God takes the initiative. This is a vivid and intriguing passage, laden with all sorts of symbolism. Read Genesis 15 for yourself – it’s a pivotal chapter but it makes bizarre reading on first viewing. God’s reassurance for Abram at the beginning of the chapter is a wonderful and readily understandable scene (see my previous Genesis post, ‘Written in the Stars’), but what follows is strange, if not downright spooky.
It’s an incredibly important chapter in the Bible, recording the start of God’s covenant relationship with His people, and foreshadowing the book of Exodus, as Abram is told how his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years before inheriting the Promised Land. But that’s not what stood out to me.
What stands out to me is how God takes the initiative. He took the initiative by calling Abram in the first place, out of the blue, back in Genesis 12 (see my post, ‘Called out from the World to live for God’), and He does so again in this passage. When God says ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’ (15:1), He is not answering any vocal concerns of Abram’s, but addressing fears that lingered in Abram’s heart.
It’s quite humbling actually, how Abram, a wealthy man and winner of a remarkable military victory (see my post, ‘Ready for the Fight’), is still afraid. Not for himself, but for his legacy. He has no son; his wife Sarai is apparently barren and not getting any younger (16:1). God has spoken to him about his descendants: ‘I will make you into a great nation’ (12:2), ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ (12:7), ‘All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever’ (13:15), but Abram doesn’t yet have even one child, let alone a whole nation of descendants. Believing God’s promises can be hard when they don’t get fulfilled right away.
Abram is held up, deservedly so, as a model of faith-based living (Romans 4; Galatians 3:7), and verse 6 is one of the most famous in the whole Bible: ‘Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness’, but faith doesn’t mean you don’t need reassurance. This passage shows that there is a subtle distinction between disbelief and a faith that asks honest questions. It’s the difference between the reactions of Zechariah (Luke 1:18) and Mary (Luke 1:34) to God’s promises: Zechariah is rebuked for his incredulity whilst Mary is blessed for her curiosity. Abram believes God will do this thing for him, but wants to know how. God doesn’t tell him how, but He reassures him by re-iterating the promise in more concrete terms than before (15:4). Abram also wants a sign to confirm it all, and God gives him this.
God didn’t have to give a sign – He’d already done more for Abram than he deserved – but He is gracious. The God I see in this story is nothing less than eager to demonstrate His love and provision, showing vividly how seriously He takes relationship with us.
What was the sign? A supernatural appearance in the form of ‘a smoking firepot’ and ‘a blazing torch’ which pass between two rows of halved animal carcasses, ceremonially arranged. God, whose essence is fire (Hebrews 12:29), appeared in fiery form to enact a very solemn ritual with Abram. In the society of Abram’s day covenants were binding agreements between two parties. Often they were sanctified with the shedding of blood and sealed with avenues of dead animal flesh for each member of the covenant to pass through. The idea is that if the covenant is broken by either party, they shall suffer the same fate as the slaughtered animals.
Note how Abram isn’t required to walk between the carcasses; he merely has to set them out. On the other hand, God, in the form of the blazing torch, passes between the carcasses and thus binds Himself to honour the covenant. God takes upon Himself the consequences of the covenant being broken, even if Abram is the one who breaks it. That’s powerful, but it’s just a faint foretaste of how Jesus would one day step into the line of fire to bear the punishment for humanity’s failings.
The symbolism doesn’t end there. God’s presence being manifested in fire occurs repeatedly in the book of Exodus, in the burning bush with Moses (Exodus 3:2), as the pillar of fire leading the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 13:21), and at the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18, 20:18). God’s fiery presence bookends Israel’s association with Egypt, starting here with the foretelling of their slavery, and ending with their redemption hundreds of years later. Moreover, the birds of prey swooping on the sacrificed animals (15:11) symbolises how God’s chosen people will often be attacked, both in ancient Israel and today where Christians are still persecuted for their faith in many parts of the world.
Verse 18, ‘the Lord made a covenant with Abram’, reinforces how the initiative lies with God. We can’t make a covenant with Him; He makes one with us. He is responsible for the founding, the sealing and the fulfilling of the covenant. The idea and the action are His. We merely respond. It’s amazing that God not only condescends to do this, but is prepared to demonstrate His commitment in visible signs and to deal with the consequences of our failure.
What can we take from this? We don’t need to burden ourselves with worries about the future or shoulder the responsibility of fixing our relationship with God. He will do the fixing, and He will take care of the future. When you’re made to wait, it’s always for a reason (15:16); it’s all part of the plan. Even if things look bleak for four hundred years, He will ultimately turn it to our benefit, bringing good out of bad. No matter how dark the circumstances are that you’re facing, God can turn it around. For our part we need only be real with Him. Express your doubts, engage with Him. Believing but wanting reassurance is valid and justified, but not believing in the first place is far worse.