God’s mission to repair us as broken eikons, that is, flawed images of God, begins with Abraham. You know the story, I’m sure. Abraham was hardly the holiest man we can imagine. He treated his wife badly at times. His faith was sometimes weak. And yet God chose him as the man through whom his redemptive work would begin.
God’s work in Abraham is found in a series of covenants God made with him. And so we need to consider how the ancients made covenants. 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 true to her husband and that the husband will not abuse his wife. The two men take an animal, cut it in two, 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.
(The next part of the post is thanks to Ray Vander Laan.)
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.
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.
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. He went through twice — and Abraham didn’t pass through at all.
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.