When God called Abram to leave his home and journey to the land of promise, He gave conditions. If Abram obeyed, then God would bless him. Abram did obey. He ventured out into the unknown with his barren wife, taking everything with him. He completely left the life he’d had behind, trusting totally in God’s promise. Over time, Abram proved his faith in the LORD in new and greater ways. He righteously lived for the Most High God in the midst of a pagan, idolatrous place and waited for God to bring His covenant blessings. And so God came to him with His covenant once again, only this time things had changed a bit. Now God made His promises without condition. Abram’s faith was established, and God could assure him that His promises would come true no matter what. God would give him more descendants than there were stars in the sky, and He would deliver to them the land of the Canaanites. Yet Abram still felt unsure. How could he know that God would truly give him the land?
For his answer, LORD told Abram to bring a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon. Does that seem like a strange answer to you? Why bring animals?
When we read the Bible, we always need to remember the time of human history we are reading about. We are reaching back through time to a world far different from our own. Often what we read will seem mysterious and strange to us. Abraham lived in what we called the Ancient Near East. In order to understand the story, we have to imagine what that world was like. So let’s try.
It was quieter. These were the days before electricity, cars, and airplanes. There were no televisions or radios, engines or blasting horns or telephone chatter. The noises that filled their lives were the quiet sounds of their flocks and herds, the blowing wind, and the tinkling of streams. It was the sound of the women singing as they hand washed clothes in water hauled from a well or at the river. It was the discussions and calls of men at their work. There were no photographs or paintings. The only faces any one person knew throughout his whole life were those from his own village or town. Any visitor would have been a great curiosity. It would have been a new face to see!
Nature was their artwork. Trees and streams, sunrises and sunsets and the vast display of stars in the dark night sky were the things of beauty that filled their lives. It was a simpler world, but it was a deeper one. They ate the same basic food every day with a profound gratitude that is hard for us to understand. You see, in those days, they knew what famine was like. Most families went through at least one or two hard seasons when they went hungry for weeks and months on end. They were keenly aware of the weather and how the crops were doing because it all had an immediate impact on their own survival. It strengthened their spirit of gratefulness and sharpened the pleasure of their food in times when it was abundant.
When God showed Abram the stars and used them to explain the wonderful blessing He was going to give him, He was using the most magnificent and awesome visual in Abraham’s world to inspire his faith. Humans will never paint or create anything that will surpass the beauty of a starry night. But we may have lost our ability to cherish and wonder at the sprawling night sky the way the ancient people did. It was their nightly glory.
Now God would strengthen Abram’s faith by using animals as a symbol, just as He had used the stars. In Abram’s time, human society was largely dependent on their animals to survive. For a family, each creature brought value and security to their home as their flocks and herds grew. Their lives were arranged around making sure the animals were protected and fed. They moved when they needed to find more grassland for them. They took special care to keep out of the way of bandits and thieves who might steal them.
The people of Abram’s day lived their lives close to their animals to make sure they could protect them. They could hear their sheep and goats bleating through the night and drank the milk from their own cows and goats in the day. They did not go to a store to buy their sandals and sweaters. The leather and wool they used to make their own clothes and shoes came from creatures they had watched being born.
They did not go to a store to buy meat. Usually, the only time they ate meat was when a sacrificial offering was made. It was a rare treat, a feast that would mark the day as a high point in the year.
Every piece of meat they ate came from a creature they had watched over, fed, and nursed back to health when it was sick. Their whole lives were filled with the provisions given to them by the lives of their animals. These creatures had worth and meaning, what they offered humanity were answers to some of the great needs and enjoyments of life. They were gifts from God, and they were meant for the provision of those things. For the people of Abram’s time, the sacrifice of meat had greater meaning and worth than most of us can possibly understand.
In the societies of Abram’s time, the value of animals was so great that killing one of them was something that was only done with great consideration and care. Usually it was only done for the high and sacred moments devoted to their gods. Sometimes they were used for feasts. Sometimes they were used when a great treaty was being made between one king and another, or between a king and his people. When the animal became a sacrificial offering, its death showed the high importance of the occasion.
God understood the culture and times that Abram was living, and so He chose a ceremony that Abram would understand, that would be meaningful to him. He told Abram to bring Him a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon. These creatures would become the sacrificial offerings to commemorate the high and holy making of the Great Covenant between God and His chosen servant.