And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 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. . . .
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. . . . When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram. (Genesis 15:7–10, 12, 17–18a)
To the contemporary reader this passage seems strange, even bizarre: the cutting in half of animals, a fitful dream, and pots of fire and smoke floating through the air. It sounds more like a scene ripped from the pages of Harry Potter than the pages of Scripture.
Yet the renewal of God’s call and promise to Abram in Genesis 15 is one of the most profound passages within Scripture. In the ancient Near East, the practice of making a covenant was often referred to as cutting a covenant. The literal translation of Genesis 15:18 reads, “On that day, Yahweh cut a covenant with Abram.” Our idiom, “cut a deal,” may find its roots in this practice.
In this “cutting a covenant” ceremony, the expectation would be that the subordinate party in the covenant would bind himself to the covenant by walking between the cut halves of animals. In so doing, the subordinate was stating that if this covenant was broken, he or she would pay the price, and the price was death.
The first readers of this text would know exactly what to expect next when Abram is commanded by a God to cut these animals in half. Abram would be expected to pass through them, to bind himself to the covenant, to pay with his life if the covenant conditions could not be met.
Imagine the surprise and the shock when the early readers of this text would read that smoke and fire, two clear images of the presence of God throughout the Old Testament, passed between the animals. Is it possible that God himself would seal the deal, bind himself to the covenant, and pay the price if the conditions were not met by the subordinate party?
The promise is made. The shadow of future fulfillment is cast. The God of Abram was willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill his covenant of promise, of life, and of redemption to his people.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your commitment to the fulfillment of your covenant with Abraham, with humanity, and with me. Thank you for coming in the person of Jesus Christ to pay the price of my covenant breaking sin. In the name of Jesus, amen.