Jewish tradition has an old saying: “The deeds of the ancestors are a sign for the descendants.” The strange doings of Gen. 15 anticipate not only the slavery to come, but also the climax of redemption afterwards, where Sinai signals the larger covenant between God and the people.
So far in Genesis, it has been established that God has promised land and descendants to Avram, who has proven himself to be obedient and resourceful. In chapter 15, our story begins with Avram having a vision that God will be his protector and will reward him, a promise that Avram questions by observing that the reward he seeks, children, have so far been withheld from him. God answers him by confirming that Avram’s own, not-yet-born son will be his heir, and by taking him outside to show him the stars, symbolizing his myriad descendants. At that point, Avram’s trust in God is restored.
And yet–moments later (vv. 7-8) when God turns to the promise of the land (I am YHWH / who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans / to give you this land, to inherit it”), Avram once again counters with doubt, saying, “by what shall I know that I will inherit it?” God answers him by engaging in one of the strangest rituals in the Bible, known by later generations as the Covenant Between the Pieces. Avram is bidden to take certain animals and cut them in half, with the pieces facing each other and birds kept intact. As night falls, Avram falls into “deep-slumber… and here, fright and great darkness” (v.11). At that moment, God’s message is quite dramatic. In this bizarre setting, Avram is given a vision of the future of his people, beginning with a word from his very question, “know”:
You must know, yes, know, / that your seed will be sojourners in a land not theirs; / they will put them in servitude an afflict them / for four hundred years. / But the nation to which they are in servitude–I will bring judgment upon them, /and after that they will go out…
In other words, we have here a prophetic moment about Israel’s future slavery in Egypt. It is capped by an ominous backdrop, the appearance of “night-blackness…a smoking oven, a fiery torch / that crossed between those pieces” (v. 17), followed by God promising to give the land to Avram’s descendants.
The hero’s doubts and the divine promises are clear, but what I find particularly striking is what one might call the special effects. It might have been enough to portray the events purely in speech, but why the animals and why the mention of Avram’s fear and dread, along with a description of a great darkness, a smoking oven, and a fiery torch? In the case of the cut animals, Nahum Sarna notes parallel rituals elsewhere in the ancient Near East, where covenants are made between kings and others. But it is the night, the fear, and the fire that particularly get our attention. What are these mysterious elements trying to say?
There is a later parallel to what happens here, in a moment that also focuses on covenant. When the Israelites gather at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19), it is specifically to make a covenant with God. They too witness dramatic fire and smoke when they encounter God, just as Avram does in our story. They are frightened, as Avram is. But perhaps the most important parallel is the identification of God in Exodus, at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (20:2), similar to God’s defining himself to Avram, mentioned above, as the one “who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans” (Gen. 15:7). Thus, Avram’s origins mirror the people’s as a nation, connecting his personal destiny with Israel’s foundational narrative in the book of Exodus.
Our story, then, is a spoiler. There is both sadness and happiness in knowing the future. We see what we gain and what we lose, the good times and the bad, the suffering and the joy–all of it encapsulated here. And yet, the overall message is hopeful, with liberation and revelation to come. That is the ultimate promise of the covenant between God and Israel, isn’t it?