And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
What an intriguing passage of Scripture and even more so, the interaction of God with Abram. Abram has just expressed his belief in God by placing faith in His promise to give Abram a multitude of descendants, even though he and Sarah are barren. One of the greatest declarations of faith and promises in the Bible. God further promises to give to Abram the land (7). Abram wants to know how he can be sure that he will inherit this land. I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that Abram was thinking this would take some time and may even be something his children finally accomplish; after all he is virtually by himself and is not exactly in a position to take this land by force.
So God makes a covenant with Abram, hence the animal sacrifices, the splitting of the animals in two and they are laid opposite one another like barriers running parallel to one another. Most theologians surmise that the act of sacrifice and splitting of the animals was showing the seriousness of the covenant and if one broke that covenant then the same fate would be their punishment.
In any event God was making, better yet, ratifying His original covenant with Abram (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:17), but in this case God passed between the pieces, while Abram slept (v. 12). God must have imprinted the thoughts in Abram’s mind or God communicated to him in a dream since he was sound asleep but God explains that his descendants will inherit and possess the land – four generations down the road. Frankly, pretty monumental stuff in God’s redemptive purposes.
But look what God has Abram do – he finds five kinds of animals: a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtle dove and a young pigeon (v. 9). Abram has the messy job of killing the animals and then separating the carcasses into two parts and laying them opposite each other – wow, what a mess; can you imagine separating a heifer’s carcass in two? Certainly not impossible, but not a five minute job. This seems like nothing less than a difficult, bloody mess and I bet it took some time to get this all done. He gets them all prepared, lays them out on the ground, and then waits for God’s instructions. While he is waiting, birds of prey swoop down to pick clean the fresh meat from the carcasses. So while Abram is waiting for the next critical instruction, which appears to take quite a while since verse twelve begins by saying “now when the sun was going down…”, Abram is left to simply guard dead carcasses from birds of prey for some period of time, now that does not sound very spiritual! In fact, this whole thing seems to have worn Abram out – carving up animals, preparing them for sacrifice, cleaning up (some) blood, laying them on the ground and standing around guarding carcasses by swatting away opportunistic birds from getting a free meal does not sound glamorous or very spiritual – mostly hard, sweaty work.. Really!! He keeps this up until the sun goes down and still… nothing from God. In fact, he waits so long that he falls asleep (12).
You would think that with the significance of this moment, the formal, ratification of the great covenant promise from God, that God would have given Abram some greater, prestigious, more significant role in this ceremony. At least God could have allowed Abram to walk with God between the pieces as a representative of his family… or something. Nope, instead God has him do the messy job of preparing everything so that God can ratify the covenant by passing between the pieces… while Abram is SLEEPING; he missed the stinking ceremony! (I mean that literally – have you ever been around dead carcasses?)
It does remind me of a few things: First, God asked Abram to do some hard service and that is what he did. It was messy and hard and he did not even get to participate in the final ceremony. Secondly, while God was gracious to include Abram he was not the center of attention – God was! God does not share His glory with anyone but he will give us the privilege to serve His purpose in the way He chooses, even if it is messy. Thirdly, Abram was not going to be able to enjoy any of these promises in their fulfillment. He would have a son and be buried at a good old age (v. 4, 15)… that’s it, nothing more, wow! His descendants who imitate Abram’s faith would possess the land and see the fulfillment of these promises… it may not seem very spiritual, but it was exactly what God wanted Abram to do.