Cutting a Covenant
by Dan Kidd
In today's passage, we encounter a ceremonial expression of God's covenant making. Given the enormity of the blessings the Lord has promised Abram, Abram has a relatable question: "Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of [these promises]?" Notice that he begins by explicitly acknowledging God's sovereignty. This is not a question about whether the Lord can do what he's promised, but if he will do what he's promised. The Lord is powerful, but is he trustworthy?
In response, the Lord met Abram in a deep sleep and shared with him about the centuries of slavery ahead of his descendants, and promised that his he would not abandon them, but that they would come out from under their slavers liberated and with "great possessions." That is, the history of God's people will be full of trouble, but the Lord will overcome it. Then, in order to illustrate the weight of his promise, the smoking firepot with a blazing torch passed between the animals Abram had halved. In ancient covenant parlance, the sacrificing of an animal was a common and material part of oath making. In fact, the ritual is called "cutting a covenant." The animal represents the oath taker were they to break their vow. As it is with this animal, so it will be for the one who breaks their oath.
But there's something surprising here. Typically in a covenant ceremony the vassal (the one making a promise to a powerful king) was on the hook for a broken covenant--not the king. In this case, the Lord's spirit (represented by the blazing torch) passes between the animals, owning for himself the consequences of the broken promise. At that time in history, in that region of the world, this is a major role reversal, and it offers a remarkable insight into the kind of King the Lord is: trustworthy and deeply devoted.
Is this the God we know? It's understandable that we may struggle to believe that the things the Lord has promised will ever really come to pass; that death and devil have lost the war, that somehow peace will permeate the world, and that everything that is broken will be made right again. But these are the promises of a faithful, devoted God.
Surely at least some of us have feared that our failures and rebellions would separate us from the Lord completely, or cut us out from his plan? But the God of Abraham has no intentions of abandoning us. There is always a place at the Father's table for us and a trustworthy promise of his relentless love. In this life there is, and will be, trouble, but take heart for Christ has overcome the world.
LECTIO: Having read the passage and devotion, prepare to read the passage once more. First, invite the Lord to draw your attention to something in this passage. Read it again, and notice what stands out. Now prayerfully ask God to speak to you, to bring to mind or heart how you might respond to this passage. Perhaps it's gratitude, encouragement, or peace. Maybe it's conviction, an invitation to do or say something, or reminder of God's grace. Sometimes we hear God's Spirit clearly, sometimes not. But no time spent in the company of the Lord is wasted, and we can pray with anticipation to hear from God through his Scriptures.