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B'resheet/Genesis 15:16 And the fourth generation shall return here for the iniquity of the Amorites is not complete until then.
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Two issues confront us in this text. The first is that of reconciling four generations with the four hundred years that Avram was told just a few verses earlier: "they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (B'resheet 15:13, NJPS). The second is the issue of the iniquity of Amorites: what is that, why does it have to be complete and what does that mean? The Amorites, by the way, are covering here for all the people currently occupying the Land; they are used as representatives for everyone else as they were considered to be the most numerous or the most aggressive of the tribes.
Starting with the "four generations", the immediate problem is that the modern understanding of a generation is something in the region of 20-30 years, so four generations would be at most 120 years.Ibn Ezra tells us that "most of the commentators are confused about the meaning of this word , dor, taking it to mean a fixed length of time." Instead, he says, "it is actually derived from a root meaning 'to dwell'. It refers to the period of time during which a person 'dwells' in his earthly life, whether long or short." Nahum Sarna explains that "there is no fixed biblical calculation for the human life cycle" and points to three different alternatives given by the Tanakh. HaShem exclaims that "the days allowed [to man] be one hundred and twenty years" (6:3, NJPS), while the prophet predicts that "he who dies at a hundred years shall be reckoned a youth" (Isaiah 65:20, NJPS) and the Psalmist comes in below them both with "The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years" (Psalm 90:10, NJPS0. The Sages do the arithmetic backwards - four generations in four hundred years - to deduce that a generations is one hundred years (m. Eduyyot 2:9).
Perhaps we solve this problem by concluding that the ancient world saw a generation as something in the region of a hundred years, give or take a few ounces. CertainlyRashi sees it that way: "After they will be exiled to Egypt, they will be there three generations and the fourth will return to this Land ... Go and count the generations: Ya'akov went down to Egypt then Judah, Peretz and Hezron; and Caleb the son of Hezron was among those who came to the Land." Rashi relies on b. Sotah 11b, which claims that Caleb the son of Hezron, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 2:18, is Caleb the son of Jephunneh (B'Midbar 14:30), who was among those who entered the Land of Israel.
However, there is a second question about the "four generations": whose generations are they anyway? Are they generations of Avraham's descendants, or Amorite generations? We have seen Rashi above, but his is not the only voice.Chizkuni and the Ramban both say that "three generations of Amorites will dwell in the Land and when the fourth is born, the Israelites will return." The Ramban adds that "The Amorites were given an opportunity of three generations to repent, but did not do so. Remember that HaShem is patient with iniquity until 'the third and the fourth generation' (Shemot 20:5)." This leads us on to the Radak, who informs us that "The Holy One is patient with the wicked. There is a fixed time for everything. Sometimes He inflicts punishment immediately and sometimes after a long wait, all in accordance with His wisdom." That, in turn, segues neatly into the second issue confronting us in the text.
What are we to make of HaShem's observation to Avram that "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (B'resheet 15:16, NJPS)? Rashi says that "the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not exact punishment from a nation until its measure is full. He exacts punishment for a large accumulation of sins rather than dispensing punishment little by little." This implies that rather like a boat filling with water, it doesn't sink until it is full. The Amorites will be allowed to stay in the Land until the level of their sin has reached tipping point, at which point they will - automatically, as it were - become liable for dispossession. Gordon Wenham is clear that "divine judgement, in the form of Israel's conquest, must wait until they are sufficiently wicked to deserve this fate."1 Gunther Plaut confirms, "once it reaches its full measure, it will cause them to lose the Land. This relationship of morality and possession is part of the Holy Land's special nature, which was to have a profound effect on the people of Israel." The Torah makes it clear that Israel will be subject to the same obligations when they take possession: "Let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you" (Vayikra 18:28, NJPS).
At this point we need to ask an important question. The Amorites are not part of Israel, they are not in any sense HaShem's chosen people; neither are they subject to the covenant that HaShem will make with Israel - Avraham's descendants mentioned in our text - at Mt. Sinai. Why is HaShem having this conversation with Avram about their iniquities - indeed, what iniquities? Rav Sha'ul confesses that "if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin" (Romans 7:7, ESV), because "apart from the law, sin lies dead" (v. 8, ESV). Sarna helps us here, pointing out that "the history of all humankind is under the moral governance of G-d. The local peoples have violated G-d's charge. The universally binding moral law has been flouted and the inhabitants of Canaan have been doomed by their own corruption as texts like 'it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them' (Vayikra 20:23, NJPS) explicitly aver." There is a universal moral rule book encoded in the whole of creation, that is a part of every human being that ever has or will live. That rule book holds certain moral standards for behaviour and conduct to which all mankind is held accountable.
Gerhard von Rad sets out the plan: "first is the universal aspect: G-d rules over world history in the sense of a providentia gereralis; secondly, in the course of time allotted to the nations they become ripe for the judgement immanent in history."2 At which point, according to Bruce Waltke, "G-d will dispossess them in favour of His elect in full agreement with His moral governance of the world. Indeed, it is not until the nations become totally saturated with iniquity that G-d dispossesses them. So also, He does not send the flood until the earth is fully corrupt - 'G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth' (B'resheet 6:12, NJPS) - and He does not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah until He has satisfied Himself that not even a quorum of righteous are left in the city. Later, when Israel's iniquities have become full, G-d will drive even His elect nation from the Land."3 Moshe will remind the Israelites, just as they are about to enter the Land to possess it, that they haven't done anything to deserve this, "it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the L-RD is dispossessing them before you" (D'varim 9:4, NJPS).
So, as Sarna concludes, "the fate and destiny of the future people of Israel is to be intertwined with that of other peoples." We see that the Land itself is active to vomit out those people - Amorites or Israelites alike - who engage in idolatry, sexual immorality, bestiality, child sacrifice, prostitution and so on, within its borders. Critical to the people Israel's existence and identity as the land Israel is, the Children of Israel are not given a free pass on immoral behaviour that breaks G-d's universal moral law, written - however much folk might try to deny it - on all of our hearts. And that gets us the nub of the argument for today.
Where do we stand as disciples of Yeshua and members of the kingdom of G-d? Is there a connection between morality and the kingdom that parallels the one between morality and the Land of Israel? Whilst it is unthinkable that a true follower of Yeshua could possibly engage in any of the abhorrent practices of the Amorites and their bed-fellows in the time between Ya'akov and his family leaving the Land and Joshua leading the Israelites to take possession of the Land four hundred years or four generations later, do the Apostolic Writers touch on this subject at all? Is there any suggestion that the kingdom might spew us out if we become involved in certain types of behaviour?
Unsurprisingly, Rav Sha'ul is very clear that there is. After counting some of the things on our list above, plus a good few more described as "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19, ESV), he says, "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of G-d" (v. 21, ESV). These things are conduct that does not belong in the kingdom and - by Sha'ul's reckoning - will not be tolerated there. "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of G-d?" (1 Corinthians 6:9, ESV). It seems that we lose our right to the kingdom when we are 'immoral'.
As with the Amorites, however, we must balance the certainty of exclusion or expulsion with G-d's desire that no-one need be excluded. Just as G-d allowed four generations for repentance, so Peter tells us that "the L-rd is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, ESV). G-d calls on everyone to repent, to turn from their wicked and foolish ways and be reconciled with Him. It was for that reason Messiah came: "He was wounded because of our crimes, crushed because of our sins; the disciplining that makes us whole fell on Him, and by His bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5, CJB). Hear His voice and call upon Him today, "while He may be found" (55:6). Don't delay or presume upon His patience: "the day of the L-rd will come like a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2, ESV).
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), page 332.
2. - Gerhard von Rad, Genesis Old Testament Library, (London, SCM Press, 1972), page 188.
3. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 244.
Further Study: Ephesians 5:3-5; Hebrews 6:4-8; Revelation 21:8
Application: Make sure that you have connected with G-d in Messiah before your boat becomes full and sinks. Whether you think you know Him or not, you won't get into or be allowed to remain in the kingdom of G-d if you continue in what He calls the "works of the flesh" or "the abominations of the Amorites".
Comment - 07:32 30Oct22 Charlotte De Groot: So enriching, thank you for your time and faithfulness
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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