Genesis 15 – Sealing the Covenant Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 5 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I had lunch with a friend last week who told me a little about his experiences working as a volunteer for the Salvation Army on the Gulf Coast. He summed it up by saying that it was the most mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting thing he has done in his very active life. It was also the most uplifting spiritually. He experienced what we call the state of grace. My wish for you today is that you have the opportunity to give yourself so completely in love to others that you know what it is to be lifted up by our Lord and filled with his spirit. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the story of Abraham and God’s covenant. I will be reading from Genesis 15. This is a long passage, but it is best to look at it as a unit.
Introductory Notes: This is one of the most eerie stories in the Bible. For the most part, the Bible is a very down to earth book, but here in Genesis 15 we have a mysterious tale that takes place in the terrifying dark of night. Even with the strangeness of this tale, Genesis 15 presents some very important themes for biblical faith. One commentator asserts that “this chapter is pivotal for the Abrahamic tradition. Theologically, it is probably the most important chapter of this entire collection.” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 140). I’m not sure he is correct, but this chapter was quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans, and it played a major role in the faith journey of Martin Luther.
As with the other stories in Genesis, there is no clear consensus on when this story was written. Some view it as one of the oldest stories in the Bible because it has a strange ritual in it, but others see it as being written after the exile because it anticipates many of the themes and issues of later Israelite history. The statement “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans” reflects the opening of the Ten Commandments where God reminds the people that he brought them out of the land of Egypt. There is no way to solve the problem of dating this text, but it seems likely that this story, along with the rest of Genesis, was written after the exile as a prequel to the story of Exodus. A prequel is a story written after the first book or movie that takes place before the first book or movie. Authors do not always start at the beginning. Sometimes they start at the most important part – the main story.
The main story of Israel was the story of salvation from slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law of God. Genesis, like a prequel, places the story of the Exodus in a larger frame. It introduces some of the most important ideas and themes of the later stories. Here in chapter 15. God tells Abram that his descendents will be oppressed for four hundred years but will emerge victorious. In other words, it places the story of enslavement into the story of Abraham. It is hard, however, to square this prediction of 400 years of slavery with the statement that Abram’s descendents will return in the 4th generation. That is just another reminder that the Bible is made up of multiple sources that do not always agree in every detail. The point remains clear. Abram’s descendents may suffer, but they will return to their land.
Hope When the Promise is Delayed: If I am right that Genesis was written after the exile, then chapter 15 is not just a prophecy about the Exodus; it is an important message of hope in a time when there seemed to be no hope. It was written in a time of devastation, a time of exile, a time when people were losing their faith. When the exiles were allowed to return to Israel, they found a ruined city overrun by jackals. The people were exhausted and filled with doubt and despair. What hope was there? Only this idea – that God was true to the covenant. During those dark days of exile and soon after, a priest or scribe of Israel took ancient stories about Abraham and wove them into a narrative of hope in times of doubt. Abraham faced despair and overcame.
Questioning God: In our reading about Abraham, we have seen that the whole story depends on God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation. He is still called Abram at this point, by the way. To be the father of a nation, he would need an heir, but Abram was growing old and still had no child. His wife, Sarai, was barren. It was a tough situation, and in ch.15 Abram doubts God’s promises. He asks God the hard question: How can it be that I become father of a nation when I don’t even have children? He even contemplates making his favorite slave his heir. Incidentally, this is one bit of evidence that slavery in the Bible meant something quite different from slavery in America. Could you imagine Thomas Jefferson naming one of his slaves his heir? He wouldn’t even acknowledge that some of the slave children on his plantation were his. This is just a reminder that we need to read the Bible on its terms, not ours. But let us return to Abram.
We can learn something from this little story about Abram raising his doubts and questions to God. If the father of faith could ask hard questions of the LORD, why should we fear to speak to God about our doubts, weaknesses, and fears? I know it sounds odd to unbelievers, but the best thing to do when you doubt God or have trouble believing in God is to pray. Ask your hard questions of God. Tell him your doubts. God is strong enough for your doubts and questions. He may treat you with the same regard he showed Abram, but that may be a bit scary as we shall see. Genesis 15 opens with Abram questioning God, and God answers him. The LORD renews the promise. Once again Abram hears the words that led him out of Mesopotamia and into Canaan, but this time is different. This time it is harder to trust and obey. So this time the LORD does more than just speak, he acts and asks Abram to do something as well.
Sacrifice and Covenant: Parts of this story are not for vegetarians, I’m afraid. Abram has to select five animals of declining size from a cow to a pigeon. Each of them was to be three years old. These were probably valuable animals. Even though commentators through the centuries have tried to find reasons for the selection of these particular five animals, it appears that they are largely arbitrary choices. Perhaps at one time people would listen to this story recited in worship or around the campfire and say, “of course you need a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. It’s plain as day what that means, and only a fool would use a billy goat instead of a nanny goat.” But three millennia later we read this and scratch our heads. To be honest, they were scratching their heads two millennia ago and made up allegorical interpretations to explain the animals. Today, most scholars simply admit to not knowing. Though the animals were clearly important at one time, their meaning has been lost.
Covenant Ritual: Except for the birds, Abram cut the animals in half, and he kept the vultures away from the fresh meat. It is a rather gruesome image, isn’t it? I don’t recall us having these figures on our felt board in Sunday School. Can’t you just picture the look on the teacher’s face if a student were to cut one of the paper animals in two like Abram? This is a passage that reminds us the Bible emerged in a different world than we do. Imagine sealing contracts this way! Can’t you picture a lawyer drawing up an agreement with two parties and then slaughtering a goat to seal the deal?
Biblical commentators still have some difficulty with this passage. No one quite does the symbolism of this ritual. Walter Brueggemann dismissed the story of the bisection of the animals by saying “Verses 7-11 present a curious ritual act that is probably very old.” (Genesis, 148). Years of research are summed up in that terse phrase, it ‘is probably very old.’ The reason this passage causes difficulties for scholars is that no one has found the same ritual in the Bible or among the neighbors of the Hebrews. Jeremiah 34, written shortly before the Exile, mentions something similar but it does not give the details. The fact that Jeremiah mentions this type of ritual may indicate that the story is not as old as many scholars assume. We don’t even know what it really means.
The best guess of biblical scholars is that cutting the animals in two symbolized what would happen to the person who made the covenant. If you break this agreement, you’ll be slaughtered like these animals. That may well be true, but it seems a bit weak to me. It is possible that this is one of those rituals that invert what one expects. Animals are divided instead of the people making the contract.
Whatever the precise reason for this obscure rite, the main purpose of this story is clear. This was a way to seal an agreement before people had written contracts. Those making the agreement walked between the halves of the animals as a sign of their commitment to the covenant. So far so good. At this point in the story we would expect that Abram will walk through the carcasses, but he doesn’t. It is not Abram who seals the covenant and binds himself to God. It is the LORD who binds himself in covenant to Abram. God is the one who acts.
Smoking Pot and Flaming Torch: If I were making a movie of Genesis, I would definitely include this scene, because it is so visual and so strange. The crucial part of this story takes place during a dream. Readers often miss that the flaming torch and pot appear after Abram has been overcome by an unnatural sleep. We are told that the darkness was deep and terrifying, and so was the dream. The terrifying aspect of this vision of Abram is consistent with what scholars have learned about religious experience in general. An encounter with the holy is both frightening and attractive. It is uncanny in the deepest sense, and it leaves a person changed.
One of the odd things in this passage is that elsewhere God simply talks to Abram, but here we have an eerie mystical experience. This may indicate that this story of Abram’s dream comes from a different source than the other Abraham stories. It does seem to be closely connected to the story of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai where the LORD was represented by fire and fear. The smoking pot in this story is not a reference to drug use in the Bible, by the way. This probably refers to the incense pots used in the Temple. The priests of Israel used smoke from incense to purify the house of God and prepare to enter the presence of God. The smoking pot precedes the flaming torch, which recalls both the pillar of fire and the burning bush. Fire and incense were associated with the deity in ancient Israel, and we can assume that it is the LORD who ritually passed through the dead animals.
God’s Binding Agreement: We should not pass too lightly over this story because this is one of the most audacious claims made in the Bible. This story goes beyond a promise or even a verbal agreement. According to Gen. 15:18, the LORD entered into a legally binding contract with Abram, just like a mortal would have done. Abram does not make the covenant and bind himself to God; it is God who makes this arrangement with Abram. As far as we can tell, the symbolism of this covenanting ritual is that it is binding as long as the person who makes it lives.
Why do this? Why would the LORD go to such extraordinary lengths? To convince Abram that he was serious and his promise was true. This was done to strengthen the faltering faith of Abram. More importantly, it was to strengthen the faltering faith of Abram’s descendents during and after the exile. Though there would be times of great distress, the LORD had sealed a covenant with Abram. Though there would be enemies who sought to eliminate Israel and commit genocide, the LORD would not forsake the children of Abraham. I think it is important that we pay close attention to the LORD’s promise in this covenantal ceremony. He promised the land to the descendents of Abraham without distinction. This is often ignored by those involved in modern Middle Eastern politics, including some prominent televangelists in America. In the next chapter, we see that Ishmael is born as a partial fulfillment of the promise.
Believed: There is one important verse in this chapter that I haven’t discussed yet. It is a verse that has helped shape Christianity, especially Protestantism, and it appears in the lectionary. “And he believed the LORD and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” For Paul, this verse was proof that faith is prior to the law. This was particularly important to Paul because Abram was declared righteous before he was circumcised. For Paul, Abram believed as a Gentile, one who is uncircumcised. This meant that salvation could come to those outside of the covenant if they only had faith in God. This promise is central to Christianity.
Martin Luther built on this idea to argue that salvation comes through faith alone. Luther was so happy to be liberated from the demands of medieval Catholicism that he went overboard in his rejection of good works. He did not like the fact that the Epistle of James states that Abraham was justified by his works. Thus began a long and ultimately pointless debate in Christian theology. As John Amos Comenius pointed out, the Bible teaches both that salvation is through faith and that faith is made real only in works. He urged those with faith to be extra diligent in serving the LORD they love, and those who proclaim works should be extra zealous to love the LORD they serve. Arguments that distract us from love and service have no place in the sanctuary of the LORD.
Conclusion: Genesis 15 is a good story for our time. We live in perilous times that challenge our faith and our hope. Truth and faith are trampled daily by politicians, business leaders, and ordinary people. Words like freedom, justice, peace, mercy, and virtue have been twisted beyond recognition by those who love power and money. Religion is used as a weapon to abuse and the promises of Scripture have been turned into threats. Like Abram we raise our voices in challenge to God. Is there only barrenness in our lives? Do death and fear have the final word?
We should remember that Abraham believed and it was reckoned as righteousness. Now, more than ever, we need to believe in the goodness and mercy of God. People of faith need to strengthen one another and live out of our best convictions. If we do that, then we can restore the meaning of words like covenant, freedom, truth, justice, decency, righteousness, and mercy. May we continue to love and serve the LORD especially in this time of turmoil, toil, and tears.