Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5770/ October 31, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Covenant of the Pieces and its Ramifications

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Ashkelon College

The Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation

Chapter 15 of this week’s reading, which begins by promising Abraham progeny and continues with a promise to give the land of Canaan to his descendants, comes right after the story (chapter 14) about the war of the four kings against the five.

In the wake of Abraham’s involvement in that war, chapter 15 begins with the Lord's words to Abraham: “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (v. 1). The commentators explain: “Fear not” lest the four kings in the Mesopotamian coalition come back to take vengeance on Abraham for beating them off and taking their booty; [1] for refusing to derive any benefit from the booty which he seized from the kings, the Lord promises to compensate him – “your reward shall be very great.”   If we want to be exacting about the the scriptural formulation, we might explain as follows: as against Abraham’s words to the king of Sodom, “you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich’” (Gen. 14:23) from the dirty wealth of Sodom, it is as if the Lord answered him: I shall make Abram rich. [2]   God's words to Abram elicit an immediate response: what benefits me the wealth that you promise, “what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless” (Gen. 15:2) – I have no one to inherit my belongings, no heirs for whom your promises to me can be fulfilled.

Clearly this argument is based on Lot having parted from Abraham, as recounted in chapter 13 –Lot, whom Abraham, husband of the barren Sarah (Gen. 11:30), had taken with him to raise in his home and had assumed that through him, his nephew, the destiny promised him by the Lord would be fulfilled. [3]   This, too, ties in with chapter 14, for why did Abraham intervene in a battle between kings that did not involve him?   In order to rescue Lot from the captivity into which the residents of Sodom had been taken.  This is Lot, the man who had left Abraham, the man of mercy, to join the men of Sodom, the city of violence.

 After all of this, the Lord promises Abraham offspring of his own:  “none but your very own issue shall be your heir” (Gen. 15:4).   This is a surprising and wondrous promise for a man of 99 years, and for the barren Sarah who in the end will give birth at age 90; therefore Scripture emphasizes that nevertheless Abraham believed G-d and “put his trust in the Lord” (Gen. 15:6).  This is different from Abraham’s trust when he was commanded to “go forth” at the beginning of this week’s reading (Gen. 12:1-3), i.e., to go by himself, only with his family and household servants.   Abraham, childless, took his nephew Lot with him, so that the promise, “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2), would be fulfilled through him.   Now, having parted ways with Lot, Abraham believed and trusted in the explicit promise that he would have children of his own; therefore Scripture adds, “He [the Lord] reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15:6). [4]

The second passage in the chapter – the promise that his offspring will inherit the land – continues the theme of the war between the kings in chapter 14.  The coalition of the four great kings conquered extensive parts of the land of Canaan, perhaps even the entire land. [5]   Since Abraham chased them out, that made him ruler of the entire territory; with that status, he was received by the kings of Salem (Jerusalem) and Sodom (Gen. 14:17-21).  Thus ostensibly the Lord’s promise, “for I give it to you,” had been fulfilled (Gen. 13:17), except that now Abraham was faced with the practical problem expressed by his question, “How shall I know that I am to possess it?” (Gen. 15:8), i.e., please let me know how I will come to possess the land. [6]   Now that the land is formally under his control, can he actually rule it without having any substantive military force or any civil apparatus?  And even if he can rule it, he cannot possess it in the sense of settling it.   The language used in his question, “how shall I know” is matched by the Lord’s response:  “know well” (Gen. 15:13).

The solution to this quandary is that as foreigners and slaves Abraham’s offspring would increase into a people “in a land not theirs” (loc. sit.).  “In a land not theirs” – since only a centralized power like Egypt could enslave a people whose population was ever increasing, but not a place such as Canaan, which was split into small city-states. There was a hidden blessing in this prophecy (Gen. 15:13): The inferior status of enslaved strangers in Egypt would prevent them from becoming assimilated in the foreign land, as they would have assimilated into the peoples of Canaan had they remained and increased in numbers there, as is evidenced by the stories of Dinah, who got involved with a local Canaanite (Gen. 34), and of Judah, who married the daughter of a Canaanite (Gen. 38). These incidents took place when Abraham’s household was growing from a small family into a clan. 

When a people takes possession of a settled land there is another people who become dispossessed; the continuation of the Lord’s words are directed at this moral difficulty:  “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen 15:16).   Here the Torah establishes an important principle:  this land, sanctified to the worship of the Creator, may only be inhabited by those who indeed worship the Lord and stay away from abomination.

The patriarchs, as well as Moses and the Israelites prior to the giving of the Torah [7] were given promises about inheriting the land, without stipulating any restrictions or limitations, for the details and terms of this condition had not yet been formulated.  However the condition of religious obligation is hinted at, and one of these intimations is found here.  Mention of the iniquity of the Amorites indicates that “the land, which belongs to the Venerated One, will spew out all that makes it impure and will not suffer idolaters and those who engage in illicit sexual activity,” as Nahmanides put it in his commentary on Leviticus 18:25.  The decree about spewing out its inhabitants applies not only to Canaanites and Amorites, but also to Israelites, as explicitly stated in Leviticus (18:24-30).

Even though Abraham was destined only to see the land of Canaan – “that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1) [8] – he performed there various actions of settling, foretelling what would be done by later generations, such as planting a tree (Gen. 21:33), digging wells and fighting to maintain his ownership of them (Gen. 21:25-31). [9]    At the same time the Holy One, blessed be He, shows Abraham the beginning of the Amorites’ ruin on account of their abominations, namely the depraved ways of the Sodomites (Gen. 18:15-19:38).   The entire story of Sodom is interlaced throughout the Abraham narrative.  The angels who head for Sodom prior to its overthrow are the same as the ones who previously visited Abraham, and one of them, representing the Lord, negotiated with Abraham on the ways of law and justice concerning Sodom (Gen. 18:23-32), and the Lord even informed Abraham, by way of “consulting him,” about the verdict that had been passed against Sodom (Gen. 18:17-21).  After Sodom is overturned, Scripture says that Abraham looked out of the ravaged city and by his merits his nephew Lot was saved from there (Gen. 18:19-29). [10]   From this we see that what was destined to happen to the Amorites when their iniquity is complete by the time of the conquest of Canaan by Abraham’s descendants, was already vividly illustrated to Abraham by the Lord with the case of a single city (or group of cities), whose iniquity had already reached an overfull measure.   For the principal iniquity of the Canaanites lay in their illicit sexual behavior, as illustrated by the act of Ham, ancestor of the Canaanites (Gen. 9:18-28), and as explicitly stated in the warnings to the Israelites to stay clear of the abominations of Canaan (Lev. 18:3-24).   Thus, as a precedent, the Lord showed Abraham a picture of the sin and its punishment in one part of Canaanite territory.  Or, to put it differently, the Lord Himself set into play the destruction of the sinful Canaanite people before Abraham’s eyes, thus sanctioning the right of Abraham’s offspring to continue the process when the rest of the Canaanites declined to the same low level of abominations.  However, there is just one problem:  if, Heaven forefend, an Israelite tribe or city should happen to commit the same abominations, the same law would be applied against them.

Indeed, such a thing happens and is recounted in the story of the concubine at Gibeah, at the end of Judges (chapters 19-21).  The collective sin committed there is not only similar and parallel to the sins of Sodom, but is even recounted in similar language, [11] to indicate that there is no racial discrimination here and that the same sin brings in its wake the same punishment of destruction.   The difference is that in Sodom only the Judge of all the earth could execute judgment, whereas with the city of Gibeah and the men of the tribe of Benjamin who were covering for the city, the Israelites who were then dwelling in the land were responsible for eradicating the evil in their midst in order to preserve the purity of the land and the Lord’s covenant with His people.

[1] Hizkuni, Nahmanides, Abarbanel and Sforno.

[2] Hizkuni’s interpretation is in this direction, and Abarbanel writes:  It is unbefitting for a person who has received a present from a great king to receive something paltry from another person.

[3] In the opinion of Rabbi Nehemiah, Genesis Rabbah 41.8.

[4] Thus one can read the syntax of this passage, on the basis of Psalms 106:31.   Those who read the syntax differently, such as Nahmanides and Hizkuni, can argue that the psalmist’s understanding of the verse in the Torah is not binding upon them.

[5] The eastern side of the Jordan and the Negev, according to Genesis 14:5-7.  Since Abraham pursued them from Dan in the direction of Damascus (Gen. 14:14-15), it stands to reason that the kings also passed through the western parts of Israel.

[6] Such an interpretation was given by the admor, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, in Yismah Moshe.  See M. Ben- Yashar, “Brit bein ha- Betarim,” Beit Mikra 23-24, 2005, pp. 98-102.

[7] Exodus 3:5, 6:2-8.

[8] More explicitly, 13:14-17.

[9] In telling about Isaac’s life, primarily characterized by his destiny as the patriarch known for settling the land and remaining on the soil, the Torah mentions (Gen. 26:15, 18) many wells dug by Abraham and even given names by him as a sign of ownership.

[10] It is surprising that this was only due to Abraham’s merit, for Lot himself was righteous, at least in a legal sense (=not deserving the death sentence):   he hosted the guests-angels, and even attempted to protect them.  Perhaps the angels forcefully removed him from Sodom because of Abraham’s merits, even though he had been tarrying (Gen. 19:16).

[11] Judges 19:15-28.  There are substantive parallels between the two stories, both in the introductory material to the stories and in their epilogues.  Before the stories:  Abraham’s hosting of his angel-guests is characterized by hastening to welcome them (Gen. 18:3-8), “refresh yourselves; then go on” (Gen. 18:5).  The men were on there way to a specific place, and having been greatly delayed, risked the danger of being caught by the dark while still en route.   The irony is that they did reach their destination in the evening (Gen. 19:1), before nightfall, yet nevertheless found themselves in dire danger.  In the book of Judges, however, the father-in-law delays his guest, his son-in-law, numerous times, until finally the latter sets out on his way towards evening, afraid of the dangers that night holds in store (Judges 19:3-12).   Again there is the irony of his misfortune being not in the dangers of the way but actually in the Israelite city where he seeks haven.  The epilogue is somewhat parallel, in that a vestige of the seed of the smitten city remains:   in Sodom, through the illicit sexual act of Lot’s two daughters, on two successive nights (Gen. 19:30-38), and in the tribal land of Benjamin, by two acts of violence, first by killing the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead and later by kidnapping the maidens of Shiloh (Judges 21).