Chumash Themes #5: God’s Covenant with Abraham
The Jewish people are chosen twice. The second is when God leads the nation out of Egypt, the sea is split, and they receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. These momentous events cement the relationship between God and his people for eternity.
Another event, however, laid the foundation for this choice. This was the choice of the person who was the progenitor of the Jewish people – Abraham. But the parallel to the Jewish exile and redemption from Egypt does not seem complete: Nowhere in the Torah do we to find a series of earth-shattering events that precede the choice of Abraham.
In order to fully appreciate the journey that Abraham made, let us examine the interactions between God and Abraham that lead to the sealing of their covenant. There are three phases to this process:
Lech Lecha – “Go forth from your home.” This is when God first chooses Abraham. (Genesis 12:1)
Brit Bein HeBetarim – the vision that God shows Abraham of the eternal history of the Jewish People; exile and ultimate redemption (Genesis ch. 15)
Brit Milah – the Covenant of circumcision that takes place when Abraham is 99 years old (Genesis ch. 17)
Each of these is a unique and seminal experience that contributes to the complete foundation of the Jewish people.
The parsha of Noach ends with the story of Terach (Genesis 11:26). He is the ninth generation since Noah, and he and his wife Amatlai1 (her name is a good trivia question) have three sons: Nachor, Haran and Abraham (then called Avram). The Torah tells us that Abraham marries Haran’s daughter Sarai (Sarah), and when Haran dies, Abraham and Sarai begin traveling from Ur Kasdim to the land of Canaan. At this point, there is nothing special mentioned about Abraham; no acts of self-sacrifice for God.
The next parsha, Lech Lecha, begins with one of the most powerful statements from God to man: “Go forth,” declares God. “Abandon your land, people, and birthplace to follow me.”
We would expect any rational person to respond to such a request, “Okay, so where am I supposed to go?” However, Abraham does not ask questions. He accepts that the journey toward God requires a leap of faith.
But a fundamental fact is not even mentioned. Why Abraham? What took place before this that caused God to even consider challenging Abraham with such a task?
The Midrash, a set of oral tradition passed through the generations, fills in the missing information: At a young age, Abraham realized that there must be a primary force that directs the world, and he concluded that the polytheistic world of his parents is incorrect. Abraham's family owned and operated a successful idol store; Abraham took upon himself to destroy the merchandise2.
Armed with the confidence of God’s existence, Abraham proceeds to not only to change his own life, but to promulgate this new understanding of the world. He brought guests into his tent, which was open on all four sides and pitched right in the middle of an inter-city highway.3 Abraham also authored a 400-chapter book refuting idolatry.4 And he endured all types of mockery and persecution for holding beliefs that were, to say the least, politically incorrect.5
In fact, the Torah calls him Avraham Ha-Ivri6-- Abraham the Hebrew. Ha-Ivri translates literally as "the one who stands on the other side." The entire world stood on one side, with Abraham standing firm on the other.7
Nimrod, as the most powerful world leader of the time, was the one most threatened by Abraham's ideas of a supreme God. So Nimrod threw Abraham into a fiery furnace, saying "Let's see your God save you now." Abraham emerged unscathed. God miraculously saves him, and he leaves the country followed by a large group of students to whom he has revealed the sublime idea of monotheism.8
These Midrashic accounts form the bedrock of what makes the Jewish people. So why is all this missing from the Torah text?!
The answer lies in the dichotomy of the concept of a choice. If God chooses us because of a specific reason then when the reason would change, we could be “un-chosen.” Likewise, if we “choose” God, we can also un-choose. This would take the relationship of the Jewish people with God from an immutable covenant, to a qualified contract that could be broken.
But the Jewish people are to be the eternal nation. As God tells Abraham: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations, an eternal covenant, to be your God and the God of the descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).
If I write a contract, and exclude certain conditions that were originally agreed upon orally, I am making the agreement independent of those conditions. So yes, God chose Abraham due to his unique insight and dedication. But by not recounting the reasons for this choice in the Torah narrative, and only revealing them in the Oral Torah, the agreement supersedes those conditions and is immutable and unchangeable. That is why God begins the story of the Jewish people without an introduction. We and God are in a deal that has no prior conditions, so nothing can break it.
The next covenant is Brit Bein HeBetarim. Abraham has just defeated an alliance of four of the most powerful kings in his time (Genesis ch. 14). He then cries out to God: “What is all this worth if I do not have progeny to carry on my life work” (Genesis 15:2).
Noah also knew about God, as did his son and grandsons Shem and Ever even had a yeshiva! If so, in what way was Abraham different that he is chosen to start the Jewish people?
The Midrash likens spiritual knowledge to a bottle of perfume. If you leave the bottle of perfume corked and sitting in a corner, what good is it?9 Shem and Ever were like a closed bottle of perfume, off studying in a corner somewhere.
What makes Abraham unique is not just that he recognized God, but that he understood that this reality needs to affect the entire world. God created mankind to have a relationship with Him. So if man ignores God, that is (so to speak) a defect in the universe. So Abraham went out and taught people about monotheism. He pitched his tent in the middle of a highway intersection so that anyone traveling between these two cities would stop by, and he would teach them. Abraham viewed himself not as an individual trying to perfect himself, but as the progenitor of a movement to bring God’s existence into perfect clarity.
So when Abraham extends beyond himself, God reciprocates. God reassures Abraham at Brit Bein HeBetarim by taking Abraham through the history of the Jewish people. God tells him about the Temple and the unique connection between God and the Jewish people. Abraham realizes that the commitment is secure: If you are worried about God’s future, then God will worry about your future.
But Abraham is not satisfied, and anticipates the potential fall of the Jewish people that can lead to exile. Can there be a relationship between God and his people in exile? God responds by causing Abraham to fall into a deep sleep, and showing him that even when the history of the Jewish people is dark and daunting, the connection will remain and ultimately lead to redemption. (Genesis 15:12-14)
The third and final covenant is Brit Milah – circumcision. With this act, God asks Abraham to take the ideals espoused until now and make them a physical part of the Jewish people. Before going ahead with this, Abraham consulted with his disciples. He was concerned that such a radical step would cut him off from the rest of humanity and create a barrier that would not allow him to continue to influence society. It was not a question of whether or not to obey God’s command; rather, Abraham's question was whether he should make it known publicly or keep it private.
One of Abraham’s confidants, a man named Mamrey, said that if he was trying to awaken people's consciousness about God, then he should make it public. Abraham took it as good advice and decided to publicize the circumcision. This final irrevocable step is the completion of the process that began when Abraham first chose to recognize God.10
The juxtaposition of circumcision and the birth of Isaac is not coincidental. Only when there is an unbreakable covenant between God and Abraham, can Abraham bring progeny into the world and be sure that they will continue his vision. This is his ultimate goal, a self-perpetuating community tied irrevocably to God.
This is the legacy of Abraham. And even though it is passed from generation to generation, each Jew is faced with the call of Lech Lecha – Go forth! We get stuck in a rut of peer pressure. Old friends. Old habits. This challenge is presented to all people at all times. Forge your individual connection to God, independent of what has taken place before. And paradoxically, when you have done that, you have connected to the tradition of Abraham: The ability to stand as an individual, and at the same time be part of the community of God.
This is our inheritance. The only question is who is willing to hear this cry, and then act.
- Talmud – Baba Batra 91a
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 38:13)
- Midrash Sechel Tov (Genesis 18:2)
- Talmud – Avoda Zara 14b
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 38:13)
- Genesis 14:13
- Pesikta Rabbati 33
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 38:13)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 39:2)
- Midrash Agadda (Genesis 14)