The Foundation of the Covenant (Genesis 15:7-21)

So as we catch up with Abram here, we find him at a very difficult place in his life.

See, once upon a time he was living in the far east of his world, somewhere along the border of Iran and Iraq, happily minding his own business, worshiping the gods of the mountains and the trees and the moon and all that. Then, out of nowhere, a very powerful, strange, new god started talking to him. And this new god promised that, if Abram would just trust him, and leave everything behind, then this god would make him the father of a family, a nation, and a new homeland, and that in the end every nation in the world would be blessed because of Abram’s acts of trust.

So Abram did it: he took these huge risks, he left everything behind, and moved across the world. Now, he did not obey perfectly, he did not leave all of his old fears and idols behind, but little by little this god has been taking those away from him. And so Abram has experienced some amazing times of success since he started on this journey of faith. He has discovered that his strange new god is actually the Only God, the One God who actually created the mountains and trees and everything Abram used to worship.

So we would expect to find Abram at the top of his career at this point — but as I’ve said, he is actually at a very difficult place in his life. Because, so far, Abram has taken all these risks for his new God…but without any of the rewards that God promised. He is still not the father of a family, a nation, or a homeland. And so his faith in God is starting to get stretched. He is starting to wonder how he can be sure that God will keep these promises.

That is the question he asks God today, in this passage. And that is the question God answers.

So let’s get started:

Last time we saw Abram, he was caught up in the middle of a visionary experience. The Lord has appeared to him in a vision. And apparently this vision began at night, we saw how God led Abram out of his tent and told him to look at the sky and promised him — again! — that he will be the father of a son, and the father of a nation as uncounted as the stars.

And Abram believed the Lord, and God counted that moment of faith as if it were a lifetime of perfect obedience. For the first time, Abram is experiencing God as his gentle, loving, promise-keeping Father.

But the vision is not finished. Apparently — as we will see in a minute — the sun has risen. A new day has begun, but God is not yet finished speaking. He has reassured Abram that he will be father of a family and a nation, but he also wants to reassure Abram that he will be the father of a homeland.

So [7] God also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

Now, this pattern of speech should sound familiar to us. We read it regularly in our worship, because this is also the first sentence of the 10 Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

This is how God always begins to make a covenant. He always starts by saying, “This is who I am, this is how I have loved you, this is what I am going to do for you because I love you.” And the next sentences always conclude with, “Now, this is how I want you to love me in return.”

We know this. But Abram does not. He has never experienced a covenant ceremony with God before. So Abram interrupts God before he can get to that second part, where he says, “This is how I want you to love me.”

Verse 8: but Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

And this is where we see that Abram’s faith in God is being strained to the limit. He wants to know, “How can I be sure you’re going to keep your promises?”

And some people have been confused by this question, because — just two verses ago — “Abram believed the Lord.” If Abram believes the Lord then why is he asking this question as if he does not believe?

Well, there are two explanations.

First, when Abram believed the Lord, he was believing the promise of a son. Abram does not need a “sign” — he does not need some miracle or something to “prove” that he will have a son, because the birth of the son will be the sign. In other words, God’s promise of a son will be — must be! — fulfilled in Abram’s lifetime. So Abram does not need “proof” in advance. If God gives him a son, then God keeps his promises. But if God does not give him a son, then God is a liar. It’s as simple as that. For the moment, Abram believes that God will keep his promise to give him a son.

But this promise here is about Abram’s descendands inheriting the land, which is obviously something that cannot happen in Abram’s lifetime. So Abram is basically saying, “Lord, can you give me some kind of sign, some kind of proof, that this will happen? Because obviously I’m not going to be around to see the results.” Abram is basically asking God to sign a contract, to make a covenant with him.

So, in one sense, the reason Abram asks this question is because he believes God. After all, if you believe God is a liar, why bother to ask him to make a covenant with you? If God can break his promises, then obviously he can also break any covenant he might make. So Abram is asking this question because he believes, not because he doubts.

But, the second explanation for why Abram asked this question is…because he doubts. He believes! — but he doesn’t believe. He is saying, “Lord, I believe! Now: help my unbelief. I believe that you are the One God who keeps his promises. But can I ask for a sign? Can I ask for a contract, a covenant, so that later on, when I’m wondering if this whole vision was just a dream or something, I’ll be able to look back at something physical, something real, and I’ll be able to remember and know that you are my Father…?”

And God is so gracious. He doesn’t get angry and say, “What? How dare you doubt me! How dare you ask to bind me with a contract!”

— and this is, by the way, one way we know that the God of Abram is not the god of Islam. Because the god of Islam absolutely refuses to be bound by any kind of contract, any kind of covenant. In fact, according to Islamic theologians, Allah is so independent that even our so-called “Laws of Nature” are not laws: Allah can change all the rules any time he wants to. In the world of Islam, Allah is so unbound that we literally cannot even trust that gravity will still be gravity tomorrow.

Just ask any Muslim scholar. They will tell you that what I have just said is exactly what historic Islam teaches.

But the God of Abram — the true One God — is different. He knows that we are just human. He knows that we are all, basically, like three year olds. And he knows that to live in a world without covenants, without promises, is the most terrifying thing a child can experience.

One of the worst things we can do to our children is to make promises and then not keep them. But even worse than that is refusing to make any promises at all. Children — and adults! — need to have something to rely on. We need to know that our world is a stable world. And the only way to believe that our world is a stable world is if we can believe our God is a stable God: a God who makes promises and keeps them, a God who is willing to be bound in covenant to his children.

So the Lord does not get angry. He does not refuse to be bound by Abram’s request for stability. Instead, [9]…the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Okay. That is…interesting.

These are all animals that will become sacred during Moses’ time: in fact, this is a complete list of all the kinds of animals that can be sacrificed at the tabernacle, at the temple.

But Abram lived more than 600 years before Moses. Does he know that these are meant to be sacrificial animals?

Well, apparently he does, because: [10] Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Abram sacrifices the animals, but instead of burning them, he cuts them in half and arranges a pathway between the parts. An aisle, like we have here between the chairs. Except that, in Abram’s aisle, there would be blood and guts.

Why? Well, apparently, among the local people, this was a way of signing a contract. They had no paper, they had no ink, so they would sign their covenants in blood. The two people making the covenant would walk together between the animals. And while they walked, they would speak the terms of the covenant to each other. The more powerful one would say, “This is who I am, and this is how I will love and protect you,” and the less powerful one would say, “This is who I am, and this is what I’ll do for you in return for your love and protection.”

And by walking through the blood and guts, by walking down that aisle of blood and death, they were saying, “This is serious! If I break this covenant, may I be cursed with death, just like these animals.”

So when God told Abram to get these animals, Abram understood at once that this was God’s answer to his question. Abram asked, “But how can I know for sure?” and God answered by saying, “Go and get these certain animals so I can make a covenant with you.”

[11] Then — after everything is ready, and Abram is waiting for God to show up so they can do the covenant ceremony — then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

[12] As the sun was setting — this is now the beginning of the second night of Abram’s visionary experience — Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. [13] Then the Lord speaks his half of the covenant ceremony to Abram. He says, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. [14] But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. [15] You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. [16] In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

And then, [17] when the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

[18] On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— [19] the land of

…all these nations that really mean nothing to us. So I’ll just point out two things about this list:

First, there are 10 nations named here. And we have already discovered that Moses likes to use the number 10 to symbolize completeness. So even though there are more than 10 nations living in Canaan, listing 10 of them like this was Moses’ way of saying, “and everybody else also.”

Second, the last name on the list is the Jebusites. Abram has just traveled through the land of the Jebusites. In fact, in the chapter just before this one he gave 10% of everything he had to the king of the Jebusites, Melchizedek. Melchizedek’s city was called Salem. It will come to be called Jerusalem, the capital city of the Kingdom of God. So this list basically contains a very subtle prophecy.

So, in the end here, God has answered Abram’s question. Abram asked, “How can I be sure my descendants will inherit this homeland?” and God answered by allowing himself to be bound to Abram by a covenant.

But we’d better go back, right? Because we know what just happened, physically, it’s just been described for us in plain language. But this is some pretty weird behaviour, some pretty weird imagery, and we don’t understand at all what it really means, right?

First, Abram had to fight against these birds of prey — eagles, hawks, vultures — that came to eat the dead animals. And, remember, he did all this while he was in the midst of this vision state.

Then, he passed out. He fell into a deep, dark, supernatural sleep — and then a terrible darkness overcame him, like a nightmare. Out of the darkness a voice spoke, and promised him that his descendants would suffer centuries of slavery in a foreign country before being delivered and led back to their promised homeland.

And then, in the midst of that terrible darkness, Abram saw a smoking firepot with a fire inside it, and it was floating in midair, and it traveled down that aisle between the animal parts, passing through that valley of blood and death.

— and just to help us all visualize what Abram saw, this was a special kind of firepot used by the local people. It was a large, round, clay oven with a hole in the top, used for cooking bread. The bakers would build a fire in the bottom which would heat up the inside of the oven, and then they would cook the bread by reaching through the hole in the top and sticking flat-bread against the hot inside walls. In Hebrew, this kind of firepot is called a “tanoor”. Here in Malaysia, we call it a “tandoor” —

…and now you all know exactly what Abram saw in his vision! Because we see these ovens every day at every mamak!

So now we can understand what the scene looked like visually. But what does it mean? What does all this weird imagery have to do with making a covenant?

Well, like all covenantal signs, it has meaning on a number of different levels. We are going to explore two of those levels today.

To understand the first level of meaning, we have to read this episode through the eyes of Moses’ generation. Moses wrote this, and he wrote it to his people who actually started as slaves in Egypt, just as God promised here.

And once we read this imagery through their eyes, we realize that this whole weird thing about the birds of prey, and the darkness, and the tandoor smoking and flaming, passing through the valley of the shadow of death…

Well, we realize that Abram’s vision is actually an acted-out preview of the whole Exodus story.

First, the people of Israel are in slavery in Egypt, and the birds of prey are descending to devour them: the rulers of the Egyptian empire are trying to wipe them out. That is the story of Exodus, Chapters 1 and 2.

But then God sends them a messiah like Abram to fight against the birds of prey, the powers of Egypt: that’s Moses, Chapters 3 through 12 of Exodus.

Then God himself shows up as a terrible darkness, and kills all the firstborn in Egypt. But he leads his people out of that darkness, through the valley of death — between the walls of the parted Red Sea — and leads them to a mountain in the Arabian desert, a mountain that is smoking and flaming like a tandoor. And out of that darkness a voice spoke covenant promises, what we now call the 10 Commandments. And throughout that whole journey that floating pillar of smoke and flame provided bread for his people, just like a tandoor does.

Amazing, right? Moses is showing the people of Israel that what God promises, he does! And he does it exactly as he promises.

Now, no doubt Moses reminded his people of this episode while they were still slaves in Egypt, as a way of saying, “Look, this is what our God is going to do for us!” And no doubt they told this story to each other many times during that terrifying journey, in order to keep their courage up. And then Moses wrote it down to that all future generations would be able to look back at Abram’s story, and look back at the Exodus story, and remember that their God is the One God who keeps his promises.

So Abram’s vision here was actually a preview of the Exodus, designed to encourage Abram and the people of Israel.

But what does that have to with us? How does that have meaning for us?

Well, by this point in history — today, as a church — we know that, just as Abram’s vision was actually a preview of the Exodus…the Exodus was actually a preview of Christ’s ministry.

First, the Jewish people were in slavery to the Roman empire, which was the living embodiment of Satan’s empire. And the New Testament tells us that not just the Jews, but all nations were in slavery to that Satanic empire.

And the Satanic Roman empire tried to devour and wipe out the Jewish people, God’s people, just like the Egyptian empire, just like the birds of prey in Abram’s vision.

But God sent a messiah like Abram, like Moses, to fight against Satan’s empire: that’s Jesus of Nazareth. He won! And he led God’s people out of the darkness, out of the city of Jerusalem into the wilderness of the wider world — and he delivered not just Jewish people, but people from all the nations that had been enslaved. And all the people who refused to listen, who refused to recognize Jesus as their Messiah…well, they stayed behind in Jerusalem, and they were devoured by the birds of prey. They were wiped out and scattered to the ends of the earth when the Roman legions completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.

And ever since then, God’s people, Jesus’ people, have been on a journey of faith, just like Abram’s. In one sense we are free from slavery to the Satanic empires that surround us: we have already left where we started from and we have arrived in our promised homeland. But in another sense, we are still living in Eygpt, because we are still waiting for our homeland, our earth, to be transformed, and made perfect. We are still waiting for the final victory. And just like Abram, we often find ourselves asking God, and one another, “How can we be sure that we really will inherit the earth? How can we be sure that we’re not just a bunch of deluded idiots, believing in something that will never happen?”

Abram’s vision is the beginning of the answer to our question. Abram has just had this incredible visionary experience that went on for a night and a day and a night. And that is amazing! But the problem with visionary experiences is that, after you wake up, how can you know for sure that what you just experienced was real? This is the question Abram asked God. And God’s answer was a very visual, a very physical answer. That way, when Abram woke up on that second morning, laying there on the ground, still stunned, still thinking, “Wow, was that real or was that just a dream?”…well, as soon as he sat up and saw the carnage — animal parts and blood and guts — then he knew it had been a real experience: the spiritual world and the physical world had met and interacted in a very real way.

It’s the same way for us. We live by faith, waiting for God to keep his promises of a new heavens and a new earth. But how can we be sure that this will happen? Abram’s vision is the answer to our question. The Exodus is the answer to our question. Christ’s life — his death, his resurrection — is the answer to our question. Our faith is not just a spiritual faith, it has its roots in this physical world. It is a faith based on real events that took place in this physical world.

And all this was written down so that we can look back at Abram’s story, at the Exodus story, at Christ’s story, and remember that our God is the One God who keeps his promises.

But that is just the first level of meaning contained in this vision. There is at least one more level.

And to understand this second level of meaning, we have to read this vision through Abram’s eyes. Abram understood that this vision was a preview of his descendants’ future, and of course that was a great encouragement to him. But he also experienced an immediate encouragement as well. This is how:

Remember that, for Abram, this was a covenant ceremony. When God told him to collect those particular animals, Abram thought that he and God would we walking together through that aisle of blood and death. He thought that God would say, “This is who I am, and this is how I will love and protect you,” and then Abram would say, “This is who I am, and this is what I’ll do for you in return for your love and protection.” And by walking through the blood and guts, Abram thought he would be swearing a symbolic death curse against himself, telling God, “If I break my covenant with you, may I be cursed by death. May I suffer the ultimate consquence for my betrayal.”

That is what Abram thought was going to happen.

Instead, God knocked him out, sent him into a deep sleep. Abram never passed between the pieces. God alone passed between the pieces. God alone spoke the covenant vows. God alone swore a symbolic death curse against himself, basically saying, “If I ever break my covenant with you, Abram, may I be cursed by death!”

But Abram never had to say, “If I ever break my half of the covenant, may I be cursed to death.”

Now: what does that mean?

It means that the Creator God Most High over the whole universe has just promised that he will — he must — love and protect Abram and his descendants. He must save Abram’s people from slavery and give them a homeland. If he does not, he must die. But God cannot die. Therefore God cannot break this covenant.

But Abram, and his people, do not have a curse of death upon them. Even if they fail to be faithful to God’s covenant with them, they cannot be cursed to death.

Now, friends, let’s think about the implications of that for a moment. God must keep his covenant to give Abram’s people a homeland. But Abram’s people do not have to keep the covenant in return. They can do what they want without fear of judgement. Think about that: what would it be like to live absolutely free from the fear of judgement?

Our first instinct is to think, “Oh, that would be amazing! I could do whatever I want!”

And then — if we’re being honest with ourselves — our second instinct is, “Oh no, that would be terrible. Because I would do whatever I want! and so would everyone else.”

It only takes us a few seconds to realize that if we all truly lived without the fear of judgement, we would quickly create our own hell on earth.

So if we’re thinking straight, we’re going to say, “Really, God? Is that really the kind of covenant you just made with Abram’s people? The kind of covenant that lets them do anything they want without fear of judgement?”

Yes. But! — and this is important for us to realize — just because Abram’s people can sin without fear of judgement does not mean that there will be no judgement. There is a curse of death for Abram and his people — it’s just that God has promised to pay that price himself.

See, when the Lord, in the form of a glowing tandoor, passed between the animals, he was symbolically carrying Abram with him. He spoke the covenant for himself, and he also spoke the covenant for Abram. Symbolically, God was saying, “If I break this covenant, may I be cursed to death. If you break this covenant, may I be cursed to death.

This would be as if, during a wedding, the groom said to his bride, “I will be perfectly loving toward you, and if I am not, your father can beat me until I repent, or until I die. I also want you to be perfectly loving toward me — but if you are not, then I will ask my father to beat me until you repent, or until I die.”

And this changes everything, doesn’t it? This means that Abram’s people really can do whatever they want without the fear of judgement! — but they are not going to do whatever they want. Because as they look back on this moment, and as they realize more and more just how much this God must love them — well, they are going to realize that the judgement for every horrible thing they do must inevitably fall upon this God who loves them.

It would be as if, in that marriage we just described, the wife does fail to love her husband perfectly. And every time she fails, her husband submits to judgement for her: stroke after stroke of the whip. Now, maybe at first she did not know how much her husband loved her, but as she watches him volunteer again and again to accept her punishment, she’s going to figure it out, isn’t she! And she’s going to start saying, “No! Wait! Stop! Please, teach me how to love my husband better so he doesn’t have to suffer so much!”

That is an amazing gift for Abram’s people. It means they get a chance to learn how to love God without being cursed to death after their first failure.

But! — and this is just as important for us to realize — God made this covenant with Abram’s people alone. God promised that Abram’s people would inherit a homeland. He did not promise that these 10 nations listed here would inherit a homeland; in fact, he promised that these 10 nations — and all the rest — would actually lose their homeland to Abram’s people.

What this means is that only Abram’s people get to live without fear of judgement. Every other people in the world must suffer the consequences of their actions — God has not promised to pay the price for anyone else’s sins.

So…that’s great if you’re part of Abram’s people!

But how is that good news for anybody else? I was not born Jewish. Were you?

Well, as we have already discovered, Jesus the Jewish Messiah also turned out to be the Messiah for all people. When he led God’s people out of their slavery to the satanic empires of this world, he also led people of all nations. Jesus is the Messiah for Abram’s people, but Abram’s people are now made up of people from every nation in the world.

So the good news for everybody else is this: we also can be part of Abram’s people even if we were not born Jewish. We can join Abram’s people by simply answering Jesus’ call, following him out of slavery and through the waters of baptism. And once we have done that, then we also we get to live without fear of judgement!

So if you are here today and you are part of some other nation, a nation that must one day fall under God’s judgement and lose its homeland, then this is what God is calling you to do now: join Abram’s people. Accept that Jesus as your Messiah and you will be saved from judgement.

But some of you are going to object and say, “Hold on, how can I be sure that Jesus is the Messiah? Why can’t I also recognize the Buddha, or Krishna, or Mohammad, or some other god as a source of wisdom and life and salvation?”

This is why: because only Jesus fulfilled God’s covenant with Abram here.

This is how it happened: God bound himself to a death curse, he promised to die if Abram’s people broke the covenant. Now, Abram’s people broke the covenant many times! Therefore God needed to die in order to fulfill the conditions of the covenant — except that God cannot die! So how can he fulfill the covenant?

The only way for God to keep this covenant with Abram was by taking on a form that could die. This vision, this covenant, was not just God’s promise to give Abram’s people a homeland; it was also God’s promise to become a human being and die as a Messiah for Abram and Abram’s people.

And Jesus Christ is the only human being in history who satisfies the requirements of God’s Messiah. He is the only human being in history who died to pay the penalty for Abram’s sins, for the sins of Abram’s people. And he is the only human being in history who rose to life again on the third day, proving that he was not just a human being, but the Son of God himself.

See, when the Lord, in the form of the man Jesus Christ, was lifted up on that Roman cross and passed into the valley of blood and death, he was symbolically carrying God’s people with him. He fulfilled the consequences of the covenant for his Father, and he fulfilled the consequences of the covenant for everyone who believes in him.

So: believe!

But what about the rest of us, who have already joined Abram’s people, we who already live without fear of judgement? What does this episode mean to us?

This is what means for us:

Abram was at a very difficult place in his life. He had arrived in his new homeland…but it was not really his homeland yet. And when he asked God for some reassurance, God met him in a vision and promised that his descendants would experience 400 years of slavery in a foreign country!

Now, how is that reassurance?

It’s not!

The only reassurance Abram received what that, in the end, his people would be rescued, and they would inherit the promised land. And God sealed this promise with a covenant ritual.

Well, our situation is a lot like Abram’s. We are also at a very difficult place in the history of the Church. We have all joined Christ’s people, we have all walked away from the things we used to worship. Some of us have, very literally, had to walk away from our father’s households, like Abram did. Some of us have had to give up hope of a family. Some of us have even had to leave the land of our birth in order to follow our Father’s call. We did this because God promised us a homeland. And here we are! We have arrived: this earth is our promised inheritance. But it is not really our homeland yet, is it?

And so, just like Abram, we often find ourselves saying, “How can we be sure God is going to keep his promises?” Because when we look around at what is going on in our world it often seems like the Satanic empires are winning, and Christ’s kingdom is losing.

Just like Abram, we want reassurance.

And this is our reassurance: Jesus told his disciples that, in the end, he will return and make everything new. “But,” he said, “before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over and put you in prison. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”

Now, how is that reassuring?

This is how: our history is just like the history of Abram’s ancient people. They suffered in slavery for more than 400 years. Toward the end, the Egyptian empire tried to wipe them out completely. It looked like God had forgotten them. But appearances can be deceiving: those 400 years were actually all part of God’s plan for his people, so that their deliverance in the end would be even more glorious.

Our history is the same history. The Church has suffered persecution for 2000 years now. And the Book of Revelation tells us that, toward the end, the worlds empires are going to try to wipe out the Church completely. It can feel like God has forgotten us. But appearances are deceiving: all these generations of striving against the world system are actually God’s plan for us, so that — in the end — our deliverance will be so glorious that the whole world will see it.

So, very practically speaking now: what does our Father want us to do because of all this?

This is what we are supposed to do: we are supposed to read Abram’s vision and know that our God is the only God who keeps his promises, the only God who has bound himself to his people through a covenant. He promised to die if he failed to keep the covenant, and he promised to die if we failed to keep the covenant. We have failed. And he did die, on a Roman cross, 2000 years ago. So we have a far greater reassurance than Abram did, because all we have to do is look back and know that, no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong in our lives, no matter how badly we disappoint our Heavenly Father who loves us, Jesus has already fulfilled God’s covenant with Abram. We are free from the fear of judgement.

In closing, we’re going to read Peter’s advice for us. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He knew a lot about suffering. And this is what he says: “Since this world is going to come to a sudden and violent end when Jesus returns, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”


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