In the days of Abram, covenants were an important part of human society. They were treaties or agreements between two groups that would keep the peace between them. In a time when a conflict against another family, clan, or nation could bring bloodshed and war, those covenants were deeply valued.
Covenants were often used to bring an end to war and chaos. A king might war against a nation and conquer it, and then make a covenant with them to end the fighting. He might promise to give protection to the conquered people, and they would make promises to serve him and to be his ally against any other nation. These covenants were common all over the world at that time. They were often written down on a special scroll and sealed. Both the king and the conquered nation would be greatly disgraced if they did not keep their own side of the covenant. They had bound themselves to a promise, and they had to be willing to do anything they could to honor it.
Part of covenant making often included a ceremony or a ritual to show the great importance and worth of the commitments being made. One part of that ritual was often to take an animal and sacrifice it. It was a symbol of the punishment that should happen to the person that did not keep his side of the covenant. The sacrifices held potent, binding power over the people because they believed these rituals had the force to influence the blessing and cursing of their lives.
God was about to reestablish and finalize His covenant with Abram. Only this one would be a different kind of covenant. This was no mere human king trying to make peace after victory. It was between God Himself and a human. Almighty God, who needs nothing from anyone and can do all things, was binding Himself to a promise being made to a person. Imagine! The most powerful Being in the universe was going to limit and organize His future work to make sure that He honored this promise.
It was also a different kind of covenant because God, the Divine King, was the only One who had to do anything to keep it. There was no job for Abram to do here. The promise was one way. The blessings of the covenant flowed from the LORD to His chosen people, not the other way around. God would give all the lands of the Canaanite people to the children of Abram, and they would become a great nation.
It was through that special nation that all nations of the world would be blessed. The Great Hope of God’s entire plan for humanity was being sealed with the fate of this nation. This moment with Abram was a lofty and holy moment in the history of the world. God provided a ritual to show the tremendous, sacred importance of this agreement. Abram was not to bring just one animal; God told him to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon.
Abram obeyed immediately. He brought one of each of these animals and cut them into halves. He divided the halves, putting one part of each animal on the left, and one part on the right. In between was a space that made a pathway.
As Abram worked, great carnivorous birds flew down and tried to eat the offerings, but Abram fought them off. As the sun began to set, Abram fell into a deep sleep. The Bible calls it a thick and dreadful darkness that came over him, and God spoke to him about hard things of the future:
“‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation, your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’”
God is sovereign over history, and He has prepared His sacred plans ahead of time. Abram’s descendants would end up moving to a country far away from this land that God had promised. While they were there, God would bring His children into a difficult time of suffering and oppression. They would be humbled as a people, working as slaves under the grip of another nation for four hundred years. Four hundred years! Can you imagine?
God told Abram that the whole time his descendants were gone, the people who were already in the land of promise, sometimes called the Amorites, would have time to change from their sinful ways. God had already shown Himself to them through the life of Abram and He had given them Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God. The Amorites could choose to follow the best, most clear examples of righteous faith and dependence on the LORD. Or they could choose to live in wickedness and sin, violently taking what they wanted and destroying all that was good and pure in their societies.
God knew the future. He knew exactly what they would decide. They would ever and always turn to evil. But God was still determined to give them their time to change. After four hundred years, God’s gracious patience would come to an end. His wrath would pour out on these cities and nations. They would no longer be allowed to pollute the land that God had given them with their despicable sin.
God would bring His own people, the children of Abram, back out of the land where they were slaves. After four hundred years, they would return. Only this time, they would come as the hand of God’s judgment and destroy the sinful nations in war. The righteous would do battle against the wicked for Yahweh. These things are the darkness and dread of life in a cursed world where the rulers of the earth rebel against the goodness of their Divine King. Such is the suffering of God’s people as they lived in the midst of the rebellion. But their faithfulness to God would be richly rewarded. Their appointed time of suffering would be over, and God would bless them with a beautiful homeland.
The promises of God had been given, and it was time for the ceremony to seal the covenant between the LORD and Abram:
“‘When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land”’” (Genesis 15:13-18a).
Who do you think it was who carried the smoking firepot between the animals? It was God himself. He was using the powerful traditions of Abram’s culture to show His servant the solemnity of His promise. This covenant was binding, and the honor of God Himself was now at stake.