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In Genesis (12:1-2) God tells Avraham to go to the land he would show him [Canaan] and that he would make him a great nation:

לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ: וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.

The context suggests that there is some connection between his going to Canaan and his becoming a great nation. Arguably, however, his descendants did not become a great nation until they descended to Egypt. At the time they descended there were seventy of them (Deut. 7:22) which hardly sounds like a great nation. Indeed, the context of that verse is the contrast between Israel's meager beginning and their ultimate flourishing. Furthermore, the very same wording that is used here in the promise to Avraham "גוי גדול; great nation" is used in God's promise to Jacob upon his descent to Egypt (Genesis 46:3). Evidently, it was not considered fulfilled at the time of their descent. Indeed, the verse describing their becoming a great nation (Deut. 26:5), refers to their time in Egypt:

וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל

So, to recap, the question is, why does God tell Avraham to go to Canaan, and continue to say that he will make Avraham into a great nation, if they did not became a great nation in Canaan, nor is there any obvious direct connection between going to Canaan and later becoming a great nation in Egypt.

While he doesn't seem to be directly addressing this point (but rather the word לך), Rashi (12:1) seems to assume that the nationhood would occur in the place where Avraham was told to go, and assumes that this means the beginning of becoming a nation, which is Avraham having children. He suggests that Avraham couldn't have children earlier, but would in Canaan, so the beginning of his becoming a great nation was in Canaan:

שָׁם אֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָדוֹל, כָּאן אִי אַתָּה זוֹכֶה לְבָנִים

Hizkuni (later quoted by R. Hayyim Paltiel and Perush HaRiva) and Radak write similarly (in their commentaries to 12:2). Tol'dot Yitshak (Genesis 14:13) seems to have absorbed Rashi's understanding (that the nationhood is assumed in Canaan) that he repeatedly quotes it as part of the verse:

וזהו שאמר לך לך מארצך וממולדתך אל הארץ אשר אראך ושם אעשך לגוי גדול

The Netsiv suggests (commentary to 12:2) that becoming a great nation refers not to his progeny, but to others gathering around him (which could have occurred in Canaan). However, this is somewhat unsatisfactory for as noted, all inferences from Scripture suggest that the promise was not fulfilled until they reached Egypt.

The Ohr HaHayyim writes that he was given three blessings corresponding to the three steps he took (leaving his land, birthplace, and father's house). Accordingly one might suggest that the blessings have nothing to do with going to Canaan. However, this isn't so satisying textually and is more of a derash, (and it isn't even clear that according to him the blessing are random, and the only connection is the number.)

What are other solutions to this? Is the nationhood perhaps unrelated to Canaan? Is it perhaps a reward for going to Canaan that may occur out of Canaan? Is there some more direct causal link between Avraham's journey to Canaan and their ultimate nationhood?

I am seeking peshat based answers, rather than Midrashic answers. I didn't find anything else in Rashi, Rav Saadya Gaon (Tafsir), Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor, Daat Zkenim, Tur's commentary, or Seforno.

  • I don't consider the suggestion that the blessings were meant to counteract the rigours of travel, and that that includes a lack of reproduction, since Sarai was barren anyway (Genesis 11:13), so his reproduction was not apparently limited by travel. – mevaqesh Nov 1 '17 at 23:23
  • It seems like, according to the list of the 10 tests the Rambam has chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1324268/jewish/… , that the cause an effect is "here is a series of tests -- go to a strange land because I tell you to is test #1. Ultimately this will lead you to deserving being the patriarch of a great nation. Journey of 1000 miles and all that. – rosends Nov 2 '17 at 10:13
  • @rosends Thank you for the source. However, I don't see anything in the Perush HaMishna that suggests that becoming a great nation was a reward for going to Canaan. I don't see anything about nationhood at all in the passage. Just a list of the ten tests. – mevaqesh Nov 2 '17 at 13:13
  • Perhaps in this context, the term "great" means in quality, meaning "important' or "notable" rather than greatness in quantity? – DanF Nov 2 '17 at 18:04
  • @DanF maybe. But whatever it means, it doesn't seem to have happened until they went to Egypt, as noted in the question. – mevaqesh Nov 2 '17 at 18:27
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I'm not proposing a specific answer, just throwing out a number of thoughts related to this topic, hopefully which will help answer some of the questions posed above. My current comments pertain to your suggestion "Is the nationhood perhaps unrelated to Canaan?" If I ever get around to it, I will try to tackle some of the other angles, but this is what I have for now.

(Note that all of the Mefarshim I am using are from this link.)

It could be suggested that the context implies that the "leaving" is what will allow him to begin become a great nation, not arrival in a certain place (as perhaps emphasized by the fact that the destination is not named at this time). This may be part of the understanding of many of the Mefarshim.

Rasag here makes the connection you mentioned between this Beracha and the later Pesukim which mention a "Goy Gadol", obviously not believing that it takes place in Canaan:

והדבר שעליו נופל הדיבור ואעשך לגוי גדול הוא: א. רבוי המשפחות ומספרן, ככ׳: ויהי שם לגוי גדול עצום ורב. ב. והענין השני בזה, שבניו יהיו נענים בקראם אל אלהים, ככ׳: מי גוי גדול וגו׳. והג׳, שנתן להם את התורה ומצוותיה, ככ׳: ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקים ככל התורה.

He also explains previously why this whole Beracha would have been said to Avraham at this time:

ונאמר, לא הקדים לו את כל ההבטחות אלא כדי שיבואו עליו תחלה צרות ויקבלם בבטחון, וירבה לו שכר על כך. והרי אנו רואים: א. שבנגוד להבטחה ואעשה אותך לגוי גדול לא הוליד, ככ׳: ״ותהי שרי עקרה״... ב. ונגד מה שאמר לו: ואברכך – היה רעב בארץ, ג. ובנגוד להבטחה ואגדלה שמך, אמר לו פרעה: ״למה אמרת אחתי היא״. וכדומה לזה דברים שאירעו לו... ולא עוד אלא שגורש – ״ויצו עליו פרעה אנשים״, וכל אלו אירעו לו למרות ההבטחות, וכשקיבל {הכל} בסבלנות נתקיימו ההבטחות בו ובזרעו בכפליים. ולפי רעיון זה, היתה, יראתו את השם גדולה מכל אלה שהלכו עמו, כי להם לא הובטחו דברים שלא נתקיימו {בתחילה}.

A version of Ibn Ezra here suggests another understanding of "Goy Gadol" that happened in Canaan, one that may not immediately come to the mind of a Jewish reader, namely, that Avra(ha)m himself had 8 children, who all had children and grandchildren of their own:

לגוי גדול – שמונה משפחות הוליד.

Feedback is welcomed, and IY"H one day I will hopefully come back to add to this.

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    Very interesting. Rav Sa'adya Gaon comes soooo close to answering the question. If he just said that going to Canaan was an exercise in bitahon that would warrant future blessings to his descendants in Egypt, it would have explained everything. However, he doesn't seem to make the connection. Rather, he describes the bitahon as occurring in Canaan (and in Egypt). – mevaqesh Jan 3 '18 at 3:29
  • While Ibn Ezra is great for text based answers that may not be as traditional, in this case, it seems weak based on the text. As noted, the Torah itself indicates that the blessing of גוי גדול was fulfilled in Egypt. Nevertheless +1 for Ibn Ezra as it answers the question even though it has the problem I described. Rassag was quite interesting as well. – mevaqesh Jan 3 '18 at 3:34
  • @mevaqesh Thanks. I could think of ways to stretch Rasag a little more towards an answer, but I'm still not personally convinced by my own logic, so I'll hold off. – רבות מחשבות Jan 3 '18 at 3:36

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