When God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, he gave him a number of promises (see Gen. 12:1–3; 13:14–17). God promised to make Abram into a great nation and to give him the land of Canaan. These promises introduce tension into the story. How would Abram become a great nation when he didn’t have any children (see Gen. 15:2–3)? What gives him assurance that he would inherit the land (see Gen. 15:8)? God confirms his promises to Abram by cutting a covenant with him.

What did the process of cutting a covenant entail? And what was signified by this process? Let’s take a look at this ancient practice with some help from two articles in the Chronological Study Bible.  

Abram’s Ceremony and a Hittite Ritual

9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Genesis 15:9–10

In a covenant ceremony Abram was instructed to cut animals in halves and arrange the pieces opposite each other (Ge 15:9, 10). Abram’s animal ritual has a literary parallel in a Hittite text from Anatolia, dated after the mid-2nd millennium B.C.

The Hittite text describes a ritual of purification used after a military defeat. The troops perform the ritual “behind a river,” where they cut a man, a goat, a puppy, and a small pig in half. The sections, thus divided, are arranged oppositely parallel on one side and on the other. In front of this array, they build a gate of an unknown type of wood. The troops start fires on both sides of the arranged pieces. Then the troops are obliged to pass between the fires and are sprinkled with water upon reaching the bank of the river.

The procedure is not mentioned in any official Hittite state cult, but exists as a recording in the royal archives. Its similarities with the ceremony in Genesis, although superficial, show a common ritual tradition.

Passing Between the Halves

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

Gen 15:17–21

There are no adequate modern parallels to the broad-ranging meanings of the term “covenant” as used in the Bible. The closest parallel probably resides in marriage, where a public gathering solemnizes an agreement between two people.

The type of covenant presented in the Bible is most often between two parties. The superior party was the suzerain; the inferior party was the vassal. Both the suzerain and vassal had specific responsibilities. Primarily, in ancient societies the suzerain provided protection for the vassal, while the vassal supported the suzerain with taxes and was loyal in time of war.

The Lord and Abram joined themselves in a suzerain and vassal covenant (Ge 15:18). As in similar ancient Near Eastern covenants, they held a public ceremony to ratify their relationship. The sacrifice of animals and a meal (15:9, 10) were typical components of covenant ceremonies, as were the promises of both parties. Abram’s part of this agreement was to “believe” in the Lord (15:6), which meant to worship no other gods. The Lord promised Abram to make his descendants as numerous as the stars (15:5) and provide a homeland for them (15:18).

A Unilateral Covenant

Two differences between ancient Near Eastern covenants and the Ge 15 covenant are striking. Usually the list of the vassal’s duties and responsibilities was much larger than that of the suzerain’s. In fact, a covenant, including the duties of the vassal, was imposed on the vassal by the suzerain. In the Ge 15 covenant almost nothing is said about Abram’s responsibilities. The focus is on what the Lord promised to Abram, not what Abram promised the Lord.

In the second difference it was usually the vassal who cut the animals in two parts and walked between them (15:10, 17). The ritual symbolically demonstrated what would happen to the vassal if they broke the covenant. The “blazing torch” passing between the pieces of flesh in the Ge 15 covenant (15:17) was obviously a representation of the Lord. The symbolism of him passing between the cut sacrifices implies that he would die before he would allow his covenant with Abram to fail.

The Chronological Study Bible

It doesn’t take long for one to realize that the world of the Bible is vastly different than our own in many ways. The Chronological Study Bible is an excellent resource for bridging the gap between our world and the biblical world. Arranged chronologically by nine “epochs” and filled with note, articles, commentary, overviews, introductions, and much more, this resource helps you understand the history and culture of the Bible. Stop by our store today and enter the biblical world.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent and exhaustively explained nature and implications of God’s Covenant with Abram. It helped me clear every aspect of this monumental and magnanimous act of God. Thank you for taking the time to address this issue with the necessary depth in the sociological roots of the time in history it was used. Without this it is not possible to understand the full meaning and consequences of this act. I have not heard before this Covenant of God with Abram from Genesis so clearly explained. Thanks

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