Parshat Lech Lecha: The Covenant of the Halves

“And He said unto him: Take for Me a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.” (Beresheit 15:9)

Our parasha describes the development of the relationship between Hashem and Avraham. In the opening passages of the parasha, Hashem tells Avraham that he will enjoy His providence. However, despite the influence of Hashem’s providence, Avraham and Sara do not have children. This leads to a dialogue between Hashem and Avraham. Again, Hashem tells Avraham he has earned great merit and He will protect him. Avraham responds that this merit is of little value to him. He has no heir. Hashem tells Avraham that he will have an heir and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Avraham accepts Hashem’s message. Then, Hashem tells Avraham his descendants will occupy Canaan. Avraham asks, “In what will I know?” In other words, he seems to ask Hashem for an additional indication that his descendants will occupy Canaan.

Our passage introduces Hashem’s response to this last question. Hashem instructs Avraham in the Brit ben HaBetarim – the Covenant of the Halves. The instructions for the creation of this covenant are unusual. Avraham is to take various animals. Most are to be split in half. Two birds are to be included among the animals. The birds are not to be split and are to be placed at the beginning and end of the series of split animals. Avraham follows the directions. He arranges the animals and the birds as required. Then, Avraham sees a bird of prey descend upon the dead animals. He chases it away.
The incident of the Brit ben HaBetarim ends with a further prophecy. Hashem tells Avraham that his descendants will be afflicted for four hundred years in a foreign land. They will leave with the wealth of their tormentors and conquer Canaan. The prophecy ends with a flame passing between the halves of the animals.

The Brit ben HaBetarim is not easily understood. It raises a number of questions. One of the obvious problems is that Avraham’s responses to the various messages that Hashem communicated seem inconsistent. It seems that Avraham was comfortable with, and willing to immediately accept the prophecy that he would have an heir and that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. However, Avraham seems to have been less certain of the significance of the message that his descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan. Why was Avraham less certain of the meaning of this second message?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno addresses this question. In order to understand Sforno’s response to this question, a brief introduction will be helpful. Maimonides explains that the Torah provides us with a method by which we can determine the credibility of any prophet. In order for us to accept that a claimant is a true prophet, we assess the accuracy of his prophecies. Every prophecy that the claimant communicates must be fulfilled. If all of the claimant’s predictions become reality, then we are required to assume that the claimant is an authentic prophet. If, at some point, the assumed prophet offers a prediction that is not fulfilled, then we must assume that this person is a false prophet.

Maimonides adds two significant qualifications to this rule. First, he explains that the requirement of absolute accuracy only applies to the positive predictions enunciated by the claimant. However, if the claimant warns of disaster or tragedy and this prediction does not materialize, we do not assume that the claimant is a false prophet. We recognize that a prediction of disaster is intended as a warning to repent. We know that repentance and forgiveness are always possible. We must acknowledge that the fulfillment of the prediction of disaster may have been forestalled by repentance and forgiveness. Therefore, although the claimant must be absolutely accurate in his prediction of positive outcomes and events, inaccuracies in predictions of tragedy and disaster are not of consequence. Such inaccuracies do not undermine the credibility of the claimant.

Second, it is important to recognize that there are two types of prophecy. Some prophecies are designed for communication to others. In such instances, the prophets serve as Hashem’s spokesman to humanity, or to a group or nation. Other prophecies are personal. In these prophecies, the prophet receives information from Hashem for his own benefit. These prophecies are not intended to be communicated to others. Maimonides explains that the requirement for absolute accuracy only applies to prophecies intended for communication to the public. The public must have a means by which to determine the credibility of the claimant. The means is the accuracy of the claimant’s predictions. However, the true prophet himself knows that he is communicating with Hashem. He does not need proof as to the veracity of his prophecy. Therefore, it is possible that some personal prophecies will not be fulfilled.

This seems somewhat bizarre! We can understand why negative prophecies may not be fulfilled. As Maimonides explained, it is possible that through repentance and forgiveness disaster was averted. However, how is it possible that Hashem will communicate a personal prophecy to the prophet and He will not fulfill this prophecy?

Maimonides offers an amazing answer based on the comments of our Sages. Our Sages explain that it is possible that a subsequent sin or wrongdoing will invalidate the prophecy. In other words, Hashem may communicate to the prophet that he will receive a specific reward. This communication is not a guarantee that this reward will be granted. The granting of the blessing or reward remains dependant upon the righteousness and merit of the prophet. If the prophet is deserving, he will experience the fulfillment of the prophecy. However, if he sins, he may be deprived of the predicted blessing.[1]

As an aside, it is worth noting that Maimonides provides a clear basis for differentiating between true prophets and counterfeits. Throughout the generations, various individuals have claimed or implied prophetic powers. Such a claim is not substantiated simply because some, or even many of this claimant’s predictions seem to have been fulfilled. The claimant must be unerring in his predictions. Even a single positive prediction that goes unfulfilled completely undermines any possible claim of authentic prophecy.

Based on Maimonides’ analysis, Sforno explains Avraham’s differing reactions to these two prophecies. First, Sforno assumes that Avraham understood that both of these communications were personal prophecies. They were not intended for communication to his followers. Hashem communicated the future to Avraham for his own benefit. Avraham concluded that these communications were not absolute assurances. Like all personal prophecies, their fulfillment would depend upon the righteousness of the beneficiaries of these blessings. He understood that Hashem’s message that he would have children, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, depended upon his own continued righteousness and merit. He accepted this responsibility upon himself without hesitation. However, the message that his descendants would possess the Land of Canaan seemed problematic to Avraham. How could he know that his descendants would follow in his path and merit this reward? Avraham expressed his uncertainty regarding the certainty of this outcome.

Based on this interpretation of Avraham’s question, Sforno offers a novel explanation of Hashem’s response. He asserts that any prophecy that is accompanied by a promise or brit – a covenant – must be fulfilled. Therefore, the brit that Hashem entered into with Avraham provided a definite assurance that the prophecy would come true.[2]

It is possible that Sforno maintains – that by definition – a covenant is a public declaration. Any prophecy that is accompanied by a covenant rises above the level of a personal prophecy. A covenant is an objective and public declaration. It is no longer dependant upon the merit of the beneficiary of the recipient of the blessing. The covenant must be fulfilled.

There is some evidence that this is Sforno’s understanding of the significance of a covenant. In other words, further comments seem to indicate that Sforno understood a covenant as a public declaration, and not just the affirmation of a personal prophecy.

Sforno is bothered by another problem presented by the Brit ben HeBetarim. As noted above, one of the final elements of the brit was a prophecy regarding the future persecution of Bnai Yisrael. Hashem told Avraham that his descendants would experience four hundred years of affliction and exile. This was a revelation of the eventual exile of Bnai Yisrael to Egypt and their persecution at the hands of the Egyptians. Hashem also revealed to Avraham that Bnai Yisrael’s tormentors would be punished. Bnai Yisrael would be redeemed from this exile and would leave the land of their persecution with great wealth. Why was this revelation necessary, and how is it related to Hashem’s covenant with Avraham?

Sforno explains that Hashem foretold Avraham of the suffering of his descendants in a foreign land for a specific reason. During their suffering, they would question the credibility of Avraham’s prophecy that they would possess the Land of Canaan. They would wonder how their suffering could be reconciled with the promises that their forefather, Avraham, had communicated to them. In order to respond to this inevitable question, Hashem revealed the exile and suffering to Avraham. Avraham was to share this revelation with his children, and through them his descendants. This revelation made clear that this suffering was envisioned by Hashem when He made His promises to Avraham. Therefore, it was clearly not a contradiction to those promises.[3]

These comments indicate that Avraham was expected to communicate the prophecy that his descendants would possess the Land of Canaan to his children, and through them to Bnai Yisrael. With the addition of the covenantal element to the prophecy, the message was no longer personal. It became a public declaration for future generations. This necessitated the additional revelation of future exile and persecution. Once the message was transformed into a public prophecy, this additional element – the prophecy of exile and persecution – became essential.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduciton.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 15:6-9.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 15:13.

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