posted on Aug, 29 2014 @ 05:04 PM
The making of the covenant with Abram comes in three stages (Genesis ch15).
The first stage is the all-embracing, full assurance; “Fear not- I am your shield.”
“Fear not” is a running theme in contacts with the Biblical God. Daniel hears it in one of his visions, and it’s heard again in the first vision
The implication here is “Fear nothing- trust me in all things”.
Abram will receive much, in consequence.
The second stage is the more specific promise of descendants.
Abram points out that he has no children to inherit anything he might get.
His legal heir at that moment would be one of his own slaves.
The word of the Lord comes in response, that Abram’s inheritance will go to his own son.
Then the Lord takes Abram outside and shows him the stars.
“You will have descendants as many as these”.
And Abram believes him.
There follows the remarkable statement that this was to be “reckoned”, or certified, as “righteousness”.
“Righteousness” means being in a right relationship with God.
It was Abram’s full trust in God which put him there, in that right relationship.
That was the point which Paul highlighted in this passage.
The third stage is the promise of the land, which brings in the formal rite of covenant.
When two parties make an agreement, the Hebrew phrase is that they “cut” a covenant.
The ritual seems to have been that a sacrificial animal was cut in half and laid upon the ground, in such a way that a gap was left between the two
The parties to the agreement would then go between both halves of the animal, along this passage.
The meaning of the rite is explained to us in one of the prophecies given to Jeremiah;
“And the men who transgressed the covenant…which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its
parts” –Jeremiah ch34 v18
Even casual oaths can be expressed in the same way. As in Abner’s angry oath in 2 Samuel ch3 v9;
“God do so to Abner and more also if I do not…”
This habit must have been based on the normal oath which was taken when parties “cut a covenant”.
They would have passed through the middle of the animal, in order to identify themselves with it, and they would have declared “May God treat me in
the same way as this (and more also) if I do not keep this agreement”.
That’s the pattern of the covenant rite in this chapter.
Abram takes three animals (heifer, she-goat and ram), cuts them in half and lays them upon the ground, each half opposite the other.
Also he lays out, but does not divide, a turtle-dove and a young pigeon. Perhaps one bird is opposite the other.
Then he waits until sunset.
We get the realistic detail that he spends his time driving away the birds of prey which want to attack the raw flesh.
At sunset he falls into a state which can only be described as a “deep sleep” and as a “horror of great darkness”.
He sees a fire and smoke. These are symbols of the presence of the Lord, as they are in Exodus.
In that form, the Lord himself passes between the two sets of “covenant” portions.
This covenant is made by the act alone, without any words.
In fact the Creator could not swear, by anything except himself, because he could not call down the wrath of any higher power than himself.
The specific detail of the promise we learn in the next verse; “this land, from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates”.
The covenant is one-sided. Abram is not asked to make any promise of his own.
In fact there is nothing comparable that he could have offered.
It is God’s role to give, and Abram’s to receive.
The Israelite interpretation of this covenant was straightforward.
The readers were the descendants of Abram.
God had promised them the land in which they were now living.
But the Christian reader must adjust his interpretation in line with the New Testament understanding of the way God works.
This changes our understanding of the covenant in two important respects.
Firstly, the “children” of Abram are no longer his physical descendants alone, but all who share the trust which he placed in his God.
“God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”- Matthew ch3 v9
“It is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham”- Galatians ch3 v7
Secondly, the “promised land” is no longer a geographical expanse of territory.
“Here we have no lasting city”- Hebrews ch13 v14
It is the prospect of eternal life in the presence of God.
“He will dwell with them and they shall be his people”- Revelation ch21 v3
From the Christian perspective, this was God’s real meaning all along.
It is not for the Christian to believe that God has promised indefinite occupation of a physical territory to a people defined by physical descent.
Our understanding of the promise must be more spiritual.
The most important lesson of the covenant story is what we learn about God.
We learn that he is the kind of God who covenants.
That is, he commits himself to a relationship with his people.
What he wants in return is that his people should commit themselves to him in trust.
That is what constitutes righteousness.