After these things, we are told, God speaks to Abraham and assures him that he is indeed protected and that his faith will be rewarded. At this moment, I imagine Abraham turning to God and speaking to Him in a very low voice, a pained voice, as he asks, "What can you give me that is worth having, for I have no child? I shall see my estate and all I have in the hands of my steward Eliezer."
What are the things that have so hurt Abraham that at this moment he turns to God defenseless, wounded, voicing a pain that is not new?
I believe that Abraham feels profoundly disillusioned in this chapter, and his disillusionment comes about due to his encounter with Lot.
Abraham has an important quality, one that makes him willing to leave everything behind in order to embark upon a journey to the land that God will show him and to endure the difficulties that attend him. It is a kind of willful naivete, a belief not so much in people's innate goodness as in their capacity for redemption. Abraham is a kind of idealist. He searches for God in humanity and is shocked each time he does not find it. In Egypt, he recognizes that the people are corrupt, but believes that if he engages in a ruse where he pretends to be Sarai's brother, he will be able to save her, tricking the inhabitants of that country into behaving decently. But it is not so. This also explains why he uses the same ruse when he and his wife visit Avimelech; he assumes that even if it failed in Egypt, it cannot possibly fail twice. It is impossible that people could be so corrupt. Additionally, Abraham treats Hagar well, to the point that Sarai is frustrated and angry, feeling like her husband has not allied with her in making clear Hagar's role as surrogate mother as opposed to her own role as full wife. "May God judge between you and me!" she declares, believing that Abraham's kindness is to blame for Hagar's putting on airs. Later, he suffers greatly when Sarai determines that Ishmael and Hagar must leave for good, not believing that it is necessary- and God Himself must intervene to convince him that it is. And, of course, from the Midrashic reading due to the extra language in the verse, he is unclear as to which son he is to offer up to God - Isaac or Ishmael. It is not that Abraham cannot see evil or perversity. It is simply that he does not believe that is all there is to see. It is why he argues on behalf of Sodom- to him, the concept of totally wicked cities defies conception. He believes, with profound faith, that there is goodness in all beings, and that given the opportunity to act justly and correctly, man eventually will do so. If he can only succeed in showing them the light- they will change.
Abraham has just saved Lot, and it seems likely that he thought there would be some kind of powerful moment or reconciliation. Perhaps now the two of them can live in peace in one place. Perhaps Lot will come home with Abraham. But no such thing happens, and Abraham is forced to recognize that Lot prefers the company of others, those who are dissimilar to Abraham and who indeed may even be wicked (certainly, there is a focus on materialism, a constant emphasis on "Lot and his possessions") to what he has to offer. In the back of his mind, Abraham likely assumed that if he would not have children, Lot would be his heir. But now Abraham sees that this will not be. Lot is not the kind of man Abraham thought him to be- the kind of man who desires to ally with him in a quest for God- and spirituality over materialism. Leaving Lot his estate and inheritance would not advance Abraham's cause because Lot would see them as so many material goods, not as items that should be used in service of promoting the monotheistic vision. And so, having recognized all this, Abraham is at a loss. He feels disillusioned and upset. If this is what happened to Lot, his own kinsman, what will happen to him? Will he too be swayed and end up this way? And in that moment God reaches out to comfort him, informing him that no, he will not. God is His shield and will protect him. Abraham will never be Lot. And Abraham will not have to leave all he worked for in the hands of an unworthy individual - or a foreign servant. There will be someone to continue his efforts, his vision, his desire to bring knowledge of God to the world. This will be a child of his own body.
A special word is used in this narrative, a word that takes us back to a prior narrative. That word is תַרְדֵּמָה, and it means a deep, transformative sleep. The last time we saw this word was in the story of Adam in Chapter 2.
And I think the presence of this word is deliberate. We are meant to see a similarity between the two narratives.
Adam is searching, longing and wishing for an עזר כנגדו, a helpmate.
Abraham is searching, longing and wishing for an heir, someone to be יורש אותו.
They are each searching for someone who will help them carry the dream forward, serving as their torchbearer.
In the Adam story, God creates beasts and birds. Adam sees them all, names them all and according to the Midrash, consorts with them all, but none of them are the person who will help him to build, conquer and inherit the land. None of them can help him create new life.
But then comes this gorgeous moment.
bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. We will never be parted; we will never be dissolved. We are One, and when we come together, we are one again.
In the Abraham story, God has Abraham destroy beasts while the birds remain whole. Abraham cuts the beasts in half, leaves the birds intact, and protects all of the defenseless creatures from the carrion birds that descend to consume the flesh laid out before them. And then comes Abraham's moment.
There is a creation aspect here, too. It is darker. There is the promise of the child who will be born, the person who will help Abraham to carry the torch and bring his vision to the greater world. But there is also the promise of pain. This is the dream of the birth of a nation.
If Woman is created from Man's body, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, then the Nation is created from Pain, seed born of suffering. Abraham's pain, in the short term, seeking an heir and not finding likely candidates, and their own pain, in the long term, serving under other nations until such time that they can inherit the land.
To me, the smoking furnace and tongue of fire that pass through the pieces is the personification of this struggle, this journey. There will be darkness, intense and thick and black. There will be pain. But there will also be light, flaring brightly, and a people conceived from the darkness with matchless ability to endure, to continue and to create. We know that we find God in both darkness (I Kings 8:12) and light. With God, pain is creative. Whether it is the pain of wresting a bone from Adam's side and creating a woman, or forcing a nation to endure beatings, killings and slavery to ensure resilience, somehow both these narratives tell the story of continuity. This is how continuity is assured- how the torch passes from one to the next.
But did you see the flares in the sky?
Were you blinded by the light?
Did you feel the smoke in your eyes?
Did you, did you?
Did you see the sparks filled with hope?
You are not alone
'Cause someone's out there, sending out flares
-"Flares" by The Script