The Family of Abraham: Part 5—Cutting a Covenant

Within this video, I discuss Genesis 15, with God’s cutting of a covenant with Abram, an unusual vision, and declaration of the future events of the Exodus. For more on this chapter, read my treatment here. For more on Exodus themes in Scripture see my book on the subject.

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Welcome back to this, the fifth of my series on the story of Abraham and his family in the book of Genesis. We now come to Genesis 15. The context of this chapter is set by the preceding chapter, where Abram defeated the kings and then encountered the king of Sodom at the end. The king of Sodom offered him as a reward his part of the plunder, but Abram refused: “I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have Abram rich.’” So he refuses the rewards at this point, and then God appears to him in a vision and declares, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward”—God is going to give the reward that he refused from the hand of the king of Sodom. He was not going to be made rich by the king of Sodom, but God will make him rich. God will make him great.

However, Abram has an immediate problem, and the problem that he has is that his heir, as matters currently stand, is just a house-born servant, Eliezer of Damascus. He has no natural heir. His nephew, Lot, who was taken into his house, who seemed to be a son for a while, has now departed. He has gone with the king of Sodom. And this is a crisis. Who is going to be the heir? That is the problem for Abram at this point. Is he going to have a natural heir, or is his house just going to pass into the hands of his servant?

The Lord’s response is that Eliezer will not be his heir. Rather, someone who comes from his own body will be his heir. And this is a significant development, because we have not seen this promise yet. It is important to note that throughout this story, the promises are developing and taking shape. It is not just a repetition of the same thing over and over again.

We have seen already a promise that God would make Abram’s name great, that God would make him a great nation. Now, we do not have a promise that that nation would descend, biologically, from Abraham himself. We presume at the outset that it is going to be Lot—it is going to be the son of his brother, his dead brother, who is brought with him. And yet, that is not the way that things work out. Likewise, we are not sure yet—even still to this point—whether his descendants will come through Sarai. Sarai is barren, so there is no seeming hope there. And on the other hand, we have a series of promises about the land that develop, promises that God is going to give them land. Then God will multiply them like the dust of the earth. As they are the dust of the earth, they will cover the land, and the land gives them a place to be.

At each stage there is a development of these promises. Within this chapter, we see a very significant series of developments. There are two sets of events that occur. The first one is this promise that he will have a descendant from his own body. And then, he brings him outside. As he looks outside, he is told to number the stars, to consider the stars, to account for the stars. What is he doing here? It is an elevation of the previous promises. He has already been told that his descendants will be numerous. They will be numerous as the dust of the earth. But this takes things a step further—they are going to be numerous as the dust of the earth, but they will also be like the stars in heaven.

They are going to be numerous, but the stars in heaven are not just a matter of filling the earth, or this land that has been given to them. As they are like the stars in heaven, they will be like the stars are given in Genesis 1, to rule in the heavens. They are authorities and powers. They are represented as these ruling forces that measure out time. And, in all probability, it is fairly likely that there is some reference to the Zodiac here—there are twelve sons that will come—twelve tribes—from Israel. And those twelve tribes are arguably symbolically associated in places like Numbers and elsewhere with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Not explicitly, but there are very good reasons to draw those connections. There are twelve ordered around the camp of the Tabernacle in the centre, which is immediately surrounded by the Levites. All around that, the twelve tribes are arrayed according to the cardinal directions. As you look at that series of the tribes, you will see the there are symbols associated with them that are also associated with the signs of the Zodiac. Historically, we also have it within various forms of iconography and other things like that within Judaism.

There are these connections already drawn and already understood—that Israel are like the stars. They are multiplying. They are the ones that rule time. They are the ones that will give a sense of ordering in God’s world. They are set in the heavens. They are a heavenly nation. And as a result, the Tabernacle is like the sun, and around that are arrayed all these different constellations of the people. Abram is called to look outside, to see the stars, and to see the stars as ruling, as numerous, and as a significant number as well—that there are twelve constellations—and these vast numbers within them. The stars are visibly manifested in an analogical form in Israel, arrayed around the Tabernacle. This is a significant image that we find in various points of Scripture.

“And he believes in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” This is an act of faith. Abram has no direct evidence at this point. He is just taking God’s word. And he is someone who has given up so much. He has let Lot go. He has left his home country, and all these other things. And now, he takes God’s word that he will fulfil all that He has promised.

In what might be a separate event, God speaks to Abram: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” That is a familiar formation, more typically seen in the context of Israel being brought out of Egypt to inherit the Promised Land. It is a similar formula, and it connects the deliverance of Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans with the later deliverance from Egypt, and we will see a closer emergence of those themes in what follows.

And then Abram asked the question, “How do I know that I will inherit it?” Now, note the significance of the word ‘inherit’. We have not seen that word in the same way before. He is wondering about his inheritance. Will he have an heir to give his house to, or will he just have Eliezer of Damascus as his heir—someone born in his house, but not a son? And God here talks about him inheriting the land. Now, there are many ways that you can receive something. You can receive something as a gift. Someone can give you something, as a possession. Someone can sell something to you. And here we have something even more significant: you can inherit something. And Abram is promised that he will inherit the land—that God will give this land over to him an inheritance. It suggests a relationship that is stronger than one merely associated with gift. God is not just giving this land to Abram: he is giving Abram an inheritance.

And Abram, as he enters into this, will have a seal—a promise—of this. You have here a very peculiar act that he is called to perform, and there is a vision associated with it that follows.

“Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite each other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.—Genesis 15:9-11

Now, why these particular animals? Why divide them in this particular way? What is going on here? This is a weird passage. Already within Genesis there have been anticipations of the later sacrificial system. We see that in the story of Noah, where we have a division between clean and unclean animals. Already there is a recognition of these divisions between animals. And here there are five animals mentioned. What is it about these five animals that is significant? These are the five species of animal that are offered in the sacrifices of Israel. And these sacrifices of Israel represent Israel itself, various members of the household of Israel. So, what is being presented here in these different halves is the house of Israel. It is the different offices, the different parts of this larger social body. All these animals brought together are associated with that.

Now, why particular types of animals? These are not just species of animals, but they are stipulated particular types. So, you have a female cow, a heifer, that has not borne a calf. You have a three-year-old female goat. Why a female goat rather than a male goat? A three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. Why those particular animals?

It is interesting to consider this. The connection with the sacrifices is suggested for various reasons that I have already mentioned. These are the five animals that are used for the sacrifices. But we also see, within the context of Leviticus, that there are common ways of handling these things. So, in Leviticus 1:17, it describes dividing up all these different animals into parts, and these parts being treated differently. Some are associated with the man who is offering, and they are washed, and the others are associated with God, and they are taken up by the priests. And then, the ones that are washed are then added later on.

He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And he shall skin the burnt offering, and cut it into its pieces.—Leviticus 1:5-6

It is an animal that is cut into pieces.

The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay the wood in order on the fire. Then the priests, Aaron’s son, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar.

So, Aaron’s sons are responsible for the head and the fat. And then, the person who offers shall

wash its entrails and its legs with water. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.

The animal is divided, and then the animal is put back together again as it is burnt up and taken into the presence of the Lord. And here we also see the description of the sacrifice of the turtledoves and pigeons. It says,

The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off its head, and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out at the side of the altar. And he shall remove its crop with its feathers and cast it beside the altar on the east side, into the place for ashes. Then he shall split it at its wings, but shall not divide it completely; and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.—Leviticus 1:15-17

Now, this suggests that there is a connection between what Abraham is doing and the sacrifices of Israel—that Israel offers these sacrifices in particular ways, by dividing different parts. Some parts are handled by the priests, the sons of Aaron, and other parts are handled by the sacrificers themselves. They have to be washed, and then they are added to the pile. And so, there is an association of some parts with the household servants of God, the priests, and then there are other parts that are associated with the offerer. And those associations then get played out also in the way that the birds are treated. The birds are not divided within the sacrifices. And likewise, in Genesis 15, the birds are not divided. I think there is a sacrificial theme underlying this.

When we look through the accounts of Leviticus and Numbers, we will often see the sex of sacrifices stipulated. Generally, they are offered as male sacrifices. But if a commoner of the people is offering a sacrifice, it will often have to be a female goat or it will some other female creature offered. We do not typically see a heifer offered, but we see heifers being used for rituals, like the ritual of the red heifer or for the unsolved murder—these sorts of cases. So, what does the heifer represent? The corresponding animal to the heifer is the bull, and the bull is associated with the high priest. The corresponding animal to the female goat is the male goat, which is associated with the leader of the people. And the female goat is associated with the general member of the people. What you have is husband-bride type symbolism here. The (priestly) husband of the people and the whole congregation as the son of God—the firstborn son that God brought out of Egypt—is associated with the bull, this priestly animal. And then the kings and the rulers of the people can be associated more with the male goats.

Israel, at this point, does not have a priesthood and does not have a kingdom. As a result, I think you have the nation represented with a bridal identity; they have yet to have husbands in these sorts of offices, as priests and as kings. When they will have those, you will have the sacrifices added for the bull and for the male goat. And those are associated with specific figures—with the leader of the people and with the priest.

These animals are three years of age. Three years of age, I think relates to animals in their prime, but it might be also associated with the different generations that I mentioned. Three is the number of generations that Israel is going to be before they come out, or the number of centuries that there will be. After the fourth century, they will be brought out. In the fourth generation, they will come out. And those connections, I think, help us, perhaps, to understand what that number means. I am not sure on that particular detail. That detail is an unusual one, because animals that are sacrificed are usually animals of the first year. And here, we see that they are animals of the third year, presumably. Or they might not be referring to years; it might be referring to something different. Some have suggested these are three animals or animals divided into three parts. I am not sure; I do not think it is those things. But in the third year? I am not sure what to make of that.

However, I suggest that the broader set of animals is related to Israel in Egypt, that Israel is in Egypt without kings, without priests. They are this nation that is waiting to be delivered. The vultures, the carrion birds, are coming down upon them to pick them apart. And Abram chases away those birds. And God, here, then appears in a visionary event. Abram falls into a deep sleep. The deep sleep that comes upon Abram is interesting. We have deep sleep mentioned at another point in Genesis, the deep sleep that comes upon Adam, as the bride, Eve, is taken from his side. The woman is taken from his side, and then brought to him. It is a period of death followed by resurrection. It is not just a regular sleep. This is a death-like sleep. And he will be raised up again at the other side, but there is a profound event taking place here.

This vision is something that explains so much of the history that follows. The sun goes down. And the sun does not really rise up again until the end of Chapter 19 [I was incorrect on this detail—see 18:1]. There is a period, from here, that occurs is in a sort of symbolic darkness. We will see the same thing in the story of Jacob. Jacob goes to Bethel, and he has a dream in Bethel. And then, symbolically, the rest of the time is in darkness until the sun rises again as he crosses the ford of Jabbok, after meeting with the angel at Peniel.

These are significant symbolic periods of time, a sort of period of darkness, where something is happening—the darkness of the womb, the darkness of night, where God is working, the darkness of the time when he is counting the stars, whatever it is. The vultures try and come down on the carcasses. Abram chases them away, and God then declares to Abram that his

descendants will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and they will serve them and will afflict them four hundred years. And also, the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they will come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

So, this promise is a promise of God’s dealings with the descendants of Abram, that He will bring them back to the land, that there will be the exodus. There are interesting details here. Four hundred years in a land that is not their own. How do we understand that, especially when it talks about in the fourth generation? In all probability, the four hundred years refers to the time from the birth of Isaac; Isaac and all these descendants are in a land that is not their own. Canaan does not become their own land until after they return from the exodus. What we have in the fourth generation is the movement from Levi to Moses. And in that, Moses is the fourth generation of that line. So, both of those details are correct, but they are referring to slightly different periods of time. The first refers to the whole period from Isaac to the return from Egypt, and the second refers to the specific sojourn within Egypt itself.

What else can we recognize here? There is a vision of a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between the pieces. What is happening here? The smoking oven and the burning torch, I believe, are associated with God himself. God passes between the pieces. Elsewhere in Jeremiah we read of the people performing an oath, where they step between pieces of a sacrifice that are torn in two. And as they walk between those sacrificial pieces, they are declaring a self-maledictory oath: “Let this happen to me if I do not keep my vow.” As they walk between the pieces, they are making that vow. And here we have God himself, walking between the pieces. This movement between the pieces is also a movement that might symbolically bring the pieces together.

And what are the two pieces associated with—the pieces that are split? Are both being associated with Israel? It might be. I think it might also be that one half of the pieces are associated with God, and another half are associated with Israel. And we can see that within the sacrificial system, in part: that both parts of the animal are related to the person who is offering. But then, there is also one half of the animal that particularly is associated with the sons of the priests, the household servants of the Temple—of God’s palace—and then the other half is associated with the offerer themselves. They have to wash that, and then present it. And that, I believe, might be part of what is going on here—one half of the sacrifice is associated with God, the other half with Abram and the people that he represents.

Then God moves between the pieces, bringing them together by fire, like we see in the sacrificial system. And as they are brought together through this fire that passes between them, there is a sort of reunification, a new wholeness. But there is a promise that occurs with that, a self-maledictory oath on God’s part, that God swears by Himself that He will keep this promise—that if this does not come to pass, if He does not fulfil this promise, then let this tearing apart of the animals happen to God Himself. That is a strong thing to declare! But it seems to be part of what is taking place here.

What we see here that is different from the sacrifice is the animals do not seem to be burnt up into God’s presence. But implicitly, I think that is the logic of what is taking place, that as God passes between these two parts, they are united together symbolically, and God is at the heart of them. And then Israel is represented by these different parts that are then brought together by the passing of God between them. And every time the sacrifices are performed, there is a sort of performance of this oath that God has made, this covenant oath that lies at the very basis the covenant—that God has promised that he will be with his people, that he will give them an inheritance, that he will bring them out of Egypt, that he will be with them—that they will be His people. God’s passing between the animals is something that is performed in a sort of ritual every single time an ascension offering is brought. Every single time that we see that ritual—one of the rituals of Leviticus 1 played out—it is hearkening back to something that is taking place at Genesis 15. It is not all that is taking place, but I think it is part of what is taking place.

To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates—the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites; the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim; the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.

This is just the extension of the territory that will be given to Abraham and his seed when they return from Egypt. So, there is an anticipation of the Exodus. He has already undergone an exodus-like experience himself. He went into Egypt and he came out with many great gifts. And there is now a promise that the same will happen to his descendants. “And also, the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they will come out with great possessions.” They will come out with possessions and the nation will be judged. We see the same thing happen to Pharaoh earlier on. Pharaoh is plagued with many great plagues, and then Abram comes out of the land of Egypt with many great gifts and possessions. The same thing that happens to Abram will happen to his descendants.

Is God saying that this is something that is he is going to bring upon the people? It does not actually say that. What it does say is that this will happen. It does not necessarily mean that this is what God has as the positive intention for them; rather, it might be a result of certain things that they do wrong. And we will see some of these things later on. We will see some of the ways in which the storm clouds, as it were, gather, as Israel has made wrong decisions. And the consequence of those wrong decisions will be this period of slavery in Egypt.

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