– Sandra Cohen, Shabbat Nov 1, 2014
What stood out for me most in reading Lech Lecha was the covenant God made with Abraham. I couldn’t help but think about how different it was from the one He made with the Israelites at Sinai hundreds of years later. That led me to compare it to the covenant made by God with Noah. It all came together and I thought that comparing all three of them could make a D’var Torah.
We don’t usually use the word covenant in modern day conversation. We would use the word “contract.” It usually refers to two or more parties coming together to craft an agreement that would contain stipulations, privileges and responsibilities.
Covenants can be made between two equal parties which means the agreement is bilateral. Each party has privileges and obligations. But that refers to a covenant between two human beings. We can never compare that to a covenant between human beings and God. When God is one of the parties in a contract it means that He has initiated it, determines what clauses are in it and what the outcome will be for those who break it or abide by it. We are not called on to offer our opinions or negotiate the terms, We are free to either accept it or reject it.
The first covenant I want to talk about is the one between God and Noah. We read about this in last week’s Torah portion.
The contract God made with Noah is referred to as an unconditional covenant. Unconditional because neither Noah or his descendants had any responsibility to fulfill it. Instead it was created not solely for humans, but for every living creature on earth. Nothing Noah could do, neither good nor bad could change the outcome.
After the flood Noah left the ark , built an altar, and made a sacrifice to God, which was graciously accepted.
God then promised that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” [ Gen 9:11]
The rainbow was established as a sign of His promise, to be reminded of it each time He saw it.
God’s Covenant with Abraham is the beginning of the section in Genesis that marks the beginning of the story of the Jewish people. Abraham’s story begins with his geneology. We are told that he is the son of Terah and is the 8th generation after Noah. He and his family are herders and move from place to place. He steps onto center stage in chapter 12:1, which says:
The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation
And I will bless you
I will make your name great
And you shall be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you
Abraham went forth as the Lord commanded him and Lot and Sarah went with him. Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran.
Abraham arrives in Canaan where God appears to him again saying “I will assign this land to your offspring”. Later in chapter 15, Abraham reminds God that he has no offspring. God reassures him. In verse 5 God says “look towards the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them”, and he adds, “So shall your offspring be.”
One commentator describes Abraham’s relationship with God as a “covenant relationship” where Abraham agrees to move to a land that God would show him [an act of faith on his part] and God agreed to make Abraham a great nation.
Today when we draw up an agreement we say “Let’s get it in writing”. So we see a lawyer who draws it up so both parties can sign on the dotted line. That way we have something to show the judge if a breach of contract later lands us in court. Things didn’t work that way in Abraham’s world, especially when the agreement was with God.
But people in the ancient world did have a way to formalize agreements and God and Abraham followed that formula. Here is how it went:
God instructs Abraham to bring him a heifer, a ram, a goat, a turtle dove and a young bird. Abraham does this and cuts the animals in two, placing each half opposite the other. If this covenant had been between human beings they would then both walk between the two halves of the severed animals. That’s the way both parties ratified the covenant. If one of them later broke the agreement it was implied that that person would wind up like the severed goat — dead. In this case Abraham doesn’t have to do this, instead he falls into a deep sleep.
Chapter 15:17 says:
“When the sun set and it was very dark, a smoking oven and a flaming torch [ intended to signify God’s presence] passed between those pieces [of the animals]. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, “ to your offspring I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates.”
This, by the way, was an example of a unilateral covenant. Abraham did not have to walk between the haves of the of the severed animals God did it for him while he was asleep. He was not a participant in the contract. He was a recipient. It is also unconditional. There are no clauses that give any reason why God would not honour it.
The next step was to show a visible symbol of the contract.
And God said to Abraham: “You shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you, throughout the generations. Every male among you shall be circumcised, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”
So to summarize, the procedure is:
. . . you make the deal,
. . . you seal the deal, and
. . . you show a symbol that there is a deal.
The covenant with the nation of Israel was very different from the covenant made with Abraham. The stakes were much higher and a lot more was required from the Israelites than was ever required from Abraham or Noah. First, it is a conditional covenant because the blessings God promises are directly related to whether Israel agrees to obey God’s laws. If Israel is obedient God will bless them, if they are disobedient he will punish them.
What was the carrot?
God says that by agreeing to keep the laws that He gave them on Mt Sinai, He will make Israel his most treasured possession from among all peoples. “You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
What were the laws that Israel must agree to keep? They start with the Ten Commandments and then expand into laws that govern everything we do from our relations with God to our relations with our fellow human beings.
The two covenants that proceeded this one had lots of benefits with no conditions. This one had many, many conditions, duties and obligations. The people’s acceptance bind them to God and disobedience would cut them off from God.
The pattern of the covenant was similar to the pattern of other ancient covenants made at that time by surrounding nations, specifically the way kings made covenants with nations they had conquered.
This was the pattern they followed when introducing the 10 commandments.
Self introduction by the king, or in this case God [I am the Lord your God]
Historical prologue that describes the king’s wonderful achievements [Who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage]
A stipulation of loyalty[ you shall have no other gods before me]
Provisions to place the treaty in a public place [the placing of the 10 commandments in an ark]
Blessings and curses were invoked on those who did or did not honour the covenant
How did they make the treaty official?[ how do we seal the deal? ]
The people agree to follow it [‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do”]
“Moses then built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve pillars corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent up two young men of the people of Israel who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well being to the Lord. Moses took half the blood and put in the basin [the use of blood was an important part of the ritual] and half the blood he dashed against the altar. He then took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. They said “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do”. Then Moses took the rest of the blood and dashed it over the people and said “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these commands.”
Then Moses, Aaron and 70 of the elders of Israel went up the mountain and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites. They beheld God and they ate and drank”. [ Ex. 24:5 -11]
While Abraham’s covenant marked the creation of the Jewish people, the covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai defines who we are as a people. Even if we still struggle with it to this day.