Bechukotai: The Reverse Order of the Covenants

In a lengthy passage describing the punishments that will befall the people of Israel, God reminds us that despite all the suffering and exile, He will always adhere to the covenant He made with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The most glaring question that comes to mind when encountering this verse is: Why is Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, listed first? 

To appreciate the significance of this anomaly, let’s first look at the verse in context.

‘But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me, and that I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt— then I will remember My covenant with Jacob and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the land. The land also shall be left empty by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them; they will accept their guilt, because they despised My judgments and because their soul abhorred My statutes. (Leviticus 26:40-43).

At this point in the narrative of the future punishments of Israel, they have been banished into exile. And from the verse that follows ours, we see that they remain there at this point. With this in mind, we can understand the unusual reverse order of the patriarchs.

Jacob is the only one of the three patriarchs who went into exile after being born in the land of Israel. He is the only one who suffered in exile, as he did while living under his uncle Laban. And when Jacob went into exile a second time, this time to Egypt, God made a promise to him that has been the hope of the Jewish people throughout our history:

Jacob is the first patriarch mentioned here because Jacob is the patriarch who represents the Jewish experience of exile. The “covenant with Jacob” is God’s promise to always be with us in exile and to come out of exile with us. 

Isaac was born in the land but never left it. And this was not simply due to good fortune. On two occasions, Isaac should have left the land but did not. The first is when Abraham sent his servant, rather than Isaac himself, to the land of Haran to find a wife for Isaac:

But Abraham said to him, “Beware that you do not take my son back there. The Lord God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my family, and who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants, I give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. And if the woman is unwilling to follow you, you will be released from this oath; only do not take my son back there.” ( Genesis 24:6-8).

Later, when there was a famine in the land, Isaac started out for Egypt, as his father had done under similar circumstances. This time, it was God who prevented Isaac from leaving the land. (see Genesis 26:2-3). Clearly, it was a necessary part of God’s plan for Isaac to remain in the land and to never leave. Isaac then embarked on a mission to reclaim disputed territories that were part of the covenant from the Philistines who had taken them. While it is beyond the scope of this current teaching, it is safe to say that the “covenant of Isaac” is all about asserting ownership of the land.

Abraham was born outside the land and left it after entering. But unlike Jacob, he never suffered and was never subservient in exile. Abraham’s mission was a universal one. His name was changed to Abraham because “A father of a multitude of nations I have placed you.” His calling was to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. In his personality as well, we see Abraham’s universalism. He was opposed to banishing Ishmael. He tried to make peace with the Philistines. He prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah. 

To sum up, the three patriarchs represent three different aspects of Israel’s covenantal mission. Abraham represents the universal mission to bring knowledge of God to all humanity. Isaac represents the more particularistic covenant of land. Jacob represents the Jewish experience throughout history, going into exile, suffering, and ultimately returning to the land.

Now we can understand why the patriarchs are listed in reverse order in Leviticus 26. This verse speaks to a situation in which the people of Israel are mired in exile. The reverse order of the patriarchs describes the process of emerging from that exile to the full fulfillment of their covenantal purpose and mission.

First, God will remember His covenant with Jacob. In other words, He will protect them and redeem them from exile. Then, He will restore the covenant of Isaac, bringing His people back to their land in full independence and sovereignty. Finally, God will enable Israel to fulfill their highest calling in fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, to be the source of blessing for all the families of the earth.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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