I love the story of Abraham. I mean everything from when he lied about who his wife was to protect his own hide, to the amazing promises God gave him. But there’s a story nestled in the Genesis account that paints a powerful picture – to miss it is to miss the core message of the Bible. You can find this story in Genesis Chapter 15, verses 1-21 (but I encourage you to read a few chapters before and after that as well, to get it in context). In a nutshell, God reiterated His promise to Abram (for the third time) then Abram asked for a sign. So God gave Him one. First God told Abram to cut some animals in half. Afterward, he put Abram to sleep and talked to him about his future. Finally God appeared as a smoking fire and passed between the pieces of the animals.
This section of Scripture describes a common practice in those days called ‘cutting a covenant.’ Basically, when two people wanted to make a pact, a deal, or a bargain with each other, they would cut some animals into pieces and lay them apart on the ground. A space was left between them forming a sort of aisle. Each party would then state their oath(s) aloud as they walked down the aisle. The meaning of the ritual was simple: ‘May I be cut into pieces like these animals if I don’t keep my promise(s) as I’ve stated in this agreement (covenant).’ Normally there were commitments made on both sides, but not in Genesis 15. Did you catch it?
The covenant was between God and Abram (Abram’s descendants are also mentioned) but only God made the commitment to suffer the consequences in case of a breach of contract. Of course, God doesn’t break contracts, we do.
The Old Testament is a collection of stories that teach spiritual truths. The writers of the Bible would often take a common practice in the Ancient world and turn it on its head in order to teach the God-followers of Israel something about their God that set Him apart from the gods of the surrounding cultures. That’s why it can be so dangerous to take the Biblical texts and stories literally. That’s why we should not try to bring ancient practices into today’s world and live by them as if they were laws. The sole purpose of Scripture is to teach us what God is like.
The story of God walking through the torn carcasses of animals is a strange one no doubt. But it speaks a beautiful truth: God always keeps his promises. Abram did not need to walk through the pieces because he had no part in this covenant. The point was to show that God always keeps his promises, period, whether we participate or not.
Let’s look at this a little more closely. In verses 1-5 God restated His earlier promise to Abram that he would be given an heir. Verse 6 tells us that Abram took God at His word. By all means, believe God. Belief is a good thing when it is rightly placed. But Abram’s belief in this part of the promise played absolutely no part in the cutting of the covenant about to take place. In other words, nothing Abram did or believed in any way impacted the promise God made to him about the land. This is important.
The land was a separate promise from the heir.
The land represented God’s presence with the Israelites. But the promise in regards to the land extended way beyond establishing the Jews in Israel. Consider why God called Abraham in the first place:
I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (emphases mine)
Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4 comprise God’s promise to all mankind: The world renewed.
In other words, the land – and by implication, intimacy with God in loving relationship – was not for the Jews alone. Not by a long shot.
God’s end game has always been global.
On the heals of the promises regarding the land, note that we are not told that Abram believed God, but instead that he asked God a question: “How will I know that it will one day be mine?” Sounds like Abram was looking for proof. This time he did not believe God. Little did Abram know he was asking the one question that concerns all of humanity. How do we know that God has a plan to bless us, to renew us, and to renew the world?
I know because some 4,000 years ago God cut a covenant with me.
No, that’s not a typo. Shadows and types and representatives, oh my! The Bible is full of them. Abram was my – your, our – representative in this covenant. Just like Adam stood for all of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus is named the second Adam in his suffering, so Abram was mankind’s representative, cutting the covenant of grace, securing the promise of God to renew the earth.
Now it is time to consider the position of this story within a greater historical context. Abram was an ancestor of Moses through whom the Law came. As a reminder, we are not told that Abram did anything to earn God’s promise. The covenant was purely an act of grace. So, before the Law came, the covenant of grace was established. Think about it. If the covenant of grace had come after the Law, we would have reason to believe that there is something we must do for God to keep His end of the bargain. This story puts it out there on display: there is nothing for us to do (not even to believe). Why? you ask. Because if we have a part now in keeping this covenant, then Abram would have believed and been required to walk through the pieces as our representative back then.
I don’t have to believe it to be a part of it.
Genesis 15:10: As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram… God put Abram to sleep so that he would have no chance of walking through the pieces. Why? Because God knew something we must all understand:
None of us will ever be able to keep covenant with God (Romans 3). We can’t even keep covenant with each other – or ourselves! If there was any covenant to be made with mankind, it had to be on God’s side only. Our works and beliefs have nothing to do with God’s love for the creation or His absolute and unwavering commitment to make all things new. God Almighty cut a covenant with Abram as my representative, and now there is nothing I can do that will ever make God love me more or less than He did in that moment when He walked through the pieces! But there was a little part in the story that for many years I somehow missed. I bet you who are reading this have already seen it because it is so obvious.
One day it hit me what the pieces of those animals really were:
The broken body of Jesus.
When God walked through the pieces, He knew that we were going to make a sacrifice out of His Son! “This is My body, broken for you…” Who cut the animals up? Abram did – in my place. I did it, through Abram. We did it. We cut up the sacrifice. The Romans stood for me, for you, for us, crucifying Jesus on a cross. The Son’s death at our hands was the price that God paid – in grim, gory detail. A shout to the cosmos that love trumps all, that there is nothing we can do – not even murder – that will ever stop His love for us.
I pray that you understand – really understand – that God has no expectations of you as regards relationship with Him. He initiated it, He accomplished it, He will finish it, in your life and mine – all for the love He feels for everything and everyone He has made. Now that is Amazing Grace.