What Covenant Means

God and Abram's covenant between the pieces raises issues of conditionality and obligation still relevant today.

Commentary on Parashat Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

Abram, Sarai, and Lot go to Canaan. (Genesis 12:1-9)

  • Famine takes them to Egypt, where Abram identifies Sarai as his sister in order to save his life. (12:10-20)
  • Abram and Lot separate. Lot is taken captive, and Abram rescues him. (13:1-14:24)
  • Abram has a son, Ishmael, with his Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. (16:1-16)
  • God establishes a covenant with Abram. The sign of this covenant is circumcision on the eighth day following a male baby’s birth. (17:1-27)

Focal Point

The word of Adonai came to him [Abram] in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” God took him outside and said, “Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And God added, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

And [Abram] said, “O Adonai God, how shall I know that I am to possess it [this land]? God answered, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.” [Abram] brought [God] all these [animals] and cut them in two…. As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram and a great dark dread descended upon him…. When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch that passed between those pieces. On that day Adonai made a covenant with Abram…. (Genesis 15:8-10,12,17-18)

Your Guide

What are God’s promises to Abram?

What are the primary elements of this covenant? Why are they so physical in nature?

We often associate the cry for children with barren women. Note the simple beauty of Abram’s, “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (15:2) Compare Abram’s plea to God to that of Isaac in Genesis 25:21.

Look at verses 15:5, 12, and 17. At what time(s) of day does this encounter take place? Is Abram asleep or awake? What are the moods and feelings conveyed by this text?

We often discover truths about our lives through our dreams. Although those dreams are probably not “true” in objective ways, they undoubtedly reveal truths about our own lives. What truths about the covenant between God and the Jewish people are contained here for Abram?

By the Way…

Assuredly, thus said Adonai: “You would not obey Me and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Lo! I proclaim your release,” declares Adonai, “to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine; and I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And I will make the men who violated My covenant, who did not fulfill the terms of the covenant that they made before Me, like the calf that they cut in two so as to pass between the halves.” (Jeremiah 34:17-18)

Childless/Ariri has the meaning of destroyed [a childless person being “demolished” so far as his memory in future generations is concerned]. (Rashi on Genesis 15:2)

“You have not given to me a child.” On the surface, it appears that we have unnecessary repetition here. But the emphasis here is on “to me,” that is, children that will be “to me.” [In other words], If You do not give me children who are like me [identify with me], then “my servant will inherit me.” Therefore, when Ishmael was born, it is written (16:15), “Abram gave the son whom Hagar bore him the name Ishmael.” The Torah specifies, “whom Hagar bore.” And regarding Isaac, it is written (21:3), “Abraham called the name of the son born to him, whom Sarah had borne for him, Isaac.” (Itturei Torah, R. Menachem of Amishinor on Genesis 15:2)

“God took him outside,” Its literal meaning is, God took him outside his tent so that he could look at the stars. Its midrashic meaning is, Go forth from (give up) your astrological speculation–that you have seen by the planets that you will not raise a son. Abram may have no son, but Abraham will have a son; Sarai may not bear a child, but Sarah will. I will give you other names and your destiny (mazal/planet/luck) will be changed. (Rashi on Genesis 15:5)

“The night-vision invoked here is also a prophetic mode of experience.”
(Robert Alter on Genesis 15:1 in Genesis: Translation and Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996, p. 63)

“Until this point, all of Abram’s responses to God have been silent obedience. His first actual dialogue with God–in this, too, prophetic precedents may be relevant–expresses doubt that God’s promise can be realized. This first speech to God reveals a hitherto unseen human dimension of Abram.” (Robert Alter on Genesis 15:2 in Genesis: Translation and Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996, p. 63)

“Deep slumber.” (15:12) This is the same Hebrew word, tardemah, that was used to describe Adam‘s sleep while God fashioned Eve. (Genesis 2:21)

Your Guide

“I am Adonai your God who brought you out from Ur.” (Genesis 15:7) presages the journey of Abraham’s descendants out of Egyptian bondage. What about Abraham’s experiences here can be generalized to the Jewish people as a whole? To your own experience in particular?

The covenant between the pieces (also described in Jeremiah) was an ancient Near Eastern method of “cutting a deal” or making a covenant. (Genesis 15:17-18) The less powerful party was to walk between the cut pieces, indicating (per Jeremiah) that one’s fate would be that of the cut pieces were he to violate the terms of the covenant.

In Abram’s vision, however, it is not Abram who walks between the pieces: It is the flaming torch, the symbol of God’s Presence. Does this mean that God is binding (covenanting) Godself to the Jewish people? Since Abram is “passive” here, does this mean that God’s commitment is unconditional? If you think this is so, how do you understand the Jeremiah text?

D’var Torah

Most important truths are multifaceted, often containing seemingly contradictory truths. The covenant between the pieces–this primal dream/vision of Abraham–contains some of the essential and contradictory truths about the Jewish people. The reality of our existence in history, against all odds, seems to point to a God whose commitment to Jewish survival is unconditional.

Yet the times of our catastrophic losses and destruction have been interpreted as our failures to live up to our “conditions”/obligations within a conditional covenant. As a result of the most recent and most devastating of these destructions, the Shoah (Holocaust), the nature of this covenant has been called again into question. Im kol zeh, “with all this,” I believe that the questions contained in Abraham’s vision/dream still drive at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.


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Genesis 12:1-17:27