If people want to argue that Scripture can be read easily into our context, I’d advise you to point them to this passage in Genesis 15. At first glance, there are few things about this passage that make sense in our time and place. I am certain I would be arrested for performing this act in public.
If, however, we do our exegetical work on this passage, we can begin to distinguish just how radically powerful these verses are for our understanding of God and who were are in light of this God. In order to study Scripture well, we cannot approach with just our own ideas and culture in mind. We have to approach recognizing that the Lord has always approached humanity in ways that are contextual. As followers of Jesus, our lives are meant to continue this contextualization. We are to be the ones who with our very lives are re-translating the Good News of Christ Jesus to the world around us. With we divorce our faith from this reality, we reduce the Good News to disconnected axioms devoid of the Spirit who is at work in all the world to bring reconciliation. So what on earth does any of that have to do with animals cut in half? Last I checked, sacrifice was “passé” and “completed” in the work of Jesus. But this passage isn’t actually about sacrifice as a religious rite. This passage is God entering into Abram’s contextual frame and inviting him to see the God who goes beyond the frame. We must constantly be on watch for God doing the same with us and our frames. Walter Brueggemann argues that this is perhaps the most important theological passage in Abraham’s narrative (Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 140). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.).
This episode begins with strong protestations from Abram. He will not go quietly into the night of trusting God when all circumstances point to the opposite of God’s promise. Perhaps we could learn quite a bit about faithfulness from this practice. The first six verses of this passage move like this: Promise, Abram protests, YHWH responds, Abram accepts the promise (Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 140). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.). If faith is true and honest trust in YHWH, perhaps we ought to wrestle honestly with the grand promises of this Lord. It ought to be “hard-fought and deeply argued conviction” (Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 141). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.) Not out of protest for its own sake but to better lean into the God who makes the promise in the first place.
Verse 6 tells us that Abram believes YHWH who “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” After this profound declaration of Abram’s faith, he shortly again questions who he will know he can possess the land tied to the promise. How can I know for sure, Lord? There is on the surface-level a connection to knowing the Lord’s plans: How can I know this is the right place or job or spouse or career path or house or anything for me? More deeply, however, this is a cry about what sort of God this is. Are you a Lord who is trustworthy? How can I trust your promises? Will you leave me alone in the face of many enemies who own this land?
YHWH’s response should give us pause. The Lord draws upon a very curious and old practice. The Lord calls for animals to be mutilated, and Abram does so faithfully. Then Abram waits. He chases away birds and carrion creatures. Abram waits still longer. So long that his heavy eyes cannot stay open. And Abram sleeps.
In a dream, the Lord uses this strange and curious practice to communicate to the deeply anxious Abram first and foremost who this God is. This practice has been attached to covenants that bind dissonant parties together. Where the weaker passes through the halved animals. Yet curiously, the burning pot—an image for the divine—is the one who passes through the corridor of death. This is God who will be bound inextricably to Abram. This is a God who enters into a dramatic and binding covenantal commitment with this fickle dusty creature who remains unsure of YHWH. This is a God who will be bound to a people. This is a God who will carry the weight of the covenant. Abram is again given a seemingly promise without any qualifications. The land will indeed be given.
This passage emphasizes (dramatically) that YHWH is the one who has made this promise. It’s nature depends upon God, not upon Abram. Abram is a receiver of the promise. YHWH does not speak in ways that are beyond Abram’s comprehension; instead, YHWH uses the things of Abram’s very own world to communicate. The medium is the message, but the medium does not always contain the fullness of it. The point isn’t the animals slaughtered; it is the God who passes between them. We, too, are recipients of a great promise. Sometimes holiness traditions have overemphasized the importance of our human response to the detriment of reminding our people that the God who promises is faithful. The content and character of our faith in Christ Jesus is the very faithful loyalty and trust of Jesus the Son. We must first receive a promise before we accept it or participate in it.
God is still using the things in our world to communicate this promise. The frame that we have been born into may be limited, but God still uses it to reveal God’s very self to us. Perhaps we could stand to spend more time examining the heifers, goats, rams, and birds of our own time for ways to image the Good News. Perhaps it is our neighborhoods changing demographics reflecting the diversity of God, or the negative examples of our political division as anti-image of the church’s unity. Perhaps it is airplane mode on our phone as the marker of margin in our lives. May we search for the context.