Covenant: God, Abraham and Grace

Genesis 15 is the most unique of all the Covenants in the Old Testament.  Well, maybe second most unique if you include the creation of Man as God breathes into man’s nostrils the breath of Life.  Yet on the other hand, the Covenant in chapter 15 does have some exclusive elements, especially in the degree that happens here.

Describing Covenant in a capsule version, the relationship pivots around the Blood and that it is, not merely represents or contains but is, a person’s Life or Soul.  By actually mixing the Bloods of the Covenant participants, their Souls/Lives/Bloods become one.  Like the magician’s trick of cutting a rope, tying it together, saying “magic” words over it, and then presenting the rope as an unbroken whole, the Covenant joins the Lives/Souls in such a way that there is no joint but rather a seamlessness between the participants.

Breaking Covenant then becomes a serious matter.  As described in the mentioned chapter, Abraham takes a heifer, a goat and a ram and divides them in half, laying the halves over against each other.  The whole animal, while living, represents the Covenant.  Breaking Covenant is like tearing the animal in half, its Life/Soul/Blood draining away, and what is left are pieces of a lifeless carcass.  That is the reason why, normally, when the participants cut Covenant, they walk through these pieces symbolizing that “if I break Covenant, this Life-less carcass is my fate.”

Unique about Genesis 15 is that Jehovah, as represented by the “smoking furnace” and “flaming torch,” is most personal as He “walks” through the pieces – so personal and concrete, one feels that if He could have, He would have cut the palm of His Hand – yet that step of the Covenant ritual He cannot do, since He is Spirit and therefore has no Blood (however, there will come a time …).  He will never repeat this profoundly personal act again – and He does not need to, because what He does here is good for the rest of the Old Testament.  But what should equally stagger the observer is that God deliberately puts Himself under the curse of broken Covenant – He will die if He breaks Covenant – yet Jehovah cannot die.

But that Abraham does not commit himself in Covenant makes the surprise even greater – he is in “a deep sleep” or trance.  He is merely an observer!  He makes no promises, does no action of commitment.

Covenant is a mutual joining – can this really be a Covenant when it is so lop-sided?  God promises and commits everything, man promises nothing but rather merely and simply receives.  In these opening chapters of the Bible, this is perhaps one of the most profound statements of “by grace” that the Old Testament has: it identifies that God has bound Himself to Covenant regardless of Man does or does not do.
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“Let God be true, though every man be a liar,” Paul declared [Romans 3:3-4].  God does remain true to Covenant throughout the constant rebellions of Israel.  Even when He must invoke the Babylonian Captivity, He tells them before they go that He will bless them, through them He will bless the land they are in, and will bring them back to their Promised Land.  Throughout the whole Old Testament Jehovah never breaks Covenant until the prophecy in the book of Zachariah – and when that prophecy comes true, judgment is swift and He dies, He becomes a Life/“Blood”-less carcass!

Two chapters later in Genesis, there is another lop-sided “Covenant”: in the first, God does everything while Abraham does nothing, and in this one, God basically does nothing while Abraham cuts his flesh in Circumcision.  Even though they are separated by perhaps fourteen years, the two chapters are like two halves of one Covenant (reversing the animal split in two, the halves now join to a complete living relationship), an idea reinforced when Jehovah begins chapter 17 with “I will establish My Covenant,” not “cut” Covenant (that is, He does not begin a different Covenant).

It certainly is unusual, like a marriage where the Bride would take fourteen years before she says, “I do” – but again it makes a powerful and profound statement on how this relationship is unmistakably built on grace.  This significant theme will be carried though all the way to the pages of Revelation.  It is a consistent theme that will not change even when the Covenants change (from “Old” to “New”).  And that’s a pretty satisfying realization, because God is not supposed to change, particularly in His main dealings with humanity.



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