The Bible is mysterious and difficult, but it’s not impossible. With a little bit of background knowledge about the ancient cultures of the Bible, ordinary people like you and me can learn to read scripture in such a way that even some of its mysterious parts offer important insights. Below is a bit of background information about a very strange episode in Genesis. Read the background, take the quiz, and let me know what you think.
You “Cut” a Covenant
In the ancient middle east, the way 2 parties formalized an agreement was through a covenant ceremony. In Hebrew, you “cut” a covenant, because covenants involved taking animals and sacrificing them, and then walking between the carcasses.
And Say, “I’ll Become a Slaughtered Calf”
Here’s the point: when you walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animals, you were saying, “May I become like these dead animals if I don’t keep my end of the agreement.”
(I think our wedding ceremonies would be much more interesting and divorce much less frequent if we adopted the same practice….)
So, Abraham Gets Ready
In Genesis 15, Abraham, on the Lord’s instructions, prepares one of those covenants:
The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He 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. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” [Genesis 15:9-11]
It’s obvious what will happen next: Abraham will pass between the carcasses, showing his commitment to the Lord’s plan.
But Something Strange Happens
But, that’s not what happens:
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lordmade a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’” [Genesis 15:12, 17-21, my emphasis].
Take the Quiz: What Does Genesis 15:17 Mean?
What’s the point of the covenant ceremony recounted in Genesis 15? What does this mean?
(Hint: The best way to read the Bible is to read backwards, i.e., to read the Old Testament in light of what we have in the New Testament. To put it another way, use Jesus as the interpretive key. In light of what the Church believes about Jesus, what’s going on in Genesis 15?)
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