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Genesis 15: Covenant (Part I)

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

Genesis doesn’t tell us where Abram is at this time. Is he still in the King’s Valley? Back at Hebron? Did he sneak off to his altar between Bethel and Ai? We don’t know. It’s not important. What is important is that the Lord immediately reacts to Abram’s act of faith by appearing to him once again. The Lord tells Abram not to fear – why might he be afraid? Perhaps because Lot didn’t come to his senses and leave Sodom like any sane person would have done after that rescue? Perhaps he fears retribution from the eastern kings he just defeated? We can’t say for sure.

In any case, the Lord is Abram’s Shield and his great Reward. Abram’s response just smacks of depression: “what can you possibly give me, since my chief servant will now be my heir?” (Apparently he is still fixed on making Lot his heir.) The Lord specifies now that it will indeed be an heir from Abram’s own body that will bring forth descendants. The Lord took Abram outside (was He there in Person?) and showed him the stars. Indeed his descendants will be innumerable (second time promised, third if “great nation” counts). We now can say that the middle eastern sky shows about 8,000 stars on a clear night, but that’s an uncountable number.

Abram believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Here is the first explicit reference to faith in God’s promises. The Lord begins a formal covenant declaration by stating who He is: “I am the Lord, who brought you out…” Abram now believed in the promise for a son, but now he asks for a guarantee for the land promise. So the Lord instructs him to bring some animals for a covenant. Abram brought these to the Lord’s presence and cut them in two and arranged a path to walk through the halves.

Let me quickly explain how covenants work. Butchering animals is pretty icky, but there’s a good reason for it. When you make a serious covenant, both members go through the path of animal halves. It symbolizes an oath that says, “if I am not faithful to this covenant, then may I be cut in two just as these animals are.” It's especially solemn if you're the one who arranges the animals. And so Abram arranged the halves, and waited until dusk.

Then he fell asleep, and thick darkness surrounded Abram. From his dream, he heard the Lord speak a promise about his descendants going to Egypt, becoming slaves, returning here, and taking the land. The Lord gives the Amorites time to repent, even.
When the sun had set completely, the thick darkness still enshrouded Abram. Not just is he asleep, but even if he did wake up, he’d see nothing. I would say he is in a semi-lucid state, like where you’re asleep but you still hear and feel what’s happening around you. So, the Lord appears in the form of a blazing flame and passes through the pieces. In his dream, Abram feels the heat on his face, and hears the Lord again: “to your descendants I give this land…” God gave the land from the Wadi el-Arish to the Euphrates, two very major rivers. Even though separate peoples possess it now, it will be given to his descendants.

I want to tell you why this section makes me shake and even cry. To pass through the halves is to say “if I break my covenant vow, may I be cut in two likewise.” The Lord passed through the halves in the form of flame, and when Abram awake, the halves were charred; he could not put himself under the same damning oath. Oh, what grace, that God would spare Abram in advance for any unfaithfulness! That the Lord would put Himself under such an oath out of His great love for us!!! It’s amazing. So amazing.