Parshat Lech Lecha: The Covenant between the Parts

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

Gavriel Cohn

The Dialogue between God and Abraham

This week’s Parsha features the dramatic Covenant between the Parts (Bereshit 15).

Yet the whole episode appears troubling. We need to delve into the dialogue between God and Abraham itself in order to try and understand the event.

After the war with the four kings, God lauds Abraham for standing up in His Name and for his refusal to take spoils from the battle, telling Abraham that his reward will indeed be very great. Yet instead of thanking God Abraham laments that he does not have any children:

“And Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household [Eliezer] will inherit me.’" (15:2-3)

It seems strange that Abraham immediately responds to God’s declaration that his reward will be very great by complaining, not even acknowledging what God is bestowing upon him.

God responds in turn by assuring Abraham that Eliezer his servant would not in fact inherit him, rather his own biological progeny would:

"And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your innards, he will inherit you.’ And He [God] took him [Abraham] outside, and He said, ‘Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So will be your seed.’ And he [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, ‘I am the Lord, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.’” (15:4-7)

This should have now abated Abraham’s concerns about Eliezer being his heir. God gave His word to Abraham that not only would he in fact have children of his own who would be his inheritors but that they will also be as numerous as the stars in the sky. However, it does not. Abraham responds by asking:

"…O Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?" (15:8)

God then instructed Abraham to draw-up a ‘Covenantal procedure,’ a ‘contract signing’ event between God and himself, by placing cut-up animal carcasses opposite each other.[1] God then appeared to Abraham in the midst of a deep sleep and foretold the history of his descendants, ensuring him that after being enslaved in a foreign land they will return to the Land of Israel:

"…You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years... And the fourth generation will return here... Now it came to pass that the sun had set, and it was dark, and behold, a smoking furnace and a fire brand, which passed between these parts. On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘to your seed I have given this Land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River. The Kenites, the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Rephaim, and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Girgashites and the Jebusites.’” (15:13-21)

The entire interchange seems puzzling. How can we make sense of it? Why was Abraham not content with the blessings that God is giving him? Why does he complain about not having any children of his own specifically at this point? Why does he question God’s word that he will indeed inherit the land? What need is there for Abraham to enter into a formal contract that his descendants will receive the land, does he not trust God?

The First Approach: A Divine Punishment

Our sages propose the following approach which could answer our difficulties above (Gemara Nedarim, 32a; Midrash HaGadol, 9). They maintain that the entire agreement of the Covenant between the Parts was by no means an ideal one. God did not want to instigate such a covenant at all. Rather it was in response to Abraham doing something terribly wrong, namely, his questioning of God, asking “how will I know that I will inherit” the Land? Due to this sin God punishes Abraham, ruling that his descendants will now be enslaved and oppressed in another land. Precisely because God was now going to exile Abraham’s descendants from the Land of Israel, He therefore guaranteed Abraham that they would however return to the Land and settle in it and thus instructed Abraham to set-up the Covenant between the Parts as a security that such would be the case.[2] The entire episode was thus far from ideal. It was the result of Abraham almost doubting God’s ability to grant him his own biological heirs, and resulted, tragically, in his descendants’ oppressive enslavement in Egypt. Such is indeed one explanation of this episode, maintained as well by some of the mediev‎al commentators.[3]

However, there seem to be several difficulties with this approach of understanding the Covenant between the Parts as a punishment. Firstly, it means that the Jewish People’s slavery in Egypt was not a necessary, nation-forming experience, but rather the unfortunate, unideal result of Abraham’s question. Secondly, it seems too harsh of a punishment for this one question asked. Thirdly, perhaps one could question the justice of Abraham’s descendants being punished for the wrongdoings of their ancestor Abraham? Furthermore, Abraham’s very question seems strange. Why did Abraham only ask for a guarantee that his descendants would inherit the Land and not also for proof of the earlier Divine promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky?

Perhaps, therefore, we could suggest, tentatively, an entirely different approach, one that looks at the Parsha as a whole.

A Second Approach: Beginning God’s Masterplan

There are perhaps two entirely separate ‘aspects’ running simultaneously throughout the entire Parsha of Lech Lecha. The first is God’s masterplan, the second, God’s blessing of numerousness.

God’s ‘masterplan’ for the Jewish People and indeed the world was to relocate Abraham to the Land of Israel and to establish a specific and limited line of his progeny as heirs and inheritors of the Land. In the Land they would be required to observe the Torah, which would keep them clean and stainless enough to remain worthy of living in God's Land, in His Presence, and under His watch. In short, God's masterplan was to have ‘a Godly People in a Godly Land’: a designated nation living under God’s direct dominion, so-to-speak, and observing the constitution of His Land (the "tenancy agreement"), the Torah (see Bereshit 12:1; 13:14-15; 15:7; 17:8).[4] That is why God commands Abraham to leave his home and to come to the Land of Israel in the first place.[5]

There was, additionally, another, entirely different benefit that God wished to grant Abraham, distinct from His masterplan, namely, to make his descendants numerous and many. In contrast, however, making Abraham’s seed numerous was not part of God’s ultimate plan for the world, rather it is a separate reward and blessing that God gave to Abraham in response to his good deeds. For example, when Abraham receives the command to leave his home and birthplace to “the Land that I will show you” God promises him that “I will make you into a great nation” (12:2) as a reward for an act of such magnitude. Indeed, Ishmael is also blessed with the numerousness of his descendants: “Behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly... and I will make him into a great nation" (17:20). This blessing of numerousness is thus not limited to God’s chosen seed, a part of His masterplan, but rather a gift bestowed for good deeds in general or perhaps in the case of Ishmael because God took pity on him or granted him such on account of the merit or prayer of his father (see Bereshit 12:1-2; 17:2-8, 19-21; see also Joshua 24:3).

Prior to the event of the Covenant between the Parts Abraham roamed the entirety of the Land constantly being told by God that in the future his chosen seed will indeed inherit the Land and thereby fulfil God’s masterplan. Yet such assurances were always in the ‘future tense,’ with God telling Abraham that sometime in the future the Divine masterplan of a ‘Godly People in a Godly Land’ will materialise: “For all the land that you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendants forever… to you will I give it” (13:15, 17).

Abraham, however, was frustrated with this. Abraham had relocated himself, abandoned “his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house,” leaving the civilised world, precisely in order to start God’s masterplan. He knew that that was why God had wanted him to go to this distant land. However, he now stands in that very Land with no children of his own, entirely unable to effectuate God’s plan.

It was precisely after God promises him again that indeed “his reward will be very great” after Abraham once more stood up in God’s name during battle that Abraham breaks down, so–to-speak. He had had enough. Abraham was unconcerned with personal rewards or gain, the ‘extra-bonus’ of numerousness. He did not need to have many descendants, to receive such a blessing. All Abraham was concerned about was fulfilling God’s masterplan, being a partner in the Divine project of the world of having a specific line of his heirs’ set-up in the Land. Yet, as Abraham himself exclaimed in desperation, “behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household [Eliezer] will inherit me!”

God, however, knew that Abraham’s chosen seed could not yet settle in the Land of Israel as they will, for whatever reason, be sent down to Egypt first.[6] Thus, the masterplan could not yet be instigated. That was why prior to Abraham’s pleading God was merely promising him that in the future his progeny would come to inherit the Land, and why Abraham could not begin to fulfill God’s masterplan immediately. However, after Abraham expressed his strong, desperate urge to start realising God’s plan for the world, his pained outcry that “I am going childless”, God, in response, agrees to concretise and begin His masterplan in some way. True, Abraham’s chosen seed could not yet begin to permanently settle and live in the Chosen Land because they would, for a period, be exiled to a foreign country. However, in order to allow Abraham to somewhat begin to fulfill it God entered into a formal agreement with him, thus allowing Abraham to play an active role in the Divine masterplan himself. Whilst Abraham’s chosen heirs would only settle God’s Land after their return from slavery and thus God’s aim for the world could not begin in Abraham’s lifetime, entering into a formal agreement with God that “to your seed I have given this Land” allowed Abraham to somewhat materialise the Divine masterplan even then, ‘setting it in stone’ and concretising it through entering into a contract with God. No longer was the Divine masterplan a far-off, distant promise for later generations, but it was now an already sealed and guaranteed reality.

After the Covenant between the Parts the verses record God’s further declarations that the Land will indeed be settled by Abraham’s descendants, however, these were no longer phrased as future-materialising promises, as they were before the covenant, but rather cast as a sealed agreement, a “brit” [pact] that was already concretised. Abraham had now secured God’s masterplan in addition to receiving the separate Divine blessing of having many descendants:

“And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations… I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant… I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning’s, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God." (17:5-8)

After the agreement was made Abraham was then commanded to circumcise "every male… to you throughout your generations" (17:12) as a sign to constantly remind Abraham of it and to mark the specific line of Abraham’s seed destined to subsequently settle in the Land of Israel and thereby fulfill God’s masterplan. As the verses later tell:

"And My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant... And God said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him" (17:13, 19).[7]

Thus the Covenant between the Parts and its concomitant sign of circumcision is of great historic significance, sealing and marking the start of materialising God’s plan for the world.

Perhaps this second theory explains the dialogue between God and Abraham brought above and the resultant pact between them. Admittedly, this approach is in conflict with the sages who maintain that the Jewish People’s oppression in Egypt was a punishment for Abraham’s question to God (Gemara Nedarim, 32a). However, it could indeed stand in accordance with the contrasting Talmudic views that our enslavement in Egypt was the result of other, entirely different causes (Gemara Nedarim, 32a; Gemara Shabbat, 10a).[8]


[1] See both Bechor Shor and Rabbi Z D Hoffmann (15:9) who explain that such was the method at those times of establishing formal agreements between two parties.

[2] See for example Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto’s ("Shadal") comment, 15:8.

[3] Chizkuni and Da’at Zekeinim mi’Ba’alei HaTosfot, Bereshit 15

[4] See also the Talmudic sages and mediev‎al commentators on this concept. For example, Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Re’eh 8; Gemara Taanit 10a; Rashi, Bereshit 17:7-8; Ramban, Bereshit 19:5, Vayikra, 18:25 and at the end of his ‘Sermon for Rosh Hashanah’; Rabbeinu Bachya, Bereshit 24:4, Dvarim 31:16; Rikanti, end of Parshat Achrei Mot; Seforno, Vayikra 25:23.

[5] As an aside, assuming this idea of ‘God’s masterplan’— namely to establish a specific chosen ‘seed’ of Abraham within the confines of God’s holy Land— we could perhaps develop Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman’s theory concerning the Akeidah (found in his work “Dugmaot le’Beurei Agadot al Derech ha’Pshat,” no. 4) and explain the true nature of the trail. Abraham knew that if he would sacrifice Isaac he would be granted tremendous rewards both in this world and the next. However, he was uninterested in his own personal benefits and instead thought that killing Isaac would mean that the Divine masterplan would not come to fruition as he would be ‘stubbing out’ the chosen ‘seed,’ so-to-speak, thereby devastating God’s intended project for the world. Thus, Abraham’s test at the Akeidah was to adhere to and perform God’s direct command to offer up his son despite knowing that such an act would seemingly put an end to God’s masterplan (see also Rashi, Bereshit 22:12).

[6] See Gemara Shabbat, 10a for the opposing Talmudic view to that of the Gemara Nedarim of the first approach above. Furthermore, Abraham could not yet settle the Land with his inheritor and thus start the masterplan until, as God also informs Abraham, "the fourth generation [of those exiled to Egypt. Only from that time and onwards will the Jewish People be able to return and settle the Land]... for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then" (Bereshit 15:16), and God does not punish a nation, and therefore will not displace the Amorites, until they are fully deserving of such (Rashi there).

[7] See also Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, 10:7.

This understanding, that Brit Milah is the sign given to the specific seed of Abraham who would fulfil God's masterplan, perhaps allows us to decipher several aspects of the Mitzvah. Firstly, the act of circumcision itself is no longer peculiar. Not only does it serve as a permanent and constant reminder of God's agreement on one's body, as is explained by many, but, significantly, it marks the place of reproduction and thus symbolises the perpetuation of Abraham's chosen progeny and the hereditary nature of this chosen line set aside to settle God's Land under His Laws, thereby fulfilling His masterplan (see Seforno, Bereshit 17:13).

Furthermore, we can now appreciate the nature and severity of the punishment for those that fail to perform circumcision, namely, excommunication. Such a person will be cut off from the Jewish People due to the fact that by not marking oneself with the sign of the pact the person is revealing that he is excluding oneself from the very agreement itself and consequently also excluding himself from the rest of the pact’s members, namely, the chosen seed, the Jewish People.

Thirdly, knowing that circumcision is the sign of the agreement sealing and guaranteeing the effectuation of God’s masterplan for the world we can also appreciate the cosmic importance a clause within one of the blessings recited upon circumcision accredits to the Mitzvah: “…were it not for the blood of the covenant the existence of the heavens and the earth could not be maintained, as it states (Jeremiah 33:25): "were it not for My covenant, day and night, I would not have established the laws of heaven and earth" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Milah, 3:4; Gemara Nedarim, 32a).

[8] See Ramban, Bereshit 12:10; Abrabanel, Bereshit 15 and “Zevach Pesach Hagadah”, “Baruch Shomer”, third approach; and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Bereshit 41:11; who all likewise propose other, alternate causes for the Jewish People’s slavery in Egypt, and not Abraham’s question to God before the Covenant between the Parts of "how will I know that I will inherit it?" (15:8).