Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 12, the Bible introduces the first of three patriarchs, Abram. God
directed him to leave home and family to destination unknown. Our chapter informs us that Abram
traveled westward with his wife, Sarai, and Lot, his nephew. Shortly, as the sojourners reached Canaan,
the Maker appeared to Abram, and revealed the mystery destination. God let Abram know that he was
to dwell there. Other divine messages of good tidings were communicated to him. But no sooner had
Abram, his wife, and nephew began settling in Canaan than the émigrés faced an existential threat: a
“Now God said unto Abram: Leave your country, and your kindred, and
your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you…And Abram
passed through the land…And God appeared to Abram and said: Unto
your seed will I give this land…
There was a famine in the land. And Abram went down into Egypt to
sojourn there, for the famine was sore in the land.”
As the verse above says, Abram decided not to stay put in his new homeland. Instead, he packed up the
family and headed to Egypt.
Abravanel poses a question. Would it have been preferable to withstand the famine and rough it until
the crisis passed? Fortitude in the face of dire straits is not as farfetched as it may seem. Faith in the One
Above, especially in mortal danger, does more than build character. Is it not a religious imperative?
Certainly, King David believed it so, as he writes in psalms: “Behold, the eyes of God are upon those who
fear Him, upon those who hope in His steadfast love.”
Let us be clear. It was God Who sent Abram away from home in the first place, entrusting him with a
sacred task in Canaan. Surely, divine salvation would watch over Abram in the Holy Land, and ward off
the pangs of a killer famine.
Abravanel wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow over Abram’s decision to leave Canaan in search of
greener pastures in Egypt. One commentator went further. He impugned Abram’s judgment,
characterizing the move as a woeful sin. Abravanel writes that the criticism of Abram was unfair and
Notwithstanding, Abravanel does ask: Was Abram’s departure from Canaan wrong, sinful? What was he
Here is Abravanel’s approach. It provides Bible students with a peak into Abram’s logic.
- Abram believed that the divine commandment to dwell in the Holy Land did not categorically
ban going to Egypt for good cause, such as engaging in commerce or other weighty
considerations. The patriarch presumed it alright, based on his understanding of the
commandment. Hence, a short jaunt beyond Canaan’s borders did not present a problem, an
infringement of God’s will. Abram would return to his new home the moment the famine
passed. This attitude, Abravanel teaches, had been prevalent among “Israelis.” Namely, they
were accustomed to attend to business outside of the land, and then return to it after they
wrapped up their commercial affairs. For Abravanel, Abram’s conduct was perfectly reasonable
insofar as he acted with what he believed to be something acceptable in Heaven’s eyes. Put
succinctly, Abram assumed that the mitzvah to dwell in Israel allowed leeway. The Bible writes
as much: “And Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was sore in the
land.” The term “sojourn” suggests a temporary visit and not permanently.
- Abram understood that divine commandments come with a qualification or condition.
Fulfilment of God’s word must bring the believer or adherent a betterment to his lot and
enhance his life. If, however, compliance with a given commandment brings death, then God
suspends it. When faced with a raging famine – a clear and present mortal danger – Abram
reasoned that the conditions were not right to stay put in Canaan. Dying in the Holy Land would
prove nothing. The Talmudic sages concurred. To paraphrase: If famine plagues a city, run away.
For Abram, moral clarity dictated that existential threat obliged him to leave Canaan. God, the
patriarch thought, would approve the temporary move, with the intention to return when the
threat subsided. “For the famine was sore in the land.” Necessity forced Abram’s departure. In
extreme circumstances, the Maker allows for dispensation.
There was another compelling reason for Abram to leave Canaan and go to Egypt. Please see
Abravanel’s World Abravanel’s World to learn more.