I have been working on a new book project for a while, Portraits of a Great God. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.
And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. – Genesis 15:12-17 (ESV)
We don’t have to wait until the New Testament to behold God acting with unpredictable grace and unexpected mercy. Nearly two millennia before Jesus’ birth, the need for a saviour was becoming increasingly evident, and God’s plan to save was becoming clearer. In the beginning, God created, and it was good. We know the rest of the story. Shortly thereafter, Adam plunged the created order into a cursed state through transgression, the explicit defiance of God’s law. The effects of the curse are far-ranging, but the following chapters of Genesis focus on the degenerating state of humanity. Humans were created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, entrusted with the task of ruling the creation as his representatives to bring forth its potential to the glory of God. Instead, humanity was divided, with a small remnant faithful to God and the majority in open rebellion. Several generations after the first murder, humanity engaged in open depravity and violence, leading to the great flood. With Noah and his family, a chance for a fresh start and renewed faithfulness to God was presented, yet like his predecessors, Noah and his children quickly descended into sin (cf. Gen 9:20-29). Humanity, it would seem, was incapable of serving God wholeheartedly. This was certainly true of God’s chosen vessel of salvation, Abraham.
We meet Abraham (Abram at this time) as a sojourner in Haran. He went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans with his father Terah towards Canaan but settled temporarily in Haran (Gen 11:31-32). However, Yahweh had great plans for Abram. Abram was to go forth from his family; God would make him into a great nation from whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God would give him the land of Canaan as a possession (Gen 12:1-9). However, problems quickly emerge. Thus far, Abram was childless; we learned earlier that Sarai, his wife, was barren (Gen 11:30). Thus, God’s promise to make Abram a great nation already faced a significant obstacle. Abram makes things worse almost immediately.
There is a famine in the land and Abram sojourns in Egypt, but he fears for his life because his wife is beautiful; he fears that the men of the land will kill him to take her (Gen 12:11-12). Instead of trusting Yahweh or finding another path, he convinces Sarai to present herself as merely his sister. Almost immediately, she is taken into the house of Pharoah (Gen 12:14-16). The irony is palpable: Abram was just told that he was to be a blessing to the nations, but now his sinful deceit has brought “great plagues” upon Pharoah and his household (Gen 12:17). Moreover, the promise itself is in danger: God was to give Abraham offspring, but if Sarai were brought into Pharoah’s harem, there would be the real danger that she would produce Pharoah’s children, not Abram’s. However, God intervenes, and Abram is enriched (Gen 12:15-20). As if to emphasize just how much the promise would rely upon God not Abram, a similar episode closes off the narratives of promise, those stories looking forward to God granting Abraham a child (Gen 20:1-18). As God’s promise for offspring would be fulfilled by God’s grace alone, so also would God’s promise to bless all nations through an Abrahamic king (Gen 12:1-9, 17:6, 18:18). This is the point of Genesis 15.
After a military conflict to rescue Lot, his nephew, Abram responds to God’s reassurance of a great reward with this question, “O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus” (Gen 15:2). God had promised numerous offspring, yet all of Abram’s possessions were set to be given to a member of his household, not a descendant. Verse 3 repeats this in a more accusatory tone. God responds that Eliezer would not be Abram’s heir. No, God would give him a son, from whom countless descendants would proceed (4-5). Abram believes in God’s promise; we are told, “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). That is, within the covenant relationship God established with Abram, Abram had a positive standing (was in God’s favour and so the object of blessing) because he trusted in God. However, two verses later, Abram seems to double back on his doubt: after God speaks of giving Abram the land of Canaan, he responds, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Now, we have just been told that Abram believes God, that God is faithful to fulfil his promises, so what is Abram doubting? Given Abram’s record—especially his behaviour in Egypt—I think the clear weak point in this covenant relationship is Abram. Abram does not have a free pass: a relationship with God does not come freely. God is God; He demands much of his people (e.g. Gen 17:1-14; 22:1-19, esp. v. 18). Abram is not blind. He knows that if the covenant depends on him, he will never receive the promises!
In response to Abram’s doubt, God does something truly breathtaking. God initiates a covenant ceremony, commanding that several animals be slaughtered, cut in half, and lined up (Gen 15:9). The idea is that both members of a covenant would walk through the slaughtered animals, implying a covenant curse: if either party were to break their obligations, they were to be made like these animals (cf. Jer 34:17-22, cf. this paper). Perhaps this is why the word for making a covenant is the word “to cut”: one does not “make” a covenant but “cuts” a covenant. Anyways, Abram makes all the preparations (Gen 15:10-11), but something unexpected happens. Right when Abram was expected to walk through the severed animals to confirm the covenant with a curse, a supernatural sleep came upon him. As he slept, God reassured him—“know for certain…” (Gen 15:15). Then the narrator turns our attention to the slaughtered animals, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Gen 15:17), thus “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram,” confirming the promise of offspring and land (Gen 15:18-21). Notice who didn’t pass through the pieces; Abram was sound asleep. The combination of smoke and fire are regularly associated with a God’s presence on earth, such as his descent to Mount Sinai (Exod 19:16-20) or the pillar of smoke and fire in the wilderness (Exod 13:21-22). Thus, God in his fiery glory walks through the severed pieces. God, while present in fiery glory, takes upon himself a curse.
On the one hand, God confirms his commitment: he would be cursed if he failed his promises. Of course, God would not fail his promises, Abram believed that much (Gen 15:6). If this were all that was at stake, then Abram would not have the reassurance he needed; Abram was the weak link, not God! However, the silence speaks mightily. Abram was prevented from undertaking his obligations in the ceremony by a supernatural sleep: he could not have taken up the covenant oath if he wanted to. Because God alone walked through the animals, God was taking full responsibility for both sides of the covenant. Not only would God be accursed if he broke his promises—which could never happen—but God would be accursed if Abram broke his promises. By walking through the animals alone, God gives the answer Abram was seeking. Despite Abram’s past and future transgressions, the covenant promises would be granted, for God guaranteed them. Failing in the covenant would not nullify these promises, for God himself received Abram’s curse. To do so is no small thing: God pledges to be severed like those animals—to be slaughtered—if either he or Abram broke the covenant. We know the history; Abram is far from perfect. Sure enough, God upholds his promises. 2000 years later, God became a man, Jesus the Christ, and became “a curse for us” (Gal 3:10), dying “for our sins in accordance with Scripture” (1 Cor 15:3).1 God, the one who created all things and sustains them, guaranteed his promises to Abraham and his offspring—and to the world through him—at the cost of his life. God did not count His glorious position as something to be seized, but he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
- read more on the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus in this paper.