15:1 “Fear not, Abram…” – From God’s assurance to Abraham, it is clear that Abraham was deeply worried about something.
The Midrashim and commentators generally explain that when Abraham reflected on the miracle which enabled him to slay the kings, although he was greatly outnumbered, he was concerned that the miracle had been possible only as a reward for his previous righteousness – that he could not expect future divine assistance, and that he would be punished for the men he had slain, some of whom may have been righteous. He was also apprehensive that the successors of the four kings would collect even greater armies than before and stage an attack on him. This time, since all his merit had been used to gain the previous victory, he would be defeated (Midrash). He also feared he would die without children.
“I am your shield..” – I am your shield against punishment, for you will not be punished on account of all these people you have slain (Rashi); I am your shield against your enemies. ‘Just as a shield received all spears and withstands them, so will I stand by you.’ Midrash
‘Your reward is very great.’ – Not only need you not fear punishment, but you need not be concerned about the future, for your reward is very great.
God also assured him that there were no righteous people among those whom Abraham slain; rather than deserving punishment for slaying them, he was worthy of reward for ridding the world of the wicked (Midrash).
The Midrash relates that Abraham entertained even further misgivings. He said to God: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! You made a covenant with Noah not to exterminate his children. Yet, through my meritorious acts my covenant superseded his and I was victorious and exterminated the forces of the four kings. Perhaps another will arise who will accumulate even a greater store of precepts earning a new covenant that will supersede mine.
God therefore reassured him that only to Abraham’s children would He set up shields for the righteous – only to Abraham, but not to Noah, did God promise to be a shield; for there did not arise from Noah even one righteous person (aside from Abraham) whose righteousness could have served to spare his fellowman. Moreover He assured him that there would always be a righteous one in each generation among Abraham’s descendants who would shield his sinful fellowman and atone on their behalf.
15:2 ..that I go childless, ..’ – Abraham feared that he would die childless; therefore God reiterated His assurance that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heaven.
One might ask why Abraham felt such fear in view of God’s earlier promise (13:15-16) of the Land to his descendants who would be as the dust of the earth? Further, why would his belief in this second promise be stronger than his belief in the first?
The explanation is that the righteousness never their righteousness for granted. Abraham saw himself growing old and he was still childless. The first prophesy had not been fulfilled, and he feared that his own sin was the cause, or as the Midrash notes, that he was being punished for having slain people in the war. Hence, the principle that the righteous are never confident in this world, they need constant reassurance that they have not deprived themselves of God’s blessing.
15:3 When Abraham said these things he did not suggest that God would renege on His promise. Rather he was apprehensive that he had committed some offense which had forfeited his claim to the promise; or that he thought that the ‘offspring’ was a relative whom God might be considering as equivalent as Abraham’s own child.
Compare the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 who also expressed despair at the fate of one who leaves his estate to heirs whose prudence and wisdom are questionable.
Abraham’s concern continues – And even if You were to grant me a son now, in my old age, he will still be young after my demise and will be susceptible to Eliezer’s maneuverings, and will be at the mercy of the elder servant who will, in effect, be his master.
15:4 Suddenly, the Word of Hashem came forth – Regardless of when your son will be born to you, you need not be apprehensive. Your servant will not be your heir; your own offspring will inherit you.
The implication of God’s promise is that Abrahm will father a son at some time in the future, and that the child will be an adult at Abraham’s death so he will not require a guardian nor be susceptible to any servant. In this way he, and none other, would be assured of being the heir Abarbanel).
15:5 “And He took him outside,” – The Midrashic interpretation is: He took him out of the realm of his constellation. Although you have seen by the constellations that you are not destined to have children, it is true only that Abram will have no son, but Abraham will have a son; Sarai will indeed be childless, but Sarah will bear a son. I will change your names from Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah and your constellation will change!
‘Gaze now toward the heavens’ – The Sages have explained that the verb – gaze – always suggests gazing down from above, thus accounting for their explanation that Abraham was raised up above the stars, and as such he was told to gaze down upon them (Malbim).
As far as the Midrashic astrological interpretation cited by Rashi, Ramban notes that he begot Ishmael while his name was still Abram. How then could the Midrash say that Abram will have no son? The answer that Abraham’s fear, as expressed in verse 3 was that he would not have a son as an heir; God therefore assured him that as ‘Abram’ he would not have a son who would be his heir (Ishmael was not his heir – see 21:12); only as Abraham would he father a son. Additionally, it is possible that the astrological indication concerned Abram and Sarai only as a pair together and Ismael was born of Abram and Hagar.
Note: The commentators generally agree that the comparison of Israel to the stars is not measured by the quantity of stars. God had already compared them to ‘the dust of the earth’ and the dust particles of the earth are more numerous than the stars. Rather God was saying that his every descendant would be measured by quality – as worthy and precious as the stars, each of which is individually counted by God for each star is a separate solar system or mighty force. Isaiah 40:26: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of His power; not one of them is missing.’
Had God wished to direct Abraham’s attention to the quantity of the stars, it would not have been necessary to show him the heavens, just as He did not show Abraham the dust when He promised – ‘I will make your seed like the dust of the earth.’ Rather, God showed him the stars as if to say, ‘Your national existence will be like that of the stars.’ Here, on earth, everything we see is an evolving product of God’s ‘cause and effect’ natural law. The stars, however, are still pristine products of God’s hand, unchanged since the day He created them. Hence, God was, in effect, telling him, ‘Abandon your earthly, natural speculations. Your offspring will be like the stars, drawing their sustenance from God, above all natural calculations.
Noting also that elsewhere (13:16, 28:14) God compared Abraham’s offspring to the dust of the earth, while here they are likened to the stars in heaven, the Sages (Megillah 16a) derive an ethical lesson: When we do God’s will, we are above all – like the stars in heaven. However, when we disobey God’s will, we are trampled upon by all – like the dust of the earth.
15:6 “..righteousness.” – Ramban questions – why should faith in God, especially by one as great as Abraham, be considered a virtue? ‘God is not a man that He should lie’ (Numbers 23:19)
We are speaking of a man who, on the basis of his faith, was later prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, and had withstood all trials; how could he not show his faith in a good tiding? Ramban suggests that the subject of the verse is Abraham: He (Abraham) considered it an act of righteousness on the part of God that He would promise him a child unconditionally (in God’s righteousness) and without regard to Abraham’s merit, and the possibility he might sin. The verse says there, that Abraham’s trust in God’s promise was total, for, since it was an act of Divine Righteousness, it was irreversible as in the verse (Isaiah 45:23) “By Myself have I sworn, the word is issued from My mouth in righteousness, and shall not turn back.’
It is found in Tanchuma Masei 7, based on the verse, “God is not a man that He should lie” (Numbers 23:19). When God promises to do good, He does not retract His promise even if the generation is guilty of infractions. However, when He threatens to punish, He does retract if the guilty one repents. He promised Abraham the good tiding: “Gaze now at the heavens and count the starts … so shall your offspring be”, and He has done so, for Moses said to the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 1:10): “Behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven.”
We must never forget that Abraham was the First Believer and thus had no one to look back upon. He established his own precedents; his faith was more difficult to come by than ours – for we are ‘believers, sons of believers’, for our forebears already paved a road of unswerving Faith. It is no wonder then that the Torah emphasizes Abraham’s faith as meritorious and noteworthy.
The Covenant Between the Parts: The Promise of the Land – Verses 7-21
Note: The covenant described in the following verses was made when Abraham was seventy years old; chronologically it preceded the prophetic vision of the above verses which, as pointed out above, occurred when Abraham was seventy-five years old.
That the narrative of the Covenant between the Parts commences with this verse is derived from Tosafos Berachos 7b which cites it as an example that the Torah is not necessarily written in chronological order.
While the commentators will generally assume events are chronologically given, there are frequent exceptions. For example, chapters are sometimes written out of sequence to indicate legal or moral teachings derived from the association of seemingly unrelated concepts or events. Or, a particular topic may be narrated until its completion, before a new one is introduced. For example, the Torah tells of Terach’s death before Abraham’s departure to Canaan, which chronologically, Terach did not die until 60 years later and Noah’s death is recorded in 9:29 although Noah was still alive in the days of Abraham.
15:7 “..give you this land..” – Radak and Sforno interprets this as God saying ‘This decree giving you the Land is not new. I intended it from the time I saved you from Ur Kasdim; it was for this very purpose that I rescued you so that the Land would be an inheritance which you would pass on to your children as a father bequeaths his personal belongings to his heirs.’
15:8 “..’My Lord, Hashem Elohim:..” – The Talmud (Berachos 7b) notes that Abraham was the first man ever to call Him Adon, (Master). The obvious question arises why this verse is cited as the ‘first’ rather than verse 2 where the same Name occurs first. It is in this connection that Tosafos explains that the Covenant Between the Parts (verse 7-21) happened before the vision of verses 1-6. Thus, Abraham’s use of the Name Adonai in this verse is the first in history.
The Name: My Lord Hashem/Elohim
This combination of God’s Names is most unusual, especially the second Name which has the spelling of the Four-Letter Name but the punctuation of Elohim.
According to Mizrachi (Deuteronomy 3:34) whose interpretation we adopt in the translation, the name in our context is the salutation by which Abraham and Moses addressed God, ie., my Lord, for the word means Master, thus the Name is used to indicate complete obedience and acceptance.
The second Name has the spelling of the Four Letter Name but the punctuation of Elohim. It appears in the five books of Moses only four times: Genesis 15:2, 15:8, Deuteronomy 3:24 and 9:26. Although it is found in various books of Prophets, it is used extensively only in Ezekiel. ‘Hashem’ commonly refers to God’s Attribute of Mercy while Elohim alludes to the Attribute of Judgment. According to Mizrachi, this Name, combining mercy with judgment, implies the plea that even in judgment, God should temper his decree with mercy.
“ how shall I know..” – Rashi explains that in addition to the plain meaning that Abraham sought a sign, another interpretation is: By what merit will my descendants sustain themselves in the Land? (i.e. Abraham was apprehensive about himself and his descendants: would they be sufficiently worthy?) His question is therefore to be interpreted as if the verse read ‘let me know how’, i.e. by what merit would he receive the Land, and how would his children merit to retain this gift in later generations: perhaps they will sin and forfeit all.
God answered: ‘By the merit of the sacrifices’ which you are about to offer, and which I will institute as a means of atonement for your children. And because God would forgive Israel on account of their repentance and prayer for which sacrifices are a symbol.
The Talmud (Megillah 31b) on which Rashi’s latter comment is based continues: Abraham then said to Him: Sovereign of the Universe, this is very well for the time when the Temple will be standing, but when there will be no Temple what will befall them? … God replied: I have already established for them the Order of the Sacrifice said during prayers. Whenever they will read the section dealing with sacrifices I will consider it as if they were bringing Me an offering and forgive all their iniquities.
Ramban similarly explains that Abraham’s request is not to be interpreted as asking for a sign as did Hezekiah in II Kings 20:8. Neither did God give him one. Rather, Abraham merely asked that he might know with a true inner knowledge that the gift of the Land would be an enduring one unaffected by his sin or that of his descendants. Additionally, he feared that the Canaanites who were in the Land and had to be driven away before Abraham’s descendants could inhabit it, might repent and thereby deserve to remain in the Land. (See Jeremiah 18:7-8). God therefore assured him that he would inherit the Land despite all possible circumstances.