Genesis 15:5-10; 17-18a (NRSV)
5 He (the Lord) brought him (Abram) outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord[a]reckoned it to him as righteousness.7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 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.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land…”
The ceremony described in Genesis 15:9-11, 17 reflects an ancient practice in which the participants in a covenant oath passed through the dismembered parts of an animal and proclaimed a similar fate on themselves if they disobeyed the terms of the agreement. Perhaps because of this, the Hebrew word for “making” a covenant is literally to “cut” a covenant (found in 15.18). In ancient treaty ceremonies, the stronger party would customarily force the weaker party to pass through the dismembered animals to insure their compliance with the covenant.
In this case however, God, symbolized by the smoke and fire, actually passes through the divided animals (v. 17). God here acts alone; this specifies the unilateral character of the promise. The deity takes on the only obligation in this covenant. God’s personal involvement constitutes the unusual character of the rite. In an act of ultimate self-imprecation, God in effect puts the divine life on the line, “writing” the promise in blood!
– Adapted from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol I, p.446 and the New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 32.
Questions about the Scripture
1. In the ancient world of 2000 BC, there was not a functional court system. Covenants were forged in sacred ceremonies to help keep peace in families, communities and among nations. Covenant making was extremely graphic, and was intended to be exceedingly memorable. What stands out to you about the covenant making described in the passage above? Why do you think God would use such an accepted cultural practice such as this to communicate with Abram?
2. From your perspective, why did God break with human tradition and not demand that Abraham to pass through the dismembered pieces in the covenant ceremony? Why do you think God alone passed through the animals?
3. Given the reality that throughout the Old Testament (Covenant), God’s people continually struggle with covenant faithfulness, why do you think that Jesus takes the cup at his last Passover meal with his disciples and declares “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Luke 22:20? What do you think Jesus means by “New Covenant in my blood?
4. Consider the way that Jesus’ New Covenant promise was ratified the next day as he died on the cross. How does his willingness to pay the price of covenant disobedience impact your faith in him?
Community & Personal Action Items
Over the course of this week together, let’s challenge ourselves to do one (or both) of the following actions:
1. Listen. Living in God’s presence doesn’t just happen. It’s something we must choose as part of our faith journey. Most Christians think that prayer is talking to God, but this is only part of what prayer is for. The larger part is listening to him. Have you ever prayed without saying a word, but simply sitting in silence, tuning your ear to that gentle whisper? Why not seriously try silence and solitude for just ten minutes, or an hour – or a day! Intentionally make time to do that sometime this week. This is not mysticism; it is relationship.
2. Remember. Memorize the following verse this week. Then discuss its meaning and application with your family, friends, or small group.
MEMORY VERSE: “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” — Psalm 16:11