Take the Abraham Quiz

by Andrew Forrest

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.

"Butcher's Shop," by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

“Butcher’s Shop,” by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]


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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George January 23, 2015 - 12:18 pm

Been thinking about this off and on all day…and resisted the temptation of Google.
My best guess is:
Sun going down/darkness = introduction of sin to the world
Smoking fire pot = us
Torch = Jesus

Not sure why the smoking fire pot would be us, though. But, I like the idea of Jesus walking aside us in the covenant. Or, maybe, the smoking pot represented the Mosaic law?

I’m way off, aren’t I?

Andrew Forrest January 23, 2015 - 3:37 pm

No, not way off at all. I think you are perhaps a bit too quick to have everything represent something else–I’m not sure that we can know for sure what the different items actually mean. But, I think you are on to something. See Paul’s comment, too.

Paul Ditto January 23, 2015 - 1:22 pm

I have never been sure what exactly the pot and the flame symbolized (probably God), but I always thought that somehow this whole episode was meant to make the point that the covenant God was making with Abraham was cast in stone and God himself took a unilateral oath or position or to live up to the promise he made to Abraham without requiring much if anything from Abraham, thus Abraham did not have to walk through the dead animals (maybe God knew Abraham and his people were human and could not live up to any expectations of holding up their side of the bargain). Sad but true. Not much has changed in the last 3000 years. God came out of his chair, if you will, and said I will make this promise come true, one way or another, no matter how undeserving Abraham’s people were or will be. My big question is, does that promise apply to us (non-Jews). Will God deliver us. I think the answer we learn from the New Testament is unquestionably yes. I look forward to the New Jerusalem!

Andrew Forrest January 23, 2015 - 3:41 pm

Paul, I think you nailed it. Basically, this bizarre episode has the Lord passing through the carcasses and therefore it is the Lord who takes both sides of the Covenant on himself. As with so many things, I imagine that this episode made more sense to the early Christians after the Crucifixion and Resurrection than before. To expect God to actually die–that’s too much for anyone to understand before it happens.

And yes, we gentiles have been grafted onto Israel, and so the promises apply to us; The Old Covenant has been abrogated by the New Covenant.

Jon Morris January 24, 2015 - 9:59 am

I am not sure what it all means or if there was any real symbolism intended. I know that when I start reading about 2 sides of beef, some fresh cabrito and a few birds plus fire and smoke…. I start wondering what is for dinner. Thank you for the background on “cutting a covenant”, I never would have known that.

Andrew Forrest January 24, 2015 - 2:36 pm

Basically, the Lord himself passes between the carcasses, pledging his own blood for the fulfillment of the covenant….

Courtney January 25, 2015 - 10:22 pm

All I could think was Light of the world…no idea on the smoking pot.

It’s insight like this that keeps me coming back. Fascinating. Thank you.

And as for the quiz, I got to the bottom and was like, what NO ANSWERS??!! Thanks to the answerers.

Austin January 27, 2015 - 3:50 pm

Does this also represent a step towards justification by faith? In verse 6, Abraham is “credited…as righteous” because he “believed the Lord.” I know justification by faith is more of a New Testament theme (obviously), but it seems as if God is consecrating Abraham’s righteousness with this unilateral act of completing the covenant. Following that line of thought, a blood sacrifice from man to God would be insufficient for the justification of Abraham and his descendants; rather, it required God reaching out to man to establish a covenant of this degree. (Similarly, there is a New Testament scripture that states something about the inability of traditional blood sacrifices to wash away all sin.)

Andrew Forrest January 27, 2015 - 6:49 pm

Yes, I think so. It’s after Abraham believes that this strange covenant ceremony takes place, during which the Lord takes the responsibility on himself.

I hadn’t thought of that angle, but I think you’re right.


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