Lech Lecha, 5th November 2022 – Martin Cahn

When I was presented with this parsha as a basis for my sermon, I began to ask myself what should I comment on. This is the story of the wanderings of Abram and his family, Sarai, his nephew Lot and Sarai’s maidservant and later Abram’s concubine Hagar. There were many rabbinic interpretations which go into the detail of the reported events in the parsha, but these seemed to me to be nit picking on fine detail. I wanted to know what was the overall message. But, of course, the message depends not only on the plot, but also on the person telling the message and the biases and pretensions of the people listening. In the end I found two very simple interpretations of the text.

The first by a Gerer rabbi, Yehuda Leib Alter points out that Abram, at a very old age, is told by God  to go and establish a nation in Canaan and that the success of his journey at God’s insistence is evidence that we all have to make our own journey, whatever our age. “G-d spoke it, and speaks it, to every human person. ‘Go to yourself, from your land, your birthplace and your father’s home, to the land that I will show you’ is the Divine call to every soul.” Age is no barrier; it is never too late. I personally find that a very sound sentiment.  As an ‘oldie’ who remade his life in his 40s and 50s, I can thoroughly concur. Rabbi Alter further comments that “G-d spoke to Abraham,” not because G-d spoke to Abraham, but because Abram listened” and Rabbi YY Jacobsen comments on this that “Communication is about two persons bonding. If I speak, but you do not listen, or you do not hear, I’m not talking to you.” 

The second is by an American Reform rabbi, Stacy Rigler. Her basic point is that this report of events is based on the point of view of Abram, and that we don’t know the point of view of the other travellers, or the 318 warriors who depart to retrieve Lot, taken hostage, from the warring kings travelling North of Damascus. We all need to interpret stories from different points of view if we are to understand them.

Lech Lecha is being read on 5th November, an important day in the English and Welsh annual calendar, the day in 1605 when, supposedly as a result of a letter to Lord Monteagle – a Catholic peer – warning him to avoid the Houses of Parliament on that day, a search was made that found gunpowder had been stored in cellars under the building supposedly intended to kill King James as he opened proceedings. Guy Fawkes was on guard and took the bulk of the blame, although Robert Catesby appears to have been the actual ringleader of the 13 co-conspirators. That was seen as an act of treason and we celebrate its discovery as saving us from a terrible future. While blowing up the House of Lords would have been an awful crime, that is clearly a view taken from the point of view of the establishment. It was the start of a period of 200 years of religious repression in Britain, not just of Catholicism, but also of protestant sects. Jews were one of the few groups for whom religious freedom improved at that time.

Maybe the discovery was a saving, maybe not. But within 40 years the people had had enough of their autocratic king and instead accepted a non-royal ‘king’ and protestant despot, the Lord Protector. Something wasn’t quite right about the rescue if there was that much seething resentment.

Who knows what we would have been like if Protestantism had been overthrown and Catholicism had been restored as the established religion. Would we have merged with Scotland and Ireland? Would we have found it easier to be in a union with other predominantly Catholic countries (e.g. would Brexit have happened?). The acceptance that it is the saving of the nation is a government telling us what to believe – from the very first day in 1605 orders were given that bonfires had to be lit to celebrate the saving of the nation, or is it the saving of the king or the status quo? The lighting of bonfires to commemorate this was compulsory by law until 1859. That sounds awfully like Putin’s imposition of ‘morally acceptable behaviour’ to justify the repression of dissent.

Guy Fawkes had a chequered history. He was born in York, a protestant, to a recusant Catholic mother. His father died young and he converted to Catholicism and travelled in the Low Countries and later Spain, fighting as a soldier to support the Catholic cause. Returning to the UK from France in 1595, he found a group willing to use force to reinstate a Catholic king – hence the plot. In the UK he was viewed as a traitor indoctrinated by the underground Catholic priests and the Pope. However, this version of his life is that of the victor – the protestant ascendancy in England. What the view of the ‘people’ was is not clear. They had no vote, they had no say. What is clear that the following 200 years of religious repressions did not stop people thinking differently, and religious dissension in Europe was used as the excuse for repeated internecine wars and power struggles. In the end it was only the needs of the transition to an industrial society that permitted a flowering of independent religious thought in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

How then does this compare with Abram?

Abram left Ur in Mesopotamia for Palestine, stopping at Haran before going to Canaan, going from there towards the Negev desert, from terebinth tree to terebinth tree.

When famine arrived, he went to Egypt, which had a reliable water supply dependent on rainfall in the tropics, not the Mediterranean. Abram pretended that the beautiful Sarai was his sister, and Pharoah took her for his mistress. But everyone became ill. (Did Sarai infect them all with something – most importantly did she infect the Pharoah with whom she was intimate? That would have been most impolitic but Abram certainly doesn’t admit to that!) Thrown out, he returns to Canaan via Sodom, the city of sinners, to the terebinths of Mamre near Hebron – is this perhaps a prediction of the later exile and return?).

Four invading kings then fight five local kings, ransack Sodom, and take Lot hostage. As the kings retreat, Abram follows them and rescues Lot and all the spoil north of Damascus.

Sarai is unable to bear Abram a child, a dreadful tragedy in a patriarchal society. Abram proposes that his steward be designated the beneficiary of his estate. However, as a result of sacrifices the Lord predicts that his descendants would spend an exile in Egypt, and Israel would later extend from the Nile to the Euphrates. Is this story a convenient explanation added after the event? The ancients, both Christian and Jew alike, had a great love of predictions of their success – somehow it seems to justify their later power. History is written by the victors.

Then Sarai offers Hagar to Abram as a concubine, and she produces a child, Ishmael, patriarch of the Arabs, to the great anguish of Sarai who maltreats Hagar. Thirteen years later Abram circumcises the children. This apparently was a tradition of the pharaohs to set them apart from the hoi polloi, so maybe the Jews were trying to emulate the Egyptian royalty?  Finally, at an impossibly grand old age, Sarai conceives a son, Isaac, and she becomes Sarah, while Abram becomes Abraham.

This is a long story, with lots of movement and assumptions, but it is, like the story of Guy Fawkes, a story of the almost magical power of a patriarch over those under him. The king was saved from a dastardly fate at the hands of the heretics by the magical letter to Lord Monteagle, received nearly two weeks before the event. Why didn’t they investigate earlier? It is sometimes now asserted that they knew something was up earlier on and delayed action so they could catch them magically in the act.

The way that Abram specifies the precise number of fighters who chase the four kings as 318 is perhaps a symbol here. Here is someone who could assemble such a party at short notice. Such precision is out of context with the rest of the report. Unfortunate events are turned into strengths – Sarah’s inability to produce a child for Abraham is turned into a miracle – a wonderful power for the ruler as he becomes a father late in life, perhaps, in reality, not the magical 99 years presented in the text, but, in any case, at a time when it was no longer expected. (Biblical ages always have to be taken with a pinch of salt, (unless of course you happen to be Lot’s wife)) The defeat of the kings with only 318 fighters is turned into a miraculous victory. We don’t, of course, know the reason for the conflict. Perhaps there were debts outstanding to the four kings from a wetter region further north following a period of famine – but that would not fit the narrative.

So in both these stories there are lots of unanswered questions – the storytellers only told us what they wanted us to know or believe. It is a broad-brush explanation of the past meant for a purpose. They are important for both their audiences, and they make them what they are today, but they are effectively a form of propaganda and one should approach them with scepticism. Such propaganda can divide us from our neighbours and compatriots. It is important that we regard the stories as just that, partisan testimonies based on truth (and there are plenty of examples of records and excavations confirming biblical narratives), but not complete explanations. We don’t want to trigger more internecine battles now.

In the end the critical message of this parsha, like much of the Torah, and also of the gunpowder plot, is that patriarchs and those behind them take power unto themselves and are apt to paint a biased picture of their adversaries, while the ultimate goal is to be honest with oneself as a tool for peace. It would be a good idea if the new Israeli government, like the British, could take that as its message in their dealings with others in their environment and hinterland. And what could be a more contemporary message than that?