THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Noach – פרשת נח
October 9, 2021 – ג מרחשון תשפב
This essay is sponsored by Moshe & Chavie Wilner in memory of Naftali ben Ha-Rav Aharon Yehuda Wilner Z”L.
Haran’s early deathThe concluding verses of Genesis 11 record the names and familial relationships of Terah’s descendants. One of Terah’s three sons, Haran, met an early death. NJPS translates: “Haran died in the lifetime of his father, Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:28).” In this reading, the words על פני, literally “on the face of,” are understood in the temporal sense – that is, Haran died before Terah. This interpretation is shared by Rabbi Isaac of the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 20), Jerome (Vulgate), Rashi, Ramban, Radak (Commentary on Psalm 42), and Robert Alter. Nahum Sarna commented that the relevance of Haran’s untimely passing to the broader Biblical narrative is that it explains why Lot, Haran’s son, journeyed with his uncle Abram to the Land of Canaan. The orphan Lot possibly saw Abram as a guiding male influence in his life. The obvious weakness of Sarna’s statement is that it fails to account for the indication in the Torah that Terah remained alive during all of Haran’s life. Other translators and commentators understood על פני in a spatial, not a temporal, sense. In this view, Haran died in the physical presence of his father. The Septuagint, Pseudo-Jonathan, Ibn Ezra, and JPS (1917) adopted this approach. Ibn Ezra mustered proof from the verse: “And Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of על פני Aaron their father (Numbers 3:4).” He found further proof from the Decalogue. “You shall have no other gods besides Me על פני (Exodus 20:2).” Since God is omnipresent, the unlawful acceptance of another deity would necessarily occur in God’s presence. The expression על פני appears twenty-two times in the Book of Genesis. In none of those instances does the phrase have an unambiguously temporal connotation. Indeed, in nearly every instance the connotation is clearly spatial. The expression means “on the face of,” or “on the surface of.” Sometimes, על פני is used to express hostility or emotional distance. The Angel of the Lord said about Ishmael: “He will be a wild ass of a man; his hand against all, the hand of all against him; he will encamp despite all his kin על פני כל אחיו ישכן (Genesis 16:12).” The angels who visited Abraham after his circumcision, and were on a mission to destroy Sodom, “set out from there and looked downward toward Sodom וישקפו על פני סדם (18:16).” After tricking his father into blessing him, “Jacob left the presence of his father Isaac (27:30).” Meshech Chochmah explains that את פני alludes to Isaac’s anger at the recipient of his blessing, whom he erroneously thought to be Esau. But if Rabbi Isaac of the Midrash, Jerome, Rashi, Ramban, Radak, and Professor Alter are wrong, and the correct understanding of Genesis 11:28 is not simply that Haran pre-deceased Terah but that Haran died in Terah’s presence and that Terah had ill feelings toward him at that point, there ought to be some textual hint to the cause of the intra-family enmity. Wynand Retief (Zambian Bible Scholar) theorized that Haran had sex with his father’s wife and, having been caught in flagrante delicto, was brought to judgment by an infuriated Terah. Retief compared the story of Noah, Ham, and Canaan to that of Terah, Haran, and Lot. Scripture reports that Shem, Ham, and Japheth were Noah’s sons who emerged from the ark. The verse concludes with a curious addendum “Ham being the father of Canaan (9:18).” The text continues with the story of Noah’s being drunk and sleepily exposing himself in his tent. “Ham saw his father’s nakedness (9:22).” The nature of Ham’s sin is unclear. Seeing another man’s nakedness can be a euphemism for fornicating with his wife (see Leviticus 20:11). If Ham sired a child (Canaan) with his own mother (Noah’s wife), it would explain why Scripture twice had to identify Ham as Canaan’s father. Genesis 11:27 records that Terah sired Abram, Nahor, and Haran. The verse concludes with a curious addendum “and Haran begot Lot.” If Haran begot Lot through an incestuous relationship with Terah’s wife, several textual oddities become more comprehensible: a) Genesis 11:27 had to mention that Haran was Lot’s father, lest one conclude that Terah was Lot’s father. b) Scripture’s repeated mention that Abram and Lot were brothers (13:8, 14:14, 14:16) would be literally true – they would have had the same mother. c) Lot’s incestuous acts with his daughters would parallel his own conception. d) Assuming that Sarai is identical with Iscah (Megillah 14a), and that Iscah, too, was born of Haran’s incestuous relationship with Terah’s wife, Sarah and Abraham would truly be half-siblings -- as Abraham told Abimelech (20:12) (as against the usual interpretation that that was a protective “cover story” invented by Abraham). In the Midrashic tradition, Haran’s death occurred in connection with Abraham’s having been thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod. The textual hook for this Aggadic embellishment is the word “Ur.” Read plainly, Ur is the name of an ancient city. Read homiletically, “Ur,” meaning fire, is a flaming deathtrap awaiting those who offend the government. There are several different Aggadic accounts of Haran’s death: a) When the heathens saw that Abram was not consumed by the flames of the fiery furnace, they speculated that Abram was kept alive by Haran’s sorcery. Immediately, and to disabuse them of that mistaken notion, God sent a bolt of fire from the heavens to consume Haran in the presence of Terah (Psedo-Jonathan). b) When the heathens saw that Abram was not consumed by those flames, they speculated that it was Haran’s righteousness that kept Abram alive. Immediately, and to prove the heathens wrong, a spark shot forth from the furnace and killed Haran (Midrash Yelamdenu Yalkut Talmud Torah Bereshit 55). c) The most expansive version of the story appears in Midrash Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah 38). Terah tasked Abram with working in his idol store. Abram, who had already rejected idolatry and discovered the truth of monotheism, quarreled with customers and made a mess of the inventory. Terah handed Abram over to Nimrod for prosecution. Abram was thrown into a fiery furnace. Haran was asked whether he sided with Abram or with the heathens. Haran was uncertain and preferred to ally himself with the winning side. When he saw that Abram had miraculously been spared, Haran professed his allegiance to Abram’s theological beliefs. The heathens then cast Haran into the furnace. Haran’s innards were burned. He exited the furnace, collapsed, and died in front of his father. d) Haran wavered in his religious convictions. When he saw that Abram had been spared, he openly professed his allegiance to Abram’s God. The heathens cast Haran into the air in the direction of the furnace, and Haran was scorched to death even before he landed. An angel then hurled Haran’s lifeless body toward Terah (Midrash Tehillim 118). The Aggadic account of Haran’s indecisiveness is similar to Elijah's words of chastisement to the people of Israel assembled at Mount Carmel. “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him (I Kings 18:21).” In another example, Joshua ordered the Israelites to make a choice between the false gods worshipped by their deep ancestors on the far side of the Euphrates River or the true God of Israel (Joshua 24:15). Straddling the fence or hedging one’s bets may be a prudent course of action in other facets of life. In matters of religious belief, it is unacceptable. Jewish monotheism demands that one definitively and absolutely reject the veracity of other religious traditions and deny the divinity of any entity other than the Creator God. Through their Aggadic embellishments concerning Haran’s death, the sages tacitly acknowledged that dramatic religious transformations within a family can have dangerous and tragic consequences. Not all people experience epiphanies. Some never do. Many people are skeptical, do not want to take chances, and prefer to cast their vote only after one side has seized the lead. (A variation is Pascal’s Wager in favor of a belief in God, on the theory that if you affirmatively deny God’s existence and are wrong the consequences of that view may turn out to be infinitely bad for you, but if you believe in God and are wrong there will be no everlasting consequences.) By reframing Haran’s death – which might have been because of illicit copulation – as having resulted from his lack of firm religious convictions, the sages sought to elevate the stature of Abraham. He, and he alone, truly escaped the world of idolatry and forged a path for a better religious future.