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<< Discover the Book, with Dr. John Barnett

Discover the Book - Feb. 9, 2008

  • 2008 Feb 09

The Abrahamic Covenant

Four thousand and one hundred years ago, yes 41 centuries ago God made a promise called a covenant with a man we know named Abraham. God did not only speak this promise, it was dramatically displayed by a ceremony called "cutting a covenant”. In the style we know was known to Abraham from his culture God took the slaying, dividing and laying out of sacrificial animals on the ground as a setting for His Promise made to Himself and for Abraham that could never be broken. We call this Promise the Abrahamic Covenant.

In Genesis 12:1-3 God declares that His primary focus will be on His promises to Abraham. Genesis is written in the first 11 chapters with all the world in focus, but starting in Genesis 12 God turns His attention toward one small nation, Israel, through whom He promised to progressively accomplish His redemptive plan. God planned for Israel's mission to be “a light to the Gentiles” (Is. 42:6). In Genesis 12 God promised three elements:

  • A land, multiplied descendants (seed), and His Special Blessing.

This three-fold promise became, in turn, the basis of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:1–20). All the rest of Scripture bears out the fulfillment of these promises.

5:7 To give you this land to inherit it. That a specifically identifiable land (see vv. 18–21) was intimately linked with Abram"s having many descendants in God’s purpose and in the Abrahamic Covenant was clearly revealed and, in a formal ceremony (vv. 9–21), would be placed irrevocably beyond dispute.

God Cuts a Covenant with Himself for Abraham

In Genesis 15 we find one of the greatest events in the history of salvation. The Lord Himself commemorated it with a special sign. He ordered Abram to make a “cutting of the covenant” by sacrifices divided into two piles. Then, when the sun had set, God appeared in the night as “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch… and passed between the pieces” (v. 17) in the traditional figure-eight pattern of covenant, signifying that His promise was unconditional and that He (God) would be torn asunder like the pieces if He failed to keep His promise. To be sure, Abram’s unwavering faith displayed at this great moment (cf. Romans 4:10ff.) did suffer some future lapses, but his faith also grew to towering proportions through the hard times that were to come.[1]  

What is the Blood Path?

The central act of worship for the Israelites was the shedding of blood.  Primitive as that may seem, God established and continually strengthened His relationship with His people through the ritual of animal sacrifice.  Without a doubt, the writers of the New Testament believed that all the sacrifices pointed to, and were fulfilled by, Jesus Christ.  In Hebrews 9:11-14, this belief is made clear. 

Genesis 15, gives insight into God’s instruction to His people through the sacrifice system.  Understanding this passage in its cultural setting reveals the details of the sacrificial system and the meaning of Jesus’ atoning death. 

Verse 10:  What did Abram do after he got the animals?  How does this show you that he knew what was happening?  NOTE: This ceremony was practiced by the culture and so was known to Abram.  The animals were arranged so that the blood ran to the middle of the altar, forming a pool or path of blood between the two parties.  Both parties, beginning with the greater one, would then walk through the “blood path” as a symbol of what would happen if they did not keep their word.  This type of ceremony is called a self-maledictory oath:  “May this be done to me if I break my word.” 

Verse 17:  What symbols passed between the pieces?  How do you know that God was symbolized?  What was God saying?  From Abram’s perspective, could God have broken the covenant?  How do you know a covenant was made?  (See verse 18.)  Notice the symbols that passed between the pieces:  a smoking firepot and a blazing torch. 

·        When was fire a symbol of God (Exodus 2:2 and Acts 2:3)? 

·        When was smoke a symbol of God (Exodus 19:18 and Isaiah 6:4)? 

With these two symbols, God made a covenant with Abram, which meant that Abram also was expected to put his life on the line for his obedience.  That may explain the “thick and dreadful darkness” that came over Abram earlier that night (verse 12).  If so, the image of this passage is God’s willingness to pay the price for His own breaking of the covenant (which could not happen to a perfect God).  The story also shows God’s willingness to pay the price for Abram’s (and his descendants’) failure to keep the covenant. 

105-106:  A COVENANT IS “CUT,” NOT MADE.  Though our biblical translations refer to people “making” a covenant, the Hebrews described the establishment of this type of relationship as “cutting” a covenant.  The cutting, symbolized by the slaughter of animals (Exodus 24:5,8), indicated that each person in the covenant promised to give his or her own life to keep its terms.  To break a covenant was to invite one’s own death as a penalty.  There are no more serious relationships than those that are a commitment of life itself.  Thus God’s use of covenants to describe His relationship with His people (Genesis 15; Hebrews 13:20-21) is striking for several reasons.  It shows that God wanted to bond eternally with a people who persistently rejected Him.  It shows that God was willing to prove His devotion to the relationship by offering His own life.  Finally, and probably most stunning of all, it shows that God not only was willing to offer His own life to keep the covenant, but He also was willing to pay the price for any covenant failure on the part of the human beings with whom He was in relationship.  This promise certainly exceeded the limits of human covenant-making practices.

So with an unbreakable promise God gave to Abraham a people, a blessing, and a land!


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