Who Promised What? Why Does It Matter?

Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward Genesis 15:1 NIV

We are familiar with the words covenant and testament as used in the Bible. We read the Old Testament and the New Testament, and we understand them to represent different “contracts” with humankind. The verse quoted above initiates the certification of one of the oldest of the “contracts.”

The story goes this way.

God addresses Abram and promises him protection, reward, and heirs. When Abram asks, “How can I know …? God tells him to do something that seems very peculiar to modern ears. He tells Abram to gather up a number of animals, which Abram slaughters and divides. He lays the halves of the animals opposite each other and guards the slaughtered beasts from predators.

After a time, Abram has a vision. God makes a prophecy, and then Abram sees God pass between the pieces of the slaughtered beasts. “A smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed through the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” Genesis 15:17-18 NIV.

The image of God as a fire is a familiar one. The notion of God traversing the path between halves of slaughtered animals seems almost barbaric. To make sense of it, we need to know that this process was an ancient ceremony of commitment to a contract. Passing between the pieces of slaughtered animals was a way of saying, “May it be to me as to these animals if I break this covenant.” In this story of the covenant with Abram, God passes through the field of slaughter, and in so doing he says, May I become a bloody victim like these beasts if I ever break my covenant.”

Just as we expect both parties to a contemporary contract to sign their names, in ancient times, both parties were expected to pass between the beasts. Yet in this story, there is no record that Abram took that walk. God took the entire burden of the covenant upon himself.

What became of that covenant? The Bible tells a sad story. Abram’s descendants could not make up their minds what they believed. They felt little obligation to the God who had committed himself to a bloody fate if He ever failed them. Story after story reveals that they were incapable of an equivalent and reciprocal commitment.

  • “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” Judges 3:7 NIV
  • ”They provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their worthless idols” 1 Kings 16:33 NIV
  • “They did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites “ 2 Chronicles 33:9 NIV

And how did the God who had committed himself to a blood-enforced covenant react?

  • “To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I” Isaiah 65:1
  • “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock “ Jeremiah 23:3
  • “Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them” Ezekiel 23:3
  • “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” Hosea 11:8

Over and over, the Bible records the story—Abram’s descendants scorned the God who offered to become as a slaughtered beast in order to affirm his covenant with them. They, who had offered nothing, cried out to the God they scorned when trouble arose, but when times were good, they had no use for Him. There were two parties to the covenant, but only one had ever offered to do anything to restore the covenant if it were broken. One party remained steadfastly committed to the agreement. The other party trampled the covenant underfoot and scorned the whole idea as too limiting on personal freedom. You might ask, who would ever make good on this covenant?

“When they came to the place of the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right hand, the other on his left” Luke 23:32 NIV

When God made a covenant with his people, he offered to become as a slaughtered beast in order to demonstrate his commitment to the covenant. On a hill outside Jerusalem He passed in the midst of slaughter again. He said again, “May it be so to me,” not because He had broken the covenant, but because we have broken it.

Imagine that you found you found yourself unable to pay the mortgage on your house. Imagine further that you had bad-mouthed the banker all over town for sending you dunning letters after you first defaulted on your payments. Then imagine that your banker said, “I’ll personally borrow the money and pay this mortgage for you.” That scenario is still more credible than the idea that the God of all creation would permit himself to be tortured and killed because we are not able to keep our promises.

Human beings do not have a good record of keeping promises. We fail, because the promise is inconvenient. We fail, because we promise what we have no power to keep. We fail, because our sense of commitment wears out and we cannot talk ourselves into it again. Yet the God who creates fulfillment of his Word by the mere act of speaking that Word never fails to keep His promises. When He was ready to show all the world that he meant business, He sent his Son into the world, and His Son explained why he was here. He was here to be the slaughtered beast that restored the broken covenant between God and man.

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him “ John 3:16-17 NIV

God keeps all his promises. You can count on him.