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Genesis 15 – Promise and Covenant

In Genesis 15 the LORD again promises Abram a numerous people. Abram points to what is obvious by sight and that is barrenness. The LORD’s response is phrased, “The word of the LORD came to him”. This is the classic expression used of God speaking to prophets. Abram is given the sign of the stars in the heaven. Obviously, the stars in the heavens pre-existed this conversation – but here the stars are being given new significance. They are not only numerous, as Abram’s offspring will be, but they were created in Genesis 1 out of nothing by God’s word. Likewise, by God’s action and word, Abram will be given a numerous people. Abram responds in faith, that is, he believes God’s word spoken to him.

What follows is a strange ceremony in which God requires Abram to take a heifer, a goat, a ram, and a turtledove/pigeon. The heifer, goat and ram are all cut on half with the halves placed opposite one another (except the two birds are not cut in half but are placed opposite one another). This creates a kind of pathway between the animal halves.

Two things happen subsequently.

The first is that Abram fell into a deep sleep and a great darkness fell upon him. God reveals to Abram that people who will be like the stars in the heaven will not immediately inherit the promised land. Instead, they will be sojourners and slaves before God brings them blessings of deliverance and possessions after which they will inherit the land. It seems that God’s purpose to restore Eden will only come after barrenness, slavery and sin is overcome – represented by the heavy darkness Abram experienced. The birds of prey represent the oppression by Egypt – the seed of the serpent being compared to these birds. Eden does not come easily but God is sovereign in his work.

The second thing that happens is that in the darkness comes a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the animal halves. In our Bibles we sometimes read that someone made a covenant with someone. The language is literally ‘cut a covenant’. The covenant ceremony could involve the following aspects:

  • A covenant was made by sacrificing animals in the presence of God and separating the animal halves as occurred here.

 

  • Either two equal parties or the lesser of the two parties would pass between the animal pieces.

 

This signified, not only was the covenant being witnessed by God, but also were the covenant to be broken, that is, the guilty party would become like the cut animals.

In this passage however Abram has a vision of a pot and torch passing between the pieces – representing smoke and fire. The smoke and fire here is a symbol of God’s presence (like Mount Sinai). Although God is neither an equal party nor an inferior party in this covenant with Abram, God is unilaterally making the covenant and taking on himself the penalty should the covenant be broken (by Abram’s future people). Literally God is cutting a covenant with Abram to fulfill his promises of land, people, and blessing.

What this chapter adds to our understanding are the following points:

  • The LORD will fulfill his promise – do not look to the barrenness you see but believe God’s words and be encouraged by the stars that point to the creative power of God’s Word.

 

  • The LORD will fulfill his promise but through darkness, barrenness, slavery, and sin – he is faithful.

 

  • The LORD has committed himself through cutting a covenant and taking on himself the penalty for the human failure to keep the covenant – certainly this points us toward the incarnation where God in his Son will bear the penalty on our behalf.

 

Think how amazing it is that the stars speak and that God cut a covenant and walked through the pieces – this is the God who will restore land, people and blessing through Abram.