Article -

Testing Abraham


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







Introduction

The biblical narrative of Abraham`s life (Genesis 11:26 – 25:10) is a series of challenges. Various midrashic sources developing out of the narrative identify these challenges as ten trials. Underlying all of them is puzzlement that the quintessential man of faith should be constantly tested. What was tested? Why did God need to test him? Didn`t the omniscient God know what Abraham would do? Jewish commentators throughout the ages have wrestled with these questions and answered variously. Artists, perenially fascinated by Abraham`s life, create visual midrash, illuminating and interpreting events in his life, even unaware of the tradition of the ten trials.
What is the meaning of these trials?

· Are they a learning process to refine Abraham?
· Are they tests of his worthiness?

· Are they opportunities to reward him?

· Or are they simply crises?

The earliest appearance of the word “test” comes from Old French, meaning a vessel, a cupel, in which precious metals were refined. The traditional view of the trials is a refining of the relationship between Abraham and God; our inclination is to also evaluate his relationship with others (family, foreigners, etc.), and his commitment to morality.








1. Abraham in Ur: Genesis 11

The first of Abraham`s trials is midrashic rather than biblical, apparently because the Bible was not interested in miraculous infants. In the legends about his beginnings, Abraham first survives the royal edict to slay male infants in fear of the birth of a religious subversive. In isolation he discovers the true God and then challenges the beliefs of his father and his king and finally is saved from martyrdom. Theses legends of his youth were probably generated by the need to answer the question: How did Abraham become the first person to discover the One God? The answer they provide is that because of the threat to his life and his abandonment, he was not exposed to the religious fallacies of his society. His trial was living or dying with his Truth.

The story of Abraham`s breaking his father`s idols is so well known that most people don`t realize that it`s not in the Tanakh. In one of the earlier versions of this midrash, Abraham is left to mind the shop of his father Terah, the idol maker; Abraham first foils the sale of his wares and then destroys them.


Alexander Karl Floersheim Haggadah, 1737, Abraham breaks the idols of Terah

Alexander Karl Floersheim Haggadah, 1737
Abraham breaks the idols of Terah


Amsterdam Haggadah, 1712

Amsterdam Haggadah, 1712

Inthis illustration from a Moravian haggadah of 1737, based on the printed Amsterdam haggadah of 1712, Abraham is smashing his father`s idols inside the walls of Ur, while outside the walls three men kneel before an altar. Comparison with the Amsterdam model (above right), clarifies that this picture is an illustration of the haggadah`s text recounting that originally (מתחלה) our ancestors were idol worshippers when they lived beyond the river (Joshua 24:2). In the original 1712 version, there is a river and a viaduct with numerous passages; in the 1737 version, the river has disappeared and the viaduct has become a solid wall separating Abraham from the idol worshippers. On the other hand, in our Moravian version, Abraham has a hat that lies on the ground near by. The worshippers also have hats, indicating that they, like Abraham, are our ancestors. Thus, the later version emphasizes the separation between Abraham and idol worship, rather than his exodus from Ur beyond the river.

A subsequent midrashic episode brings Abraham into confrontation with the god-king, Nimrod, builder of the tower of Babel and enemy of God. The midrash creates a theological disputation between Abraham and Nimrod, which ends, as in Christian Spain, with Abraham`s spiritual victory rewarded with a death sentence.


Leipzig Mahzor, Abraham in Nimrod`s Furnace, ca.1320

Leipzig Mahzor, Abraham in Nimrod`s Furnace, ca.1320

In our picture, Nimrod is seated on his throne; before him stands Terah—seen by some midrashim as a supporter of the evil king—and his three sons. At Terah`s feet lies Haran, who died “in his father`s presence” according to the Genesis 11: 27, having been burnt to death by Nimrod, according to the midrash, because of his feigned belief in God. Behind Terah, stand Abraham and Nachor. On the right, Abraham is saved by a divine hand extracting him from the flames. This particular form of execution is generated in the midrash by the name of Abraham`s home town, Ur, which in rabbinic Hebrew also means fire. Our illustration, placed along side a Yom Kippur liturgical poem glorifying Abraham`s faith in God, seems to reflect the persecutions that Jews endured in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages.
Thus in these two pictures, Jewish artists expressed their admiration of and identification with Abraham in his role as believer and activist.

 









2. Lekh Lekha Genesis 12

The second trial in our counting is לך לך the biblical portion in which Abraham is commanded by God to go forth from “his land, his next of kin and his father`s house”. The two words in Hebrew constitute an expression that has elicited much intepretation in the history of Jewish commentary. Some of the midrashic sources (see below) stress the disorientation implicit in the parasha and in these words – Abraham has been uprooted from his homeland and has lost his parents; he then is commanded to go to an unknown land. His trial is in his ability to withstand such loss of grounding and remained focused on his mission.
The two words look identical, inviting an interpretation that separates them: לך means go out and לך means go in (to yourself). The definition of the spiritual journey requires the two way movement; the hero goes forth and at the same time goes inward to search for meaning.
 
In Dali`s painting, God`s presence in the command לך לך is seen in the topographical map of the promised land and its aura, which creates the silhouette or negative space forming Abraham`s profile.

 

S. Dali, Biblia Sacra, Abraham Father of many Nations, 1964-67

S. Dali, Biblia Sacra, Abraham Father of many Nations, 1964-67

 

Or you can see Abraham`s dominant shape giving form to the amorphous potentialities of the unknown land. This dual view of the Dali work enables us to see the dual meaning of לך לך, go forth as you go into yourself.
Anthony Dubovsky also creates a “before and after” by cutting his painting into two distinct sections.

 

Anthony Dobovsky, Abraham, 1992

Anthony Dobovsky, Abraham, 1992

Theodor Herzl, 1898

Theodor Herzl, 1898

 

The introspective Abraham`s forehead and chest are bathed in the light of the divine command. Abraham`s profile evokes the familiar image of Theodor Herzl, pondering another Lekh Lekha. The larger half suggests desert, fire, sacrifice and trauma of the external journey. A Midrash in Bereshit Rabba recognizing the anxieties associated with travel, compensates Abraham with a triple blessing. He and his destination (or destiny) are painted in the same colors, stressing their interrelationship, if not their idenity.








3. A Case of Mistaken Identity?

The most perplexing of Abraham`s trials occurs twice, when Sarah is put at risk in order to save Abraham. The couple, having just arrived in the land of Canaan, leave because of a famine. On approaching their foreign destination (Egypt, and later Gerar of the Philistines), Abraham lays out his plan Sarah saying, “Tell them you`re my sister, so that it will go well with me because of you” (Genesis 12:13).

James Tissot, Abraham`s counsel, 1896 - 1902

James Tissot, Abraham`s counsel, 1896 – 1902

 
 
In James Tissot`s orientalist presentation, Abraham is a bedouin sheikh, selling his concerns with tenative gestures, as Sarah listens incredulously.
 
 
In American performance artist Susan Benton`s work, Sarah is masked, in order to accommodate Abraham`s anxiety and his wish to profit from their situation.

Susan Benton, Sarah Masked

Susan Benton, Sarah Masked

Max Ernst, The King playing with the Queen, 1944

Max Ernst, The King playing with the Queen, 1944

In fact, according to Genesis 20:12 Sarah is Abraham`s half-sister or the daughter of his half-brother. So neither Abraham nor Sarah is lying. But Abraham does manipulate his wife and puts her at risk, in “a place where the people don`t know God”. The twentieth century surrealist Max Ernst, on the right, critiques such behavior: on the chess board, the king manipulates the queen.
The medieval Jewish commentator Nachmanides already dared to condemn Abraham`s behavior toward Sarah as sinful, reflecting his lack of faith in God for which his descendants were punished with extended enslavement in Egypt.
 
A Byzantine ivory plaque plays out this complex story in its narrative sequence.
 

Sarah given to Pharaoh, Cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1100

Sarah given to Pharaoh, Cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1100

In the left panel, Abraham stands at an altar to receive God`s blessing, now that he has arrived in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:6-8). In the righthand panel, Abraham and Sarah stand before Pharaoh, who is either receiving the weeping Sarah from Abraham or returning her. In either case, Sarah at the center right is parallel to the flames of the altar (center left): she is Abraham`s sacrifice, prefiguring her ultimate sacrifice (her death associated with the Akedah, Genesis 23).
Does Abraham pass this test?








4. The Attack of the 4 Kings and the kidnapping of Lot

Abraham`s next trial is by combat, a role inconsistent with his pastoral image. His kinsman Lot, has been abducted by four kings; Abraham pursues them into Syria with just a small group of retainers, defeats them, rescues Lot and returns with much booty. On encountering the King of Sodom, Abraham refuses any reward as conqueror. What does the king of Sodom have to do with Abraham and Lot? Previously (Genesis 13) these kinsman had almost come to blows over water rights. Generously Abraham conceded to Lot the well-watered plains and agreed to withdraw to the hills; as it turns out, these plains were home to the infamous but wealthy cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. When four foreign kings attack the land of Canaan, this rich area is their natural target and Lot is taken prisoner.
 
As early as the fifth century, the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome show the parting of Abraham and Lot. On the right, Lot, his wife and two daughters are headed toward a city. On the left, Abraham and company are backed by a tent and tree, representing their rural environment. The two men look at one another with reluctance at their separation.

 

 

Abraham and Lot Part, Santa Maria Maggiore, 432-40

Abraham and Lot Part, Santa Maria Maggiore, 432-40

 

In the wild battle scene below, from an Italian illuminated Bible, a bright red figure draws us to the center. Among the cavalry, Abraham is identified as a civilian by his Jew`s hat, beard and robe, as he embraces his rescued nephew Lot in the midst of fighting and dying cavalry.

 

Bible of Matteo di Planisio, Abraham`s Battle with the Four Kings, ca. 1362

Bible of Matteo di Planisio, Abraham`s Battle with the Four Kings, ca. 1362

 

What is the trial in this episode? The traditional sources seem to be saying that the peaceful Abraham`s willingness to do battle, trusting in God`s aid, is the mark of his faith. But we might add that his test is how he deals with tension within his family and whether he maintains his family bond despite these tensions.








5. Progeny – and the covenant of pieces


Vienna Genesis, Abraham`s covenant, 6th century

Vienna Genesis
Abraham`s covenant, 6th century


Bible Historiale, Covenant of the Pieces, 1372

Bible Historiale
Covenant of the Pieces, 1372

Illustrations of the Bible, Abraham,  1908

Illustrations of the Bible, Abraham
1908

The trial of faith intensifies in Genesis 15 with a vision in which God, anticipates Abraham`s gnawing fear of childlessness. God calls out,

“Don’t be afraid, Abraham, I am your shield and your reward.What comes out of your housewill not inherit you, but what comes out of your loins! Go out and count the stars – that many will be your seed.”


From the purple calf parchment of the sixth century Vienna Genesis, to the twentieth century illustration by E.M. Lilien, Abraham views the stars in a dark night, comforted again by the improbable promise. The gesture in both is the gesture of receiving a gift: in the Lilien picture, Abraham holds his heart in grateful anticipation; in the Vienna Genesis, covered hands is the visual convention for receiving a gift. (In antiquity Roman soldiers would extend their covered hands to the emperor, to receive their salary, a measure of salt. Salary derives from sal, salt-). In the center, Abraham crouches in a trance before the split carcasses of the vision of good news and bad news. The good news confirms his posession of the land; the bad news forecasts the impending slavery of his descendents in Egypt.








6. Hagar and Sarah

Abraham just worries about continuity, but Sarah takes the initiative, introducing her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, whose hoped-for fertility will heal Sarah`s barenness.

 

Rembrandt, Sarah presents Hagar to Abraham, 1643-44

Rembrandt, Sarah presents Hagar to Abraham, 1643-44

 

In Rembrandt`s pen and ink drawing of ca. 1640, Sarah, in the center, brings the demure Hagar, to the couch of the passive, reclining patriarch. Three gesturing hands define the complexity of this proposal. And three feet of Sarah and Hagar show them at a critical intersection. Two substantial breasts appear in the drapery, above and to the right, focusing the pathos of the scene.
 
A few months later, the same trio appears once more.

 

Rembrandt, Sarah complaining of Hagar to Abraham, ca. 1640

Rembrandt, Sarah complaining of Hagar to Abraham, ca. 1640

 

 
Hagar, proud and pregnant, no long downcaste and demure is identified by the peacock behind. No longer the “fixer”, Sarah, still in the center is bent and devastated, pouring out her wrath on the nonplussed master of the household. Adam Nordwell`s statue “Split woman” expresses Sarah`s dilemma.

 

Adam Nordwell, Torn Woman

Adam Nordwell, Torn Woman

 

At this point in Hagar`s saga, Abraham mollifies Sarah: She`s your handmaid, do with her what you will. Progeny notwithstanding, Sarah abuses Hagar, who flees.

 

James Tissot, Hagar and the angel in the desert, 1896 - 1902

James Tissot
Hagar and the angel in the desert
1896 – 1902

 

In Tissot`s painting of 1896-1902 , an angel finds the pregnant child Hagar by a well in the desert, and tells her to return home and endure her mistress`s abuse, because:

God will surely infinitely multiply your seed.
You shall call him Ishmael,
because God has paid attention to your suffering

In a rare depiction of her return, Pietro da Cartona portrays Abraham welcoming back a more mature, contrite Hagar with open arms, while Sarah looks on scornfully from a shadowy doorway. As opposed to Rembrandt`s drawings, Abraham is at center stage, caught between the two women.
 

 

Pietro da Cartona, The Return of Hagar, ca. 1637

Pietro da Cartona, The Return of Hagar, ca. 1637

 

This trial can be understood in two ways: 1) Abraham`s equinimity is challenged by a disturbed family dynamic or 2) Abraham`s faith that God`s providence will justify the subsequent exile of Hagar and Ishmael.








7. Circumcision

Up to now the relationship between God and Abraham has been a promise; now it becomes a contract or brit. The verbal is now cut into the flesh.
The twenty-seven verses of Genesis 17 are teeming (13 out of 27 verses) with words connected with fertility: זרע `seed`, הרבה `make many`, הפרה `make fruitful`, ברך `bless`, etc. The word ברית itself appears in this chapter thirteen times out of the 17 total occurences in the Abraham narrative. The focus of the chapter is the circumcision rite, mentioned here ten times, the first occurrence of this practice in the Tanakh. Both here and in the context of agricultural law (Lev 19:23), the orla `foreskin` is considered to be an obstacle to fertility. Thus circumcision is required to enhance human fruitfulness.
 
Two scenes appear in one of the few portrayals of this chapter in European art.

 

Bible Historiale, The Circumcision of Ishmael, ca. 1430

Bible Historiale, The Circumcision of Ishmael, ca. 1430

 

In this fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of Guiart des Moulins` Historical Bible, Abraham kneels before God outside, on the left, and receives the divine promise. Inside, on the right, we observe the ceremony of Ishmael`s circumcision, attended by the men of Abraham`s house. In order to concretize the involvment of all those “born in the house” (v. 23), a wall of the house is cut away exposing the interior. Finally, both Sarai/Sarah and Abram/Abraham receive new names to mark their new status. The heh in Sarah and Abraham emphasizes both the presence of God (ה`) and the “muchness” `המון` that is to come.








8. The Expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar

In Genesis 21, after the long and difficult process of creating Abraham`s family, that family begins to fall apart. At the baby Isaac`s weaning party, Ishmael does something (מצחק) that evokes Sarah`s rage. This something has been variously interpreted as sexual misconduct, idolatry or attempted murder (Rashi and others) or simply as childish mischief (Ibn Ezra and others). Sarah demands

 

drive out this maid and her son,
he will not inherit with my son, with Isaac”.

 

As opposed to his previous indifference, Abraham is outraged and only God`s intervention sets the exile in motion. What is Abraham`s trial? It can be understood as the dilemma of human as opposed to Divine love and it can be seen as a conflict between two human loves: the love for Sarah/Isaac and the love for Hagar/Ishmael.

 

Rembrandt, Abraham dismisses Hagar, 1656

Rembrandt, Abraham dismisses Hagar, 1656

Jan Victors, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, 1650

Jan Victors, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, 1650

 

Rembrandt was drawn repeatedly to the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael because of similarities with his own personal life. In his portrayal, Abraham is filled with compassion for Hagar and for Ishmael both. The heavy black cloud over Abraham expresses his anguish over the forced exile. One hand caresses Ishmael, the other hovers toward the weeping Hagar. The stoop suggests both an altar upon which mother and child are being sacrificed, and intimates the missing presence of Sarah, usually seen standing in the doorway.

Jan Victors learned from his teacher, Rembrandt, the power of portraiture, especially the play of light and shadow. He chooses the moment of separation; all are present at the doorway, Hagar is already outside. Strong light illuminates her distressed face and wringing hands as she looks back to her home. Innocent Ishmael`s head is capped with light as Abraham`s hand hovers in blessing. The child`s right hand reaching out to his father, calls our attention to Abraham`s fist. Strong light moves us to Abraham`s far-away stare. Lesser light illumines the tight-lipped Sarah, as usual in the doorway, the place of the manipulator. Small light focuses on her hands, one clenched fist and an assertive index finger, pointing Out. The totality of the painting is restraint, in comparison with Rembrandt`s emotionality.

In our own times, the story has not lost its pathos. All the players are present in George Segal`s painted plaster installation.

 

 George Segal, Abraham`s farewell to Ishmael, 1987

George Segal, Abraham`s farewell to Ishmael, 1987

A modern family is breaking up. Father and grownup son embrace in parting. The other woman stands alone, embracing herself. The matriarch, the manipulator, supervises in the shadows. A large crack appears in the wall of separation. In contrast to the victim we have seen until now, a defiant Hagar emerges from the feminist movement in the art of North Carolina artist Mickey Gault.

Mickey Gault, Hagar and Ishmael

Mickey Gault, Hagar and Ishmael

 

While defiance is clear from her arched back in profile, Hagar`s face reveals tragedy. The boy`s bug-eyed look says fear, but his profile suggests urgency. None of the narrative details are present: not the home, not the family, not the water or bread. The red sculpture suggests a burning desert and high emotion. Gault`s agenda is not Abraham`s trial, but Hagar`s.








9. Akedah – The Binding of Isaac

Lekh lekha is the lead word of the Abraham saga, occuring twice. Once in Genesis 12, commanding Abraham to Go Forth from Ur “to the land that I will show you,” accompanied by a promise of blessing and greatness. The second lekh lekha closes the bracket around the Abraham saga and unravels the blessing by commanding Abraham to Go Forth to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The “land that I will show you” becomes Moriah, the place of the altar. The blessing of future becomes the dread of the end.
 
God`s words come tumbling down in Shraga Weil`s silkscreen.
 

 

Shraga Weil, Abraham`s Dream, 1970

Shraga Weil, Abraham`s Dream, 1970

 

From a line of text containing the words lekh lekha, a hail of letters awakens Abraham, who covers his ears in dismay. A vague image of the Menorah descends from the passage cut from a printed Bible, while the flood of letters below suggests ripped newspapers, connecting the biblical narrative to the State of Israel and contemporary protest against sacrifice of sons. An impression of broken glass and shattered dreams pervades. Avraham Ofek takes us on the journey to Moriah. Sparse lines and minimal detail speak eloquently.
 

 

Avraham Ofek, On the way to the Mountain, 1980`s

Avraham Ofek, On the way to the Mountain, 1980`s

 

Abraham and Isaac in the lead, followed by the two servants and the donkey, strain emotionally against the ascent as we observe from the side and behind. The figures of Abraham and Isaac are filled in, as is the wood loaded on the donkey, while the two boys are mere outlines. Diagonal movement stresses not only the ascent, but also the burden. The bare, harsh landscape and the threatening midrashic vulture convey a bleak mood; salvation is not in sight.

 

Abel Pann, Binding of Isaac, 1923

Abel Pann, Binding of Isaac, 1923

 

Paradoxic love and violence fill the scene in Abel Pann`s painting of the Akedah of 1923. A distraught father, staring into space, caresses with one hand and wields a knife in the other. Neither the saving ram nor God`s presence appears here, but rather a vast tree shadows across the background.
 
The three major moments of the Akedah are God`s call to Abraham, the journey to Morah and the sacrifice, presented above. Jan Lievens, a colleague of Rembrandt, painted a fourth, rarely illuminated scene, a midrashic reconciliation of father and son.

 

Jan Lievens, Abraham and Isaac, 1637

Jan Lievens, Abraham and Isaac, 1637

 

The biblical text (Genesis 22:19) speaks in the singular of Abraham`s return from Moriah—Isaac is not mentioned—leading to midrashic conjectures about his whereabouts. Lievens creates positive closure, the embrace of Abraham and Isaac, with the slaughtered ram at their feet. The reader has probably observed that Sarah is entirely absent from the Akedah narrative. However, the next chapter opens with the announcement of her death. It doesn`t take much imagination for the Midrash to create a causal connection: The satanic rumour reaches her; the shock kills her. In Dore`s engraving of 1865, the shrouded body of Sarah is placed upright in a niche within a burial cave.

 

Gustav Dore, Burial of Sarah, 1865

Gustav Dore, Burial of Sarah, 1865

 

Two burial workers are pushing the stone door into place; once again, the shadowy figure of Sarah stands in a doorway. A group of mourners pull the reluctant Abraham toward the exit. Abraham looks back in anguish, perhaps in guilt. Abraham and Isaac go their separate ways. Hagar will soon find a bride for Ishmael. Perhaps Sarah is the true sacrifice of the Akedah. Abraham`s life is characterized by many trials. Various rabbinic traditions record 10 trials, with variations on their identification, perhaps reflecting the statement in Numbers 14:22 that the people of Israel tried God ten times during the desert wanderings. Ten is a good round, typological number; we could find even more but our (ac)counting produces one less. The traditional approach to these trials is that they are tests of faith; our own reading of Abraham`s story and the reading of many artists is that he undergoes tests of character. In both cases, it is not clear whether Abraham gets good grades.


Article Sources:

Numbers 14: 22 - 23
22 “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, 23 shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it.
 
Mishnah Abot 5:3
With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all--in order to make known how great was our father Abraham`s love [for G-d].
 
Abot de Rabbi Natan 33:2
With ten trials was Abraham our father tried before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in all of them he was found steadfast, to wit:
Twice, when ordered to move on;
Twice, in connection with his two sons;
Twice, in connection with his two wives;
Once, on the occasion of his war with the kings;
Once, at the (covenant) between the pieces;
Once, in Ur of the Chaldess;
And once, at the covenant of circumcision. 
Now, what was the reason for all this? So that when Abraham our father comes to take his reward, the peoples of the world shall say, “More than all of us, more than everyone, is Abraham worthy of getting his reward!” And it is of him that Scriptures says, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted thy works (Eccl. 9:7)
Rambam on Mishnah Abot 5:3
The ten trials with which Abraham our father was tried are all stated in Scripture. The first, that of being a stranger, when the One to be blessed said, …betake yourself out of your country….. The second, the famine that existed in the land of Canaan, when he came there and He had promised him …and I will make you into a great nation…. This is a great trial, as it said, And there was a famine in the land…. The third, the wrong perpetrated upon him by the Egyptians when Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. The fourth, his warring with the four kings. The fifth, his taking Hagar for a wife after he despaired of begetting through Sarah. The sixth is circumcision, concerning which he was commanded in the period of old age. The seventh, the wrong perpetrated upon him by the king of Gerar when he, too, took Sarah. The eight, the banishment of Hagar after he had begotten a son through her. The ninth, the removal of his son Ishmael, and the One to be blessed said …let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad…, and Scripture had attested how difficult this matter was in his sight when it state, And the matter was very grievous in Abraham’s sight…. However, he kept the commandment of the Lord, may he be blessed, and banished them. The tenth, the binding of Isaac.
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 26 Our father Abraham was tried with ten trials, and he stood firm in them all. The first trial was when our father Abraham was born; all the magnates of the kingdom and the magicians sought to kill him, and he was hidden under the earth for thirteen years without seeing sun or moon. After thirteen years he went forth from beneath the earth, speaking the holy language; and he despised idols and held in abomination the graven images, and he trusted in the name of his Creator, and said: Blessed is the man who trusts in thee (Ps. 84:12).
The second trial was when he was put into prison for ten years-three years in Kuthi, seven years in Budri. After 6 ten years they sent and brought him forth and cast him into the furnace of fire, and the King of Glory put forth His right hand and delivered him from the furnace of fire, as it is said, And he said to him, I am the Lord who brought thee out of the furnace of the Chaldees (Gen. 15:7)...
The third trial was his migration from his father`s house and from the land of his birth; and He brought him to Haran, and there his father Terah died, and Athrai his mother. Migration is, harder for man than for any other creature. Whence do we know of his migration? Because it is said, Now the Lord said unto Abram, Go forth (Gen. 12:1).
The fourth trial (was the famine). From the day when the heavens and the earth were created, the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought into the world a famine but only in the days of Abraham, and not in any of the lands but only in the land of Canaan, in order to try him and to bring him down into Egypt, thus it is said, And there was a famine in the land, and: Abram went down into Egypt (Gen 12:10).            
The fifth trial was when Sarah his wife was taken to Pharaoh to be (his) wife. And is there any man, who seeing his wife taken away to another man, would not rend his garments? But (he trusted in the Holy One, blessed be He,) that he would not approach her. Whence do we know that Sarah was taken to Pharaoh to be his wife? Because it is said, And the princes of Pharaoh saw her…
The sixth trial was (when) all the kings came against him to slay him. They said: Let us first begin with the house of his brother, and afterwards let us begin with him. On account of Lot they took all (the wealth of) Sodom and Gomorrah, as it is said, And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 14:11). Afterwards they took Lot captive, and all his wealth, as it is said, And they took Lot ... and, his goods (ibid. 12).
The seventh trial (was as follows): After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying (Gen.15:1). To all the prophets He was revealed in a vision, but to Abraham He was revealed in a revelation and in a vision…
The eighth trial (was as follows): And when Abram was ninety-nine years old (Gen17:1) the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Until now you have not been perfect before Me; but circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and walk before me, and be perfect  (ibid.)...because the foreskin is more unclean than all unclean things, as it is said, For henceforth there shall no more come into you the uncir­cumcised and the unclean (Isa.52:1)…
The ninth trial (was as follows): Ishmael was born with (the prophecy of the) bow, and he grew up with the bow, as it is said, And God was with the lad, and he grew ...and he became an archer (Gen. 21:20). He took bow and arrows and began to shoot at the birds. He saw Isaac sitting by himself, and he shot an arrow at him to slay him. Sarah saw (this), and told Abraham. She said to him: Thus and thus has Ishmael done to Isaac, but (now) arise and write (a will in favor) of Isaac, (giving him) all that the Holy One has sworn to give to thee and to thy seed. The son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac, as it is said, And she said to Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son (ibid. 10).
The tenth trial was (as follows): And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham (Gen 22:1). He tried Abraham each time in order to know His heart, whether he would be able to persevere and keep all the commandments of the Torah or not, and whilst as yet the Torah had not been given, Abraham kept all the precepts of the Torah, as it is said, Because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my Torah (ibid.24:5).
 
Midrash Tehilim 18
Another comment: The verse beginning As for God, His way is perfect, alludes to our father Abraham. For the Holy One, blessed be He, upon seeing that Abraham followed Him, chose Abraham and said to him, I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou perfect (Gen 17;1). The word of the Lord is tried (Ps 18:31b) thus refers to Abraham, whom the Lord proved in ten trials as follows: 
once, in a furnace of fire, of which God said: I am the Lord that brought thee out of the fire of the Chaldees (Gen 15:7);
once again, when God said: Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred (Gen 12:1);
twice, when Sarah was taken away from him by Pharaoh, and then by Abimelech— there you have four trials; 
again, when Sarah said to Hagar the Egyptian: Go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid (Gen 16:2)—there you have five;
again, when Sarah said of Ishmael: Cast out this bondwoman and her son (Gen 21:10)—there you have six;
again, when Abraham led forth his trained men (Gen 14:14) against the invading kings—there you have seven; 
again, when God said of circumcision: Every male among you shall be circumcised (Gen 17:10)—there you have eight;
again, when God showed to Abraham, between the halves of a heifer, the four  kingdoms enslaving his children—there you have nine;
and finally, in the binding of Isaac, when God said: Take now thy son, thine only one...and offer him…for a burnt-offering (Gen 22:2)—there you have ten. Abraham accepted these trials with reverence and with love and stood up to them like a man of might. And what was his reward? He is a shield unto all them that take refuge in him (Ps 18:31c); for God said to Abraham: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward (Gen 15:1b).
The nations of the earth asked: “Why does the Holy One, blessed be He, love Abraham and deliver him from the fiery furnace, from the nine kings, from armed hosts, and from all the troubles which came upon him?” The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: I shall bring you close and show you that even if I tell Abraham to take his son and offer him up as a burnt-offering for My name’s sake, he will obey Me. Therefore I am his shield, even as his is a shield to all them that take refuge in him; and in days to come, Abraham’s children will begin their Eighteen Benedictions with “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the Shield of Abraham.” 
 
Bereshit Rabba 44:1
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision (Genesis 15:1). As for God, his way is perfect, the word of the Lord is tried (II Samuel 22:31). If his way is perfect, how much the more is he! Rab said, “[Since the word for ‘tried’ yields the meaning ‘purify,’ we may conclude that] the religious duties were given only to purify humanity. For what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, if one slaughters a beast at the throat or at the nape of the neck? Lo, the sole purpose is to purify humanity. 
Another matter: His way is perfect (II Samuel 23:31) refers to Abraham, for it is written in his regard, You found [Abraham’s] way faithful before you (Neh. 9:8). The word of the Lord is tried (II Samuel 23:31): For the Holy One, blessed be He, tried him in the fiery furnace. He is a shield to all them that take refuge in him (II Samuel 22:31). Fear not, Abram, I am your shield (Genesis 15:1).
 
Genesis 10:8-9
8 Now Cush became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.”
 
Bab. Tal. Pesahim 118a
Others maintain that it was Gabriel who said, And the truth of the Lord endures forever.  For when the wicked Nimrod cast our father Abraham into the fiery furnace, Gabriel said to the Holy One, blessed be He:  'Sovereign of the Universe! Let me go down, cool it and deliver that righteous man from the fiery furnace.'  Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him:  'I am unique in My world, and he is unique in his world:  it is fitting for Him who is unique to deliver him who is unique.'  But because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not withhold the merited reward of any creature, he said to him, 'Thou shalt be privileged to deliver three of his descendants.'
 
Bereshit Rabba 38:13
And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah (11:28). R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. 'How old are you?' Abraham asked him. 'Fifty years,' was the reply. 'Woe to such a man!' he exclaimed, 'you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object!' At this he became ashamed and departed. On another occasion a woman came with a plate­ful of flour and requested him, 'Take this and offer it to them.' So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, 'What have you done to them?' 'I cannot conceal it from you,' he rejoined. 'A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, I must eat first," while another claimed, I must eat first." Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them.' 'Why do you make sport of me,' he cried out; 'have they then any knowledge!' 'Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,' he retorted!
Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. 'Let us worship the fire!' he [Nimrod] pro­posed. 'Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,' replied he. 'Then let us worship water!' 'Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water. ' 'Then let us worship the clouds!' 'Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.' 'Then let us worship the wind!' 'Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.' 'You are just bandying words,' he exclaimed; 'we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it; and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.' Now Haran was standing there undecided. If Abram is victorious, [thought he], I will say that I am of Abram's belief, while if Nimrod is victorious I will say that I am on Nimrod's side. When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, he [Nimrod] asked him, 'Of whose belief are you?' 'Of Abram's,' he replied. Thereupon he seized and cast him into the fire; his innards were scorched and he died in his father's presence. Hence it is written, and Haran died in the presence of (' al pene) his father Terah.
 
Bereshit Rabba 39:11
R. Berekiah said: Because travelling has three adverse effects, diminishing procreation, and reducing one's wealth and one's fame, [God gave him counter assurances]. Since it diminishes procreation [He said to him], and I will make of thee a great nation; it decreases one's wealth, hence, and I will bless thee; it diminishes one's name [fame], hence, and make thy name great. And though the proverb says, 'When you travel from one house to another, you lose a shirt; from one country to another, you lose a life, yet in truth thou wilt lose neither life nor property.

Ramban on Genesis 12:10
And there was a famine in the land.  Now Abraham went down to Egypt on account of the famine to dwell there in order to keep himself alive in the days of the drought, but the Egyptians oppressed him for no reason [and attempted] to take his wife.  The Holy One, blessed be He, avenged their cause with great plagues, and brought him forth from there with cattle, with silver, and with gold, and Pharaoh even commanded his men to escort them from the land.  He thereby alluded to Abraham that his children would go down to Egypt on account of the famine to dwell there in the land, and the Egyptians would do them evil and take the women from them, just as Pharaoh said, And every daughter ye shall save alive, but the Holy One, blessed be He, would avenge their cause with great plagues until He would bring them forth with silver and gold, sheep and oxen, very rich in cattle, with the Egyptians pressuring to send them out of the land.  Nothing was lacking in all the events that happened to the patriarch that would not occur to the children….
Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by exposing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life.  He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings, for God surely had the power to help and to save.  His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in [a time of] famine God redeems us from death.  It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.  In the place of justice, there is wickedness and sin.