Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Genesis 15

Recently I've been studying Genesis 15 and have been trying to understand the meaning behind the incident where the Lord establishes his covenant with Abraham. The word for "covenant" in Hebrew carries the meaning of "cutting" in the sense of cutting meat. Here is the entry from Strong's Hebrew Dictionary:

From H1262 (in the sense of cutting (like H1254)); a compact (because made by passing between pieces of flesh): - confederacy, [con-]feder[-ate], covenant, league.

I came across a website that has shed some light on this story for me. Here is the entry:

The Smoking Fire-Pot and Flaming Torch of Genesis 15
- Pat Adamson

An interesting discussion ensued from one of our Torah Studies. We were looking at Genesis chapter 15 and the possible symbolism behind the covenant HaShem enacted with Avraham. The covenant here involves the promise of a specific parcel of Land to Avraham and his progeny.

The initial covenant in Genesis 15 involves a common form of treaty agreement in the Ancient Near East called a “suzerain treaty.” This agreement involved the ruler of a great kingdom who would make a treaty with the ruler of a lesser, or weaker, kingdom. The greater king would promise protection and blessing in exchange for the lesser king’s vow of obedience and loyalty. Historians tell us it was common for these treaties to involve animals for sacrifice whereby the animals were cut in half, allowing the blood to pool. Both covenant parties were to walk between the slaughtered pieces, through the blood, symbolically proclaiming their intent to uphold the covenant to its fullest. During the procession, each covenant member would say, “May I be as these if I fail to uphold my side of the covenant!” This was obviously a very serious oath, implying the death penalty if compliance was not upheld.

In Genesis 15:10-11, the language of the text indicates that Avraham was anticipating a similar suzerain treaty ceremony.

Following G-d’s lead, Avram expected to take the oath as an equal covenant member, but instead, the usual covenant protocol was set aside and HaShem caused a deep sleep (Heb: "tar-dey-mah") to fall upon Avram. (Interestingly, this same Hebrew word, “tar-dey-mah” is used in Genesis 2:21 when G-d caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep.) In Genesis 15:17-18 a strange, mystical event takes place:

“After the sun had set and there was thick darkness, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between these animal parts. That day ADONAI made a covenant with Avram: "I have given this Land to your descendants - from the Vadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River-” Genesis 15:17-18 (CJB)

It appears that HaShem caused Avram to fall into a deep sleep in order to craft a unilateral covenant agreement in which G-d alone would pass between the animal pieces. Jewish commentaries here see the smoking fire-pot and flaming torch as a reference to the presence of HaShem. So, in a mystical scene of covenant enactment, the flaming torch and smoking fire-pot pass between the pieces in order to seal the covenant. It’s not hard to connect the symbolism here with the pillar of fire and smoke that would later lead Israel through the desert wilderness. It’s also possible to connect the brazen and golden alters used in the Tabernacle services: With the brazen alter, sacrifices were consumed by fire, and on the golden alter, incense was burned (smoke) as a sweet aroma before Adonai.

While the symbolism may not be entirely clear, what is clear from the message in Genesis 15 is that G-d alone would be responsible to fulfill this covenant, including any penalty if Avraham or his offspring should turn away from following Adonai. In effect, G-d was saying that He would pay the ultimate price for the sins of Israel.

The spiritual implications here, in view of Yeshua’s sacrifice for Israel (and the world) are nothing less than profound. G-d was in Yeshua, reconciling the world to Himself! There is no greater gift or selfless act, than what HaShem has done for those who place their trust in Him.

The only other aspect to this story that I am struggling to understand is why were those particular animals chosen for this ordinance? What would contemporaries of Abraham have understood by this? If anyone out there reading this blog post has any light to shed on this please comment!


  1. Velikovsky wrote about this in his landmark tome, "World in Collision." Nibley discusses the cosmic aspects of this ritual. I can explain the use of animals that were considered appropriate for sacrifice as representative of cosmic symbols: bovine animals, rams or lambs, doves and such. The mention of the Exodus pillar of fire and smoke is a correct association, but one must fully understand the cosmic imagery derived from things seen in Earth's ancient heavens in order to properly understand the relationship. I'd be happy to explain it to you. I offer this information in my online classes. I invite you to register and attend.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Your mention of Hugh Nibley discussing this rings a bell. Is that in Temple and Cosmos?

  3. You know, I can't recall where he discussed it. It could be T&C. Then again, it may have been in one of his many lectures. I simply don't recall. Sorry. It's the cosmology connection that is vital, just as it is vital to understanding the prophets' metaphors, scriptural symbolism and our temple rituals. It is the key to all these. It's what Nibley called "cosmism," a term he coined.