The Life of Abraham, Part 6: The Covenant is Cut
In the last lesson, we came across one of the most important verses in Scripture. Abram that had pleaded with the Lord about having a child and reminding Him of his age. He had already waited a long time for God’s promise of a child to come to fruition and he would have to wait a lot longer. But God again promised Abram that He was good for His word. Abram believed this promise and this was reckoned on the balance sheet of life as righteousness. This balance sheet could not be paid by ordinary human obedience. We find out in the New Testament that it only can be paid by the perfect obedience of a man who could also negotiate as God as well. This is none other than Jesus Christ.
We will pick up on the conversation between Abram and God in verse 7 this morning.
Exposition of the Text
In verse seven, God gives Abram new information about his plan for Abram. When we started in chapter 12 with the call of the LORD to Abram to leave his country, he had already left Ur of the Caldees with his father and his family and had removed to Haran. But in verse 8, we see this more from Ur to Haran was also by the hand of God, even though Abram was then unaware of it. He went to Haran in obedience to his father. But the hand of God was preparing Abram for his call even before he was aware of the LORD. This can be seen in our lives also as the preparatory grace that works in us before we even know it. However, after coming to faith we can see the hand of God in the events leading up to our conversion. Wesley called this grace “prevenient grace” in case you have heard this term before (so did Augustin).
Abram, of whom it had just been stated that he believed God’s stupendous promise now asks for a pledge from the LORD. As a client of a benefactor, he was entitled to a outward token that the benefactor was acting in good faith, that it was a bona fide offer (good faith). He wanted to see his title clear to a land in which he was then a stranger.
The fact that the LORD does not chide Abram for unbelief but rather agrees to provide proof that He is acting in good faith should encourage us when we believe God that it is wrong to ask for proof of his promises to us. Our faith is not a blind leap into the dark but a walking in the light. God agrees to prove His fidelity by “cutting” a covenant with Abram according to the rites of covenant making between benefactor (suzerain) and client (vassal) that was common in the Middle East of Abram’s day. He was instructed to make a trench and to divide a bullock in half, a she goat in half, a ram in half, and then a turtledove and pigeon not divided but one placed on each side of the trench. The blood of these animals would fill the trench with blood. The parties to the covenant would then walk in the blood filled trench together and by this swore their mutual fidelity to the covenant. If either party was faithless, then they were to be cut in half just like the animals.
The text then says that Abram kept watch over the site to keep birds of prey away from the slaughtered animals while waiting for the LORD to appear to walk with Abram. It must have been a long wait, just like the wait for the promises of the LORD to land and an heir had been so long. Abram became weary and fell into a deep sleep waiting on God. Just like the wearied disciples of Jesus on the night of His arrest, Abram could not stay awake.
The next thing the text said was a great dread fell upon Abram as he slept. It is hard to be certain, but I feel the dread Abram felt was related to the covenant He was about to make with the LORD. It would require Abram to be perfectly obedient to all the stipulations of the covenant or face the wrath of God in breaking the covenant. Who could possibly enter into a covenant of perfect obedience to the LORD without a flaw? Just like Adam, to break the covenant was a death sentence. Since this was the case, I could not blame Abram for feeling horror. Abram had asked proof, and now the covenant would be his undoing. It would be a covenant of good works which Abram and no human being could keep. If God’s promises of life, land, dominion, seed, and fellowship with God is dependent on perfect obedience, then who could attain it? All we could attain in our own merit was the covenant curses.
The text then offers another horror. The promised descendants would not even own this land. It would be more than 400 years before the promise of the land would be given to this seed. Not only this, but his descendants would suffer horrible affliction. What kind of promise is this? Many parents are willing to endure great affliction in order to make life better for their descendants. But not only would Abram not receive the title to the land, but his descendants would not for hundreds of years.
We must note here that Moses recorded the incident of Abram at the end of this 400 year period. God was about to ultimately fulfill the promise he made so long with Abram. But there was a covenant made with the Exodus generation as well which would require their perfect obedience or else they would be vomited out of that land like the inhabitants of the land before them. If we were to follow that story, they did not live up to their requirement for obedience. God was long suffering and was not willing to nullify His promise to Israel for its transgression of the covenant, but sent prophets with the message of repentance. Yet in the end, they lost title to the land. No one can make a covenant with the LORD based upon perfect obedience and not be dashed to pieces.
Abram was only promised that he would live to a good old age and have the honor of burial. His tomb would be his only title of the land he was promised. God told Abram that the iniquity of the inhabitants was not yet full, which to me says that God was still trying to get them to repent. Abram’s descendants would have to wait their turn.
So far, I would find it hard to find anything promising to the offer the LORD made to Abram. The promise of affliction to his descendants with a long off hope of gaining title to a land which they would in turn sin themselves out of because it required perfect obedience to the covenant is more of a curse than a blessing. But we must read verse 17. When the sun went down, it does not say that Abram walked the walk in the trench of blood with the LORD. A substitute for Abram walked through the blood. Abram was not required to swear his perfect obedience which in no part was he capable of. Abram was thus spared the curses of a covenant that he and his descendants would surely break,
It says that smoking firepot and a flaming torch went through the trench together. God would have been represented symbolically by one of these. But who walked the walk in Abram’s place? As the covenant had to be made between God and man, then the second object had to represent Abram. Upon this man would fall the curses for being faithless to the covenant. We know that this is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Only Jesus who was perfectly obedient to the Father could walk through the blood in covenant with the Father and live. Abram who represents the believer could not do it. By God’s grace, he was spared from keeping an impossible covenant of works. The substitute who walked through the blood would shed his own blood for our disobedience. He would take the wrath of the broken covenant upon himself so that we could be seen by God as righteous.
The good news for Abram is our good news as well. Most of us would fall far short of the faith and walk of Abram. If Abram who was a very good man as humans account goodness was not capable of keeping the stipulations of a covenant which required him to be perfect before God. Instead, as we learned in the last lesson, he was justified by faith in God’s promises which God reckoned as righteousness. In other words, our faith in the promises of God is seen as the perfect obedience that God requires. Jesus paid the price for us all for our transgressions. Only Jesus who as God the Son and also the perfectly obedient Son of Man could negotiate this perfect covenant. He passed through the blood in our place.
How should we respond to this? We no longer should be in dread of God caused by impossible requirements. We don’t need to live in fear any more. Instead, we should be thankful that Jesus has paid our debt in full. The life we now live, we live in Christ and His covering righteousness. We read the Scripture that “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Jesus’ perfect love for us has removed the fear that separates us from God. Love and fear cannot coexist. The reverse of the Scripture is “Perfect fear casts out all love.” We see this in the life of Martin Luther. His attempt to make things perfect with God by his own obedience made him to hate God and fear Him rather than finding hope and love. When he realized by the grace of God that salvation is the free gift of God’s love for us and demonstrated by the cross of Christ, then he found he could now love and serve God from this love. It would do us good to learn this lesson as well.
God is good for His promises. We may now have to suffer in the meanwhile, and if the Lord delays His coming, our descendants as well. The Scripture indeed promises that we shall rule with Him IF we also suffer with Him. The Scripture also says that “All those who would live godly lives in Christ Jesus SHALL suffer persecution. We may not have the best of lives now, but God has promised. Dare we to believe Him. Ask Him to prove His fidelity to the promise. Ask for the confirmation of the Holy Spirit within you which is the guarantor of our inheritance. In fact, the Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance until the day “we can read our title clear”.