After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day and said, “I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River.” (Genesis 15:17-18)
Relate: A few years back, China ratified an extradition treaty with Iran. This made it one of the few countries to have reached such an agreement with what some consider a rogue nation. Speaking of rogue nations, the US finally with our last outgoing administration did what was decades overdue and taken steps to normalize relationships with Cuba. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan recently ratified a treaty of friendship while the rest of the world yawns in surprise. It was sixty-eight years ago today that the UK formally recognized the PR China and as a result, the RO China officially severed diplomatic ties with the Brits.
In ancient times, all of these actions along with individual contracts like buying a house, a car (camel/donkey/horse), a plot of land, or even formal declarations of friendship between individuals and marriage contracts (which was much more of the merging of two families than just the union between two individuals), were all made official through the use of a covenant. Major covenants were a cause for national celebrations while other covenants were a regular occurrence that would be incredibly familiar to the average person.
In the times of the patriarchs, there were generally eight steps in the process of making a covenant and they all take place, some in a somewhat unique way in God’s covenant with Abraham. Those steps were:
1) The pre-ceremony actions. This would be a discussion of terms, an agreement of consequences for both the keeping and breaking of the covenant and a time of waiting where each party had an opportunity to determine whether they wanted to enter into the covenant. It was first in Genesis 12 where God proposes the covenant to Abraham. Years passed before the actual ceremony was enacted in Genesis 15.
2) Cutting the covenant. This is where animals would be slaughtered. Each side of the agreement makes a personal sacrifice, investment, to demonstrate their willingness to enter into the covenant. Abraham kills a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon.
3) The walk of death. In a covenant, both parties were supposed to walk through the separated halves of the animals slaughtered in the previous step. It is a symbolic gesture that they are accepting responsibility, even to death, for maintaining the covenant. In Genesis 15:17, it is only God who walks through.
4) The exchange of gifts. Both parties were supposed to exchange belts, weapons, robes, etc. The items traded were supposed to be intensely personal. What can be more personal than the gift of a son which is exactly what God was giving to Abraham in this covenant? (Yes, there are Christological references there, as there are throughout this entire process)
5) The pronouncement of blessings and curses. Each side was to also “gift” their counterpart with warnings against breaking and promises of reward for keeping the covenant. God warns Abraham of the 400 years of slavery coming but also blesses him with peace in his time, a gift of the land, and promise of the retribution and plundering of his descendants’ oppressors.
6) The seal of the covenant. In ancient times, both parties would be cut and permanently scarred as a visible symbol that they had entered into the covenant. Circumcision for the Israelites was the visible symbol for millennia that they were the people of the covenant.
7) The exchange of names. We see a remnant of this today when a wife takes on the name of her husband. In ancient times a name would be modified and/or the place where the covenant was enacted would be changed to mark that the participants very being and abode has shifted as a result of the covenant. In Genesis 17, where the last three parts of the covenant are found, Abram and Sarai’s names are both changed.
8) The covenant meal. What fun is a ceremony that doesn’t end with a party? Abraham gifted a meal to YHWH and His two companions at the start of Genesis 18 and the Passover ceremony was, and still is, an annual symbolic renewal for the people of the covenant.
React: The thing that makes the Abrahamic covenant unique from other covenants of the time (like that between Jacob and Laban, etc) is that each step was done by only one of the party. Where responsibilities are concerned it is God who acts. Where benefits or blessings are doled out, Abraham is always the one who benefits. It is God alone who walks the covenant, but it is Abraham who is given the gift, the blessing, and the new name.
That is still the way it is for us today. Jesus carried the burden. He took the walk of death, but we are the beneficiaries. We are the ones blessed. It is the most lopsided covenant ever. All I can do is stand back and marvel. All I can do is live out the covenant in gratitude for the work He has done. He died. I live. That is the new covenant in a nutshell.
I am so grateful for the covenant relationship You have invited me to enter. You have done the work. You have paid the price. And now I reap all the benefits. God, I am so grateful. I stand amazed at Your grace. I am in awe of Your faithfulness. You are so good.