The first part of this week’s lectionary passage from Genesis covers familiar territory:
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” –Genesis 15:1-7 NRSV
There’s some intriguing elements in there. For starters, Abram (later on God changes his name to Abraham) suggested a plan to provide an heir, even though he and Sarah were quite old by this time. Note that this plan preceded a later one whereby he would get his wife’s handmaiden pregnant. “Poor me,” Abram complained, “God has given me no natural heir so I’ll have to turn to Eliezer of Damascus.” Not to worry, God replied, for the divine promise to Abraham included descendants as numerous as the stars in the desert sky. Yet these words didn’t quite satisfy Abram, so we pick up the narrative in verse 8, where things quickly get a little weird (at least by 21st century standards):
But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” –Genesis 15:8-21 NRSV
In the midst of considerable animal slaughter there’s a bit of good news/bad news (“your offspring shall be slaves and oppressed for 400 years…but [God] will bring judgment on the nation they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions…”) then what is arguably one of the oddest scenes in the entire Bible. The dead carcasses have been split in two and out of nowhere a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appear and pass between the animal pieces. That, apparently, is how God makes a covenant.
As crazy as that sounds to us, it would not have appeared odd to Abram and his contemporaries. This reflects an actual custom in the ancient Near East. The difference, however, is that the two equal parties making the covenant (and the literal meaning was to “cut a covenant”) would together walk through the lined-up carcasses, thus promising that if either were to break the covenant they should suffer the same consequences as the heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. Here in Genesis, though, Abram is sound asleep (Is he therefore dreaming all this?) and it’s a smoking fire pot and flaming torch that travel between the carcasses. Keep in mind, though, that fire and smoke are common images representing and signifying the presence of God. God and Abram are definitely not equal parties to this covenant. It is God who initiates it and carries it out.
I have a bit of a problem with the idea of becoming a covenant people. (A technical point of grammar here: the word should be “covenantal,” but that’s a battle we editors will probably never win, so I’ll pass on it this time.) It’s not hard to read into those words the idea that it’s really all up to us: We decide if and when and how we enter into covenant with God. Certainly that’s not how it worked way back in Abram’s day, and while we don’t turn our church buildings into slaughter houses these days, it’s still worth asking, “Does God work the same way today?”
We Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the one, true spiritual heir of Abraham and that we have been united, through baptism, with Christ. Thus, we are recipients of the promises to Abraham and Sarah. A covenant with God can never be our idea but we can respond to Christ’s invitation to “Follow me.”