Sitting on the Fence

October 24th 2017


Supporting Tottenham as a young child taught me a valuable life lesson: there are two types of football fans: the loyal, die-hard supporters who will follow their team through thick and thin, and the ‘fair-weathers’ who wait and see which team will prove to be the most successful, and then shamelessly nail their colours to that mast. Hence the sudden appearance of thousands of Manchester United fans in the mid-90’s who had never been to Manchester. We even had a couple of Blackburn Rovers fans after they stormed the Premier League in 1995, but that particular experiment didn’t last very long.

At the end of last week’s portion, we encounter a peculiar verse:

“These are the offspring of Terach: Terach fathered Abraham, Nahor and Haran. And Haran fathered Lot. And Haran died in front of his father Terach, in his birthplace, in Ur Kasdim[1].“ (Genesis 11:27-28)

The verse describes the origins of Abraham as the first Jew. What’s strange here is not so much the fact that Haran predeceased his father Terach – that was a common occurrence in the ancient world. Rather, the fact that the Torah expresses his death as having been ‘in front of’ his father, as opposed to stating the fact that he died ‘before’ his father did, is an unusual textual inaccuracy. Beyond this, until now the Torah has had an absolute field day listing the births and deaths of various significant individuals[2]. And yet, not once does it go out of its way to inform us where they died.

In short, the Torah is clearly drawing our attention to Haran’s death. Why?

Commenting on these discrepancies, the Midrash[3]paints a picture of the background story:

“Growing up in Ur, Abraham was a precocious child. As he got older, his father Terach would rely on him to mind the family business – an upmarket idolatry shop. Think Harrods for the discerning pagan. But Abraham would do everything he could to discourage customers. One day, a woman entered the shop carrying some loaves of bread which she wanted to offer as a sacrifice. She asked Abraham to present it to the mightiest god, to which he said ‘leave it to me’. Abraham then took a sledgehammer and smashed every idol in the shop, leaving the largest idol standing with the hammer resting on its arms.

Terach returned from a very pleasant canoeing trip on the Euphrates, and was struck speechless when he entered his shop to discover the mayhem therein. ‘Marduk’s beard!!’ he shouted ‘what on Earth happened?!’

‘Oh’, replied his son, ‘this woman came in with a loaf offering. I wasn’t sure which idol to give it to so I left it in the middle of the room and they started fighting over it! Eventually the big lad grabbed a hammer and cleared the place out!’

‘What is wrong with you?!’ Terach bellowed. ‘They can’t move! They’re made of wood and stone!’

‘So why do you worship them then?’ Abraham concluded.

I like to imagine Abraham throwing this parting comment over his shoulder as he strode out of the shop into the sunset. In any event, he’d gone too far, and Terach dragged him in front of Emperor Nimrod, a particularly nasty tyrant whose idea of fun was burning people alive in a fiery furnace. Nimrod gathered a baying mob and called on Abraham to renounce his newfound belief in monotheism. Abraham refused and was cast into the furnace. Miraculously, he survived and emerged unscathed.

The Midrash continues: Haran was watching as the drama unfolded, quietly thinking to himself: ‘maybe there is something to this monotheism thing. I know! If my brother emerges unscathed, I’ll follow him. But if he dies, I will pledge my loyalty to Nimrod and his pantheon of gods.’

Seeing Abraham emerge alive, Nimrod’s agents turned to Haran and asked him: ‘Where are your true loyalties?! With Abraham or with your King??’ Undeterred, Haran cried out ‘with Abraham!’ and threw himself into the flames.

He died. And won the first Darwin Award.

This, says the Midrash, is the reason why the verse states that he (literally) died ‘in front of’ Terach his father, and also explains why the location – Ur Kasdim – is so crucial.

But why did he die? And at a subtler level of analysis, why didn’t Nimrod’s men ask Haran about his loyalties before Abraham was thrown in? Why ask him afterwards?! Of course he’s going to side with Abraham having witnessed an open miracle! The dice are now loaded towards one side of the decision!

Going against generations of Disney plotlines, the Talmud[4] offers a sobering assessment:

“We do not rely on miracles.”

Boom. Turn off Mariah and Whitney for a moment. There can be miracles, when you believe. But we don’t want them. Abraham jumped into the furnace expecting to die. Haran jumped in expecting a miracle. Miracles are occasionally necessary conduits of Divine intervention, but they are exclusively tools of God accomplishing things beyond the realm of human possibility. In other words, an open miracle demonstrates God’s omnipotence, whilst unavoidably simultaneously highlighting Man’s shortcomings.

Haran’s death challenges us in the most profound way: is discovery of and belief in a Creator beyond the realm of human possibility, or is it within our ability to analyse, search and discern using our own intellect? This idea, the idea that Godliness is well within the human grasp, was one that Abraham intuited and with it transformed civilisation as we know it.

But there is more. In the ancient pagan world, a miracle was always the ‘effect’ of a cause. Various ill-tempered gods needed to be mollified or placated in order for rain to fall, crops to grow, enemies to die in a plague etc. At its core, paganism is an expression of acute selfishness: Religiosity works on a strictly ‘scratch my back’ basis; any notion of prayer, sacrifice or devotion was solely and exclusively premised on the expectation that if I do <insert act here> for <insert god here>, things will go my way and I and my nation will prosper.

Abrahamic Judasim turned this outlook on its head. In the Torah, the miracle is the cause, closeness to God its effect. To this end, the Torah introduces us to a concept that seemed totally backward to pagan Man:

“I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt (in a blaze of miracles) to be a God for you.” (Numbers 15:41)

Haran’s fence-sitting looks admirable on the surface, but in reality it is far closer to an inwardly-focused pagan mind-set than the outwardly-focused monotheistic one Abraham was incriminated for teaching. Haran believed in the miracle, not in God, and for this reason the Midrash describes Nimrod’s agents asking him the million-dollar question after the fact. Because the answer no longer matters. Reliance on miracles to affirm one’s belief in God borders on paganism at worst, and is an insult to the towering human intellect at best.

The implication is astounding: The Exodus shattered the ancient world’s philosophy of capricious, selfish gods reacting to capricious, selfish people, and replaced it with one of infinite, selfless love. ‘Scratch my back’ becomes ‘I’ve got your back. For eternity.’ ‘I’ll be your servant, so that you perform miracles for me’ becomes ‘I’ll perform miracles for you, so that you’ll allow me to be your God’. The paradigm shift is subtle yet…stunning.

 



[1] This was a region in ancient Mesopotamia in the fertile delta of between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, now South Iraq.

[2] See Genesis 5:1-32 and 10:1-32 for two pretty comprehensive genealogical lists.

[3] Bereishis Rabbah 38:13

[4] Tractate Shabbos 32a