Torah Portion Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.

In Lech Lecha, God begins His plan to reassert His authority over the world through Abram. Abram enters into a covenant relationship with God that gives Abram the mission to be a light to the nations by bringing God’s blessings to them. God also promises Abram a key piece of real estate that will place him in the cross road of the ancient Near Eastern world.

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  • NIV Application Commentary on Genesis by John Walton

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  • The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane

  • The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
  • Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva

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[/s2If][/vc_column_text][/mpc_tab][mpc_tab title=”Echoes” tab_id=”1518210641895-2-1097dc-8afe3c23-187f”][vc_column_text]In Lech Lecha, we will see a continuation of the creation theme, but now with YHWH creating a new man, Abram, by separating him from society. Abram is tasked with the restoration of God’s image to humanity which will find its ultimate fulfillment in Yeshua as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-11.

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  • The Bible

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Parashah Lech Lecha
Conditionally Unconditional
Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

And I will bless you and cause your reputation to be mighty so that you can be a blessing.  Thus I will cause favorable blessing upon those who show you favor but the one who shames[1] you I will bind with a curse (Gen 12:2b-3a). In this Torah portion, we begin to read the history of the Abram’s covenant life where YHWH tells him to leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house, and go to a strange land.  For many of us today such a journey may seem difficult but nothing too hard to accomplish.  Many of us have left our parents house and moved to a distant place for jobs, spouses, or other reasons and so the idea of Abram having to relocate in order to serve God is not unfathomable to us.  Yet to a man in the ancient Near East, such a request would have been one of the most difficult things to consider doing.  By leaving his father’s household, Abram lost his right to inheritance and more importantly, he lost all of the honor ascribed by his birth.  In Abram’s world, honor ensured that a man was able to buy, sell, trade, marry his children to honorable spouses, and serve in the local courts making laws and rulings; it was the most important asset a man could posses because it secured his and his family’s livelihood[2].  By leaving his father’s household, Abram would become a nomad, a man without reputation.  Yet YHWH promised him that He would make Abram’s “name”, or better translated “reputation”, to become powerful.  Not only that, but Abram would pass on his honor and his legacy to a multitude of descendants so vast that their number would be comparable to the stars in heaven; too many to count!  His descendants would possess an entire land of their own too, and not just any land, but a land in the middle of the known world through which every major trade route ran.  When the mighty kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria, and Mesopotamia wanted to trade with each other (and they did frequently), they would have to pass through the land of Canaan, paying tariffs to Abraham’s descendants and at the same time being influenced by the Israelites practicing YHWH’s instructions to His people.  What honor! 

The language of the covenantal promise to Abraham found throughout this Torah portion has been recognized to have strong parallels to the royal grant treaties that have been found in the Hittite, Babylonian, and Neo-Assyrian literature of the ancient Near East[3].  These royal grant treaties differed from the vassal treaties which placed the obligation on the servant-vassal and directed curses at the vassal if he broke the treaty; the curse to be carried out by either the master-suzerain or by the gods in whose names the covenant was sealed with oath.  Instead the royal grant treaty was given to a faithful servant usually entailing either land or position and the curses were directed at any who violated the right’s of the vassal.  Thus in Genesis 12, Abram is offered a royal grant covenant ensuring him grant of land, a grant of honor (a “great name”), and descendants without number!

Some have referred to this royal grant given to Abram as an “unconditional covenant” because the Biblical text does not specify any conditions that Abram must keep in order to enjoy the blessings, while they refer to the Sinai covenant a “conditional covenant” because it very clearly has stipulations, beginning in Exodus 19:5 when YHWH states, “and now if you will certainly obey My voice and keep My covenant…  But this label is misleading because it misunderstands the nature of ancient Near Eastern treaties.  If the Hittite king gave a royal grant of land to a loyal vassal for his services and afterwards that vassal rebelled and sided with another attempting to usurp the throne, that vassal certainly would not keep his land; he and his family would be executed and his land would be given to another.  A royal grant treaty requires loyalty of the vassal to the king and this fact is evident in our Torah portion.  Lot came to the land with Abram and would have been heir (in part) to the promise, but he failed to remain loyal to the mandate given to Abram and his household, instead choosing to separate himself and claim for himself a pretty piece of property, thus becoming cut off from the covenant of promise.  Ishmael was born a literal descendant of Abraham and he was cut off from Abraham’s grant.  Esau was a descendant from the promised line of both Abraham and Sarah and yet he too was cut off from the promise.  Clearly there exists the condition of faithfulness to the covenant King, YHWH, in this Abrahamic covenant; one cannot simply trust in their lineage from Abraham as a means of ensuring they are heirs to the promise.  John the Immerser had to confront such a mindset that existed in many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, warning them to not say “we have Abraham as our forefather, for I say to you that from these stones God can raise up sons of Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).   

So what does this conditionality of the covenant mean?  Will God cast off His people Israel?  Never!  We just need to understand the true nature of God and His plan, that He will accomplish it through whatever means that submit to His will.  God designed a plan with Abram long ago to infiltrate mankind by giving him the most important piece of real estate on the planet and blessing him immensely with great honor and countless offspring in order through Abram’s seed God would bring about the redemption of the entire world.  Sadly, Abram’s offspring failed time and time again.  Instead of being a light to the nations, the story that follows this covenant in the Hebrew Bible tells of a nation who fell into idolatry and became oppressors instead of freeing others from oppression and bringing them into the service of the one true King.  Instead of bringing honor to their Creator, they brought shame upon His reputation.  Any earthly king would have cut them off and destroyed them long before in order to preserve his own honor, but YHWH is a King of conditional unconditionality!  While His plan did not go according to the original plan, He is true to His word and would bring the plan to fruition in a way that no one could ever have imagined.  Rather than coming as a conquering oppressive king as many first century Judeans expected, YHWH used Israel’s own rebellion to His own design, sending His own son to be oppressed and murdered by the people just as the prophets of ancient Israel had been oppressed and murdered by their generation.  The famous covenant of the pieces in Genesis 15 foreshadowed such horror in God’s promise to Abram that his descendants would be enslaved and oppressed in Egypt for four hundred years; as Israel was oppressed, so too the Messiah would be oppressed.  Yet such oppression of Israel and later of Yeshua was all according to God’s plan to redeem mankind.  In the theology of Western Christianity, Yeshua had to die in order to satisfy God’s requirement of “justice”, but this raises the question, “How can an act of unjust murder satisfy God’s justice?”  Sadly, this theology comes from the early Church fathers who had studied philosophy before their conversion and thus brought an unbiblical, Greek thought process into the understanding of the work of Messiah.   

When we read about YHWH’s character in the Hebrew Bible, we are not confronted with a God who must answer every crime with punishment.  Instead YHWH describes Himself to Moses as being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and great in covenant loyalty and faithfulness who keeps His covenant loyalty to thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exod. 34:6-7).  This is a fact that Jonah was very aware of when he got upset with YHWH because Jonah knew that YHWH would remove His judgment from Nineveh if they repented (Jonah 4:2)!  Throughout the Scripture we see that YHWH is perfectly capable of forgiving without requiring punishment.  So why then would Yeshua have to die in order for God’s plan of redemption to succeed?  Didn’t God take upon Himself the curse by walking through the pieces in Genesis 15?  The first thing to note is that no such statement is made in the text; it simply states that Abram fell into a deep sleep and a “smoking oven and flaming torch passed between the pieces”.  It has been noted that some first-millennium Aramaic treaties use such a ritual for placing a curse of treaty violations, but Abraham lived over 1,000 years before such methods.  Instead we turn to second-millennium Hittite texts which used such rituals for purification and texts from Mari and Alalakh feature the killing of animals as part of the ceremony for making treaties[4].  Purification was a common prerequisite for making oneself presentable in an honorable fashion before a covenant partner, such as when Israel had to bathe and wash their garments before encountering God at Mt. Sinai.  Interestingly, the Hebrew words עָשָׁן֙ (“smoking”) and לַפִּ֣יד (“torch”) that passed through the pieces are also found in Exodus 20:18 at the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai with the “lighting” (לַפִּ֣יד  same as “torch”) and the mountain “smoking” (עָשָׁן֙).  Therefore we see a connection between the covenant of the pieces and the redemption from oppression  in the Exodus. 

If God’s justice didn’t need to be satisfied by punishment, what needed to be fixed in the covenant relationship due to Israel’s rebellion?  A culturally sensitive understanding of how an honor and shame society functions clues us in to what problem Yeshua needed to fix.  Olyan writes, ”[to] shame one who is loyal in covenant communicates at minimum a loss of status and may in fact constitute a covenant violation”[5].   In Romans 2:23-24, Paul admonishes Israel, “You who boast in Torah, through your breaking of Torah, do you not dishonor God? ”  Disloyalty and rebellion by the vassal Israel brings dishonor upon their covenant partner, YHWH, and so knowing that humanity would continue to act dishonorably, God sent His son to be oppressed and crucified; to remain dead for three days to ensure there was no question about his death.  Then God showed that He Himself acts honorably, with covenant loyalty, by keeping His covenant promise to Abraham and resurrecting Yeshua from death, thus restoring His own honor in the sight of all mankind!  Thus, to those who were not faithful, the promise to Abraham was conditional and they were cut off (Romans 11), but YHWH is unconditionally faithful to His covenant and His plan, even to the point of bringing it about in the most unconventional way imaginable.

[1]  The root קלל often translated as “curse” here also means “to be small, insignificant”, “to have a low opinion of”, “to treat with contempt”.  It is a different Hebrew word than the word which follows it describing His response to the adversary of His covenant partner.

[2]  Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, “Social Sciences and Biblical Studies,” ed. Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Semeia 68 (1995): 11-12.

[3]  Moshe Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 90, No. 2 (1970) pp. 184-203.

[4]  Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ge 15:10.

[5]  Saul Olyan, “Honor, Shame, and Covenant Relations in Ancient Israel and Its Environment.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115, No. 2 (1996) pp. 204-205.

Further Study
For more information on the honor and shame culture and how Yeshua’s death and resurrection restored God’s honor, please see my video series The Gospel of the Suffering Servant available online at RootedinTorah.com or on DVD and CD at HebrewRootsTeachings.com

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