We often complain that no one stands by their word in our modern times. Handshakes have long been a thing of the past is when it comes to sealing a deal and in reality there is almost no such thing as a binding contract. We’ve come to a point where whoever has the most lawyers wins, no matter what was put in the fine print. Maybe we need to go back to the way the ancients sealed a contract.
In ancient times, one or both of the parties would act out the consequences of failing to keep their agreement. They might throw sand on their head as a way of saying they would be buried if they failed to keep their word. Perhaps they would act out being beaten with a rod or a whip of some sort. One of the most common rituals in early times, we find being acted out several times in the Old Testament. It was commonly known as a blood covenant. In this covenant ritual they would cut one or more animals in half and then one or both of the parties would walk between the pieces of the animal. To our modern sensibilities it may seem brutal, but in essence they would be saying, “If I should fail to keep this covenant, then may I be treated like this animal.” It was a vivid reminder of the importance of keeping one’s word. Most often this covenant ritual was used when a king or prominent leader wanted to make sure that their subject was going to follow through in fulfilling their promise. At other times, both parties would walk through the animal pieces, which is what we see with Jonathan and David in 1 Sam. 18. Jonathan had promised to do David no harm, even though Jonathan was heir to the throne. David was promising to care for Jonathan and his family after he became king. They called each other to be true to their word through this blood covenant.
Perhaps the most striking incident where a blood covenant was invoked is in Gen. 15. You’ll remember, early in the chapter Abram had been wondering out loud how the Lord was going to keep His promise to make him into a great nation and to bless the world through his offspring, when to this point, he has no offspring. As we looked at previously, the Lord reaffirmed His promise and Abram believed Him, thus being counted as a righteous or blameless in the sight of God in that moment. So Paul would come to use Abraham as our example of what it means to be justified by faith. Immediately after Abraham is declared to be righteous, he asks, “How will I know that this promise will be fulfilled?” (v.8) In this question Abraham is asking for a covenant. He’s not doubting the Lord so much as he’s doubting himself. He’s wants to know what his obligations will be. So in honor of his request the Lord says, “Go get some animals.”
One of the striking details about this particular covenant arrangement is the number of animals. In calling for three animals and two different birds the Lord is saying this is a covenant of great magnitude, by no means to be taken lightly. But the truly amazing thing is what takes place when the covenant is ratified. In killing and arranging the animals, Abraham would have been anticipating that he would be the one to walk between the pieces of the animals. That would have been the standard practice, the servant obligating himself to the master. So Abraham chases away the birds of prey in preparation for his covenant walk.
But Abraham is never asked to walk or even given the chance. The Lord causes Abraham to fall into a deep sleep and surrounds him with what the Scripture describes as a “dreadful darkness.” In the midst of that darkness the Lord gives him a glimpse into the future of Abraham’s offspring. Then as the evening comes, Abraham watches as a blazing torch and a smoking fire pot passes between the pieces. That is the truly amazing moment! The Lord Himself, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, is obligating Himself to the covenant. In not allowing Abraham to walk between the pieces, the Lord is declaring to Abraham that He alone will keep the promises made. As he was arranging the animals, Abraham wondered if he would be able to uphold his end of the bargain. In walking through the pieces, the Lord was saying, “You can’t, so I will. I will be torn for your failures, I will be cast into utter darkness for all the places you fall short. I will bear the consequences of violating this covenant for you.”
And so He did. The Lord Jesus Himself stepped down from His eternal throne and clothed Himself in our humanity. He came to fulfill the promise made to Abraham, that Abraham’s seed/offspring would be a blessing to all the world. He lived the life that we should have lived securing a righteousness for us that we could never gain on our own. But His reward for that perfect life and perfect record was to be torn and nailed to a cross. Rather than the blood of a heifer, a ram or a goat, His own blood was shed, not for His violation of the covenant, but for ours. He was cast in to ultimate darkness for our sin, separated from the Father so that we might be brought near. And because He is raised from the dead we are under a New Covenant, one that He ratified by His death and resurrection. Our obligation then is to follow in the footsteps of Abraham by believing, putting the full weight of our confidence in Him and the work He has done. In so doing, like Abraham, we will not only be blessed, but also made capable of being a blessing to a world in need.