Who would dare to enter a covenant with the creator of all the earth?
King Xerxes had one of the sons of Pythius cut in two, his halves splayed on either side the road and ordered his soldiers to march between them. Anything but faithful service to the king would end in the same fate. In the parable of the master and the unfaithful servant in Luke 12, the servant is to be cut into pieces for his failure to do the will of his master (Luke 12:51). What kind of wrath might be reserved for one who proved unfaithful in a covenant with the one who makes mountains tremble?
But it was the Lord who called upon Abram and not the other way around; calling him blessed and to be a blessing to all the earth (Gen 12:1-3). Abram did not come to the Lord seeking protection, profit or provision. The Lord found him and called him to leave everything behind and follow. Now that Abram has become a wanderer, pitching tents in a land that will not be given to his people for another 400 plus years, he finds the mettle to ask about his childless state, a situation that calls into question all the Lord has promised.
Abram has no right to ask for assurance from the Lord as there is no formal contract or covenant at this point. Moses had the sense to get an agreement written in stone but Abram has nothing and is owed nothing. And yet it is at this point God chooses to enter into covenant with Abram.
In the ancient world there is no covenant without sacrifice. I would venture to say this is true in the modern world as well (and all God’s married children said, “Amen!”). Abram provides the heifer, goat, ram, turtle dove and pigeon at the Lord’s request. The cutting of the animals (all but the birds) observes the cutting of a covenant. Their open bodies open a new relationship between God and Abram’s people. But when it comes time for the two parties to walk through the sacrificial offerings making the statement, “let it be to me as it is to these animals if I am found unfaithful,” Abram, rather conveniently, falls asleep!
The “deep sleep” of Abram is the same word used in Genesis 2:21 when God takes from Adam a rib and creates Eve. And truly what is taking place here is a most creative activity. Where once God created woman to fulfill the purposes of humanity, now God creates covenant to fulfill the purposes of salvation. While Abram sleeps the burning fire of God’s holy presence proceeds through the pathway of sacrifice.
Abram would be a fool to ask for such a covenant for his own purposes. Such a binding would only mean his destruction. The Lord is the one who calls for and enters into covenant, the eternal God passing through symbols of mortality and finitude.
This Lenten season we rightly think about the sacrifice of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the lamb who was slain. There is no covenant without sacrifice. Genesis 15 calls us to remember the covenant into which Jesus enters.
The Genesis covenant begs of our lent-focused imaginations to consider sacrifice more in terms of covenant and less in terms of retribution. Cutting a covenant for rulers like Xerxes imposed a relationship with threat of retribution. God never employs such tactics with Abram. There is no threat of retribution for Abram; he never walked through the carcasses, there was no blood on his boots. God was the one who called for this relationship and God was the one who would make the sacrifice a sacrifice of love.
Before we start to think that Abram gets off easily with nothing required of him, keep in mind, living in the presence of holy fire is no small thing, especially a holy fire that calls for living sacrifices, of which Abraham and Isaac still have much to learn.
If Jesus is the new covenant – and we should take this to mean not a dissolution of the first but rather a regeneration of God’s salvific work in creation from the very beginning – his death is not an act of retribution for the sins of humanity. In the framework of covenant, the death of Jesus is a sacrifice of love that opens the very life of God. In the Abrahamic covenant it was God who entered into creation and creates a means of salvation by passing through flesh and blood. In the Messianic covenant, once again God enters into creation opening a means of salvation for all the earth by becoming flesh and blood. The creator came to dwell in creation. When we see Jesus on the cross we see the opening of the very life of God inviting creation to dwell in the creator.
Whether or not you are preaching the Genesis passage this week, I pray you consider the covenant. Lent is a season of fasting and perhaps sacrifice. I’ve heard it said that because of Jesus we no longer live under a law of sacrifice, constantly bringing one more animal to the alter. But looking at the Abrahamic covenant, I’m not sure that kind of religious devotion was ever what God required. God has always led the way in the sacrifice of love. Not that this lets us off the hook so easily. We are surely standing in the presence of holy fire and there is not a corner of this earth left untouched. May your preaching call for a living sacrifice that bears witness to the great sacrifice of love that invites creation to dwell in her creator.