A Covenant Out of Despair


by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Adler

Genesis 15 begins with a despairing Avram. We often think of the Biblical heroes as being almost superhuman, certainly untainted by the same kinds of struggles faced by the rest of us. Instead, we find that these remarkable people were aided by the even more remarkable God.

The chapter begins, “After these things the word of Adonai came to Avram in a vision saying, ‘Al-tirah Avram! Anoki magen l’ka sekarka harbeh m’od! (Do not fear, Avram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’”. Adonai reminded Avram that His Presence in Avram’s life was a greater asset and benefit than anything, the greatest security imaginable.

But, verses 2-3 contain a surprising response- at least in light of what many assume about the seemingly ironclad man of faith. “But Avram said, ‘My Lord Adonai, what will You give me, since I am living without children, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Avram said, ‘Look! You have given me no seed, so a house-born servant is my heir.’” This bitter complaint flies in the face of so many assumptions about the faith of Avram. Remember that he and Sarah had been waiting for years for the answer to their long-held dream of children and family. They are struggling to hold on, struggling to bear up under the strain. Lest we be too critical, we also often find ourselves worn out with waiting for the fulfillment of long-held desires, particularly those promised by Elohim.

Furthermore, it is useful to note that archaeological discoveries at Mari in Iraq have confirmed that, among other things, men left childless would, in the absence of a birth heir, would adopt a longtime, faithful servant as a son and heir. In his frustration, Avram and Sarah had done exactly that with Eliezer. They had about given up, counting on Eliezer to be the compromise answer to God’s promise.

Verses 4-5: “Then behold, the word of Adonai came to him saying, ‘This one will not be your heir, but in fact, one who will come from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up now, at the sky, and count the stars- if you are able to count them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your seed be.’” Adonai reaffirms His promise, that which had drawn Avram and Sarah all along. What amazing encouragement! Avram receives the promise one more time. This is at least the 3rd time Adonai had spoken His promise to Avram. It is a fundamental principle of faith that we need to soak ourselves in Adonai’s Word. Romans 10:17 states, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Messiah.” This is at least the 3rd time Avram heard God’s promise, not counting those times possibly not recorded in Scripture.

Of Avram the text further states in verse 6, “Heemin b’Adonai vayachshaveh lo tz’dakah.” “Then he believed in Adonai and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Avram did more than believe the promise; the preposition “b’” carries the point that he believed in the person of Adonai, not just His words or power. This is at least the 3rd time hearing the promise, and saturation with the very expression of Elohim brought about a transformation in the man. Adonai now considers Avram a righteous man. HE gives great weight to those who take Him at His word, who give credit for His integrity.

It is often forgotten how important history is in the Kingdom of Adonai. Adonai, in verse 7, recites the history of His dealings with Avram and Sarah. “Vayyomer elav, ‘Ani Adonai asher hotzetika meUr Cas’dim latet l’ka et-haaretz hazot l’rishteh.” “Then He said to him,’I am Adonai who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans, in order to give you this land to inherit it.’” Even now, Adonai had a plan to bless Avram with a generous gift and the highest aspirations.

When Avram still struggles, Adonai does not give up in him, but enters into the normal means of establishing a covenant. He tells Avram to bring some sacrificial animals, slaughter them, cut the carcasses into pieces, and arrange the pieces into rows. While Avram is placed into a semi-trance in which he is fully aware but unable to act, Adonai, in the form of a fiery torch, passes between the carcasses’ rows, as if to say, “May I become like these carcasses if I fail to abide by My promise and give you a child and descendants”- a ridiculous concept. Adonai also places all the terms of the covenant onto Himself, with none on Avram, who in his current state is unable to follow Adonai through the walk among the carcasses. Here, the gracious God renews His promise in spite of Avram’s flagging faith. This is the basis of the relationship of Adonai with Israel. The greatness of Abraham and Israel is really the greatness of the mercy and faithfulness of our God!

Rabbi Jeffrey Adler is president of the Board of HaShomer and also Rabbi of Sha’arey Yeshua in Indianapolis, IN.