Charan and they dwelled there."

The text juxtaposes these two journeys using similar language, and thus the two great differences emerge with increased clarity: Firstly, Avraham travels "as God had spoken to him," in contrast with Terach, who receives no such command from God. Secondly, concerning Terach we read: "And they came as far as Charan and they dwelled there," while concerning Avraham we are told, "And they came to the land of Canaan." In other words, Terach's plan is never fulfilled; he is detained along the way. Avraham, on the other hand, continues his journey and arrives at the place he is supposed to reach.

What does the Torah seek to teach us by presenting this comparison between the two journeys, with the differences between them? In other words, why does the Torah devote space to Terach's journey in its own right?

It seems that what the text wishes to stress is the significance of the COMMAND in Avraham's journey to Canaan and in his abandoning the culture of Ur Kasdim, within which he grew up. Two people left their places and began again somewhere else: Terach, out of a feeling of identification and an inner, voluntary decision to take part in the Divine initiative just beginning, and Avraham – who does the same but because of a command, because he accepts God's authority over him. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Avraham did not identify with the command – on the contrary, we hinted previously to the fact that Avraham's personality was perfectly suited to the founding of the new Israelite nation. But the text emphasizes the absolute command with which the establishment of the nation begins.

The person who followed his heart's desire (Terach) got as far as Charan – the center of civilization at the time, and he remained there. His previous resolve to journey all the way to Canaan crumbles in the face of the attractions of Charan, the economic and cultural prosperity that he finds there. In contrast, the person who traveled in the wake of the Divine command (Avraham) continues his journey and arrives at his destination – Canaan.

Self-sacrifice for Eretz Yisrael, which has characterized Am Yisrael throughout the generations, is related to the fundamental command which underlies our connection with the land. On the basis of this command a profound psychological bond was built over the generations, strong enough that to this day no enemy – however cruel or immoral - can break it.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)


(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yeshivat Har Et
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]