God formalized the covenant He made with Abraham in the Blood-Path Ceremony. Through this dramatic event, the Lord told Abraham that He would certainly fulfill His grand, covenant promises of land, descendants, and blessing.
The Lord first spoke to Abraham (then called "Abram") when he was 75 years old and living in the region of Mesopotamia. 1 Though God promised the Patriarch blessings, including land and descendants (Genesis 12:2-7, Genesis 13:16), His words were not yet a formal covenant. That would come later, when Abraham's advanced age and childlessness seemed to suggest that the blessings might never materialize. 2
To renew and secure His previous promises, God began by pointing Abraham to the night sky and declaring that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5-6). Then, God told Abraham to take several animals, cut them in half, and lay the parts in two facing rows. A river of blood flowed between the parts, creating a wet, sticky, and graphic memory. Birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abraham drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and the Lord told him his descendants would be sojourners in a foreign land where they would be oppressed for 400 years. Nevertheless, the Lord would judge the nation that enslaved them and bring His people out in order to establish them in thePromised Land.3 To mark this promise, a smoking clay oven and a flaming torch representing the Lord passed between rows of animal parts. Thus, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates'" (Genesis 15:18).
With the command to leave, the Lord gave Abraham three promises – land, descendants, and blessing. Regarding the first, his inheritance was to be Canaan to the southwest. The second promise was that he would be a great nation with many descendants. Finally, God declared He would protect Abraham in his journeys, cursing those who cursed him and blessing those who blessed him.4 In fact, Abraham would be the channel through whom the Lord would bless the entire earth.5
The interpretation of this mysterious rite is much discussed.6 Certain scholars emphasize that in an ancient ceremony such as this, both parties of the covenant walked between the pieces. Should one party break the covenant, he would suffer the same horrible fate as the animals.7 Indeed, in Jeremiah 34:18, the Lord says to the leaders of His people, "And the men who transgressed my covenant . . . I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts." Not following through on one's covenant commitment was a grave matter.
However, in Genesis 15, God did something startling. He "walked" between the bloody pieces alone, seemingly taking the curse implied in the ceremony upon Himself.8 The God of Abraham was sending a very clear message to His servant: this covenant would ultimately be based upon grace, not on Abraham's works or achievements. This placed the emphasis of the covenant on God's faithfulness and on the unconditional, eternal nature of the covenant.
The God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament are one and the same. If we look back on the Genesis 15 Blood-Path Ceremony in the light of Jesus Christ, we see a God who always meets the needs of His people. God shows His faithfulness to His people – even at a terrible cost, even if it means being crucified on a Roman cross. At Golgotha, the Lord through Jesus Christ "walked through the bloody pieces" of the covenant alone and took the curse of death upon Himself that should have been paid for by sinners. From the era of the Patriarchs through the last pages of Revelation, God keeps His promises to His people in powerful and sometimes surprising ways.
Gerhard Hasel, "The Meaning of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19 (1981): 61–78; Iain M. Duguid, Living in the Gap between Promise and Reality: The Gospel according to Abraham (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1999); K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11: 27- 50:26, vol. 1b, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2005); Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1987); Tremper Longman III, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005).