- The Call and the Promise
- Avram’s Trajectory
- Entering the Land
- A Second Promise
- The Famine and Down to Egypt
- “She’s my sister” (Part 1)
- The Parting of Avram and Lot
- Another Promise
- Four Kings Against Five (אַרְבָּעָה מְלָכִים אֶת הַחֲמִשָּׁה)
- The Covenant of the Pieces (Brit bein ha-Betarim – ברית בין הבתרים)
- Hagar and Yishmael
- Brit Milah
- Sarah’s Transformation
- Haftarah Summary – למה תאמר יעקב
One of Hebrew’s most charming grammatical quirks is the way it reflexively uses the word lecha (לְךָ) – “to you,” “to yourself,” “for yourself” (masculine singular). (So too Parashat Shelach Lecha – שלח לך in Sefer Bemidbar, also known just as Shelach, “send to/for yourself.”) Here, it’s used to perhaps its most poignant effect, playing off the similar sounds in the (grammatically distinct) imperative verb lech (לֶךְ) and the preposition (with possessive suffix) lecha. Go. Go forth. Go to yourself, to who you really are. Go for yourself, into your future.
That is how our parsha opens. Its subject is the selection of one Avram, ten generations removed from Noach, twenty generations removed from Adam Rishon. Our Avram is called to be the forefather of a great nation, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.
The Call and the Promise
These are the words with which Hashem reaches out to Avram:
:לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
Go forth from the land of your birth and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.Bereshit 12:1
The loss is rife, matched only by the potential: leave all that you have known, your home, your family, your very identity behind. Do it, so that you might claim your destiny. That destiny? To become the very hinge upon which all future history turns. Your move, Avram.
Hashem also makes Avram a promise now that is repeated, in different forms, four times in the parsha:
וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה: וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה:
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 youBereshit 12:2-3
and curse the one who curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.
So, why Avram? An iconic midrash provides us with a startling, compelling reason:
תֶּרַח עוֹבֵד צְלָמִים הָיָה, חַד זְמַן נְפֵיק לַאֲתַר, הוֹשִׁיב לְאַבְרָהָם מוֹכֵר תַּחְתָּיו. הֲוָה אָתֵי בַּר אֵינַשׁ בָּעֵי דְּיִזְבַּן, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵהּ בַּר כַּמָּה שְׁנִין אַתְּ, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ בַּר חַמְשִׁין אוֹ שִׁתִּין, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ וַי לֵיהּ לְהַהוּא גַבְרָא דַּהֲוָה בַּר שִׁתִּין וּבָעֵי לְמִסְגַּד לְבַר יוֹמֵי, וַהֲוָה מִתְבַּיֵּשׁ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ. חַד זְמַן אֲתָא חַד אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא בִּידָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹלֶת, אֲמָרָהּ לֵיהּ הֵא לָךְ קָרֵב קֳדָמֵיהוֹן, קָם נְסֵיב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידֵיהּ, וְתַבְרִינוּן לְכָלְהוֹן פְּסִילַיָא, וִיהַב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידָא דְּרַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן. כֵּיוָן דַּאֲתָא אֲבוּהָ אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן עָבֵיד לְהוֹן כְּדֵין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַה נִּכְפּוּר מִינָךְ אֲתַת חָדָא אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא לָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹוֹלֶת, וַאֲמַרַת לִי הֵא לָךְ קָרֵיב קֳדָמֵיהון, קָרֵיבְתְּ לָקֳדָמֵיהוֹן הֲוָה דֵּין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, וְדֵין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, קָם הָדֵין רַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן נְסַב בּוּקְלָסָא וְתַבַּרִינוֹן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָה אַתָּה מַפְלֶה בִּי, וְיָדְעִין אִינוּן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אָזְנֶיךָ מַה שֶּׁפִּיךָ אוֹמֵר. נַסְבֵיהּ וּמְסָרֵיהּ לְנִמְרוֹד. אֲמַר לֵיהּ נִסְגוֹד לְנוּרָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבְרָהָם וְנִסְגּוֹד לְמַיָא דְּמַטְפִין נוּרָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ נִמְרוֹד נִסְגּוֹד לְמַיָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִם כֵּן נִסְגּוֹד לַעֲנָנָא דְּטָעִין מַיָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ נִסְגּוֹד לַעֲנָנָא. אָמַר לֵיהּ אִם כֵּן נִסְגּוֹד לְרוּחָא דִּמְבַדַּר עֲנָנָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ נִסְגּוֹד לְרוּחָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ וְנִסְגּוֹד לְבַר אֵינָשָׁא דְּסָבֵיל רוּחָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִלִּין אַתְּ מִשְׁתָּעֵי, אֲנִי אֵינִי מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶלָּא לָאוּר, הֲרֵי אֲנִי מַשְׁלִיכֲךָ בְּתוֹכוֹ, וְיָבוֹא אֱלוֹהַּ שֶׁאַתָּה מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ וְיַצִּילְךָ הֵימֶנּוּ. הֲוָה תַּמָן הָרָן קָאֵים פְּלוּג, אָמַר מַה נַּפְשָׁךְ אִם נָצַח אַבְרָהָם אֲנָא אָמַר מִן דְּאַבְרָהָם אֲנָא וְאִם נָצַח נִמְרוֹד אֲנָא אֲמַר דְּנִמְרוֹד אֲנָא. כֵּיוָן שֶׁיָּרַד אַבְרָהָם לְכִבְשַׁן הָאֵשׁ וְנִצֹּל, אָמְרִין לֵיהּ דְּמַאן אַתְּ, אֲמַר לְהוֹן מִן אַבְרָהָם אֲנָא, נְטָלוּהוּ וְהִשְּׁלִיכוּהוּ לָאוּר וְנֶחְמְרוּ בְּנֵי מֵעָיו, וְיָצָא וּמֵת עַל פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו
Terach was a manufacturer of idols (tzelamim). He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came in and wished to buy one.”How old are you?” Abraham asked the man. “Fifty years old,” he said. “Woe to such a man, who is fifty years old and would worship a day old object!” Avraham said. On another occasion a woman came in with a plateful of flour and requested him, “Take this and offer it to them.” So he took a stick and broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, “What have you done to them?” “I cannot conceal it from you. A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, ‘I must eat first,’ while another claimed, ‘I must eat first.’ Thereupon, the largest arose, took the stick and broke them.” “Why do you make sport of me? Have they any knowledge?” Terach said. “Should not your ears hear what your mouth has said?” Avraham said. Thereupon Terach seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. “Let us worship fire,” Nimrod said. “Let us rather worship water which quenches fire,” Avraham said. “Let us worship water,” Nimrod said. “Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water,” Avraham said. “Let us then worship the clouds,” Nimros said. “Let us worship the wind which disperses the clouds,” Avraham said. “Let us worship the wind,” Nimrod said. “Let us worship human beings which can stand up to the wind,” Avraham said. “You are just bandying words, and we will worship nothing but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it!” Nimrod said. Now Haran was standing there undecided. “If Avraham is victorious, I will say that I am of Avraham’s belief, while if Nimrod is victorious, I will say that I am on Nimrod’s side,” he thought. When Avraham descended into the fiery furnace (kivshan ha-esh) and was saved, Nimrod asked him, “Of whose belief are you?” “Of Avraham’s,” he replied. Thereupon he seized him and cast him into the fire; his innards were scorched and he died in the presence of his father.Bereshit Rabba 38:13
This midrash was further popularized by Rashi, who brings it in explanation of a pasuk in the previous parsha, which says that Avram’s brother Haran died “before his father” (Bereshit 11:28). The midrash takes the word “before” in both the sense of prior in time to his father and literally as in front of his father’s eyes.
Avram’s backstory, then, is one of transformation: the son of the idol seller becomes an iconoclast. Avram is selected by Hashem because he has already become aware of Hashem’s presence.1
In the opening verses of Lech Lecha, we are told:
וְאַבְרָם בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵחָרָן: וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן:
Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Harran. Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Harran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.Bereshit 12:5
Thus we see Avram setting out for Canaan from Harran (Charan – חָרָן), which is in Aram-Naharayim (in northern Mesopotamia; also called Padan-Aram). And, fitting in with this, we were told at the end of Parashat Noach:
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur Kasdim for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.Bereshit 11:31
It would seem that Avram was born in Ur Kasdim (in southern Mesopotamia) and went with his father to Harran, then proceeding to Canaan. We know, too, that Ur Kasdim is referred to as the “native land” (אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתּוֹ) of Avram’s deceased brother Haran; and that later in Lech Lecha, Hashem will remind Avraham, “I am Hashem who brought you out from Ur Kasdim to assign this land to you as a possession” – וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי ה’ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ (Bereshit 15:7).
But was Avram in Ur Kasdim or in Harran when he got the call? The commentators are divided on this point. Ibn Ezra maintains that Avram was commanded to leave his birthplace while still in Ur Kasdim, i.e., the Biblical narrative is not strictly chronological, and Bereshit 12:1 tells about an event that occurred before the events related in Bereshit 11:31-32.
השם צוה לאברהם ועודנו באור כשדים שיעזוב ארצו ומקום מולדתו גם בית אביו. והטעם שידע השם שתרח אחר שיצא ללכת אל ארץ כנען ישב בחרן. ותרח לא מת עד אחר ששים שנה שיצא אברהם מבית אביו מחרן רק הכתוב לא פירש שניו בצאתו מאור כשדים.
God commanded Avraham while he was yet in Ur Kasdim to leave his country, his place of birth and also his father’s house. The reason God told Avraham to leave his father’s house is that the Lord knew that, although he set out for Canaan, Terach would settle in Harran. Terach did not die until sixty years2 after Abraham left his father’s house in Harran. However, the Bible does not tell us how old he was when he left Ur Kasdim.Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 12:1
But Ramban, in accordance with his preference for reading the Torah chronologically whenever possible, offers a different reading:
ועוד כי הכתוב שאמר (יהושע כד ג) ואקח את אביכם את אברהם מעבר הנהר ואולך אותו בכל ארץ כנען היה ראוי שיאמר ואקח את אביכם את אברהם מאור כשדים ואולך אותו בכל ארץ כנען כי משם לוקח ושם נצטוה בזה ועוד יקשה עליהם כי אברהם בצוותו את אליעזר לקחת אשה לבנו אמר לו כי אל ארצי ואל מולדתי תלך (בראשית כד ד) והוא הלך אל ארם נהרים אל עיר נחור (שם כד י) אם כן היא ארצו ומולדתו ושם נאמר (בראשית יב לח) אם לא אל בית אבי תלך ואל משפחתי…כי חרן היא ארצו ושם מולדתו והיא ארץ אבותיו מעולם ושם .נצטוה לעזוב אותם
The verse stating, And I took your father Avraham from beyond the river and led him throughout all the land of Canaan (Yehoshua 24:3) should have stated, “And I took your father from Ur Kasdim and led him throughout all the land of Canaan,” for it was from there that he was taken, and it was there that he was given this command. In addition, the following difficulty may be put to them [Rashi and Ibn Ezra]: when Avraham commanded Eliezer to get a wife for his son, he said to him, ‘But you shall go to my country and to my birthplace, (Bereshit 24:4)... Haran is Abraham’s country, and there is his birthplace, it having always been his father’s country, and there Abraham was commanded to leave them.Ramban on Bereshit 12:1
When Avraham later instructs his servant Eliezer to go to his country and birthplace, Ramban points out, that place is not Ur Kasdim but rather clearly refers to Harran. Accordingly, Ramban maintains that Harran is Avram’s birthplace and the site of the call from Hashem.
Regardless of which view one takes, it is significant that the arc of the journey completed by Avraham begins in Ur Kasdim (“Ur of the Chaldeans”), the center of ancient civilization at the time, and ends in the betwixt-and-between, once and future Eretz Yisrael.
Where is Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldeans)?
The identification of Biblical sites has been tricky business since the mass exiles imposed by the Roman Empire in late antiquity, and there are often multiple plausible solutions to the various geographical questions that arise from Tanach. I won’t get into the many fascinating particulars here, instead giving a glance at the possibilities.
While the location of ancient Harran is generally accepted, Ur Kasdim presents a typical Biblical geographical conundrum. Immediately its name it announces to us that there are multiple places known as Ur, since Avram’s Ur is identified as Ur of the Kasdim (i.e., as opposed to the Ur of some other region). It is most commonly identified with a site of that name in southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). There’s a lot to recommend the Iraqi Ur, namely that it was the major metropolis in its day, that the Kasdim are known to have lived in southern Mesopotamia in Avram’s period. Also, the Talmud identifies Ur Kasdim as Khuta (כוּתָא), which is, too, in southern Mesopotamia (Bava Batra 91a).
Option 1: Ur in present-day iraq
However, there are a few problems with locating Ur Kasdim in Iraq: first, there is an Urfa in Anatolia that has an ancient tradition that it is the birthplace of Avraham, and this is the site identified as Ur by most premodern geographers. In addition, locating Ur in what is today southeastern Turkey means that it fits the description given in the Torah of Ur being on the far side (relative to Eretz Yisrael) of the Euphrates. Because Urfa is north of Harran, it makes more sense that Terach stops off there rather than going out of his way, which is the case if we assume that Terach left for Canaan from southern Mesopotamia.
Option 2: Urfa in present-day turkey
Still, there are problems with the Urfa identification, in particular the fact that the Kasdim are firmly connected with Mesopotamia, not Anatolia.
Entering the Land
Avram reaches his the ultimate destination, passing into the Land as far as Shechem (שְׁכֶם, in Shomron (Samaria), i.e. central Canaan), “until he reached Elon Moreh (אֵלוֹן מוֹרֶה, the terebinth of Moreh).”3 The text then notes, “The Canaanite was then in the Land” – וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי אָז בָּאָרֶץ. This statement has troubled generations of readers, since it is seemingly written from the perspective of a post-Mosaic age, when Bnei Yisrael have conquered Eretz Yisrael and the Canaanites were no longer in the Land. Ibn Ezra, in his Secret of the Twelve, flags this as one of twelve verses in the Torah written out of sequence.4 However, Rashi offers a simpler solution, that the phrase should be read “the Canaanite was then in, in the sense of engaged in conquering, the Land.5
A Second Promise
After reaching the Land, Avram builds two altars to Hashem. The first follows the appearance of Hashem to Avram, in which He tells him, “I will assign this land to your offspring” (לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת ). Avram then travels east of Bet E-l (Bethel, in Shomron, north of the future site of Yerushalayim), pitching his tent between there and a place called Ai, where he builds another altar and “invokes G-d by name” (וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם ה’). Notably, last time people invoked G-d by name, it was not exactly a good thing;6 but here, it is understood as prayer.7 Avram proceeds south to the Negev.
The Famine and Down to Egypt
Sadly, there is then a severe famine in Israel and Avram and Sarai are compelled to go down to Egypt. The text notes that they were there temporarily, typically translated into English as “sojourn” (לָגוּר שָׁם).
“She’s my sister” (Part 1)
As Avram and Sarai approach Egypt, Avram becomes concerned that, on account of Sarai’s beauty, the Egyptians will kill him in order to take her as a wife. He asks Sarai to say that she is his sister rather than his wife. Indeed, when they reach Egypt, Paraoh’s courtiers regale her beauty before their king and end up taking her to the palace to be wed to Paraoh. They also gift Avram, her purported brother, with great wealth, including sheep, camels, and servants.
When a plague afflicts Paraoh and his court, he figures out that it is on account of Sarai being the wife of another man. He reprimands Avram for lying to him and sends him off, under guard, with Sarai and the wealth he’s amassed.
Avram and his household, including his nephew Lot, make their way north through the Negev and arrive again at the place where he had previously tented and built the altar where he had prayed, between Bet-E-l and Ai.
The Parting of Avram and Lot
Because of the large flocks they had amassed, tensions broke out among their respective staffs and Avram understood that he and Lot could not live in the same place. Telling Lot that he wants to quarreling between them, “because we are family” (י אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ), Avram suggests that Lot pick a place to settle, promising him, “if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north” (אִם הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה). Lot picks the promising-looking plain of the Yarden (כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן), up to Tzoar (צֹעַר). Unfortunately he settles near Sodom, where the denizens are notably wicked.
Having parted from Lot in peace, Avram receives another blessing from Hashem:
שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה: כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם: וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אִם יוּכַל אִישׁ לִמְנוֹת אֶת עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ גַּם זַרְעֲךָ יִמָּנֶה: קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ כִּי לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה:
Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth (ke-afar ha-artez), so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.Bereshit 13:14-17
Avram pitches his tent at Elonei Mamre (the terebinths of Mamre – אֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא), which, we are told, are in Chevron. There he builds another altar to Hashem.
Four Kings Against Five (אַרְבָּעָה מְלָכִים אֶת הַחֲמִשָּׁה)
A long parshiya tells the story of the war of the five kings against four kings. The alliance of the four kings is based in the kingdoms of southern Mesopotamia, as follows:
- Amrafel (אַמְרָפֶל), king of Shinar (שִׁנְעָר) – Rashi on Bereshit 14:1 explains that this is Nimrod, who, according to Midrash, engaged Avram in theological battle and threw him into the fiery furnace. Shinar is in southern Mesopotamia (possibly Sumer).
- Arioch (אַרְיוֹךְ), king of Elasar (אֶלָּסָר) – Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 14:1 points to the pasuk in Daniel 8:2 which describes Shushan as the name of the capital of Elasar, meaning Elasar must be the name of a kingdom and not a city.
- Kedarlaomer (כְּדָרְלָעֹמֶר), king of Eilam (עֵילָם) – likely lying west of Shinar/Sumer.
- Tidal (תִדְעָל), king of Goyim (גּוֹיִם) – Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 14:1 explains that Goyim could either be read as a proper noun (the name of a place that happens to be Nations), or else a common noun indicating that Tidal ruled over several nations. (Rashi on Bereshit 14:1 maintains it is both at the same time.)
The alliance of the five kings is from the Canaan region, who forge an alliance at the Valley of the Sidim (עֵמֶק הַשִּׂדִּים) at the Dead Sea (יָם הַמֶּלַח):
- Bera (בֶּרַע), king of Sodom (סְדֹם) – the city of flagrant evildoers in the plain (kikar) of the Yarden
- Birsha (בִּרְשַׁע), king of Amora (Gemorrah – עֲמֹרָה) – the other wicked city of Kikar Yarden
- Shinav (שִׁנְאָב), king of Adma (אַדְמָה)
- Shemever (שֶׁמְאֵבֶר), king of Zevoim (צְבוֹיִים)
- The (unnamed) king of Bela (בֶּלַע), which is Tzoar (צֹעַר) – we previously encountered Tzoar as the northernmost city in Kikar Yarden, where Lot chose to settle
This alliance of five is united under Kedarlaomer of Eilam for twelve years, after which, in the thirteenth year, they rebel against his rule. This impels Kedarlaomer to come to Canaan to wage war against the five kings in the fourteenth year. The campaign is successful and Kedarlaomer conquers the following people and territories:
- The Refaim (רְפָאִים) at Ashterot-Karnayim (עַשְׁתְּרֹת קַרְנַיִם)
- The Zuzim (זּוּזִים) at Ham (הָם)
- The Emim (אֵימִים) at Shaveh-Kiryatayim (שָׁוֵה קִרְיָתָיִם)
- The Horites (הַחֹרִי) in their hill country of Seir (שֵׂעִיר) as far as Eil-Paran (אֵיל פָּארָן), which is by the wilderness (מִּדְבָּר).
- Ein-Mishpat (עֵין מִשְׁפָּט), which is Kadesh (קָדֵשׁ), and subdued all the territory of the Amalekites (הָעֲמָלֵקִי)
- The Amorites (הָאֱמֹרִי) who dwelt in Chatzatzon-Tamar (חַצְצֹן תָּמָר), which, according to Divrei ha-Yamim 2:20 is Ein Gedi8
Here we meet several peoples and places who will prove fateful to Jewish history: the Amoraim (Amorites), the city of Kadesh (or, rather, one of the cities known as Kadesh), and especially the absolutely evil Amalekites, subject to the eternal command to be blotted out by Israel.9 Both Kadesh and Amalek are names that belong to a later time, of Avram’s ancestors; the evil individual Amalek, for example, hasn’t been born yet. Rashi on Bereshit 14:7 explains that the future names are employed here.
The five kings meet the four from Mesopotamia in the Valley of Sidim. Despite the unpleasant tactic of hiding in the bitumen (asphalt) pits (בֶּאֱרֹת חֵמָר) that dotted the area, the five kings are defeated and the four carry off spoils—including Lot, Avram’s nephew.
When news of the captivity of Lot reach Avram, he is impelled to take action. Significantly, Avram is called in this context “Avram the Hebrew” (אַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי). We are also informed that Elonei Mamre (the terebinths of Mamre), where Avram is dwelling, belong to an Amorite named Mamre. Together with the kinsmen of his allies Eshkol (אֶשְׁכֹּל) and Aner (עָנֵר), along with 318 members of his household, Avram pursues the four kings “as far as Dan” (וַיִּרְדֹּף עַד דָּן). At night, they manage to overcome the four kings and rout them as far north as “Chovah which is north of Damascus” (חוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר מִשְּׂמֹאל לְדַמָּשֶׂק), successfully bringing back Lot, all his people, and all his possessions.
After Avram’s victory, he is honored with a lavish banquet by one Malkitzedek (מַלְכִּי צֶדֶק), the king of Shalem (better known by its later name of Yerushalayim), whose name literally means “the righteous king” and his kingdom’s name, “peace, wholeness.”10 Malkitzedek blesses Avram and identifies Hashem as G-d. Noach gives Malkitzedek a portion of his earned spoils of war and makes sure his allies receive their fair share, but declines to take any for himself from the grateful king of Sodom.
The Problem of Dan
From the seemingly innocuous phrase “and he pursued them until Dan” (וַיִּרְדֹּף עַד דָּן) in the story of the four kings against five arises a core chronological problem. This is because when the Twelve Tribes enter Eretz Yisrael (far in the future from Avram’s time), we are told that the territory of the the tribe of Dan is actually on the coast southwest, not north, of where Avram is (Yehoshua 19:40-48). This region is still known today as Gush Dan, meaning the greater Tel Aviv area:
In Shoftim 1:34, we are told that the tribe of Dan had not managed to conquer their intended apportionment of the Land and were thus forced to assume their homes further north. In fact, in Shoftim 18:29 states that the city of Dan was only so called when the tribe of Dan arrived there, far in Avram’s future, its original name being Layish (וְאוּלָם לַיִשׁ שֵׁם-הָעִיר). This is still the name of the site in northern Israel:
One compelling explanation, given by the late Prof. Yehuda Elitzur of Bar-Ilan University and cited by R. Amnon Bazak, for the seemingly conflicting locations of Dan is that the eventual apportionment of Eretz Yisrael was already known in Yaakov’s time and hinted at in his blessings to his children, as well as in the formation of the tribes around the Mishkan in the wilderness. Therefore, the location of Dan would have been known to Moshe. As hinted in Yaakov’s blessing to Dan and in the northern location of Dan relative to the ark, the original apportionment of Dan, in Yaakov’s time, was the northern location mentioned in our parsha. When Reuven, Gad, and the half-tribe of Menashe asked to be given lands in the Transjordan, this required a reshuffling of allotments in Eretz Yisrael proper and Dan’s portion was then switched to the coastal area which is today called Gush Dan. However, at the time of the conquest (Yehoshua’s time), the tribe of Dan failed to capture Gush Dan and instead settled in the north, in the original place of their allotment.11
The Covenant of the Pieces (Brit bein ha-Betarim – ברית בין הבתרים)
Up until this point, following the simple chronology of the Mikra, Hashem has appeared to Avram and promised him that (1) he will become a great nation and through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed, (2) his offspring are assigned the Land, and (3) again Eretz Yisrael belongs to his offspring, who will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Hashem also addresses Avram and makes him the promise known as Brit bein ha-Betarim, the “Covenant of the Pieces.” Chazal and the Mefarshim are divided on the question of when Brit bein ha-Betarim takes place. One suggestion is that it actually occurs back in Harran, before Avram receives the call to go to Eretz Yisrael. The other view holds that the text does proceed chronologically and that Brit bein ha-Betarim takes place after the war of the four kings against the five.
First, Hashem tells Avram that He acts as a shield for him (אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ).”12
Avram responds by expressing his distress at having no one to inherit him, making the promise seemingly empty. He exclaims: “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Damesek Eliezer!” (מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי וּבֶן מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר).13 But Hashem informs him that his own child will inherit him, and instructs him:
וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ
[Then in the vision, God] took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”—continuing, “So shall your offspring be.”Bereshit 15:5
This time, Avram trusts in Hashem (וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’). Hashem accounts this as a merit and assures Avram that his offspring will inherit the Land. Avram asks how he can know that this will really happen. He is told to bring korbanot: a three-year-old calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, and a young bird. Avram cuts each in two (except for the bird) and places the halves opposite each other; when birds of prey circle, he drives them away.
That night, a “deep sleep” (תַרְדֵּמָה) and a “great dark dread” (אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה גְדֹלָה) descend upon Avram. He receives the following information:
וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל: וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל אֲבֹתֶיךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם תִּקָּבֵר בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה: וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה:
And [G-d] said to Avram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers (ger) in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried at a ripe old age. And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”Bereshit 15:13-16
After receiving this knowledge, the sun sets completely, leaving utter darkness (עֲלָטָה). In this gloom, Avram sees a smoking oven (תַנּוּר עָשָׁן) and a flaming torch (לַפִּיד אֵשׁ) passing through the pieces of the sacrificial animals (בֵּין הַגְּזָרִים הָאֵלֶּה). It is this vision that gives its name to the “Covenant of the Pieces.”14
Hashem then makes a covenant with Avram (karat brit – כָּרַת יְה’ אֶת אַבְרָם בְּרִית), providing him with the future boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. These are seemingly far broader than how we think of them conventionally, encompassing the area “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (מִנְּהַר מִצְרַיִם עַד הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר פְּרָת). There is disagreement about the identification of the “river of Egypt,” which may not be the Nile (or even its easternmost tributary) but rather Wadi el-Arish:
In addition, the extent of the land described in Brit bein ha-Betarim encompass that of ten Canaanite Nations, several of which we’ve already encountered in the text: the Kenites (הַקֵּינִי), Kenizzites (הַקְּנִזִּי), Kadmonites (הַקַּדְמֹנִי), Hittites (הַחִתִּי), Perizzites (הַפְּרִזִּי), Rephaim (הָרְפָאִים), Amorites (הָאֱמֹרִי), Canaanites (הַכְּנַעֲנִי), Girgashites (הַגִּרְגָּשִׁי), and Jebusites (הַיְבוּסִי).
Importantly, in the covenant of Brit Milah, described a little further in the text here in Lech Lecha, different boundaries are given, as we’ll soon see. And for the purposes of defining the Biblical boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, the account much later, in Bemidbar 34:2-12, is usually referred to.15 These Biblical boundaries are also different from the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael given by Chazal,16 making the issue of the halachic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael a complex one.17
One traditional explanation of the seemingly expansive boundaries mentioned here in Brit bein ha-Betarim is that they refer to a future time and not our own. Another view holds that when examined carefully, the borders described in Brit bein ha-Betarim are actually in accord with the later Biblical boundaries given in Bemidbar.18 An additional possibility is that, if one takes the view that Brit bein ha-Betarim takes place in Harran,19 this vision can be said to describe the extent war of the kings, as proposed by Rav Yaakov Medan.20
Hagar and Yishmael
Sarai decides that since Hashem has clearly not blessed her with children, and since Avram is desperately in need of an heir, he should try to have a child with her Egyptian servant, Hagar (הָגָר). He agrees and Hagar becomes pregnant with Avram’s child. Sarai believes that since she has become pregnant, Hagar has begun to look down upon her. Sarai calls upon Hashem to decide between her and Hagar, and Avram tells Sarai to do whatever she thinks is right. Sarai treats Hagar harshly (וַתְּעַנֶּהָ) and Hagar runs away.
A messenger of Hashem (angel) encounters Hagar at a spring on the road to Shur (שׁוּר).21 The messenger instructs her to return to Sarai and submit to her harsh treatment, but also assures Hagar that her offspring will be too numerous to count. He further informs her that she will bear a son whose name is to be Yishmael, literally, “G-d has heard,” because Hashem has heard of her suffering. However, Yishmael will be “a wild ass of a person, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (וְהוּא יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ).22
In response, Hagar calls Hashem E-l Roi (“G-d has seen me” – קל רֳאִי). The well by which the angel found her is thereafter known as Be’er le-Chai Roi (בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי). She indeed bears a son to Avram when he is 86 years old, whom Avram duly names Yishmael.
Another covenant between Hashem and Avram occurs 14 years after the birth of Yishmael:
וַיְהִי אַבְרָם בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים וַיֵּרָא ה’ אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי אֵלשַׁדַּי הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים: וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am E-l Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless (tamim). I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”Bereshit 17:1-2
Avram falls on his face (וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם עַל פָּנָיו) and Hashem continues to speak to him, telling him that he will be the father of a multitude of nations (אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם) and many kings. His name is to be Avraham now, the addition of one letter (ה) in Hebrew.23 This brit is an “everlasting covenant throughout the ages” (לְדֹרֹתָם לִבְרִית עוֹלָם). The land of Canaan is assigned to Avraham’s offspring “as an everlasting holding” (לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם).
The covenant, Hashem explains, is to be kept through the circumcision of all males at the age of eight days. The consequence for failing to do so is being cut off from his people (excision – וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ).24 This is counted as the second positive commandment by Sefer ha-Chinuch.25
Hashem tells Avraham that Sarai’s name is now to be Sarah.26 Powerfully, the peshat of the pasuk states that this is because “her name is Sarah”: it’s not that her name is being changed, but rather that she is finally being acknowledged as her authentic self (לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ).
Next, Hashem informs Avraham that Sarah will receive special blessing and that she will be the mother of nations and progenitor of rulers. First, Avraham laughs; he is 100 years old, and Sarah is 90. He asks Hashem to watch over Yishmael, whom he believes is his best hope for an heir. But Hashem tells Avraham that he will in fact have a son by Sarah and that he should name him Yitzchak, “he laughs.” Yitzchak’s line will be the inheritors of the covenant, even as Yishmael’s heirs will be made numerous.
At the age of 99, Avraham circumcises his foreskin. He also circumcises his son Yishmael, who is then 13, and all the male members of his household.
Haftarah Summary – למה תאמר יעקב
The link between the haftarah and Lech Lecha is the explicit mention of Avraham and Hashem’s enduring promise to him, even as prolonged exile causes us to despair of ever being redeemed.
וְאַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתִּיךָ זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי: אֲשֶׁר הֶחֱזַקְתִּיךָ מִקְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ וּמֵאֲצִילֶיהָ קְרָאתִיךָ וָאֹמַר לְךָ עַבְדִּי אַתָּה בְּחַרְתִּיךָ וְלֹא מְאַסְתִּיךָ: אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹקיךָ אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
But you, Israel, My servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
Seed of Abraham My friend—
You whom I drew from the ends of the earth
And called from its far corners,
To whom I said: You are My servant;
I chose you, I have not rejected you—
Fear not, for I am with you,Yeshayahu 41:8-10
Be not frightened, for I am your G-d;
I strengthen you and I help you,
I uphold you with My victorious right hand.
Another interesting aspect of this haftarah is its mention of a mysterious righteous conqueror who will arise from the East:
מִי הֵעִיר מִמִּזְרָח צֶדֶק יִקְרָאֵהוּ לְרַגְלוֹ יִתֵּן לְפָנָיו גּוֹיִם וּמְלָכִים יַרְדְּ יִתֵּן כֶּעָפָר חַרְבּוֹ כְּקַשׁ נִדָּף קַשְׁתּוֹ
Who has roused a victor from the East,Yeshayahu 41:2
Summoned him to His service?
Has delivered up nations to him,
And trodden sovereigns down?
Has rendered their swords like dust,
Their bows like wind-blown straw?
Chazal (in Sanhedrin 108b, Taanit 21a, and elsewhere) identify this victor from the east as Avraham himself.27 Another identification is with the Persian King Cyrus (כורש), who allowed the exiles to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuilt the Beit ha-Mikdash.30
Featured image: The ruins of Ur in modern Iraq, a leading contender for the biblical Ur Kasdim; photo by Aziz1005 CC BY 4.0
- To this midrash about Avram, Rashi adds in our parsha that Avram and Sarai where already converting people to belief in one G-d back in Ur Kasdim. (He also mentions a peshat explanation in which Avram and Sarai merely acquire many servants, not converts.) See Rashi on Bereshit 12:5, from Bereshit Rabba 38:14 (the next piska after the kivshan ha-esh midrash).
- Ibn Ezra points out that the command of G-d to Avram could not have come after Terach’s death, because we know explicitly that (1) Terach was 70 years old when Avram was born (Bereshit 11:26), (2) Terach was 205 years old when he died (Bereshit 11:32); and (3) Avram was 75 when he left Harran (Bereshit 12:4). Thus, when Avram left Harran Terach was 145 years old and would have lived for another 60 years.
- A terebinth is a type of tree belonging to the cashew family, mentioned frequently in Tanach as a place-marker.
- The Secret of the Twelve is cryptically invoked in Ibn Ezra on Devarim 1:2. I have a comprehensive source sheet on it here. Ibn Ezra also mentioned this possibility locally on this verse: see Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 12:6.
- Rashi on Bereshit 12:6.
- This is mentioned in connection with Enosh; see Bereshit 4:26 in Parashat Bereshit.
- See Rashi on Bereshit 12:8. Ramban suggests that he literally called Hashem’s name loudly, publicizing it; see Ramban on Bereshit 12:8. Ibn Ezra mentions both possibilities; see Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 12:8.
- Brought by Rashi on Bereshit 14:7.
- In practice, rabbinic tradition explains that it is no longer possible to determine who is an Amalekite and we can’t practically carry out this important remembrance signaled in the Torah.
- Rashi on Bereshit 14:8, following Nedarim 32b, identifies Malkitzedek with Shem, the son of Noach.
- Amnon Bazak, To This Very Day: Fundamental Questions in the Bible Study, trans. Kaeren Fish with Elka Weber (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2020), 62-65. The basis of the idea is in a 1981 lecture by Elitzur published in Hebrew in Al Atar 4-5 (1989): 243-449.
- The first blessing of the Amidah, Birkat Avot, therefore ends with “Magen Avraham.”
- The phrase “Damesek Elizer” is an awkward one; Damesek, Anglicized as Damascus, normally refers to the well-known city. Rashi gives several possible explanations: per the Targum, this phrase could indeed refer to Eliezer’s place of origin; or, per the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 44:9), Eliezer has this appelation because he successfully routed the kings during the war as far as Damascus (though the Damascus mentioned there may not be the city in Syria with which we are familiar nowadays); or, finally, per the Talmud (in Yoma 28b), דמשק is an abbreviation of דולה ומשקה, “one who drew up and gave to drink,” i.e., instructed others in Torah.
- See Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 15:17.
- See also Shemot 23:31, Devarim 11:24, and compare these to the borders given in Yehoshua 1:4 and Yehoshua 15, Shoftim 20:1, and Yechezkel 47:15-20.
- See Mishnah Sheviit 6:1, Mishnah Gittin 1:2 (on Gittin 8a),
- I hope to look at the Biblical and halachic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael in greater detail when we reach Bemidbar (ב”ה).
- Rabbi Anthony Manning has a great, comprehensive source sheet on this with maps here.
- Based on Seder Olam Rabba 1, explored by Rashi on Shemot 12:41 and Ramban on Shemot 12:40.
- Yaakov Medan, “Berit Bein Ha-Betarim:’ The Covenant Between the Parts,” Torat Har Etzion Virtual Beit Midrash (blog), March 29, 2017. This understanding also has the merit of explaining the seeming confusion between Harran and Ur-Kasdim.
- See Shemot 15:22-23 for another mention of Shur. A few pesukim down we are told that it is between Kadesh and Bered.
- In medieval Hebrew, Yishmael denotes “Muslim,” as Yishmael was thought to be the ancestor of the Arab people.
- Rashi notes that this is an acronym (אבה”ם) for אב המון גוים, “father of multitudes,” with the original ר of אברם remaining, since he would have otherwise been only the father of ארם, Aram.
- Brit milah is restated in Parashat Tazria, Vayikra 12:3. Its primary site of discussion in the Bavli is in פרק רבי אליעזר דמילה (Perek 19) of Masechet Shabbat.
- In Rambam, see Sefer ha-Mitzvot Aseh 215; in Shulchan Aruch it is in Yoreh Deah 260.
- Rashi on Bereshit 17:15 understands the yud in Sarai was possessive: that is, she was previously a minister only to Avraham, but is now a ruler over many and is called by the general name sarah (female minister, leader, or princess). In Bereshit 17:5 Rashi also says that the yud of Sarai was later added to Hoshea, making him Yehoshua.
- This is brought down by Rashi on Yeshayahu 41:2 and Radak on Yeshayahu 41:2.
- See Ibn Ezra on Yeshayahu 41:2; he notes there that Chazal identify this figure with Avraham.28 Malbim suggests that this is a reference to Moshiach.29Malbim on Yeshayahu 41:2.