Troublesome Topic: God Cut a Covenant with Abram

Lesson 1 of 7

God chose to slowly unveil His plan for reconciling man back to Himself rather than dropping the whole load on us all at once. It was in the time of Abram (later called Abraham) that another key step was taken in the provision of reconciliation and restoration. We see evidence in chapter 12 of Genesis of a good relationship between God and Abram. We are not told how he came to trust God so much or have such clear communication with God, but it is obvious that these elements were present in his life. In Genesis 12:1-3

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God promised Abram a specific, and very large land, many descendants, and that through his heirs, God’s purpose would be fulfilled and the world would receive the blessing He had been planning since the fall of mankind. Herein lies Gods promise of salvation. His plan to bless mankind referred to nothing less than the provision of what man needed most, to be restored to proper fellowship with the creator God.

God established a covenant with Abram in order to assure him that He would make good on the promise made earlier. You see, Abram was 75 when they arrived in Canaan. He had been in this new land several years and still no children had been born to him. He could not get away from the fact that it is difficult to have descendants if you can’t make a baby! When Abram was 86 God appeared to him and told him not to be afraid but rather to trust in Him, reaffirming His original promise. In response Abram registered his concerns to God:

Genesis 15:8


And he said, “ADONAI YHVH (read Adonai Adonai), by what means will I know that I will inherit it?”


And he (Abram) said, MY LORD, THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD, how will I know that I will possess it?

Genesis 15:9


So He said to him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.”

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(the same: So He said to him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.”)

Genesis 15:10


So he brought all these to him and cut them in two in the middle and placed each piece opposite the other, but the birds he did not cut in two.


So he brought all these to him and cut them in two down the middle from head to tail and he placed each piece on the opposite side of the ditch from its counterpart; but he did not cut the birds in half.

Genesis 15:11


The screamers

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came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove

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them away.


The vultures came down on the carcasses,

but Abram chased them away.

Genesis 15:12


And it happened that, at the going

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of the sun, then a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him.


It so happened, when it was time for the sun to go [down], that an irresistible sleepiness came over Abram, but no, it was more than that, it was a sense of dread and intense darkness that overwhelmed him.

Genesis 15:17


Now it came to pass that, when the sun went,

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and it was dark, behold a smoking kiln

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and a flaming torch that passed between the parts.


Now it so happened that, when the sun had set and it was dark, Look! an amazing sight! A smoking fire that lit everything up like a burning torch passed between the cut pieces of the animals.

Genesis 15:18


On that day

YHVH (read Adonai)


a covenant with ABRAM


“To your seed I have given this land, from the river of EGYPT

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to the great river, the river EUPHRATES.”


When the fire passed between the cut pieces of the animals THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD established a covenant with THE EXALTED FATHER. The purpose of the covenant was to assure him of the following: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river on the boarder of THE PLACE BOUND BY SIN, to the greatest river of all, the ONE THAT BREAKS FORTH INTO A GREAT STREAM.”

In this way God assured Abram that what He had promised earlier He would still do. Notice the text implies that Abram knew exactly what to do with the animals God had asked him to bring. The cutting of covenants was common enough in those days to the people of that part of the world that no explanation was needed. The practice had several variations but the most common and most central element was that of dividing several animals in half. These animals were laid beside a natural ditch, a wadi or a slight depression, and cut in half from head to tail. The halves were placed on opposite sides of the ditch and the blood ran into the middle. Perhaps a dam of rocks and mud was made in the ditch below the animals to make a small pool of blood. Depending on what type of covenant it was, one party or both parties walked through the blood, staining their feet and the bottom of their garments with this blood. This was a self-damning curse to be fulfilled if the one swearing his loyalty to the covenant ever violated its conditions.

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Abram realized immediately what was going on, and his mood changed. Where previously he had been wondering how and when the promise would become reality, a little discouraged that things had taken so long, now he became overwhelmed by what God was about to do. For God to enter into such a relationship with a man was almost more than he could handle. A sense of dread and awe, expressed in the text as a thick and dreadful darkness, came over Abram. Why this reaction? Abram knew that if the Creator of the universe entered into a covenant with a man, there was a 100% chance that God would fulfill His part of the covenant and a 0% chance God would fail to do so. However, Abram also knew there would be expectations placed on him, for there always are (we will return to the question of unconditional covenants later). While he could be certain that God would fulfill what He had said, Abram knew that he, as man, was not as reliable. He knew that if he violated the conditions of this covenant he was a dead man. How could he agree to enter into a covenant with Almighty God? It sounded like suicide because he knew he was not as reliable as God. Yet how could he say “no”? He was overwhelmed by the whole thing.

Then it happened. After sundown God Himself passed between the divided animals. He did so in a visible form; that of fire. This was a powerful way of stating, “If I don’t keep my end of this covenant relationship may I be split in two like these animals, and may my blood run freely, as did theirs.” However, no words were needed for this part of the ceremony, the act of walking through that blood was more eloquent than words could ever be. Although that fire had no feet or robes to get stained by the blood, the symbolism was not weakened—God was committing Himself in no uncertain terms; He was assuring Abram in the most trustworthy way understood by man, that He would indeed fulfill His promise. In effect God was saying, “I will indeed fulfill my promise to you, and if I don’t, I will be killed, and cease to be.” Of course we know that no one can kill God, and for God to cease to be God, well, it seems blasphemous even to type such words. This, however, makes the point God was making even more poignant, that He, the all-powerful one, the Creator of all that exists, was so committed to fulfilling this promise that He was willing to stake everything He is (which is so very much) on its fulfillment. That, my friends, is a promise you can trust.

At the heart of every covenant inauguration was the pronouncing of self-imposed curses. The custom of dividing the animals was the one constant in establishing a covenant relationship. In fact, the terms commonly used for establishing such a relationship were to “cut a covenant.” By this simple phrase a vivid word picture was called to mind every time someone heard the expression. If you had previously been a part of such an event you would never again hear those words without smelling the blood, hearing the flies, and feeling a chill skate up your spine.

The Bible usually does not give information we don’t really need; in fact, it often leaves out details of a story that we wish we had. So when the Biblical narrative takes special care to tell us that the birds that eat meat came to light upon the dead animals, and Abram chased them away, it only serves to heighten our understanding of the seriousness of what was about to happen. The imagery and symbolism is this: If a person violated the covenant, not only would he die and have his blood spilled out, but he would not receive the honor of a burial; rather the carrion eating birds would feast on his flesh.

The next lesson in the short series on Covenants is: Why Circumcision?

The next lesson in the medium and full length series on Covenants is: “I Will Be Your God and You Will Be My People”



Gen 12:1-3  Now YHVH (read Adonai)  had said to Abram, “Depart from your country and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show to you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be blessed. Also, I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you; in you all the people groups of the earth shall be blessed.”


“young pigeon” is a word that means “young bird, nestling.” While it can mean any young bird, it somehow came to refer to a pigeon and it is best to assume that in instances like this it was referring specifically to the pigeon, not just any young bird.


“the screamers” came from a root word that meant “bird that screams, or bird that shrieks,” and it may have included the idea of “bird that swoops.” It is usually translated “bird of prey,” but it was used to refer to all carrion-eating birds, whether birds of prey or scavengers. Here “vultures” is most fitting.


“drove them away” means “to cause to blow, or to cause to be dispersed by blowing.” However, it was used in cases like this where simple dispersion is the point and the means is left unstated, i.e. “he made them go away.”


“at the going of the sun” is the infinitive form, and means simply “to go, or going.” “Down” can be properly assumed because that is where the sun goes. First it comes (and we can add “up”) and then it goes (and we can add “down”).


“the sun went”. It is a different form of the same word used in verse 12. Context could cause it to be translated with some explanatory preposition, such as “went in, went out” or here “went down.” I have chosen to keep it simple in the translation side to show you that the text only says “the sun went;” it is our understanding of what the sun does every day that informs us where the sun went – it went down, out of sight.


We are not sure what Abraham saw. The word I have rendered as “a kiln” could mean anything in which one could put fire – a furnace, an oven, a kiln, a wood stove for cooking, or a wood stove for heating a home. The idea being conveyed is that fire, serving as a representation of God Himself, passed between the pieces. The vessel that contained that fire is not the focus here. Therefore, the paraphrase column communicates the intended meaning that fire passed between the cut pieces. In the translation column I have chosen “kiln” because it would usually contain a larger, hotter fire than the other options. In reality we don’t know what he saw.

The fire Abraham saw produced both smoke and light. Although the light and the smoke are listed separately, it was one entity that passed between the pieces, not two. This entity (God) had three qualities that were highlighted by the way the event was described.

Re: Imagery: Is it possible, or even likely, that some symbolism was intended? Yes. First of all God took the form of something which could not possibly represent all of Him, but it did represent some of what He is like. Fire symbolized purification or punishment; smoke represented destruction; light stood for the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. In this way God was communicating the following truths as they related to this covenant relationship: “I am the one that can purify you, but if you don’t follow my ways (the covenant conditions) you will be punished harshly and your destruction will be complete. Therefore, obey what I am trying to teach you.”


The meaning of the name “Egypt”: The word means “a siege, an enclosure, a defensive or fortified place, also a besieged place, or a bound-up place.” Throughout Scripture Egypt is consistently portrayed as a representation of sin. Because of that negative reputation, I have chosen to focus on the “besieged or bound up” part of the name, while I acknowledge that Egyptians of that day would have said that they were the ones doing the besieging. I have tied together the idea of besieged or bound, and that of sin to come up with the following meaning of the name: PLACE THAT IS BOUND BY SIN.


See Ray Vander Laan’s DVD series, That the World May Know, Volume 2, Lesson 5 “Tel Arad.”