I’d be willing to bet that Genesis 15 is a portion of the Bible that’s not in any children’s felt sets, and with good reason. To most people, much of what they read in this chapter seems strange and foreign to modern readers. It is written in the context of an Ancient Near-Eastern culture separated by thousands of years and miles.
However, Genesis 15 illustrates one of the most important, yet misunderstood, concepts in the entire Bible: covenant.
Covenant is a old-timey word that most people connect with a promise of some kind. Yes, while a promise is the basic premise, the Biblical meaning and implication take this passage much deeper than that. If you understand the concept of covenant here, you have a solid basis for understanding the concept of salvation in the entire Bible. It’s that important.
For context, in this chapter, God and Abram (not yet renamed Abraham) are having a conversation in vision. Abram expressed serious concern and doubt at God’s ability to come through on his promise to provide him and his wife Sarai (not yet renamed Sarah) with an heir. To this point, God had been all talk but little follow-through. So Abram asks God for something more tangible after God reaffirmed his commitment to give him a son:
And he said, “Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?” – Genesis 15:8
Abram wants some kind of proof that he could trust God’s promise. So God told Abram to perform an Ancient Near-Eastern practice that sounds gross, and barbaric:
So He said to him, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. – Genesis 15:9-10
To us today, we’d be scratching our heads at this request but,Abram immediately knew what was happening as soon as God told him to gather those animals. God was entering a blood covenant, or blood treaty, with him. In those days, when you wanted to make a serious binding treaty, you would gather the listed animals, cut them in two and walk through the divided animals together with the other person. By doing so, you were saying that if either of you went back on your word, may you become like these animals. These were deadly serious promises back then.
This was a covenant. It was much more than a promise; it was literally a life or death matter.
With this in mind, in Genesis 15:17 we find one of the most important verses in the entire Old Testament:
And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.
“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates… – Genesis 15:9-10,17-18
After waiting for a considerable amount of time, Abram got sleepy but was awoken and saw this smoking oven and burning torch symbolizing the presence of God. However, what he found was something highly unusual as far as covenants of the day went. Did you catch it?
Normally, both parties of the covenant would walk through together, showing that they both had responsibilities to keep in order to maintain the covenant (in the modern context, it would be the one who made the promise, as well as a co-signer). Yet, the most important thing to realize is that God walks through alone. When God walks through alone, He shows Abram that there is absolutely nothing Abram or his descendants have to do in order for God to keep this covenant.
It is a one sided covenant. God takes all the responsibility for fulfilling it entirely upon Himself. He is telling Abram, “If I go back on my word, may I be like these animals.” So what was Abram’s role in this affair?
It was to believe that God would do as he said. This is salvation by grace alone and faith alone found in the Old Testament.
This doesn’t mean that Abram did nothing his entire life. He grew in his faith and was an example to all believers today. However, he had just as many failures as successes.
As a matter of fact, in the very next chapter, he and his wife agree to have Abram sleep with Sarai’s handmaid Hagar because they think God needs help keeping his covenant. They didn’t believe God was enough and thought they needed to do something. So Abram and Hagar have a son, Ishmael, and start the seeds of what would become the conflict of the Crusades, the Israeli/Palestinian fights, and Radical Islam we see till this day.
Abram’s lack of faith doesn’t detract from the promise of God or make Him less faithful. This concept in covenant is important because in many ways, it is the same foundation for the promises and conditions for the new covenant in the New Testament. All of the Gospels and several other books in the New Testament canon mention the institution of new covenant with the similar blood imagery from the covenant in Genesis 15. Many accounts have Jesus saying something at Passover along the lines of:
This cup is the new covenant established by My blood; it is shed for you. – Luke 22:20
Consider this: If the condition in the old covenant with Abram was established on the basis of faith and trust in God’s works, what do you think the pattern would be in the new? It would be the same. And it was. Jesus took the entire responsibility of saving and growing His people on Himself.
This, of course, brings up the age-old debate of salvation: am I saved by faith, or by my actions (works)? From a religious point of view, humanity’s default mode when it comes to faith tends to be a works-driven one. In other words, if your belief system has an afterlife, you have to earn your place. Even within Judaism and Christianity, most people tend to see the formula for salvation as grace + works = salvation.
From a Christian perspective, yes, Scripture affirms that it is not the hearers of the law that will be justified, but the doers. Yet, doing good does not equal being good. The Bible affirms that there is no such thing as a “good person.” Even our good works are considered “filthy” in the eyes of God because we often have mixed motives for doing them. We are saved by a concept known as grace.
Grace is the receiving of something that you do not earn or deserve. Like when a cop lets you out of a speeding ticket. Like when your professor decides to extend the deadline to that assignment you missed. Like when your spouse decides to give your marriage a second chance.
If there is a participatory role that you take in one of these scenarios, it ceases to be grace and instead becomes something else closer to a cause and effect or work/pay agreement. While some will correctly point out Scripture’s affirmation that it is not the hearers of the law that will be justified but the doers of it (Romans 2:13), it’s important to remember that doing good does not equal being good.
Many people today believe that living a good, moral life should allow you entry into an afterlife, if there is one. However, the root of this belief is the same that Abram had back in Genesis 15: he didn’t trust that God was big enough to come through on his promises without any help. This is the essence of legalism, the doctrine in theology that states that salvation is gained through works or actions that adhere to the moral law. The hope of legalism is to somehow find a loophole in God’s law that would obligate Him to justify and save me based on obedience, not grace.
It’s important to remember that the means of salvation (grace) should not be confused with the result of salvation (obedience). So, to God, while actions are important, they are no way to determine someone’s salvation. After all, there were many religious leaders in Jesus’ day whom were obedient to the external requirements of the law and were strict to obey it, while killing the one who gave it. They lived by the law, but had never experienced grace.
The same truth still applies today. People who have seen grace extended to them are more likely to show it to others. Yet, legalism prevents the experiencing and dispensing of grace. My hope for the future of Christianity is that we would go back to the roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage in Genesis and see God as both the covenant maker and covenant keeper in our life. He is the one who makes the terms for our salvation, and He is the one who does the work of growth in our lives.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6
Our job is the same as Abram: to trust in God’s word, walk with Him each day, and believe that He will come through as He’s promised.