In his “Philosophy of History”, Georg Hegel described the course of history as progressing through what is known as the “dialectic triad” – a process wherein an idea or movement – the thesis – meets with opposition – the antithesis – prompting a struggle that develops until a resolution – the synthesis – is reached.  The synthesis, it should be noted, is not a compromise, but an entirely new state, that may, if perfection has not yet been reached, come to define the thesis of a new triad.

Rabbi Soloveitchik applies this theory to explain the progress of God’s covenant through history:

We characterize the covenant in almost Hegelian terms … of a historical triad: thesis – promise and the formation of the God-man confederacy; antithesis – the interim, at which the covenant negates and drives itself ad-absurdum [i.e., crisis]; synthesis – the release of historical tension and fulfillment” (Emergence, p.179).

The first time such a God-man confederacy is formally made manifest is in the “covenant between the pieces.”  It is then, for the first time in history, that man expresses his struggle to reconcile the promise of God, the thesis, with the conflicting reality, the antithesis.   As a result, God reveals to Abraham, within the covenant “between the pieces”, the notion of the dialectic triad.

The narrative of the covenant begins with Abraham expressing despair at having no seed (15:3), despite the promise, “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth” (13:16).  In response, God reassures Abraham that he will indeed have children “from thine own loins”, upon which Abraham “believed in the Lord” and for which God “counted it to him for righteousness.”

But is it not strange that Abraham’s “belief in the Lord” is considered “righteousness” when God Himself just assuaged his concerns?  The answer is that the reality of “the interim”, when antithesis opposes thesis, is characterized by opposition so overwhelming that even a divine promise appears inconceivable.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains:

“What is the characteristic of the interim?  [It is] the apparent deterioration of the covenant.  The covenant is always a revolutionary force that collides with the existing order of the things.  There is a perennial conflict between the historical-covenant motivation [i.e., the promise] and historical immediacy [i.e., reality]. … The vision of the great fulfillment recedes into the shadow of absurdity, and concrete historical forces triumph over a prophecy and a testament.”

God considered Abraham righteous for believing the promise when reality made believing simply absurd.  At this, God then assures Abraham that not only will he have seed but, as per His initial promise (13:15), his seed will inherit the land.   Yet now Abraham asks, “whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”  Given that Abraham had just demonstrated his deep belief in God’s ability to fulfill His promises, his question, I suggest, refers to his desire to understand how the “historical-covenant motivation” – the promise – is reconciled with “historical immediacy” – reality.  Abraham wants to understand the philosophy of history.  God responds with the “covenant between the pieces” (Genesis 15:9-18):

  • Take Me three calves, and three goats, and three rams, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. And he took him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other; but the birds divided he not. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
  • And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him.
  • And He said unto Abram: Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. …
  • And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces.
  • In that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram …

This covenant, more than a promise of a great fulfillment, is a metaphor for the progress of history through the dialectical triad.  Let us analyze the text.

God calls for three animal sacrifices (calf, goat, ram) which represent, according to Nachmanides, the primary sacrifices: olah (elevation offering), hatat (sin offering), shelamim (peace offering).  Here, then, are: thesis – God’s will and desire, symbolized in the olah completely dedicated to God; antithesis – acting against God’s will, symbolized in the hatat; and synthesis – the whole and peaceful resolution, symbolized in the shelamim.

The dialectic is further represented in the enactment of the covenant itself.  Abraham splits the sacrifices into two, laying “each half over against the other” – thesis and antithesis;[1] upon which the parties to the covenant, God and Abraham, pass between the pieces in expression of agreement – synthesis.  God and Abraham, having gone through the dialectic process of history, emerge whole – like the two birds which remain whole.   The process, however, is fraught with difficulties – the covenant will come under attack, as the birds of prey demonstrate, and will have to be defended, as Abraham does.

But the difficulties don’t end there, for with the setting of the sun comes great darkness.  Rabbi David Kimchi explains that the first going down of the sun refers to the exile in Egypt, the prototype exile detailed in the text, while the second setting of the sun refers to the subsequent historic exiles of Babylonia and Rome.  In consonance, the three exiles are represented by the three threefold sacrifices, indicating the dialectic triad operative in each of the three exiles.

Exile is emphasized in the covenant “between the pieces” because it is precisely during the long and arduous historical interim that the dialectical conflict “between the pieces” struggles for resolution.  And it is precisely this process that, while appearing to negate the covenant, actually serves to ultimately bring about its fulfillment.  The process has been likened, in a way, to the scientific method wherein a scientist will propose a theory which other scientists seek to attack.  The attacks, while opposing the theory, actually serve to expose its weaknesses, leading to modification whereby the theory is strengthened.  The more varied and severe the tests are the greater the chance for the process to succeed.

Applying this to the covenant, the great promise of seed and land must come to fruition in a people with the strength to live up to the demands of the covenant.  According to the Talmud (Taanit 27b), when Abraham asks, “whereby shall I know …”, he was expressing concern that his seed may not live up to these demands.  God answers with the covenant between the pieces, the covenant of the dialectic triad, for the antithesis of the historical interim will provide the means to test and strengthen the people to the point that they will be worthy of the great fulfillment.

The dialectic process, difficult though it may be, allows for the people walk away enriched from the experience.  God hints at this in the words: “and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.”  Clearly, notes Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great wealth does not refer to physical substance but to “spiritual treasure.”  He explains that the exile “served to implant within us the qualities of kindness and mercy,” as well as “resistance, tenacity, and heroic strength.”

So important is this “great wealth” that it is emphasized three times in the Exodus from the Egyptian exile: at the burning bush (Exodus 3:22), before the last plague (Exodus 11:2), and finally when the people took the wealth (Exodus 12:38).  Fittingly, the Midrash (Ex. R. 14) notes that it was in the plague of darkness that the people actually took note of this wealth – for it was only then, when they had light, that they could recognize the value of the difficult process that they had been through.

The Egyptian exile served as the prototype of all exiles, each one having its own darkness, each one having its own spiritual treasure.  Incumbent upon us is the task of ever seeking that great wealth latent in every dialectical triad, personal and national, until we will be worthy of the great fulfillment of creation – the great synthesis – when “God will be one and His Name will be one.”


[1] I wish to acknowledge my son Eitan Navon for noting how the very name “brit bein habetarim” suggests dialectic.