7 And he said unto him, I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. 8 And he said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? 9 And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. 10 And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. 17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. 18 In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:
I found this passage enchanting to read, but confounding to understand. Abram seeks for some sort of sign that God’s promises will be fulfilled, and as an answer he is led through a strange ritual. Abram splits each creature in two, except for the birds, and lays their halves next to each other. Then, after a moment of darkness and foretelling that we’ll examine tomorrow, God responds with a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passing between each half of the animals. Accompanying this sight are the words of God, reiterating the promise that He will give all this land to Abram. A captivating image, to be sure, but what to make of it?
Other scholars have given an interpretation of these scenes that I find very compelling. They suggest that dividing the animals in two and having the furnace and lamp pass between them is a way of God making a solemn pledge. It is as if He is saying “so may my body be cleaved in two if I do not keep this word.” Consider how this idea is echoed by the statements of God in Jeremiah 34:18. Or it could be seen as “I will do whatever it takes to fulfill this promise, even to the breaking of my body.” Of course that notion is later reflected in Jesus Christ coming and literally letting his body be broken to keep the promises that God had made to all of mankind.
And there is also the symbolism of the smoke and the flame that God sends between the severed pieces. What was immediately called to my mind was the pillar of fire and the cloud that guided Israel through the wilderness.
In any case, it seems that these verses are meant to describe a solemn ritual, with a solemn commitment made by God. These aren’t just words anymore, He is binding Himself to the fulfillment of them. But, given the seriousness of the situation, God frankly admits that Abram that his children will face all manner of affliction before and after receiving the fulfillment of these promises. We’ll dive into that tomorrow.