38. Genesis 15:7-21

III. A. 2. continued

b) Establishing the Covenant (Genesis 15:7-21)

God established the covenant with Abram when He first called him in Haran to leave his relatives and go to another unknown land. Covenant was the term for a relationship, and there are distinctions between covenants just as there are distinctions between relationships. His intent was to establish an intimate and permanent relationship, more like a marriage than anything else, and of course that takes some time. Initially, the relationship was not spelled out, but by this point after a decade of “betrothal”, when it was clear that Abram did trust God, that he did “want to get married”, it was time for the formal ceremony. Covenants were relationships that continued, not just people who encountered each other briefly and went their separate ways. The idea of a covenant between two people implied a history, a future, and in Abram’s case at least something of a past. When God Most High spoke to Abram that first time, He was a voice from the oral tradition that Abram had learned of but never expected to encounter.

Covenants between people were always finite, of course, because the people making the covenants were finite. Everything human ends, but when ordinary human kings made covenants they would make provisions for the covenant to be passed on to their children. Mostly human kings made covenants with kings they had conquered and they intended that their son or successor would continue to be the sovereign over the son and successor of the defeated king. Similarly, when God established a covenant it was always explicitly perpetual, it always descended to the descendants. But heretofore in this decade old relationship between God and Abram, nothing formal had been said about the next generation and what it all might mean to them. The next generation was just a promise, and a wild one at that when God took Abram out that night to look at the stars.

Abram believed God, but it was indeed a mustard seed of faith. He believed, but how could he know that he would have these children. He wanted some reassurance, and God Most High did not fault him for the littleness of his faith. Genesis 15 concludes with a description of God and Abram enacting a ceremony to formally establish the Covenant the next day after Abram believed God. Just as a wedding ceremony formally establishes a relationship that was previously understood, previously informally agreed upon, so this ceremony was something of a legal finalization of what already existed. It was a private ceremony, like many weddings are private ceremonies, but it was public in that it was “announced in the press”, it was recorded in the oral tradition to be handed down to all generations forever. The guest list may have been short, but we can all look through the photos together.

This ceremony was not patterned after the marriage ceremonies of the time. Instead it followed the pattern of the covenants that were established between two kings when the one king had conquered the other. Something roughly like this ceremony may have been enacted when Chedorlaomer first took Bera as a vassal. Something roughly like this ceremony could have been enacted between Abram and Bera, or between Abram and Chedorlaomer, if Abram had been the conquering type. In such a ceremony, the defeated king would formally and publicly pledge his allegiance to the conquering king in a covenant ritual much like this one. As to why God Most High chose such a political covenant rather than a marital one we will consider later.

First the subject king would prepare some animals as sacrifices, cut them in half and arrange them in two rows; being a military/political covenant, it was sealed with blood. Once the sacrifices were ready, the newly conquered king would make his vows, swearing allegiance, swearing to the agreed upon tribute he would pay yearly, and swearing to any other duties his conqueror required. Then the conqueror would threaten the penalties that would befall the vassal king and his people should he fail to keep his vows. The finale of the ceremony came when the defeated king walked between the halves of the dead animals. This was a symbolic way of saying, “May I be as these animals, if I do not keep the vows I have made”. The death of the animals was taken as a substitute for the death of the conquered king so that his life could be spared to serve his new lord and keep the terms of the covenant, and they reminding him of the fate that awaited him should he not keep them. The animals also reminded him that he lived only because his conqueror permitted these animals to be taken as a substitute for him.

So much for the traditional covenant ritual. The differences between those covenants and the one executed here are critically important. If you are a close observer of the niceties of ritual, they are chilling. Abram began the ceremony by cutting the animals in halves and arranging them in the proper order, as usual. But then he did nothing. He was waiting to see what he ought to do next. The obvious thing was to continue the ceremony the way it would logically be continued, but the quality that made him know not to take loot from Bera told him that the ceremony was being paused. And he didn’t know his lines; he was waiting to be told what God would require of him, what tribute or sacrifices he might have to bring each year. It was a dramatic effect, by the world’s foremost dramatist; it wasn’t lost on Abram and we shouldn’t let it be lost on us either. Abram drove away the vultures the rest of that day, waiting.

Only when the sun was going down, and Abram had fallen asleep did anything happen. Beyond the darkness of night, through the darkness of sleep, a dreadful darkness descended. Only then did something happen, but it was not Abram who did it. Rather than Abram making his vows to God, it was the reverse: God made the vows to Abram, and made them from out of the deep darkness. It was definitely out of all expectation for this ceremony, but it was not out of all expectation considering the previous decade. Abram had yet to make any vow to God except to not take anything from Bera, a vow he seems to have come up with himself. God had always been the One who made the promises, but these were not like the promises He had been making. They were promises from deep darkness about the future, the promise that his offspring (the original subject of their discussion) would live in a foreign land and be oppressed for four hundred years; and the promise that they would be delivered from that oppressor and come out of the land a wealthy nation; and the promise that Abram would live out his years in peace. How did this answer Abram’s original question? How did it help him know he would have descendants like the stars? By being specific, by giving details, by making it more concrete. It was not the vague promise of descendants; now it was the promise of descendants who would suffer and be delivered, who would leave and come back again.

And then the most amazing thing happened: Abram saw a torch moving between the animals, carried by Someone he couldn’t see, moving where by rights he should have been walking. Not only had God made the vows, but God had given the guarantee. In this way God pledged His own life to keep His covenant with Abram, even to the point of giving Himself like an animal as a sacrifice. If Abram failed to keep the Covenant, the whole penalty for the failure would fall on God. There is no greater enactment of grace in Scripture than here, no clearer picture of the coming Messiah. God chose the military ceremony of the conquering king to initiate His formal covenant with Abram, and then stood the whole thing on its head.

There is a point that should be emphasized here, that should not be missed by any serious student of the Bible.  The animals that Abram cut up were not substitutes for Abram. This would have been their function if Abram had walked down the row as he normally should have. If Abram had performed that symbolic act it would have made these animals’ blood a substitute for his own. But it was God Himself who performed the rite and the animals’ blood substituted for His own blood. These sacrifices (and later the sacrifices offered under the Law of Moses) were not substitutes for the people; they were substitutes for the Messiah. Abram’s life was never on the line; it was the life of God Himself, His own blood, that was on the line. There has never been any other promise from God but to give Himself for us; there has never been any other foundation for the Covenant between God and His people than the life and death of God Himself.

The additional revelation of future events was hardly to be noticed after the dramatic shock of the ritual. And while it may have reassured Abram about his son at some point, the real assurance was God’s pledge to bring it all off or die. The future presented to Abram does not sound very encouraging to the modern ear. One of the two particular promises God had made, the land of Canaan, was being deferred for a very long time period indeed. Abram had been faithfully insisting that only God should fulfill the promise of land, but now it seemed he would never see it. Those of us who are trained to think in individualistic terms, in personal terms, might well be put off by a promise intended for our descendants after the year 2400 or so. What good is that kind of promise? We want our payoffs now. But the ancients thought differently than we do, not in individualistic and personal terms. Every indication from Abram’s behavior suggests that he never took God’s promise of the land as a personal promise, and when God established the Covenant it was all the more clear that the promises were covenantal promises rather than personal promises. As far as God or Abram were concerned, any promise fulfilled to his descendants four hundred years down the road was the same as being fulfilled to him. He is, was, and will be the God of Abram, and Abram is, was, and will be His chosen.

It was on the basis of Abram’s faith that God chose to establish this second of His series of covenants, and so we might call it the Covenant of Faith. This is a reasonable name for it, but it is not the best choice. It focuses attention on Abram, on the recipient of the Covenant, rather than on the Giver of the Covenant. Others prefer to call this covenant the Covenant of Grace, and this also is a very reasonable name for it. However grace is behind and around and through all of the covenants, and it is grace that ties them all together. There is nothing that marks this covenant as more full of grace than the whole system of covenants.

If we do focus on the Giver of the Covenant, then the characteristic in God that corresponds to the faith of Abram is revelation. One reason God chose to count faith as righteousness was that He was going to channel His special revelation through Abram and the Covenant people. Belief was important on their part because His primary intent was to give them something to believe, and trust was important because He intended to lead them down some difficult roads and make His revelation in their history and suffering. For this reason I prefer to call this covenant established between God and Abram the Covenant of Revelation.

It should be made plain here that the rite of making a covenant was not fully completed at this point. There were two elements missing. Normally a sign should accompany a covenant. The lack of a sign at this point would not render the covenant invalid, but it was an irregularity. Also normally the recipient of this kind of covenant would receive a new name to symbolize his new identity under the covenant. Just as in traditional marriage ceremonies, rings are exchanged and the bride traditionally takes on the name of her husband, so in the making of a covenant there would have been some sign or token of the covenant and Abram would have been given a new name from God. It does not render a wedding invalid if the bride and groom do not exchange rings for a decade of two, or if neither choose a new name to symbolize the union. Delaying the sign and the covenant name was a way to emphasize them by having an event to spotlight them specifically. We will consider them at the appropriate time.

It is not inappropriate that I bring up the image of marriage even though the formality of the covenant more like a political ceremony than a wedding. The idea of marriage is lurking in the background of what happened. A wedding ceremony would have not been the right form for what happened this night, even though ultimately the relationship is closer to that of a marriage. However a wedding signifies a relationship that is established between two people who are equals. The relationship that God established with Abram was not something He established with an equal.

What was performed that night included both the idea of the love and devotion in marriage and the idea of a the defeat of a hostile king. Though it was disguised in this ceremony, marriage became an increasingly explicit image for what the covenant meant as time went by. Looking at it with hindsight from beyond the terrible vision of four centuries of slavery, the ceremony enacted on that dark and frightening night was a wedding of sorts. God was taking a wife. God was not binding himself to the man Abram alone, nor to the couple, Abram and Sarai; He was marrying the people who would come from them. Nor is it unnatural that such a wedding night would be a somewhat fearful thing. The wedding night for most women in that culture (and probably most men too) must have been rather frightening. Frequently the bride and groom hardly knew one another, as in this case Abram hardly knew God. Women would join their lives to a stranger, literally for better or worse. “Don’t worry! God has a wonderful plan for your life!” We say that and it is perfectly true. But it may wind through a dark night and smoke and fear and a faceless voice and a strange light passing between rows of dead animals.

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