Stories of Our Ancestors

The midrash rounds out the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah

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The Bible offers few details about its characters' backgrounds and motivations. That's where midrash comes in; one of the functions of this genre of rabbinic literature is to flesh out the characters of the Bible. 

Often, the sages of the midrash seek to provide a “back story” for a biblical personality. The sages also were compelled to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and make of them archetypal figures with whom we can more easily identify.

Some of the most famous midrashim are stories about Abraham and Sarah. Among these midrashim are tales so imbedded in Jewish tradition that many people do not even realize they can't be found in the Torah.

Why God Chose Abraham

When the Torah introduces Avram (as Abraham was initially named), he is already a grown man. The Torah mentions that he was born to a man named Terah in Ur of the Chaldees, and that Avram left Ur with his father, his brother, and their collective households and traveled to Haran (Genesis 11:27-32). God’s first reported words to Avram come when God commands Avram, at the age of 75, to leave Haran for Canaan (Genesis 12).

abraham and sarahWhat was special about Avram/Abraham? What are the character traits that motivated God to choose this man over all others? Midrashic stories of Avram’s youth provide the answers. They portray Avram as possessing logical gifts and spiritual insight that allow him to see the inconsistencies between the idolatrous practices around him and the theological claims to which they are linked.

According to the Talmud (Baba Batra 91a), Abraham’s birth was predicted by the astrologers of King Nimrod, who perceived the infant as being a threat to Nimrod’s kingship. Terah hides young Avram in a cave to save him from death. Emerging from the cave at the age of three, Avram observes that there is a powerful God above nature, who created nature. It is this God who he worships.

Abraham & the Idols

In another set of midrashim (Genesis Rabbah 38, Tanna Debei Eliyahu), we find Abraham in his father’s shop, which sells idols. Abraham demonstrates to his father the absurdity of worshipping the very idols he sculpts.

In the best known of these stories, Abraham stages a “riot” among the idols in which he claims that a large idol smashed others in order to take their grain offerings as his own. Terah, upon returning to the shop, refuses to believe the tale. After all, the idols aren’t alive! Abraham catches his father in this logical flaw: Why worship the lifeless work of your own hands?

In another similar tale, we see another example of Abraham’s use of reason to convince others of the falsehood of idol worship:

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.