Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dating the Covenant between the parts

The Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran to go to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4).  He was 100 years old when Isaac was born to him (Genesis 21:5). The difference is 25 years. A superficial reading seems to indicate that the Covenant between the parts took place some time during that period, and Isaac’s birth marked the end of the 25 years.

However this creates difficulties.

The Torah tells us that the children of Israel spent a total of 430 years as sojourners “in Egypt”. However God also told Abraham that, within the total of 430 years of exile, his descendants would be enslaved in a land that is not theirs for 400 years (Genesis 15:13).

The difficulties arise because, according to rabbinical legend, the 430 years of exile as sojourners “in Egypt” also included the years that Abraham and his descendants lived in Canaan (prior to taking possession of it after the Exodus). “In Egypt” is thus considered a general and perhaps somewhat poetic term, for living as sojourners without a permanent home of their own, rather than a literal statement of where they were located.

However the prophesied 400 years of Abraham’s descendants’ enslavement could not begin until he had descendants. Accordingly, that 400 year period is considered to begin with the birth of Isaac. The remaining 30 years as sojourners “in Egypt” (the difference between 400 and 430) is considered to be time subsequent to the Covenant, but prior to Isaac’s birth, i.e. prior to Abraham having an heir.

The difficulty arises because the Covenant took place in Canaan, and the Torah tells us that Abraham went to Canaan only 25 years before Isaac’s birth – not 30 years.

In order to make this difficulty go away, there is a rabbinical hypothesis that the Covenant took place on a second (but earlier) trip to Canaan (Tosafos, Berachos 7b). That second trip, not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, would have been when Abram was 70 years old, in order to provide 30 years between the covenant and Isaac’s birth. It would have been a temporary visit to Canaan, rather than a migration. Abram is alleged to have then returned to Haran, and then migrated permanently at age 75. 

This hypothetical second trip is justified by observing that events in the Torah are not necessarily presented in chronological order, a qualification which is well known and is essentially incontestable.
Sometimes, though, the Torah specifically tells us that a particular series of events IS described in chronological order. This is one such instance.

The Covenant between the parts is described in Genesis chapter15. Genesis 15:1 begins: “After these events, the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…”1, and goes on to introduce the Covenant.

When the Torah starts an account with “After these events…”, it is telling us that what is about to be described did chronologically follow those things that are described just before it. That is, literally, what “After these events…” means.

The “events” or “things” referred to as preceding the Covenant were the Assyrians’ capture of Lot from Sodom, and his rescue by Abram, in Chapter 14. Obviously, Lot being captured from Sodom had to be preceded by Lot moving to Sodom in the first place. Lot’s move to Sodom took place after he left Haran permanently, accompanying Abram’s migration to Canaan at age 75 (Genesis 12:4).

So if the Covenant came after Abram’s rescue of Lot, which itself came after Abram’s big move at age 75, then the Covenant also took place after Abram’s big move. The Covenant took place within that 25-year period, during which Abram was at least 75 but less than 100 years old.

The superficial reading, and the plain meaning, are correct.

Moreover, the Covenant took place in the first decade of that 25-year period, since the text tells us that Abram was still childless at that time (Genesis 15:2 & 3). Therefore, the 30 years prior to the beginning of Abraham’s descendants’ enslavement could not have been prior to Isaac’s birth.

Since the prophesy had nothing to do with – was not triggered by – the appearance of descendants, the event it apparently refers to is the beginning of servitude (which is precisely what it says). And this is what did happen, much later. It happened literally – not poetically. The 430 years “in Egypt” did not begin with the Covenant, and the 400 years of slavery did not begin with Isaac’s birth.

(More to come, on this subject.)

Who wrote the Torah would have known that some people, some day, would tamper with it. He may have purposefully left “After these events…” as a clue, for those who want to find the truth.

1.         Nosson Scherman et. al., ed. and trans., Ninth Edition, 1998, The Chumash, The Artscroll Series / Stone Edition, Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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