To Cut a Covenant
We’e going to get into today’s passage without much introduction because it basically picks us up right where we left off last week. After a dramatic military victory, God visited Abram by night to reassure Him of His protection and provision. But Abram basically burst out that no reward God could give him would make up for the fact that he still didn’t have a child. And in a dramatic conversation, God brought Abram outside, told him to look at the stars, and then after letting him do that, promised him that his offspring would be like those stars.
And Abram believed God, and God counted that faith to him as righteousness. And we spent the final part of last week considering this good news, at the beating heart of the gospel, that God counts sinners righteous through faith. We are justified, counted righteous, not by earning that status but by trusting in the God who justifies.
A. Introduction (v. 7)
Now in some ways, verse 7 and following are a continuation of the dialogue between God and Abram that began at the beginning of chapter 15. And yet they also have the markers of a distinct second part to the conversation. The topic changes slightly, from the promise of an offspring to the promise of the land. And though it begins with “and he said to him,” as if the conversation was continuing, the pronouncement “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” has the feel of a formal introduction. Other documents we’ve found from this time period begin with an introduction like this.
This pronouncement foreshadows God’s pronouncement in Exodus 20, right before the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2), a statement that’s repeated several times throughout the Old Testament. And so as God reminds Abram of who He is, He is doing so in a way that begins to shift this conversation in a much more formal direction.
B. Question (v. 8)
And yet, it still is a conversation at this point. Because Abram can’t help but notice that, once again, God has given him a promise that he hasn’t delivered on. God brought him there to give him the land to possess, but just like the promise of offspring, that hasn’t happened yet. And so Abram asks in verse 8: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8).
Now just wait a second. I thought we celebrated last week that Abram believed God? Wasn’t that counted to him as righteousness? You bet. Abram believed God. And yet here he is asking how he can know whether this promise will be kept.
So what is this telling us? This is telling us that you can have faith and questions at the same time.
I hope that’s good news for you. I’ve heard some people give the impression that faith means never asking any serious questions about anything you read in the Bible. And I hope that’s not true, because that’s definitely not my story. I’m sure, at one point or another, I’ve questioned absolutely everything in the Bible. And it’s my questions, and my search for answers, that has led me deeper and deeper into faith as the years have gone on.
Now we want to be careful here, and we don’t want to take this too far, like some others have in recent years. Some people who say they’re Christians have embraced this rebellious “doubter” persona and brag about uncertain they are about everything.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about here is genuine faith that coexists with genuine questions about things that we don’t understand. And here’s the important part: we can see that Abram’s faith is real because he takes his questions to God.
Verse 8 doesn’t say, “But Abram walked away and did a podcast about how ‘authentic’ he was for questioning God’s promises. And he got the word ‘doubt’ tattooed on his arm to remind him to always keep it real.” No. He takes his genuine questions to God. Because that’s what faith does. As Bruce Waltke explains, “It takes spiritual energy of faith to complain in contrast to despairing in silence.”1Bruce Waltke, Genesis, 241.
I have been through some profound and dark seasons of doubt in my life, but the greatest relief has come when I know that on the other end of my questions is a person who holds me fast. And I’d suggest, based on what we see here in Genesis 15, that the difference between faith and faithlessness isn’t whether you have questions or doubts or not. It’s what you do with them. Faith takes it’s questions to God because we know Him and it know that He’s big enough for them. And that’s what Abram is once again doing here in verse 8.
So how goes God respond to Abram’s question? How is he going to assure Abram that he’ll inherit the land?
1. The Animals (vv. 9-11)
Verse 7 has already tipped us off that God is moving in a more formal direction, and that gets extremely clear in verse 9 where God’s answer to Abram’s question is to tell him to bring him five animals: a three-year old heifer, a three-year old she-goat, a three year old ram, and two birds.
As first blush this seems fairly bizarre to us. Abram asks God a question, and the answer is to go get some animals? What kind of answer is that?
Well, as we’re going to see, this is a very profound and solemn answer to Abram’s question. God is inviting Abram here to participate in an ancient covenant-making ritual.
These rituals were well-known in the ancient world. We know that from archeology and from at least one other place in the Bible (Jeremiah 34:18-19). And we know this because as soon as God said to bring the animals, Abram knew exactly what to do. In verse 10 we read about him bringing the animals and, without any further prompting, beginning the bloody work of killing and cutting the three animals in half.
Verse 10 in the ESV says that he laid “each half over against the other,” but the NASB is a little closer to the original when it says that he “laid each half opposite the other” (Genesis 15:10, NASB).
So why is this happening? What in the world is going on here? Well, like we’ve seen, this is an ancient covenant-making ritual. When two parties wanted to enter into a binding covenant with each other, they’d take an animal, or several animals, and cut them in parts like this. And then the two parties would walk together between the animal parts. That ground in between would have been wet with blood, which is why some modern authors refer to this as a “blood path ceremony.”
And walking between the animal parts together basically said, “may this happen to me if I break this covenant. If I don’t keep my end of this covenant, let me be cut in two like these animals.” And we’ve found ancient documents which very clearly spell out this gruesome meaning in very graphic detail.
This seems strange to us, but this was a very common way of making a covenant in the ancient world. So much so that the Hebrew phrase for “make a covenant” is literally “cut a covenant.” When you see the phrase “make a covenant” in the ESV text, that’s literally what it’s saying. “Cut a covenant.” Because that’s how you made a covenant. But cutting up the animals and walking between them.
Ancient covenants were a serious business, and the penalty for breaking the covenant was death. And they put themselves under that death penalty when they walked the bloody path between the animal parts and gave the other person permission to kill them in the same way if they ever broke the covenant.
This is serious stuff. And Abram knows what’s going on. Things are getting real.
And they’re about to get even more real, but before then, verse 11 says that when “when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away” (Genesis 15:11). “Birds of prey” are more properly “carrion birds,” like vultures, who are swooping down on the dead animals. Some have interpreted this symbolically, as if these birds represent Egypt or other enemies of Israel, and Abram is defending his offspring from them. And this symbol is fulfilled when God delivers Israel from Egypt for the sake of His promise to Abram.
It could be. To be honest, it seems like a bit of a stretch to me. There’s something a bit more obvious to me here. In a normal covenant-cutting ceremony like this, the human participants would cut the animals and then walk between them. The fact that we just have Abram here, and he’s having to chase these vultures away, suggests that he’s what? He’s waiting.
God hasn’t shown up yet. Abram doesn’t even know if or when God is going to show up. He was told to get the animals and he took the next step and now he finds himself waiting on God, like he does for so much of his life.
2. The Presence (v. 12)
Now what happens next may sound unsettling to us. Verse 12 says that “as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.”
This is one of those places where it’s helpful to ask, “where have I seen this before?” When’s the last time in the Bible where we’ve seen a deep sleep fall on someone? The answer is Genesis 2:21, when the “Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man.” God did this to Adam when God was about to do something important. And similarly, God knocks Abram out as He’s about to do something important now.
Now there’s some question here—did Abram stay in this sleep, such that what follows was a vision he had? Or was this temporary until the Lord woke him up with His voice? There’s some mystery here, and that’s probably important. We’re talking about God here, and we shouldn’t be surprised that Abram’s encounter is bewildering in many ways.
Verse 12 says that a “dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” Abram is terrified, and this is what so often happens when people encounter the manifest presence of God. This is why people need to be told not to fear. When God shows up, in all of His unsettling glory, terror—which is another way we could translate “dreadful”—strikes our hearts.
The word “darkness” might seem strange to you here, but this is another image associated with God’s presence in the Bible. Think of the smoke on Mt. Sinai, which Hebrews 12:18 describes as “darkness and gloom.” Psalm 18:11 says that “He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water” (Psalm 18:11).
All of this points to the fact that Abram is experiencing God’s presence in a manifest way. God is everywhere, but at certain times and places He can make His presence known and felt in a direct way like this. And when He does, it’s serious business. Abram is terrified.
This is a good reminder that we shouldn’t be too glib with saying things like “I want to ask God a question about this or that.” As if God owed us anything. As if we can wander into His presence and demand He meet us on our terms.
Abram asked a question, and God is answering him, but the experience is terrifying.
3. The Future (vv. 13-16)
And now we get to the part where God speaks, in verses 13-16. Abram’s been wondering about inheriting the land, and here God gives him the full story: his offspring—which he is going to have!—are going to go live in another land where they’ll be afflicted as slaves for 400 years. “But,” says verse 14, “I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” We know these words were fulfilled in the Exodus.
So that’s what’s going to happen with his children. What about Abram himself? Verse 15: “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Genesis 15:15). Abram himself will be untroubled by these events. In fact, it’s gong to be another couple hundred years until this period in Egypt begins.
And then, in verse 16, Abram finally hears about the land that he was asking about: “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’” (Genesis 15:16).
“Generation” is a word that can mean “life span,” pointing again to the four-hundred year period. And here we not only hear about when the land promise is going to be fulfilled, but we also get an answer to a big question from this process: why the delay? Why promise Abram the land, but wait to give it to his offspring until 600 or so years later?
And the answer, in part, is judgement. The Amorites, one way of describing the people in the land, were wicked, but not yet wicked enough to them to be judged like they will be under Joshua.
Their sin hadn’t developed to the point where they needed to be cast out of the land. And so, time would pass—hundreds of years. Abram’s offspring would grow into a nation, suffer many things, and then be an instrument of God’s judgement to their oppressors and then to the inhabitants of Canaan.
This is really important for two reasons. First, it makes it obvious that Israel taking the land of Canaan was not an act of genocide. The Canaanites were not being driven out because they were Canaanites but because of their wickedness. And God specifically told Israel that if they started doing what they Canaanites did, they’d be driven out as well, which you can read in Leviticus 18:24-28. And that’s what happened in the exile.
The second reason this is really important because it makes it obvious that it’s God who did all of this. If Abram’s offspring stayed in Canaan and slowly displaced the Canaanites, it would look like a natural process that just happened. But by making these promises to Abram now, and then removing his offspring from the land while they miraculously grow into a nation under the most unlikely circumstances, and then get delivered from bondage in the most supernatural way, and then are brought back into the land in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham—well, that just demonstrates over and over again that God is powerful and that God owns this earth and that God keeps His covenant.
This is all about God’s name and God’s glory. This is about God’s supremacy over all the gods of the nations. And that means this is ultimately about His people’s joy, because God’s people are most satisfied when God is most glorified.
4. The Blood Path (v. 17)
So now Abram knows the story. And what that means is that he knows that this promise of the land is something he’s never going to experience. He’s going to spend the rest of his life as a foreigner in this land, and he won’t see this with his own eyes. This promise is not going to see it’s fulfillment until his children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children hundreds of years from then.
So what good is the promise to him? Does it mean anything? Is not his question from verse 8—“How am I to know that I shall possess it?”—still hanging in the air? How is he to know?
The answer to these questions is found in the reliability of God who, at this point, binds himself to these promises by the most solemn oath imaginable. Verse 17: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17).
Smoke and fire. What do you think that means? What does that represent?
Put yourself in the shoes of one of the Israelites reading or hearing this for the first time centuries later. What’s going to come to their mind as they hear about smoke and fire moving through the desert in the dark?
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:21–22).
This is the presence of God symbolized in a way that would become very clear as the years went by. And this symbolized presence of God passes between the pieces of the animals.
Don’t miss this. This is so massive. Don’t miss that God is passing between the pieces. God is saying, in the covenant-cutting language of the day, “May this happen to me if I break this covenant.”
Abram can know that his offspring will inherit the land because God is literally putting his life on the line to assure him of this promise.
5. The Promise (vv. 18-21)
And what are the promises that God repeats here in the context of this solemn covenant? First is the promise of offspring again. Verse 18. “On that day the Lord made [cut] a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring’” (Genesis 15:18). And what is he promising to their offspring? The land.
This land is defined in two ways—geographically, and according to who was living there at the time. “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:18–21).
There’s some debate about what exactly is meant by “the river of Egypt,” but it’s not hard to see the broad strokes here, especially if we remember the layout of the ancient world. There were two major hubs of civilization back then. You had Egypt in the West, and you had Mesopotamia over to the East where Babylon flourished.
In between, it was basically desert, except for a thin stretch of land along the coast of the Mediterranean known as the land of Canaan.
And that’s the land God gives to Abram’s descendants. He places them at the crossroads of the ancient world. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum write that “In modern terms, Abram and his family are to be settled along the central spine of the Internet in the ancient world. All of the communication, commerce, and trade back and forth between Egypt and Mesopotamia will pass through Canaan… God calls Abram to be a light to the nations. This is the beginning of his method and plan to bless all the nations through Abram and his family.”2Peter J. Gentry, Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant.
Now we’ve seen already a few weeks ago that this particular piece of land was just a start. Already within the Old Testament there are indications of a global vision, and Paul speaks of Abraham being heir of the world (Romans 4:13). According to Hebrews 11:16, a heavenly country is what Abram was actually seeking all along.
So let’s not forget that these promises that God gives to Abram, as they are fulfilled in Christ, grow to reach their true fulfillment of the children of God from all nations dwelling together in a new heavens and new earth. But at this point, God is promising the down-payment, as it were, for that specific stage in the story. And He promises it in definite terms.
The phrase “to your offspring I give this land” is literally, in the Hebrew, “to your offspring I have given this land.” The King James and the NASB translate it that way. The promise is a done deal from God’s perspective.
But we can’t forget that, despite how definite the promise is, Abram still doesn’t have any offspring. Robert Alter comments on this language when he writes that “The promise becomes more and more definite as it seems progressively more implausible to the aged patriarch, until Isaac is born.” 3Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 1: The Five Books of Moses, 50.
And yet God’s promise is certain, bound by sacred oath and cut in a covenant, and that’s how Abram is to know that God will give this land to His offspring.
D. The Cross
So we’ve walked through the passage and seen some incredible things together. And yet, and yet, we want to go back to what I’d suggest is the most remarkable aspect of this passage.
God passes between the animal parts. And even more specifically, God alone passes between the animal pieces. God does not walk through with Abram like would typically happen those days. He passes through alone. In other words, God is taking onto Himself, and Himself alone, the responsibility to fulfill this covenant.
“May this happen to me if I fail to keep this covenant, and may this happen to me if you fail to keep this covenant.” Isn’t that incredible? Not because God isn’t going to keep His part of the covenant. We should have no problems with that. But it’s Abram’s part of the covenant that we should be worried about.
We don’t actually find out until chapter 17 what Abram’s responsibilities in this covenant are. And what are they?“Walk before me, and be blameless,” (Genesis 17:1). “Walk before me” is a phrase that points to Abram’s role as a messenger and ambassador and representative of God. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum sum it up like this: “When the world looks at Abram they will see what it is like to have a right relationship to God and to be what God intended for humanity.”
And what’s required of Abram as he fulfills this role? To be blameless. Agiain, Gentry and Wellum write that “God is calling Abram to be morally blameless and impeccable, honest and sincere in the covenant relationship.”4Peter J. Gentry, Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant.
So that’s God’s requirements for Abram as a covenant partner. And so we need to ask just need to ask, did Abram do that? Did Abram faithfully and blamelessly represent God to the nations? How did he do that in Egypt? How is he going to do that with his wife’s Egyptian servant in the next chapter, when he gets her pregnant and then lets his wife mistreat her so bad that she runs away into the desert? How’s he going to do that with Abimelech whom he also lies to about his wife and complains about a matter involving a well that he didn’t give any warning about?
Abram does not have a great track record of blamelessly representing God to the world. And beyond all of this, Abram is a man, a human, and if we’ve learned anything from the book of Genesis so far, it’s that the thoughts and intentions of men’s hearts are wicked from birth, and that the best of us are always blowing it, and even “blameless” guys like Noah can go off the rails, and so counting on a human to be perfectly faithful is a losing bet from the get-go.
And yet here’s God, before He’s even told this to Abram, entering into a covenant where He’s committing to take onto Himself the penalty of death for any failure of Abram’s to be faithful to the covenant.
This is so remarkable that it makes some people say “No way, this couldn’t be. How can God die? How can God die for Abram’s failures? How is that even possible?”
But there’s answers to those questions. Do you know them?
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8).
Christ died for—in the place of, instead of—sinners. And His death penalty was sealed that dark night in Canaan. Abram got to walk in covenant with God, because Jesus was going to suffer the wrath for His failures.
And you and I get to walk in covenant with God today, because Jesus did suffer the death penalty for our failures. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:9-10).
Anything that could get in between you and the steadfast love of Christ has already been dealt with by the son of God as He was mercilessly tortured and killed in a bloody way in fulfillment of this ancient covenant that God cut with Abram.
So be amazed, people. Has anybody else loved you this way? Aren’t we more used to people trying to pass their blame onto us and throw us under the bus. Some of you know what it’s like for people to dump their problems onto you or accuse you of being the bad guy for just trying to help them.
And here’s Jesus who, with eyes wide open, says, takes our debt onto Himself. He knew what we were going to do, He knew what we were going to do to Him, and He did it anyways. That’s the kind of person that your saviour is. Be amazed by this.
I was talking to someone this week who was just being gobsmacked by this and they said, in different words, “Why in the word does God love me like this?” And the answer is that is who He is. God is love. And He shows His love by walking alone through the animal parts and making good on that promise as Christ paid for our debt because He loves us.
Be amazed by this. Ask God to help you not get used to this.
And then, as we take up our own crosses and follow Jesus, we do so knowing we’re following someone who loves us extravagantly. And who gives us the privilege of literally following in His footsteps as we show sacrificial love each other. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
We love John 3:16. But do we also love 1 John 3:16? This is what it looks like to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We lay out lives down in sacrificial love for others like He did.
Christian love is messy. It doesn’t say “that means walking with people through some really messy stuff. It allows ourselves to be affected by problems that we didn’t cause. It helps people carry burdens that we feel like we could do without. It lays our lives down for each other.
And 1 John 3:16 shows us that we’re freed to love like this the more we taste just how much we have been loved.
So you want to know what to do with this passage this week? Pray. Pray that you will taste afresh the wonder of a God who walks the bloody path between dismembered animals to say “I will die for your failures.” And pray that God will free your heart to walk behind Him in a crucified life of self-giving love for your brothers and sisters, and beyond them, to a needy world.