The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from lech lecha (chapters 12:1-17:27)


                        Puzzles about covenants, patriarchal behavior, and circumcision


Abram enters into a contract with God called the brit bein ha’betarim, the “covenant between the divided pieces” (Genesis 15:9–21). The terms of this covenant are not spelled out to Abram,[1] and they are only found later in the Torah. God only mentions here that his descendants will become a great nation and that they will be given the land of Canaan as a home.

Scholars have recognized that the unusual method of finalizing the contract/pact/covenant found in chapter 15 followed the ancient manner of doing so. The two contracting parties walked between the divided pieces of a slain animal.[2]

Ignoring the ancient contractual legalities, a Midrash explains the event homiletically. God used the process to reveal to Abram the future history of his descendants.

The heifer of three[3] years indicates the dominion of Babylon (over the people of Israel), the she-goat of three years stands for the empire of the Greeks, the ram of three years for the Persian power, the rule of Ishmael is represented by the ram, and Israel is the innocent dove. Abram took these animals and divided them ([so that] these empires would collapse). Had he not done so, Israel would not have been able to resist the power of the four kingdoms. But the birds he did not divide, to indicate that Israel would remain whole. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.[4] (Ginzberg, Legends, vol. 1, pp. 235–236)

There are also other allegorical interpretations.

Should we understand this rabbinic Midrash to assure us that Israel’s survival is guaranteed, or does the Midrash only express the rabbis’ hope for Israel, but Israel’s existence depends on loyalty to God? Are the rabbis describing Abraham performing magical acts? Why is the Egyptian bondage (Genesis 15:13, 14) mentioned? Is it an example of Israel’s ability, with the help of God, to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles which might impede its progress toward national growth and development? Does God determine human history?


Patriarchal behavior

Abram’s wife Sarai is unkind to her handmaid Hagar, and Hagar runs away. Nachmanides comments on Genesis 16:6:

Our matriarch Sarah acted inappropriately with Hagar and so did Abraham for permitting her to do so. Therefore, God took cognizance of Hagar’s affliction and permitted her son to be a ”wild ass of a man,”[5] destined to deal harshly with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah with all manner of affliction.[6]

How can we reconcile Sarah’s conduct with our image of her as the righteous matriarch of Israel, of whom a Midrash said that the light of her magnificent spirit kindled brightly at all times?[7]

Does Nachmanides’ comment give credence to the expression, “What goes around comes around”—that is, sooner or later our actions are repaid measure for measure, for good and for bad? Does contemporary history, especially in terms of Arab-Israeli relations, validate Nachmanides’ view?

Nachmanides is saying that for generations after Abraham and Sarah, their descendants will be punished for their ancestors’ misdeeds, even if they personally do no wrong. Isn’t this similar to the Christian notion of original sin? Do you think that Nachmanides is correct?

Since Ishmael was the son of Abram, does that make it more than coincidental that prayer and charity emerged from the Arab peoples, from Islam, a faith committed to monotheism? Is there something in the genes that passes such values from one generation to the next? The psychologist C. G. Jung believed that this happens and called it archetypes. Do you agree with him or with Sigmund Freud, who mocked the notion?



Abraham is told to circumcise himself, his male household members, and his male descendants. We know that he was not the first person in history to undertake this procedure. A papyrus dated five hundred years before him has been found with pictures depicting Egyptian priests circumcising initiates into the priesthood.

Does God commanding Abraham and his descendants to embrace a rite already in existence—providing it with a new meaning and significance—diminish its importance in any way? What other examples of syncretism—that is, the process of borrowing a cultural practice from another people and transforming it into something uniquely meaningful to the borrower—can you find in the Torah? What about the sacrificial system, prayer, the holidays, the laws concerning kosher foods, and the law of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)? Weren’t they also taught in some ways by leaders in other ancient cultures?

[1] Scripture frequently leaves certain events unstated but elaborates upon them later.

[2] This concept of comparing behaviors described in the Bible with those practiced by other ancient cultures can reveal a wealth of information as well as helping us understand the Bible better.

[3] Note the use of the number three. I pointed out many times that the Bible, as well as other literature, including fairy tales, uses the number three frequently. It usually indicates “a lot, but not very much so, in contrast to seven which signifies completeness.” Three is also used to assure that something will happen, as when a person says or does something three times, such as reciting Kol Nidrei three times.

[4] Seemingly indicating that the nations’ harmful designs against Israel will be frustrated.

[5][5] This description “wild ass of a man” is puzzling. We really have no idea what it means. The words seem to be insulting, but the context of the verse seems to indicate that it is a positive gift.

[6] Nachmanides was unafraid of criticizing the patriarchs. He was convinced that Abraham acted disgracefully in misleading Egyptians and Philistines into believing that Sarah was his sister, which he did simply to save his own life. He does not take the next step and criticize Abraham for allowing his wife to be sexually mishandled by Egyptians and Philistines to save his life.

[7] Similarly, why does the Talmud say that anyone who claims that King David did wrong is mistaken; while the Bible itself says he did wrong?