By Carl W. Schneider*
God’s first words to Abram (whose name had not yet changed to Abraham) in their initial communication were “Go forth…to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation.” (Gen 12:1-3) God never identified himself as a deity, as He did in other important messages (Gen. 17:1, Ex. 3:6) God gave no details about the nature or consequences of the proposed relationship. At the time Abram was 75 and childless. According to the record, Abram did not ask the obvious questions such as: Who am I listening to – you have not identified yourself? How can a childless couple, consisting of a 75 year old man with an elderly barren wife, create a large family? In fact the record indicates that Abram did not utter a single word in the entire encounter. Without any due diligence and without any further communication from God, he simply followed the instruction and went forth with his family for the Promised Land. (Gen. 12-4) His actions were fairly naive and impulsive. Here is my alternative narrative.
Abram said to God. I am overwhelmingly grateful at your generous and unexpected offer. I am thrilled at the prospect You and my family will enter a covenantal relationship. But please indulge me if I request some clarification.
My counsel taught me that if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. As I understood your proposal, all I must do is go forth to the place you designate to receive land, progeny and all of the other wonderful benefits you described. As presented, there are no strings attached. You have not stated any material expectations for performance on my part, beyond going forth to claim the prizes. Tell me what consequences are likely to follow. Will anything be expected of me or my descendants, if I relocate in the Promised Land?
After a moment of hesitation, God replied. Well, I mention that your descendants will be subjected to 400 years of hard slavery in a foreign land. But rest assured that I will use a series of miracles to deliver them from the yoke of slavery at the end of that period, and they will leave with great wealth. (Gen. 15:14)
In lieu of the yoke of slavery, your descendants will accept the yoke of Torah. They will receive a set of 613 rules to follow. The rules will cover how they run their business and farms, employee relations, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, what they do when rising in the morning, retiring at night, or leaving their homes. The rules specify fast and feast days as well as other holidays to observe. In fact, the rules cover most of life’s activities. The rules cover what must and what may not be done. The reasons for some rules will be obvious. Others may seem totally arbitrary, with no apparent rationale.
Many of the rules will require ritualized burning of items such as animals, birds, grain or oil. Some items are to be incinerated to smoke while others are simply well grilled. A branch of your family will be picked to perform these rituals, and they will be entitled to eat the choicer burned items, such as grilled meats.
All rules must be followed. I am slow to anger. But I will become seriously vexed if I detect significant violations by leaders or widespread violation by the masses. The offenders will be subject to chastisements of My choosing. For example, if I specify the fire pan design for the burning rituals, and an official uses alien fire, he might be consumed by flames on the spot. (Lev. 10:1-2) If a group becomes rebellious, the earth may swallow them up. (Num. 16:31-34) If a legitimate leader is challenged inappropriately, the challenger may suffer a debilitating skin rash. (Num. 12:10) It is my policy to impose punishments not only on wrongdoers but also to the fourth generation of their families. (Ex. 20:5)
There may be some controversy within your descendants about how the rules are followed. Early on, many in your family will get involved with a golden calf. The details are unimportant. Suffice it to say, 3,000 from the calf party will be slaughtered by the group that knows how to do the right thing. (Ex. 32:28)
You should know that on the way from slavery to the Promised Land, one generation will be forced to wander for 40 years, and eventually die, in the desert. They will face food insecurity and other hardships. The people will complain endlessly about their leadership and their harsh conditions while on the move.
When you get to the Promised Land, you will find it occupied by several other nations. Ten of your 12 scouts will tell you that the natives look like giants and your tribe will look like grasshoppers in their eyes. Their cities will be well fortified. (Num. 13:31-33) But have confidence. Using My superior powers, I will help you conquer and occupy the Promised Land.
Although we enter this covenant when you are 75, you will be 100 when Sarah has her first child. (Gen. 17:1-2, 18:10, 21:5).
As a mark of our covenant, you and all your male descendants will have to be circumcised. (Gen. 17:10-14) Abram replied, etymologically, I know that the word means to “cut around,” but I am not familiar with this ritual. What is to be cut around? God explained.
I will expect you to change your name from Abram to Abraham and your wife will change hers from Sarai to Sarah. (Gen. 17:5, 17:15)
Abram said to God, I will consult my counsel and give my response tomorrow. Abram rose early the next morning and called out to God, saying here I am. Reluctantly I must decline Your gracious offer. But I remain very anxious to enter into a covenant with You. Permit me to share my concerns.
My family is well established here in Haran. We have adequate land for our farms and for grazing our herds and flocks. My elderly father has a high end idol shop in Haran, Terah & Son. It will be mine eventually if I remain here. I promised my father to manage the shop as long as he lives and I would not feel right in leaving Haran at this time. I love the idea of having children of my own, but I already have a nephew, Lot, who is now like a son to me. Submitting my descendants to 400 year of slavery is a non-starter. I could not consider it.
Frankly, it troubles me that the Promised Land is occupied by other nations and we must take possession of it by conquest. I fear that those nations will try to retake their ancestral homelands and we will be subjected to an endless series of wars. Even if You can assure us victory with Your superior powers (after all, who is like You among all the other gods), we would not want to live under a perpetual threat of attack, if not actual war. No matter how often we win, if we lose one war we can be expelled from the Promised Land or pushed into the sea.
Besides, moving is complicated and expensive. Your directive that I go forth did not include reimbursement for moving expenses. If I relocate, I will expect such reimbursement.
In summary, Your proposal is very tempting, but Sarai and I are very well and comfortably established here in Haran. We feel that we cannot accept Your proposed covenant on exactly the terms offered. Permit me, with respect, to suggest a few changes and I believe we could then enter a mutually agreeable covenant.
First, drop the relocation provision, which will also eliminate the need for a generation doomed to desert wandering. I agree that our growing family will need more land. The area around Haran is thinly populated. Secure additional space for us that will be needed for our growing tribe within 300 miles of Haran. The precise number of square miles can be determined in further discussion.
Second, the slavery condition is out of the question under any circumstances. The value of the labor pool represented by the slaves for 400 years is far out of proportion to the benefits we would receive from the covenant. Here is my alternative suggestion. For five generations, each male in our tribe will agree to five years of indentured servitude, starting at age 13. They will work on building fixed or portable tabernacles or temples, as well as other infrastructure projects for the good of the community. All labor-related provisions of the 613 rules will apply to the indentured servants.
Third, make two changes in Your punishment policy. It is unfair to punish anyone for wrongdoing of an ancestor. Punish only wrongdoers, but not their children or later generations of their families. Also, in fixing punishments, we would like assurance that You access Your attribute of mercy as well as Your attribute of justice.
Fourth, I am feeling very queasy about circumcision, especially in my age. Let us substitute a distinctive tattoo on the thigh, say a six pointed star, instead of cutting.
Fifth, do not make us wait until I am 100 to have our first child. Sarah will be post-menopausal by then and who knows about our fertility. (Gen. 18:11) Let him be born here in Haran as soon as practical.
One other point I consider non-substantive but important. I are very pleased that my descendants will be Your Chosen People, Your personal possession, a kingdom of priests, a blessing to the world and a light to the nations. However, I fear that if these special relationships become widely known, they will cause hostility, jealousy and resentment among our neighbors. Our special positions may cause us more problems than benefits, by subjecting us to prejudice, discrimination and possibly even expulsion. Therefore, I suggest that any information regarding our special status or relationship be kept strictly confidential between You and my family elders, and not made known to third parties. On my side, our special status will be disclosed only to senior leaders on a need-to-know basis.
God, if You will agree to these changes, I, on behalf of myself, Sarai and all of our descendants, will accept You as our one and only God and You shall be our One. Our covenantal relationship will be in accordance with the terms You stated, subject to these changes.
God said to Abram, I knew you were smart, cautious and well represented by counsel. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I selected you for a covenant. I am not surprised that you have made a counterproposal, but I am frankly surprised by the scope of the suggested modifications. My answer is …
After several rounds of counterproposals from each side and some tense negotiation, God and Abraham agreed as follows: The Promised Land would remain in Canaan. Abraham would relocate at his own expense. The period of slavery was reduced to 20 years with the possibility of reduced time for good behavior. The tribe would be permitted to travel through the desert at whatever pace it set for itself. It was estimated that the trip to the Promised Land would take six to 12 months. God agreed to punish only wrongdoers, but not their offspring. God rejected Abram’s proposal that Sarah become pregnant as soon as possible. Both parties agreed it was not be ideal to travel while Sarah was pregnant or when the family included a newborn. So they reached a compromise that Abraham’s son would be born as soon as practical after Abraham arrived in Canaan. All the other terms proposed by God were agreed upon.
Lot agreed to take over the management of Terah’s idol shop. Terah was delighted. He felt that Abram had tried his best but was not an effective salesman, probably because Abram was never convinced that idols could really accomplish anything.
Abraham’s counsel breathed a sigh of relief when the revised covenant was concluded. He realized that there was a very delicate balance between negotiating the best possible deal and being overly aggressive to the point where no agreement can be reached. Abraham had no bargaining leverage. By requesting multiple changes, he had gambled that God would not simply select another available candidate for His favors. At times it seemed likely that negotiations would fall apart, and that Abraham would miss what would turn out to be a very favorable arrangement.
The covenant itself changed with time. Before Jacob would accept God as his deity, Jacob insisted on several significant conditions that God would have to fulfill first. (Gen. 28:20-22) By the time of Sinai, the momentum reversed. God imposed a whole Torah full of commandments on the Abraham’s descendants that were never mentioned to Abraham when the covenant was first proposed.
The formal record of the covenant raises another question worth considering: Why did God select Abraham as His covenant partner in the first place? With the goal of starting a large tribe, it was odd for God to pick an elderly childless couple with questions about their own fertility. (Gen. 18:10-11) Why not start with a younger couple that had already borne children and proven their fertility?
It is easy to surmise why God picked some key figures. The record tells us that Noah was selected to save humankind and the animals from the Flood because he was a righteous man, blameless in a lawless age. (Gen. 6:9) When God picked Moses to lead the Exodus, He selected the only Hebrew in all of Egypt who was raised as a family member of the royal court. He was familiar with its ways. Who was better suited to negotiate with Pharaoh?
What does the record tell us about Abraham? He was simply a generic upper middle class rancher and businessman. He was successful but not a self-made man. Rather, he was born into a wealthy and prominent family. Abraham was fairly worldly and could act as a mensch. He knew the conventions in buying property, a burial cave, from a neighbor. It was inappropriate for him to accept a purported gift of the property when everyone knew he was expected to decline the gift and pay full price. (Gen. 23:10-16) He knew the hospitality one was expected to extend to strangers in the desert. (Gen. 18:2-8) When it became necessary to part from Lot, Abraham gave his nephew the first choice of locations. (Gen. 13:9-12) Abraham stood up to God and argued for justice in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:23-32), although not when God demanded the sacrifice of Isaac. (Gen. 22)
But Abraham could also act in a shameful and caddish way. For his own safety, he twice passed off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister, and he caused her to participate in the deception. He resorted to this reprehensible scheme to fool local leaders, who might have killed her perceived husband in order that that they could consort with Sarah. However, these leaders would not feel the need to harm her perceived brother in order to consort with her. (Gen 12:10-16, 20:1-16) What a trauma to inflict on Sarah!
I find nothing in the record suggesting that Abraham had any special qualifications to be God’s covenant partner. In passing, we are told that God selected him to pass the law on to his children (Gen. 18:19), but there is no indication that Abraham had any special talent as an instructor. Like most of the patriarchal family, he was an imperfect person with character flaws. Indeed, God may have picked Abraham not because he was especially qualified but precisely because he was so typical — an everyman if you will. Or maybe the selection was a random choice on God’s part.
If Abraham had over-negotiated the covenant and caused the discussions to abort, no doubt God could have found many other covenant candidates, even in the small town of Haran, whose credentials were equal, if not superior, to Abraham’s. In hindsight, it was probably quite prudent of Abraham to accept God’s terms, no questions asked.
*Mr. Schneider, a retired Philadelphia lawyer, is a member of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom, and participates regularly in Torah Study led by the Congregation’s renowned Clergy.