In the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha we are told about God’s great promise to Avraham, but we are not told why God chose Avraham in the first place. The commentators offer a variety of explanations for why God chose Avraham, and why the Torah was silent on the matter.
While Ibn Shuaib’s own approach to this question is classic, his proof is quite compelling.
According to the Midrash, Avraham was an iconoclast. He destroyed the idols of his father and opposed paganism. He fought the misconceptions of God despite the tremendous social pressures that acted against him. He was vocal about his position and as a result became an enemy of the state. Nimrod, the king at the time, threw him in jail.
Thus according to the Midrash, Avraham was selected by God due to his merits. He was a monotheist, and was willing to risk everything for his steadfast beliefs. God’s selection of Avraham was a reward or outgrowth of Avraham’s own efforts. Ibn Shuaib also writes that because Avraham felt that his selection was merit based, he worried about his descendants losing the favor of God if they were to no longer possess those same merits. This is why Avraham asks God, “How will I know that I am to possess the land (Bereishit 15:8)?” He was asking not about his own possession of the land but rather that of his children. If they sin or otherwise become unworthy, will they still retain possession of the land?
This is a compelling read of the story. Everything is merit based.
Aside from the Midrash, from where did Ibn Shuaib draw these conclusions? He provides two proofs. His first proof is from a verse at the beginning of the story:
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan and they arrived in the land of Canaan. (Bereishit 12:5)
The words, “and the persons that they had acquired in Haran” are odd. What specifically does this refer to? Did Avraham and Sarah purchase many slaves? The Midrash records that Avraham and Sarah converted many people to a life of monotheism while they lived in Haran. And it is those people who traveled with them to Canaan.
Ibn Shuiab writes that this is the proof that Avraham did good. The fact that Avraham was a successful outreach worker, bringing people into the fold, was the merit for which he was chosen by God. In this sense, Avraham’s merit was not just that he himself was a believer, but more so that he got others to believe as well.
But Ibn Shuiab finds additional support for his position that Avraham’s selection was merit based. He quotes the Rambam who wrote that there are ancient, non-Jewish sources that documented the Avraham story. In their account, Avraham destroyed the idols of his father and was thrown into jail by King Nimrod for his heresy.
So the reason we know that these stories are true, according to Ibn Shuaib, is not just because the Midrash records them, but because world history has an account of them as well. In short, we know that Avraham was chosen for his own merits, because those stories really happened. They are not just a ‘cute midrashic interpretation’, but actually bonafide true stories!
Though the non Jewish record is different than ours. According to the non-Jewish account, Avraham was banished from his homeland due to his beliefs and as a result traveled to the Land of Israel. According to our Torah, Avraham did not just wander to Israel. For Avraham the focus was not on leaving Haran, but rather on arriving in Israel. He was sent to Israel by God, not banished from Haran by Nimrod.
In his commentary to Parshat Lech Lecha, Ibn Shuiab combines an allegiance to the pshat (the meaning of Bereishit 12:5 and 15:8) as well as a fidelity to the Midrash. He caps it off by quoting a source external to Judaism, and shows a stark contrast between the Jewish view of the story and the non-Jewish view.
Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.