From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

In Genesis 23, Abraham moved away from Beer-sheba. While he was there, he passed off Sarah to king Abimelech as his sister, had a son with Sarah at an impossible age, sent Hagar and Ishmael away at Sarah’s insistence, made a covenant of friendship with Abimelech, and nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah. Now, he has brought Sarah and his household to Kiriath-arba, also called Hebron.

Map of Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, and surrounding area
Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, located about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.

He and Sarah have some history there. After he and Lot separated, he settled there at the Oaks of Mamre nearby (Gen 13:18). They were living there when he had to rescue Lot from the kings of Goiim (Genesis 14:1-15).

Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

One hundred twenty-seven years, so Abraham is one hundred thirty-six, and Isaac is thirty-six.

Kiriath-arba, named for Arba, the greatest of the Anakim (Gen 14:15). The last time we saw Abraham and Sarah in this area, Abraham hosted three angels before they went to Sodom (Genesis 18). This was when Sarah heard the angel of the LORD promise she would have a son and name him Isaac. Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. They had moved to Beer-sheba by the time Isaac was born (Gen 20:1; 21:1). So it’s been thirty-six or thirty-seven years since then.

Though they have not been here in a while, the place has some memories for them. Perhaps he came because he Sarah asked him to bury her here.

Find the Anachronism

Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

The Hittites, a bit of a misnomer. The Hittites, like the Philistines, did not show up here until several centuries later. The Hebrew is literally “sons of Heth,” meaning “pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine” (HC NRSV 23:3 note; see also 10:15). On the history of the Hittites in the region, see Eze 16:3, 45.

I am a stranger and an alien residing among you. Kindness to the stranger and alien was always important to Abraham and his sense of right and wrong. Even Lot, who seems to have been corrupted by living among the Sodomites, never forgot that. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Ownership of burial land is a crucial step in establishing legal residence” (23:1-20 note). We are starting to see the of fulfillment of God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham has the well of Beer-sheba, and now the cave of Machpelah.

A Hero’s Welcome

Even though Abraham has not been there in decades, the sons of Heth have not forgotten him. They speak to him with the same respect he shows them. When Abraham rescued Lot from kidnappers, I wonder if some of their children were among the others he rescued. That seems the most likely explanation for calling him a mighty prince among us.

Bury my dead. He doesn’t say, “bury my wife.” The phrase suggests a legal formula.

Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. He said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me Ephron son of Zohar, so that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as a possession for a burying place.”

Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it; in the presence of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

Even though Ephron seems to know him well, Abraham speaks almost as if he doesn’t recognize him. Entreat for me…, also suggests a legal formula or ritual.

Abraham wanted the cave of Machpelah to bury his dead. He knows Ephron son of Zohar owns this land. The names are Semitic, not Hittite. Cf. 26:34; 2 Sa 11:3.

All who went in at the gate of the city, where business transactions often took place. This is likely a formal description of the elders of the city, who judged or decided official matters. The way they speak, especially Abraham, sounds very formal, as if this were a familiar ceremony to the sons of Heth.

Abraham offers to buy it for the full price, because he needs a burying place. But instead, Ephron offers to give it to him. He’s being very generous.

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. He said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “If you only will listen to me! I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

Business in the Middle East almost always involves haggling. Usually the buyer tries to argue down the price, and the seller argues for more. But here Abraham wants to pay more, and Ephron is trying to give it away. Abraham wants to give the price of the field, so that I may bury my dead there. Ephron says he can bury his dead there. But he doesn’t want to take any money. “I give it to you,” he says. “Bury your dead.”

A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver…, Ephron must be fairly wealthy, because four hundred pieces of silver was nothing to sneeze at. It only took thirty pieces of silver for Judas to sell out Jesus.

What is that between you and me? This is something you say to someone who has been a friend for a long time. He’s saying, “Four hundred shekels of silver is nothing compared to our friendship. Just take it. It’s yours. Bury your dead.”

An Agreement Is Reached

Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

Abraham agreed, lit. heard. Cf. vv. 6, 11, 13; Translation Notes. Ephron was willing to give him the land for free, but Abraham still insisted on paying. This reminds me of the time when King David wanted to secure the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Zion. A man named Araunah was keeping it on his threshing floor. David wanted to buy the land to build an altar to the LORD and make burnt offerings there, before taking the Ark to the place God had chosen. Araunah recognized how important this was not just to David but to the whole nation. He offered his threshing floor to David for free, like Ephron did for Abraham. But David said,

“No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.”

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

I think Abraham felt the same way. He had been married to Sarah for a hundred years, maybe a little more, and he did not want to bury her in a place that cost him nothing.

So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city.

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

 Abraham has secured a burying place for his wife and himself. He will later be buried in the same cave (Gen 25:9-10; 49:29-32). And he got more than just the cave. He got the trees in the field too. In the last post, I talked about Abraham planting a tree. Here, he and Sarah wanted to claim a burial plot with trees around them. I bet they appreciated trees more than most people today, considering they spent a lot of time in the desert. Trees gave beauty, shade, and sign of life in the land.

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

This scene is great for humanizing Abraham. We see him grieving the death of his wife. He knows exactly where he wants to bury her. The text doesn’t say Sarah requested this, but it’s not hard to imagine she did. We see his friendly relations with the people of Kiriath-arba. Though Abraham is a stranger and an alien among the Sons of Heth, they regard him as “a mighty prince among us.”

The text says, “He rose up from beside his dead” (23:3). He is still keeping her corpse. I see no indication how long this is, but he goes straight from a vigil beside her corpse to the sons of Heth. He says he wants this place to bury Sarah “so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4). Do you feel the pain in that? I sure do.

His negotiation with Ephron is the opposite of normal bartering. The seller tries to give it away, but the buyer insists on paying fair market value. But it is exactly the kind of negotiation that would happen between friends. Ephron recognizes Abraham’s loss. He is in a position to offer a special kindness to his friend. “You need to bury your wife, so go ahead. Take the field. It’s yours. Don’t worry about payment. Between you and me, this is nothing.” But Abraham can’t bring himself to accept it. He cannot bury his wife in a plot of land that costs him nothing. It’s a very touching moment.

A mighty prince like Abraham of course becomes known for doing great things. I think their favor and friendship to Abraham goes back to the incident where Abraham rescued Lot from the kings of Goiim. Abraham was actually living among the Oaks of Mamre nearby when this happened. I believe some of these Sons of Heth were among those taken captive. That is why they called him “a mighty prince.” And it’s possible that among them, his legend has grown greater in his absence.

But heroes need some humanity for the audience to connect with them. This is the kind of scene and humanization that will help your readers connect with your characters.

Finding a Wife for Isaac

In the next chapter, Abraham finally gets around to finding a wife for Isaac. It is a long chapter, so I’m going to start it in this post.

Isaac was thirty-six when Sarah died. Abraham still has not found a wife for him. He seems to be dragging his feet, considering how important it is to continue the bloodline of Isaac. I used to think the death of Sarah lit a fire under him to get moving—well, of course, give him time to mourn first—but it would be another four years before Abraham decided it was time to get his son hitched, so he could have a grandson (Gen 25:20). With the lifespans for Abraham and his family typically being in the mid- to late- hundreds, maybe this was not so unusual. And God gave Isaac to him and Sarah when they were in their nineties, so maybe he did not think about it much.

Now, don’t roll your eyes at me. I’ve explained in earlier posts this writer’s audience had heard stories of impossibly long lifespans in the ancient world, and how he used his audience’s expectations in Abraham’s saga.

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

Abraham was old, well advanced in years. This could be the reason. We are told later Isaac was forty, which would make Abraham one hundred forty (Gen 25:20). If he was close to dying, that would explain why he felt now was the time to find a wife for Isaac. He would want to be sure that was taken care of before he was dead and buried. But he went on to live to one hundred seventy-five (Gen 25:7). It doesn’t sound like he should be on his death bed yet.

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

Abraham calls in his most trusted servant and charges him with finding a wife for Isaac. He makes the servant swear in an unusual manner. This is another example of how different cultural practices can make us uncomfortable when we see them for the first time.

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and earth,

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

Say what??? Put your hand under my thigh? That almost sounds like sexual harassment. But that is not what Abraham has in mind. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Near the organs of procreation, signifying the solemnity of the oath that follows.”

Okay. Apparently, this was a custom of the time, even though this is the only place in the Bible where two people make a vow in this manner. If I were the servant, though, I think I’d say, “Can’t I just split a sheep in half and vow to you while I walk through the blood?” (See Gen 15:9-21).

Abraham has some very specific ideas about the kind of woman he wants for Isaac, so here’s the vow.

“…that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

One requirement is he does not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. The local girls aren’t right for his son. The servant has to go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.” He does not want a shiksa for a daughter-in-law. I have a feeling, if Sarah were alive, she would say the same thing. Remember how George explained “shiksappeal” to Elaine in this scene from Seinfeld, the “Serenity Now” episode?

Seinfeld Meme, George tells Elaine, "You've got 'shiksappeal.' Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that's not like their mother."
No shiksa for Isaac.

His country could be in Ur of the Chaldees or Mesopotamia in general. But when he says he wants the servant to go to his kindred and get a wife for Isaac, that means going to Haran, where his brother Nahor still lived. The Hebrew word for kindred (moledeth) refers specifically to a blood relative, so he wants a woman from his brother’s family. Remember, Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarah. The woman the servant would bring back would most likely be Isaac’s cousin. This kind of incestuous marriage would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But to Abraham and his family, marrying within the family appeared to be not only accepted but preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
Cersei: That’s cute.

The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”

Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”

So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

Abraham seems to have conflicting desires for his son. He does not want Isaac to take a wife among the people where he lives. However, he does not want Isaac going back to their country, where an acceptable wife could be found. So he sends his servant to go without Isaac and entrusts the choice to the LORD, the God of heaven.

He trusts God with this, because God was the one who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth and … swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ That explains why he does not want Isaac to go there himself. They were already in the land God promised them. There is no place in the kingdom of heaven for those who, after beginning to follow the LORD, turn back to where they were before.

[The LORD] will send his angel before you. The servant has been around his master long enough to know he is a prophet (Gen 20:7), so that should make him feel better about his prospects for success. However, the servant recognizes he could make the journey, find a woman suitable for Isaac, and she could still veto his choice. Abraham tells him if that happens, he is off the hook as far as this vow goes. Apparently, even in this patriarchal society, the woman did have some control over who she married. In that case, Abraham will have to come up with a plan B.

What will happen to the servant when he gets to Haran? Will he find a wife suitable for Isaac? Will she agree to leave her country and kindred and go back with the servant? Will she marry Isaac sight unseen and become part of the bloodline of the Messiah? Tune in next week and find out, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. (Or, to state the obvious, you could read the rest of Genesis 24).

Further Study

-Location and references to Kiriath-arba (Hebron).

-Oaks of Mamre: “Do You Want a Long Life?” God as a Gardener (blog).

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

Oak of Mamre (Quercus calliprinos), called a Palestinian Oak, the most common tree in the modern nation of Israel. Sometimes mistakenly translated “terebinth,” which is actually a different tree.

“In the Bible, oaks were associated with power, strength, or longevity in the sense of long life. The great oaks of Mamre symbolized Abraham’s long life. A Palestinian oak near Hebron, called Abraham’s Oak, is thought to be over 850 years old.”

-Carolyn Roth, “Do You Want a Long Life?

Kiryat Arba or Qiryat Arba (Hebrew: קִרְיַת־אַרְבַּע), lit. “Town of the Four.”

Arba in Hebrew is “four.” It is also the name of the father of Anak, founder of the Anakim. Anak, who was believed to have been a giant, had three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, also believed to have been giants (Jos 15:13-14). If Arba here means “four,” then this could mean the town of the four giants. Or it could refer to the four patriarchs who are buried there: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam. Adam’s placement here does not come from the Bible but from a Rabbinic tradition called the Zohar.


“Abraham agreed with Ephron” (Gen 23:16 NRS). וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע (WTT). qal waw consecutive masculine singular. Halladay gives one possible translation as “heed,” which matches “agree with” in this translation.

8737  שָׁמַע  

1. hear: abs. Is 12; w. acc.: s.one speak Gn 276, voice 310, trumpet Je 419listen to s.one Ez 37; w. acc. of thing (content of message) Ps 1326; w. kî 2S 1126; w. indir. qn. Ju 711; w. dir. qn. w/o introduction Dt 92; — 2. listen to s.thg Am 523, abs. Gn 275; listen (& agree) 238; w. °el Is 463, … Pr 834; … gladly hear 2S 1936; — 3. heed (a request) Gn 1720; 306, … 1611; — 4. hear > obey Ex 247;… Gn 2218, … 287; abs. be obedient 2K 1411; — 5. hear = understand: obj. … Gn 117; … — 6. š¹ma± bên try, examine (as a judge) Dt 116; distinguish 2S 1417.

(Halladay, p. 377)

Character Study Abraham, part 1

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews is like the Faith Hall of Fame. It lists people from the Old Testament who accomplished great things “by faith.” I’d like to start this character study of Abraham by looking at his entry in this august chapter.

Abraham receiving the promises of God.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

(Heb 11:8-12 NRS)

His list of accomplishments continues, but let’s stop here for a while. In verse 12 (above), the one person referred to is Abraham. He is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible, and the reasons are mostly related to his faith. By faith, or because of his faith, he left his home in Ur of the Chaldees with his father to go to Canaan. His father only made it as far as Haran (Gen 11:31-32).

After his father’s death, he heard God call him to the land of Canaan and obeyed. He and Sarah and all their household went with him, wandering and living in tents, because they had no land to call their own. Abraham did this because he believed God’s promise that his descendants would inherit all the land of Canaan, despite three great reasons not to believe it:

  1. He had no descendants. His wife Sarah was infertile, so they had no children.
  2. Sarah was past childbearing age. She was doubly infertile now.
  3. Abraham was past childbearing age, “as good as dead” in terms of his procreating ability.

In the face of all this, God promised Abraham to make his descendants “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Gen 15:5; 22:17).

Paul says of Abraham, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom 4:19 NRS).

Wow, what a model of faith. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, so he had no doubt whatsoever, even though he was a hundred and Sarah, who was ninety, had been barren her whole life. He believed what God said immediately and never doubted for a second. Actually, it appears Paul was engaging in revisionist history, because here is what the original account in Genesis says.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

(Gen 17:17 NRS)

What does the Bible really say about Abraham? That would take a whole book to go through. For now, I’ll just focus on the two instances where God promised descendants to Abraham.

Genesis 15

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

(Gen 15:1-3 NRS)

At this point, he is not called Abraham but Abram. He and his wife are Abram and Sarai. It’s not until chapter 17 that God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. Abram has already thought about who will be his heir. He has no offspring, so he made a trusted slave his heir. He thinks that is the best he can do. God has just promised him, “Your reward shall be very great,” yet he cannot believe it because he continues childless.

It sounds like he expected God to give him children, and God hasn’t delivered. Let’s go back to chapter 12 when God first appeared to Abram.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

(Gen 12:1-4 NRS)

God called Abram when he was seventy-five years old, which should give hope to some of us late-bloomers. God commanded him:

  1. to leave his country, his father’s house, and his kindred
  2. to go to a land God would show him (turned out to be Canaan).

God made promises to Abram:

  1. God will make him a great nation
  2. God will bless him and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing
  3. God bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him
  4. In him, all families of the world will be blessed.

Those are some pretty big promises. But many of them appear to be contingent on his bearing children. Perhaps he could build a great nation, but without descendants, how could it continue? How can his name be great if he has no sons to carry on his name after he dies? All families of the world will be blessed through him, but what about his own family? How can a man with no family of his own bless other families?

These are some of the questions that must have crossed Abram’s mind between the time he left his father’s house in the land of Haran and this scene in chapter 15. God made some great promises, but Abraham still can’t comprehend how God will bring them to pass. Now God has decided it’s time to take on Abram’s questions head on.

But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”

 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 (Gen 15:4-6 NRS)
The vision of the Lord directing Abraham to count the stars (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Bible in Pictures)
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5 NRS)

Abraham’s Righteousness

This is probably the incident Paul was thinking of in Romans 4:19 (above). Abram is not a hundred, and Sarai is not ninety in this scene. We’re not told how old Abram is at this point. We just know it’s between seventy-five and eighty-six, because Ishmael has not been born yet.

In response, we are told Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is a very important verse to Paul. It is one of the cornerstone verses for his doctrine of salvation through faith, not by works of the Law (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6. For a different application, see Jam 2:23).

The LORD reckoned his belief/faith (translations vary) as righteousness. This happened long before the Law of Moses even existed. Therefore, Paul contended, righteousness comes by faith, not by works of the Law. This is the scene we are told Abram indeed did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body. He was not good as dead yet, but he and Sarah had never had children, and her clock was ticking.

So it appears if you want to be righteous before God, you should be like Abram. When God says something, just believe it. Do not weaken in faith; do not doubt; do not consider your circumstances. Abram believed the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. So if the Bible says it, just believe it. Don’t question, don’t doubt. Believe like Abram, and you will be righteous like Abram.

Really?

But I’ve already shown you a couple of chapters later, when God makes the same promise, Abram laughs. Not only that, here’s what happens just in the next verses.

Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”

But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

(Gen 15:7-8 NRS)

How am I to know that I shall possess it? Does that sound like someone who did not weaken in faith? To review, God promises Abram:

  1. He will have an heir of his own issue. In other words, his heir will be his son biologically, not by adoption. Abraham believed that.
  2. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed that.
  3. He would possess the land of Canaan. Abram asked God for proof.

Is two out of three good enough? No, with God, it’s all or nothing. You believe everything, or you’re not righteous in God’s eyes. Except God already counted Abram righteous after believing the first two promises. But God can’t do anything unless we believe. I guess Abram will receive the promise of an heir of his issue and many, many descendants. But as for possessing the land of Canaan, he just lost that promise, because he did not believe. You know I’m kidding, right?

No, God’s plans are not derailed because Abram showed a moment of doubt. If you’re trying to make Abram a paragon of belief that never wavers, never weakens, never questions, and never doubts, you are not reading the Bible. That is probably what annoys me most about a lot of Biblical fiction. They think they have to portray characters like Abraham as always believing, always honest, always faithful, and in doing so, they rob them of their humanity. How are we supposed to connect with them if they were too perfect to be human? Thankfully, the Bible does not do that.

Let’s Cut a Covenant, Abram

In order to understand what happens next, you have to know something about blood covenants. In Abram’s world, people would often use covenant ceremonies to seal an agreement. They almost always involved shedding blood in some fashion. In some cultures, they might cut themselves to use their own blood to seal the agreement. More often, the blood would come from an animal. One type of ceremony involved lining up several animals and splitting them in half. Each party in turn would walk between the halves of the animals, their feet bathing in the blood, while speaking their promises in the agreement. This sounds brutal to us today, but the fact is it was a brutal world.

The point is when you hear what God tells Abram to do, don’t think in modern terms. Abram was already very familiar with this type of ceremony.

He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

(Gen 15:9-11 NRS)

I wonder how he went about doing this. What kind of blade did they have in the Middle Bronze Age capable of splitting all those animals in two? I’d think you would need steel the quality of a Samurai sword, which obviously was not available then. But since it was a common practice, they must have figured out a way to do it. Of course when you have three dead animals and two dead birds all lined up, that’s going to attract some buzzards, so Abram had to drive them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

(Gen 15:12 NRS)

I love that phrase a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. It really creates a mood. Perhaps it foreshadows the night of Passover, when darkness covered the land of Egypt. Abram’s mind must have been conjuring all kinds of creepy thoughts of what might happen next.

God Appears to Digress

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

(Gen 15:13-14 NRS)

This is definitely foreshadowing his descendants’ bondage in Egypt and the deliverance called Passover. Of course, ancient Israelites listening to this story would know what this was referring to. After telling Abram he would die in peace and in old age (v. 15; he lived to be 175 years old), God tells him,

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

(Gen 15:16 NRS)

So Abram’s descendants will be slaves of another nation. God will bring judgment on that nation, they will escape with great possessions, and they shall come back here (the land God is promising to his descendants). Why doesn’t God just give him the land now, and then they will won’t have to go through slavery and oppression? God says the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

What happens when their iniquity is complete?

The reason God says he will give this land to Abram’s descendants is because of the iniquity of the current inhabitants, here the Amorites. When Moses writes down the Law for the Israelites, he warns them not to engage in the same iniquities as the Amorites (and a bunch of other nations), or God will drive them out of the land as well (Lev 18:24; 1 Ki 21:26; 2 Ki 21:11).

What iniquity is God talking about? After reading the prophets, I have to say it is mainly injustice and unrighteousness, corruption in religion and government. The natives of the land are all living according to what is right in their own eyes rather than loving their neighbors as themselves. That is what the prophets complained about the most. Verse 16 means if trends keep going as they are, the Amorites will reach a point where they are totally irredeemable. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants in order to establish a people who live by righteousness and justice (Gen 18:19).

I’m not sure what God meant by the fourth generation. God just said they will be there for 400 years. A generation is normally considered 40 years, so it would take 10 generations for them to come back here. That requires further study.

Abraham’s First Theophany

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

(Gen 15:17 NRS).

This is an example of a theophany. A theophany is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” It means God is appearing in person in a visible form. For example, during the wandering in the Wilderness, God appeared to the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As you can imagine, a theophany is rare. So far, Abram has only heard God speaking but hasn’t seen God take on any visible form. That changes in this verse. The theophany here is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The text doesn’t specify how Abram heard God’s voice up until now, but this time the voice will come out of the theophany.

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

(Gen 15:18-21 NRS)

This ceremony was familiar to Abram, as I said before. Of course, you did not promise something in this manner unless you were serious. I think the symbolism said, “If I break the terms of this covenant, may I be split in half like these animals.” I’m not sure, but I think both parties of the covenant usually passed between the halves while declaring their part of the agreement. In this case, God passes through, but Abram does not. God makes promises, but Abram does not. You would expect if God gave so much to Abram, God would expect something in return. I think God did want something from Abram, but God does not say anything about it here. We should revisit that later. For now, though, Abram’s mind must have been blown.

Conclusion

So Abram, you asked how you would know your descendants would possess the land? God just appeared in a theophany of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passed between the pieces of the animals you slaughtered. You heard from the theophany God would give the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the…all the rest of them, to your descendants, thereby sealing the promise in a blood covenant. Is that enough to convince you?

The next scene I want to look at is when God appears to Abram again and makes a promise so impossible that Abram laughs (Genesis 17). How will God respond?