Dismembered Goats as a Key to Understanding Contract Law

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2 Responses

  1. just sayin, you know says:

    even if one sticks to a more rational theory of contract law — sticks with analysis and categorization — the meaning of those words shows that one is still just carving up goats.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Jewish religious tradition gives a somewhat different interpretation to Bereishis/Genesis 15. Rashi, the 11th Century CE Ashkenazic rabbi whose commentary on the Tanakh/Old Testament is still regarded as the most authoritative, notes in his commentary to verse 15:10 that it was customary for the parties to a covenant to divide an animal and pass through between its parts, citing as prooftext Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 34:19. He goes on to explain that the idol-worshiping nations had been likened to bulls, rams and goats, citing to Tehillim/Psalms 22:13 and Daniel 8:20. (The bulls and goats were male in the prooftexts, while the cows and possibly the goats were female in Bereishis 15:09, though Rashi remarks of the heifers, at least, that they were “symbolic” of various bulls mentioned in the Torah). The splitting of the animals was meant as a sign that those nations would gradually perish. The bird was not split: this signifies that Israel would persist forever, says Rashi.

    So in this reading, although the ritual was indeed like a typical covenant, it was an enactment of a bright future, not HaShem undertaking a penalty against Himself.

    Rashi also offers an alternative explanation, that Avram wanted some evidence that his descendants wouldn’t lose the lands for their sins; the ritual was meant to show HaShem’s reply that they would keep them because of the merit of their performing sacrifices. (See also the 17th Century commentary to Rashi by the Maharal (the Prague rabbi R. Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai) on this point.)