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When God passed between the pieces (Lesson 5.5)

Earlier we referenced the Lord's words to Abram in Genesis 15:1. This is where the Lord comes to him and says: “Do not fear, Abram. I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” We talked about God's promise here in the context of the Tower of Babel; Abram didn't need to seek security anywhere else because God was his shield; and he didn't need to seek significance anywhere else because the Lord was promising rewards greater than he could dream. Well, we talked about this verse (15:1), but what we haven't talked about is the context in which the Lord spoke these words to Abraham. What was it? Well, the background of Genesis 15 is Genesis 14. And Genesis 14 is the account of how Lot was taken captive by an invading army, and how in response, Abram and his servants went after them, and overtook and overpowered them, and rescued Lot and many others, and brought them safely back home. At the end of the account, the king of Sodom tells Abram to take all the possessions that he had rescued as compensation. But Abram is afraid that if he takes anything, the king of Sodom would take credit for making him prosperous. So Abram says no—he refuses to take anything. And it's “after these things” that the Lord comes to Abram in Genesis 15:1 and says, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” So, what's the lesson? It's not just that God knows how to protect and reward His people. It's more than that. God is telling Abram that his integrity hasn't gone unnoticed. God was watching. Abram wasn't living with integrity for nothing. I think sometimes we get weary because we forget this. And so, the Lord wants to remind Abram, and to remind us, that He is watching, and that He sees every little thing we do for His sake—and not even the smallest thing we do in His name will go unrewarded (Matthew 10:42).1

Well, in response to the Lord's words in Genesis 15:1, Abram says, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (v2). God had promised to give children to Abram (12:7). In fact, at this point, the Lord hadn't just promised to give Abram offspring; He had sworn to him: “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.” (13:15-16). But, probably years had gone by and Abram still didn't have any children. And so Abram is wrestling here with God in prayer between the promise that God had made on the one hand, but on the other hand the present reality that he still had no children, and he wasn't getting any younger: “Lord, you've promised multitudes. . .but You've yet to give me a single child.” It's not that Abram didn't believe what God had said. It's that he did believe what God had said, but the reality of his present situation stood in direct opposition to God's promise.2 So Abram is being honest here with God in prayer: “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” (15:3). Abram isn't accusing God; he's just honestly wrestling.3 He's being honest with the Lord as he fights to believe His promise. And it's as he wrestles with God in prayer that God confirms His promise to him:

4 Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 'This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.' 5 And He took him outside and said, 'Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' 6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 And He said to him, I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.' (Genesis 15:4-7).

So God confirms His promise to Abram; and Abram believes in the Lord (15:6). We've already looked at this verse and shown how it's a central passage that the New Testament quotes to prove that justification comes about through faith. And even as Abram believes God's promise in verse 6, God reminds him in verse 7 that even his own faith was ultimately due to God's electing grace. We saw this truth earlier: Abram only believed in the Lord because the Lord had first chosen him. Even our faith is a gift of God. We don't believe because we chose Him; we believe because He chose us.4

But Abram continues to wrestle with God in prayer. We pick up again with Genesis 15:8 and read:

8 He said, 'O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?' 9 So He said to him, 'Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.' 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away . . . . . 17 It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. . . (Genesis 15:8-11, 17-18).

A) What is this oath? We referred to this passage in the first Lesson, when we were defining what a covenant was. And there we saw that what God is doing here is taking a self-maledictory oath upon himself. God is saying, in effect: May I become just like these animals if I do not make good on My promise to you. We know this because of a similar passage in Jeremiah 34:13-22. The Babylonians come up to attack Israel, and the people are terrified and so they make promises to God and engage in this same covenant ceremony. They slaughter animals and walk between the pieces and tell God they'll get rid of their Hebrew slaves. But when the Babylonians go away, they go back on their word; they take their Hebrew slaves back. And Jeremiah comes to them and tells them that they are going to become just like the animals they had slaughtered and passed between the pieces. Why? Because when they took the oath, they were saying: “May I become like these animals if I break my promise.” And they did break their promise; so God is saying: “Alright, I will deal with you just as you said.”5

B) Who takes this oath? And so notice what is happening here in Genesis 15. It's not Abram that is making a covenant with God. It's not Abram who is passing between the pieces of the slaughtered animals and taking upon himself the self-maledictory oath to keep God's covenant. Abraham doesn't even walk through the pieces at all—in fact—it seems he had actually fallen asleep (v12). God is the One who passes between the pieces, in the form of “a smoking oven and a flaming torch.” God is the One who takes upon himself the self-maledictory oath: “May I become like these animals if I do not make good on My promise.” It's amazing what is happening here. God puts His own name on the line as He swears a solemn oath to Abram. And the outcome is so certain that, for the first time, the promise God had made to Abram is put in the past tense. We read in Genesis 15:18, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land. . .'”6

C) How to understand this oath? One question might arise here: Didn't God already promise to give the land to Abram and his seed? Why the need for this formal ceremony? It might help to give an illustration, though it's from from a perfect one: Think of a father, who had acquired at some point in his life a very special car; and this father had promised his son many times over that one day he would give the car to him. Well, it's one thing for the father to make that promise, but it's another thing for him to actually deed over that car. To legally deed over the car to his son, there's a process that must take place. So, imagine that the father comes to his son one day and says: “Today, I'm deeding the car over to you.” He signs the back of the title; he submits the ownership documents; he fills out the application forms and pays the fees. And after that, the ownership of the car transfers in such a way that it now belongs legally to his son. At that point, the father could no longer legally take the car back as his own—even if he wanted to. This is what God is doing here for Abram in Genesis 15. He had been making promises to him, but now it's as though He's actually “putting it in writing.” Here in this passage, it's as though the Lord is saying: “Abram, while you were sleeping, I went ahead and officially deeded over the land to you. I put it in writing. It's a done deal now. It's yours.”7

It's the same for us in Christ. God has given us promises, He's put them in writing, and He will never go back on them. The reason He will continue to lead and guide us, and the reason He'll never cast us away, and the reason He'll do a thousand other things He's promised to do, is that He has bound himself by solemn oath to fulfill His promises to us. His own name is on the line.8 As a believer, you will fall again and again. But God will never cast you away. You are secure in your Savior. The Lord has put His promises to you in writing, and He has sealed them with the blood of His own Son.


1 It's the same truth Paul writes of in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.” And when is it that we are tempted to lose heart? It's when we start thinking, It doesn't matter; it's not doing anything; it's all for nothing. But what we have to see is this phrase: “in due time we will reap. . .” In due time we will reap. Not right now. Now is the time to sow. You see this even in the Greek: Verse 9: Later will be the time (Gr. kairos) for reaping. Verse 10: But now is the time (Gr. kairos) for sowing. We get discouraged because it's hard work sowing, and all we're doing is sowing; and never reaping. Farmers sow for a month then they get to see the harvest at the end of the year. All our life we're sowing but we don't get to reap a single sheaf. That is, until after we've sown our last seed, and we ourselves are sown in the ground, and we arise at the Resurrection. Then, then, then—we will get to reap. And it is not a probability, it's a certainty: “we will reap.” But till then we have to live by faith. So, friends, the harvest is coming. But first we have to sow. All our days as pilgrims here in this world are the days of sowing. It's hard; it gets discouraging. But also remember: How we sow now is intimately connected to how we will reap then; for “whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (v7). The reaping then is divinely intertwined to our sowing now. And these are the only days we get to sow. These are the days to live for Christ; these are the days to pour out our lives, these are the days of sowing. Let's sow like we believe in the coming harvest. . .

2 Insight from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course.

3 Think back to John 11 and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. One of the things that story teaches us is that honest prayers are better than right theology. Martha rattled off right answers about Jesus; but Mary wrestled and wept. And it was Mary's wrestling and weeping that prevailed, because being honest with Jesus is better than a right theology about Jesus.

4 Abraham believed, but even his faith was the fruit of God's electing grace. Scripture teaches that even faith and repentance are gifts that God must give us (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith isn't something we can produce—it's a gift that God must give—and that He does give to all who call upon Him. Alec Motyer puts it this way: “In Genesis 15:6 we read of Abram that 'he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness' . . . Here is the essence of justification by faith. But notice what God says to him in verse 7: 'I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.' 'Now Abraham,' says God, 'please don't think that by believing you have climbed into a position by your own merits or deservings. Let me take your story back to where it began. I brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees.'” (See his article, Covenant and Promise). Isn't this so often our experience as believers! There's a wonderful example of this in the Gospels, in John 1:43-45. Verse 43 tells us that Jesus found Philip. But that's not how Philip saw it, because he goes and tells Nathanael, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote. . .” Philip thought he was the one who found Jesus. But later, Jesus would gently correct his thinking: “You did not chose Me, but I chose you. . .” (John 15:16).

5 “By dividing the animals and passing between the pieces, participants in a covenant pledged themselves to life and death. These actions established an oath of self-malediction. If they should break the commitment involved in the covenant, they were asking that their own bodies be torn in pieces just as the animals had been divided ceremonially.” (Robertson, p130).

6 As Alec Motyer explains: “To pass between the severed pieces was the taking of a very vivid and terrible oath: 'So may it be done to me if this oath is broken.' God alone passes between these severed pieces. Not only does Abraham not pass, but he is disallowed from passing. God takes upon himself the total obligation of the covenant.” (Covenant and Promise). And O Palmer Robertson writes: “Abraham does not pass between the divided pieces representing the covenantal curse of self-malediction. . .Only God himself passes between the pieces. By this action, God promises. The Lord assumes to himself the full responsibility for seeing that every promise of the covenant shall be realized.” (Christ of the Covenants, p145).

7 For more, see O Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, pp127-131, 145-146. In short, he says: “God the Creator binds himself to man the creature by a solemn blood-oath. The Almighty chooses to commit himself to the fulfillment of promises spoken to Abraham. By this divine commitment, Abraham's doubts are to be expelled. God has solemnly promised, and has sealed that promised with a self-maledictory oath. The realization of the divine word is assured.” (p131).

8 We see this truth played out throughout Scripture. One example is 1 Samuel 12: “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. . .For the Lord will not abandon His people on account of His great name. . .” (1 Samuel 12:19-22). Here Samuel tells God's people that the Lord would never abandon them. But he also tells us why God would never abandon them: “on account of His great name.” God had bound himself by oath to fulfill the covenant promises He had made to Abraham and his descendants—and His own name was on the line in keeping His Word. See also Exodus 32:11-14 and Ezekiel 20 for wonderful examples of the same truth.


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