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God’s universal message to Abraham and his descendants 

 

The Torah is a prophetic book and the fulfillment of its prophecies is strong evidence for its Divine nature. The Torah uses two main names for God to express different aspects – Elohim is the God all humanity and YHVH the God of the forefathers and the tribal God of the Israelites. The role of Abraham and the Jewish people is to bring material and spiritual blessing to all mankind. Exile, oppression and redemption will be part of the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people are an eternal people, and the Land of Israel has also been bestowed upon them for eternity. The Torah’s view of utopia is firmly in this world and not in a miraculous eschatological future.

Introduction

 

While the nations around were still appeasing the gods of nature, Abraham was told by the God YHVH to leave his family, his birthplace and his land for the mission statement of the Jewish people - to bring peace, prosperity and knowledge of God to all humanity. This is described in the Torah within the context of seven blessings. These blessings contain promises and covenants; and they are also prophecies. 

Many consider Divine authorship of the Pentateuch to be no more than a belief, and therefore no different from the religious beliefs of many other peoples throughout history. But there is something unique about the prophecies contained in the Torah - they have been fulfilled. This constitutes the strongest argument as to the Divine authorship of the Torah.1

This chapter will examine four of the seven blessings bestowed upon Abraham that elaborate on this mission statement and the circumstances by which it will be taken through history.2 

In the first blessing (Genesis 12:1-3), God, under His name YHVH, promises Abraham that “blessing” will be bestowed upon the entire world through his merit. The word “blessing” means material benefit. Abstinence and poverty are not part of Abraham’s mission, and nor will they be that of his descendants.  

In the fourth blessing (ibid 15:7-21): God, again through His name YHVH, promises Abraham numerous offspring. He is promised possession of the land of Canaan, but his descendants will need to endure a bitter and prolonged exile before they will be redeemed.

A fifth blessing (ibid 17:1-14) is bestowed upon Abraham through the name of God Elohim, the universal aspect of God. In this covenant, Abraham is promised that He will be a God to his descendants for eternity, that he will have numerous offspring, and that the Land of Israel is assigned to his descendants forever. A sign of this covenant is that all Jewish males will be circumcised.

In the seventh and last of these blessings (ibid 22:15-18), God through His name YHVH, promises Abraham that the nations of the world will bless themselves not only through him, but also through his offspring. 

This world was created for the benefit of all mankind, but God can only provide abundance to nations that abide by the universal moral code of the universe.  Abraham’s discoveries about God and how he leads his life are to be the means whereby material benefits can be bestowed on the entire the world. With the elimination of poverty and strife, the nations of the world will also be able to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits. As an important Jewish prayer, the Aleinu prayer, says:  

“ .. when all humanity will call on Your name, to turn all the earth’s wicked toward You. All the world’s inhabitants will realize and know that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty …”

Before examining these four blessings in detail, we need to examine two important but commonly misunderstood aspects of Torah exegesis:

(i). The different names of God used in the Bible. 

The Torah uses different names for God corresponding to His different attributes. The three most common names found in the Torah are YHVH, Elohim and El Shaddai. Readers of the Bible who are not familiar with Hebrew may be unaware that different names of God are being used, since they are usually considered synonyms and translated by the same word God. There are no words in English, or in any other language for that matter other than Hebrew, to distinguish between them. 

Elohim is the God of all humanity. The word El is a general term for deity in the Semitic language and was also the name of a Canaanite god. The name has the meaning of “a force within nature.” The Hebrew name Elohim is in the plural, since God created and controls all powers within nature. Nevertheless, when Elohim is used in the Torah to describe the One God, the associated verb is usually in the singular. At times, the word may mean the Deity or even judges. In the first creation account, Elohim created the universe for the benefit of all mankind. In the context of the Abrahamic blessings, the name Elohim relates to the universal message of Judaism.

Elohim’s relationship with individuals is somewhat distant and this aspect of God is termed His transcendence. One never finds in the Torah, for example, the expression love of Elohim because this is not how humanity relates to Him. Rather, man’s relationship with Elohim is based on awe or fear. One relates to YHVH with love and awe.

 

The name YHVH is found throughout the Bible, this name because its four Hebrew letters are yod-heh-vov-heh. The full name was pronounced in the Temple, but the manner by which it should be pronounced has been lost following its destruction. In the second creation account in the Garden of Eden we learn that YHVH is an immanent God who is close to individuals and develops relationships with them. YHVH will become the God of Abraham and his family, and subsequently the national God of the Jewish people. 

 

The attributes of God in relation to these two names of God are compared in the following table:3

 

The attributes of Elohim

 

The attributes of YHVH

A transcendent God

An immanent God

The Creator of the world

A God that relates to individuals

A God concerned with general providence

A God concerned with individual providence

A God who is addressed as “He”

A God who can be addressed as “You”

A God of judgment (immutability of nature)

A God of mercy

The God of all humanity

The national God of the Jewish people

The God of philosophers in the Biblical “wisdom literature”

The God of the prophets

 

The name of God El Shaddai is found occasionally in the Bible and occurs in the first sentence of the fifth blessing given to Abraham. The meaning of this name is debated. There is good reason to believe that it is associated with God’s aspect of bestowing fertility.4 Support for this comes from the following passage from the Book of Ruth in which Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi talks about her inability to produce further sons for her bereaved daughters-in-law because of her age: “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant one), call me Mara (embittered one), for Shaddai has dealt very bitterly with me. I was full when I went away, but YHVH has brought me back empty. Why should you call me Naomi; YHVH has testified against me, and Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20-21).

Why did the Torah use different names for God? In actuality, our puzzlement as moderns that a single God has several names is a testimony to the success of the Bible in directing us to the realization of the unity of God. For the ancients, however, it would have been difficult for them to conceptualize the idea that the same God that created the universe was also interested in developing relationships with His created beings. Pagan gods, for example, never communicated with individuals, other than perhaps a king.5 This is why the Torah presented new ideas about one God in a way that people could readily understand. In addition, the Torah wished to differentiate between the universal versus the tribal aspects of Judaism’s messages. 

 

Since the early 1800’s, many Biblical scholars have espoused the view of Higher Biblical Criticism that the Torah is made up from different sources put together at some period by a redactor. These sources can often be distinguished by which name of God is used, and in particular whether it is YHVH or Elohim. However, from what I have just written, it can be appreciated that Higher Biblical Criticism is based on a total misunderstanding of Biblical literary style.

 

(ii). The use of numbers in the Torah: 

The people of ancient Mesopotamia loved mathematics. Mathematics is a fundamental aspect of civilization, and civilization began in Mesopotamia. However, to the Mesopotamians mathematics had more than just its utilitarian value in that certain numbers possessed meaning. The number seven, for example, represented the perfection of the Divine. Because the Torah is a book about the relationship between God and man, not surprisingly the number seven is found throughout the Torah. Sometimes, one has to search within the text for aspects of number seven. For example, a word related to some aspect of God may be repeated seven times within a passage to demonstrate its use as a keyword.6 

The Bible did not invent the meaning of number seven. For example, the ziggurat in Babylon on which the Biblical Tower of Babel story is based had seven stories and the temple to the god Marduk was on its seventh. Number seven is also found several times in tablet XI of the Gilgamesh myth that contains the well-known Mesopotamian flood story. The Gilgalmesh flood lasted seven days, there were seven days between the boat coming to rest on a mountain and a dove being released, and a pair of seven jars was offered as a sacrifice. It may be that the first two sevens had no more significance than being the period of a week, but the pair of jars indicates that number seven also had religious significance. To bow to someone seven times was to acknowledge his divine status. The Amarna letters were diplomatic letters written between the administration of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt and their representatives in Canaan and Amurra. One of the vassal sovereigns begins his letter with the sentence “I bow to my lord seven times …..”  In this way he is acknowledging the divine nature of Pharaoh and his subservience to him.  

God bestows seven blessings on Abraham – seven because this number emphasizes God’s imprint on the fulfilment of each of these promises and that nothing is by chance. For the same reason, the number seven occurs repeatedly within the blessings themselves.

If number seven is the domain of the holy, then one above seven, number eight, represents an even stronger bond of dedication to God. The meaning of this number is uniquely Jewish, since being connected to God in a tighter bond of holiness is a Jewish concept. As we shall soon see, the significance of number eight is first revealed in the Torah when Abraham is told to circumcise his son on the eighth day from birth as a demonstration of his commitment to the covenant (Genesis 17:12). 

We will now look in detail at four of the seven blessings:

 

God’s first blessing to Abraham: bringing material benefit to the world

The first communication and directive Abraham receives from God not only changes the direction of the world but also the tone of the Bible. The world “blessing” occurs in this passage five times. The word “curse” occurs five times in the previous eleven chapters of Genesis.7 From this point on, the Bible becomes more upbeat, since what was previously an aimless world now has direction through the example of Abraham and his descendants.This blessing reads as follows:

“God [YKVK] said to Abram, “Go yourself from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.8

#1. I will make of you a great nation,

#2. I will bless you, 

#3. I will make your name great; 

#4. and you shall be a blessing.

#5. I will bless those who bless you, 

#6. and him who curses you I will curse; 

#7. and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).

This blessing of two sentences consists of seven promises, which have been labelled for convenience #1 to #7. Each sentence consists of three or four promises describing what God will do, followed by the consequences of these promises. Hence, the consequence of the blessings in the first sentence is - and you shall be a blessing,and in the second sentence it is – “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” 9 Which is to say that the spiritual insights that Abraham has discovered, either on his own or with the help of God, will bring in their wake benefit to the entire world.9 

In the fifth (#5) and sixth blessing (#6) of this sequence, God promises Abraham that the success of others will depend on how they relate to him, and whether they bless or curse him. Those who appreciate what he stands for and bless him will be rewarded with material success, while those who denigrate Abraham’s/God’s message will be cursed.

That the main message of this passage is an important one is apparent from the fact that it repeated elsewhere in the Torah. Six chapters later we learn: “And Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him” (Genesis 18:18). His son Isaac is told that “all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring” (ibid 26:4), and Isaac’s son Jacob is also told that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (ibid 28:14). And we shall soon see in the seventh blessing, that blessing will become forthcoming to all of humanity not just by virtue of Abraham but also by virtue of the Jewish people.

How will this blessing come about? Is it like the touch of Midas? Possibly – but unlikely. Just as there are physical laws to the universe, there are also moral laws. Those who bless Abraham support his moral values. These moral laws will bring blessing to all those who follow them.  

The Fourth Blessing: exile and oppression

The blessings bestowed upon Abraham were given at turning points or times of crises in his life. The circumstances of this fourth blessing are that following God’s directive to Abraham to walk through the land, he moved south to Hebron to the groves of Mamre. There he is informed that Mesopotamian kings have attacked a Canaanite coalition that rebelled against them and during this attack they captured his nephew Lot from Sodom. Accompanied by a small war party, Abraham strikes the kings at night in a surprise attack, rescues Lot, takes captives and booty, and pursues the fleeing Mesopotamian army as far as Syria. On his return, he returns to the king of Sodom everything that belongs to his city and provides a share of the booty to the colleagues who joined him in the attack, but otherwise keeps nothing for himself. 

Abraham now experiences a prophetic vision. The passage looks as if it is in two parts, although it should be considered a single unit linked through the word inheritance. Its opening is structured around who will do the inheriting and the second part contains a discussion of when and where the inheritance will be obtained:

“After these events the word of God (YHVH) came to Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am your shield, your reward is exceedingly great.' And Abram said: 'O Lord, God (YHVH), what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'  And Abram said: 'See, to me you have given no seed, and, see, my steward inherits me.' And, suddenly, the word of God (YHVH) came to him, saying: That one will not inherit you; only one that shall come forth from within you shall inherit you.' And He took him outside, and said: 'Gaze now, towards the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them'; and He said unto him: 'So shall your offspring be!' And he trusted in God (YHVH); and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:1-6).

And He said to him: 'I am God (YHVH) Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.' And he said: My master God (YHVH), whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?' And He said unto him: 'Bring Me three heifers, three she-goats, and three rams, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.' And he brought all these to Him, and he cut them in the center, and placed each piece against its counterpart; but the birds he did not cut up. And birds of prey descended upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. And it happened, as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, behold, a dread, a great darkness fell upon him. And He said unto Abram: 'Know with certainty that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them; and they will oppress them four hundred years; but also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge; and afterwards they will leave with great possessions. But as for you, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation shall return here; for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then.' And it came to pass, the sun set, and it was very dark. Behold there was a smoky furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. On that day God (YHVH) cut a covenant with Abram, saying: To your descendants have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River; the Kennites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashite, and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:7-21).

The first part of this passage opens by God telling Abraham that there is no reason for him to fear and that He will be his “shield.”After defeating the Mesopotamian kings, Abraham could well be fearful that the Mesopotamian kings would avenge his attack.10 Another concern of Abraham is that his servant Eliezer “will inherit” him. Abraham and Sarah have no children. Abraham had previously assumed that his legacy would be perpetuated through Lot. However, Lot has chosen another direction in life by moving to Sodom and Abraham’s next-in-line heir is Eliezer.11 God interrupts Abraham and tells him that Eliezer “will not inherit” him but only be a true biological descendant. 

At the beginning of the second part of this vision, Abraham asks: “My master God (YHVH), whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”  This could imply that Abraham had doubts about God’s promise. Yet only two sentences previously the Torah had said: “And he trusted in God (YHVH); and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” It is doubtful, therefore, that Abraham was seeking reassurance. More likely is that the Hebrew word “bamah” (literally: in what) should be understood as how, in the sense of how will this come about that I will inherit, or alternatively how will I know when the time has come for me to inherit?12 

Abraham’s question and God’s answer to his question are linked by the word to “know.” After his question “whereby shall I know,” and just before the ceremony between the pieces, God answers: “You shall certainly know (yodo’a teida) (literally: it will be known you will know) that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs.” Abraham requested the details about how he would receive his inheritance and these are now forthcoming in the form of a highly allegorical vision. Contrary to what he might previously have anticipated, it will be only after a long and harsh exile that his descendants will actualize this “inheritance.” 

God now seals His promise in the form of a contract. The contract is performed in the way that contracts were commonly formalized in those days, in that an animal was “cut“ up and one or both of the parties “passed between these pieces.” In fact, the usual Hebrew verb for making a contract is to “cut” a contract. 

In the final sentence this contract is called “a covenant” and its proceedings are highly symbolic. The difference between a covenant and a promise is that a covenant is more formal and is often accompanied by a sign or in this case a ceremony so that it will be easily recalled by the Jewish people or by humanity (e.g., the sign of the rainbow). 

The “birds of prey descended upon the carcasses” represent external forces attempting to destroy the realization of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, or even trying to destroy the Jewish people themselves.13 Yet with resolve, Abraham (and, in the future, the Jewish people) are able to drive the vultures away.  

The threesome of each animal is then “cut” up.14 There is probably no particular symbolism with respect to the kind of animals and birds that were used and they were commonly available kosher animals and birds. The number three likely represents the three generations that will be enslaved. Hence, only “the fourth generation” will return to the land after 400 years have passed.15 The intact “turtle dove” and “young pigeon” could represent a younger fourth generation that will leave Egypt.16 

As the sun is about to set, Abraham feels viscerally the full impact of the Egyptian exile as “a dread, a great darkness fell upon him“ (Genesis 15:12). R’ Soloveitchik explains: 

“The bondage of Israel in Egypt was not only predicted but also illustrated and visualized. Abraham came in contact with the future sorrows and miseries of his children. He was overwhelmed by a vivid, sensuous awareness, which reached the intensity of real pain and suffering; a horror or great darkness fell upon him. The woes and agony of many years were condensed into a single moment. …. Sympathetic coexistence with countless future generations, confederacy with the unborn and anticipation of the wholeness of historical realization are the basic traits of the charismatic historical personality.”17

God’s commitment to this covenant is presented in two ways. First, He passes between the animal pieces as “a smoky furnace and flaming torch.” He then makes a verbal commitment -  that Abraham’s offspring will inherit the land. 

A common factor to the two parts of this passage is Abraham’s faith and “trust” that his descendants will receive their inheritance, even though the birth of his child will be delayed, and even though his descendants will receive their inheritance only after a delay of hundreds of years.21

Abraham’s trust and God’s fulfilment of His promise are mentioned by Nehemiah, and these words were also used by the Levites as a prayer in the Temple: 

 “And You found his [Abraham’s] heart faithful before You, and You made the covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give to his seed and You kept Your words, for You are righteous” (Nehemiah 9:8-9).

R’ Soloveitchik points out the significance of this covenant/prophecy not only with respect to the redemption from Egypt but also for future redemptions:

“There were many, and there are still birds of prey that swoop down on us [the Jewish people]. And it is not only the concrete Abraham who lived thousands of years ago who chased them away. It is also Abraham the symbol. It is the Abraham who could wait and patiently expect a son at the age of one hundred. Here, he received a prophecy, a message of suffering, of martyrdom and frustration, and of endless waiting, four hundred years to redemption from slavery and oppression. The Covenant Between the Pieces conveys a message not so much of redemption as of spiritual survival, of being able to wait endlessly until the final day arrives.”17

There is though a question one could well ask - why do the Israelites in Egypt warrant oppression and enslavement? Abraham will soon jump to the defense of the inhabitants of Sodom. Why does he not do so for his own descendants? 

The answer must surely be that this exile was God’s immutable decree, and He Goddecreed that it would be accompanied by servitude and oppression. Abraham was not privy to the details of God’s justice, so there was nothing for him to discuss. God also provided no opening for Abraham to negotiate about the justice of His decree as He would later do for the city of Sodom. 

God controls history. History is neither a series of random events nor the result of dialectic processes. History is what God decrees it to be. And the process of history determined by God required a preparatory period of four hundred years before the Israelites would be redeemed. 

Which is not to say that the Egyptian exile is completely unfathomable. It may be that the Jewish people had to experience the emptiness of servitude to Pharaoh to be ready to bind themselves to a new Master. They had to experience being treated harshly as strangers in a foreign land to appreciate how strangers should be treated in their own land (Exodus 22:20).18 They would likely have rapidly assimilated into Egyptian culture in the absence of discrimination and enforced servitude. The exile also had to last for hundreds of years since the behavior of the Canaanites did not yet justify their expulsion - for “the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then” (Genesis 15:16).   

Abraham could have opted out. He felt “the dread, a great darkness” even before the covenant was sealed. He could have told God that he had had second thoughts about this entire venture. But he did not do so. Nor did the majority of Jews throughout their thousands of years of exile. This was because they, like Abraham, trusted in a future redemption even if they themselves would not witness it. They had also bound themselves to God just as God had bound Himself to the Jewish people. How this is so is detailed in the next blessing. 

 

The fifth blessing: prophecies about eternity

 

The context of this fifth blessing is that the issue of descendants has been preying on the minds of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham listens to Sarah’s advice and has a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. When this son, Ishmael, is 13 years old, God again appears to Abraham, revealing Himself through the names El Shaddai and Elohim, although the majority of this blessing is through the name Elohim. The entire blessing reads as follows:

“And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHVH appeared to Abram, and said unto him: 'I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. I will set My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.' Abram fell upon his face; and Elohim spoke with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, you shall be the father of a multitude of nations; 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. I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall descend from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you; and I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land of your sojourns, all the Land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be a God to them.' [verse 9] And God said unto Abraham: 'As for you, you shalt keep My covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of a covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised throughout your generations, he that is born in the household, or bought with money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. He that is born in your household, and he that is bought with your money, must surely be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. An uncircumcised one, a male the flesh of whose foreskin shall not be circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant' (Genesis 17:1-14).

The word “covenant” (bris) is a keyword in this passage and defines the theme of this section, which is a covenant between Elohim and Abraham. In contrast to Elohim’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17), Abraham will not be passive but is given two instructions. The first is revealed at the very beginning of this passage -  “walk before Me and be wholehearted” (Genesis 17:1).19 God is saying - you, Abraham, are to walk “in front of me” and be my representative to the world. This is in contrast to Noah who walked “with” God (Genesis 6:9).20 In what way Abraham will walk “before” God is not yet described, but the Torah will do so after Abraham and his household have performed his second task which is to become circumcised. This will be discussed in the very next chapter, but In brief, Abraham is to teach notions of “justice and righteousness” to his children (Genesis 13:19) and they by their example will influence the rest of humanity.  

The first part of this covenant contains seven promises made by Elohim and which for convenience these have been labelled #1 to 7:

#1 - You shall be the father of a multitude of nations (ibid 17:4). 

#2 - 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 (ibid 17:5).

#3 - I will make you exceeding fruitful (ibid 17:6),

#4 - And I will make nations of you (ibid 17:6), 

#5 - And kings shall descend from you (ibid 17:6).

#6 - I will uphold My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you, throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant – to be a God to you and to your offspring after you (ibid 17:7).

#7 - And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land of your sojourns, all the Land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; - and I will be a God to them” (ibid 17:7).

The first of these seven promises (#1) is that Abraham will be “a father of a multitude of nations.” What nations the Bible is talking about is unclear from the text. Many Jewish commentators assume they are the descendants of Isaac and that the Bible is talking about the Jewish people only.21 However, they could also be the nations that Abraham has sired through his concubines (Genesis 25:1 and 25:5). But Abraham’s family can also be considered even larger than this! A convert to Judaism is called “a child of Abraham.” Muslims and Christians also consider themselves spiritual heirs to Abraham’s legacy. The Qur’an establishes its Abrahamic lineage through Ishmael. Christianity views Abraham as an exemplar of faith and a spiritual and possibly a physical ancestor of Jesus.22 In the theology of Paul, all who believe in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham.  

To emphasize this aspect of his parenthood, Abraham’s name is changed (#2). Up to now he has been called Avram, meaning a father of Aram. He will now be called Avraham - a father of “a multitude of nations.”23 

Abraham is also promised that this covenant will bring in its wake fertility (#3), which is why the fertility aspect of God, El Shaddai, is mentioned in the first sentence of this passage. Under His aspect of YHVH, God had pointed out in His fourth blessing to Abraham that his seed will be as many as “the stars in the heaven” (Genesis 15:5). In that YHVH blessing, Abraham’s descendants are to become a large nation to populate the Land of Canaan. In this covenant promised by Elohim and El Shaddai, they are to become fruitful so they can fulfill their universal mission.  

Abraham will also become the progenitor of kings (#5). The term “kings” implies sovereignty and power. Hence, his offspring will not be a small and insignificant people tucked away in a remote corner of the globe but a major and powerful actor on the world scene in one of the central locations of the world between the two great superpowers Mesopotamia and Egypt.

These promises are written in a crescendo form building up at their end to two promises related to eternity, which are for Elohim “throughout their generations …..  to be a God to you and to your offspring after you,” (Genesis 17:7) (#6), and to be a God eternally to the Jewish people in “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8) (#7).

In these two final sentences Elohim promises to forge a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants by being a God to them.24 At first glance these sentences seem similar. However, they do express different ideas. In the last but one sentence (#6), Elohim promises to be a God to Abraham and his seed forever, including during periods of exile. In the last sentence (#7) He promises to be their eternal God specifically in the land of Canaan. He is thereby promising to be their God through the entirety of Jewish history.25

The eternal nature of this covenant is also expressed in other ways. In #6, God promises that the covenant will be “an everlasting covenant”. Another aspect of eternity is mentioned in the next promise (#7) in that the Land of Canaan will belong to the Jewish people “for an everlasting possession.” Hence, an eternal people, the Jewish people, have been allocated a specific country, the Land of Israel, forever. 

Abraham’s and thus the Jewish people’s second contribution to this covenant is circumcision (their first contribution was to walk before God). Circumcision is to be “a sign of a covenant between Me and you.” Because it is performed on every Jewish male, it also becomes an aspect of the covenant itself - to “be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” A Jew who is not circumcised denies that he is part of the mission of the Jewish people – “that soul shall be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant.” 

Circumcision is performed on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:12). As previously pointed out, the number eight in the Torah has the meaning of being a level above regular holy – super-holy as it were. This is because the act of circumcision binds the Jew in the strongest way possible to a holy purpose.  

There is discussion among Jewish commentators as to the symbolic meaning of circumcision. Most agree that it is a means of distinguishing the Jewish people from the rest of humanity.26 It is clearly not an overt symbol, although every Jewish male knows that he has the circumcision engraved in his flesh and that his connection to God has been signed in a blood ceremony. By this he is marked for the mission statement of the Jewish people – to stand “before”God as His representative to the world in promoting justice and righteousness.

Circumcision was practiced in the ancient world well before the Jewish people. It was performed in ancient Egypt and may have been a mark of distinction of the elite. The priestly caste of Egypt also practiced circumcision.27 Perhaps related to this, the Jewish people are marked for a priestly function to the nations of the world. Later, the Torah will be explicit about this by calling on the Israelites to become a nation of priests - “You will be for me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19.6). This and the role of the Jew to walk “before” God could explain why this particular blessing is bestowed through the universal aspect of God, Elohim.

 

The seventh blessing: the Jewish people bringing blessing to the world 

 

The first of the seven blessings that potentially bestows blessing on the entire world was given to Abraham alone. One might assume that this would also flow through all of the Jewish people. However, up to now the Torah has not specifically said this. In this last and seventh blessing it will do so.

 

In the Binding of Isaac story, Abraham is asked by God to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him on one of the mountains that God will show him. One of the issues many people have with this story is understanding how an ethical God could have made such an unethical request, even if He never intended it be carried out. However, this becomes a non-issue once one appreciates that the aspect of God making this request is Elohim, the God of all mankind, and not YHVH, the God of the Jewish people. An idea espoused particularly by Canaanite society, was that child sacrifice was the ultimate means of influencing the gods. The Book of Kings, for example, records two Judean kings sacrificing their children (in imitation of Canaanite ways).28 Thus, at the time that Abraham lived a Divine instruction to sacrifice a son would not have been considered an unethical request. Judaism was then and continues to be a religion of protest against pagan and unethical ideas prevalent in society, and the Torah will fight relentlessly against child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31). This story is the opening shot in this protest.

 

Just as Abraham lifts up the knife to kill his son, an angel of YHVH (and not Elohim) tells him to desist. Abraham now offers a ram caught in a thicket instead of his son. From now on, this type of substitute sacrifice will become the accepted Torah way for certain types of sacrifices, with the killing of an animal becoming a substitute for the person offering himself up.29 

 

Abraham now receives the final blessing from the angel of God (YHVH) in the form of an irrevocable oath. Because Abraham was prepared to offer his son, his offspring will achieve victory in battle and the whole of humanity will bless themselves by the Jewish people:30 

 

“The angel of God (YHVH) called to Abraham a second time from heaven. And he said: ‘By Myself I swear – the word of God (YHVH) – that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, that I shall surely bless you and surely increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you hearkened to My voice” (Genesis 22:15-18). 

 

That all the nations of the earth will bless themselves by the Jewish people (and not just be blessed) emphasizes again that the blessing the world will obtain is through imitating the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.

 

Conclusions 

 

Within these seven blessings and promises to Abraham is all of Jewish history – the survival of an eternal people, grim and prolonged exiles, but followed by redemption to a land that has been bestowed upon them for eternity. They are also prophecies. There is no other religious book, or any other book for that matter, that made prophecies 3,500 years ago, and as evidenced by the current redemption of the Jewish people are still being fulfilled. There can be no better proof of the Divine nature of the Torah than this. 

 

The number seven related to these blessings signifies that nothing in this blueprint is coincidental, but all is part of the Divine plan for the material and spiritual blessing of mankind.31 The universal aspect of Judaism has received little emphasis by Jews during the many years of exile. They were too busy just surviving against the adverse forces around them. But this is changing with the advent of the State of Israel. It is no accident, for example, that this country is called a start-up nation. 

 

It also means something that many people will have difficulty in accepting – that much of world history revolves around the fate of the Jewish people. It has to be this way, since if Jewish history has direction and the Jewish people are an integral and even defining part of the nations of the world, then world history also has direction in relation to this plan.

The Torah is also describing in these blessings its vision of utopia for the Jewish people and also the world. It is material as much as spiritual. It embraces all nations of the earth as “families.” It is not in a miraculous eschatological future. It is not in the World to Come but firmly in this world. 

 

How it can be achieved is described in the next chapter.

 

References:

1.   Some of the prophesies in the Torah are overt, such as the blessings given to Abraham that are currently being discussed. The Torah also contains blessings and curses related to the Jewish people’s adherence or lack of adherence to the covenant established at Mount Sinai and they are frightful in their predictions (Leviticus 26:3-46 and Deuteronomy 28:1-69). All of them have more or less come to pass. The Torah also describes real or metaphysical struggles against adversarial nations seeking to destroy the Jewish people “from generation to generation” such as Amalek (Exodus 17:14-16). Many of the stories in Genesis are more indirect in their prophetic messages, in that they can be considered as indicators of the direction of Jewish history. Nachmanides terms this “the deeds of the forefathers are a sign to their children” (ma’ashe avot siman lebonim (Commentary of Nachmanides to ibid 12:6). Hence, when Jacob wrestles with an angel, it is not only Jacob who is wrestling with God and overcoming, but the Jewish people will also wrestle against adverse forces and overcome (Genesis 32:33). In this way, much of Jewish history is “played out” through the stories of Genesis.

2.  The seven blessings are found in the following places in Genesis: Genesis 12:1-3, 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-20, 17:1-14, 17:15-22, and 22:15-18. The text from Genesis 17:1-22 does seem like one long blessing, but there is a paragraph space in the middle, effectively making it two blessings.

3.   This table is based on the chapters in the book The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto, Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York, 2006.

4.  This issue is discussed in the commentary to Exodus 6:3 in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, p78, Varda Books, Illinois, 2005. 

 

5.   In the Noah story, God speaks freely to Noah. However, in the very similar Gilgamesh myth, the god Ea can only communicate with Upnapishtim about building an ark by speaking to the brick wall of his reed hut. Gilgamesh Tablet XI in The Flood, Gilgamesh and Other in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley, i, p110, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000.

 

6.   In the passage about the rainbow being a sign of the covenant (ibid 9:8-17), the word covenant is repeated seven times and can be considered a keyword.

 

7.  The word curse, either arur or lekalel, is found in five places in the proceeding chapters of Genesis – with respect to the soil (ibid 5:24 and 8:21), the serpent (ibid 3:14 and 4:11), and the person Canaan (ibid 9:25).

 

8.   Abraham is directed to leave Haran to go to the “land” that God will show him. Jewish commentators discuss the significance of the pronoun “to you” in the phrase “Go to you (lech lecho) from your land” when the sentence could equally well have opened with the single word “Go! (lech)” without the words “to you.” The commentator Rashi translates these words as “go for yourself” and links them to the subsequent blessings. Hence, “go for your pleasure and for your benefit.” However, Cassuto points out that there are other places in the Bible where this use of the pronoun “to” cannot have this meaning. Rather, he suggests it means to go alone or with those close to you and make a clean break from everything with which you are familiar. 

 

9.   There are other explanations by Jewish commentators as to the meaning in this sentence of “and you shall be a blessing,” besides the one I have provided which is based on literary grounds. It could be a directive (Radak) or even a summary of the blessings preceding it. Nachmanides suggests that Abraham will become the standard by which blessings are bestowed upon others. People who wish to bless their son will say: “God make you like Abram!” because of the “great” “name” he has acquired. Rashi, following a midrash, suggests that Abraham will have the power of blessing in his hands. Alternatively, blessing will come to all who come in contact with him. Midrash Raba 39:11 gives two examples. A person who wants to buy a cow from Abraham would be blessed even before the value of the cow had been assessed. Also, Abraham would pray for a barren woman and the woman would conceive.  My explanation for “all the families of the earth” will be blessed through you is also that of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch who writes: ”But God asserts that finally all the peoples of the world will participate in this blessing inasmuch as they will also found their lives on the same foundation on which you are to found yours’ (Commentary to ibid 12:3).

 

 10. The explanation I have offered is one of several interpretations of this phrase and is the most literal with respect to the text. Midrashic explanations, on the other hand, and this is the direction followed by Rashi, suggest that he was concerned that he might already have received all the reward due to him for his righteousness (Bereishit Rabba 44:4). He might even have anticipated punishment for the lives he had taken (Rashi). Nachmanides suggests he feared he might die without children.

 

11. The ancient Mesopotamian Nuzi tablets explain that if a man dies without offspring, his servant is considered his heir.

 

12. Other explanations have also been given. There is a view in the Talmud (TB Nedarim 32a) that Abraham’s question was improper and it is because of this that the Egyptian servitude ensued. Others suggest that Abraham was asking “through what merit will I inherit the land?” Rashi suggests that Abraham was asking by what merit would his offspring be able to sustain themselves in the land, and he was answered through the merit of the sacrificial offerings (Rashi to Genesis 15:6). The Talmud suggests that even if the Jewish people no longer have a Temple, the act of reading the scriptural sections in the Torah about the sacrifices provides repentance (TB Megilla 31b).

 

13. The second suggestion I have provided is that of the Radak to Genesis 15:11, who points out that this confirms the prediction of Leviticus 26:44 that even during our darkest hours “I will not despise you and allow you to be wiped out completely.”  

 

14. The details of the covenantal ceremony that I and many others have translated as “Bring Me three heifers, three she-goats and three rams, and a turtle-dove and a young pigeon” (ibid 15:9) is the clearest way to signify the three-generational aspect of this contract. However, the precise translation of the word meshulash is unclear. It is clearly related to the word three. Radak translates it as a 3-year-old animal.  Others, a 3-year-old from the womb.  

 

15. Do “400 years” and “three generations” really correspond, since a period of three generations is considerably less than 400 years?  Moreover, there is no indication from the Bible that the Israelites were in slavery the entire time they were in Egypt. One way of looking at this sentence is to consider part of it as being in brackets (Nachmanides to Genesis 15:13). 'Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, (and they will serve them; and they will oppress them) four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). In other words, the Israelites will be aliens for 400 years but not in servitude all this time. Rashi to Genesis 15:13, based on the midrashic work Seder Olam, suggests that the four hundred years starts from the birth of Abraham’s biological son Isaac and not from the time of entry of Jacob’s family to Egypt. Isaac was also an alien in a land not his. Hence, the comment “And the fourth generation shall return here” means that only three generations will actually live in Egypt. Thus, following Seder Olam, Rashi’s chronology is that Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), and Jacob was 130 years old when he went down to Egypt (Genesis 47:9). The Israelites were therefore in Egypt for only 210 years. Against this, the Bible itself states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). I am unable to explain these discrepancies. 

 

16. The Covenant between the Pieces (7-21) in Abram to Abraham. A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative by Jonathan Grossman, p180, Peter Lang AG, Bern Switzerland.

 

17. Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Solovitchick, p184. OU Press, New York NY. First edition 2013.

 

18. “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). Also, Exodus 23:9.  

 

19. A number of interpretations of the phrase “wholehearted” (tamim) have been proposed. Rashi on this phrase suggests that Abraham should be wholehearted in the trials to which he will be subjected to. Nachmanides relates it to a similar use of this word in Deuteronomy when the Bible discusses forbidden magical practices and which concludes there with the phrase “you shall be wholehearted with YHVH your God” (Deut 18:13). Hence, just as you are to avoid magical practices and retain your trust in Me, so are you to walk before Me and maintain your belief in Me. The Radak suggests that the fulfillment of the command of circumcision will itself make Abraham perfect. 

 

20. Rashi to Genesis 6:9 makes this comparison between Noah and Abraham. 

 

21. Rashi suggests that it includes the Jewish people plus the tribe of Edom (Rashi to Genesis 17:6). Nachmanides disagrees that Edom is included here and brings examples where the Jewish people are called nations and peoples (Nachmanides to Genesis 17:6). Targum Onkelos translates the word as tribes. The Radak suggests that the reference is to the descendants of Keturah, in that Keturah married Abraham after Sarah died.  

 

22. New Testament, Rom 4:9-12.  

 

23. The word “riham” in Arabic means a multitude. This word is not currently used in Hebrew, but Luzzatto suggests it may once have been part of the Jewish lexicon. The Book of Genesis. A Commentary by ShaDal (S.D. Luzzatto). Translated by Daniel A Klein, p155, Jason Aronson Inc, NJ 1998. 

 

24. The Be’ir Yitzchak, a super-commentator to Rashi, points out regarding Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 17:7, that this verse does not mean “I will uphold My covenant in order to be a God to you.” Rather, “to be a God to you” is the actual content of the covenant, so that the verse would then read “I will uphold My covenant which is to be a God to you.”  

 

25. This explanation is at variance with that of Rashi (Rashi to Genesis 17:9) who suggests that Elohim is only a God to the Jewish people inside the land of Israel. Otherwise, it is as if they had no God. See also TB Kesubos 110b.  

 

26. Sefer Hachinuch 2.  

 

27. The Book of Genesis.  A Commentary by Shadal (S.D. Luzzatto) translated by Daniel A. Klein, p156-157.  James Aronson Inc. to Genesis 17.9. Also, History of Circumcision in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_circumcision#:~:text=Herodotus%2C%20writing%20in%20the%205th%20century%20BCE%2C%20wrote%20that%20the,passage%20from%20childhood%20to%20adulthood.

 

28. King Manasseh erected altars for Baal and burnt his son as an offering (II Kings 21:6), as did King Ahaz (II Kings 16:3).

 

29. Explanation of Nachmanides to Leviticus 1:9.

 

30. The Hebrew verb vehitbarachu is in the reflexive form, meaning that the sentence reads and “all the nations of the earth will bless themselves by your offspring.” See The Book of Genesis. A Commentary by Shadal (S.D. Luzzatto) translated by Daniel A. Klein, p125.  James Aranson Inc. This is how Rashi interprets this phrase in this the last blessing in Genesis 22:18. Similarly, the verb venivrechu found in the part of the last sentence #7 of the first of the blessings given to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) could be both a reflexive form or a passive form of the verb (shall be blessed). Rashi is consistent and explains the end of verse Genesis 12:3 in a reflexive mode  – “A man says to his son – Be like Abraham.” However, this means that the conclusion of this verse is similar to its beginning. Nevertheless, many commentators, namely Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, Kimchi and Hirsch, view at least 18:8 and 12:3 as being in the passive form - that the nations will be blessed. Onkelos renders all three verses as being in the passive. I take only the seventh blessing as using a reflexive form of the verb.

 

  1. 31.Maimonides in his halachic work the Mishna Torah discusses the question as to why the Torah discusses reward for the Jewish people in material terms when the ultimate reward is in the World to Come. His answer is that material benefit in this world will lead to a situation whereby an individual can spend more time in spiritual pursuits and thus derive the benefits of both worlds. He writes: “Thus, these blessings and curses can be interpreted as follows. If you serve God with happiness and observe His way, He will grant you these blessings and remove these curses from you in order that you may be free to gain wisdom from the Torah and involve yourselves in it so that you will merit the life of the world to come” (Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 9:1). The presumption has to be that a similar reasoning could be used here with respect to the Torah’s utopian and very material vision for the rest of humanity. 

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