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Noach | Terach – The Father of Avraham and the Father of Nachor

Dr. Yoshi Fargeon
04.10.2021

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Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l,
by Debbie and David Sable
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Dedicated in memory of Michael ben Avraham z"l, 
whose yahrzeit is 28 Tishrei, by Family Rueff
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In honor of our nephews and niece for their past studies at YHE and Migdal Oz -
Sharon and Joel Chefitz
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I. Introduction – Genealogical Lists in the Book of Bereishit

          In this shiur, we will deal with two adjacent genealogical lists at the close of Parashat Noach: "the generations of Shem" (Bereishit 11:10 and on) and "the generations of Terach" (11:27 and on).

          It should be prefaced that genealogical lists may be likened to a journey. Without detracting from the beauty of the route, which often includes fascinating landscapes and notable views, the most important points are the starting and end points. In the genealogical lists, the starting point is the founder of the line and the end point is the person to whom the line is leading. The only way to get from the founding father to the desired offspring is to go through a list of people, some more important and others less so.[1]

Accordingly, the Torah does not always bother to tell us about the "intermediate" generations, and usually includes the name of only one descendant in each generation. However, once it has arrived at the last generation of a list, the Torah tells us about that significant figure and several – usually three – of his descendants. Thus, for example, the line of Kayin (Bereishit 4:17-24) ends with Lemekh, the first "bigamist," a zealous poet and a murderer, who was the father of Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval-Kayin (and his sister Na'ama). The book of the generations of Adam ends with Noach, who bore the hope of humanity and was the father of Shem, Cham, and Yefet (5). The line of Shem ends with Terach, who moved his family to Charan and was the father of Avram, Nachor, and Haran (11:10-26).

Comparing the Torah’s lists, we find that Noach and Terach each play a double role: they conclude one list of generations and serve as the "fathers" of a second list.[2]Noach is mentioned both as the last father in "the book of the generations of man," and also as the first father in "the generations of Noach":

And Noach was five hundred years old; and Noach begot Shem, Cham, and Yafet. (5:32)

These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God. And Noach begot three sons, Shem, Cham, and Yafet. (6:9-10) 

Similarly, Terach is both the last father in "the generations of Shem" and also the first father in "the generations of Terach":

And Terach lived seventy years, and begot Avram, Nachor, and Haran. (11:26)

Now these are the generations of Terach. Terach begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran… (11:27)

It is easy to understand why the Torah sets Noach in a position of dual importance: as the figure who ended the generations of Adam (an era that came to an end with the flood), and also as the figure who, by way of his own generations, began a new world after the flood.

It is more difficult to understand why the Torah presents Terach this way. Why should Terach be considered as one who ended the world that began with the generations of Shem? What new world began with Terach? Would it not have been more correct to conclude the first list of the descendants of Shem and begin the new list with Terach's important son, the patriarch Avraham?[3]

This question becomes doubly acute in light of a midrash found in Bamidbar Rabba:

Whoever God deals with to establish from him a nation or a dynasty, God would deal with in this manner to write his generations. For you find twelve “generations” in Scripture. The first, "these are the generations of the heaven and the earth" (Bereishit 2:4); "this is the book of the generations of Adam" (5:1); "these are the generations of Noach" (6:9); "and these are the generations of the children of Noach" (10:1); "these are the generations of Shem" (11:10); "and these are the generations of Terach" (ibid. 11:27); "and these are the generations of Yishmael… Yitzchak… Esav… Yaakov" (25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 37:2). These are the ten [sets of] generations with which the Holy One, blessed be He, dealt to create the world and to establish nations. And God recorded the generations of two [more] people: one for the royal dynasty and one for the priestly dynasty. "And these are the generations of Peretz” (Rut 4:18), to establish the royal dynasty; "And these are the generations of Aharon and Moshe" (Bamidbar 3:1), for the priestly dynasty. (Bamidbar Rabba 2, 21)

It seems as if every important male figure in the book of Bereishit has a list of generations: Adam, Noach, the sons of Noach, Shem, Terach, Yishmael, Yitzchak, Esav, and Yaakov. How is it then that it is precisely Avraham – "father of a multitude of nations" – who does not have his own list of generations?

Many commentators express the strong expectation that the list of generations should have led to Avraham, not Terach. Let us suffice in this context with the famous words of Chazal:

[There were] ten generations from Adam to Noach… [There were] ten generations from Noach to Avraham. (Avot 5:2)

When we count the generations, we find that while Noach is the tenth generation from Adam, it is precisely Terach, and not Avraham, who is the tenth generation from Noach.[4]

II. Terach – The Father of Avraham and the Father of Nachor

One possible explanation of the importance that the Torah attaches to Terach relates to literal genealogy. The biological (even if not the spiritual) father of the people of Israel was Terach, for through his descendants, he supplied both the male side and the female side necessary for the establishment of the people.

Avraham was the first son of Terach, so Terach was the father of the male branch from which the people of Israel would eventually arise.

Though it is not stated here explicitly, it seems that Sara as well was a descendant of Terach, for Avraham argues before Avimelekh:

And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife. (Bereishit 20:12)

If we take Avraham's words in their plain sense, Sara was Terach's daughter and Avraham's half-sister.[5]

It is true that many Jewish scholars have assumed that Avraham's words need not be understood in their plain sense and that Sara was not actually his half-sister.[6] Nevertheless, they did not completely negate Avraham's words.[7] A common opinion among Chazal and many of the commentators is that Sara should be identified with Yiska the daughter of Haran, the niece (not the literal half-sister!) of Avraham[8] and the granddaughter of Terach.

If so, it follows that Terach should be considered both the father of our patriarch Avraham and the father (or grandfather) of our matriarch Sara.

Terach's importance to the people of Israel continues through his second son, Nachor, who is the father of the next branch of our matriarchs: Rivka was the granddaughter of Nachor the son of Terach, and Rachel and Leah were his great-granddaughters.[9]

Terach's third son, Haran, was also important for the building of the people of Israel. If we accept the opinion mentioned above that identifies Sara with Yiska (and see note 8), then the people of Israel are descendants of Haran the son of Terach. But Haran also made another contribution to the establishment of Israel, which is disclosed not in the book of Bereishit, but at the end of the book of Rut:

Now these are the generations of Peretz: Perez begot Chetzron; and Chetzron begot Ram, and Ram begot Aminadav; and Aminadav begot Nachshon, and Nachshon begot Salma; and Salmon begot Boaz, and Boaz begot Oved; and Oved begot Yishai, and Yishai begot David. (Rut 4:18-22)

The book of Rut, which tells us about the important contribution of Rut the Moavitess to the establishment of the royal family in Israel, ends with a formulation that is quite rare outside the book of Bereishit: "(Now) these are generations." Here, too, there is a list of ten generations, from Peretz to David. Since Moav is a descendant of Lot the son of Haran, it can be argued that Haran the son of Terach fathered the royal family of the house of David.[10]

It turns out that Terach, in a certain sense, may be our patriarch through each of his sons (and perhaps also through his daughter).

III. Terach – The Father of the Journey to Canaan

A deeper study of the verses at the end of our parasha may provide us with even more surprising insights regarding Terach’s centrality. Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that Avraham does not suddenly burst onto the biblical stage armed with the heavenly instruction, "Get you out of your country" (12:1). Avraham's famous journey to the land of Canaan was preceded by another journey, less well known, which was undertaken by Terach:

And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came to Charan, and dwelt there. (11:31) 

Scripture does not tell us why Terach set out on a journey to the land of Canaan[11] – whether due to a Divine revelation to him or to Avraham,[12] spiritual intuition,[13] political and religious persecution,[14] or family and economic circumstances.[15] It does, however, indicate through parallels in the wording that Avraham's journey was actually a continuation of his father's journey.[16]

 

Avraham's journey to Canaan (12:5)

Terach's journey to Canaan (11:31)

And Avram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son

 And Terach took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram's wife

and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Charan

--

and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan

and they went forth with them from Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan

and into the land of Canaan they came.

and they came to Charan, and dwelt there.

 

The connection between the two journeys is emphasized by their shared linguistic pattern, as well as by the seemingly cumbersome language that describes the end of Avraham's journey: "and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan they came." The puzzling repetition in the Torah’s language acquires its full meaning only when Avraham's journey is compared to that of Terach: "And they went forth… to go into the land of Canaan, and they came to Charan." In other words, Avraham's journey is presented, in a certain sense, as a direct and successful continuation of the failed journey of Terach.[17]

Why did Terach's journey fail? It was not death that defeated him, for Avraham parted from him about sixty years before he died.[18] It seems to me that the explanation for the failure is implied, again, in the comparison between the journeys. When Terach sets out from Ur Kasdim, he takes only his family members. However, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes, along with his family, "all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Charan." In other words, Terach's family, who left Ur Kasdim with empty hands, merits great wealth in Charan, and it is this "flesh pot" that thwarts the journey to Canaan. This is a reason that has thwarted more than one journey to our country over the course of history. At this point, God intervenes and promises Avraham a great and wonderful future, if he is prepared to abandon Terach's family in Charan and at the same time continue Terach's journey to Canaan.[19]

Even though these details are not explicitly stated, Terach's central place in the lists of generations, along with his being the initiator of the journey to Canaan, allows us to speculate that perhaps Terach was originally destined to play a much more central role in the Divine plan. Is it possible that the Torah wishes to imply that Terach's failure in the "test of wealth" pushed him to the margins of the story and paved the way for Avraham's trials?

As a complementary hypothesis, one may wonder whether Avraham's success in all the trials that came upon him was guaranteed in advance, or whether they too involved a real risk of failure. What would have happened if Avraham had failed in his trials, God forbid? Would he still have been privileged to actualize the Divine path, or would he too have been forced to vacate his place on the stage of biblical history?

(Translated by David Strauss)

 


[1] In fact, the generations of Shem appear twice in the book of Bereishit: once as part of the generations of the sons of Noach (10:21-31), and once independently (11:10-26). The first list has a horizontal structure: its purpose is to relate how "the nations were divided in the earth after the flood" (10:32), and therefore it includes the generations of more than one descendant. In contrast, the second list has a vertical structure: its purpose is to follow the male line until reaching the individual who will lead to Terach. An interesting difference between the lists appears in the sixth generation, where the first list continues with Yaktan while the second list follows his brother Peleg.

[2] Unlike Noach and Terach, Lemekh – the last generation along Kayin's line – does not merit to open a new list of generations, presumably because this line was wiped out in the flood.

[3] In Midrash Rut Rabba (Lerner), parasha 7 (p. 182):

"And the father is always greater than the son. You might say: Was Terach, who has no share in the world to come, greater than Avraham? Yes, for had it not been for Terach, there would have been no Avraham, and the Holy One, blessed be He, informed Avraham that he has a share in the world to come, as it is stated: 'But you shall go to your fathers in peace' (15:15)."

[4] The Septuagint turns the list of Shem's descendants into ten generations by adding Keinan between Arpachshad and Shelach. See Tzipor [M. Tzipor, Targum ha-Shiv'im le-Sefer Bereishit, Jerusalem 5766] p. 178. However, it stands to reason that this should be seen as a later addition. See, for example, Cassuto [M.D. Cassuto, Mi-Noach ve-ad Avraham, Peirush al Sefer Bereishit, Jerusalem 5704-5709] p. 171. As for the uncertainty regarding the tenth generation in this list, see the remarks of my teacher and colleague, Prof. Yonatan Grossman [Y. Grossman, Bereishit: Sipuran shel Hatchalot, Rishon Letzion 5777], who presents the double demarcation of this genealogical list: 

"Assuming that the 'ten generations' model is deliberate... it turns out that we have here an ambiguous list ... the list opens with Shem, and in this respect the ten generations in the list do in fact relate to Avraham – the important hero in the continuation of the book of Bereishit… At the same time, the list ends with Terach, and in light of this, it becomes clear that the ten generations are from Noach to Terach… The list in truth includes nine generations… In order to reach the model of ten generations, we must decide whether to add the generation before Shem (Noach) or to continue another generation after Terach (Avraham)" (pp. 294-295). 

[5] See, for example, Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi, Tirat Kesef (R. Y. Ibn Kaspi, Tirat Kesef (Mishneh Kesef 1, ed. Y. Halevi Last), Pressburg 5665], pp. 95-97; Shadal 20:12; Rabbi D. Tz. Hoffman [Sefer Bereishit (ed. and tran.: A. Wasserteil), vol. I, Bnei Brak 5729]  pp. 197-199; Emanueli [Y.M. Emanueli, Sefer Bereishit: Hesberim ve-He'arot, Tel Aviv 5737] p. 198; Kil [Y. Kil, Sefer Bereishit (Da'at Mikra), vol. I, Jerusalem 5757] p. 300, note 22; 303. The main difficulty with this explanation is that with Terach's departure from Ur Kasdim, it says: "And Terach took… Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram's wife" (11:31), and if she was indeed Terach's daughter, we would have expected it to say: "And Terach took… Sarai his daughter." According to Emanueli [ibid.] p. 165: "Sarai is called Terach's daughter-in-law, and not his daughter, just as Tzipora, Yitro's daughter, was called Moshe's wife (Shemot 18:2). A married woman passed from her parents' domain to her husband's domain." See also R. D. Tz. Hoffman (above); Kil (above) p. 305.

[6]  Many maintain that Avraham refers to Sara as "his sister" in the sense of "his relative." See, for example, BT Sanhedrin 58b; Rashi, Bereishit 20:12; Rashbam, ibid.; Radak, ibid.; R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, ibid.; Midrash ha-Gadol to Bereishit 12:13 (p. 224), 20:12 (p. 331).

[7] On the other hand, some doubt the veracity of Avraham's statement and think that he was trying to evade the accusation of lying by lying. See, for example, Ibn Ezra, short commentary 11:31-32, 20:12, 27:19; Ibn Ezra, long commentary 11:28-29; Ralbag, Bi'ur ha-Parasha, Bereishit 20:10-13; Cassuto [above, note 4] p. 189. Others maintain that the designation achot should be understood in the sense of "beloved" or as a description of Sara's legal status, in which case no family kinship can be inferred from Avraham’s statement. See Grossman, Avraham [Y. Grossman, Avraham: Sipur shel Masa, Tel Aviv 5775], pp. 250-251. For a review of the various opinions in ancient Jewish literature, see Zakovitz and Shinan 5743 [Y. Zakovitz and A. Shinan, Avram ve-Sarai be-Mitzrayim: Bereishit 12:10-20 ba-Mikra, be-Targumim ha-Atikim u-be-Sifrut ha-Yehudit ha-Keduma la-Sugya, Jerusalem 5743], pp. 38-49.

[8] This approach is based on the assumption that "Haran the father of Milka and the father of Yiska" (11:29) is Haran the father of Lot. It should be noted that this assumption is not accepted by all the commentators; some maintain that there were two different people named Haran. See, for example, Abravanel 11:29-31; Cassuto [above, note 4], p. 189.

Note also that identifying Sara with Yiska leads to the assumption that Haran was older than Avraham, for otherwise we would have a difficulty with the fact that Sarai, the daughter of Avraham's younger brother, was only ten years younger than Avraham. See, for example, R. D. Tz. Hoffman [above, note 5], p. 197-198; Grossman, Avraham [above, note 7], p. 469, note 5.

[9] According to the Midrash, Bilha and Zilpa should also be counted as the daughters of Lavan the Aramean, in which case these two matriarchs also came from the family of Nachor. See, for example, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (Higger) [M. Higger (ed.), Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (part III), Chorev 10 [19-20] (5708), pp. 185-294] 35 (p. 206).

[10] See Bamidbar Rabba 2, 21 (cited above); Grossman, Rut [Y. Grossman, Megilat Rut – Gesharim u-Gevulot, Alon Shevut 5776], pp. 345-348; Ziegler [Y. Ziegler, Rut – Mei-Nikur li-Melukha (trans.: B. Ben-Barukh), Jerusalem 2018], pp. 474-475.

[11] Rabbi Y. Ibn Kaspi to Bereishit [R. Y. Ibn Kaspi, Metzaref le-Kesef al Bereishit (ed. A. Rak), online source: AlHaTorah.org], 11:31, writes:

"It is not necessary for the giver of the Torah to write everywhere the reasons, because if He did so for everything, it would be a long book, and even the [select] individuals would reject it, not to mention the masses. Anyway, what need is there for it; we need only to know that however it was, our patriarch Avraham, the holy one, the head, left the land of his birth, Ur Kasdim…"

See also Grossman, Avraham [Y. Grossman, Avraham: Sipuro shel Masa, Tel Aviv 5775], pp. 27-28.

[12] Many believe that Avraham received the command to go to Canaan while he was still in Ur Kasdim. Thus, for example, writes Rav Saadya Gaon:

"And it says: 'And Terach took Avram his son,' [but it doesn't mention] the reason. But later the reason is mentioned. We saw that a certain person who has difficulty comprehending asked: If Terach and Avraham and the rest of his household… left Bavel to go to the land of Canaan on their own… without a Divine imperative, until they reached Charan, how did He say to Avraham in Charan to go out to the land of Canaan; surely they already left on their own! He saw, however, what God said to Avram: 'From your land and from your homeland..,'  but he forgot that Charan was not his land, and not his homeland, and not the house of his fathers, and he is wrong in all this. But we say that at first God said to Avraham: 'Get you out of your country,' while he was still in [Ur Kasdim], and therefore he went out, he and Terach his father, and all that was with them" (Rav Saadya Gaon 11:31).

The main difficulty with this understanding (apart from the need to change the order of the verses), is that Avraham fulfills the commandment to "Get you out of your country… and from your father's house" (12:1) by going out with his father: "And Terach took Avram his son" (11:31). Grossman, Avraham [see previous note], pp. 30-35, assumes that the departure from Ur Kasdim followed in the wake of God's command to Avraham, and suggests a literary-theological explanation for Scripture's choosing to blur this.

[13] Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer [Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer o Midrash Sheloshim u-Shetayim Midot (ed. H. G. Enelow), New York 5694):

"The Holy One, blessed be He, gave greatness to Terach and accepted his repentance… Had he not accepted his repentance, He would not have said to Avraham: 'But you shall go to your fathers in peace' (15:15)… And what is more, He agreed that Terach should choose the land of Israel, before he was commanded, as it is stated: 'And Terach took Avram his son… to go to the land of Canaan" (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer parasha 8, p. 147).

See also Breuer [M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit, vol. I, Alon Shevut 5759], pp. 224-225; Kil [above, note 5], p. 305.

[14] For example, the Ramban writes:

"And his father Terach and Avraham had intended from the day that he was rescued to go to the land of Canaan, to distance themselves from the land of the Kasdim, for fear of the king. For  Charan was near them, and they were all one people with one language, because Aramaic was spoken in both of them. And they wanted to go to a nation whose king and people would not understand their language (based on Devarim 28:49)" (Ramban 11:28).

[15] Thus, for example, Abravanel 11: 27-31 suggests:

"Now Scripture is saying how it came about that they left Ur Kasdim, and how while all of the descendants of Shem had children when they were thirty years old, whereas Terach did not have children until he was seventy, and this was evil in his eyes. He also saw that his fathers had many children, as it is stated with regard to each of them: 'And he begot sons and daughters.' But as for Terach, God stopped him from having children, and he had only three sons…  And it was taught in addition to all this that in his youth, after having fathered Lot, Haran died while his father Terach was still alive… And furthermore… Sarai was barren… This too was a great evil in the eyes of Terach, that of the three sons that he fathered, one was no longer because he had died in his lifetime… and the second son Avram had no children, and thus his family was close to being cut off, and there is no greater evil than that… And Terach thought that his place of residence, Ur Kasdim, was the cause of all these evils. Therefore, he rose up to leave and relocate and go to the land of Canaan where the air is good" (Abravanel 11:27-31).

See also Emanueli [above, note 5], p. 162, who tries to connect our story to the geopolitical situation in the first half of the second millennium BCE.

[16] For example, the Ramban writes:

"As for what it says: 'And they went forth to go into the land of Canaan' (12:5) – not to settle there, because he did not know yet that he was commanded about that land; rather, the righteous man set out on the way to the land of Canaan, because this was his intention and the intention of his father from the outset when they left Ur Kasdim" (Ramban 12:1).

See also Abravanel 12:5.

Regarding the linguistic format of verses dealing with departure on a journey, which is shared by biblical and Ugaritic literature, see Y. Avishur, in M. Weinfeld, et al. (eds.), Bereishit (Olam ha-Tanakh), Tel Aviv 1982, p. 91.

[17] Breuer [above note 13], pp. 223–230, sees here two aspects of Avraham's moving to the land of Canaan: one comes to complete Terach's failed journey, and the second comes to present Avraham's departure from his father's house at the command of God.

[18]  According to the Samaritan version of the Torah, it is stated here: "And the days of Terach were five and forty and a hundred years, and Terach died in Charan." According to this, it was death that stopped Terach from completing his journey. (See Zakovitz and Shinan 2005 [Y. Zakovitz and A. Shinan, Lo Kakh Katuv ba-Tanakh, Tel Aviv 2005], p. 131, who adopt this reading.) It seems, however, that Cassuto is right [above note 4] in seeing in this an attempt of "the Samaritan version, in its usual manner, to give Scripture an easier and simpler form." Cassuto's position is also supported by the formulation: "And they came to Charan, and dwelt there" (11:31). The verb "dwelt" indicates that Terach and his family had time to settle in Charan before he died.

[19] The fact that Avraham takes Lot with him on his journey to Canaan may raise doubts as to whether the journey truly fulfilled God's command to detach himself from his father's house. (See Tz. Shimon, He-Adam ha-Bocher: Ha-Sipur ha-Mikra'i ki-Derama shel Bechira, Jerusalem 5775, pp. 76-77; Grossman, Avraham [above, note 7], p. 44.) This question becomes even stronger when we learn that Lot, like Terach, chooses to abandon Avraham's journey in the wake of God's command, for motives relating to the accumulation of property. (See Ch. Cohen, "Pereidat Avraham mi-Lot (Bereishit 13)," Megadim 52 [5771], pp. 9-22; Shimon [above], pp. 77-86, 150-154; Grossman, Avraham [above], pp 60, 64-71.)

 

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