Light from the Sidra

Lech Lecha (‘Go for yourself’). 24th October 2015. 11th Cheshvan 5776.

Torah: Genesis 12:1–17:27. Isaiah 40:27–41:16

Plan Dalet

The seventeenth century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. He trained as a Talmudic but at the age of 24 he was solemnly excommunicated by a rabbinical court for his unorthodox views about God. Though his chief work The Ethics is incredibly dense, certain things are clear. According to Spinoza, ‘Nature’ is God and, although we should love God we should not imagine that he – or, rather, ‘It’ – will love us in return. ‘Strictly speaking’, says Spinoza in The Ethics, ‘God does not love anyone.’ According to Spinoza, evil does not exist and God has no ultimate purpose or plan for the world.

From what I know of Spinoza, he appears to have been a genuinely nice guy, but his God would never have called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and would certainly never have entered into covenant with him or kept that covenant.

HASHEM, the God of the Bible, creates the cosmos out of nothing and, after mankind has rebelled against him, intervenes, promising he will break into human affairs to undo the work of the serpent. When the rebellion of the human race reaches its nadir – the point at which the world is filled with violence and every thought of mankind is evil continually – God wipes the board clean and starts all over again with a family of eight people. However, by the time we get to Abram in Genesis 12, it looks as though God’s ‘Plan Beit’ is on the skids. The descendants of Noah build a tower that stands like some blasphemous middle finger raised against heaven and, once again, God intervenes by confusing the languages of the people.

The immediate effect of ‘man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree’ was separation – man from God, man from woman, man from nature, man from himself – so it might appear that by further dividing the human race, God was doing the devil’s work for him. But with the call of Abraham God puts, as it were, ‘Plan Dalet’ into operation.

There’s a lot of blessing and cursing of individuals and groups in Genesis but in chapter 12 God blesses Abraham so that through him and his ‘seed’ (singular), all the families of the earth will be blessed. Israel is the only nation in the world that exists by divine decree for the benefit of the rest of mankind. No ethnic group has contributed as much to the welfare of the world as the Jewish people. Through the nation of Israel, the world has been blessed spiritually, morally, ethically, scientifically, medically, economically, artistically and musically. God promised to make Abram’s name great and, indeed, his name is today revered by millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In 12:7, God extends the promise of verses 1-3, by assigning the land we call Israel to Abram’s ‘seed’. All well and good, but what assurance could Abram have that God would not pull the plug on ‘Plan Dalet’ and dispose of him and his descendants if he turned out to be an underachiever? The answer is found in Genesis 15.

When we open that chapter, ten years have passed since the divine promise of ‘seed’ and land was delivered to Abram. He and Sarai are not getting any younger and Abram understandably wishes to know how he can be certain God will keep his promise. God assures Abram of the certainty of the promise in a remarkable way. First, he asks if Abram can count the stars and then assures him that his ‘seed’ will be as innumerable as the heavenly host. Abram believes God and, on account of his faith, HASHEM declares Abram to be ‘righteous’ even though, at this point in his life, the father of the Hebrew people has not even been circumcised.

Second, HASHEM enters into a covenant with Abram. He tells him to take a three-year old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove and a young pigeon, and to cut them in two. Then, in the form of a ‘smoking furnace’ and a ‘fiery torch’, HASHEM passes between the pieces, assuring Abram he will give ‘this land’ to his seed. The scene, bizarre though it is to us, was a familiar one to Abram. In the ancient Middle East, powerful kingdoms often entered into covenants with weaker kingdoms, promising protection for the payment of a certain number of camels, asses, or other livestock, or for an agreed number of slaves, or for the regular payment of a set sum of money. To ratify and seal the covenant, the kings would offer sacrifices to their gods and pass between the pieces declaring, ‘May the gods do to me and more also’ if they did not keep all the conditions of the covenant.

It is often said that Abram entered into a covenant with HASHEM but that is not what the Sidra says. According to Genesis 15, HASHEM entered into a covenant with Abram. According to the terms of this covenant, Abram was not required to perform any divine mitzvot; he did not pass between the pieces. Everyone knows that covenants require two parties, so if Abram did not pass between the pieces, who did? Our text tells us that HASHEM (who is a ‘consuming fire’ – see Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3) passed between the pieces in the form of a smoking furnace and a burning torch. HASHEM takes upon himself the sole responsibility for keeping the covenant and declares, in effect, ‘may it be done to me as has been done to these sacrificial victims if I do not give Abram seed and if I do not give his seed the land in perpetuity!’

Israel exists as a people to this day and is in their ancient homeland because of the monumental covenant made with the father of the nation. But every blessing God bestows on Abram and his descendants is part of his bigger plan for the blessing of the nations. ‘Plan Dalet’ is under way and for HASHEM, the initiator and guarantor of the covenant, there can be no going back. He is going to see it through to the sweet and glorious end, even if it kills him.

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