In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today begins with (in the NIV) “After this…” This refers to one of those passages that we’ve skipped. Briefly, Abram’s nephew Lot was living in Sodom, whose king (and the king’s allies) were at war with several other nations. Lot was captured by the opposing kings and Abram goes to rescue him, defeating these kings. The king of Sodom and his allies offer Abram a share of the spoils, which Abram refuses.
Now this part is important because it’s in stark contrast to Abram receiving riches from Pharaoh in Egypt (which was a result of sinful, faithless action). And it bears directly on our passage today. After this battle/war, God once again speaks to Abram – this is our story today. Now we know that Abram has directly encountered God/Yahweh before (chap. 12). In that passage, God promises to Abram:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
We’ve mentioned the term ‘covenant’ before, though we haven’t explored it in depth. Today’s passage constitutes what appears to be the official institution of the covenant. Covenant is a term that’s defined in different ways by a variety of people – it can have legal, cultural, and/or religious implications. Generally speaking, a covenant is understood as a binding agreement between two parties. We should, however, make a distinction between “covenant” and “contract” which is a term that our culture is more familiar with. Again, speaking generally, covenant seems to have more to do with the binding nature of a relationship, as opposed to a contract which may have more to do with goods, services, or responsibilities, strictly speaking.
Because “covenant” seems to be a fairly broad term, we will restrict our discussion to covenant in biblical terms. And what we see in scripture is that covenant is:
“A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” (Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson)
Taking Roberson’s definition (“…a bond in blood sovereignly administered”), there are several observations we can make.
- Covenant is about relationship: “a bond”
- Covenant is binding: “in blood”
- [In scripture/Christianity] Covenant begins with God: “sovereignly administered”
So let’s dig into that a little bit more as it relates to our passage today:
Firstly, looking once more at chap. 12, “I will make you into a great nation / and I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / and you will be a blessing. / 3 I will bless those who bless you,/ and whoever curses you I will curse; / and all peoples on earth/ will be blessed through you.”
And God’s words proper in chap. 15: “…Do not be afraid, Abram./ I am your shield, / your very great reward.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
There is no invitation here. There is also no mention of explicit agreement (i.e. via words) by Abram. There is obedience and (in v. 6) faith, but it is simply not an agreement between equal parties. Redemption comes purely because God does it.
Secondly, most of you are probably familiar with the details of the cutting of the animals, but it’s worth mentioning again:
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
In Hebrew, the phrase “to make a covenant” is literally translated “to cut a covenant” and makes reference to exactly the kind of scene we have here. The parties of the covenant would sacrifice animals, divide them in two, and would walk between the pieces of the animals. They were saying, may this (the cutting of the animals) be done to me if I break the covenant.
What makes this scene significant is that it’s God Himself, represented by the burning pot/torch, that passes between the pieces. It’s God Himself who institutes the covenant and God Himself who takes on the responsibility and the burden of the covenant.
This is not to say that the covenant doesn’t entail both blessings and curses when human beings fail to keep covenant (we’ll see this later – especially in the Mosaic covenant). But the guarantor of the covenant is God.
The final point I want to make about this scene is that it’s about blessing. Let’s take a look firstly at the beginning of our passage today:
1 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.” (NIV)
Now it’s worth noting here that the NIV (and other translations) have made an interpretive choice. Other translations (ESV, NKJV, NLT) have translated it:
Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Without getting too off track, I’m inclined to acquiesce to those scholars who prefer the ESV “your reward shall be very great.” However, I also tend to agree with Bruce Waltke who says that the reward certainly includes the presence of God Himself.
What we’re seeing in God’s pronouncement of covenant is that He promises Abram several things: Name; Offspring/generations; and Land. Now all of these we are going to see again, expanded, in ch. 17 – the third time that God speaks to Abraham (no longer Abram at that point) about covenant. And I want to remind us, once again, that all of these things have to do with God creating a people (or covenanting, through Abram, with a people).
Let’s remember that the stage for this passage, this interaction between God and Abram, this promise of reward and blessing, comes directly after Abram refusing the reward of foreign kings (refusing the reward that comes from humans), again, in stark contrast to his relationship with Pharaoh. He says to the kings:
22…“With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’
We are seeing Abram growing here. He’s choosing, not the riches of the world – not the riches of human beings, but the riches of God.
We could go into this in more detail, but for our purposes today, what I want to focus on is the point that, over and over, God’s intention is blessing.
The primordial history has set the stage: God had created an exceedingly good world, humankind being given the responsibility to take care of the creation – to be God’s representatives, His priests, in the cosmic temple of creation. But humankind chose, instead of being God’s representatives, to be gods for ourselves. The result of that is that we spiraled further and further into our sinfulness – or further and further away from God. Humankind fell so far that God ultimately gives us to the final consequence of life without God, which is death. In the flood, God destroys everything – in effect saying, “if it’s life without God that you want – which is really non-life – then that is what you will have.” But, even then, God saves a remnant. Because of His love for humankind, He does not destroy us completely. Yet, despite that demonstration of mercy, humankind continues to seek its own way, trying to build towers to the sky, proclaiming ourselves, yet again, as our own gods.
It’s into this story that God steps in. It’s in this context that God chooses Abraham, purely because of God’s grace, to restore the priesthood – to create a people who will be a blessing to all peoples. That through this people, God’s mercy and grace, holiness and justice, will be revealed to the world. Because God desires to pour out his blessings to His creation.
So What Now…?
This is the story. This is the story that God’s word is telling us – which will reach its fulfillment in Jesus. For us, has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It’s a story of mercy and grace, holiness and justice, and blessing. But is this the story that we’re telling? Is this the story that we’re living?
Are we telling a story about God choosing and blessing a people? Are we living a story of a God who puts Himself on the line for a sinful and broken people? Are we living the story of a people chosen?
How many people think that being a Christian is giving up things? How many Christians think that being a Christian is about avoiding things. Not that we shouldn’t avoid sin. But maybe the point is not avoiding sin per se – because in this life, before Jesus comes again to restore all things, we are sinners. Maybe the point is to pursue life? To pursue the life that only comes in Jesus, through Jesus. Because God wants to pour out His blessings.