The Covenant in the Midst of the Parasha
With this week's Torah reading of Parashat Lekh lekha, the story of the people of Israel begins in earnest. Summoned forth from their Mesopotamian birthplace, asked to abandon kith and kin, called upon to initiate an odyssey that would change the course of human history forever, Avram and Sarai answer God's beckon and journey westwards towards the promise of Canaan. Accompanied by Avram's loyal nephew Lot, the couple arrive in their new land, hear God's assurance and build an altar to His name, but famine soon forces them to descend to Egypt. There, in accordance with a pattern that soon colors all of their peregrinations, they are confronted by the whims of a powerful ruler whose moral development lags far behind his temporal might. Pharaoh attempts to seize the beautiful Sarai but Divine intervention thwarts his designs.
The faithful couple are sent on their way and return to Canaan, but scarcely do they arrive when hostility again breaks out, this time between the shepherds of Lot and those of Avram his uncle, concerning respective rights to grazing lands. Showing the magnanimity that is to characterize all of his future interpersonal interactions, Avram concedes, allowing Lot to choose the fertile southern Jordan valley as his own.
Unexpectedly, another clash then erupts, this one of international dimensions. The five vassal kings of the Dead Sea region, among whom Lot has staked his future, rebel against their four eastern overlords, inviting a quick and punitive response. Suddenly, the armies of the four sweep through Canaan, easily overwhelming the petty rulers of Sodom and its satellites, and Lot is taken captive. Avram, his tent at the time pitched in the picturesque hill country of Chevron, is informed of the matter and rallies the men of his household to counterattack. Surprisingly, the four kings are repulsed, Lot is rescued, and upon his return, Avram is welcomed as a hero.
THE THEME OF CONFLICT
The early episodes of the Parasha, therefore, can all be said to relate to the theme of confrontation. The aging couple seems to invariably bring out the worst in regional rulers, family members and even far-off potentates, for every step of Avram and Sarai in their new land is dogged by disagreement and divergence! Why is it that whomsoever crosses their path sooner or later engages them in heated combat, verbal or otherwise? The answer, of course, is to be found not in a misguided analysis of their character but rather in a clear understanding of their values. While those values have yet to be fully articulated, one thing is apparent even at this early stage of the account. Avram and Sarai represent God, the transcendent and absolute Deity, the Author of a system of values that brooks no compromise with either regal prerogative or else popular license. No man, be he commoner or god king, is above the law or the teaching of the Creator; no man can decide for himself, in accordance with the accelerated beating of his wayward heart, which moral values to embrace and when to embrace them.
It is therefore no wonder that Avram and Sarai arouse such enmity, for they espouse revolutionary teachings concerning a single, all-powerful and transcendent Creator who demands moral consistency while rejecting avarice, injustice, and duplicity. How many people, especially powerful people, then as well as now, are prepared to embrace such norms?
All of the above serves as a fitting introduction to the pivot point of the Parasha, the central narrative that conveniently divides the Parasha down the middle. On the one hand are the preliminary encounters with angry kings and estranged family, on the other the unfulfilled prayers of the couple for offspring and subsequent encounters with more estranged family, this time Hagar and Yishma'el! And right in between, like an eerie fulfillment of its name, is the cryptic account of the "Brit bein HaBetarim" or Covenant Amid the Pieces (Bereishit chapter 15).
THE CONTEXT OF THE COVENANT
This charged ceremony unfolds in the immediate aftermath of his victory over the four eastern kings. Avram, in response to his own doubts concerning God's pledge to secure Canaan for him and his descendents, is enjoined to gather together a series of animals – a calf, a goat, and a sheep – and to divide them. A couple of doves, although prepared for the occasion, are not divided. Suddenly a vulture appears in the sky, now attempting to peck at the corpses, but Avraham succeeds in driving it off. However, as darkness gathers and dusk descends, Avram is accorded a dreadful vision. A great and fearful slumber falls upon him as God proclaims that his descendents will suffer harsh oppression in a foreign land far from Canaan for an interminable period of four centuries. "You shall surely know that your descendents will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall oppress them and afflict them, for a period of four hundred years…" (Bereishit 15:13). But in the end, God announces, after four generations, they will go free with great substance to possess their land, while Avram himself is assured that he will die a peaceful death unmarred by the troubling future events. As the Divine vision dissipates, "a smoking furnace and flaming fire passed between these divided pieces," correctly surmised by Rashi (11th century, France) to have constituted "a representation of God's manifest presence that is likened to fire" (commentary to 15:10).
What is the significance of this vision? How are we to understand its constituent parts? Why are these animals selected and why are they divided? Why are the birds left intact? What is the meaning of the hovering vulture? Although the details seem puzzling, the episode as a whole is straightforward enough – it is about the sealing of a treaty. In this passage, "God concluded a covenant with Avram saying: to your descendents will I give this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river Euphrates" (15:18). From Biblical and external sources, it emerges that treaties between parties were often concluded in just such a manner, by dividing up creatures and passing between the halves. The ceremony was meant to impress upon the parties the seriousness of their commitments, and to graphically illustrate the penalties that could be expected for non-fulfillment of the treaty's provisions. For instance, when the First Temple prophet Yirmiyahu criticizes the peoples' lack of integrity and fidelity to God, for having solemnly sworn to free their indentured servants and then brazenly reneged on the oath, he invokes an analogous image:
Therefore thus says God: you did not listen to Me to proclaim liberty for your brethren and fellows; therefore, I will proclaim liberty against you, says God, for the sword, the pestilence and the famine, and I will make you abhorrent in the eyes of all of the kingdoms of the world. The ones who transgressed My covenant and did not uphold the words of the covenant that they concluded before Me, the calf that they divided and then passed through the halves, the rulers of Yehuda and the rulers of Jerusalem, the eunuchs and the Kohanim as well as the leaders who passed between the halves of the calf, I will turn all of them over to their enemies and to those that desire to kill them…(Yirmiyahu 34:17-20).
INTIMATIONS OF ETERNITY
In our context therefore, God seals a treaty with Avram and with his descendents. He will be their God and will one day give them the land of Canaan as their own, while Avram and his descendents will uphold His commands and will represent Him in the world at large. At the same time, God indicates to the patriarch that his descendents will not secure their land before they have been forged into a nation, through the transformative experience of suffering servitude and oppression in a foreign land, namely Egypt. But for the medieval commentaries, there is more here than the conclusion of a pact concerning the Exodus and the acquisition of Canaan. While each one of them interprets the various elements of the ceremony in differing ways, a rough consensus seems to exist among them – the Covenant Amid the Pieces carries an eternal message concerning Israel's unique mission in the world, and alludes to the special staying powers that they will require in order to endure so that they might fulfill it.
As the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 13th century Provenחe) explains:
The reason for dividing the creatures, as part of the covenant that He concluded with him, was to suggest that all of the nations that dealt harshly with Israel will be divided (among themselves) and in dispute. They shall oppose each other and shall fight each other until they are destroyed. So too shall they be at odds concerning their teachings and beliefs, for this itself causes animosity and rivalry so that they might destroy each other. But not so Israel. Though there was a short period of conflict between Efraim and Yehuda, their teachings and beliefs remained unified, and in the Messianic Era they will again be unified without jealousy or rancor…
The birds symbolize the dispersion of Israel to the four corners of the heavens, but they are still one people! All of them cleave unto their teachings and beliefs, and from east to west they share a single heritage, for they do not abjure their religion in spite of the troubles of exile and the harsh decrees that pass over them constantly…
Now the vultures descended upon the birds to consume them, but Avram drove them off. This indicates that although in every generation, the nations of the world shall rise up against us to destroy us, will God preserve us from their clutches in Avram's merit, just as the verses state (VaYikra 26:44-45): "Though they are in the lands of their enemies, I have not loathed them nor abhorred them to destroy them, to nullify My covenant with them, for I am God their Lord. I shall remember the first covenant…" (commentary to Bereishit 15:10-11).
Rabbi David Kimchi was an accomplished Hebrew grammarian and exegete. His commentaries on the Tanakh were widely reprinted and later had a decisive influence on the Christian Hebraists who produced the Authorized Version ("King James") of 1611. In the above passage, the Radak recasts the Covenant Amid the Pieces as an expression of Israel's unfolding history. Though Avram has yet to found a nation, God already spells out before him that future nation's destiny, and it is a destiny that closely parallels his own! Stronger nations will oppose Israel's teachings and will attempt to destroy them as a people, but they will prevail. Those nations will be hampered in their attempts by their profound religious and social differences, just as the large land animals in the ceremony were split into halves and physically separated from each other. But Israel will paradoxically survive in spite of widespread dispersion, and the wildly divergent cultural norms engendered by that dispersion. Thus, the doves, symbols of innocence and defenselessness, released to the winds and to far-off climes, were not divided.
While the Radak's lifetime saw some of the most violent confrontations to take place on Spanish soil between Christianity and Islam, his comments possess a timeless quality. Long before those clashes began, Israel's future had been threatened, and long after they concluded, Israel's position in the world remained precarious. Different oppressors, in various locales and at diverse times, attempted to extirpate the people of Israel and their teachings, but none succeeded. God's connection with them, though seemingly tenuous at times, was never and will never be terminated. The "merit of Avram," which surely must imply not only the patriarch's virtue but the also example of his invincible spirit, will continue to stand us in good stead until the end of time.
Our Parasha, then, is full of Avram and Sarai's ongoing struggles with those that could not abide by their revolutionary ideas of an Absolute God and His universal standards of justice and compassion. It inexorably resolves its focus onto the Covenant Amid the Pieces, and that section constitutes the Parasha's central spine. The solemn pact concluded between God and Avram proclaims the essence of the same struggle, but not as it was waged by the ancient progenitor. Rather, through the device of the animals and the birds, the divided pieces and the whole, the hovering vulture and the steadfast guardian, the Covenant Amid the Pieces describes the struggle as it is still waged today by the people of Israel who stubbornly continue to preserve its memory.