It is commonplace to refer to Avraham as the first Jew or the first monotheist. Leaving behind the semantic and historical complications of the terms, a question arises out of Parashat Lekh Lekhah as to whether Avraham proselytized the people of his new homeland or not, and if he did so, how did he do so, and how frequently? And then the question arises for us, why does it matter?
The Torah tells us of Avraham and Sarah (then Avram and Sarai) upon leaving their home in Haran that
…they came to the land of Kenaan. And Avram passed-through the land until the place of Shekhem, until the Oaks of Moreh; and the Kenaani were then in the land. Hashem appeared to Avram and said: To your seed I am giving this land; so he built there an altar for Hashem who appeared to him. He uprooted from there toward the hills east of Beit El and pitched his tent; Beit El from the sea, and ‘Ai from the east, and he built an altar for Hashem and he called in the name of Hashem. (Genesis 12:5-8)
There is so much to unpack in these verses, but we will stay on topic. First off, we see that there are two altars constructed by Avraham — one in Shekhem and one between Beit El and ‘Ai, a distance of roughly 30km. From the text itself, there also appears to be two very distinct purposes for these two distinct altars.
The first altar in Shekhem is built for Hashem as a testament to the experience of God appearing to Avraham, and as Rashi tells us (based on the Midrash) that he built an altar “on account of knowing he would have offspring, and on account that they would inhabit the Land of Israel.” Ramban holds that it was a statement of gratitude, so Avraham offered a Thanksgiving Offering. Or HaHayyim, likewise, agrees that it was an expression of “how dear was his Creator to Avraham.” There are other commentators who, likewise, echo this sentiment, so there is near consensus on the purpose of this first altar. The second altar, however, the text tells us was built and then Avraham proceeded to “call in the name of Hashem,” and so this produces the question of what, exactly, does that mean?
The Aramaic translation of Onkelos renders 12:8 as:
He moved away from there to a the mountain east of Beit El, and spread out his tabernacle, Beit El to the west and ‘Ai to the east, and he built there an altar before Hashem and prayed in the name of Hashem.
Leaving aside the interesting translation of ‘tent’ as ‘tabernacle,’ the most significant aspect of this translation is that it is understood that ‘calling in the name of Hashem’ is synonymous with praying. There is an early Midrashic tradition, perhaps upon which Onkelos is relying, that also implying to the understanding that this verse alludes to prayer. However, there is another relatively early Midrashic teaching that holds
he called in the name of Hashem teaches you that he caused others to call out the name of the Holy Blessed One; another interpretation of he called would be that he began converting people, bringing them under the wings of the Divine Presence
These Midrashim produce a contradiction, and it is commonplace for a commentator to choose a side of the debate. However, one of the earliest commentators on this verse, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, says:
The reason he called in the name of Hashem is for prayer, or it is to call out to people to serve Hashem
Onkelos explains this that he prayed there, as in “I called your name, Hashem, from the lowest pit,” (Lam. 3:55). But the correct understand is that he loudly called out the name of Hashem in front of the altar, informing of God’s divinity to other people…
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno teaches:
It was between two large cities in order that more people traveling through may hear him calling out in the name of Hashem
Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato, the Shadal, frames it:
He announced the unity of God, and others say he prayed
Perhaps one reason there is an emphasis on the fact that there is a tradition that he prayed there, is that we function with the understanding that prayer is a replacement for sacrificial services, and since there was no Mishkan, and no Temple, and there was no Torah yet given at Sinai, Avraham would not have been performing the same sacrificial service for which prayer was innovated as a replacement, nor would he have been praying in the same manner as would have been appropriate as the ritual innovated to replace the sacrifices. This idea is brought home by Rabbi Naphtali Tzi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, in his commentary HaEmek HaDavar (The Depth of the Matter):
The Aramaic translation says he prayed in the name of Hashem, and this is also mentioned in the Talmud; however, it is not possible to explained that he called out offerings on the altar in the name of Hashem. This will be made clear further on regarding Genesis 13:4
Clearly, now we must look at Genesis 13:4
Avram ascended from Mitzrayim (Egypt), he and his wife, and everything he had, and Lot went with him, toward the Negev. Avram was very wealthy with livestock, silver, and gold. He went on his journey from the Negev until Beit El; until the place where he had his tent there in the beginning, between Beit El and ‘Ai. To the place of the altar which he had there at first, and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (Genesis 13:1-4)
So now the question must be asked, when the text in this place tells us that “Avram called there in the name of Hashem,” is this to remind us of the first instance, or was this a second calling? In other words, does the text imply that he continued to pray, to proselytize, or to convert others? Let’s investigate the various opinions (there aren’t quite as many)…
Rashi: which he had there at first, and Avram called there – which Avram called there in the name of Hashem. But there are also those who say he called there now in the name of Hashem.
Rabbi David Kimhi: …he called out there another time in the name of Hashem.
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Mikhel(Malbim): He called there in the name of Hashem to make God’s divinity well-known publicly, something which he did not do at Shekhem where he built an altar only because God appeared to him, but he did not call in the name of Hashem publicly.
Netziv: This clarifies the meaning of “he called in the name of Hashem.” He called out making well-known the name of Hashem…Avram went back there to call once again in the name of Hashem in prayer, in order to make the name well-known and make it familiar in the mouths of people.
So it would seem that, at least twice, Avram went to a hilltop and called out God’s name in order to make people familiar with it, and if they so chose to follow him in his service of Hashem they could. So what might that have sounded like? Maybe something like this (minus the amplification and hipster hat)…