3.1 “Fear Not, Abraham”: The Problem of Killing during War
After the war with the kings, the Torah tells us of “the covenant between the divided sections,” Brit bein ha-betarim. This narrative begins with God turning to Abraham and concluding the war in this way:
(1) After these things the word of HaShem came unto Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy reward shall be exceeding great’.
It is understandable that when a soldier finds himself on the threshold of danger when he enters a war, he needs moral support, and it is important for him to hear “do not fear, everything will be fine.” But here, God turns to Abraham “after these things,” after Abraham returns victorious from the war. What is there to be afraid of after the victory?
Possibly, Abraham was afraid that he had already fully received the reward promised to him, and so God tells him that his reward is “exceeding great.” Alternatively, Abraham could have feared that the defeated kings would try to return and get revenge on him, and so God says “I am thy shield.” However, a more profound reason for Abraham’s fear is attributed by the Midrash to a moral problem: Abraham feared he may have killed someone unjustly during the war, since, surely, among the dead soldiers of the opposing army there were good people, who did not deserve to die. Killing innocent people is evil in and of itself and could also cause a spiritual decline.
Of course, from the point of view of the law, as well as that of “the balance of faults and merits,” in circumstances of war there is neither the opportunity nor the necessity to examine the moral level of individual soldiers of the opposing army, and in a war it is permissible to kill, although there is still nothing virtuous in this. Furthermore, you cannot refuse to go to war when you or your family are being attacked; in such a situation, you must defend yourself. Despite this, war itself is very undesirable and certainly can cause spiritual damage to the combating soldier, so Abraham’s concern was not unfounded. (However, we must note that the opposite behavior, that is refusing to go to war in the case of an attack on oneself or one’s relatives, “resignation” in the face of aggression, and incongruous pacifism, causes much more moral and spiritual damage to a person than being involved in a war.)
Thus, Abraham did not fear vengeance from his enemy, but rather the possibility that damage was done to his own spirituality because he was forced to kill. And when God says to him, “Fear not,” He is saying no such damage occurred.
It is especially important to emphasize that Abraham’s disquiet regarding unfair killing of the enemy would be entirely justified for an individual in a personal conflict with a personal enemy, but is absolutely unacceptable for a leader of a nation and kingdom.
War is a social reality. Of course, war is horrific, and ending all wars is a Jewish messianic ideal. However, this ideal is still a long way from reality, and forcing it to be realized would be typical pseudo-messianism. If a government begins to reason that “the enemy soldiers are also people, each with his own family and each of whom taken individually, is not a bad person, and is possibly being forced to fight,” it would be impossible to live in such a government, because it and its citizens would quickly be destroyed. By showing kindness to those who are distant, a government demonstrates cruelty to those who are close. To yield in an individual quarrel is very decent and courteous behavior, but on a national level, when the issue at stake is a government’s steps to protect its people, this would be a crime.
Abraham, naturally, understands he was right to enter the war in order to protect Lot, but he is nonetheless burdened with thoughts about the spiritual cost of victory. In some sense, Abraham fears his own victories.
We must note that, in general, this is a very Jewish feeling. Today’s “Abraham” is an Israeli who is victorious over his enemies but at the same time is embarrassed by these victories. Some Jews fear their (and in general “Israeli”) triumphs to such an extent that they even become anti-Zionists, and dream about the destruction of Israel so as not to be associated with military force they deem immoral. Of course, such distorted thinking was foreign to Abraham (who, when it was necessary, immediately went to battle), and yet, he was still uneasy regarding this situation.
One more reason for Abraham’s preoccupation was, perhaps, that his victory ruined his original plans. As discussed earlier, Abraham was the bearer of two plans: his own and that of God. Abraham’s original plan was to establish belief in a single God and a cosmopolitan religious system, encompassing all of humanity. God’s design, on the other hand, was to produce a single nation from Abraham that would introduce monotheism into the world. Abraham’s victory in the war against the Babylonian kings foiled his plan to spread a religion encompassing all of humanity, as he was now in conflict with Babylon, or in those times, half of the human race. As a result, there was nothing left for him to do but to reconsider God’s plan regarding the creation of a nation, which immediately caused him to see his childlessness as problematic.
3.2 The Dilemma of Abraham’s Offspring
(2) And Abram said, ‘O L-rd GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?’ (3) And Abram said, Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house to be mine heir’.
God’s words, “thy reward shall be exceeding great,” emphasize the gap between God’s promise to make a nation out of Abraham’s offspring and the reality of Abraham’s barrenness. Therefore, it stands to reason that Abraham’s successor will not be his relative (as he had already separated from Lot), but merely some member of the household. This is the first time Abraham truly and deeply realizes the crisis of the disparity between the promise and reality, and therefore, now talks about his necessity for offspring himself. This shows the development of Abraham’s perspectives, from the idea of his students to that of building a nation from his offspring; this is a necessary step before he can finally start bearing these offspring.
Despite this, both the third and second verses begin with a question from Abraham, with no answer from God between them. That is, at first God does not answer Abraham, forcing him to formulate his question more clearly (stressing the connections between “seed” and “heir”), and thus better grasp the problem. Only after this internal advancement does Abraham’s destiny change.
3.3 Abraham Rises above the Stars
Thus, Abraham’s necessary personal progress consisted of putting aside his personal plan and accepting that of God. The students and Lot are now not only separated physically, but Abraham no longer sees them as part of his continuation, and so he prays to God for offspring.
(4) And, behold, the word of HaShem came unto him, saying, ‘This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir’. (5) And He brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them: and he said unto him, ‘So shall thy seed be’. (6) And he believed in HaShem; and He counted it to him for righteousness.
The phrase “and He brought him forth abroad” is quite unusual. One could interpret this verse to mean God took Abraham outside the tent, so he could look at the stars; however, the Hebrew word habet (“look”) generally means “look down from above.” For this reason, the Midrash says that “God took Abraham beyond the limits of the stars, carried him above them and let him look down on the stars from above” (that is, on the laws of the physical world, the laws of nature). The Midrash explains Abraham was a great expert in astrology (and thus all the sciences of his time). For this reason he said to God “I have carefully studied my horoscope and I therefore know for sure that in accordance with the laws of nature and the natural flow of things, I cannot have a child.” (Possibly, this “scientific” understanding of his own childlessness was one of the factors which drove Abraham to the plan of creating a religion through a group of students, while the plan that God suggested to him was incomprehensible because it could be realized only through a miracle).
God responds to Abraham by leading him “abroad.” He says to him, “You must not give the laws of nature such absolute meaning. Yes, the horoscope is predicted accurately, but you rise above the stars, above the laws of nature, and from this new place you will be able to bring a son into the world.”
Abraham wanted not only to hear a promise, but also understand how this could come to pass, to tie it together with his astrological (that is, scientific) worldview. But God did not provide this information for him. On the contrary, He instructed Abraham to go “abroad,” to recognize that something exists beyond the stars: Divine Providence, which can alter reality.
3.4 “And He counted it to him for Righteousness”
The narrative where God promises offspring to Abraham concludes with words which, at first glance, seem natural and obvious: “And he believed in HaShem; and He counted it to him for righteousness.” However, the literal meaning of this verse is rather problematic.
First of all, it is obvious that the issue here is not about belief in the ordinary sense, that is, belief in God’s existence. After all, Abraham’s belief in God had existed long prior to this episode; Abraham had spoken to God many times and followed His instructions, and so we cannot say that Abraham began “believing in HaShem” only now.
The Hebrew verb he’emin (a derivative of which is the word amen), means “trusted” rather than “believed in.” The deeper meaning of this verse is that Abraham trusted God to realize His promise, because it was against the natural flow of things. Exactly this kind of belief in God (and not just belief in and of itself) is a religious achievement.
The second problem in understanding this verse is that the translation of the word tzedaka as “righteousness” is very ambiguous. The word tzedaka has two different meanings: (1) “righteousness” and (2) “mercy” or “gift”; that is, this expression in the verse can be translated both as “counted it for righteousness” and as “counted it for mercy.”
The third problem in understanding this verse is that it is not clear from the text who “credited” whom—God to Abraham, or Abraham to God. In the latter case, one would understand the verse in this way: Abraham trusted in God (in that a huge nation would be born from his offspring), and accounted this to God’s kindness (that is, Abraham did not consider that he would be given this offspring for his own merits).
In this way, this verse has two parallel meanings with two morals for us: (1) God counts it as righteousness when a person trusts God that He will eventually solve even those problems which seem unsolvable at the time; and (2) a human, having received a gift from God, must not think he has earned it, but must rather think of it as a gift, a kindness, which God has bestowed him, amounting to far more than the entire volume of his merits.
This does not mean, of course, that our merits are insignificant or unimportant before God. On the contrary, they are very significant, and, as Jewish tradition states, God has given us many commandments, in part so that we could receive credit before Him for obeying them. But despite this, we must learn from Abraham not to become conceited, and to understand that the reward we receive from God is not a payment for our accomplishments, but rather a demonstration of God’s mercy.
Thus, Abraham who himself is inclined towards kindness and hesed, interprets God’s promise in precisely this vein. However, understanding God as hesed is not enough. And so God immediately teaches Abraham a lesson, that it is impossible to implement hesed without gevura.
3.5 “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”
(7) And He said unto him, ‘I am HaShem that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it’.
God brought “Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees” only to create a nation out of him and give his offspring this Land to control. The life of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and their dominion over it is the source of Divine light for humanity. Without this control, the world cannot advance normally.
But when Abraham hears this, he suddenly expresses disbelief and asks God about signs supporting the promise:
(8)And he said, ‘O L-rd GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’
This verse is puzzling. A moment ago Abraham had believed God that he would have offspring, but now he doesn’t believe his offspring will live in this Land and have power over it, and so he requests proof?!
The answer to this seeming oddity is that for a one-time gift of offspring, God’s mercy is enough, but for long-lasting sovereignty over the Land, it is necessary for these descendants to have certain qualities. Additionally, the very act of founding a government (“controlling the land”) presents a serious moral dilemma to Abraham. A kingdom tends to degrade and decompose. Life in one’s own land and control over it leads to crisis. It is not accidental that later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:25) we find: “When thou shalt beget children, and children’s children, and ye shall have been long in the land, and shall deal corruptly, and make a graven image, even the form of any thing, and shall do that which is evil in the sight of HaShem thy God, to provoke Him…”
“You [will] then deal corruptly” as a result of life in their own land! The Land of Israel, despite its importance, is not a moral being. A human is a moral being, but land is not; yet, it is full of huge life forces. As soon as a person takes root in a country, the country possesses him and slowly corrodes his morals. (This is why all fascist regimes were based on the Return to the Soil nationalistic trend which attributes sacred qualities to its country, territory, and land.) Taking root in a land dulls one’s sensitivity to moral questions, and this worries Abraham greatly. Besides, he had the fresh example of the Canaanites, who had become one of the most perverse nations in the world. It is not by accident that the Torah says “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall you not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes” (Lev. 18:3). Abraham sees what living in the Holy Land—with its huge life force—has led the Canaanites to do.
Abraham is essentially saying: “It is wonderful you are giving me offspring, but what will become of them? Will my descendants turn out to be deserving of the gift you want to bestow on them? Is there any certainty that the land will not capture and corrupt them? Will your kindness extend over them to such a degree that they will be able to endure in this Land?” Indeed, although God often has mercy on those who possess little merit, the receiver of God’s mercy must be on a certain minimal moral level which would allow him to accept this mercy.
The Midrash critiques Abraham for his lack of in God’s word, and even attributes the 400-year-long exile of his descendants to his mistrust. Each of the four words said by Abraham corresponds to 100 years of exile in Egypt: “ba-ma eidah ki irashena” (“whereby /shall I know/ that/I shall inherit it?”).
It would be erroneous to think Abraham’s descendants were simply “punished for his mistrust.” Rather, the question posed by Abraham demonstrates an objective problem: his insufficient trait of bitahon, trust in God. So, in order to correct each of these four words (that is, the four stages of the deficiency of bitahon), the Jewish people had to undergo 100 years of exile.
In God’s response to Abraham, a “smoking furnace” (verse 17) is mentioned, and this sends us back to the beginning phrase “I am HaShem that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees,” the very “Chaldean furnace” where, according to the Midrash, Abraham not only came out of the fire alive, but even became stronger from it. It is as if God was saying to Abraham: “By the laws of nature, one does not come out of a fire alive. You came out, and in this way rose above nature. For this reason, your concerns are baseless; you will be able to control the Land which I will give you. Not only will the Land not have power over you, but you will be able to elevate it.”
Abraham answers: “This is clear about me, but how can I know that this trait will exist in my offspring as well?” God responds that 400 years of exile in Egypt will be like a fiery furnace that will create a supernatural quality in Abraham’s descendants.
3.6 “The Covenant in between the Divided Parts”
(9) And He said unto him, ‘Take me a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon’. (10) And he took him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other: but the birds divided he not. (11) And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. (12) And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a dread of great darkness, fell upon him. (13) And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; (14) And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. (15) But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. (16) And in the fourth generation they shall come back hither: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full’. (17) And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. (18) In that day HaShem made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: (19) The Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, (20) And the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, (21): And the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite’.
The Brit Bein Ha-Betarim (the Covenant of God with Abraham made in between the divided parts) adds several important facets to the former relationship between God and Abraham.
God had already spoken about offspring, but He did not give a detailed explanation of how the development of the nation would occur. Now, God reveals the course and mechanism of the historical process to Abraham. In this process, news about welfare, personal and international, (“thou shalt be buried in a good old age,” and “they shall come out with great substance”) are integrally united, together with suffering and persecution (“thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them”).
The imagery of this Covenant is filled with grandeur; it spans many centuries of history, illuminating them with the light of meaning and purpose; and with this, a sense of awe, which a person always experiences when he recognizes his own insignificance before this grandeur. This awe comes naturally to Abraham, and so he can perceive the Covenant only in a deep sleep—a human is not able to look upon the subsequent course of history in a state of wakefulness.
Each element of this vision contains a symbol and a prophecy; we will analyze only some of them below, as interpreted by the Jewish tradition.
The initial action in the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim (which was never completed), is the division of animals. This separation symbolizes the spiritual vitality of the world (that same “river [which] went out of the Garden of Eden” in Genesis 2:10) between various empires (above all, between Babylon and Egypt) and the subsequent breakdown of these empires. Jews remain in the middle, as if walking between the divided civilizations, fending off vultures from their remains, fulfilling the task of combining them and fusing them into a single furnace.
After the Tower of Babel, humanity was shattered and fragmented. One of Judaism’s main missions is to put back together these separated parts (and in this sense, Abraham is an Ivri, a Jew—he takes it upon himself to finish the work uncompleted by Eber). The destiny of the Israelite people is to return the original unity to the nations, collect the sparks of holiness, and thereby find a connection to God.
The Torah uses the image of “a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch.” Later (Deuteronomy 4:20), Egypt is called Kur Ha-Barzel, the “iron furnace” for the smelting and purification of gold. Having passed through the oven of Egypt, the offspring of Abraham will not only become capable of perceiving God’s word, but will rise above nature and be able to inherit the Land of Israel and pass on God’s light to all of humanity.
In addition to the goal of “smelting of the people,” galut, the exile, has a second function which is realized not only in Egypt, but also in the subsequent exiles, up until our own time. Only in exile can the Jewish people carry out the work of collecting “the sparks of holiness” present in every nation and dispersed throughout humanity. The unification of these sparks and their collection in a holy place occurs upon our return to the Land of Israel, making it possible to spread their united light to all humanity.
God also shows Abraham the four subsequent exiles (after Egypt). In the four types of animals Abraham brings to sacrifice here, tradition sees signs of four kingdoms which will have power over Israel in the future: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome (that is, the present exile into the Western countries which is ending before our very eyes).
The Talmud says: “HaShem gave Israel three gifts, and they all come through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.” It seems this idea is contradictory: if these are gifts, why are they acquired through suffering? However, they are valuable precisely because they were obtained through suffering. Had we received them without affliction, they would have been easily wasted. Paying such a heavy price for these gifts makes our connection with them truly essential.
3.7 The Divine Decision regarding the Hardship of Slavery and the Guilt of the Oppressors
According to what was stated above, the slavery of Abraham’s descendants and their suffering are predetermined from above. But if this is so, maybe the Egyptians are not at fault for oppressing the Jews, since they, it would seem, were only acting according to God’s will? However, the Torah tells us otherwise: “that nation whom they shall serve, will I judge.” God gave each person free will, and if evil came into the world because of you, then you are the one at fault.
3.8 Do we inherit the Land because of our Merits or because of their Faults?
Verse 15:16 says that only the fourth generation will be allowed to return to the Land, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” That is, these Canaanite peoples are not guilty enough for their crimes to deserve to be driven from the land.
This idea is tremendously significant: when the Jews were fighting a war in Canaan by God’s command and driving the nations out from there, they were not acting because they were worthy, but because, by this time, these nations had committed so many crimes that it was just to expel them for their sins.
The Jewish right to the Land of Israel always exists, irrespective of the conduct of other nations. However, the question of whether we have the right (or, in some cases, the obligation) to expel these other nations from our Land, depends on the behavior of these other nations and on their righteousness or sinfulness. (Sometimes, the question is raised of why God specifically chose the Jews to exile the Canaanite people. If the nations were sinful, He should have dealt with them Himself… But this is only part of the main question of why God does not take upon Himself to destroy evil in the world, and leaves it to human beings instead.)
3.9 From the Nile to the Euphrates: The Land of Ten Nations
Verse 18-21 lists ten nations whose territory of settlement corresponds to the border of the Land of Israel “from the Nile to the Euphrates.”
The phrase “from the Nile to the Euphrates” refers to the borders of Egypt and Babylon, from the eastern-most point of the “Egyptian river” (meaning Wadi El-Arish in Sinai) to the closest point on the Euphrates, in the region of Damascus. We must go all the way up to the borders of Egypt and Babylon, but not trespass them.
In this way, the understanding “from the Nile to the Euphrates” has not only a territorial, but also a spiritual, meaning: the union of the spirituality of the West and East, of the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. However, the spiritual is inseparable from the physical: only when the Jewish Kingdom occupies the land intended for it by God can it complete its universal mission.
In past eras, the kingdom of David and Solomon were precisely this size, and these were indeed great times, remaining forever in the memories of humanity; the writings of that era, the Psalms, the Songs of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, are still holy for us today. However, in subsequent times, the Jews have never controlled the entire “Land of Ten Nations,” but only the “territory of seven nations” specified later on in Deuteronomy (7:1).
Thus, the essence of the Covenant between God and Abraham consists of the following: God promises Abraham he will bear offspring, which will eventually become a nation that inherits this Land, through which all the tribes of the Earth will be blessed. Abraham takes upon himself the challenge to serve as the foundation and model for the formulation of this nation.
The mission of Abraham’s offspring is realized in the process of living in the Holy Land. The Land of Israel is the means by which the Jews can influence the world and perfect it; but at the same time, the Land of Israel is the “wife of the Jewish people” which trains and molds them.