God’s Covenant with Abraham

by Guercino (1657)
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

[The Lord] said to [Abraham], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. . . . When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

When God called Abraham and told him to go to the land of Canaan, both Abraham and Sarah were old, and Sarah was barren.  Abraham went because he believed God’s promise that he would become a great nation.  As Abraham grew older and the promise still remained unfulfilled, Abraham began to doubt whether the promise would ever be realized and whether he would become the father of a son.

It is at this crucial time in Abraham’s life that God appeared to him to renew the promise and to assure Abraham that the promise he made, that Abraham would become the father of a son, would surely be fulfilled.  The Lord told Abraham: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).  God’s words of assurance to Abraham were intended to confirm that the promise was still valid.

God told Abraham that his reward would be “very great.”  Although the Lord does not specify Abraham’s reward, the reward he would receive was the land in which his descendants would live some day.  Abraham protested that he had no heir to inherit the land.  According to the customs of his day, Abraham had adopted a slave, Eliezer of Damascus, to be the heir of his house.

But God reassured Abraham that a slave would not inherit the land that was promised to him: “This man shall not be your heir.”  Only Abraham’s son could become the recipient of the promise: “your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4).  And to emphasize that the promise would become a reality and that Abraham would have many descendants, God told Abraham to lift his eyes to heaven, look at the stars, and then count them. As Abraham looked at the myriad of stars in the sky, God told him: “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5).

When Abraham heard God’s promise and the assurance that he would have a son, Abraham believed because he was convinced that the God who had made the promise was the God who would fulfill it.

When God called Abraham to leave his family to go to a strange land, Abraham left without having any definite information about his destination, except God’s promise to lead him.  Now, God appeared to him again and promised that he would have a son in his old age. Without having any concrete evidence that an old man and a barren woman could give birth to a child, Abraham believed God’s promise.

Could an old man, “and him as good as dead” (Hebrews 11:12), become the father of a son and could his descendants become as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore?

Abraham believed that God’s promise would become a reality even though he was old and even though “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” (Genesis 18:11).  The future of the promise was based on the assurance of God, even though the reality of the present did not provide much assurance for the future.

Although Abraham believed God’s promise, he needed a sign to confirm that the promise would be fulfilled.

Aware that it would be possible for Abraham and Sarah to doubt the validity of the promise, and in response to Abraham’s request, God decided to establish a covenant with Abraham, sealing the promise with an unusual ritual that has raised questions in the minds of people who read the book of Genesis.

The ritual of covenant-making narrated in Genesis 15:9-10, 17 refers to the enactment of a solemn oath designed to reinforce the promise:

[The Lord] said to [Abraham], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. . . . When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

The covenant-making ritual in which the animals are cut in half and of passing between the parts of the animals is found in Mesopotamia and twice in the Bible: in Genesis 15:9-10 and Jeremiah 34:17-22.  The ritual is related to a blood oath and it is a ritual of self-curse, that is, the one passing between the pieces will be like the dead animals if he violates the promise of the covenant.

Claus Westermann, in his book Genesis 12-36: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), p. 225, wrote: “The one who passes between the divided halves of the slain animals invokes death upon himself should he break the word by which he has bound himself in the oath.”

The most remarkable aspect of the covenant between God and Abraham is that it is God, represented by the “smoking fire pot” and the “flaming torch,” who passed between the pieces.  By doing so, the Lord was invoking a self-curse to indicate that what he had promised to Abraham would be fulfilled. There is no reference that Abraham was required to meet any obligation in order to fulfill his part of the covenant.

A similar ritual is mentioned in Jeremiah 34:18: “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts.”

The ritual in Jeremiah involves only one animal but the purpose of the ritual is the same. This second reference to a blood oath ritual in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the ritual contains “a conditional self-cursing under the form of the split animal; the one who passes between them call the fate upon himself should he violate the obligation” (Westermann, p. 228).

The fact that it is God who is taking the oath has caused much discussion among scholars. For a review of scholarly interpretations of the ritual in Genesis 15 and for a study of the earliest references to animal rites as a part of treaty-making that appear in the Mari letters see Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Meaning of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19 (1981): 61-78.

Some scholars have tried to allegorize the theophany in Genesis 15:17 in order to take away from the fact that it was God himself who walked between the pieces of the dead animals and who invoked a curse upon himself in the event the promise he made was not fulfilled.

The characterization of God in this text reveals how God chooses to be involved in human affairs.  The God of Israel chose to be involved in human affairs by calling a man and promising him a great reward, a land that his descendants would inherit.  And to fulfill his promise, God entered into a binding contract with Abraham in a procedure that was common in the societies of Mesopotamia.

This theophany of God is unique, and to some, even blasphemous. The God of Israel, in order to guarantee to Abraham that his promise was real, entered into a binding relationship with Abraham by passing between the halves of the sacrificed animals in order to guarantee the fulfillment of the promise he had made.  Thus, by taking this blood oath, God is subjecting himself to the same curse humans take for themselves.

This anthropomorphic characterization of God is disturbing to many people because they believe that “God is not a man” (Numbers 23:19).  And yet, for the sake of the relationship he established with his creation, God (John 1:1) became a man (John 1:14).

We can believe God’s promises.  As the writer of Hebrews wrote: “Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is trustworthy” (Hebrews 10:23 NJB).

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to God’s Covenant with Abraham

  1. Ken Mafli says:

    Great post. I appreciate the look at the passage in that it puts a “dog in the fight” for God. God is personally obligating himself to fulfill His promise. In an article I did on inspiration, I used the passage Genesis 15:1 that says – “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.’” I used it to talk about how our relationship with God is not based on fear but love. Here again we see not a “detached” God, but a God that has passion for His creation and is willing to get mixed up with us in order to achieve His goals. I love it. The article can be viewed here: http://allbiblicalquotes.com/biblical-quotes-inspirational/
    Thanks for you insight, it is much appreciated.


  2. Randy says:

    Didn’t Abraham’s descendents end up breaking the covenant with the golden calf incident? Therefore God had to die in the form of Jesus who took the death position? Israel didn’t become the great nation or to the world for that matter. Am I missing something?


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