A contrast between the Written and Oral Tora traditions re Avraham.
In R. Jonathan Sacks’ 2011 internet Devar Tora for Parashat Lech Lecha, “On Being a Jewish Parent”, he pits three descriptions of Avraham presented in the Midrash and a Jewish codifier, with what the Tora explicitly states about him:
1) Beraishit Rabba 38:13
R. Chiya bar brai D’Rav Ada D’Yafo: Terach was an idolater (and idol maker.)
One time he went out to a location and left Avraham to sell in his place. A man came and wanted to buy. He said to him: How old are you? He replied: I am 50 or 60. He said to him: Woe unto the man who is 60 and who worships one that is a day old. The man was embarrassed and left.
One time, a woman came holding a sack of flour. She said to him: Go and offer this before them. He went, took an axe, smashed all of the idols and placed the axe in the hands of the largest idol. When his father returned, he said to him: Who did this to them? He said to him: How can I keep this from you? A woman came carrying a bag of flour. She told me to offer it before them. I offered it before them. This one said: I wish to be first; and this one said: I wish to be first. The largest one rose up, took an axe, and broke the others. He said to him: Why are you telling me lies? Can these think? He said to him: Why don’t your ears listen to what your mouth is saying? …
→ Avraham, the iconoclast.
2) ibid. 39:1
(Beraishit 12:1 “And HaShem Said to Avraham: Go from your land, etc.”)
… Said R. Yitzchak: A parable regarding one who passed from place to place, and he saw an estate afire. He said: Is it possible that this estate has no master? The owner of the estate appeared to him. He said: I am the master of the estate.
So too, since our Father Avraham was saying that this world was without a master, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Looked upon him and Said: I Am the Master of the World…
→ Avraham, the fighter against injustice.
3) RaMBaM, Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3
After this mighty man (Avraham) was weaned, he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think (incessantly) throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve.
He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people (around him) were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. (However,) his heart was exploring and (gaining) understanding.
Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God Who Controlled the sphere, that He Created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. He knew that the entire world was making a mistake. What caused them to err was their service of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth.
Avraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. When he recognized and knew Him, he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path.
He broke their idols and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the God of the world. To Him (alone) is it fitting to bow down, sacrifice, and offer libations, so that the people of future (generations) would recognize Him. (Conversely,) it is fitting to destroy and break all the images, lest all the people err concerning them, like those people who thought that there are no other gods besides these (images.)
When he overcame them through the strength of his arguments, the king desired to kill him. He was (saved through) a miracle and left for Charan. (There,) he began to call in a loud voice to all people and inform them that there is One God in the entire world and it is proper to serve Him. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country, until he came to the land of Canaan – proclaiming (God’s Existence the entire time) – as Beraishit 21:33 states: “And He called there in the Name of the Lord, the Eternal God.”
When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain (them) to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth. Ultimately, thousands and myriads gathered around him. These are the men of the house of Avraham.
He planted in their hearts this great fundamental principle, composed texts about it …
→ Avraham, the philosopher.
But R. Sacks points out that these three versions of Avraham are not expressly presented in the bible as constituting the defining characteristics for God’s Choosing this man to be the founder of the Jewish people:
… So these views are all true and profound. They share only one shortcoming. There is no evidence for them whatsoever in the Tora.
Yehoshua speaks of Avraham’s father Terach as an idolater (Josh. 24: 2), but this is not mentioned in Bereishit.
The story of the palace in flames is perhaps based on Avraham’s challenge to God about the proposed destruction of Sodom and the cities of the plain: (Beraishit 18:25) “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?”
As for Avraham-as-Aristotle, that is based on an ancient tradition that the Greek philosophers (especially Pythagoras) derived their wisdom from the Jews, but this too is nowhere hinted in the Tora…
R. Sacks claims that the Tora’s presentation of Avraham’s virtues which proved attractive to God, have to do specifically with his being a responsible father:
For I have Chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the Way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will Bring about for Avraham what He has Promised him.
(Ibid. 12:2-3, 7
2 And I will Make of thee a great nation, and I will Bless thee, and Make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will Bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I Curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed…
7 And the LORD Appeared unto Avram, and said: Unto thy seed will I Give this land…
14 And the LORD Said unto Avram, after that Lot was separated from him: Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I Give it, and to thy seed forever. 16 And I will Make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. 17 Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I Give it.
Ibid. 15:4-5, 7, 13-6, 18-21
4 And, behold, the Word of the LORD came unto him, Saying: ‘This man (Eliezer) shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. 5 And He Brought him forth abroad, and said: Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them; and He Said unto him: So shall thy seed be…
7 And He Said unto him: I Am the LORD that Brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to Give thee this land to inherit it...
13 And He Said unto Avram: Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I Judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15 But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. 16 And in the fourth generation they shall come back hither; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full…
18 In that day the LORD Made a Covenant with Avram, Saying: Unto thy seed have I Given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates; 19 The Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, 20 And the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, 21 And the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite.
Ibid. 17:1-3, 4-8, 16, 19-21
1 And when Avram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD Appeared to Abram, and Said unto him: I Am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted. 2 And I will Make My Covenant between Me and thee, and will Multiply thee exceedingly…
4 As for Me, behold, My Covenant Is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Avram, but thy name shall be Avraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I Made thee. 6 And I will Make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will Make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7 And I will Establish My Covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to Be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. 8 And I will Give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will Be their God…
16 And I will Bless her (Sara), and moreover I will Give thee a son of her; yea, I will Bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her…
19 And God Said: Nay, but Sara thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Yitzchak; and I will Establish My Covenant with him for an everlasting Covenant for his seed after him. 20 And as for Yishmael, I have Heard thee; behold, I have Blessed him, and will Make him fruitful, and will Multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will Make him a great nation. 21 But My Covenant will I Establish with Yitzchak, whom Sara shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.)
R. Sacks states:
…The great scenes in Abraham’s life – a) waiting for a child (Ibid. 15-7), b) the birth of Yishmael (Ibid. 16:15-6), c) the tension between Sara and Hagar (Ibid. 16:1-6; 21:9-11), d) the birth of Yitzchak (Ibid. 21:1-8), and e) the binding (Ibid. 22) – are all about his role as a father…
And in a comment that is deeply relevant to this time of year in the Jewish calendar, R. Sacks writes in light of the Tora’s presentation of Avraham’s concern with paternity:
…Judaism, more than any other faith, sees parenthood as the highest challenge of all. On the first day of Rosh HaShana – the anniversary of creation – we read of two mothers, Sara and Chana and the birth of their child(ren),
(The Tora reading is Beraishit 21, that begins: “1 And the LORD Remembered Sara as He had Said, and the LORD Did unto Sara as He had Spoken. 2 And Sara conceived, and bore Avraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had Spoken to him.”
The Haftora is I Shmuel 1-2, that includes: (I Shmuel 1:20) “And it came to pass, when the time was come about, that Chana conceived, and bore a son; and she called his name Shmuel: because I have asked him of the LORD.”)
as if to say: Every life is a universe. (See Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5.) Therefore, if you wish to understand the creation of the universe, think about the birth of a child.
R. Sacks ends his essay:
What Darwin saw as the urge to reproduce, what Richard Dawkins calls “the selfish gene,” is for Judaism high religious art, full of drama and beauty. Avraham the father, and Sara the mother, are our enduring role models of parenthood as God’s Gift and our highest vocation.
One of the things for which RaMBaN roundly criticizes Avraham, is the manner in which he allows Hagar to be sent away the first time (see RaMBaN on Beraishit 16:6), and while the second time HaShem Ratifies Sara’s decision to exile Hagar and her son from the encampment (Ibid. 21:12), the fact that Avraham gives them insufficient food and water to survive, was never Mandated by HaShem. Avraham had in the past displayed great concern for his oldest son, who ends up not continuing in the father’s spiritual path, perhaps at least in part by his perceived rejection at the ands of Avraham:
And Avraham said unto God: Oh that Yishmael might live before Thee!
And the thing (the exiling of Hagar and Yishmael) was very grievous in Avraham’s sight on account of his son.
If in fact “fatherhood” was a central concern for Avraham, he could hardly be expected to ignore his own child, despite God’s many Statements to the effect that it will be Yitzchak rather than Yishmael who will carry on Avraham’s traditions. Even with respect to his own first-born son, Avraham seems to have taken his role as “Av Hamon Goyim” (the father of a multitude of nations) seriously and therefore the manner in which he sent him and his mother away was deemed by RaMBaN as an egregious error..