This week's entry in the Jewish Star. This one was written with the dvar torah that made me famous in mind (read comments there for entertainment purposes only).
If you'd like to hear an expanded audio version of this class, see it here: https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/913694/rabbi-avi-billet/avrahams-age-at-discovering-god,-and-was-he-saved-from-a-furnace/
Parshat Lech Lecha: “Three” is one opinion
By Rabbi Avi Billet
Issue of October 30 2009/ 12 Cheshvan 5770
On my children’s bookshelf there is a book entitled “A Little Boy Named Avram.” The book follows one of the midrashic interpretations that suggests little Avram lived in a cave as a child until he was three years old, at which point he emerged and recognized the existence of G-d.
A different midrash suggests Avram’s mother ran away from her husband, who worked for Nimrod, to give birth in a cave. The midrash says she told the baby she is leaving him there, preferring he possibly die at the hands of the elements, than at the hands of Nimrod who practiced infanticide.
The midrash says G-d sent the angel Gabriel to care for him for ten days. Having benefited from divine “milk” and sustenance, he emerged from the cave after ten days with the ability to walk. After twenty days, Gabriel appeared to him again, and identified himself as a messenger of G-d, Creator of the world, to whom the boy began to pray.
Meanwhile, feeling guilty and remorseful, his mother returned to the cave looking for her son. She found a little boy nearby, walking and speaking like an adult. After a little back and forth, he told her he was her son and she marveled at how much he’d grown in such a short time. He told her, “You should know, my mother, that there is a great and mighty living G-d Who sees and is not seen, and He is in the heavens and His glory fills the world.” (Both of these midrashic accounts can be found in the book Otzar Hamidrashim.)
The main source for the midrash that Avraham was three when he discovered G-d is the verse in Bereishit 26:5, when G-d promises Yitzchak that He’ll fulfill certain promises “eikev” that Avraham listened to His voice. The word “eikev” means “on account of,” and its gematria (numerical value in Jewish numerology) is 172. Since Avraham lived to be 175 (25:7), and he listened to G-d’s voice for 172 years, he must have been 3 when he discovered G-d’s voice.
The problem is that Avraham was told the same thing in 22:18, after the story of the Akeidah (binding of Yitzchak), when Avraham was somewhere between 113 and 137 years of age. He certainly hadn’t heeded G-d’s voice for 172 years at that point.
To round out other options, consider that in the exact place where Resh Lakish suggests Avraham was 3 when he recognized G-d (Bereishit Rabbh 95:3), another opinion is recorded that Avraham was 48 years old when he recognized G-d.
Pesikta Rabati 21 interprets the word choice of the Ten Commandments, and says the first word “Anokhi” is to be divided: Aleph stands for Avraham. Nun equals 50, Avraham’s age when he recognized G-d [though Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yochanan believe he was 48, and Resh Lakish believes he was 3]. Khaf equals 20 — he taught G-d’s word to twenty generations (or corrected what had transpired after twenty generations). Yud equals ten, referring to the ten trials Avraham underwent and passed.
[I put two more opinions in the comments - Rambam says he was 40, and the Talmud says he was 52 - AB 10/2014]
20 days, 3 years, 48 years, 50 years. Each one is legitimately sourced and accounted for.
Which one do you prefer? Does it really matter? Does it shake the core of your belief? Does it change the meaning of your Judaism? Does it make you feel you’ve been duped? Does it change the way you perceive the Torah you’ve been taught and the way you’ve always understood things?
The Torah (Tanakh), Talmud and Midrash are vast books filled with an endless source of knowledge. Never take anything for granted. Never take anyone’s “statements of fact” as true until they show it to you inside a text.
Homiletics and interpretation are a different story — we all can take whatever lessons or messages from the text that relate to our life experience, and we all see things in a different way.
The 20 day old and the 3 year old are clearly divinely inspired, making Avraham an extremely special human from the get-go. But a Baal Teshuva might appreciate the possibility that Avraham was an incredible, yet normal man who came to a very important realization a little later in his intellectual, theological and philosophical development.
The Torah tells Avraham’s age at Lech Lecha — 75 (12:4), Birth of Yishmael — 86 (16:16), Bris Milah — 99 (17:1), Birth of Yitzchak — 100 (21:5), and death — 175 (25:7), but not when he recognized G-d. I am happy the Torah leaves it vague, because it allows all kinds of people to draw inspiration.