Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1838

Genesis 12–17: Abram’s ‘slaves’ aren’t like American slavery

“Therefore he (Pharaoh) treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels.” (Genesis 12:16 NASB)

God is not an American. As we study the Torah reading לֶךְ-לְךָ‎ Lech Lecha (“get going!” Genesis 12–17), we should remember that the Bible He divinely inspired should not be interpreted through the lens of American history.

We will need to discuss the tail end of Genesis 11 briefly, particularly the genealogy of Terah, Abraham’s father.

“Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years after he became the father of Terah, and he had other sons and daughters.

Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.

Now these are the records of the generations of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran became the father of Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:24–32 NASB)

Nahor I was the father of Terah. Terah had three sons:  Abram, Nahor II and Haran and a daughter Sarai. Haran had a son named Lot and two daughters named Milcah and Iscah. Nahor II married his niece Milcah. They are Laban and Rebecca’s grandparents.

geneology of terah

Haran died while the family were still living in Ur. The rest of them moved on to the town of Haran. Then Abraham, Sarai and Lot left Terah and the rest of the family behind in Haran and went to the Promised Land.

These names are there to mark an important family line, a transmission of generations. Women are rarely named but when they are named they are doubly important.

For example, in Cain’s family line back in Gen. 4, there is only one daughter mentioned, Namaah. Jewish tradition tells us that Namaah married Noakh and is the mother of Shem, Ham and Japheth. She is important, she means something. They don’t mention the ages of Cain’s line but they do mention the ages in Seth’s line.

Along Laban’s line, he has many children, including Rachel and Leah as well as their two maidservants. Even Job’s genealogy is listed because he is a part of this same family.

Even the woman who anointed Yeshua’s feet with perfume is given an honorable mention in scripture because she did an incredible honorable thing, regardless of what she did before or after that day.

Everyone mentioned in Scripture is mentioned for a reason, either good or bad.

Some might question why Terah’s family intermarried so closely, marrying their sisters, nieces, etc. Let’s not judge Terah’s family based on the standard in the Torah given to Moses at Sinai.

All of Adam and Eve’s children married their own siblings. By this time, although there is still sibling marriage, they are marrying half-siblings. They will marry someone who has the same father but not the same mother. They are recognizing that marrying full siblings is not healthy anymore.

This family, the family of Terah, are the First Family of monotheism, other than Noah himself. After Noahk, most of his descendants chose to reject El-Shaddai. This is about 400 years after the Great Flood. The Tower of Babel is just 50 years prior to this story. Abram was alive in the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the languages occurred.

“And he said, “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES, AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.’ “Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living. “But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that HE WOULD GIVE IT TO HIM AS A POSSESSION, AND TO HIS DESCENDANTS AFTER HIM. “But God spoke to this effect, that his DESCENDANTS WOULD BE ALIENS IN A FOREIGN LAND, AND THAT THEY WOULD BE ENSLAVED AND MISTREATED FOR FOUR HUNDRED YEARS. “‘AND WHATEVER NATION TO WHICH THEY WILL BE IN BONDAGE I MYSELF WILL JUDGE,’ said God, ‘AND AFTER THAT THEY WILL COME OUT AND SERVE ME IN THIS PLACE.’ “And He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.” (Acts 7:2–8 NASB)

The original agreement to go to the Promised Land was with Terah as we read in Acts 7, which included Abram and all his sons and grandsons, including Lot. Everyone else stopped at Haran but Abram, Sarai and Lot go on and fulfill the call. Abram is finishing off the agreement that Terah made with God.

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’” (Genesis 12:1–3 NASB)

Abram left Haran, which means crossroads, after his father’s death. Haran was NOT the promised land God had in mind for Abram. God gave him this blessing. He didn’t leave alone, taking his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot with him. Lot inherited much of Haran’s estate and took it with him.

Terah intended for all the family to go to Canaan, but most of the family stayed behind at Haran. It was important for Nahor to stay behind because we need Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to be born. It was important for this family to keep their monotheism relatively untainted from polytheism and to stay theologically decent and unstained by Canaan’s polytheistic culture.

When you buy a new house, you rededicate it to God. You don’t know what it was before but you still want a new start. That is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did every-time they built an altar in their Promised Land.

At this point, Abram’s biggest act of trust was simply the fact that he left his family and obey God’s call go to the promised land.

There are 7 promises in this brief text:

  1. I will make you a great nation: In Gen. 13 we find that Abram and Lot both had so many servants and possessions that they had to separate from each other so the land could support them.
  2. I will bless you: When Abram conquered the 5 invading kings, he received a blessing from Melchizedek. Abram defeated the 5 kings with only 318 armed men, who were not career soldiers. The kings came from Ur of the Chaldeans, the land that Abram’s family had left. Abram also knew that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah would not be his source of blessing.
  3. I will make your name great: Gen. 15 records that Abram’s trust in the Lord, granted him righteousness. You have to not only believe in God but you need to believe God, too. All of us are here because Abram loved God, not because Abram obeyed Torah. We are not descendants of Aaron and Moses.
  4. You will be a blessing:
  5. I will bless those who bless you:
  6. I will curse those who curse you:
  7. In you all the families of the world will be blessed: Obviously, all the nations, all the families who believe and have faith in God is because of Abram.

Abram took God up on His deal and when God said “go” Abraham went for his own personal gain. It was in Abraham’s best interest to do this.

Abram, Sarai and Lot then head to Canaan, going to Shechem, Bethel and Ai, and then he went onto the Negev. In each place he builds an altar.

“Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.” (Genesis 12:10 NASB)

Abram is walking the same path that Jacob and Messiah will walk many years later. Both are drawn to Egypt due to famine. Messiah went down to Egypt as well. All of them are going for safety.

Egypt is where Abram begins to become a great man by worldly standards: he gains lots of wealth, including animals, servants, money, etc.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. They don’t have a separate symbol for numbers v. letters. For example the numerical value (or Gemara) of Yitzak’s name breaks down this way. The number for the first letter of his name is 90, the number for the last letter of his name is 100 and the “hey” in the middle means life.

Every chapter of scripture has a chaism and both Gen. 13 and 17 have important chaisms but I won’t be able to discuss them in this parashah. Chaiasms are designed to draw your attention to important concepts.

“He said, “O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.” (Genesis 15:8–11 NASB)

All of these animals have their purpose assigned to them in Leviticus. This symbolism is always true, even in stories that occurred before the revelation of Sinai. This was not a sin offering, this was a covenant offering and Abraham’s descendants are a party to it even though they haven’t been born yet.

The animals are three years old, symbolic of Messiah. The number 3 is also symbolic of going from death to life. The generations of Abraham will carry the seed of Messiah.

Hebrews 7 discusses details of Melchizedek and what he is, what his symbolism is and how he and Messiah are tied. Unlike the Levitical priesthood, which was based on biological descent, the Messiah’s priesthood are by oath, by agreement. The original priesthood was assigned to men who would live and then die. Of course, Messiah’s priesthood never dies, yet the Messiah died. Messiah’s death set us free from our sin, just as the death of the high priest would set free all of those in refuge cities.

The distinctions between Ishmael and Yitzak are important. Ishmael is the son of Abram, Yitzak is the son of Abraham. These two boys and their mothers are why we are here today, why we exist.

“And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before You!’” (Genesis 17:18 NASB)

Abraham had a great love for Ishmael. He raised him, yet God rejected Ishmael as First Born, because he was not the son of Sarah.

All nations, all families are blessed because of Abram’s faith, regardless of direct biological descendant. Because he followed and went where God sent him. This is why God changed his name to Abraham.

Circumcision did not just include Abraham’s direct family, it included every male member of his household, all his servants whether they were hired hands or slaves, they were all a part of it.

Was Abram a slavemaster?

In Gen. 12:16, we see here that Abraham acquired many slaves while in Egypt but what does that mean? Who were they? What was their status?

United States Slave Trade
“Slaves” in ancient Israel weren’t the same as the slaves that became the shame of U.S. history.

What Americans and the Western world consider as slaves is not what the bible defines as a slaves. The common image in America of the live of a slave was a person who was their master’s personal beating toy. You can do what you want to the person. The master had power of life and death over the slave and could beat them to death with no punishment. That is not God’s definition of slavery.

Permanent versus temporary slaves

The Bible talks about two different kinds of slavery: temporary or permanent slavery.

A permanent slave is a person who chooses to be a slave for the rest of their lives. Why would a person want to permanently be the slave of another person? That person would have to be treated very well by their master to want to serve that master for their entire life.

There was also a temporary slave. This is a person who was a slave due to unpaid debt. Once the debt was paid, they would go on their way. They were free to leave.

I can’t speak to how the Pharaoh that Abraham met in Egypt treated his slaves but the Torah has not been written down at this time. Based on the way Abraham lived his life we read  that his servants were willing to go to war for him and were allowed to keep their fair share of the bounty. The fact that Abraham trained his “slaves” in the art of war shows that he respected them and trusted them. They in return, respected and followed him. Abram was not a rotten master by any means.

Also Abraham’s servants were allowed to have their own households. They had their own means of income, they were paid an income and they were also allowed to increase their wealth when Abraham allowed them to keep the spoils of war they earned when they conquered the five invading kings.

Slaves in that day were treated they way we would treat servants in our day. What happens if you mistreat a servant in our day? The servant leaves and most likely will sue you.

In the Torah, kidnapping was a death penalty offense. The entire process of slavery as it was done in the 17th-19th centuries is not how Torah defines slavery.

The Colonial European slave trade began with kidnapping. The who ended up as victims of the slave trade were either POW’s of battles with other African tribes or they were simply kidnapped outright by African or Arab slave traders to be sold as slaves.  Once these captives ended up in the hands of slave traffickers, they were sent away on crowded ships traveling thousands of miles away from a home that they never saw again.

God is not an American

For more information about how the Bible defines and limits the abuses of slavery, check out Richard’s prior teaching on Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 as well as John Walsh’s teaching about what it means to be a bond-servant to Messiah Yeshua.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth also has a teaching on this topic called The Chronological Imagination.

Summary: Tammy.

Banner image: Illustration from the Anti-Slavery Almanac, published 1838 (Public domain).


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