The Bible is the word of God. Because it is His word, no word in the Bible is extra or insignificant. In fact, when we pay close attention to words that seem insignificant or extraneous, we usually find that it is precisely in these words where the deepest lessons lie hidden, waiting for us to find them.
A great example of this is the opening verse of Genesis 12, the very first words spoken by God to Abram. This verse begins the journey of faith of the father of faith. Here are 3 common English translations of this verse:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (NIV)
Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” (NKJV)
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.” (ESV)
Now here is the literal word-by-word translation from the Hebrew:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth for yourself from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
The underlined words are left out of some or all the English translations that I cited. You may notice that the differences between the literal Hebrew and the English translations appear to be insignificant. They seem to serve no real purpose. To illustrate the point, here is the same translation without any of the underlined words:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, your birthplace, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
It seems that none of the content of the verse is missing at all even though I deleted the underlined words. The Bible did not need to repeat the words “and from” before “your birthplace” and “your father’s house.” The list would be grammatically correct in Hebrew without that repetition, just as it is in English. So why did the Bible repeat “and from”?
Go, for yourself
We will answer this question by exploring the first underlined word – for yourself; a word that does not appear in any of the translations that we cited above.
The first two Hebrew words in this verse are lech lecha. Lech means “go forth” or “travel”. The best translations of lecha are “for yourself” or “to you”. The opening words that God spoke to Abram, then, were “Go forth for yourself”, or “Go forth to yourself.”
To sum up, the first two Hebrew words in the verse are:
Lech – Go forth or travel
lecha – for yourself or to yourself
What does the word lecha – “for yourself” – add to what God told Abram?
By adding this seemingly extra word, lecha, God sets the tone for the journey of faith of Abram and all who would follow in his footsteps. The message is simple and powerful. Obedience to the word of God is not for God’s benefit but for ours. “Go forth for yourself.” God does not need us. We need Him. It is we, not God, who benefit from our obedience to Him.
At the same time, the journey of faith leads us to our true identities; obedience to the word of God allows us to discover who we truly are. “Go forth to yourself”; this journey would lead Abram and his followers to discover their own true selves. It is a journey of self-discovery and an understanding of our purpose and identity.
A curious order of details
Now we can return to our earlier question. Why does the verse repeat the words “and from” before each of the three places that Abraham must leave; his country, his birthplace, and his father’s house?
To answer this question, we will ask another question.
Notice the order in the verse:
- Your country / land
- Your birthplace
- Your father’s house
It would make more sense if they were in reverse order. Abram could leave his father’s house and still be in his birthplace and his country. But it is obvious that once Abram left his country it would be impossible for him to still be in his birthplace or in his father’s house. Why didn’t God simply tell Abram to leave his country “to the land that I will show you”?
Abram’s Journey to Himself
God’s words to Abram were not merely instructions about his physical destination. God was telling Abram that to find His true identity as a servant of God, he would need to leave much of his past behind. Abram was raised in the culture of polytheistic pagan Mesopotamia. He was now being called to a universal mission to bring faith to all the families of the earth. God told Abram that he must sever his ties with the culture and influences of his upbringing. This is a difficult process for anyone, even for someone like Abram.
In Abram’s journey to find his true identity, the easiest influence to leave behind was the general culture of his country. Disconnecting from the tribal influences of his birthplace was more difficult. But hardest of all would be the departure from his own family and their idolatrous ways.
These influences are not equal. Think about our own lives. We are influenced by the general culture of the wider society. We are influenced by the city or area where we were raised. Finally, and most profoundly, we are influenced by our home, our family environment. As someone raised in a Godless and immoral pagan society, Abram had to leave all of these behind him. Severing ties with each of these influences is a separate challenge unto itself.
By repeating the words “and from” before each of these three circles of influence in Abram’s life, God was telling him, and us, that these three challenges are different from each other. Each requires special attention and must be handled in its own way. They are not accomplished all at once.
In any life of faith, there are challenges that we face. Sometimes those challenges are from wider society, sometimes they are closer to home. God’s first words to Abram are the first words to all who embark on the journey of faith in Him.
Go forth to your true self. You will find yourself when you strip away all of the negative influences that surround you; some closer to home than others. Then you will arrive at the destination – “the land that I will show you.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast