Was Abraham In It For The Reward?
Why Did Abraham Follow God's Call?
God called to Abraham, “Lech lecha, leave your home and go to the land that I will show you!” It’s such a familiar story that we never stop to ask – why did Abraham follow God’s call? Was it because he was so pious? Because he was the first monotheist who devoted his life to God? Or maybe, just maybe, it was because God promised him a reward of children and a great nation.
It’s an uncomfortable thought to entertain, but it doesn’t seem so crazy when we read the text carefully. What was Abraham’s true motivation for following God’s command?
Join Daniel Loewenstein as he compares this story with another time when God called Abraham, “Lech lecha – go!” It turns out that reading these two stories together can hold a key to understanding the defining moments in how Abraham responded to God's call.
Check out Rabbi Fohrman’s course, "Akeidah: Was the Sacrifice of Isaac Heroism or Murder?"
Hi, this is Daniel Loewenstein, one of the writers at Aleph Beta, and welcome to Parshat Lech Lecha.
So here’s a question: Imagine God just called out to you, and told you it was time to leave home and set out on an epic, holy mission. What do you do? Well, this is God we’re talking about. There isn’t much room for discussion, is there? You just grab your coat and toothbrush and hit the road, right?
And that seems to be what happens in Parshat Lech Lecha.
Lech Lecha: God Calls Abraham
God says to Abraham – לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ – go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will reveal to you. And what happens next? Abraham’s got the U-Haul packed and the family in the minivan.וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה. No questions, no comments.
But I think this story is so familiar to us that we never bother to ask why. Why did Abraham go?
I mean it’s obvious, right? God calls, you answer. But is that really true? Does the Torah actually say that?
Why Did Abraham Follow God's Call?
So maybe now you’re thinking, of course it does! We all know that famous story, about how when Abraham was little, he destroyed all of the idols in his father’s house, and figured out on his own that there had to be one God who made everything. He was a believer before God even spoke to him! So of course when God called him, he left at the drop of a hat.
But that story – of little Abraham rejecting idolatry – it’s actually not in the Torah itself. It’s a midrash, a Rabbinic commentary. But the Torah is its own document; and if you look at the Torah alone, there’s nothing to suggest that Abraham was motivated by faith or belief.
In fact, when we actually look at the text, and only the text, a very different motive begins to emerge. When we first meet Abraham and his family at the end of last week’s parsha, we aren’t told very much about him. But we are given one crucial and devastating fact:וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה אֵין לָהּ וָלָד – Abraham’s wife, Sarai, was barren. She and her husband faced the terrible possibility that their family would end with them.
And then something miraculous happens. God comes along at the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, and begins to speak with Abraham. And He doesn’t just ask him to leave home and set out. He also makes...an offer.
God says, “וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל” – I will make you, Abraham, into a great nation. An entire people – all comprised of your descendants. God is offering Abraham the very thing he would have thought was impossible – a whole nation's worth of children.
Did Abraham Follow God's Call Because of the Promises?
To Abraham, this must have sounded too good to be true. No wonder he leapt at the offer!
But this simple reading of the text actually leads us to an uncomfortable conclusion. Is the Torah implying that Abraham, the great Patriarch and role model, was actually in it for the perks? For the chance to grow his family? That the prospect of following God and fulfilling His sacred mission, Abraham’s great leap of faith, wasn’t what Lech Lecha was really about?
It really sounds like Abraham was just looking out for his own interests.
I think that if this were all we knew about this Lech Lecha moment, we might be forced to reach this disquieting conclusion. But there’s actually more evidence to consider.
Connecting God's First and Second Calls to Abraham
See, when God beckons to Abraham, asks him to leave everything behind and follow him – when God calls out Lech Lecha – that doesn’t only happen here.
God tells Abraham there, take your son, Isaac – “וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה” – and go forth, lech lecha, to the land of Moriah. It’s almost as though the Torah is telling us that there’s a link between these two stories, like you can’t really understand one without understanding the other. And when you look closely, there are actually many more links between these stories than you might expect.
So maybe, if we examine those links, they can tell us something about our question here – why did Abraham choose to follow God?
So let’s go through these stories. The Akeidah begins with God telling Abraham, “קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ” – take your son, your precious one, the one you love. Do you hear how God is describing Isaac? Instead of just calling him by name, He first uses three terms to describe him.
And what do these terms mean? Your son, your precious son, that you love – it sounds like God is emphasizing how close Abraham is to Isaac, how difficult this call will be to answer.
And now, go back to our first lech lecha: when God asks Abraham to leave his home in this week’s parsha... how does He phrase that? He says: לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ – go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house. Three terms to describe what Abraham has to leave behind – the home he’s so closely tied to, the place of his birth and his family – just like the Akeidah.
And, in Parshat Lech Lecha, does God actually say where Abraham should go? No – oddly, no location is specified. God simply says, go, “אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ” “to the land I will reveal to you.” It’s as though God is asking Abraham to embrace the uncertainty of his task, to trust God completely – to go, even though he doesn’t know where he’s going.
Well, now think back to the Akeidah. Where is Abraham commanded to bring Isaac? Strangely, here, too, Abraham isn’t given a specific place. Instead, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac “עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ” – upon one of the mountains, which I will eventually tell you. Once again, as Abraham sets out to answer God’s call, the whole experience is imbued with uncertainty.
And here’s one more. What’s the first thing Abraham does in Parshat Lech Lecha, after he arrives at the correct location?וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלָיו – he displays his devotion to God by building an altar. And what does Abraham do when he arrives at the location of the Akeidah? You guessed it – וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – he builds an altar.
The parallels between these two stories are undeniable. They both have God beckoning to Abraham, asking him to make a great sacrifice and to follow Him into the unknown. In both, Abraham readily complies. The text is practically begging us to read these stories together.
And yet, these stories are so obviously different.
Abraham's Obedience to God's Call – Without Promises
Just think about what God is asking Abraham to sacrifice in each story. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham has to leave his country, his roots. I’m not saying that isn’t hard. But at the Akeidah, he’s being asked to sacrifice his son. That’s a whole different ballpark. You can’t compare those.
And there’s another huge difference too. Remember the reward Abraham is promised in Parshat Lech Lecha? The promise of children, that seemed to motivate him in the first place? Well, think back to the story of the Akeidah. Do you remember the reward Abraham is promised there? No – because there was no reward promised! Not a thing. Sure, Abraham receives a reward when the Akeidah is over, but at the outset, God doesn’t make any kind of offer or promise at all.
So what are we to make of this? On the one hand, we have all these parallels linking these two Lech Lechas. And yet they’re anything but parallel. So what is the Torah trying to tell us by linking these stories – and what insight can these parallels give us into Abraham’s motives for following God?
The Call of Abraham in a Modern Context
I can’t say that I know the answer, but I do have a theory.
To explain it, I want to introduce you to Ted. Ted has been doing cancer research in Chicago for the last 15 years, and his work has saved a lot of lives. One day, Ted’s supervisor calls him in for a meeting, and tells him he has some great news: he’s being given a chance to lead his own research team in some really cutting edge work. There’s only one little wrinkle: this new job is in Sweden.
Now, on the one hand, Ted really stands a chance to make a big difference in the world if he takes the job, much bigger than if he stays where he is. On the other hand, Ted’s family is in Chicago.
They have a nice house in West Rogers Park, his kids are all in school, and most of his close friends and extended family live in the area. Taking the job would mean the end of all that. His family might even stay in Chicago, and that would mean he wouldn’t see them for weeks at a time.
And so now he’s faced with a decision. Who am I? Am I a scientist, who just so happens to be blessed with a wonderful family? If that’s the case, I should take the job, and make the biggest impact I can. Or am I a husband and father, who happens to do important research? If that’s the case, I should stay, and help the world as best I can with the job I have now.
Now, I’m not saying I know what the right decision is for Ted – but I do know that whatever he decides, he’s not just making a decision about a job. He’s making a decision about what his life really means, about his identity. He’s defining himself. And even though it seems like this decision is all about the future, in a way, it’s also about the past.
When we make life-defining choices, we’re not just committing to take a certain path forward. We’re also trying to make sense out of the millions of little moments that have made up our lives so far. We’re deciding what story they tell about us.
That time Ted missed a major conference so he could be around for the school play – was that a success, or a failure? Those two months of late nights finishing a major project – was that just a subplot of his life, or an essential part of the narrative? Whatever Ted decides to do about the Sweden job, his decision will also be answering these questions.
Understanding How Abraham Responded to God's Call
Let’s go back to Lech Lecha and the Akeidah. Why did Abraham set out when God first said Lech Lecha? You know what? It very well might have been for the reward. At the very least, his motives are ambiguous.
Maybe, just maybe, Abraham himself didn’t know what his motives were. After all, if building a family and carrying out a sacred mission line up, you don’t need to decide which of those things is most important.
Years later, though, God called to him, one final time. And this time, there was no reward. Answering God’s call to sacrifice Isaac would actually undo the original reward. He would be killing his son, his heir, ending his chance to become a Goy Gadol, a great nation. This, this was a life-defining decision.
It wasn’t just about whether he would go through with the Akeidah or not. God was asking Abraham to define himself. What were all of his years serving God really about?
Abraham chose to heed the second call of Lech Lecha, chose to give up Isaac – chose, in other words, to define himself as a man of God. In doing so, he made a choice about his future – he would follow God always, in all things.
And he made a choice about his past. Whatever his motives were for answering the call of Lech Lecha that first time, now, looking back, it was clear to him that it was the best decision he ever made. And that narrative – that way of viewing his past – maybe the Torah is telling us that that’s what really mattered.
When Abraham looked back at that first Lech Lecha, and chose to view it in this light – that perspective made it a great achievement – made it as powerful a decision as the Akeidah itself.
Hi everyone – thanks for watching! Before you go, I just wanted to acknowledge that we spoke a lot about the Akeidah today, and it’s a very hard story to understand. The idea that Abraham’s finest hour was the hour he attempted human sacrifice, it’s...disturbing.
If you’re looking to get a better handle on this story, I highly recommend you check out Rabbi Fohrman’s course, "Akeidah: Heroism or Murder?" You can find a link to it here.