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The Bloody Business of a Promise

Making a promise was a bloody endeavour in the ancient world.

A serious promise can take the form of a covenant, which is an agreement or contract between two parties, bound by stipulations or oaths. In our modern society, we perceive covenants to be less meaningful, therefore we do not fear the repercussions of breaking our oath—such as perjury in court or discarded wedding vows.

Covenants are important to God. If it were not so, he would not have engaged in them with his people. But unlike humankind, when God makes a promise, he keeps it—perfectly and abundantly. So what covenants did God make with humankind? And how does it impact our modern lives?

By understanding the ancient process of making a covenant, believers are given their origin story. Israelite history is the Reformed Christian’s history, too. By taking a deeper look into just one of God’s covenants—the promise made with Abraham, the price of its failure, and the Father’s perfect plan—we see that God not only met its steep terms but exceeded them to restore a relationship broken by sin.

The Covenant Promised

In the ancient world, entering into a covenant meant the shedding of blood. In the Hebrew, “made a covenant” can more literally be translated as “cut a covenant”.[1] Those making a covenant together would be required to cut an animal in half, swear their covenant oath, then walk between the bloody path of animal halves. This action would indicate their understanding that if one of them were to break the terms of the oath, the offender would be handled in the same way the animals were handled, meaning death. This is the type of covenant that was common in the ancient world. And because we have a God who meets us where we are, using terms we can understand, this is the type of covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15.

God promised Abraham land and that he would bless and keep his descendants. The Israelites were to be His people, set apart from the other nations in principle and practice—a people who belonged to the one true God and worshipped Him alone. To affirm his promises, God instructed Abraham to take a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon and cut them in half. Abraham did so.

Yet instead of both parties walking between the halves, God caused Abraham to sleep while a “smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17 ESV). These items represented God himself, an imagery recognized by the Israelites of the exodus from Egypt.[2] God swore an oath––being the only active participant in the exchange—and walked the path of agreement as the smoke and flame.

God cut a covenant with Abraham and took on the full weight of its failure.

The Covenant Price

God promised to pay the price in blood if the covenant broke, whether it was Abraham or God who broke it. But a perfectly faithful and holy God could never break a promise—it would be contrary to his nature. And perfection is contrary to ours.

The Israelites were not faithful to their God, but followed their sinful desires into idolatry and disobedience. They did not hold up their end of the bargain. The only thing God asked his people to do was to trust him—trust and obey. This is still what God requires of his people. And just like the Israelites, it remains a difficult task for us to carry out faithfully.

The Israelites were eventually judged for their disobedience—after many generations of God’s patient pleas to repent—but they were not cast out from his presence forever. God did not revoke his promises. They broke the covenant; yet, in a great act of mercy for his people, only God burdened the final cost.

Therefore, from the very beginning, our sovereign God freely entered into a covenant with his people already knowing that his bloodshed would be needed—his death would be necessary.

The Covenant Perfected

Jesus, heir of heaven and member of the triune God, shed his blood on the cross at Calvary in payment of our unfaithfulness. By doing so, he established a new covenant with his people that would end the continual bloodshed and the atonement process altogether (see Romans 8:3-4; Hebrews 8: 6-13). Jesus was the final unblemished lamb to be sacrificed that made amends for the sins of many (John 1:29, Hebrews 9:26). It is a new covenant, based on his grace. Under the covenant of grace, Christ’s death provided a path for all nations to be grafted into God’s family of faith. God used the one nation of Israel to bless all nations, thus fulfilling his promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5) and “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The apostle Paul explains this further: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”(Romans 4:13 ESV).

In continuation of God restoring us to himself, he sealed believers with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the “guarantee of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14). We are restored to God in this life and the one to come through belief in His son. We are given the gifts of faith and security, as God promised to never leave us (Deuteronomy 31:6) or lose us (John 6:39). Believers are firmly established to God—held tight and rescued from sin by his limitless love for us. A love so fierce, it demanded his death.

Humanity has hope because God made a promise—and we have eternal life only because it was established by the ever-perfect promise keeper. It was a promise made in a moment that would outlast the millennia. It was a price that proved the unparalleled depth of the Father’s love for his people—and the inherited worth of being his own. There is no investment more secure than one freely given by the God of the universe himself, who resides outside of time and space, creation and limitation, and human comprehension.

We will enjoy his friendship forever because his oath, along with his blood, are the final authority.

 


[1] Vaillancourt, Ian J. “The Dawning of Redemption: The Story of the Pentateuch and the Hope of the Gospel”. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2022, p.96.

[2] Vallaincourt, “The Dawning of Redemption: The Story of the Pentateuch and the Hope of the Gospel”, p.98.

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