Genesis 15 is the center of the Abraham narrative because God moves beyond mere command and word to covenant, or vow. God does so via moving between a halved heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and young pigeon. God’s appearance is that of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch which moves through the halved heifer, goat, and ram (Wenham 1982, e.g. Exod. 13:21-22; 19:16; 20:18 etc.) . The covenant ritual God participates in is common within the ancient Near Eastern context (cf. Collins 1992, 223-24). While the nature of that ritual is still an unsolved mystery and deserves full explanation, the following may at least more fully color the intertextual nature of the whole passage. Primarily, my focus is on the animals which God command Abram to bring and the intertextual connections with the burnt offerings of Leviticus 1.
Leviticus 1 presents five creature options for burnt offerings: herd creatures; flock creatures, such as sheep or goats; or turtledoves and pigeons. All of the terms for the animals are plural as they are part of Moses’ commands to all of Israel. Israelite cultic ritual also expects Israelite burnt offerings to be done before God (for an exception, see my previous blog post). Sacrifices must be accepted before the presence of the LORD (אֹתוֹ֔ לִרְצֹנֹ֖ו לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה).
Genesis 15:9 is similar in it’s expression of Abram’s piety. He is commanded to bring a heifer, female goat, ram, turtledove, and young bird. All of the terms for the animals are singular as they are God’s command to only Abram. Although the ritual is not expressed as needing to be accomplished before the presence of God, as is in Leviticus, it may be assumed because Abram is already with the Lord in his vision from the Lord.
Leviticus 1 and Genesis 14:9
- herd creatures and a heifer
- flock creatures (sheep/goats) and female goat/ram
- turtledoves/pigeons and turtledove/youngbird
Both of these passages, while maintaining distinct theological thrusts, dialogue with each other and provide a richness to the text. The correlation between the order of the order of animals, type, and context all suggest that the two texts are intended to dialogue. The order of the animals in Leviticus 1 are, broadly speaking, herd, flock, and bird. More specifically, they are herd, flock of sheep or goats, and turtledove or pigeon birds. Similarly, Genesis 15:9 includes a heifer (part of a herd), female goat, ram (male sheep), turtledove, and pigeon bird. Although the sheep and goat are in reversed order, the total order of the animals, along with their type, indicate that Genesis 15:9 is utilizing the pattern from Leviticus 1, or vice versa.
Additionally, the contexts of Leviticus 1 and Genesis 15:9 indicate positive correlation. Leviticus 1 operates within a cultic context that offers sacrifices within the tabernacle as part of the covenant (e.g. Lev. 26:9, 15, 25 etc.). Genesis 15:9, though Abram is not officially in covenant chronologically, is within a section that finds the climax at God’s covenant with Abram. Thus, the covenant focuses of both passages indicate a correlation and intertextual dependency.
What is does the intertextuality of Genesis 15:9 and Leviticus 1 indicate for the reader? Already Gordon Wenham has expressed that these five animals are standard sacrifices. He also notes that they represent the nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Wenham 1982, 135). To this I wish to extend his thoughts. First of all, Israel is not just a kingdom of priests for the sake of being a kingdom of priests. Rather, they are so in order that they may be priests to the world. Thus, secondly, Abram is represented as upholding the priestly role as the predecessor to the actual ancient Israel. Because Abram sacrifices the same sacrifices in the same order as found in the burnt offerings of Leviticus, he is represented as the totality of Israelite society. In effect, these ideas brings greater depth and focus to God’s universal outlook.
In Genesis 12:3, God promises Abram that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [him]” (NIV). While this is already quite universal in outlook, the two previous points, Israel as a kingdom of serving priests and Abraham as the representative priest, serve to further demonstrate the universal outlook of ancient Israel. The god whom they expressed sought to move beyond the borders of Canaan once ancient Israel attained the promised land. Through the intertextual connections of Leviticus 1 and Genesis 15:9, the Pentateuch editor reminds the reader of God’s universal outlook by bring back the reader to Abram’s narrative, and thus to God’s promise to Abram to bless all peoples through him. In conclusion, the editor’s reminder about the universal aim of the God of Israel propels the development of a community which operates to change the world and prevents the development of a community which builds high walls to always avoid the world.
Wenham, Gordon J. 1982. “The symbolism of the animal rite in Genesis 15 : a response to G F Hasel, (19,61-78 1981).” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 22: 134-137.
Collins, Billie Jean. 1990. “The Puppy in Hittite Ritual.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies vol. 42, no. 2: 211-226.