Torah Ecology: Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1 – 17:27)

Lech Lecha tells the story of Abram becoming Abraham. That story includes many tantalizing “historical” and “biographical” details, details that show us how the Torah wants us to understand the character of Abraham and the meaning of his transition.

Until now, the Torah story has been about the relationships among human beings and between human beings, their environment, other animals and Transcendence. Animals are featured in the early Torah story along with the first human beings. The serpent has as dramatic an impact on the progress of history as the first humans. Animals suffer the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree along with humanity. In the Flood story, animals transgress as human beings do, and again animals suffer the consequences along with human beings.

What we learned in the story that precedes Lech Lecha is that non-human animals, like humans, connect with G-d through the breath of life, breathed into them by G-d. Non-human animals, like humans, are also substance, basar, which without the breath of G-d is merely dead meat, a carcass. And non-human animals are moral beings held accountable for their infractions. Human beings are not passive in their relationship to G-d and their world — and neither are non-human animals, who also have moral capacity and make decisions that have consequences.

In the story that unfolds in the Garden, the relationship between humans and animals is harmonious, and both are vegan, as G-d instructed. The fact that all creatures are vegan is central to the narrative:

“G-d said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” ~ Gen. 1:29-30

Outside the Garden, everything changes, all relationships, not only the one between human beings and G-d. The human relationship with the environment changes, with a less generous earth yielding its fruits more grudgingly to hard labor. And the human relationship with other animals changes. The snake and the woman are enemies. Hierarchical relationships prevail, even in the intimacy between husband and wife. Animal husbandry is in play with the Cain and Abel story (which assumes meat-eating), and accompanying it, animal sacrifice. Even human-to-human relationships change with the first homicide, a fratricide.

The Flood story confirms what the Cain and Abel story assumes: both animals and humans are implicated in unlawful bloodshed. Some animals, like humans, kill for food — and predator animals, like some human beings, sometimes kill human beings. The earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and all flesh (kol basar) on earth, human and non-human animals and birds, are implicated and suffer consequences in the flood. Animal sacrifice is an integral part of the human relationship to G-d, with “pure” and “impure” animals entering the ark.

Post-Garden, blood is involved in all relationships. There is an economy of blood in the post-Garden world, the blood of sacrifice paying for unlawful blood spilled…in the ancient history of the world and in the present moment.

The changed relationships and the blood economy are confirmed in the diet post-Flood. Humans may kill non-human animals for food but cannot eat the blood with it; neither humans nor animals can kill human beings without consequence:

“The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.” ~ Gen. 9:2-5

Suddenly in Lech Lecha, the non-human animals’ and birds’ story is muted. No longer is their story and relationship to creation developing — it is fixed. References to animals are fleeting and not part of the evolving narrative.

  • In Gen. 12:8, Abram builds an altar to the Lord in the hill country east of Bethel — although strangely, there is no mention of sacrifice.
  • In Gen. 12:16, Abram acquires sheep, oxen, asses, she-asses, camels, and male and female slaves from Pharoah. This kind of wealth assumes a meat-eating lifestyle.
  • In Gen. 13:1-9, we learn that Abraham, like Abel, is a herdsman, the first herding sheep, the latter primarily cattle. In Lech Lecha, this lifestyle is both assumed and acceptable without comment or elaboration.
  • In Gen. 13:4, Abram returns to the altar east of Bethel on his return from Egypt and “invokes the Lord by name.” Again, there is no specific mention of sacrifice. This might mean nothing…but the doubling of this event is suggestive.
  • In Gen. 14:17-19, as Abram returns from his victorious pursuit of the invaders who took Abram’s brother Lot along with all his possessions, he is met by the king of Sodom in the Valley of the King…and King Melchizedek of Salem. The king of Sodom approaches ambiguously, bringing neither food nor blessings. King Melchizedek of Salem brings both, bread and wine (a vegan offering) and a blessing for Abram that invokes the G-d of creation, the G-d whose original plan did not include either sacrifice or killing animals for food.

Finally, in the economy of blood established post-Garden, this portion concludes with a covenant agreement, sealed on G-d’s side when a flaming torch, representing G-d, passes “between the pieces,” three animals cut in two, a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram and a whole turtle dove and small bird. (Gen. 15:9-18). On Abraham’s side, the covenant is sealed with a parallel blood rite, circumcision. (Gen. 17:9-14). The first part of the covenant agreement brings the promise of land while the second part brings the promise of descendants and a name change. The transition from Abram to Abraham is complete — and the transition to a new reality.

Animals may be treated as moral beings in the Torah story, but in Lech Lecha, their position in the new scheme of creation is a settled discussion, not a point of debate. Predator animals are “impure” beasts, animals who might kill humans, and other animals are “pure,” most, but not all of them, domesticated. In this Torah portion, domesticated animals are a fact of existence, and certain domesticated animals are a regular part of the human diet and of sacrificial worship.

Humans have the potential to become impure. But humans also have the opportunity to purify. The difference between human and animal impurity is that the human impurity is temporary, animal impurity permanent.

Yet hints of the original vision of the relationship between human and non-human animals remain in the stories of King Melchizedek and Abram at the altar east of Bethel. Abram invokes the name of the Lord without specifically engaging in animal sacrifice — twice. King Melchizedek blesses Abram of the G-d Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth, the G-d who created a world in which all of creation lived in harmony.

Lech Lecha begins a story of a life that includes death and killing, one genus in the family of living beings using others, a blood economy of creation that involves G-d … a world that isn’t quite according to anyone’s plan. For all the powerful and inspirational moments in the ongoing story of the developing relationship between G-d and the patriarchs, there is some sadness in finally leaving behind the vision of a world without death and violence, a world where all creatures live in harmony.

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