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) 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 family of many offspring? 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 with God, Abram simply followed the instruction and went forth with his family heading for the Promised Land. (Gen. 12-4) 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. 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 — any quid pro quo — 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 Egypt. 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 during the year. In fact most of life’s activities are covered by the rules. Some of the rules control what they must do, others what they may not do. 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 and some are simply well grilled. A particular branch of your family will be designated to perform these rituals, and they will be entitled to eat some of the choicer items that are to be burned, 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 dessert. 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. I will once again use my superior powers to deliver you a victory. You will conquer the Promised Land and occupy it with My help.
Although we are making the covenant now, when you area 75, you will be 100 when I announce Sarah’s forthcoming initial pregnancy. (Gen. 17:1, 18:10)
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)
You and Sarah will have a son, but it will not occur 25 more years, when you are 100. (Gen. 17:1-2, 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.
Abram said to God, you have given me much to ponder. I will consult my counsel and give you 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, which will some day be mine if I remain here. I have promised my father that I would run the shop as long as he lives and I would I 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. It is something I could not consider.
Frankly, I am very troubled that the Promised Land is currently occupied by other nations and we must take possession of the land by conquest. I anticipate that those nations will want to retake what was once 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. Ex. 15:11)), , we would not want to live under a perpetual threat of attack if not actual warfare. No matter how often we win, if we lose one war we can be expelled from the Promised Land or pushed into the sea .
(Although Abraham did not say so, he felt there was a bait and switch element from the land offer in the initial conversation. He expected the desert wandering to lead to a vacant territory his descendants could simply enter peaceably and claim as their own. In fact it would lead to the border of a area settled by others which would have to be occupied by force of arms.)
Besides, moving is a complicated and expensive proposition. I noticed that Your proposal that I go forth did not include any reimbursement for moving and relocation expenses. If our final arrangement does involve my relocation, 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 in exactly the terms offered. Permit me, with respect, to suggest a few changes and I believe we could then enter a covenant on mutually agreeable terms.
First, drop the relocation provision, which will also eliminate the need for a generation doomed to dessert wandering. I agree that our descendants will need more land as our family grows. 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. In passing I note that 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 on the point of a labor pool. 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 that You designate. All labor-related provisions of the 613 rules will apply to the indentured servants.
Third, I suggest two changes in your punishment policy. I feel it is unfair for anyone to be punished for wrongdoing of an ancestor. Only wrongdoers should be punished, but not their children or later generations of their families. Also, when you design 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. Adult circumcision can cause serious disability. (Gen. 24:38). Let us substitute a distinctive tattoo on the thigh, say a six pointed star, instead of cutting.
Fifth, I don’t 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) Arrange for us to have our son 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 detriments 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 any 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 the proposed covenant. I am not surprised that you have made a counterproposal, but I am frankly surprised by the scope of the modifications you suggest. My answer is …
After several rounds of counterproposals from each side and some tense negotiation, the 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 dessert 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, it was agreed that Abraham and Sarah’s son would be born as soon practical after their arrival at the Promised Land. All the other terms proposed by God were agreed upon.
Because the covenant was to last in perpetuity, God agreed with Abraham’s suggestion that it be reduced writing. As adopted, it confirmed God’s authority to adopt statutes, ordinances, rules and regulations, without limitation as to subject matter. However, God agreed to publish proposals and allow 60 days for public comments, which He would consider, before adopting any definitive versions.
Lot agreed to take over the management of Terah’s idol shop, which was very satisfactory to Terah. Terah 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 final covenant was concluded. He realized in hindsight 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 a 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 before he left Haran.
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 the spouses questioning 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 the 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 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 dessert. (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) He would stand up to God and plead 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 little in the record suggesting that he had any special qualifications to be God’s covenant partner. In passing, we are told that God selected Abraham to pass the law on to his children (Gen. 18:19), but there is no indication that he 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.
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.