Atonement: Abraham’s Blood Oath

Abraham’s covenant with God

This makes better sense if we try to think like First Century Jews — and so look for understanding in the Torah — not so much the Law of Moses as God’s covenant with Abraham.

(Rom 4:23-25 NET) 23 But the statement [righteousness] was credited to [Abraham] was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.

Paul describes our salvation by faith as based on God’s covenant with Abraham, in which God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Somehow, in those three verses, Paul leaps all the way from Abraham having faith to the cross producing forgiveness for our sins. But that’s not an obvious connection. Where in God’s covenant with Abraham do we find the cross?

Ray Vander Laan offers an explanation that I find compelling. For thousands of years, men have sealed covenants in blood. In the Middle East, they used to say that they “cut a covenant,” meaning the covenanting parties cut their arms and sucked a bit of one another’s blood. The mingling of  blood was considered to bring the parties together so tightly they’d  have to honor their words. (See here)

In the Middle East, this practice gave way to the sharing of animal  blood in a ceremony that surely seems strange to us today. Even today in  some Middle Eastern societies, when a covenant, such as a marriage, is made, the heads of the household make a solemn pact that the wife will  be faithful to her husband and that the husband will not abuse his wife. The two men take an animal, cut it in two, and then take turns walking between the two halves, stepping in and through the blood.

The ceremony has this meaning: if I do not keep my promise, you may do to me what we’ve done to this animal. The two men pledge their lives to seal the covenant. And in those societies today, when a husband beats his wife or the wife commits adultery, the head of the offender’s household is often found dead, killed by the other family in fulfillment  of the oath.

Now consider God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17

(Gen 15:4-21)  Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir,  but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”

5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the  stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall  your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

7 He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of  the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

8 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

9 So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each  three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram  brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves  opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then  birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants  will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved  and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they  serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great  possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be  buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants  will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its  full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your  descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great  river, the Euphrates — 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites,  Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites,  Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainly of his promise, and so he made a solemn covenant. Abraham’s end of the bargain was to have  faith in God. God’s promise was “offspring,” which is literally the word “seed,” which is singular. In Galatians 3:16, Paul interprets this as referring to the Messiah.

God also promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants.

Before the ceremony, Abraham suffered “a thick and dreadful darkness” (v. 12), which means he was very afraid. What was there to fear in making a covenant with God Almighty?

Well, we need to understand the meaning of “faith.” We take “faith”  to mean that we accept the truth of what is said. We “believe” the person speaking. But the thought is deeper.

Josephus was a First Century Jew and a soldier. He tells a story of a soldier under his command who was disloyal. He caught him and  threatened his life. He then told him to repent and be loyal to Josephus  and he’d spare his life, giving him a second chance.

Well, the word translated “be loyal” is what we translate in the  Bible as “believe.” He literally told the soldier to “believe in me.” He didn’t claim to be deity. He just wanted the man’s loyalty. You see, “faith” includes “faithfulness.”

Abraham’s end of the covenant was not just intellectual assent, accepting God’s word as true. Abraham was to be loyal to God.

(Gen 18:19 NET) 19 “I have chosen [Abraham] so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just. Then the LORD will give to Abraham what he promised him.”

Indeed, the words “right” and “just” are almost always used in the Old Testament of God. To choose Abraham so his descendants will be right and just is to expect his descendants to be like God — indeed, in his image.

Now, imagine having God himself come to you and ask for a blood oath of loyalty. You could hardly say no! But then, would you really want to bet your life on your ability to keep your word?

To firmly establish the seriousness of the covenant, God asked not for an animal, but every kind of animal used in sacrificial worship.  Indeed, Abraham lined up each of the very animals that would later be used as a sacrifice under the Law of Moses centuries later! It’s no wonder Abraham was afraid. This was a covenant being made the Creator is a most serious and enforceable way. Abraham was being asked to do the impossible at the risk of his own life!

But when night fell and it was time for God and Abraham to each walk between the animals, an amazing thing happened. God passed through both as a torch of flame and as smoke pot. God went through twice — and Abraham didn’t pass through at all. (God is often referred to as smoke and fire. Exo 19:18; 2 Sam 22:9; Psa 18:8; Isa 4:5.)

Rather, when it was time for Abraham to walk in the blood, saying if I don’t keep my promise, you may do to me as we have done to these animals, God himself took the walk — and only God. God promised to pay the penalty for Abraham!

Thousands of years later, God indeed paid the price for the sins of his people. This is the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham.

You see, when we ponder the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, and whether Jesus and God were at odds, with God wanting human blood and Jesus offering his own, we completely miss the beauty of the Trinity. We separate God and Jesus in our minds as though they are two different people, and it’s really not quite that simple.

When Jesus died on the cross, it was indeed Jesus. But Jesus is God. It was God himself paying the price, just as he’d promised Abraham.

Now, of course, Jesus is God but not exactly. He’s God the Son, not God the Father. And yet for anyone of us with children, we understand that God the Father suffered as much — more, really — than God the Son.

This was not a Son appeasing the wrath of an unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled God. It was God dying for us in the only way God can die — by taking human form and surrendering heaven to walk among us as one of us.

Indeed, when the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies was torn, remember that God had a special presence there. The tearing of the curtain was like any First Century Jew tearing his clothes in mourning and agony, as he watched his Son die.

Yes, it was also the opening of the Holy of Holies, so that God’s presence left that singular place and to soon appear in the heart of every believer. But that departure came at an awful price — with the pain of loss and death.

God the Father surely suffered and hurt as much as his Son. I’m the father of four sons. I know. I rather hang on the cross myself than let a beloved Son do such a thing.

But God himself suffered death to give us life. That’s how he dealt with his wrath. He gave himself for us.

It’s part of the mystery of the Trinity that we should see God as giving himself on the cross for us — and suffering the worst way imaginable — by being both on the cross and in heaven watching his Son die.

As Paul said to the elders at Ephesus,

(Act 20:28 ESV) Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Paul declares that God obtained the church “with his own blood”! Paul declares plainly that it was God’s blood shed on the cross.

And that’s a very different kind of atonement. If my son lies and steals, as a loving father, knowing that he cannot pay back what he stole, I might well choose to pay the price for him. That’s not justice. That’s grace.

Of course, it would really be license — a condoning of sin — if that were all there were to it. There’s more. But we start by understanding that atonement is far more about God paying the price than visiting the price on an innocent bystander. God himself takes on the penalty for our sin.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to Atonement: Abraham’s Blood Oath

  1. Jerry says:

    This shows the weakness of the usual approach to the blood-atonement as judicial substitution. While that theory may have some merit, it is certainly not the entire story.

    I have long believed that we are able to find reconciliation with an enemy only by taking the initiative – even when that initiative demands that we suffer. This is what God has done and how He teaches us to become peacemakers and forgiving as well.

    Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

  2. Price says:

    I think it’s Interesting that after Abraham set up the covenant sacrifices that God made him wait. He left him alone to ponder the magnitude of the agreement before he appeared.
    How shocking it must have been to see God accept the penalty of his failure to uphold his end of the bargain. How relieved he must have been. Amazing Grace.

  3. guy says:


    “Thousands of years later, God indeed paid the price for the sins of his people. This is the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham.”

    i don’t know. All this “paying the price” talk still seems like trace elements of the same old view of atonement. *To whom* did God pay this price? It sounds like God still had to kill Jesus to satisfy some legal code to which even God is subject. It still brings to mind a sense of God just needing to satisfy some arbitrary standard so He can ‘get over Himself’ and be nice to us.


  4. rich constant says:


    9:1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 9:2 Every living creature of the earth and every bird of the sky will be terrified of you.1 Everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea are under your authority.2 9:3 You may eat any moving thing that lives.3 As I gave you4 the green plants, I now give5 you everything.

    9:4 But6 you must not eat meat7 with its life (that is,8 its blood) in it.9 9:5 For your lifeblood10 I will surely exact punishment,11 from12 every living creature I will exact punishment. From each person13 I will exact punishment for the life of the individual14 since the man was his relative.15

    9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood,16

    by other humans17

    must his blood be shed;

    for in God’s image18

    God19 has made humankind.”

    9:7 But as for you,20 be fruitful and multiply; increase abundantly on the earth and multiply on it.”

  5. aBasnar says:

    12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

    I think it is quite uintresting in this covenant, that Abram was fast asleep. So who went through between the halves of the sacrificed animals?

    17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

    18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram …

    Abram did not pass with God between these sacrifices. this means: It is a one sided covenant. This is important, because the covenant reaches way beyond the life time of Abram, and he had no possibility to fulfill his part of it, other than do what men usually do with their wives. But the end of the covanant was entirely up to God, and He accomplished it in Christ.


  6. Jerry says:

    When you are insulted – but overlook it and forgive – who pays the price? You do. To whom do you pay it? In one way, you pay it to the one who insulted you. In another way, you pay it to yourself by living up to a higher standard and the peace and joy you have for so living.

    God’s forgiveness is somewhat the same – except infinitely more. We are to forgive in the same way we have been forgiven. Jesus took the shame of our sins. He took the hurt on himself in every way. Sin always hurts someone – else it would not be sin. There are no victimless crimes – or sins.

  7. rich constant says:

    aul describes our salvation by faith as based on God’s covenant with Abraham, in which God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Somehow, in those three verses, Paul leaps all the way from Abraham having faith to the cross producing forgiveness for our sins. But that’s not an obvious connection. Where in God’s covenant with Abraham do we find the cross?

    here the simple answer

    Rom 5:12 Because of this, even as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death passed to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.

    Rom 5:13 For sin was in the world until Law,
    but sin is not charged where there is no law; (YA KNOW THAT CURSE)
    Rom 5:14 but death reigned from Adam until Moses,

    even on those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, who is a type of the coming One.
    Rom 5:15 But the free gift is not also like the deviation. For if by the deviation of the one the many died, much more the grace of God, and the gift in grace, which is of the one Man, Jesus Christ, did abound to the many.

  8. guy says:


    You wrote:
    “you pay it to yourself”

    Perhaps, but this “to yourself” bit is precisely what concerns me. i suppose when we talk about soldiers paying a price or making a sacrifice, we don’t mean for those idioms to be taken to far and start asking to whom prices are paid or sacrifices are made. i guess it’s the taking-it-too-far bit that concerns me here. “i can’t love you until the restitution demanded by law is extracted even if from an innocent man.” This is the notion to which i don’t think i can any longer subscribe, and it seems to me that this ‘paying the price’ metaphor still leaves room for that kind of conception of God.


  9. Jerry says:


    Sometime back Jay had a series of posts in which he maintained that God is not “fair” in the gospel – simply because He lets sinners off without the penalty of death. However, we do suffer “death” in one sense. We die with Jesus; we die to sin – and are crucified with Jesus. If our sins have not given us anguish, it is doubtful that we have truly repented, for “godly sorrow works repentance.”

    I have often heard people argue if we should forgive insults or other sins against ourselves if the offending one does not repent. I say that we should. We “suck it up” and accept the pain of the offence in order to forgive. That is what Jesus did at the cross. It’s only at the cross that we can understand the true horror of sin and the pain that it causes in this world.

    I do not see the cross as a satisfaction for a wrathful God who must make someone bleed, even if it is an innocent victim. I see it, rather, as God accepting the suffering caused by sin in order to reconcile His enemies (us) to Himself. Death, in this case, is the price of the gift of Life.

  10. laymond says:

    It was said;
    “I have often heard people argue if we should forgive insults or other sins against ourselves if the offending one does not repent. I say that we should.”

    In my opinion, it is absolutely impossible to forgive anyone of something for which they don’t want to be forgiven. You might overlook their abuse toward you, but you cannot force forgiveness upon them. Just as God cannot force forgiveness upon a sinner. Repent has to come in there somewhere. then asking is second. I agree we shouldn’t hold a grudge, that only hurts one’s self.

  11. Alabama John says:

    Do any of you know anyone that kills an animal that does not hang it up, cut its throat, and drain the blood out before eating?
    God amazingly having to warn them of not doing this while its a worldwide practice.Is it coincidental or is it done because God told all of mankind to do this?
    We even do this same draining with catfish.
    There are some around here that still make a pie out of the drained blood of warm blooded animals. Surprised that eating the blood is not mentioned. Drinking is, but not eating that I know of.
    These constantly disobedient Jews must of strangled animals and eaten them with the blood still in them. Seems if something can be done wrong, they found a way to do it.
    Interesting that other civilizations all over the world have seemed to know and adhere to more of what God wanted than the (Israelite) Jew.
    In this case, Hooray for the Irish, Scots, English and all others including Native Americans.

  12. Norton says:

    Love and strict justice are many times, in conflict. Is God bound to some system of justice, even though He loves those who seek Him? Yes. By whom? Guess. Did God have to kill His Son/Himself to satisfy some system of justice? Yes. Who demanded that God adhere to this system of justice? Guess.
    Who influenced God to have Job tested? Who continually accuses the saints before God? Who no longer can use the law to condemn believers? Who goes about seeking whom he can devour?

    Yes, I generally believe that A. Cambell’s governmental theory of attonement is the most reasonable. Who can criticize God in justifying those who are only generally, but not perfectly faithful in keeping the law , when He has offered Himself/His Son as a sacrifice for their sins? No one. God’s wrath is on those who rebell against Him, but He protects from condemnation, those who turn to Him by way of His gracious sacrifice and demonstration of love toward them.

    A theory, but it ties things together for me.

  13. Doug says:

    We pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others”. Is this not a similar circumstance of atonement? Our sins are forgiven as we forgive the sins of others. It as a one-sided situation where we take the first step toward forgiveness by forgiving others. It doesn’t matter if the other party asks for forgivenenss, we get forgiveness by forgiving. And vice-versa, if we do not forgive, we pay the price of not forgiving… not the other party. It asll seems very God-like to me.

    Jay, I appreciate this topic and expect to come away from it with new understanding.

  14. Jerry says:

    It is interesting to me that Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” On the other hand, Paul wrote that we are to be “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

    Does God forgive as we forgive? Or are we to forgive as God forgives? Either way, forgiveness is a necessity. Do we wait to forgive until someone repents? If we do, we may never forgive. God did not wait for our repentance to send Jesus to be the suffering innocent one (and the only innocent one capable of taking our pain and infirmities on Himself). While I must repent to enjoy fellowship with God and to walk with Him in newness of life, God’s gift of forgiveness is already there in Christ. I must receive through obedient, penitent faith what God has already given.

    In a similar way, I need to forgive one who has offended me by accepting the pain and laying it aside. Whether the person who offended ever recognizes his offence, offers an apology, or asks for forgiveness – my forgiveness has already occurred. His relationship with me may be broken because he does not lay the incident(s) aside – but my attitude toward him will be as it should be. This is forgiving as God in Christ has forgiven me.

    What this means is that I must “die” to myself and my “rights” as Jesus died to be able to forgive. This is what denying myself, taking up my cross, and following Jesus means in the area of personal relationships.

  15. aBasnar says:

    Well said, Jerry.!


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