Great Moments in Bible History
An Eerie Sight
Birds of prey. Great darkness. Dread. Flaming objects moving on their own. The story sounds like a Halloween thriller, but it was actually one of the high peaks in God’s story.
In our last issue we read the great statement that Abraham believed God and God counted it to him as righteousness. Immediately after that, God said, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to possess.” This is the same promise God has been making to Abraham for years, but this time Abraham asks for some help. “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
I find it very encouraging that even a great man of faith like Abraham asked help from God for his faith. He believed God’s promise, but he also wanted confirmation to strengthen that belief. His request for help gave God the opportunity to do something amazing.
God began by telling Abraham to bring Him some things. “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9). Abraham apparently knew what God had in mind, because the very next verse says, “And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.”
What Abraham was doing was preparing those animals for a covenant ceremony. A covenant is the most solemn agreement there is. In those days a covenant was usually made in a ceremony that began by killing an animal and cutting it in half. The two people who were making the covenant with each other would then walk between the halves of the animal. Although this seems strange to us today, they were acting out the solemn promise they were making. By walking between the halves of the animal that had just been slaughtered they were declaring, “May I die like this animal if I fail to keep the promise I am making today.” (See Jeremiah 34:18 for an illustration of how this worked.)
Now the action slows down. Abraham has prepared the sacrificial animals for the covenant ceremony, but after that he just waits. “And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away” (Genesis 15:11). Then things get strange. “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” This is unlike any covenant ceremony Abraham has ever been in!
Finally, God speaks, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (verse 13). This is a prophecy of the slavery of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt (told in Exodus 1). God continues, “But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” This predicts the battle between God and Pharaoh as God brings ten plagues on Egypt followed by the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.
Then follows the covenant ceremony itself. “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (verse 17). We might have wondered what it would look like for God to walk between the halves of the animals. The answer is that it looked like smoke and fire. Those are symbols that God will use to represent Himself in later books of the Bible (for example, in the famous burning bush or in the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that He used to lead His people through the desert). “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’” (verse 18).
The story began with Abraham asking God for assurance that God really would keep His promises to him. God answers his request by participating in the strangest covenant ceremony Abraham has ever seen and He gives Abraham new information about the strange way in which God will keep that promise in the coming centuries.
Why Birds of Prey?
The basic story of Genesis 15 is not difficult to understand, but some of the details puzzle us. Why does the author mention birds of prey coming down on the animals Abraham prepared for the covenant ceremony? And why did a dreadful and great darkness fall on him? Although these details are mentioned without any comment by the author of Genesis, they are actually very significant.
Back in Genesis 12 God had told Abraham to move to a land He would show him. For years He has been promising to give Abraham’s descendants that land. In chapter 15 Abraham brought up a major problem with God’s promise—he had no children. God promises to solve that problem, but in this chapter we learn that there will be even greater problems to come. His descendants will become slaves in a foreign country. It would be difficult to imagine a more difficult situation for Abraham’s descendants than that. Slave owners do not voluntarily give up their slaves. When people are slaves of the most powerful nation on earth (as Egypt then was), they are really stuck. For Abraham’s descendants those years of slavery will be very dark times indeed.
That helps us to understand the meaning of the “dreadful and great darkness” that Abraham experienced. God was giving Abraham a glimpse of the dark days ahead for his descendants.
But this raises another question. Why does it have to be so difficult for God to keep His promise and give Abraham’s descendants the land He promised him? To understand the answer to that question we have to remember that the land was only part of the promise God made to Abraham. The ultimate goal was given in Genesis 12:3, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That was a promise that the Messiah (Christ) would be Abraham’s descendant.
Well then, why does it have to be so difficult to bring the Messiah? The answer to that goes back to when sin first entered the world. God made this announcement to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Bringing the Messiah was God’s battle plan against the devil. Since the devil did not want to get his head bruised (i.e. receive a fatal blow), he did everything in his power to stop that plan. Enslaving Abraham’s descendants in Egypt was simply one of many attempts Satan made to stop the Messiah before He was even born. Many more such attempts will follow. When King Herod killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, that was another of his attempts to thwart God’s battle plan.
This also explains the imagery of the birds of prey that tried to steal the sacrifices Abraham had cut in two. They represent Satan and his servants who worked for centuries to prevent the sacrifice of Christ that would deal them the death blow.
Who Walked Between the Pieces?
As we learned earlier, in a covenant ceremony both parties to the covenant walked between the pieces of the sacrificial animal. So who actually walked between the pieces in the ceremony with Abraham? We saw that the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch represented God, so He definitely walked between the pieces. What about Abraham? Strangely enough, Abraham never walked between those pieces. What is going on? Was God making a promise without expecting Abraham to do anything?
Certainly God expected Abraham to do things, as we have already seen in previous chapters. But the covenant God made with Abraham was not going to depend on Abraham or any other human. It was solely up to God. When you follow this story through the rest of the Old Testament you find that Abraham’s descendants messed up a lot. If the ultimate success of God’s covenant promise depended on them, it would never happen. As a result, God made a one-sided covenant. No matter what Abraham’s descendants (or anyone else) did, God was going to bring the Messiah and He was going to conquer Satan. We call such a one-sided covenant a covenant of grace.
There is one other puzzle we need to look at in this chapter. When someone walked between the pieces of a covenant sacrifice he was saying, “May I die like this animal if I fail to keep the promise I am making today.” But since God was the one who walked between the pieces we have a problem. God is eternal. He cannot die. So how can He make such a promise? The answer to that comes from the New Testament where we learn that the Messiah (Jesus Christ) was both God and man and that He did, in fact, die. He did not die because He had failed to keep the covenant, He died in order to keep that covenant promise. And this gives us great encouragement. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)