A covenant is a permanent bond between two parties, symbolizing a friendship so close that they are like a single body and that each is as responsible for the other as for himself.
Symbolic of this they cut an animal in two and pass between the parts, to signify that just as disease or injury afflicting one half of the animal affected the entire animal when it was a single, living organism, and only death separated the two parts – similarly, the two parties entering into the covenant are to be as one body, each ready to risk danger, if necessary, to help the other.
At the same time, each must reveal to the other his innermost thoughts, and not withhold knowledge about evil plots against the other.
Therefore, as soon as God made a covenant with Abraham, He made known to him the evil that was destined to befall his descendants, symbolically showing him the subjugation of Israel to other nations, but simultaneously comforting him with the knowledge that “afterward they shall leave with great wealth” (verse 14)…
Thus, the covenant symbolized that God would be with Israel in distress just as the whole body shares in the pain of one of its limbs. Our Sages say: The Shechinah suffers with the suffering of Israel, as is said in Psalm 91:15, ‘I will be with him in trouble’.
15:9 God commanded him to take the following animals to seal the covenant and to give it the additional status of an irrevocable oath. It was to this that Moses later referred when he said to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 9:5): ‘It is not for your righteousness…that you go to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations Hashem is driving them out before you, and in order to fulfill the oath that Hashem swore to your fathers. (i.e., even if you do not merit possession of the Land, God must fulfill His oath.) (Sforno)
“..three heifers,” – Symbolic of the three sacrifices of bulls which would later be brought on Yom Kippur (Numbers 29:8); the bull which was brought when the whole congregation sinned unintentionally by acting on certain types of erroneous decisions of the Sanhedrin (Leviticus 4:13-21); and the heifer whose neck was to be axed (Deuteronomy 21:4).
“..three goats..” – Symbolic of the goat which was offered within the Temple on Yum Kippur (Leviticus 16:15); the goats brought as additional offerings on Festivals (Numbers 28:15, 22,30); and the goat brought as a sin offering, by an individual (Leviticus 4:28) (Rashi).
“three rams,..” – Symbolic of the guilt offering for definite commission of certain offenses (see Leviticus 5:15; 14:24; 19:21; Numbers 6:12); the guilt offering when there is doubt whether an offense was committed (Leviticus 5:17-19); and the lamb brought as a sin offering, by an individual (Leviticus 4:32) (Rashi).
“..a turtledove and a young dove.” – Radak explains that the Hebrew word for young dove refers to any fledgling bird, just as young eagles are called in Deuteronomy 32:11. The translation defining it here as ‘young dove’ follows the Midrash.
In choosing the animals listed in this verse, God alluded to future sacrifices of cattle and fowl all of which would be solely from these species.
15:10 God was making a covenant with Abraham that He would bequeath the Land to his children as expressly mentioned in verse 18. Therefore, in the plain sense, the cutting of the animals, the passing between the parts, and all that ensued must be interpreted as the ritual of those who enter covenant.
Abraham placed the turtledove and the young dove opposite one another for they were both included in the covenant, but he did not divide them in half, since regarding the fowl that is offered up, the Torah states (Leviticus 1:17); ‘he shall not divide’ Ramban).
The symbolism of the animals chosen is that the nations of the world are compared to ‘bulls’ (see Psalms 22:13, Pharisees), ‘rams’ (Daniel 8:3 Media and Persia), and ‘goats’ (verse 21 = Greece). Israel is compared to young doves (Song of Songs 2:14). To indicate that the nations were destined to decline, Abraham divided the animals, but the birds he did not cut up suggesting thereby that Israel will live forever (Rashi).
Rav Eliezer said: At the Covenant Between the Parts, God showed our father Abraham the Four Kingdoms – Babylon, Persia-Media, Greece and Rome – their dominion, and their downfall.
15:11 There was nothing unusual in birds of pray swooping down on carcasses. That this warranted special mention in the Torah, let the commentators to seek a symbolic interpretation.
The objective of the heathens in time to come would be to attack the spiritual strength of Israel by overturning the divine service. By severing the spiritual link between God and Israel – the offerings and the study of Torah – the people would be spiritually asphyxiated. God’s promise, therefore, was that the ‘birds of prey’ would be driven away without attaining their goal.
15:12 “..a deep sleep..” – It was the deep sleep that accompanies prophetic manifestations. Compare Daniel’s prophetic slumber (Daniel 8:18) “As He was speaking with me, I fell into a deep sleep on my face toward the ground..” This was followed by a dark dread (Daniel 8:17) “and when He approached me I was afraid.” (Radak)
During the previous vision Abraham did not experience all of this, because the previous tidings were good. Now that God came to reveal the darkness and bitterness of the future exiles, He cast the deep sleep, fear, and darkness upon him to symbolize the difficult tribulations that lay ahead. (Rashi; Radak)
According to the Midrash, the fourfold expression, dread, darkness, great, and fell – all of which overtook his soul sequentially – referred to the Four Kingdoms. The dread is Babylon; darkness is Media-Persia; great is Greece; fell is Rome. Thus, Ramban explains, God forewarned Abraham that if Israel sinned, they would be exiled from their land by these four powers. Following this general allusion, He explicitly told him that their possession of the Land would be preceded by the Egyptian exile.
15:13 God, Who has entered into a Covenant with Abraham, withholds nothing from His beloved, and reveals to him the future plight of his descendants.
Abraham is now told that although the land is assured him, actual possession of it will be delayed ‘because the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full’ (verse 16), and a nation cannot be expelled from its land until it has sinned to the point where God no longer forbears from depriving it of its homeland. During the interim his offspring shall be an alien nation. Not all will suffer servitude, however, for the bondage did not begin during the lives of the righteous; the servitude did not begin until after the death of Jacob’s sons when it was deserved by their sinful children. He revealed all this to Abraham so that the last generation should know that whatever befell them was by the Word of Hashem, and they should attribute it to no other cause, as the prophet declared (Isaiah 48:5): “I have already from the beginning told it to you; announced things to you before they happened” that you might not say ‘My idol has caused them; my carved and molten images commanded them’”. (Sforno)
It was with the birth of Isaac thirty years after this Covenant (Abraham was seventy at the time of the Covenant and one hundred at Isaac’s birth) that the 400 year calculation in this prophecy would begin.
Rashi notes that the verse does not specify Egypt because the exile in Egypt lasted for only 210 out of the 400 years. The 400 year period of exile began with the birth of Isaac, for it was from that time onward that the family of Abraham was treated as aliens, even when they lived in Canaan as Isaac did all his life. Thus the Torah states that soon after Isaac’s birth Abraham lived as a stranger, an alien in the land of the Philistines (21:34); Isaac himself was commanded to live in the land (26:3); Jacob lived in the land of Ham, (Psalms 105:23), while his sons said that they came to Egypt to live temporarily (47:4).
After the exile-alien status, came this more severe phase of the Bondage. It came to pass after the death of Joseph, when the Egyptians set taskmasters over the Jews (see Exodus 1:11). (Malbim)
“..and they will oppress them..” – The oppression began with the birth of Miriam. This is based upon the Midrashic interpretation that Moses’ sister was named Miriam, which literally means bitterness, because at the time of her birth the Egyptians increased the bitterness of the bondage upon the Jews, as it says in Exodus 1:14 “they embittered their lives”. Thus, the harshest part of the 210 years of the Egyptian bondage was the 86 years from the birth of Miriam.
The exile and especially the grinding servitude in Egypt must be seen from the perspective of an iron crucible, as the Torah describes Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20). A crucible, by melting precious metal, removes the impurities from it. The purpose of exile in God’s plan for Israel is to purify and elevate the nation. The extent of the suffering, however, will be increased if Israel is sinful.
Note: Rashi clarifies the chronology: The period of 400 years extends from Isaac’s birth until the Exodus. This total is arrived at because Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (25:26); Jacob, as he himself stated (Genesis 47:9), was 130 years old when he went down to Egypt, making a total of 190 years. They were actually in Egypt for 210 years, the numeric equivalent of 400 years altogether.
In Exodus 12:40 the length of Israel’s stay in Egypt is given as four hundred and thirty years, while in our verse hour hundred years is foretold. The texts are not contradictory, however. The additional thirty year period refers to the years between the Covenant (when Abraham was 70) and Isaac’s birth when Abraham was 100. This encompasses the period that Abraham, himself, was a stranger.
Abraham’s sojourning was unlike that of his children. Even while wandering, he was always welcomed. Even though he was a stranger, he was held in the highest esteem as (23:6) ‘a prince of God’. Therefore, perhaps, Abraham’s travels are not included in the initial 400 years which began with Isaac, because the nature of Abraham’s travels are different from those of his descendants. They are mentioned as part of the additional thirty years mentioned in Exodus, because they did, in fact, take place, but they are different in kind, rather than degree, from the sort of sojourning inflicted upon Isaac and his descendants.
15:14 ‘..the nation which they serve..’ – Hirsch’s interpretation: The nation that I have appointed for a fiery furnace, a melting pot for your descendants, is told here that when it’s mission is accomplished, it will suffer the fate it will have richly earned.
Egypt as God’s Agent
This verse evokes certain profound philosophical questions which touch on the very foundations of man’s Free-Will and God’s Foreknowledge; reward and punishment. If God decreed that Abraham’s descendants should be strangers in a land not their own, where they would be subjected to servitude and affliction, then why should the Egyptians be punished for having been the agents in the carrying out God’s Providential Will?
Rambam answers that God was not addressing the Egyptians when He uttered this decree, nor did He decree that any one person in particular should enslave the Jews. God was merely instructing Abraham as to the course of future history. Just as no one similarly has the right to be wicked because the Almighty has informed Moses that there will be wicked men among Israel, so, too, with the Egyptians: every Egyptian who oppressed and ill-treated the Israelites could have refrained from doing so had he not wished to hurt them. Since he did perpetrate these acts, however, he is subject to punishment. Even had no Pharaoh arisen, Israel was destined to servitude, as God specifically foretold. But good is brought through the worthy, while evil is brought through the guilty. Pharaoh was chosen for this mission because he was wicked, and therefore he deserved punishment. (Semachos 8)
Ramban explains that the Egyptians were punished not for executing God’s decrees but for their overzealousness in carrying it out: It was not included in His decree that they should throw Jewish children into the Nile, for this was not ‘affliction’ – it was murder. The same applies to the general severity and vigor which they displayed toward the Israelites.
This is also the case with Nebuchadnezzar, who, though the prophets unanimously called upon him and his people to destroy Jerusalem (see Jeremiah 25:9; 32:28-29), and though the Chaldeans were aware that this was the command of God, nevertheless they were all punished because Nebuchadnezzar had his own personal glory in mind (see Isaiah 14:13-14; and 47:8), and because he added to the decree and overzealously perpetrated evil against Israel (see Isaiah 47:6).
“they shall leave with great possessions…” – Their wealth could not possibly be considered payment for the years of bitter enslavement and countless deaths, pain, and suffering inflicted upon the Israelites by the Egyptians. Rather, what Abraham is being assured here is that when the time of redemption arrives, the awful past will not be recognizable in his descendants. They will leave Egypt not as pitiful slaves escaping from their master but as a content nation which has gathered wealth and possessions.
15:15 “..you shall be buried in a good old age.” – A Scriptural idiom meaning: spared from all suffering. By this promise, God announced to him that Ishmael would repent in Abraham’s lifetime, and that his grandchild Esau would not go on the wicked path in his lifetime. To prevent Abraham from witnessing Esau’s evil conduct, however, Abraham died five years earlier than he normally would have, because on the very day Abraham died Esau rebelled, Had Abraham lived, he would have witnessed it.
This is based on the Midrash which notes that Abraham was destined to live 180 years like his son Isaac, but that God withheld five years of Abraham’s life in anticipation of Esau’s sins, as God said, I promised Abraham, you shall be buried in a good old age. Is it a good old age when he sees his grandson commit adultery and murder? It is better to have him die in peace!
15:16 HaChaim writes that there are two distinct terms given in this verse – one for the end of the exile and another for the entry into the Land. The exile would last no longer than 400 years. The time of entry into the Land however, would be more flexible – the fourth generation – and it would be sooner or later within the lifetime of that generation, depending on the degree of its righteousness. The ‘four generations’ begin from the time the Egyptian servitude was imposed which was after the death of Jacob’s twelve sons. Thus, the four are Perez, Chezron, Caleb, and Caleb’s children. (Although Caleb entered the Land, he is not counted because the rest of his generation died in the wilderness.) The verse continues that the sins of the Amorites are also a determining factor. Had Israel been perfect in its righteousness, then the Amorites would have had to make way for them. However, since Israel sinned and could not be considered perfect, a different measuring rod was required. Israel was better than the Amorites, but not perfect. Therefore, the entry into the Land was delayed until the Amorite’s allotted measure of sin was reached.
The Amorite represents all the Canaanite nations. It is singled out because it was the most powerful of them all, being described as ‘tall as cedars’ (Amos 2:9).
This is the crux of the entire prophecy: The Promised Land will not be given now, but to the fourth generation because only by then will the iniquity of the Amorites have reached sufficient dimension to warrant their expulsion from the Land. Another reason why God specified the Amorites is because Abraham then dwelled in the territory of Mamre, and Amorite. (Hoffmann)
The Ratification of the Covenant
15:17 “..and it was very dark.” – The Word signifies ‘thick darkness’. It is found nowhere else in Scriptures except for three times in Ezekiel (12:6, 7, 12). The darkness was so all-enveloping that even the light of the stars was not visible. (Ibn Ezra)
“..smoky furnace and a torch of fire..” – a vision symbolic of the Divine Presence and all of this occurred during Abraham’s prophetic slumber. He envisioned these things. The smoke (which rose up into the thick darkness (Radak) was the ‘Cloud and thick darkness’ which appeared at the revelation of the Torah; and the torch in its midst was ‘the fire’ which appeared at Sinai (see Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 5:4).
“which passed between these pieces.” – In fulfillment of the Covenant. As pointed out, Abraham did not pass through because he undertook no obligation under the terms of this Covenant. It was God Who was obligated under this Covenant regarding the gift of the Land, and as such, He caused His Presence, symbolized by the fire, to pass through and conclude the Covenant.
This verse uses the word ‘pieces’ instead of the word ‘carcasses’ as in verse 11. The use of the more respectful word in our verse is in reference to the Shechinah, which passed between the pieces. (Ralbag)
15:18-21 The everlasting Covenant between God and Abraham was ratified by the events that occurred on that day: the visions, the division of the animals, the passing through of the Divine Presence and His Promise.
Ramban comments that the promise of the Land was given to Abraham several times, each of them necessary. When he originally entered the country, God told him (12:7): ‘To your seed, I will give this Land’, a pledge which only included the territory which he had traveled until then. When his merits increased, God bestowed the additional promise (13:14-15): ‘Lift up your eyes…All the land which you see, to you will I give it and your seed forever.’ This promise was more comprehensive and also added ‘and to your seed forever’, and that his seed would increase ‘as the dust of the earth.’ In this chapter, God defines the boundaries of the Land, mentioning the ten nations which presently occupied the Land and would be displaced (verses 19-21) and further made an irrevocable covenant with him that could not be revoked through sin. When He repeated the promise on the occasion of Abraham’s circumcision for the final time, He added the words (17:8) “for a possession forever’, which meant that even if they were to be exiled, they would return and inherit it.
Rashi notes that although ten nations are mentioned here, God gave Israel the territory only of seven (Deuteronomy 7:1). The other three: Edom, Moab, and Ammon (identified respectively with the Kenites, Kenizzites, and Kadmonites in this verse), will become Israel’s possession only in the future (see Isaiah 11:14).
The Midrash sums up with a note on the association of this verse with the next (16:1), which might also explain why the above verses of the Covenant Between the Parts, were placed here even though, according to the Sages, they are not in correct chronological sequence: The Holy One, Blessed by He, originally contemplated giving Israel possession of ten peoples, but He gave them only seven… Edom, Moab, and Ammon being the three nations that were not given them in this world… But in the days of the Messiah they shall once again belong to Israel (i.e., they had already belonged to Israel in accord with God’s promise) in fulfillment of God’s promise. Now, He has given them all but seven…