Why was Avraham chosen to be the progenitor of Bnei Yisrael? The Chumash is strangely silent about this matter, in contradistinction to its earlier explanation for Hashem’s choice of Noach to continue the human race after the Mabul (see Bereishit 6:9). The reason for Avraham’s selection and why the Chumash is almost silent about it are questions left mostly to Chazal and the Meforshim.
One of the few hints the Chumash does drop about Avraham’s selection appears in this week’s Parasha in the context of Hashem’s decision to let Avraham know about the impending destruction of Sedom. Hashem says that Avraham deserves to know about Sedom because he instructs his children about the attributes of Tzedek, righteousness, and Mishpat, justice (18:19). We therefore know, ex post facto, that Avraham had some very good character traits. It is reasonable to assume that these qualities did not develop magically after Avraham was chosen, but were in fact part of his character even beforehand. This was certainly an achievement given the environment in which Avraham lived. Bavel, Avraham’s ancestral homeland, was ruled by Nimrod, a grandson of Cham. Based on what the Chumash explicitly or implicitly records about Cham and his children (see, inter alia, 9:22 and 25), Nimrod was probably not the best of people. Avraham maintaining a sense of righteousness and justice in such an environment may have been one factor which led to his selection as patriarch of the Jewish people, who place high value on justice and righteousness.
Beyond this passing reference, it is difficult to find any reason in the Chumash for Avraham’s selection. Into this void steps the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, cited by Rashi to 11:28), which recounts the famous story of Avraham and the idols. The story goes that Avraham was once left in charge of his father’s idol factory, and a person came to bring an offering to the idols. Avraham, who fully grasped the fallacy of idol worship, took an ax, smashed all the idols, and left the ax in the hand of the largest idol. Upon his father’s return, Avraham claimed that the idols had argued amongst each other about who should be privileged to eat the person’s offering, and had fought and demolished each other in the quarrels that broke out. Terach realized that Avraham’s action potentially threatened the entire foundation of the religion of Bavel, and he brought Avraham to Nimrod, who, upon Avraham’s refusal to repent, threw him into a fiery furnace, from which Avraham miraculously was rescued. According to this Midrash, Avraham was chosen because he, of his own accord, came to the conclusion that idol worship was ridiculous and that there must be a single, omnipotent Being in charge of the world.
From where did Chazal derive the ideas mentioned in this Midrash? There seems not to be any hint to them in the text. However, Rav Yitzchak Etshalom, in his work Between the Lines of the Bible, points out that a careful reading of the text in conjunction with a small section from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-3) in fact reveals several subtle hints to a story of this nature. The fact that Terach served Avodah Zarah is made obvious by Yehoshua 24:2, which states, “BeEiver HaNahar Yashvu Avoteichem MeiOlam Terach Avi Avraham VaAvi Nachor VaYaavdu Elohim Acheirim,” “On the other side of the river your forefathers always dwelt, Terach, father of Avraham and Nachor, and they served other gods.” Though the antecedent of “they” seems somewhat unclear, the “Trop” clearly indicates that “Terach, father of Avraham and Nachor” is merely a parenthetical insertion illustrative of the “forefathers” who served Avodah Zarah. It is thus clear that Terach himself worshipped Avodah Zarah. By choosing Terach as the example of an idol worshipper, Yehoshua may be hinting that the line of that religious persuasion ended with Terach, meaning that Avraham himself abandoned it. Avraham’s outspoken devotion to Hashem can be gleaned from later Pesukim (e.g. Bereishit 12:8 and Ramban ad. loc.) which recount that when Avraham came to a new place, the first thing he did was build a Mizbeiach and “call out in the name of Hashem,” in essence setting up the first Kiruv center. This attitude would logically lead him to destroy idols and refuse to acknowledge any wrong in doing so. Such “disrespect” for the prevailing religion would naturally bring Avraham into conflict with Nimrod, the king of the region, who would punish him. The specific punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace is based on two hints. First, the name of the place Avraham left was Ur Kasdim. The word Ur elsewhere in Tanach (e.g. Yeshayahu 31:9) is used to mean fire or furnace. In addition, when Hashem appeared to Avraham to seal the Brit Bein HaBetarim, He began by saying, “Ani Hashem Asher Hotzeiticha MeiUr Kasdim,” “I am Hashem Who took you out of Ur Kasdim” (15:7). This introduction is remarkably similar to the introduction of the Aseret HaDibrot, which runs, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha Asher Hotzeiticha MeiEretz Mitzrayim…” “I am Hashem your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt…” (Shemot 20:2). Elsewhere, the slavery in Mitzrayim from which Bnei Yisrael were redeemed is referred to as an iron furnace (Devarim 4:20). Accordingly, the similarly-phrased salvation experienced by Avraham very likely was from a furnace.
Rav Yaakov Meidan offers further textual support for the story of Avraham smashing the idols. A number of Avraham’s later actions parallel those of the Shofeit Gidon (described in Shoftim 6-8). Both Avraham and Gidon fought wars against huge armies. Both used fear-inspiring tactics and the help of their personal servants. The avowed purpose of both wars was to rescue relatives from the enemy. Based on this comparison, Chazal similarly set up a parallel between Avraham’s destruction of his father’s idols and Gidon’s demolition of his father’s Mizbeiach to the Avodah Zarah “Baal” (Shoftim 6:25-32). Rav Meidan further notes that the Kivshan HaEish story referred to by the Midrash brings to mind the later story of Chananiah, Mishaeil, and Azariah being thrown into a fiery furnace by Nevuchadnetzar, the king of Bavel, for refusing to bow to Avodah Zarah (Daniel 3). If later monotheists were thrown into a furnace by a king of Bavel for refusal to accept Avodah Zarah, it seems reasonable that an earlier monotheist (Avraham) in the same circumstances would have been thrown into a furnace by the king of the same Bavel. The idea that Chazal based this part of the Midrash on the story recounted in Sefer Daniel can be bolstered based on the use of almost the exact same phraseology in the Midrash and the story in Daniel. Both Nimrod (in the Midrash) and Nevuchadnetzar (in Daniel) say, “Let the God in Whom you believe save you” before casting the recalcitrant monotheists into the flames.
Even with the Midrashic explanation of Avraham’s selection, the question remains why the Torah is almost silent about this matter. The Ramban (11:28) writes that the Torah did not want to include the story of the Kivshan HaEish because it would have to explain the entire background to the story, thus necessitating the unacceptable insertion of the arguments of idol worshippers into the Torah. Rav Yissocher Frand quotes Rav Simcha Zisel Brody, who elaborates that while the Torah does not necessarily cite both sides of all disputes, the present story would require giving both sides because it is in Sefer Bereishit. Chazal call Sefer Bereishit “Sefer HaYashar,” “Book of the upright,” and thus everything recorded in this Sefer must keep to the path of uprightness, which would include presenting both sides of a dispute. Because the Torah does not want to present both sides as if they are equally valid positions, which they obviously are not, it omitted both sides.
Nechama Leibowitz suggests the intriguing possibility that the background of why Avraham was chosen is irrelevant. The fact that Avraham was chosen speaks for itself. To bolster this approach, she cites a Midrash which states that Hashem tests only those people who are already worthy. In other words, Avraham was chosen because he was worthy - period. Rav Amnon Bazak similarly advocates the idea that the fact that Avraham later passed many tests proves that he was worthy from the outset. In support of his contention, Rav Bazak notes the parallel language, such as the phrase “Lech Lecha,” between Akeidat Yitzchak, the final test, and the original selection. In fact, further support for Rav Bazak’s premise can be found in Sefer Nechemia (9:7-8), which states that Hashem first chose Avraham and only then found that he was faithful (by passing tests).
In a variation of this idea, Rav Menachem Leibtag suggests that Avraham was chosen to perform the task of being Koreih BeSheim Hashem, calling out in Hashem’s name and drawing people to monotheism. Accordingly, Avraham was chosen to perform this task because he was capable of doing so; why he was the sole person capable is not important in the big picture.
Rav Yonatan Grossman even anchors this suggestion in the Chumash itself. He notes that it seems (see Bereishit 11:31) that Terach also wanted to go with Avraham to Eretz Canaan, but, because he did not do so based on a personal divine command, he did not get past Charan, the center of the civilized world. Avraham, however, went to Eretz Canaan “as Hashem had spoken to him” (12:4), and, consequently, made it all the way. These two stories are presented with almost nothing in between, indicating that the reason why Avraham received a command to go (and therefore reached his final destination) and Terach did not is not important, at least not important enough to be mentioned. Rav Grossman even proposes that if the selection were dependent on a specific reason, it might be undone by a cessation or reversal of that reason. In order to convey the sense that the selection of Avraham cannot be undone, the Torah gives no reason.
Whether one cares why Avraham was chosen or not, it is clear that Avraham’s selection as patriarch of the Jewish people was a seminal event. But what exactly does it mean to be chosen by Hashem, and what are the theological underpinnings of such a selection? Based on the model of Avraham, we can suggest that to be chosen might involve being a contrarian in a place of decadence or at least having some standout against the surroundings. There is nothing to be chosen if everyone is good or the same. When a person is chosen for his fortitude in refusing to assimilate, he is given a roadmap for how to stay that way. After all, it is his own choice to be that way in the first place, and, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin (LeHavdil), Hashem helps those who help themselves. Avraham was chosen because he resisted Bavel’s indigenous religious and ethical cultures, and he was chosen in order to make sure he and his descendants would be able to remain contrarians. For Avraham, it was Brit Milah, commands to move around so that he never got complacent, and the Brit Bein HaBetarim that kept him separate from the nations around him. As Jews in America, we similarly must maintain our identity by following the roadmap Hashem gave us - the Torah.