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God's Seven Blessings to Abraham

 

Two major stories wind their way through the early chapters of Genesis - one about the transcendent aspect of God, Elokim, the Creator of the world, whose overriding concern is the general providence of mankind, and the other about YKVK, the imminent aspect of God, who relates to humanity on an individual, family or tribal basis

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 Abraham was the giant who brought knowledge of these two aspect of God to a world that had lost this knowledge.  This is why intertwined stories about YKVK and Elokim are also found in the Abraham account.  Abraham also demonstrated how to develop a relationship with YKVK, and in so doing established the foundations of the Jewish faith.

 

 Yet there is a lot more to the Abraham stories than matters of faith.  In a way that defies a completely rational explanation, Abraham acted out the outlines of future Jewish history.  Nachmanides was the first to elaborate on this idea with his well-known principle: “the deeds of the forefathers are a portend to their children.”1   

 Abraham was a trailblazer for the direction of Jewish history.

To understand the principles discovered by Abraham, all of which will form the underpinnings of Judaism, a good starting point is an analysis of the seven blessings bestowed upon Abraham by God.  

 However, before looking at these seven blessings, a basic question needs to be answered.  Why did God choose to engage with Abraham?   

 

Why did God choose Abraham?

 Abraham was living in Haran, in present-day Turkey, when he received a directive from God to break with his family and embark on a journey whose destination he could only guess at: 

 

“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.”  (Genesis 12:1)

 

Why was Abraham chosen for this mission?

 

Commenting on this verse, a midrash says the following:

 

“R’ Yitzchak said: this is analogous to someone who was passing from place to place and saw a certain palace ablaze. He said: Can it be that this palace is without a supervisor?  The owner of the palace peered out at him and said to him: “I am the master of the palace.  So too, because our forefather Abraham said: Shall you say that this world is without a supervisor?  Therefore the Holy One, blessed is He, peeked out at him and said to him  “I am the Master of the world!”

Abraham looked at the natural world about him and questioned  - is it possible for it to function without a Controller?  It must be that a Supreme Being is overseeing it.

The book of Joshua emphasizes that Abraham’s family was pagan, and this is the background that he broke away from:

On the other side of the river, your father dwelt of old, Terach, father of Abraham and father of Nachor, and they served other gods.  And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river and led him throughout the whole land of Canaan…. (Joshua 24:2-3)

 Not surprisingly, therefore, most commentators see Abraham’s greatness in his appreciation of God as being the Creator and Master of the universe and his bringing of monotheism to the world.  

 Maimonides, the influential Jewish thinker and legal authority, wrote in his monumental legal work the Mishna Torah:

He grasped the way of the truth and understood the just cause by his true perception.  And he knew there is only one God who rules the world and He created all, and there is no other God except for Him.  And he knew that the entire world erred and what caused them to err was that they worshiped the stars and other forms until they totally forgot the truth.”3

But was Abraham’s discovery of monotheism such a unique accomplishment that it merited God appearing to him in visions and offering to create from his seed a new nation?

The Torah itself reveals that Abraham was not the only monotheist in the world at that time.  Following Abraham’s victory over the forces of King Chedorlaomer and his Mesopotamian coalition and his rescuing of his nephew Lot, Abraham is greeted by Malchizedek, king of Salem, who “was a priest of El Elyon (God, the Most High).” (Genesis 18:18)  Says Malchizedek:

 

“…  Blessed is Abram of El Elyon (God the Most High), Acquirer of heaven and earth, ….. “ (Genesis 14:19). 

 

Malchizedek believed that there is a Supreme God actively involved in His universe.4  But these are the very beliefs credited to Abraham!

 

Perhaps because of this there is a midrashic tradition that Abraham’s greatness was not only his awareness of a Single God but to his willingness to go through trials to demonstrate his allegiance to Him.  One of these trials was his confronting the Mesopotamian ruler Nimrod and being placed in a burning furnace when his father delivered him to the king for smashing the idols in his idol store.5 

However, there is no specific mention in the Bible of a trial such as this.  Nor is there mention of Abraham engaging in similar destructive activities against pagan worship while in Canaan.  Abraham doubtless announced his beliefs to all around him, but otherwise seemed to live in comfortable harmony with the pagans around him, as did his son and grandson. 

There is, moreover, a fundamental problem with the notion that Abraham’s sole claim to greatness was his defense of monotheism.  The God who created and rules the world is Elokim.  Yet it was YKVK, the God of individual providence, who called upon Abraham to leave in his old age his birthplace and family and to embark on a new and, at this stage, unrevealed mission.

 

It was Abraham’s discovery of YKVK, and not only Elokim, that led to his election.  Abraham appreciated that God is not only Sovereign Ruler of the universe, but He is also a God of relationships and wishes to develop a relationship with each and every one of His human creations.  This is why Abraham was the first person in the world to call God “Adonai (my Master) (Genesis 15:2).”6

 

Knowledge of YKVK was known to Noah and his son Shem (“And he [Noah] said: ‘Blessed is YKVK, the God of Shem …. “ (Genesis 9:26), but never to the extent that Abraham achieved.  Moreover, with the passing of generations, knowledge of YKVK was lost among the Semites and they like Terah, Abraham’s father, were staunch idol worshippers. 

 

Pagans held that the gods controlled different aspects of nature and function within nature.  It would have been far from their mindset to imagine that any god would be interested in engaging in a relationship.  Yet this is precisely what Abraham proposed.7  

But what does the concept of a personal God really mean?  

 

Abraham recognized that since he and God were in a relationship, everything God intended for him must be for his benefit.  Like a devoted spouse, Abraham had absolute trust that God had nothing but his welfare in mind.

This awareness came to him while still in his hometown of Haran; and it is because of this that YKVK could say to him: 

Go you (lech lecho) (לֶךְ-לְךָ) from your land, from your kindred and from your father’s house to the land that I will shown you.” (Genesis 12:1).  

 

YKVK is saying to Abraham: I know you have trust in Me.  Now demonstrate this trust and begin this journey even though you do not know to where I am leading you and even the purpose of this journey.  Be assured though that this journey will be entirely to your benefit.

 

Jewish commentators question the significance of the phrase “Go you (lech lecho) (לֶךְ-לְךָ) from your land…….” (Genesis 12:1), when the sentence could equally as well have opened with the single word “Go! (lech) ...”  Rashi translates these two words as “go for yourself” and links them to the subsequent blessings.  Hence, “go for your pleasure and for your benefit.”8  

Cassuto points out, however, that there are other instances in the Bible where this form of the verb cannot have this meaning and he suggests it means  - go alone, or with those close to you, and make a clean break from your present situation.9 

It is no coincidence that this sentence closely resembles the opening sentence from another episode in Abraham’s life when he demonstrates a similar trust in God – in the Binding of Isaac story.  In this story, also, Abraham is told: 

 

Please take your son …. and go you (velech lecho) (לְךָ-וְלֶךְ) to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)  

 

In this instance, also, Abraham is asked to make a radical break in his life’s direction by sabotaging everything he has been working towards and together with his son travel to an unknown destination.  In this instance, too, his trust in God will result in a multiplication of the beneficence granted to him up to now.  

Abraham’s trust in God is also emphasized in other places in Genesis.  At the Covenant between the Pieces, YKVK promises Abraham that he will have a biological child and his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.10  Until this time, Abraham and Sarah’s married life had been marked by infertility. 

 

The Bible continues: “And he trusted in YKVK, and He/he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)  It is unclear who regarded whom as being righteous, and the text could be read either way.  Nevertheless, the Bible is again emphasizing that a foundational aspect of Abraham’s relationship with God was his trust in Him.   

 

From this point on, trust in God will become a foundational aspect of the lives of the Biblical forefathers, and will in turn become the model for the Jewish people’s relationship with God.

 

A further discovery of Abraham, possibly while still in Mesopotamia, is that God is the absolute measure of justice and righteousness, and as such is the model for all of human ethics.

 

In the Sodom and Gomorra story, after the three angels have left Abraham’s home to destroy these cities to save Lot, God engages in a soliloquy: 

Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, and Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him?  For I know that he will command his children and his household after him that they keep the way of YKVK doing righteousness and justice … (Genesis 18:18-19)

 

By revealing to Abraham His intentions, God has plunged Abraham into a religious crisis.  Abraham has modeled his behavior on his perception of YKVK as the absolute measure of righteousness and justice.  But if God does not act with the people of Sodom with justice, then He is no more worthy of his allegiance than any other capricious deity of the Near East.  The “negotiations” between God and himself are not just about the fate of these two cities but about the very basis of Abraham’s beliefs.

By the end of the negotiations, God will agree that if ten righteous people can be found in the city of Sodom, He will save the city.  “And YKVK departed when He had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18:33)  The negotiations had come to an end with the implication that ten righteous people were not to be found in these cities and that justice was indeed being pursued.  

Of course, the very fact that Abraham was able to dialogue with God and question His justice was only possible because of Abraham’s appreciation that YKVK is a personal God who listens.  

During the second covenant that God establishes with Abraham involving circumcision, God introduces Himself with the words: “I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be perfect. (Genesis 17:1)  The Bible is telling us here that Abraham embodies the attributes of God and he is to walk before God as His representative to the world.

In sum, Abraham was elected because he brought to the world knowledge of Elokim as the Ruler of the universe, and because he discovered the attributes of a personal God YKVK, and demonstrated by personal example how to relate to this aspect of God.  This is the heritage he will pass onto his children: For I know that he will command his children and his household after him …. ” (Genesis 18:19).

 

However, to promulgate these ideas to the world at large, Abraham will need a team and a forum.  His team is to be his offspring and his forum the land of Canaan.  How this is to b brought to fruition comprises the rest of this chapter.   

 

Seven blessings

 

Abraham conceptualized a God who is not only Sovereign of the universe but also a personal God, and already in Aram he began searching for a relationship with this aspect of the Divine.  Now, for the first time, YKVK responds. 

   

God’s response is the directive to leave his family home.  Moreover, if he follows this directive he will be rewarded, and this is related in the Bible as seven blessings.  The number seven represents God’s total involvement in these blessings and the absolute perfection of His promises.  Accordingly, the number seven will occur throughout these passages.  Five of these blessings are revealed to Abraham through His aspect of YKVK, one through His aspects of El Shaddai and Elokim, and one through Elokim alone.  Which name of God is the source of each of these blessings is important, since this will determine its focus as well as its The Divine source of these blessings is important since it determines its focus as well as its purpose within Jewish history.  

 

The blessings are in a “crescendo” literary format, with each blessing building on the previous one and revealing ever-increasing beneficence.   

 

The first blessing

 

The first communication of God, revealed while Abraham was still in his hometown of Haran, contains within it seven subsidiary blessings, each of which elaborates on the benefits resulting to Abraham from his trust in God.

 

The keyword in this passage is “blessing,” which occurs four times, and this  keyword highlights the theme of this passage.  Five of these seven benefits reflect God’s involvement alone, as they begin with the words   “I [God]) will……..,“ while the other two, and this includes the last, will result from Abraham’s involvement as he builds upon the foundations provided by God.

 

The entire passage has a poetic structure, in that it also is in a crescendo format building up to the final blessing – “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3):

 

This entire paragraph reads as follows:

 

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.

#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)

 

Most Jewish commentators are in agreement that the word “blessing” means material substance.  Abstinence and poverty are not part of Abraham’s mission, nor will they be that that of the Jewish people.  Abraham is to become a rich man – and this will soon happen, primarily when he visits and is then thrown out of Egypt. 

There are various explanations among Jewish commentators as to the meaning of the fourth blessing “and you shall be a blessing.”  It could be a directive or even a summary of the blessings preceding it, although this is not how most commentators understand it.  Nachmanides suggests that Abraham will become the standard by which blessings are bestowed upon others.11  People who wish to bless their son will say: “God make you like Abram!” – because of the “great” “name” he has acquired.10  Alternatively, there will blessing to all who come in contact with Abraham..12

 

In the fourth and fifth blessings of this paragraph, God promises Abraham that other’s success 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 Him and his message will be cursed.

The seventh blessing is the peak of the “crescendo” and represents the aim to which this new partnership between God and man is to lead.  The spiritual insights that Abraham has discovered, either on his own or with God’s help, will bring in their wake beneficence to the entire world.13 

 

This world was not created for any specific people or nation but for all mankind.  YKVK is the epitome of loving-kindness.  He wishes only to give.  But He can only provide in abundance to nations that warrant it.  Abraham is to be the means by which God can bring beneficence to all humanity. 

 

Judaism is often regarded by its followers as a religion only for self-improvement and for achieving the World to Come.  This is indeed the case – but it has another function too.  Through his ideas, the example he projects, and his dealings with others, Abraham is to be the means of bringing spiritual benefit to the rest of mankind and thus the means by which God can bestow His loving kindness and bounty on all of humanity.

 

Abraham is now to leave Haran to the “land” that God will show him.  But in what direction is he to go?  Nachmanides suggest that Abraham wandered from place to place to find the land chosen for him, but this is a difficult explanation.14  When leaving Haran, Abraham would have needed to know the general direction in which he was heading, and in fact the Bible tells us this was indeed the case:  “…….. and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:5).  

 

When he was younger, the family had already attempted to leave for Canaan from Ur but had not completed the journey.15  This current journey can therefore be regarded a continuation of the prior one, which is why the Torah provides this information: 

“Terah took his son Abram, and Lot the son of his Haran, his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them to the land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31)  

 

Why Terah was drawn to the idea of moving to Canaan is not stated in the text, but Abraham would now continue on the second leg of this journey, although undoubtedly for very different reasons.

The Second Blessing:  

 

Abraham journeys from Haran until he reaches “the place of Shechem, until the terebinth of Moreh” (Genesis 12:6) and there is granted a vision of YKVK, who again communicates with him.  The message on this occasion is very short, but its implications are momentous:

“To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7)

Until now, Abraham has not been informed where he is heading.  It is now explicit.  He has arrived at the “land”.  Moreover, until this time, he, Abraham, has been the sole object of God’s beneficence.  Now God reveals that Abraham will have offspring, that these offspring will have a country, and that the land on which he is standing is the land that has been granted to his seed. 

 

A tension has now been introduced into the story that will be keenly felt by Abraham and accordingly by the reader.  Abraham and Sarah are infertile.   From whence will these offspring come?  It will take much drama before this tension is resolved.

Abraham’s first stop on arriving in Canaan is the city of Shechem, and he sets up an altar there in response to the vision he has received.

 

“So he built an altar to YKVK who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:7)

 

At this time in history, Shechem was probably a fortified city.  There is no mention in the Bible that Abraham actually went into the city, but rather he was in the location of the city – in the “place” (makom)(מְקוֹם) or location where Shechem was situated.  Specifically, he was at an identifiable place in which there was a terebinth or grove of large trees that was called “Elon Moreh” (Genesis 12:6).  This shaded grove where people could gather may well have had religious significance as a place of worship.16  

 

Many commentators assume that Abraham was an outreach worker.  It follows, therefore, that urban centers were precisely where he would go,  since he could promote there his message of One God and attract followers to his cause.  However, while there is midrashic interpretation that Abraham had such groupies, there is no mention in the Torah that this was the case.17

 

An alternative explanation suggests itself.  Abraham is acting as a trailblazer for the Jewish people and pointing out the geo-political and religious significance that Shechem will have in the future.1

 

Shechem is in the northerly section of the spine of the north-south mountain range that passes through the land of Canaan.  Its location is a critical one since it is at the crossroads between the junction of the main north-south road that goes through Canaan’s mountain spine and an east-west road.  The western branch of this road crosses the Jabbok and Jordan rivers and was an important entry point into Canaan from Syria and Mesopotamia.  For a people wishing to take over the central mountain range this would be a critical city to control 18  From a religious perspective, also, Shechem will have religious importance to the Jewish people from this time on.19  

 

The Third Blessing:  

 

From Shechem, Abraham relocates to the mountain east of Bethel and pitches his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east.20  There he again builds an altar and calls on the name of YKVK and then continues his journeying southward.  At this time there is a famine in the land and Abraham elects to go southwards to Egypt.  In Egypt, his wife narrowly escapes having relationships with the Pharaoh when she is forcibly taken into his harem.  On returning to Canaan he returns to the same place between Bethel and Ai and at the site where he had previously built an altar he again invokes the name of YKVK.21 

 

What does it mean “to call out in the name of God” (Genesis 12:8 and 13:4)?  Many commentators follow the lead of midrashim and assume this was part of Abraham’s outreach program.  He was announcing the existence of God and welcoming all to embrace monotheism.  Yet in the one instance in which this expression is used in the Torah outside of Genesis it is a scene in which only God and Moses are present.22  It could well be, therefore, that this is an expression of outspoken praise of God and His attributes, with or without an audience.

 

The Canaan saga continues.  

 

Until this time, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, had accompanied him on his travels from Ur.  However, their newly acquired wealth from Egypt brings conflict into their relationship.  Their herdsmen argue and Abraham suggests they separate.  He no doubt intended that one of them go northwards and the other to the south.  However, Lot rejects altogether the mountain range and chooses instead to go eastwards towards the well-watered plain of the Jordan and the city of Sodom.

 

There are hints in the text that this dispute between uncle and nephew was not only about economic resources but also a philosophical one.  

 

The Bible points out the similarities between the fertility of the plain of the Jordan and that of the land of Egypt.  Abraham and Lot had just returned from Egypt.  By choosing the richness of the Jordan plain, Lot was demonstrating his preference for the lifestyle of Egypt and his rejection of the way of life of Abraham.23

 

Abraham also “dwelled in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 13:12) as a nomad and eschewed city life where he would have had to fit into the life of the Canaanites, while Lot “dwelled in the cities” (Genesis 13:12).  His choice of city could also not have been more opposed to everything that Abraham stood for - for “the people of Sodom were extremely wicked and sinful to YKVK” (Genesis 13:13). 

 

However, by leaving Abraham, Lot has precipitated a crisis for Abraham since Lot was his protégé and heir.  This is the background to God’s third blessing that “YKVK said to Avram after Lot had parted from him” (Genesis 13:14):

Raise now your eyes, and look out from the place where your are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendants forever.  I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Arise, walk through the land in its length and breadth; for to you will I give it.” (Genesis 13:14-17)

 

In the first blessing, Abraham is told to leave Haran to the land God would show him with the promise that he would become a great nation – but is not given a precise destination.  In the second blessing, Abraham is told that he has arrived, that he will have offspring, and that the land on which he is standing has been allocated to these offspring.  In this, the third blessing, God tells him that despite Lot’s leaving him, Abraham should have no concern about descendants.  They will become more numerous than the dust of the earth.  Moreever, from Bethel, Abraham has a panoramic view of the land of Canaan.  This land will be his and his descendants for eternity.  Abraham should now transverse this land, for it will be his.

 For what purpose, though, is Abraham to “walk through the land in its length and breadth” (Genesis 13:17)? 

 

On the one hand, Abraham has God’s promise that this land will be his.  But other nations currently inhabit his land and he does not have the means to actualize this promise.  But if others have full rights to their property, in what respect can it be regarded as his, and how does walking through this land change this reality?  

 

One opinion in the Talmud has difficulty accepting that walking alone is sufficient to establish ownership, and suggests rather that Abraham walked through the land “so that it would be easy for his descendants to conquer.”24  In other words, his walking had a directive function but did not establish possession.25

 

It is suggested is this essay, however, that the land of Canaan will belong to Abraham even though he does not have the means yet for establishing his ownership.  God’s promise is more than just a promissory note – the land will be his and not just for subsequent generations - “for to you I will give it” (Genesis 13:15).

 

What Abraham must do now is to point out to future generations the extent of this gift.26  His walking is not optional but a command, since his ownership needs to be demonstrated.  This is why Abraham was, and will continue to be, highly selective in where he goes27 and what he does when he reaches his destinations.28  

 

However, like the Biblical reader, Abraham may have been puzzled by God’s gift.  On the one hand, he is assured by God that the land is his.  But others have possession of it and he has no means of displacing them.  God’s gift seems to fit into no recognizable category.

 

This will in fact be Abraham’s very next question when he speaks again to YKVK.  When can I begin establishing my property rights?

 

The Fourth Blessing:  

Following God’s directive to walk through the land, Abraham moves his tent south to Hebron to the “groves of Mamre.”  There he is informed that a raid of Mesopotamian kings has attacked a rebelling Canaanite coalition and captured his nephew Lot from Sodom.  Accompanied by a relatively small war party, Abraham strikes them at night, rescues Lot, captures people and booty, and pursues the fleeing army as far as Syria.  After negotiating with the king of Sodom what should be done with everything he has captured (and giving it all away), Abraham experiences another vision:

 

After these events the word of YKVK came to Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am your shield, your reward is exceedingly great.'  And Abram said: 'My Lord YKVK, 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 YKVK 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 YKVK; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.  And He said to him: 'I am YKVK Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.'  And he said: My master YKVK, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?'  And He said unto him: 'Bring Me three heifers, three she-goats, and three ram, 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 aliens 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, will I execute judgment; 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 YKVK made 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 15:1-21)29

 

This is the first time that YKVK has made a covenant with an individual and represents a deepening progression in Abraham’s relationship with God.   Unlike the covenant made by Elokim with Noah and his descendants that had relevance to all humanity, this covenant with YKVK pertains only to Abraham and his descendants.

 

This particular revelation also comes at a time of crisis for Abraham.  By defeating the Mesopotamian kings, he could well be fearful that they will try to avenge his attack.  God tells him, however, that there is no reason for him to fear for God will be his “shield.”30 

The word inheritance is a keyword in this passage and this fourth blessing is built around the issue of inheritance.

 

Abraham has been promised the land and has begun to transverse his property – but when can he truly take possession?  Moreover, despite the promise that he will have descendants, Abraham still does not know how this will come about.  Abraham and Sarah are infertile and Sarah is past the age of having children.  Abraham had assumed that his descendants would come through Lot, or now his next-in-line heir, Eliezer, his servant.

  

Abraham introduces his concerns by pointing out that Eliezer “will inherit” him.  God interrupts him and tells him that this one “will not inherit” him, but only a biological descendant “will inherit” him. 

 The sentence “My master YKVK, how shall I know that I am to inherit it?' (Genesis 8:8) has elicited much commentary, since it could imply that Abraham has doubts about God’s promise.31  Yet only two sentences previously the Bible had said: “And he trusted in YKVK; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  (Genesis 15:6)  It is difficult to believe that Abraham was now seeking reassurance.  More likely is that the Hebrew word bamo (בַּמָּה) should be understood as “how” in the sense of “how will this come about (that I will inherit)?” 

This translation of “bamo” as “how” also fits in well into the flow of this passage.   Both Abraham’s question and God’s answer are linked by the word to “know.”  Abraham asks: “How shall I know (eyda) (אֵדַע) when I will inherit it?” (Genesis 15:8)  Following the completion of the covenant, God answers him: “You shall certainly know (yodoa teida) (יָדֹעַתֵּדַע) (literally: it will be known you will know) that your offspring shall be aliens …” (Genesis 15:13).  Abraham requests details and these are provided to him, although doubtless the information he receives is far from what he anticipated.   

God’s verbal promise is now replaced by a visual covenant, albeit within the context of a vision.  This vision will provide the Israelites with something “tangible” that they can hold onto during their prolonged period of servitude.  In this vision, Abraham is informed that only after a period of harsh exile will his “inheritance” be actualized. 

The covenant itself is contracted in a way that contracts were commonly made at that time.  An animal was cut up and the parties would pass between the pieces.  By doing this they were saying: ‘I should be like these animals if I do not fulfill my word’.  In fact, the usual Hebrew verb for “making” a contract is to “cut” a contract.  In this instance, God Himself passes between the pieces as a “a smoky furnace and a flaming torch” (Genesis 15:17).

The form of the covenant is clearly symbolic, yet its aspects are puzzling.  The “birds of prey descended upon the carcasses” could represent external forces attempting to destroy the contract between God and the Jewish people.32  With fortitude and resolve, Abraham (and in the future the Jewish people) succeed in driving these forces away.

  

A midrash suggests that the animals cut up for this covenant represent specific forms of animal sin offerings that would be offered later in the wilderness.33  However, it is also possible that these are just common kosher animals and there is no specific symbolism with respect to the kind of animals and birds in this vision.

 

The text relates that the Israelites will be oppressed in Egypt for 400 years and that the fourth generation will be redeemed.  But how do “400 years” and “three generations” correspond, since the time for three generations is a lot less than for 400 years?  There is also no indication from the Bible that the Israelites were in slaves the entire time they were in Egypt.

One way of looking at this sentence is to consider part of it as being in brackets:34

'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;

 

In other words, the Israelites will be in servitude and oppression but not for all these 400 years.  

 

Rashi, 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 Jaacob’s family to Egypt.35  Hence, the comment “And the fourth generation shall return here” means that only three generations will actually live in Egypt.  Thisencompasses 210 years and not 400 years.  It may be that the three types of animals cut up and the three-some of each animal brought represent these three generations.   Nevertheless, the issue is a difficult one.

 

At least two other important concepts are introduced in this section.  One is that the ten nations currently living in Canaan will deserve to be expelled - although not now but at the time of the fourth generation, since “the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then.” (Genesis 15:16)  This would be one explanation for the 400-year delay.  It also follows that just as the fate of the Amorites in Canaan is to be based on moral grounds, all the more so will the fate of the Jewish people in Canaan.

 

But what of the fate of the Israelites in Egypt?  Why do they deserve to be oppressed and enslaved?  Very soon Abraham will jump to the defense of the inhabitants of Sodom.  Why does he not do so for his own descendants?  Abraham possesses but a single unilateral covenant with God and has no obligations on his part other than to transverse the land.  He is fulfilling his part of the bargain.  Why then do the Israelites deserve to be treated so badly in Egypt? 

 

There are Jewish commentators who see the Egyptian bondage as a form of punishment that was passed on to Abraham’s seed, but this is far from being explicit in the text and seems unlikely.

 

More plausible is that this exile was God’s immutable decree.  He also decreed that it be in the form of servitude and oppression.  In this instance, Abraham was not to be privy to the details of God’s justice.  There was nothing therefore to discuss. God also provided no opening for Abraham to negotiate about the justice of His decree as He would later do for Sodom. 

 God controls history.  History is neither a series of random events nor the result of dialectic processes.  History is what God wants it to be.  And God’s historical process required a preparatory period of four hundred years before Israel would be redeemed.

 

This is not to say that the Egyptian exile is completely unfathomable and in retrospect one may attempt to find reasons.  It may be that the Jewish people had to experience the emptiness of servitude to Pharaoh to bind themselves to a new Master.  They had to experience being treated harshly as strangers in another land to appreciate how strangers should be treated when in their own promised land.  Very likely the Israelites would have assimilated in Egypt in the absence of discrimination and enforced servitude.  The exile also had to last hundreds of years since historical circumstances were not yet ripe for them to enter the land of Canaan. 

 

Abraham could have opted out.  He felt “the dread, a great darkness” even before the contract 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 is because God will bind Himself to the Jewish people and they will bind themselves to God.  How this is so, is detailed in the next blessing.  

The Fifth Blessing:  

The issue of descendants continues to prey on the couple’s minds.  Abraham listens to Sarah’s advice and has a child with her servant Hagar.  When this son, Ishmael, is 13 years old, God again appears to Abraham, but now reveals Himself under two new names encompassing two different aspects of His being - El Shaddai and Elohim, although with the majority of the blessing being revealed through the name Elokim.  The themes of this blessing are therefore very different from the previous blessings bestowed under the name YKVK.  Elokim’s concern is the general providence of mankind, while that of YKVK is the individual providence of Abraham and his descendants: 

 

And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, YKVK 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 Elokim 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) (בְּרִית)is a keyword in this passage, being repeated ten times.  Accordingly, it defines the theme of this paragraph which is about a covenant between Elokim and Abraham.  The number 10 may signify the ten generations between Noah and Abraham, since Noah also participated in a covenant with Elokim.36 

 

In His covenant with Noah, Elokim promises that He will never again destroy the earth by a flood.  The sign of that covenant was a rainbow that appropriately links heaven and earth.  Nevertheless, there is a loose end to this.  Following the flood, God admits that “the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).  What then has changed and what guarantee is there that another flood will never again be necessary?  

 

God’s solution is to repopulate the world with the offspring of Noah, and His hopes are focused in particular on the descendants of Noah’s son Shem.  Now, after ten generations, there is a descendent of Shem, Abraham, with whom He can partner to bring the ideas of ethical monotheism to the world. 

 

A thematic linkage between this passage and the covenant with Noah is established in a number of ways, in addition to both being established by Elokim.  Similar to the covenant with Abraham, the word “covenant”(brit) is a key word in the covenant with Noah and appears there seven times. The two covenants are “established” (vehakimoti) (וַהֲקִמֹתִי) rather than “cut” as in the previous covenant with YHVH.  Nevertheless, in both passages the word to “cut” is still used with reference to humanity – in the Noah passage that “all flesh” will never again be “cut off by the flood” (Genesis 9:11) and in this passage that an uncircumcised person will “be cut off from its people” (Genesis 12:1).  A “sign” also accompanies both covenants - in the covenant with Noah a rainbow and in this covenant circumcision.

 

However, in contrast to the covenant with Noah, this particular covenant is not a unilateral one, in that Abraham is expected to be a direct participant by fulfilling the directive of circumcision.  

 

This 5th blessing introduces a new name for God, encompassing a new aspect of His being – El Shadai.

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YKVK appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am El Shedai, walk before me and be perfect. (Genesis 17:1)

 

The name “El Shedai” is explained by many Jewish interpreters as being derived from the two Hebrew words “She” and “dai, which mean “that” and “sufficient”.   Accordingly its meaning is - there is sufficiency within Me for every creature and I have the wherewithal to care for you.37  

 

A different explanation is provided by Cassuto who proposes that this name is used in the Bible within the context of fertility.38  It would seem to have this meaning, for example, in the following passage from the book of Ruth:

 

Do not call me Naomi (pleasant one), call me Mara (embittered one), for Shakai has dealt very bitterly with me.  I was full when I went away, but YKVK has brought me back empty.  Why should you call me Naomi; YKVK has testified against me, and Shakai has brought misfortune upon me. (Ruth 1:20-21)

 

In this passage, Naomi recognizes that God dispenses the ability to have children but can also take it away.

 

The name El Shadai appears again in the Torah in the Jacob story when his father, Isaac, blesses Jacob before he leaves for Padam Aram.  Foremost in Isaac’s mind is that Jacob be fruitful for God’s covenant to be fulfilled:

“May Kel Shakai bless you and multiply you and make you numerous, and may you be a congregation of peoples.”(Genesis 28:3)

 

Here also, in this 5th blessing, the emphasis is on fertility: 

 

“I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be wholehearted.  I will set My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1).

 

The concept that God has a different name for His aspect of fertility may sound strange to us moderns.  Nevertheless, within the pagan world it was common that there be a chief male god of might in partnership with a female god of fertility.   The equivalent name for a God of might in the Bible is El and for the God of fertility Shaddai.  The Bible is not separating these two aspects of God but bringing them together as a single Divinity in a way that would be recognizable to people at that time.

 

Abraham’s role in this covenant is revealed at the very beginning of this passage:

“……… walk before Me and be wholehearted” (Genesis 17:1)

 

God is saying - you, Abraham, are to walk in front of me and be my representative to the world.  This should be contrasted with Noah, who walked “with” God.39  What Abraham represents is not delineated in this passage, but is mentioned in the very next section.  In brief, Abraham will teach notions of “justice and righteousness” (Genesis 13:19) to his children and they by their example will instruct the rest of the world.  God is the epitome of justice and righteousness and He needs a representative on earth who will embody His attributes and by example bring these ideas to the rest of humanity. 

 

A number of interpretations of the phrase “wholehearted”(tamim) have been proposed.  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 YKVK your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).  Just as you are to avoid magical practices and retain your trust in Me, so also are you to walk before Me and maintain your belief in Me.40  Interestingly, this passage is introduced by YKVK.  

 What is the purpose of this covenant?  Or to put the question another way - circumcision is to be a “sign of the covenant” (Genesis 17:11), but what is it a sign of?   

 

The following is a list of the seven promises made by Elokim in the order in which they appear in the text:

#1 - you shall be the father of a multitude of nations 

#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 

#3 - I will make you exceeding fruitful,

#4 - and I will make nations of you, 

#5 - and kings shall descend from you

#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.

#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.”

 

These seven promises are written in a crescendo form, building up to the last two promises which form the apex of the crescendo.  The basis of this covenant is for Elokim “throughout their generations …..  to be a God to you and to your offspring after you,” (Genesis 17:7) and that in “all the land of Canaan……….. I will be a God to them” (Genesis 17:8).

 

Elokim is forging a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants by promising to be a God to them.41  At first glance these two sentences seem similar to each other, but they do in fact express very different ideas.  In the last but one sentence, Elokim promises to be a God to Abraham and his seed forever and this would include periods of exile.  In the last sentence, He also promises to be their eternal God – but in the land of Canaan.42   In essence, He asserts that He will be their God throughout the entirety of Jewish history.

 

Elohim also promises Abraham that this covenant also will bring beneficence in its wake.  First, and God has pointed this out previously within His aspect of YKVK, Abraham’s seed will become extremely numerous.  However, the reason for this is different than when promised under the aspect of YKVK.  For YKVK, Abraham’s descendants are to become a large nation so that they can populate the land of Canaan.  In this covenant given by Elokim, they are to be fruitful in order to fulfill their universal mission.  

 Another promise of God is that “you [Abraham] shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4)    

 

Who are these nations?  The answer is by no means clear from the text.  Many commentators assume they are to be the descendants of Isaac and that the Bible is talking exclusively about the Jewish people.43   However,these “nations” could also be the nations that Abraham will father.  He has already fathered Ishmael.  The reader will learn shortly that he is to father Isaac.  When Sarah dies, Abraham will father children from a second wife Katurah.  These and the offspring of Ishmael will leave Canaan to go southwards into the Arabian Peninsula.  The offspring of Isaac will remain in Canaan, but a branch of this family will go eastwards to form the nation of Edom.  

 

Abraham’s siring in his old age is fully elaborated in the Torah and there must be messages here.  One is that these tribes have a place in the Near East just as do the offspring of Isaac.  Another may be that these nations were once raised in the household of Abraham and would have picked up religious sparks from their upbringing.  Some time in the future, they will seek their true roots and by embracing his ideas will once again become part of the extended Abrahamic family.  The commonalty of nations rather than their differences also flows from the story of Noah and his forming the common ancestry of man. 

 

Abraham’s extended family is much larger though than its biological one, and the next verses have symbolic as well as their literal meaning:

“….. 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.” (Genesis 17:4)

 

Previously, Abraham was called “Avram,” a father of Aram.  He is now to be called “Abraham” - a father of “a multitude of nations.”44  Not only will he be the biological father to many nations but also a spiritual father to an even greater number of people.  

 

A convert to Judaism is called “a child of Abraham.”  Islam and Christianity also consider themselves spiritual heirs to Abraham’s legacy.  The Koran establishes its Abrahamic lineage through Ishmael.  Christianity views Abraham as an important exemplar of faith and a spiritual and possibly a physical ancestor of Jesus.45  In the theology of Paul, all who believe in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham.  

 

Abraham will also become the progenitor of kings:

and I will make nations of you, and kings shall descend from you.” (Genesis 17:6)

 

The term “kings” implies sovereignty and power.  Your offspring will not be a small and insignificant people tucked away in a remote corner of the world but a major and powerful actor on the world scene in one of the central locations on the globe, between the two great superpowers of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

This covenant established by Elokim is also to be an eternal one:  “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant ……..”  (Genesis 17:7)  Other aspects of eternity are also stressed throughout this passage.  The land of Canaan will belong to the Jewish people forever: “ ……  the land of your sojourns, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession ……….” (Genesis 17:8)  Circumcision is also to “be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13)  There will always be circumcised Jews in the world because God’s covenant with Abraham is eternal and His representatives need to be eternally here on earth.

 

Israel’s contribution to this contract, circumcision, is detailed in verses 9 to 14.   Circumcision is to be not only a “sign of a covenant between Me and you,” but an aspect of the covenant itself.  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.” (Genesis 17:14) 

 

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.46  Clearly, it is not an overt symbol, but every Jew knows that he has the circumcision engraved in his flesh and that his connection to God has been “signed” in a blood ceremony.  He is now marked for the mission statement of the Jewish people – to stand before God as His representative to the world to promote justice and righteousness.

 

There are Jewish commentators who view circumcision in terms of self-improvement.  For example, a person will see his circumcision and remember that his sexual organ can be used for both good and evil.47  This may be true, but it is not the primary purpose of this Elokim-directed command.  Moreover, it is not coincidence that circumcision of the sex organ is commanded in a passage which gives prominence to the themes of fertility and offspring.

 

Circumcision is also performed on the 8th day after birth.48  The number 8 in the Bible has the connotation of being one level above the holy.  This is because the act of circumcision binds the Jew in the strongest way possible to a holy purpose.  

 

Circumcision was certainly known in the ancient world.  It was practiced in ancient Egypt and may have been a mark of distinction of the elite.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the sun god Ra as having circumcised himself.  The priests of Egypt may also have practiced circumcision.49  If this is so, then the Jewish people are being marked for a priestly function to the nations of the world.  The Bible will be more explicit about this in the Book of Exodus by calling on the Israelites to become a nation of priests.50

 

 It is very noteworthy that there is considerable difference between the extent of God’s territorial gift in this 5th blessing and the previous one.  In this Elokim-bestowed blessing, Abraham is promised the “whole of the land of Canaan” (Genesis 17:8), whereas in the previous YKVK blessing he is promised “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River” (Genesis 15:18).  What accounts for this difference?

 

The “land of Canaan” is first defined early in Genesis:

“Canaan begot Zidon, his first born, and Heth; and the Jebusite, the Amorite, the Girgashite, the Hivite, the Arkite, the Sinite, the Arvadite, the Zemarite and the Hamatite.  Afterwards, the families of the Canaanites branched out.  And the Canaanite border extended from Zidon going towards Gerar as far as Gaza, going towards Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (Genesis 10:15-19)

 

The land of Canaan is the territory in which Canaan, the grandson of Noah, and his descendants lived.  Zidon was in the north and encompassed a large area in Lebanon, and Gerar was its southern border.  This city is close to Gaza, but further inland and somewhat to the south of Gaza.  

 

The Canaanites will live in the coastal plain of the land of Canaan otherwise not occupied by the Philistines, the lowlands (shfela) of Canaan and its valleys, and the Jordan valley.  The other tribes will inhabit the central mountain range.  Hence, the “land of Canaan” is the land whose perimeter is the territory of the Canaanites and whose central core is occupied by these other tribes.  This entire area is to become the territory of the Israelites and will be apportioned to the Israelite tribes.

 The borders of the “land of Canaan” are defined in more detail in Numbers chapter 34, while the more extensive borders are mentioned again in Exodus 23:29-31 and in the book of Deuteronomy (7:22, 11:22-24, 19:8-9).  

 This difference in territorial borders is a reflection of the ideas that the names for God Elokim and YKVK are promoting.  

 

This 5th blessing given by Elokim is about the eternity of the Jewish people and its role in world history.  The “land of Canaan”, what will in future be called the Land of Israel, is to be their core possession.  This is where the forefathers walked, set up religious monuments, and prayed to God.  This is the territory that defines the Jewish people among the nations of the world, just as the territory of the seventy nations of the world defines them.  As chapter 10 states on four occasions regarding the descendants of Shem, Ham and Yaphet  “ – ……. each according to its language, by their families, in their nations.”  The “land of Canaan” is where the language of the Jewish people will be heard and where their families and tribes will reside.  These are their religious/international borders, and these are the borders that like a magnet will pull the Jewish people whenever they are in exile.

 

By contrast, the borders in the previous blessing are geo-political borders.  Israel can expand beyond its core territory whenever there is national consensus, and eventually its power and influence will extend from Egypt to Mesopotamia.  This is not a directive but permission to do so, and God through His aspect of YKVK will help them achieve this.  In fact, the Israelites already began establishing these greater borders early in their history by capturing the east bank of the Jordan at the time of Moses.  Considerable expansion of territory was also achieved in the time of King David.

 

Prior to being given the fourth blessing, Abraham finds himself involved in local politics and conflict and successfully attacks invading forces from Mesopotamia to rescue his nephew Lot.  This is not an irrelevant side-story to the biblical narrative.  Without intention, Abraham suddenly finds himself a regional power with an empire extending from close to Egypt up to Mesopotamia.  At this point, he does not have the resources to keep this empire together – and almost certainly no desire either – but he is pointing out to later generations that it is part of YKVK’s design that Israel become a regional power between the empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt. 

 

Joshua was well aware of these two promises.  He entered Canaan with the explicit purpose of capturing the land of Canaan and distributing it to the twelve tribes. But this did not limit the possibilities.  As the YKVK aspect of God says to Joshua:

 

Every place upon which the sole of your foot will march I have given to you, as I have spoken to Moses.  From the desert and this Lebanon to the great river, the Euphrates River, all the land of the Hittites to the Mediterranean Sea westward will be your boundary.  No man will challenge you all the days of your life …. (Joshua 1:-6)  

 

The sixth blessing:  

 

The sixth blessing is connected to the fifth blessing by its thematic content.  Nevertheless, in the Torah scroll it is separated from the previous blessing by a paragraph gap and should therefore be considered a separate blessing. 

 

At long last, Abraham is told by Elokim that he will have a son through Sarah and she also will give rise to “nations” and “kings”.  

And Elokim said to Abraham: 'As for Sarai thy wife, do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name.  I will bless her, and I will also give her a son through her; I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples will be from her.'” (Genesis 17:15-16)

 

“Sarai” means my princess and may have been a form of endearment.51 Her name is now to become “Sarah”, a princess to everyone.

 

Abraham falls on his face in subjugation, and laughs to himself in wonderment (although not in disbelief).  Sarah is well passed the age of giving birth to children.  Abraham suggests that Ishmael be chosen instead - to which Elokim replies:

Indeed Sarah your wife shall bear you a son; and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.  As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.  But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time the next year. ' And He finished speaking with Him, and Elokim ascended from upon Abraham.” (Genesis 17:19-22)

 

Bible critics have noted that the couple are told twice about Sarah’s impending pregnancy, once here and again in the very next section.  There, Abraham and Sarah are informed by one of the three angels of YKVK that in a year’s time Sarah will have a son.  Sara is listening through the tent wall and the intent is clearly that she should hear this news.  This suggests to these scholars that two different textual sources exist regarding Sarah’s pregnancy.   

 

But this so-called duplication can be readily explained.  In the first instance, the communication was to Abraham alone and was via Elokim.  This is because Isaac’s birth has universal implications.  Now husband and wife are informed as a couple by the angels of YKVK about this future pregnancy.  This communication has personal and tribal implications, but not a universal one, and is part of the two YKVK and Elokim stories winding their way through the book of Genesis.

 

This son to be named Isaac will be circumcised at eight days of age so that he is firmly grounded in the covenant and it is only appropriate that this covenant be concluded prior to this son being born. 

 

The full implications of the Abraham story are now coming together.  Why were Abraham and Sarah told to leave Haran in their old age?  Clearly, no age is too late to confront spiritual challenges.  Prior to God communicating with him at age 75, Abraham may well have concluded that he had led a meaningful life and little remained for him to accomplish.  If he had thought this – he was mistaken.  The most consequential aspects of his life were yet to come.

 

Yet there is also another far-reaching message this passage wishes to convey and which could only result from Abraham and Sarah being called on at an old age.   The birth of Isaac is unnatural.  The Bible does not call it this in plain terms, but describes it as a Abraham laughing in wonderment and his son being called Isaac from the same word to laugh.  Postmenopausal women do not have children.  

 

This very much points to the future, since the promulgation of the Jewish people is also destined to be unnatural.  Even in situations of physical and/or spiritual bondage, the Jewish people will have children.  This is not how the world naturally functions.  People who are oppressed become extinct.  And they certainly do not flourish.  Yet the exact opposite happens to the Jewish people.  Even after a catastrophic holocaust they rise again.  The world will never run out of Jews.  This is part of the Elokim-directed covenant.  

 

The Bible is also setting up here the parameters by which the relationship between God and the Jewish people will proceed in the future.  For most nations children come naturally.  This is how the world works.   Most nations are also endogenous to a land.  Their country of birth defines their nationality and that country has been linked to that nationality from time immemorial.  But this is not how it is to be for Abraham and his descendants.  Everything is to be a gift from God and has to be earned – children, land, and even agricultural sustenance on this land.  

 Unlike the pagan deities, YKVK is not satisfied with occasional homage.  He wants a nation that is God-centered and is cognizant of the fact that everything they have is not a natural right but a Divine gift.   This is part of what it means to be bound to God.

 

The seventh blessing 

 The seventh blessing takes place at the end of the Binding of Isaac story and is the crescendo to the previous six blessings.   For the sake of God, Abraham was prepared to sabotage his inheritance.  God will now bless these descendants.  They will be fruitful, successful against their enemies, and a source of admiration and emulation from the nations of the world.  This will be discussed again in more detail on the chapter about the Binding of Isaac.

 

Conclusions

 

The seven blessings bestowed upon Abraham by YKVK and Elokim are clearly prophetic in nature.  

 They have also all come true.   

 

Have there been circumcised Jews in the world for most of the almost 4,000 years since Abraham came to Canaan?  This is undoubtedly the case.    Did Abraham did become the spiritual “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5) – in effect of a good proportion of the world?  It is difficult to argue otherwise.  Do the former tribes of Israel currently have jurisdiction over much of the former land of Canaan?  This is also incontrovertible.

 

Yet there is an additional layer of prophecy contained within the Abraham stories.  Everything that Abraham did will have significance in terms of later Jewish history  - his travels and religious acts in the land of Canaan, and even his and his wife’s laughter on learning about Sarah’s future pregnancy.  

 

Nevertheless, the concept that ““the deeds of the forefathers are a portend to their children.” is philosophically a very difficult one.  Does this mean that the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stories are not authentic stories, but more in the way of symbolic accounts about fictitious people?  This is difficult to fit into the Bible’s narrative, which repeatedly describes the forefathers as real historical figures.  More likely is that God’s intentions for Abraham and Abraham’s desire to fulfill God’s will were so completely, that in effect the Biblical stories became expressions of God’s will.

 

Moreover, given their prophetic nature it is not surprising that many aspects of the Abraham stories reverberate to this day.  

 

The land of Canaan was given to Abraham and yet was occupied by other people.  Today also Israel has sovereignty over much of Judea and Samaria, but another people occupy the land. 

 

The Zionist venture has always required a considerable amount of trust.  To think that a people could arise from near annihilation and establish a vibrant state was never an entirely logical proposition.  Even today more missiles are aimed at Israel from its borders than anywhere else in the world.  Its external problems seem formidable and even insoluble.  Yet the message of the Abraham stories is that God, working through history, will resolve these problems provided the Jewish people maintain their trust in Him. 

 

The seven blessings with their accompanying stories concern themselves in the main with matters of faith and history.  But what of the values that Abraham practiced?  These will be the subject matter of the next essay.

 

References

1.  Nachmanides commentary to the Torah on Genesis 12:9.  Based on Bereishis Raba 40:6, he shows that Abraham’s visit to Egypt has many similarities to the Egyptian exile.  He also mentions in his Introduction to the book of Exodus that “all the events in the lives of [the Patriachs] are illustrations to allude to and to foretell all that would come upon [their offspring] in the future.”

2.   Midrash Rabba 39:1

3.Mishnah Torah, Laws of Idol Worship 1:3

4.   There is a Rabbinic tradition that Malchizedek is to be identified with Shem, the son of Noah (TB Nedarim 32b, Midrash Tehillim 76:3, Targum Yonasan, and Rashi to 14:18).  Nevertheless, the question still stands.

5.Bereishis Rabbah 38:13.  Also Rashi to Genesis 11:28 who suggests that Ur of the Chaldeans means “fire of Chaldea”.

6.Babylonian Talmud Berachos 7b.  

7.Midrash Raba 39:6 applies the following verse from Psalms 45:8 to Abraham: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore has Elokim your God appointed you with oil of joy from among your peers.”  What is meant “from among your peers”?  States the midrash: from Noah to you there were ten generations, and I never spoke with any one of them except for you.

8.Rashi to Genesis 12:1. Not everything pleasurable is beneficial and not everything beneficial is pleasurable.  Your journey will be both.  Comment of the Amar N’kei quoted by Artscroll Series.The Sapirstein Edition. Rashi/ Commentary on the Torah. Vol 1 – Bereishis/ Genesis. Mesorah Publications Ltd.

9.First Paragraph. The Lord’s Command and Promises, Chapter XII in Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two, from Noah to Abraham by Umberto Cassuto, p310, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1977.  Cassuto rejects the explanation of Rashi as meaning for his own benefit as other verses in the Bible do not fit this explanation.  For example: “Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way (vayelech lo) to his own country. (Exodus 18:27).  When Joshua instructs the tribes whose home is in Transjordan to take leave of the other tribes and return to their tribal possession he says: “and now turn and go on your way (lechu lachem) in the land where your possession lies.” ( Joshua 22;4)  He also provides other examples.  Hirsch and Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik have similar explanations to this. (Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Sefer Bereishis, p72, OU Press).  Nachmanides, on the other hand, assigns no particular significance to this form of the verb and assumes it to be common idiomatic Hebrew usage.  

10. Genesis 15:5.

11. Nachmanide’s commentary to the Torah on Genesis 12:2.

12.Midrash Raba 39:11.  Examples given by the midrash are a person who wanted to buy a cow from Abraham would be blessed even before the value of the cow had been assessed.  Abraham would pray for a barren woman and the woman would conceive.  However, there are other suggestions from the commentators.  Rashi for example, following a midrash, suggests that Abraham will have the power of blessing in his hands. However, there is no evidence from elsewhere in the Bible that bestowing blessing on others was important to Abraham.  Radak suggests that the phrase “and you shall be a blessing” is not an imperative but a promise.   

13. The notion that all the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham is repeated In Genesis 18:18.  In that passage, it is linked to Abraham’s practice of righteousness and justice.

14. Nachmanides commentary to the Torah on Genesis 12:1.  Nachmanides suggests that Abraham wandered from country to country and only when God told him that this was the land intended did he stop his journey. 

15.Where was Abraham born?  The Bible is very clear on the matter: “Haran died in the presence of Terah his father, in his native land, in Ur Kasdim.” (Genesis 11:28)  From archeological work carried out from the 1800’s and onwards, we know that the ancient city of Ur was located in southern Mesopotamia at the convergence of the Euphrates and Tigris.   At one time, it was the largest city in the ancient world.  It also was on the coast and therefore a port; but the coastline has since moved further into the ocean and the ruins of Ur are now inland.  The “Chaldeans” of “Ur of the Chaldeans” are a Semitic tribe who invaded Ur at the end of the 7th century BCE.   By a century later, Ur was ruled by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon and by about 500 BCE the city had become inhabited.  The Chaldean occupation of Ur was therefore of fairly limited duration.  If we take the date of the Exodus as 1406 BCE or thereabouts and the Covenant of the Pieces 430 years earlier, then Abraham lived in about the 1800’s BCE, i.e. in the Middle Bronze Age II period.  In other words, there is a discrepancy of about 1,200 years between the Biblical and historical Ur.  How then is it possible for Abraham to have left a Chaldean Ur?  Three possibilities have been suggested by scholars.   One is that the Bible was redacted during a later period of history and the name “Ur of the Chaldeans” is an anachronism.  This would also date the redaction of the Pentateuch to sometime from the 7th century BCE onwards.  Against this it could be argued that the redactors of the Bible must surely have know that the Chaldeans were in Ur for a limited period and they were introducing a very obvious anachronism into the Biblical text with no good reason for doing so.  Alternatively, the name Chaldeans could have been a later edition to an earlier written text, although again it is unclear what this addition was adding, since it is likely that Ur was sufficiently well known that it did not require this type of identification.  The third possibility, and this is the suggestion favored by this author, is that the Bible was written shortly after the Exodus as the Bible describes and Ur Kasdim is not the ancient southern Mesopotamian city of Ur.  This is, in fact, the position of many Jewish commentators.  The Talmud, Maimonides, Josephus and the Book of Jubilees, for example, all describe locations in Assyria and south-east Anatolia for Ur of the Chaldeans.  The Book of Jubilees writes that: “Ur son of Keśed built the city of Ara of the Chaldees, and called its name after his own name and the name of his father"(Jubilees 11:3).   These sources are of interest not necessarily because of their accuracy, but because they all indicate that they were prepared to consider other locations for Ur other than southern Mesopotamia.  On the other hand, these commentaries were all written when Ur was no longer inhabited and it is possible that they were unaware of this city’s existence.  However, there are other good reasons to consider a southern Mesopotamian Ur of the Chaldees as being unlikely.  Southern Mesopotamia is the habitation of the descendants of Ham, whereas the descendants of Shem lived in present day Turkey, Iran, and Northern Iraq.  According to Genesis 10:22-31, the five sons of Shem were Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.  Abraham was one of the descendants of Arphaxad (Genesis 11:12-25)  Josephus suggests that these five sons gave rise to the nations of Elam, Assyria, Chaldea, Lydia and Levantine.  An Ur of the Chaldeans in southern Mesopotamia also leads to a very obvious contradiction in the Biblical text.  While in Haran, Abraham is told to leave “your birthplace” (moladtecho).  Also, when requesting his servant Eliezer to take a wife for his son Isaac, he tells him to go to Haran “to my land and my birthplace (moladeti) shall you go and take a wife for my son, for Isaac” (Genesis 24:4).  But earlier “his birthplace” (moladato) is referred to as Ur of the Chaldeans.43  Also, in the Covenant between the Pieces, God takes responsibility for taking Abraham from Ur Kasdim: “And he said: I am YKVK Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit.” (Genesis 15:7).   So where is his birthplace – is it Haran or is it Ur of the Chaldeans?  Cassuto solves this problem by suggesting that the word “moledet” means not birthplace, as commonly translated, but kindred or family circle and he brings other examples of its use in this way in the Bible.(Tenth paragraph, the history of Terah in ACommentary on the Book of Genesis , Part Two, from Noah to Abraham, p273)   Both places are the land of his kindred and the contradiction disappears.  However, the contradiction also disappears if one assumes that Haran and Ur of the Chaldeans were both in the same geographical area - in Aram.  

16.See Hosea 4:13:  “They sacrifice on the mountain tops and burn offerings on the hills under oak, poplar and terebinth where the shade is pleasant.”

17. Rashi, on the basis of Bereishis Rabba 39:1 and Sanhedrin 99b comments on the phrase “and the souls that they had made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5) that Abraham would convert the men and Sarah would convert the women and bring them under the wings of the Divine Presence.  The notion that Abraham was an outreach worker for monotheism is an attractive one, but there is nothing in the text to support it and one would have to conclude that Abraham was unsuccessful in his efforts to build up a following, since one hears nothing about one explicitly in the text.  It would, in any case, have been difficult for a nomad to develop a wandering commune. 

18. It would seem from the book of Joshua that the Israelites came to Shechem early in their military campaign soon after capturing Ai and were able to reach it with impunity (Joshua 8:30-35)  Strangely, perhaps, the book of Joshua makes no mention of Shechem being captured.  The king of Shechem did not participate in any of the alliances against the Israelites and his name is not listed among the 31 kings defeated by Joshua’s forces (Joshua:12).  Whether the city was unoccupied or whether the king cooperated with the Israelites or perhaps stayed neutral is not mentioned.  Shechem is mentioned in the Armana letters written in about 1350 BCE, and these include letters from the king of Shechem to the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Shechem was then clearly still a Canaanite city.  Interestingly, these letters from the king of Shechem mention rebelling “Habiru” in the countryside, and another letter mentions that he had recruited “Habiru” as mercenaries.  The identity of these “Habiru” is a controversial topic.  Those scholars who argue for a 12th century Exodus obviously do not accept the Habiru as having any relevance to the Israelites.  However, those who accept a much earlier Exodus do see a possible connection and it is very possible that the “Habiru” were Israelites.  The Armana letters do mention a close relationship between the king of Shechem and the “Habiru” and it is possible that rather than fight them the king of Shechem entered into some sort of alliance with the Israelites, or more likely he had a non-interference policy with respect to Israelites visiting and settling in the vicinity of his city.  In a way, the Arnana letters and the vagueness of the Book of Joshua regarding the status of Shechem complement each other and suggest that the situation vis-a-vis Shechem was not the same as for other Canaanite cities  - although this may not have been a fact that the Israelites wished to record for posterity.  On the other hand, the Book of Joshua does mention that no city made peace with Joshua except for Gibeon and this is hard to square with an alliance (Joshua 11:19). 

19. Jacob bought land from the ruler of Shechem when he returned from Paddan-Aram and also built an altar there.  Under its trees, Jacob buried the alien gods still in the possession of his family.   Shechem is nestled between the two mountains of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.  Mount Gerizim is luscious and green, while Mount Ebel is less so.  The Bible instructed that blessings and curses be pronounced on these two mountains once the Israelites arrived in Canaan and they were to erect great plastered stones with words of Torah and an altar on Mount Ebal.  The book of Joshua records that this is indeed what Joshua did  (Joshua 8:30-35)

20. Genesis 12:8.

21. Genesis 13:3-4.

22.  Exodus 34:5.

23. The Tanach Study Center. Parshat Lech L’Cha – Part Two. Shiurim in Chumash and Navi by Menachem Leibtag. www.tanach.org.

24. Babylonian Talmud, Bava Basra 100a.

25. Maimonides rules in his Mishna Torah (Mishna Torah, Hilchos Terumos chapter 1) that only land captured by the people, as in the days of Joshua, has the agricultural laws of the land of Israel incumbent upon it, such as tithing.  Land captured by an individual, even if part of the inheritance of Abraham, would not have these laws.

26.  This is one of the explanations provided by Nachmanides.  In support of this, the Talmud states (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zarah 53b): It is an inheritance to them (the Israelites entering the land of Canaan) from their forefathers.  Hence, the Talmud understands that the land belonged to the Jewish people even prior to the conquest of Canaan.  There is also an opinion in the Talmud (Bava Basra 100b) that just traversing the land was adequate to acquire it. 

27.  Ai was the second place attacked by the Israelites after the destruction of Jericho.  (Joshua 8:10–17; 12:7-9, 16)  The capture of Ai set the stage for the surrender of Gibeon when its inhabitants set up a subterfuge to appear as if they had come from afar and made a peace treaty with Joshua.  Gibeon was also of considerable strategic importance, being at the crossroad of the major north-south road as well as an important east-west road.  The Israelites also conquered and settled in Beth El (Joshua 12;9-16, 16:1-2).  There is still debate as to the location of Bet El, but it may well be the present Arab villages of Beitin or El Birah.  This town is also strategically located on the narrow central mountain range, with a connecting road heading eastwards to Jericho. Beth El would also continue to have considerable religious significance to Abraham’s family.  Jacob slept in Beth El on his way to Padam Aram and had a vision there of angels on a ladder ascending and descending between heaven and earth.  He also made a conditional oath to God that he would tithe his possessions and return to offer sacrifices there if God allowed him to successfully return to Canaan.  When he did return to Canaan, this was to be his second stop and he built an altar there and God appeared to him again (Genesis 35:6-15).  The Israelites sanctuary was first erected in Shiloh (Joshua 18:1-3), but shortly thereafter Beth El became one of the places in Canaan were the ark was set up and the priests offered sacrifices there (Judges 20:18, 26–28; 21:2).

28.  R’ Joseph Solveichik explains that  Abraham was continually performing acts that bound himself eternally to the land such as building sacrificial altars and digging a grave for his wife  (Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Bereishis, p84, OU Press).   

29. The details of the covenantal ceremony are translated here as “Bring Me three heifers, three she-goats and three rams, and a turtle-dove and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9) -  but this may not be the precise translation.  The Bible reads that each animal is to be brought as “a heifer meshuleshet (מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת), she-goat meshuleshet (מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת) and ram meshulash (מְשֻׁלָּשׁ).”  The word meshulash (מְשֻׁלָּשׁ) is related to the word three.  Kimchi translates it as a 3-year old animal.   Others, a 3-year old from the womb.  The translation adopted here is a three-some.  

30.This is just one of several interpretations of this phrase but it seems to be the most literal with respect to the text.  Midrashic explanations, and this is the direction followed by Rashi, suggest that he was worried that he had already received reward for his righteousness.  This means that he could expect no further Divine assistance and would be punished for the lives he had taken or would receive no further assistance from God if there were a reprisal attack.  Nachmanides suggests he might die without children.  

31.There is a view in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 32a) that Abraham’s question was improper and because of this 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 answers through the merit of the sacrificial offerings (Rashi to 15:6).  The Talmud also feels 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 (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 31b). 

32.This approaches the interpretation of the Radak. 

33.Rashi to Genesis 15:9, based on Bereishis Rabbah 44:14.

34.Nachmanides to Genesis 15:13  

35.Rashi regards Isaac and Jacob as being offspring who will be sojourners in a land not their own.  Following Seder Olam, his chronology is 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 210 years.  On the other hand, we have argued that Canaan was already deeded to Abraham.  Plus, the Bible itself states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40).  These remain difficulties.

36.Genesis 9:8-17.

37. Rashi to Genesis 17:1 as explained by Be’er Yitzchak.  This is also the explanation of Rav Saadia Gaon.  Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik takes a different approach and explains that God’s creation is not fully complete, but God will partner with Abraham and they will both be creators (Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Bereishis, OU Press).   Luzzatto suggests that the name comes from the three-letter root shin daled daled, and notes that the Arabic word shadid means strong.  Hence, its meaning would be Omnipotent God.  This is similar to the explanation of Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra of Mighty God.

38.Section Five. Prelude to Successful Action in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, p78. Varda Books, Skokie, Illinois 2005.

39.Rashi to Genesis 6:9.

40.Nachmanides commentary to the Torah on Genesis 17:1.  A midrash, on the other hand, sees circumcision as bringing a repair of a physical perfection (Bereishis Rabba 6:1).  Rashi follows up on this.  Rashi also brings another explanation that this is a command and that Abraham is to be complete or wholehearted in the trials to which he will be subjected.  This could be referring specifically to the command of circumcision (Be’er Yitzchak). 

41.Rashi to Genesis 17:7.

42.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 Babylonian Talmud, Kesubos 110b. 

43.Rashi suggests that its meaning is 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 nations as tribes.  Radak suggest that the reference is to the descendants of Keturah who married Abraham after Sarah died.

44.Hoffman notes that in ancient Arabic the word “raham” means a multitude and suggests that although this word is not currently used in Hebrew it may once have been part of the Jewish lexicon.

45.New Testament, Rom 4:9-12

46.Sefer Hachinuch 2.

47.Kuzari 3:7.

48.Genesis 17:12

49. The Book of Genesis.  A Commentary by Shadal (S.D. Luzzatto) translated by Daniel A. Klein, p157.  James Aranson Inc. to Genesis 17.9

50. “You will be for me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19.6).

51. Rashi in his commentary to Genesis 17:15 quotes the Babylonian Talmud, Berochos 13a, that Sarah was a princess not only to Abraham but also to his people.

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