Lekh Lekha: First Encounter

Two people hear God’s voice for the first time in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”, God’s opening words). And the reactions of Abraham and Hagar to their first encounter with the divine are very different.


God first speaks to Abraham1 at the start of this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha. There is no preliminary visual effect, just a voice.

And God said to Abraham: “Get yourself going from your land and from your home and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

The rewards for obedience are significant: descendants for the childless 75-year-old old man, a divine blessing (which usually means health and prosperity), and fame that will lead people to say “May you be blessed like Abraham”. So Abraham leaves Charan.

And Abraham took Sarah, his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their personal property that they had acquired, and the persons that they had made [their own] in Charan. And they left to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)

Abraham obeys God without hesitation. But he makes his own decisions about who and what to take with him. He also decides his own route, heading southwest toward Canaan, rather than southeast toward his birthplace, Ur, or north into the mountains of the Hittites.

Fortunately, God confirms that Canaan is the right place after Abraham reaches the town of Shekhem.2

Abraham and God have many conversations in the book of Genesis, including one in next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, in which Avram questions God’s plan to wipe out the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah. He even tells God:

“Far be it from you to do a thing like this, to kill the tzadik with the wicked, [treating] tzadik and wicked the same! Far be it from you! The judge of all the earth would not do justice!” (Genesis 18:25)

Yet later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham fails to question God’s command to sacrifice his own innocent son Isaac.3 God issues that command as a “test”, and Abraham chooses blind obedience over standing up for justice. If God is testing Abraham’s sense of ethics, God learns that his protégé’s knowledge of good and evil comes into play only intermittently.

Sometimes, as at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham uses his own judgment. Sometimes he does not.


The other person who hears God speak for the first time in this week’s portion is Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave.

Sarah, childless and post-menopausal, assigns her slave to Abraham in the hope that Hagar will produce a son for them by proxy. Once the slave is pregnant, her status in the household is ambiguous. Hagar treats Sarah with less respect, and Sarah reacts by oppressing and humiliating her. Hagar runs away.

And a messenger4 of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness … and said: “Hagar, slave of Sarah, where did you come from and where are you going?” And she said: “I am running away from the presence of Sarah, my mistress.” (Genesis 16:7-8)

Hagar answers honestly about where she came from. But she does not say where she is going. Perhaps the messenger’s question makes her realize that she has no plan, and poor future prospects.

Hagar and the Angel, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Abraham can plan his journey from Charan to Canaan because he is the owner of a livestock business; he is accustomed to taking command and thinking out what to do. Hagar is only a slave, with no experience in making her own decisions.

And the messenger of God said to her: “Go back to your mistress and submit to oppression under her hand.” (Genesis 16:9)

We know that Hagar does not respond, because the next sentence begins with the messenger speaking to her again—a convention the Torah uses to indicate silence on the part of the one spoken to. Hagar does not want to return and submit to Sarah, but she is probably afraid to protest against the order.

And the messenger of God said to her: “Here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son. And you shall call his name Yishmaeil, because God listened to your oppression.” (Genesis 16:11)

Yishmaeil (יִשְׁמָעֵאל) = God listens. Eil (אֵל) = God + yishma (יִשְׁמָע) = he listens. (Many English translations spell the name “Ishmael”.)

God’s messenger adds that Hagar’s son and his kinsmen will fight everyone else, and everyone else will fight them. This information is enough for Hagar. She herself may never escape slavery again, but God will ensure that her son is independent and has his own extended family of like-minded rebels. So she returns to Sarah.

But before Hagar leaves the spring, she says one more thing.

And she called out the name of God, the one who spoke to her. “You are Eil Roi!” Because, she said: “Have I not seen, even here, after [God] saw me?” (Genesis 16:13)

Eil Roi (אֵל רֺאִי) = God Who Sees Me. Eil (אֵל) = God + roi (רֺאִי) = is seeing me.

Hagar realizes that the messenger is just a device for God to speak through. God has listened to her and seen her! She has heard God, and seen one of God’s manifestations!

Like Abraham, Hagar makes a considered decision to obey God. Unlike Abraham, she is amazed and awed by her first encounter with God.

Awed, but not cowed. Hagar waits silently until God promises a reward she considers worth sacrificing herself for. And she is the only person in the Torah who assigns a name to God.

What happens the first time God speaks directly to a human being? It depends on the psychology of the individual. Abraham is a clever person accustomed to leadership. Hagar is a pawn who yearns for independence, and treasures her encounter with the divine.

Both of them are certain that they do indeed hear God’s voice, not the voice of a demon or some subconscious part of themselves. Throughout the Torah, everyone to whom God speaks knows that the speaker is God.

I have had a few liminal experiences in my life, but I have never heard God speaking to me, and I am glad. Now, in the twenty-first century, someone who claims to hear words directly from God might be evaluated for schizophrenia—or made the guru of a cult. Regardless of where the voice in your head comes from, the most important thing is what you do as a result of hearing it. Abraham takes practical action to emigrate with his whole household, expecting certain improvements in his life. Hagar accepts her fate as a slave, and also names and remembers her amazing encounter with the divine.

  1. At this point in the book of Genesis, Abraham is named Avram (אַבְרָם). Later in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17:3-5), God changes his name to Avraham (אַבִרָהָם), which is written “Abraham” in traditional English translations.
  2. Genesis 12:7.
  3. Genesis 22:1-19.
  4. See my post Bereishit: How Many Gods? on messengers or “angels” of God.

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