A Smoking Fire Pot and a Flaming Torch
By Matthew Barrett —
One of the most difficult questions biblical interpreters of Genesis face is this: Is the covenant God makes with Abraham in Genesis 15 conditional or unconditional? Good question. But in order to answer such a question we need to take a step back.
In Genesis 12 the Lord calls Abram out of his country and kindred and his father’s house to a land that the Lord promised he would show him. God promised, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). The Lord had made a covenant with Abram, a covenant through which a kingdom would come.
And it is in Genesis 15 that we see this covenant truly ratified. The Lord appears to Abram in a vision and says, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram has questions. In Genesis 12 God said he would make him a great nation, but he has no children. How can Abram have an heir when the Lord has given him no offspring? But the Lord replies, telling Abram that he will give him a son who will be his heir. Next, the Lord takes Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). Abraham believed the Lord, and the text says God counted it to Abram as righteousness (Gen 15:6).
But the Lord is not finished talking. He has more to say about what is to come. Not only will Abram have a son to be his own heir, but the Lord will give him a land. “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Gen 15:7). But Abram replies, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” The Lord responds, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Gen 15:9). Abram does so and with the exception of the birds, he cuts them all in half and lays each half over against the other. And then Abram spends his time chasing away birds of prey who keep trying to pick at the carcasses.
But wait, things get more interesting. The sun goes down, and a deep sleep falls on Abram, as well as a “dreadful and great darkness.” Then the Lord speaks, giving Abram all the assurance he needs that he will fulfill his promise of giving him the land to posses it, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Gen 15: 13-14).
We know from reading Exodus that the 400 years refers to the Israelites’ oppression by the Egyptians before their exodus from Egypt through the hand of Moses. But what is the meaning of this bloody ritual? To begin with, the smoking fire pot and flaming torch represent the presence of God. God himself passes between the animals. And the animals, cut in half and laid each half over against the other, are significant as well. In a covenant ceremony such as this the covenant partners (in this case God and Abram) would walk through the pieces together, thereby symbolizing that they too would be cut off should they violate the covenant. As Waltke states, “To walk between the carcasses is to submit oneself to the fate of the slaughtered animals as a penalty for covenant breaking” (Old Testament Theology, 319). Waltke’s assertion is demonstrated by Jeremiah 34:18, “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they have cut in two and passed between its parts.” Here we see the threat and warning issued should a covenant party break the covenant stipulations. But notice, in Genesis 15 Abram does not walk through the pieces, only the Lord does. Why?
This question raises the controversial issue we are seeking to solve: Is the covenant made with Abram conditional or unconditional? If we can answer this question then we will be in a better position to understand why the Lord alone walks through the pieces. First, it must be recognized that in one sense there is a conditionality to the covenant. Notice how the covenant did depend upon the obedience of Abraham. The Lord says in Genesis 26:4-5, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” The “because” here is impossible to ignore, demonstrating that the blessings came to Abraham’s offspring because he obeyed. However, and second, there is a much more foundational sense in which the covenant is unconditional as well. Return with me to the ceremony and the bloody animal pieces on the ground. The Lord has promised Abram that his children will be more numerous than the stars and that he would indeed inherit the land to possess it. And in order to assure Abram, the Lord, represented in the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch, walks between the pieces…alone. By passing through the pieces alone the Lord was communicating to Abram that it depended upon the Lord alone to fulfill the covenant.
And we know from reading the rest of Scripture that the Lord holds true to his promise. So there is an unconditionality to the covenant. Human obedience is still essential, but it is God himself who will make sure that the covenant demands and promises are fulfilled. In other words, while it is necessary for Abraham’s children to be obedient if they are to enjoy the covenant blessings, the fulfillment of the covenant does not ultimately depend on man’s work, but is due to God’s grace and mercy.
Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University. He is also the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals, and he is the author of several forthcoming books. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.