Abram’s Sure Covenant of Exodus – 40 Days of Exoduses (5)

I have passed by Genesis 15 and 16 without comment. I had originally planned to return to these as part of my study of Ishmael’s exodus, but have since decided to tackle Genesis 15 by itself as there is more than enough material to justify doing so. I will return to Genesis 16 later.

The Promise of Heirs

In Genesis 15 we find Abram shortly after his victory over Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, receiving a vision from YHWH. This is the first explicit record of a vision in the book of Genesis. In my previous post I spoke of Abraham being treated as a prophet by YHWH in chapter 18, being allowed to have input in the decisions of the Heavenly Council. The prophetic vision that Abram receives in this chapter is another, earlier, sign that he is being raised to this prophetic vocation.

Chief among Abram’s concerns is that of his need for a firstborn son and heir. At that moment in time his heir was Eliezer of Damascus, one of his homeborn servants. YHWH promises Abram that he will have an heir from his own body and then brings him outside in the vision.

YHWH directs Abram’s attention towards the stars, declaring that his descendants should be like them. The relationship between Abram’s descendants and the stars goes beyond numbers alone. The stars of heaven, created on the fourth day, are not merely characterized by their numerousness, but also by their role as rulers and light-givers (Genesis 1:14-19). Some have suggested a relationship between the blessings upon the sons of Jacob and the tribes in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, the organization of the camp in Numbers, and the signs of the zodiac. Abram’s descendants, like countless stars, shall serve as a sort of celestial people, exercising God’s rule over the earth (cf. Numbers 24:17).

The stars are also bearers of light and are related to the angels as the sons of YHWH (cf. Job 38:7; Psalm 104:4). The descendants of Abram will be sons of YHWH, light-giving rulers like the angels. This is a theme that is taken up in such places as Daniel 12:3, where the resurrected righteous shine like stars. Christians are called to be like celestial lights (Philippians 2:15; Matthew 13:43). As the salt and light of the world, we fulfilments of the Abrahamic promise of seed like the sand and the stars. The promise that Abram’s descendants would be like the stars of heaven for multitude is one that is recalled at various points during the Exodus (Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22), Moses declaring the multitude of the children of Israel to be a fulfilment of that promise.

A Remarkable Vision

Having assured Abram of numerous descendants, YHWH promises him the land also. YHWH begins his declaration that he will give Abram the land with a formula of identity that should be very familiar to us in a closely related form. ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it’ is a slight variation of the divine formula of self-identification that we typically find related to the Exodus – ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ (e.g. Leviticus 19:36; 22:33; 25:38; 26:13; Numbers 15:41; Judges 2:1). Just as he will with Abram’s descendants YHWH identifies himself to Abram through and relates to Abram on the basis of a past exodus.

Abram requests a confirming sign of YHWH’s promise, a second witness to seal YHWH’s word. YHWH instructs Abram to bring five animals – a three-year-old heifer (עגלה), a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon (v.9). Abram cuts the animals (but not the birds) in two and lays the parts out opposite to each other. Unclean vultures (Leviticus 11:13) then seek to descend upon the carcasses, but Abram drives them away (Genesis 15:11). Then, as the sun is going down, Abram falls into a deep sleep and great darkness and horror comes upon him (v.12).

God declares to Abram that his descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will serve and be afflicted for four hundred years. After this time, they will come out with great possessions. They will then, when the wickedness of the Amorites reaches its full height, return to Canaan and inherit the whole of the land (vv.16, 18-21). Here we see that Exodus is absolutely central to the promise made to and covenant made with Abram. Later in Scripture, the covenant made with Abram and the other patriarchs is presented as a primary cause of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:15).

After having declared this future to Abram, the sun goes down and it is dark. A ‘smoking oven’ and a ‘burning torch’ then pass between the pieces and YHWH makes his covenant with Abram.

The Meaning of the Vision

The reason why these particular animals are chosen, especially why their sex and age is so stipulated is difficult to determine. While Noah sacrificed of all of the clean animals (8:20), the animals selected here are of the five species that will become part of the sacrificial system. These are the species of animals that will represent Israel to YHWH. However, although a heifer could have been used for a peace offering (Leviticus 3:1), the sex for the peace offering was seemingly a matter of indifference. Nowhere is the use of a heifer stipulated in the regular sacrifices (the red heifer did not function as a regular sacrifice and the ritual of Deuteronomy 21:1-9). The only time a she-goat is stipulated is in the case of a sin offering for the commoner (Leviticus 4:27-28; Numbers 15:27). The only other occasion where a similar ritual is recorded in Scripture, a male calf is used (עגל – Jeremiah 34:18-19).

Within the Levitical system we learn that the he-goat represents the civil leader or the nation as a civil entity as a whole (Leviticus 4:22-23; 9:3; Numbers 15:24), the bull the high priest or the whole religious assembly (Leviticus 4:3, 13-14), and the pigeon and turtledove are especially associated with the poor. The ram is the most fundamental sacrifice, particularly associated with the firstborn son (in the Akedah or at the Passover, for instance), representing persons who are neither holders of high office, nor of low social degree. The female animals would symbolize the counterparts of each of these (the sex of birds is never stipulated). The she-goat is the regular citizen (Leviticus 4:27-28; Numbers 15:27) and the ewe is the daughter or sister of Israel (2 Samuel 12:3).

The heifer symbolizes the holy people as the priestly virgin bride. The heifer doesn’t function in the regular sacrifices because the priestly virgin bride is represented to YHWH by the priests, the husbands of Israel. The bull calves or bulls represented the priests (note the use of an עגל in Leviticus 9:2), who in turn represented YHWH’s husbanding of Israel. The bull calf (עגל) in Jeremiah 34:18 represents the priesthood (which in turn represents YHWH). In passing through the pieces, Israel summoned the pieces as witnesses against them should they break the covenant, and invoking the same fate for themselves in such a situation. The fact that Aaron formed a golden calf was not an arbitrary form of idolatry, but was related to the symbolism of the animals within the sacrificial system (as Leithart has observed, the golden calf was a replacement for Moses).

The dismembered animals symbolize Israel – as I have already remarked, these are the particular species of animals that will represent Israel in the sacrificial system. More particularly, however, they symbolize Israel in the state of bondage in Egypt, where Israel was without king or priest, without public representatives or official leaders. They are three-years-old, still young, but having attained to maturity. Three is a significant number in Genesis and Exodus, being associated with key transitions or moments of destiny on several occasions. It possibly also relates to the reference to the return in the ‘fourth generation’ in v.16. Hence, the nation is symbolized by: a) a heifer – the priestly bride nation without representative priestly husbands; b) a female goat – the royal nation without rulers; c) a ram – the firstborn males; d) a turtledove and young pigeon – the poor, oppressed, and enslaved. As we read of the Exodus, this is the state that we shall see: the heifers are struggling to calve, the goats are being burdened, the rams are being killed, and the birds are being caged.

Torn in two, the dead body of the nation of Israel lies in Egypt (cf. Revelation 11:7-10). The unclean carrion birds of the nations seek to descend upon the carcass to pick it apart, but Abram chases them away, as on account of his remembrance of his covenant with Abram, YHWH protects Israel from Pharaoh’s attacks.

Darkness and the Passing of the Torch

The references to the descent of the sun and the arrival of darkness in this passage are quite noteworthy. Abram has already been directed to look up at the stars in verse 5, so we know that it isn’t daytime. Nevertheless, the passage underlines the coming of darkness in quite an exaggerated manner: ‘when the sun was going down’ (v.12), ‘great darkness fell upon him’ (v.12), ‘the sun went down and it was dark’ (v.17). The arrival of (an unnatural) darkness is a very important theme. The sun doesn’t rise again in the text until the time of the destruction of the four cities of the plain (19:23). We see the same thing in Jacob’s sojourn with Laban: the sun descends at Bethel, where he has a night vision (28:11), and doesn’t rise again until after he crosses the Jabbok and finishes wrestling with YHWH (32:31). Once again, following a dangerous encounter with YHWH by night as he goes down to Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26), the sun doesn’t rise over Moses again in the text until the waters of the Red Sea close over the Egyptians (14:27).

The descent to darkness is a return to the darkness that preceded the creation (Genesis 1:2) and, as such, is a preparation for new creation. Abram’s ‘deep sleep’ is also a descent to a death-like state, one that will lead either to final destruction or to resurrection. It is the same ‘deep sleep’ into which Adam was placed when YHWH formed Eve out of his side (Genesis 2:21). Within Abram’s deep sleep, YHWH will raise up a royal priesthood from his loins, from the animals that symbolize his people’s powerlessness and death.

This descent into death is one of horror and great darkness, the turning out of all lights, the extinguishing of all stars. Within the terror of this Stygian pitch, a smoking oven and a burning torch pass between the dismembered pieces of the animals. This is the Passover (the same terminology is used in Exodus 12:12, 23), after the plague of darkness, where YHWH passes through Egypt and Israel, bringing death to the Egyptians, but raising dismembered Israel to new national life (cf. Ezekiel 37). This is also related to the new creation events of Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit hovers over the water, Genesis 8:1, where the wind (Spirit?) from YHWH passes over the earth, and strong east wind that divides the waters in Exodus 14:21.

At the point where Israel’s national death seems absolutely assured, on the shores of the Red Sea, we see an event that recalls this covenant-making ceremony. The Angel of YHWH and the pillar of cloud/fire pass through the camp of Israel, moving from before them to standing behind them (Exodus 14:19). The torch in Abram’s vision represents the Angel of YHWH; the smoking oven represents the pillar of cloud/fire (the Angel of YHWH and the glory cloud of the Presence are intimately related, but distinct). The children of Israel can then pass through the witnessing heaps of the waters of the Red Sea. When the Egyptians attempt to do the same, they are broken in pieces and become carrion (Psalm 74:14). Unsurprisingly, as we shall see in the future, the Red Sea crossing is recounted in terms that invoke the themes of creation, much as Abram’s night vision.

The Animals and the Sacrificial System

I have already observed that the animals of Genesis 15 are the animals that represent Israel in the sacrificial system. We can relate the elements of Abram’s night vision to practices within the sacrificial system. If we read Leviticus 1, we can see the same pattern. Bulls, he-goats, rams, turtledoves, and young pigeons are offered to YHWH. The animals are skinned, they are divided into parts, the head and the fat are laid on the altar, the entrails and legs are separately washed and placed on the altar too, the fire passes between them, and they are consumed into YHWH’s presence in the sacrificial pillar of fire and smoke, being rejoined in a more glorious form.

The pattern of division and glorious rejoining through the fiery Spirit is one manifested in events in sacred history as well. Flesh and bone are taken from Adam’s side and Eve is built from it and then joined to him in marriage. Moses is set apart as the head through the dividing work of God at the Red Sea (cf. Exodus 14:31) and the feet and entrails of the people are symbolically washed. Then God joins Moses to Israel in a more glorious way through the covenant given at Sinai, as Moses ascends into YHWH’s fiery thundercloud and YHWH’s Law and Presence are given. Elijah, Elisha’s ‘head’ is removed (2 Kings 2:5) and ascends into heaven in the fire, after they have passed through the water. The Spirit of Elijah then descends to Elisha, along with Elijah’s ‘skin’ or hairy mantle, creating a new and more glorious unity, as Elisha completes Elijah’s commission in his mighty Spirit. Christ is separated from his disciples through his death and resurrection. After his ascension, the Spirit reunites the separated parts as a glorious new Pentecostal body, a unity of Bridegroom and Bride.

James Jordan suggests, rightly I believe, that the sacrifices should be read as memorials of YHWH’s covenant. In offering whole burnt – or ascension – offerings, the offerer is calling upon YHWH to recall his covenant promise to resurrect Abram’s dead seed, to exodus them from Egypt and from the grave and re-member them into his presence. Abram’s vision reveals the fundamental symbolic covenant promise that underlies the entire sacrificial system and which anticipates future fulfilment in Christ.

Summing Up

YHWH’s covenant with Abram is the cause of the Exodus: he brings Israel out of Egypt because he loved Abram and swore an oath to him (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:15). In Genesis 15, YHWH declares the Exodus in detail to Abram and, in a vision, he reveals what he will accomplish. In this vision, YHWH reveals both decreation – the judgment of death on Egypt – and new creation – the raising of dead Israel. This is all fulfilled in the Passover. Exodus is revealed to be at the heart of YHWH’s covenant promise, exodus from Egypt and exodus from the tomb. YHWH assures Abram of his promise by passing through the pieces himself, declaring that, if he fails to keep his promise, he will become like those pieces himself. This covenant promise is constantly appealed to in the sacrifices of Israel and is fulfilled in Christ. Genesis 15 reveals that Exodus is more than merely a pattern of divine activity: it is a certain promise of divine deliverance.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Genesis, Lent, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Abram’s Sure Covenant of Exodus – 40 Days of Exoduses (5)

  1. Pingback: The Faithless Father-in-Law and the Wrestling Wives – 40 Days of Exoduses (10) | Alastair's Adversaria

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  3. Pingback: The Testing of the Throne-Bearers – 40 Days of Exoduses (20) | Alastair's Adversaria

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