What Is the Abrahamic Covenant?

The Brit Bein HaBetarim, “The Covenant of Parts,” is one of the most important events in Jewish history. In the covenant, G‑d told Abraham about the destiny of his descendants: They would be strangers in a land where they would become oppressed and enslaved. Ultimately, however, G‑d would redeem them, and they would inherit the Land of Canaan (the Land of Israel).

There are two parts to the Abrahamic covenant:

  1. Abraham’s descendants (also known as the Hebrews, the Israelites or the Jewish people) would be enslaved and eventually redeemed.
  2. They would forever inherit the Land of Canaan.

The first half of the promise was fulfilled when the children of Israel were subjugated in the land of Egypt. The second half was mostly fulfilled when Joshua conquered and settled most of the land promised to Abraham. Although the Jewish people were later exiled, it was promised to us as as an eternal heritage. Although the Jewish people were later exiled, it was promised to us as as an eternal heritage. We hope and pray for that promise to be fulfilled in its entirety when we return to the land with its extended borders as promised to Abraham, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.

How the Covenant with Abraham Came About

In the Land of Canaan, a war was being waged between two mighty groups of kings.1 One group consisted of five kings and the other of four. The second group was far more powerful and overcame the first group of kings. In the midst of their conquest, they captured Abraham’s nephew, Lot.

When Abraham heard the news, he set out immediately to fight the four kings, and despite being vastly outnumbered, he was victorious. He rescued his nephew, as well as all other captives, and returned their possessions to them.

After Abraham’s miraculous victory, he was concerned that the miracles G‑d performed for him may have come at the expense of his accrued merits. G‑d, therefore, assuaged his worries and reaffirmed His promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and that a son would yet be born to him.

Additionally, G‑d assured Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan. However, Abraham was still apprehensive, and so he asked G‑d for a sign: “O L‑rd G‑d, how will I know that I will inherit it?”

(Read about this episode in Genesis 14.)

The Covenant Between the Parts

The Hebrew term for establishing a treaty between two parties is known as “kritat brit,” which literally means “dividing a covenant.” Though the term itself might seem like an oxymoron (as the purpose of a promise is to bring unity and not division), nevertheless, the phrase has its roots in an ancient custom: parties entering a covenant would divide an animal and pass between its parts to seal the deal.

The verses describe this particular covenant as follows:

He [Abraham] took for Him all these [three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtle dove and a young bird], he divided them in the middle, and he placed each part opposite its mate, but he did not divide the birds ... It came to pass that the sun had set, and it was dark, and behold, a smoking furnace and a fire brand, which passed between these parts.

It was on that day that G‑d formed a covenant with Abraham, saying, “To your seed I have given this land...”2

The Meaning of the Animals

Authored by an infinite G‑d, the Torah was written in such a way that it is open to many different interpretations. There are various commentaries, both literal and mystical, that explain the meaning behind the “Brit Bein HaBetarim.”

They ask: G‑d commanded Abraham to take three heifers and three goats and three rams. Why these particular animals?

Some commentaries then explain that this is a symbolic reference to the animals that will be brought as sacrifices to G‑d in the Holy Temple.3

Others explain that these three animals represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham served his guests calf, Isaac was almost sacrificed upon an altar but then exchanged for a ram, and Jacob wore goats’ hair to disguise himself and receive blessings from Isaac.4

Yet others explain that these animals represent the exiles of the Jewish people under the rule of Babylon, Persia and Greece.5

The verse also states that Abraham took a turtle dove and a young bird. Commentaries explain6 that these species of birds are types that are fed upon by predators, so too, the Jewish nation will be trampled on and beaten by the nations of the world throughout their time in exile. No matter the perils that the Jewish people face, they will always remain united until the end of days.However, as the verse later attests, when Abraham divided the animals in half, he left the birds whole. This demonstrates that no matter the perils that the Jewish people face, they will always remain united until the end of days.7

Later, the verse tells how birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abraham drove them away.

There are opinions8 that explain that the birds of prey symbolize the nations of the world that wish to uproot and destroy the Jewish people, but just like Abraham chased the birds away, so too these nations will never succeed in defeating the Jewish people.

Others explain9 the symbolism to be quite the opposite. They say the birds of prey represent King David, swooping down to defeat all the enemies of the Jewish people. However, Abraham’s chasing away of the birds demonstrates that this will not be fully accomplished until the arrival of the Messiah.

The Message of the Covenant

The essential message of the covenant is that the Jewish people will face harsh and trying times, but at the end of it all, the Jews will remain steadfast and strong. The covenant is G‑d’s promise that the Jewish people will inherit the entire Land of Israel. Let us pray that this be fulfilled with the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days!