Hidden away between the stories of Abram’s battle prowess and his home-life woes is one of the most significant passages of the Abraham story: when God grants to Abram and his descendants the territory that will become Israel. It’s a great story of doubt and renewed faith, though it does involve the ritual slaughter of numerous innocent animals.
The story goes like this:
God speaks to Abram to reassure him that he will not die childless, reiterating the promise he made a few chapters earlier. Abram argues with God for a moment and then God agrees to give him a sign if he makes a large sacrifice. Abram performs the sacrifice, even protecting the meat from vultures. God speaks to him in another vision, relating that his descendants will be “strangers in a strange land” but that they will emerge victorious and conquer Canaan. And finally, God consumes the sacrifices (in a mystical oven?) and tells Abram about all of the land that his descendants will possess.
There’s a ton to talk about here. This brief passage is dense with great details.
The promises that God makes, and his prediction of the future, are naturally the most important details. By my count, God makes nine different promises to Abram, though some could be re-phrasing of other promises.
The first four promises are from his initial vision:
- God will protect Abram
- Abram will be given a great reward
- Abram will be given a child to be his heir (unclear if this is his reward)
- Abram’s descendants will be innumerable
The second four come after his sacrifice. Notably three of these pertain to the Exodus story:
- Abram’s descendants will be “strangers in a strange land” for some period of time, given both as 400 years and as four generations
- God will punish the enslaving nation
- Abram’s descendants will emerge from their enslavement with wealth
- Abram will die peacefully, of old age.
And after the sacrifice was consumed in God’s portable oven, he made one further promise. This is the only one referred to here as a covenant:
- God grants Abram’s descendants the land from the “river of Egypt” to the Euphrates, the territories currently controlled by ten tribes. (Several of which Abram had only recently saved from Chedorlaomer.)
Compared to the promises in Genesis 12, there are a lot more specifics here. In that initial passage, God promised Abram that he would found a great nation and be blessed. This set expounds on those.
What is also very interesting here is the way that God introduces himself in this passage. He says that “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is very evocative of the post-Exile “who brought you out of Egypt” introduction, but it seems very out of place here. For one thing, God didn’t directly bring Abram out of Ur. Unlike the Exodus story, Abram was free to go and it was his father that began the journey to Canaan, Abram just completed it. That would be like saying “who brought you out of New Jersey” today: yes, he may be glad to get out, but he only needed to take the turnpike. What is strange to me is that God didn’t introduce himself in relation to either of the two times that he DID act in a divine way to bring Abram out of a sticky situation: in Egypt and Gerar. And had he of said “out of Egypt”, the parallels would have been even more striking. As it is, it just seems wrong. It makes me feel almost as if this whole chapter was added later, after the Exodus story, in order to retroactively predict it. Not that we can ever know either way.
The double-dating of the Exile is also very bizarre. The text says both four generations and four hundred years. Now, in Abram’s time, lifespans were terribly long and so four generations could in theory be that long. But by the time you get to the Exodus, we are down to more reasonable lifespans. Moses lived to be 120. The number of generations isn’t even correct. From Levi to Moses is Levi->Kohath->Amram->Moses, except that there’s some incest in there and it’s also Levi->Jochebed->Moses. (Jochebed had kids with her nephew. Ewww.) Since Moses didn’t make it to Israel, we can say that is four generations, but Kohath was present when the Isarelites were exiled to Egypt so his generation may not count. In any event, the numbers don’t line up exactly.
On a more character basis, what I find great about Abram’s interactions with God is that he is argumentative. He “wrestles” with God to show that he means what he says, and in return appears to be rewarded with more elaborate (or at least more clear) promises. Noah notably didn’t contest God’s drowning of the world. This theme will be repeated when we get to Sodom and Gomorrah (where the Noah parallels are more apt), but it’s nice to see that aspect of Abram’s personality showing through at this early stage.
The final point is the “map” that God has drawn of Israel: it stretches from somewhere in Egypt, probably the Nile, to the Euphrates river. Although no northern boundaries are given, it must include territory that is part of modern Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Depending on how you draw the northern edge, Lebanon and Syria could be included. That’s a ton of territory and doesn’t match up with what is given later, in Numbers.
What accounts for the disparity? For one thing, I’m not so sure that God was defining Israel at all. My “Jewish Study Bible” says that it’s Israel in the footnotes, but God is bequeathing this land to Abram’s descendants. You can make that deduction based on the previous comment about the Exodus, but the text doesn’t say “Israelites”. But if you make it more inclusive, it makes more sense: This is the land that belongs to all of Abram’s children. That includes the descendants of Esau (his grandson), as well as the descendants of Ishmael and Abram’s other six sons. It won’t be until later that God will codify (with a separate covenant) the specific chunk of that land which will be given to Jacob’s descendants.
Next up: Abram finally has a kid! With the wrong woman!