The story begins in Genesis 11:27 with the account of Terah. After a brief statement of the family tree, and of the tragedy of childlessness, we read,
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran they settled there.
Did the call of God and the promises come first to Terah? Did he see Canaan as the Promised Land but lack the drive to finish the journey? And did Abraham pick up not just the call of God but also the unrealised dreams of his father?
If you follow the chronologies laid out in the Bible it seems that Terah lived a further 60 years in Haran after Abraham and the family left, and one stream of Jewish tradition suggests that when the Torah says Terah died in Haran, it really means his dreams and hopes died in the settled life of Haran. He stepped off the pilgrimage road and settled down. And died. He settled for less in life than he set out to attain.
Or, and this is really fanciful, is there a grief connection. His son Haran dies and he can’t move on from the place called Haran. His dreams died with the death of his son.
It strikes me that the Old Testament is full of unfinished journeys. In a way Abraham’s was unfinished. He never saw the fulfilment of the promise God made and died while wandering around.
Moses himself never finished the journey and died on the mountain overlooking the land. And of course the Torah itself finishes on the banks of the Promised Land and never gets there.
So how do we cope with such disappointment? What has faith to say in the context of a life that is unfulfilled or unfinished?
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”
For a rabbinical comment on this story perhaps we could turn to Rabbi Tarfon,
“You are not obligated to finish the task but neither are you free to neglect it.”
Or Wendell Berry’s injunction in The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front to ‘plant sequioas’.
Terah, Abraham, Moses all began journeys which they never finished, but that is not to say that life was unfinished.