Shem and Abraham: Between Fear and Friendship (More Midrash Ep. 3)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 44:7

[Isaiah 41:5-7: The islands saw and feared, the ends of the earth shuddered, they approached and came. Each man would help his fellow, saying to the other, “Take courage!” The woodworker would encourage the goldsmith; the finishing hammerer the one who pounds from the start; he would say of the glue, “This is good,” and he would strengthen it with nails so that it should not loosen.]

“Fear not, Abram” (Genesis 15:1). Whom did he fear? Rabbi Berechyah said: He feared Shem.

This is what is written, “The islands saw and feared, the ends of the earth shuddered, they approached and came” (Isaiah 41:5). Just as these islands stand out in the sea, so were Abraham and Shem outstanding personages in the world.

“And feared” – this one was afraid of that one, and that one was afraid of this one. This one [Abraham] feared that one, saying: Perhaps [Shem] harbors resentment against me for killing his children. And that one [Shem] feared this one, saying: Perhaps [Abraham] harbors resentment against me for begetting evil [children].

“The ends of the earth” – This one lives at one end of the world, and that one lives at the other end of the world.

“They approached and came” – This one approached that one, and that one approached this one.

“Each man would help his fellow” (Isaiah 41:6) – This one [Shem] helped that one [Abraham] with blessings, and that one helped this one with gifts. This one helped that one with blessings: “He blessed him, saying: Blessed is Abram of God, the Most High…” (Genesis 14:19). And that one helped this one with gifts: “And he [Abraham] gave him [Malchitzedek/Shem] a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:20).

“The woodworker would encourage” – This is Shem, who made the ark.

“The goldsmith” – this is Abraham, whom the Holy One refined in the fiery furnace.

“The finishing hammerer [would encourage] the one who pounds from the start” – [Abraham] smoothed his hammer and pounded all the world’s inhabitants onto one path toward the Omnipresent (ha-makom).

“He would say to the glue, ‘This is good’” – these are the nations of the world: It is better that we should cleave to the God of Abraham, and we should not cleave to the idolatry of Nimrod.

“And he would strengthen it with nails” – Abraham strengthened Shem regarding mitzvot and good deeds.

“So that it should not loosen” – [This refers to] Abraham.

Understanding the Midrash

Genesis 14 recounts the war of the four kings against five kings, during which Lot is captured. Avram hears of it and brings his skilled if small-in-number servants to a night attack, where he is victorious, retrieves Lot, and gains spoils of war. The mysterious Malchitzedek appears and blesses him, and the King of Sodom (whose life and city were saved by Avram’s intervention in the war) offers him the spoils, which Abraham then refuses. After this strange episode concludes, God speaks to Avram, calling out, “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield and your reward will be great.” Avram then complains about being childless.

Thus the context for God’s assurance could be tied to the aftermath of his insertion into the political realm, or to his personal anxiety about progeny. This midrash, at least initially, takes us in a third and surprising direction. Avram’s fear is of Shem, about whom we’ve heard nothing in the biblical text since Shem’s genealogy, which introduces us to his descendent Avram (Genesis 11:10-32). I never thought his life overlapped with Avram’s, but according to the midrash he very much still thrived in the time of the first patriarch.

Name Lifespan Years (postdeluvian)
Shem 600 years 98 before the flood – 502 after the flood
Arpachshad 438 years 2-440
Shelach 433 37-470
Eiver 464 67-531
Peleg 239 101-340
Re’u 239 131-370
Serug 230 163-393
Nachor 148 193-341
Terach 205 222-427
Avram (w/Nachor & Charan) 175 (Gen. 25:7) 292-467
Isaac (Gen. 21:5) 140 (Gen. 35:28) 392-512
Jacob (w/Esau) (Gen 25:26) 147 (Gen. 47:28) 452-559

Having never paid such close attention to this genealogy before, three unusual elements pop out to me. First, the decrease in lifespan is dramatic! What a strange world to live in, when if you are in Abraham’s generation every father/grandfather going back to the Great Flood is still alive! Do they experience pain as their descendents live ever faster and more fleetingly? Or is there relief? How does the family structure allow for freedom? Ancestor worship makes sense when your ancestors lived before you and will continue to live after you.

The second element that becomes clear is the through the time of Abraham, Shem outlives all but one of his descendents (at least in the line that is highlighted, we don’t know about the other sons and daughters). Eiver is the only descendent that outlives Shem, and only by twenty-nine years. We can see that both Shem and Eiver, assuming fit minds, could have been active parts of the lives of Avram, Isaac, and Jacob.

The third confusing element is that Avram, Nachor, and Charan are not distinguished; the text says that at 70 Terach had them all. Are they triplets? Who is eldest? Or is it simply not relevant to the biblical text at this point.

A fourth fact reveals that Terach, at 70, is wildly old to be siring children, even though life spans are long. This genealogy helps us understand Avram’s despair about having children when he is older. He has Ishmael when he is 86, and will be 100 when Isaac is born.

Let us remember that Shem is one of three men (with his brothers Cham and Yafet) who are the ancestors of every living human after the flood. Shem is the patriarch, and in a story about Avram branching off to become the patriarch of a new way of being, we can see that tension would naturally arise or be perceived, and that Avram could easily have felt anxiety about his relationship to his ancestor.

The midrash seems to situate Avram’s fear as a result of his intercession in the war in Genesis 14, rather than about childlessness. The mysterious figure of Malchitzedek, who shows up to bless Avram, is understood to be in fact Shem, which highlights the approach, both physically and then relationally, as Avram and Shem get over their projected fears and witness each others’ talents and teach each other from their place of strength. It is quite a beautiful story of collaboration.

The final collection of lines emphasize that Avram, through clarity of ethical vision, taught the whole world they could access Hamakom, God as the ground of being, rather than follow the idolatrous norms that rested on human power as the ultimate truth (symbolized by Nimrod). Avram also acts as a spiritual ally to Shem, teaching him mitzvot – that is, embodied practices that help one connect to Hamakom – and good deeds, ma’asim tovim, ethical ways of relating to other human beings.

In this midrash, Avram holds both fear and transformative talents. So too for us – we hold trepidation about the intentions of others, the repercussions of our actions, and the temerity to speak our truth in the world and to those we encounter. But if we meet in such a way that exchange takes place, by which I mean true conversation/dialogue, we will both be enriched and capable of strengthening those around us in their spiritual practices and ethical behavior.