Abraham’s Field of Dreams

Abraham’s Field of Dreams

This is continuing the genealogy that began with Noah’s son Shem (Gen 11:10ff).

map of Abraham's world
Abram went from Ur, Northwest up the Euphrates River, to Haran. Then from Haran, Southwest to Canaan (Genesis 11:31-12:9).

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

Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

(Gen 11:26-28 NRS)

Terah is the father of Abram (later renamed Abraham), who is the protagonist for the next several chapters of Genesis. Ur, an ancient city located in southern Mesopotamia. Chaldeans, a Semitic people of Mesopotamia, possibly spoke Aramaic.

Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah.

(Gen 11:29 NRS)

Nahor, the name of Abram’s grandfather (v. 24). Abram’s brother Nahor was probably the oldest, since he was named for the Patriarch.

Milcah…was the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. We are told of one son (Lot) and two daughters (Milcah and Iscah) of Haran, Nahor and Abram’s brother. So Nahor married his niece, Milcah. Later, we are told Sarai was Abram’s half-sister, the daughter of his father but not his mother (Gen 20:12).

This world was different in a number of ways. It was not taboo to marry a blood relative. Later, it will be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But this is a different time, even from Moses’ day.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

(Gen 11:30 NRS)

This one detail is going to dominate most of Abraham’s story.

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

(Gen 11:31 NRS)

Terah set out for the land of Canaan. Why? Terah settled in Haran instead of Canaan. Why? To write a novel, you would have to answer those questions. You mean write something into the biblical story that’s not in the Bible? The Bible often does not give all the details. If you want to make it into fiction, you have to fill in some of those details.

Haran, a Hurrian city in Northern Mesopotamia. Was it coincidence that the town name was the same as Terah’s dead son? Haran was born and died in Ur of the Chaldees, so most likely he never lived in the city that bore his name.

Terah might not have wanted to leave Haran because the name reminded him of his son. A father being told of the death or imminent death of a son figures into the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well.

Abraham’s midlife crisis

poster Field of Dreams 30th Anniversary

The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

(Gen 11:32-12:1 NRS)

The days of Terah were two hundred five years. In a previous post, I talked about how the trend of lifespans from Adam to Abraham was going down. Abram’s grandfather Nahor lived to one hundred forty-eight. His father Terah lived to two hundred five. And Abram will live to one hundred seventy-five. So his lifespan is about average for this time period in Genesis.

This is the first time the LORD appears to Abram. It often makes me think of Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsela. He hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” Somehow, he knows the “it” he is supposed to build is a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield.

{For an irreverent look at the movie, check out “Nick Offerman presents lengthy, hilarious list of errors in the very lousy movie ‘Field of Dreams.’”}

He wants to do it, because, as he says, “I’m thirty-six years old. I love my family, I love baseball, and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my life.”

And he is afraid of becoming like his father. He says, “I never forgave my father for getting old.” He thinks his father must have heard voices too, but he didn’t follow them. He never did a crazy thing in his life. He’s having a midlife crisis, in other words.

Field of Dreams cornfield
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1 NRS)

Is this Abram’s midlife crisis? He’s seventy-five, but for a man who will go on to live to one hundred seventy-five, this is midlife. He knows his father heard voices. He followed a voice that told him to go to Canaan but then gave up. Is this part of what’s driving Abram? His father had a crazy dream then gave up halfway there? Maybe Abram is thinking he doesn’t want that to happen to him.

It says Abram heard the LORD call him after his father died. The way they tell it here, though, the math is off. Terah had Abram by the time he was seventy. Abram was seventy-five when he left (verse 4), so his father should have been no more than one hundred forty-five. If he lived to two hundred five, he should have still been alive when Abram left the city of Haran. Confused? If you’re reading the Bible, get used to it. This type of logical or mathematical impossibility happens more often than you’d think.

Go from your country and your kindred…, Does this mean they were originally from Haran? I always thought it meant it was their country because that is where his father’s house settled. Some commentators believe it means this is Terah’s land of origin, so at some point he migrated to Ur of the Chaldeans. If that’s true, settling in Haran was a homecoming. That would help explain why Terah never finished the journey to Canaan. He was home again. It would also explain why one of Terah’s sons was named Haran. I can’t be sure, but it does seem to make sense. Again, if you want to make a novel of this, these are details you need to consider.

God continues addressing Abram.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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 shall be blessed.”

 (Gen 12:2-3 NRS)

There is a command: Go from your country and…your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Turns out the land is Canaan. Why didn’t God tell Abram that? That was where he thought he was going when they left Ur in the first place. Maybe God wants to make him practice obedience, even when he doesn’t have the full plan. That will be important for him later.

The LORD promises blessings on Abram.

  1. I will make a great nation of you.
  2. I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
  3. I will bless those who bless you.
  4. I will curse the one who curses you.
  5. In you all families of the earth shall be blessed.

That’s a good deal, isn’t it? How would you like to have God promise these things to you? The promises had to be big. It is never easy to leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. In those days even more than today, your country and family, including your extended family, were the most important factors for knowing who you were. God wants Abram to leave them behind to follow a new destiny. He doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?” But he does have to trust that God will keep God’s promises.

Looks like he’s got a bright future ahead, and all his dreams will come true. It won’t be as easy as it sounds, though. A hero’s journey never is.

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

(Gen 12:4-5b NRS)

Lot was Abram’s nephew. We were told Lot’s father died before they left Ur of the Chaldees. It looks like Abram became a father figure for him.

Abram was seventy-five years old, but he is still active. He is not ready for the nursing home by any means. He is not “as good as dead” yet.

The persons whom they had acquired in Haran. This would include slaves, servants, and those who believed in Abram’s God. They came with his family along with their other possessions. Abram seems to have prospered in Haran, so the whole family probably did as well.

When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

(Gen 12:5c-6 NRS)

The oak of Moreh is near Shechem, an important city at this time. The Canaanites were in the land. They were troublesome to Abram’s descendants.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

(Gen 12:7 NRS)

To your offspring I will give this land. The promise will be repeated in chapter 15. The promise of this particular land to Abram’s descendants is a major theme throughout the Torah and important to the descendants of Abram listening to this.

He built an altar to the LORD, something he does when the LORD appeared to him. These altars seem to be serving as landmarks (cf. v. 8; 13:3-4, 18; 22:9, 14, 24), a practice which Isaac and Jacob continued (26:25; 28:19; 35:1).

From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

(Gen 12:8-9 NRS)

He moved from Shechem to the hill country between Bethel and Ai (cf. 13:4; Jos 7:2; 8:9), and built another altar.

[He] invoked the name of the LORD. This sounds significant. Cf. Gen 4:26. Why does it only say in certain places Abraham invoked or called on the name of the LORD (13:4; 21:33)? I will have to investigate that further at some point.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.

(Gen 12:10 NRS)

Anytime the land of Canaan was in famine, people seemed to flock to Egypt, because they usually had plenty of bread. The banks of the Nile were so fertile.

What’s in it for me?

So how about that? God told him to go to this land. He arrived, and the famine was severe in the land. “You sure this is the right place, LORD?”

Ray Kinsela talks to Shoeless Joe Jackson
Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Gordon/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884738r) Ray Liotta, Kevin Costner Field Of Dreams – 1989 Director: Phil Alden Robinson Universal/Gordon USA Scene Still Baseball Drama Jusqu’au bout du rêve

This sounds like another Ray Kinsela moment. After he built the baseball diamond, the ghosts of past players appeared, wanting to play. Among them was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, someone who figured in Ray’s last fight with his father before he left home for good. At a point where Ray is wondering about the purpose of it all, he asks Shoeless Joe about it.

Ray: I did it all. I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask, what’s in it for me?

Shoeless Joe: What are you saying, Ray?

Ray: What’s in it for me?

“Field of Dreams”

For writers: the moment when all is lost

This is typical for a “hero’s journey.” The hero hears the call to adventure. They see the foolishness of it, but they follow it anyway (often after resisting at first). They reach a point when all looks hopeless, and they feel like a fool for starting this adventure in the first place. They wonder if the sacrifices they made were worth it. They want to go back to life before the adventure, but they have crossed a point of no return. They wonder what was the purpose of it all when it was doomed to failure even before they began?

{Side note: I’m using the “singular they,” because writing he/she over and over again gets really awkward. To those who say, they is wrong because it’s plural, he is wrong because the subject is not masculine. It’s gender-neutral. So whoever is in charge of enforcing the rules of grammar, either accept the singular they or come up with a singular personal pronoun that is also gender-neutral so we don’t have to do he/she all over the place.}

Abram is not yet at that point. He did not ask what was in it for him, but God told him anyway (vv. 1-3). After all the big promises God just made him, how did he end up in a place with no food for miles and miles? Did his wife say, “I told you so”? He might be feeling the same frustration Ray did.

Did Abram forget he had a Terminator?

Like everyone else in the territory, Abram decided to bring his whole household to Egypt. This is the beginning of a controversial episode in Abram’s saga.

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

(Gen 12:11-13 NRS)

Sarai is beautiful in appearance, we are told here. Jewish tradition names her as one of the exceptional beauties of the Bible. Abram believes she is so attractive that the Egyptians will kill her husband just so she will be available. He wants her to say she is his sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life will be spared.

As her closest living male relative, they would have to respect her brother. Anyone who wants to marry her would have to negotiate with him. It’s not exactly a lie. She is his half-sister (Gen 20:12). But the fact that she is also his wife is a pretty big detail to omit.

I’m not going to be too hard on him for that. Any man in that situation would like to think he would tell everyone she is his wife, and fight to the death if anyone tried to take her away, but would you really? Lots of men are brave until they have a knife at their throat.

The biggest problem I have is I’m not sure this is real. Did the pharaohs ever really tell their soldiers and border guards, “If you see a beautiful married woman, kill the husband and bring her to my harem”? I’ve never heard of that outside the Bible.

Then again, the people coming to Egypt are desperate. There is no food where they came from. If this is the only place they can live, the Egyptians could impose pretty much any demands on them. It’s possible.

Another point is, God had just promised Abram, “The one who curses you, I will curse.” Did Abram not believe that? Why didn’t he think of telling them he is a prophet of the LORD, and if they harm him or his wife, they will face the wrath of his God? Egyptians did not worship the same God as Abram, but they still feared the gods – even ones that were not from their own pantheon. He could have been like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

Edoard Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2
“My own Terminator! Cool!”

Maybe his confidence is shaken because the LORD sent him to a land in famine. Can he really trust the LORD to protect him from the might of Pharaoh? So far, after such big promises, he is off to a pretty inauspicious start. Of course, as Terah already demonstrated, how you finish is more important than how you begin. What happens next is really controversial, but let’s pause now to observe how the author is speaking to his audience.

For Writers: Know your audience

The author(s) of Genesis do(es) some things that would make publishing it today difficult. For one, readers today generally don’t consider the genealogies to be the most exciting parts of the Bible, but they make up a major portion of Genesis, especially the early chapters. I talked about how the author effectively used the genealogies for foreshadowing, but I think most editors would look at that and say, “That’s too subtle, and too long for the payoff.”

Editors today want you to start with action, not backstory. That’s why they don’t like Prologues. But for this author, his audience would have wanted to know this. Since traditions were passed down orally long before they were written down, stories often had to serve several purposes. You want an exciting story, but part of the purpose of these stories was to pass on vital information for future generations.

In this case, the genealogy of Abraham was their genealogy as well, so this information was not boring or unnecessary to them. It was a different world and a different audience, but the rule held true then as it does today: know your audience.

The story of Abraham officially begins with the genealogy going back to Shem. To the original audience for this story, all people and nations traced their origins to one of three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, or Japeth. The Jews were descended from Shem, which is where we get the term Semite.

But editors and readers today don’t want to start with a history lesson. They want to start with action. Because of that, if I were making this into a novel, chapter 12 of Genesis would be my chapter 1.

More for writers: know your protagonist

When we get to Terah, Abraham’s father, he potentially could have been the protagonist. It seems God wanted to get him or Abraham, maybe both, to Canaan, but Terah stopped short. We haven’t had a real protagonist for a while. Adam was at first, but he died in the fifth chapter. Noah appears to be a hero but comes to an ignoble end. Then we go through many generations with no one doing anything significant except bearing children to keep the bloodline going until we get to Terah, who starts something significant but doesn’t finish it. That is left to his son, Abram, and finally our protagonist emerges.

So far, we know Abram’s most significant family relationships.

  • Abram’s grandfather was Nahor. He was twenty-nine when he had Terah, and died at one hundred forty-eight years old.
  • The family trekked with Terah from Ur to Haran, a few hundred miles journey. He might have come from Haran originally, but his sons lived in Ur all their lives.
  • Sarai, Abram’s wife, is gorgeous and childless.
  • Haran, his brother, died in Ur.
  • Lot, his nephew, left Haran with Abram.
  • Nahor, his elder brother, is among their father’s household, but he appears to have stayed in Ur (Gen 11:31).
  • Nahor married their niece, Milcah. We will learn about their children later.
  • He has gathered possessions and people in Haran. Every indication is he is well off.

In a novel, you would not start out telling your reader all of this at once. You can give as much or as little of this as you feel necessary. You can intersperse parts of it into various points of the story as they become relevant. But you need to know your protagonist before you start writing. This author has shown he does, and we have a fascinating protagonist to follow in this story.

{For another take on the similarities between Abram and Ray Kinsela, see “Let’s go to the movies: ‘Field of Dreams.'”}

Writing exercise

  1. An often repeated rule of writing fiction is “Show don’t tell.” The author “told” us Abram’s significant relationships and extended family in Gen 11:24-32. Write a scene (or maybe two) “showing” this through action, dialog, and the characters’ interactions with each other.

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