God made two big promises to Abraham in Genesis 12. God promised Abraham the promised land and descendents.
Promise of the land
Ever since God promised the land, the land has offered nothing but opposition to Abraham. In just three short chapters the opposition comes one after the other…First, a famine comes in the land and he has to leave for Egypt. Next, when he gets back he has trouble with his family…his nephew Lot separates from the group and leaves to do his own thing. No sooner does Lot leave but Lot gets taken captive by some of the kings in the area and Abraham has to go out and rescue him. Trouble, trouble, trouble…
After all that trouble, Abraham point blank asks God if this is all really going to pan out about this whole promised land deal. Here is the conversation (Gen 15:1-6),
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
God re-affirms the promise…that despite the opposition and despite any sign to the contrary, God is going to give Abraham the blessings he promised. Remember, Abraham has no Bible. He has no stories of God’s past faithfulness to go by. Any faith he can muster is just based on what God says and Abraham’s willingness to believe.
Promise of descendents
Then there is the whole descendent thing. Abraham is in his 90s and his 80 year old wife is barren. Seems pretty hopeless that they, together, would have a child at this point. All that to say, God has made Abraham some promises that don’t appear to have much hope of happening. Abraham does what most of us would do at this point. He starts down the lists of now seemingly impossible promises and asks God if he is still going to make good on them.Next, God re-assures him about the promise of descendents (Gen 15:7-18). What happens in these verses is astounding,
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[e] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates”
Cutting a covenant…punishment for disobedience
This all seems strange to us but it wasn’t as strange to Abraham. This is how covenants were made in the Ancient Near East. One phrase for making a covenant was “to cut a covenant” and it came from this practice. The idea here is that two parties are making an agreement and so they cut in half animals and make an aisle. Usually, both parties would walk down the aisle, the message being…if I don’t keep my end of the deal, let it be done to me as was done to these animals. That wasn’t unusual to Abraham. What was unusual to him about it was the fact that only God went down the aisle. God didn’t make him do it himself. God directly answers Abraham’s “How can I know” question with a direct answer “know for certain…” but also by God’s covenant affirming actions that back up his promises.
This reminds me a lot of Jesus. He also made a new covenant with us in the Last Supper (Luke 22:14) and this was a covenant that was made through the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood. It all sounds familiar. It sounds like the events of Genesis 15. It wasn’t hypothetical. God walked through the pieces, not Abraham…Jesus experienced the punishment that we, the ones who actually did break our covenant with God through sin, should have experienced. Praise God for his unfailing love and faithfulness. Praise God for his grace and mercy and willingness to take our place. I am glad he walked through the pieces. I am glad he paid the price. It is by his stripes we are healed.