Narrative Demarcation, Part III - Porous Borders ? Bereishit 15

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman




This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #16b:

Narrative Demarcation, Part III

Porous Borders — Bereishit 15



            In demarcating a unit of biblical narrative, one aims to determine where the reading of a story should start and where it should end. In this sense, the idea of narrative demarcation is to seek out clear boundaries that separate and distinguish different narratives. However, in certain cases, while it is clear that the narrative opens in a certain place, it also appears that the new story is only continuing the previous story. This is similar to the previously discussed phenomenon of concatenate units, but here we are not dealing with a scene with two foci concluding one narrative and introducing another, but rather two separate stories that appear to form a contiguous structure. In these cases, the reader must interpret the significance and contribution of the connection that the verse forms between the two segments.


            In order to examine this phenomenon, we will study the case of chapter 15 of Bereishit, which forms one paragraph in the Masoretic text. The first part (vv. 1-6), the proclamation of seed, deals with the promise of an heir who will be born Avraham; the second part (vv. 7-22), the proclamation of land, deals with the covenant forged between Avraham and God over the land of Canaan (the Covenant between the Parts). Should we relate to these two units as one continuous story with two complementary announcements or as two discrete units? 


            There are a number of different views among modern commentators.  Wellhausen and von Rad, for example, believe that these are two totally independent stories.[1] Van Seters, on the other hand, argues insistently that despite some stylistic flourishes, this is one unit — and that there cannot possibly be any argument on this point.[2] Despite Van Seters’s adamant claim, however, the debate about this question continues.


            There are three essential characteristics that might demarcate the proclamation of seed and the proclamation of land into two units:


1.    Opening and closing verses: Verse 6 closes the proclamation of seed. “And he had faith in God, and He credited it to him as righteousness” gives a strong feeling of a summation. This is a sort of conclusion, wrapping up the dialogue that the reader has heard up until this point. Moreover, verse 7, which opens with the covenant on the land, gives one a strong feeling of exposition, as God presents himself to Avraham as if they had never met before: “I am God Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.”

2.    Descriptions of time: One of the basic elements that unite a narrative and turn it into one unit is the continuity or unity of time. In the case before us, there is a temporal gap that does not allow for a continuous reading of the entire unit.  As part of the proclamation of seed, God takes Avraham outside and shows him the stars. The simplest understanding of this narrative is that it happens at night, at the time that the stars come out. On the other hand, the proclamation of land that follows occurs at sunset: “And the sun was about to set” (v. 12), and later, “And it was when the sun had set” (v. 17).  It is difficult to read this chapter as an uninterrupted episode if the first part happens at night and the sun only sets later! (There is no indication that a full day passes between the first and the second references to time.)    

3.    Plot elements: It is true that the ideas of seed and land are connected in many other proclamations, promises, and prophecies throughout Bereishit. In other places, however, the integration between the two is completely organic. For example, the essential issue of the proclamation in chapter 13 (“after Lot parted ways with him;” v.14) is the inheritance of the land in its entirety. In the midst of the promise of the land being given to Avraham, there is a proclamation of seed: “And I will make your seed as the dust of the land, that your seed may be counted as much as a man may be able to count the dust of the land” (v. 16). Immediately afterwards, God returns to the proclamation of the land. Similarly, within the proclamation of seed in the covenant of circumcision (chapter 17), God interweaves a proclamation of land: “And I will give to you and to your seed after you the land of your sojourns, all of the land of Canaan as an eternal possession” (v. 8).  In these places and others, the two proclamations are intertwined and interdependent, but this is not true of the case before us. In chapter 15, each proclamation stands in total isolation from the other, which strengthens the reader’s impression of two separate units.   


            However, there are other parameters that seem to indicate that chapter 15 is indeed one unit, or that at the very least there is a close connection between its two constituent parts.


1.    This arises first and foremost from the transitional verse, v. 7. As we noted above, its style points to a new beginning; on the other hand, its style indicates narrative continuity because the name of the hero — Avraham — is not mentioned, and the narrator uses pronouns: “And He said to him: ‘I am God…’”  The verse assumes that it is clear to the reader who is talking to whom; in other words, this is not the opening of a new narrative. 

2.    Furthermore, in terms of the structure of the two units, it appears that there is a deep link between them. We can describe the development of the chapter in the following manner:[3]


Proclamation of Seed

Proclamation of Land

1: God’s promise to Avraham

7: God’s promise to Avraham

2-3: Avraham doubts the promise

8: Avraham doubts the promise

4-5: God’s reaction — the promise of an heir and the reinforcement of the promise with a symbolic act (seeing the stars)

9-17: God’s reaction — the promise of land and the establishment of the covenant in a symbolic act (walking through the parts)

6: Summation: Avraham believes God

18-21: Summation: God obligates himself to Avraham


The great similarity between the two parts of the chapter cannot be circumstantial. Avraham’s doubt about God’s promises to him is not common in the story of his life, but in this instance, we have two consecutive proclamations to which Avraham responds in a similar way, and in both of them God strengthens the proclamation through a symbolic act. It appears that the similar development of the plot indicates an even deeper link between the two proclamations. 

3.    Shared verbal network: As we have already noted, milim manchot (guiding words) or a shared semantic field can create unity within a certain section. In the case before us, this perspective supports the supposition that we are dealing with one story. First of all, we should note the unusual formulation of God’s name by Avraham in the two halves of this chapter: “Lord God” (vv. 2, 8). Normally, “Lord” (A-donai) is the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, while “God” (E-lohim) is spelled out; here, it is the former which is spelled out, while the latter is the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton.  This double appellation does not appear anywhere else throughout the length of Bereishit; in fact, throughout the entire Torah, it is only mentioned twice more, in Devarim (3:24, 9:26). The double appearance of such an unusual expression in one chapter creates a deep semantic partnership between the two halves of the narrative.

      Moreover, this unusual appellation of God is employed in the same semantic role. In the two halves of the chapter, this appellation is integrated into the questions and doubts exhibited by Avraham upon receiving divine assurances: “And Avram said: ‘Lord God, what can You give me while I walk barren?’” (2); “And he said: ‘Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?’” (8)

      In addition, there are other words that unite the two halves of the chapter – for example the concept of “inheritance.”  In the first half of the chapter, in the dialogue between Avraham and God, we find (3-4): “‘And behold, a member of my household will inherit me…’” and “‘This one will not inherit you; rather one who will come out from your loins will inherit you.’”  Similarly, in the second part, the dialogue centers around God’s promise about the land (7-8): “‘To give you this land to inherit it’”; “‘How will I know that I will inherit it?’”  Similarly, the root of yatza, which in its various conjugations includes going out, coming out, taking out, etc., is mentioned in both halves of the chapter: “‘One who will come out from your loins will inherit you. And he took him outside” (4-5); “‘I am God Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it’” (7). Other words also recur.


            How should we demarcate the boundaries of this chapter? In our desire to view it as one unit, we must confront the facts that the verse severs and delineates the two halves of the narrative and that one cannot read the entire chapter as a continuous event because of the internal chronology. At the same time, in our desire to view the two halves of the chapter as two separate units, the thematic and linguistics proofs we addressed jump out at us, leaving us unable to decide. 


            In cases such as these, it is logical to assume that the inability to decide (which does not result from a lack of proofs, but from contradictory proofs pointing in opposite directions!) is actually the design of the unit. In other words, Scripture presents the chapter simultaneously as having two separate units and as one, organic narrative. What is the significance of this arrangement?  


            There are two clear conclusions to be drawn from such a complex demarcation:


1.    We are not alone. It appears that the Levites quoted in chapter 9 of Nechemia (vv. 7-8) were the first to relate to this chapter as one unit and to derive from this a very significant theological point. These verses have become an integral part of the morning liturgy, preceding the recitation of the Song of the Sea. The Levites’ prayer declaims:


You are Lord the God, for it is You Who chose Avram and brought him out of Ur Kasdim and named him Avraham. You found his heart faithful before You, and You made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites; You have kept Your promise because You are righteous.


The expressions mentioned in this prayer clearly rely on the chapter that we are discussing. The phrase “and brought him out of Ur Kasdim” alludes to what we have before us: “Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim;” the phrase “You found his heart faithful before You” is tied to “And he had faith in God, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” There is no need to note that the words of the Levites, “And you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites…,” relate to the end of the chapter (v. 18): “On that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, ‘To your seed I have given this land…’” Practically, the phrase “because You are righteous” recalls what we have in this verse: “and He credited it to him as righteousness.” The structure of the prayer is recognizable because it depends on the two parts of the chapter together and sees in the chapter in its entirety the theological underpinnings of the selection of Avraham and the covenant forged with him. 


For our purposes, the important thing is to interpret the link between the two parts of chapter 15 of Bereishit as arises from the prayer of the Levites in Nechemia: “You found his heart faithful before You, and You made a covenant with him.”  In other words, God finds Avraham’s heart to be faithful, and this is why He makes a covenant with him. According to this, one indeed cannot separate between the first part of the chapter, in which Avraham withstands the test of faith — despite the fact that he does not yet have a son, “He had faith in God” — and the second part, in which he receives the reward for his faith – the covenant for the land that his seed is destined to inherit. According to this presentation, one can see in the two parts of the chapter something like a test and a good reward. Consequently, we must be talking about two separate parts; the verses seek to intertwine them in order to allude to their joint, broader aim.   


2.    Beyond this, it appears that the meaning of the connection between the two halves of the chapter is connected to the content of the unique proclamation that is prominent specifically in these two revelations. 


This is not only the proclamation of a rosy future; it expresses an awareness of the difficulty and the demands upon Avraham to display unique patience, as the proclamation is destined to be fully realized only in the distant future. In the first announcement, the proclamation of the heir, this is recognizable because of the double prayer of Avraham. First, Avraham’s words to God are cited: “And Avram said: ‘Lord God, what can You give me while I walk barren? The steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus!’” (2) There is no response from God at this point, and there is therefore a new heading in the continuation of Avraham’s words, the subject of an additional prayer: “‘And Avram said, ‘Indeed, you have not given me seed, and behold, a member of my household will inherit me’” (3). This claim is more piercing than the claim which was heard before - no longer “What can You give me,” but rather, “Indeed, You have not given me,” and no longer the subtle allusion “The steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus!” but rather an unequivocal and painful analysis, “And behold, a member of my household will inherit me.”  God’s response to Avraham is introduced with the use of the surprise word “And behold:” “And behold, God’s word was to him, saying, ‘This one will not inherit you; rather, one who will come out from your loins will inherit you.’”  


It appears that these verses are describing the set prayer of Avraham to His Master, his doubts and his concerns; we are not talking about a one-time prayer on Avraham’s part. Suddenly, and to our great surprise (“And behold”[4]), God responds and restates the promise that the son coming out of his loins is the one who is destined to inherit him.


A structure such as this invites the reader to examine the recesses of Avraham’s soul, to see his concerns and to understand the difficult challenge confronting Avraham and Sara as month after month passes without Sara becoming pregnant. Despite all of this, it is said of Avraham, “And he had faith in God,” and this is the deep subject of this unit – not only the proclamation and promise itself, but Avraham’s faith despite the difficulties of reality and despite the fact that God does not fulfill his request, at least at the moment.


In fact, this emerges from the text of the covenant of the land as well, as it appears in our chapter. Its essence is not the promise of taking possession of the land, but specifically the delay in the fulfillment of this proclamation for another four hundred years:


He said to Avram, “You must certainly know that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs for four hundred years…


And the fourth generation will return here, since the Amorites' sin will not be complete until then.


Avraham and his seed are required, in the context of the covenant of the land as well, to demonstrate unique patience, fortitude, and great faithfulness. 


It may be that this is the significance of the connection created by the verse between these two separate promises. Ultimately, chapter 15 presents two separate stories, but the line between them is not sharp because the two proclamations described in these stories express an identical challenge: the faith in the validity of the promise, despite the fact that it is not being realized here and now. Whether concerning the proclamation of seed (the first part of the chapter) or the proclamation of the land (the second part of the chapter), Avraham is demanded to have faith in the vision of a far-off destiny.


In our next lecture, we will conclude our analysis of the demarcation of biblical narrative as we deal with the intriguing phenomenon of dynamic boundaries.

[1]     According to them, the two stories even emerge from different sources; see G. von Rad, Genesis, trans. J. H. Marks (OTL, London, 1963), p. 177. At the end of the day, von Rad also argues that despite the fact that we are talking about two separate units, the reader must recognize the effort expended in molding it into the shape of one narrative (p. 181). This thesis has much in common with what I will propose below.

[2]     J. Van Seters, Prologue to History (Louisville, 1992), p. 249.

[3]     Similarly, G. J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (WBC; Waco, TX, 1994), p. 325.

[4]     A. Berlin examines “And behold” (ve-hinei) as a surprise word which serves as a transition between different viewpoints in the narrative; see his Poetics and the Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, 1983), pp. 62-63.