Rachel Adelman

Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston. She holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the joint Baltimore Hebrew University/Matan Program (the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Study) in Jerusalem, and a PhD in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2007/8,  she was the Ray D. Wolfe post-doctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto and. in 2009/10, a visiting assistant professor at Miami University, in Ohio.  She has also taught Tanakh and Midrash at Matan, in Jerusalem, and lectures widely in North America and England.

Her first book — The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha — (Brill 2009), is based on her doctoral work.

Last year as a research associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, she began her second major writing project — The Female Ruse — Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible.

When not writing books, articles, or divrei Torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.

“Strangers in a Land not their Own” – The Conditional Gift of the Land in the Covenant with Abraham

The Jewish people have negotiated the dialectic between Exile and Homeland over three thousand years of history. Recently, the Dalai Lama turned to the Jewish experience to learn the secret of this survival through the vicissitudes of oppression, foreign rule, and exile. In this paper, I ground the “success” of survival in a philosophical reading of the original promise of Land to Abraham, “the Covenant between the Pieces” (Genesis chapter 15). In this scene, God reiterates the promise of progeny and land to Abraham but introduces a caveat – first there must be exile: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not their own, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Gen 15:13). This paper addresses why the gift of the Land of Canaan is contingent upon a period of exile, why the message is conveyed while Abraham is in a deep sleep (tardemah), and why the covenant is sealed by the ominous image of a smoking oven and flaming torch passing between the split carcasses of animals.

I begin with a comparison between this pericope and Jeremiah chapter 34, the scene from which the covenant derives its Hebrew name, brit bein ha-betarim, and consider the rubric of covenant-forging in the Ancient Near Eastern context. I then re-frame that covenant in terms of the broader philosophical question: why do the origins of the Israelite people begin in exile? From the very first divine command to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1), the patriarch as a microcosm for the people, is dislocated and promised a land that he and his immediate descendants will not take possession of. He remains merely a “sojourner” or “alien” in the Land of Canaan – as do the other patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob. The text avers that the reason Abraham (and the patriarchs) cannot return to this land “until the fourth generation”, is because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). Yet the condition that the Canaanite people have not yet filled their quota of evil seems merely to beg the question. Why make the possession of the land contingent on the iniquity of another nation? It is not that the Canaanites had a covenantal relationship between God and the land prior to the Israelites but, rather, their “banishment” sets the precedent for the divine dominion over the land and its status as a conditional gift. According to Leviticus, the people of the covenant are bound to keep God’s statutes and ordinances and not commit any abominations, lest “the land vomit” them out for defiling it, “as it vomited out the nation that was before” them (Lev. 18:28, cf. ibid. 20:22). As Franz Rosenzweig points out, “in contrast to the history of other peoples, the earlier legends about the tribe of the eternal people are not based on indigenousness” (The Star of Redemption, p. 300). Because the “Land is Mine” and the people “are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23), the land is a tenuous gift conditional upon loyalty to the covenant. Exile then can be held out as a potential consequence for people’s collective transgressions (as in Lev. 26, Deut 28-29, Jer 34 and so forth).

In this paper, I adopt Simon May’s working definition of Love as “ontological rootedness” – grounded in the promise of a sense of ‘return’ to Home (self, family, homeland, people) even while it hinges on an alienation from that Home. I then apply it to the dynamic between God and Abraham (and the Jewish people, as his descendants), using the “Covenant between the Pieces” (Genesis chapter 15) as my textual lens.