It is often said that we are a visual generation and need to see things with our eyes as well as our ears. Well turns out God though that was true thousands of years ago. Abram has just believed God that his, barren family line, will not just continue but explode like a massive firework, filling the sky with brightly coloured twinkling lights. Why then does he need help believing that God will come true on his promise of land asking:
"How am I to know that I shall posses it?"
Why does he need help in believing this? Is it a bigger promises? Is he tired out from believing the one before? Can he only believe one impossible thing before breakfast? It's hard to understand his thinking in theory but easy to relate to his predicament in practice. If I can believe God for my forgiveness surly I can believe him for everything else, yet each faith victory stands alone as a hard won battle. If I believe God for one thing today, you can be sure there will be fresh fights of faith tomorrow. What is extraordinary here is not Abram's difficulty in accepting what God says but God's willingness to help him do so.
The unfolding drama of these verses is intense. Animals are collected, killed, cut in half and laid out like landing lights on a runway. The light fades as the sun sinks in the sky evoking the anticipation that comes when the house lights of a theatre begin to dim. An even greater darkness descends and Abram falls into a deep sleep.
A voice speaks out of the blackness "know for certain...". Here is the key. The drama is played out so that Abram would "know for certain". The darkness, the voice and then the fire and the smoke. I wonder as I read if the fiery touch moved between the carcases bobbed, as if held by a person or persons or whether it floated, gliding smoothly. From what I can work out a fire pot was a sort of earthen pot used for cooking bread so it is not easily carried and yet I bet its motion was more personal then mechanical.
Why? because fire represents the presence and power of God. Moses heard God out of a burning bush. Gods people knew his presence through a pillar of fire in the desert. And Jesus baptised his people with fire at Pentecost. Going further here is tricky.
There are various theories as to what all this animal cutting and fire flickering means. It could point to the future animal sacrifices or God calling down a cruse on himself if he breaks his promise as symbolised by walking through the partitioned animals. ie If I slip up I'll get chopped up. I'm not sure what to make of these but this scene certainly stamps a memorable image on the mind. My best shot is that God is speaking a blessing ("I'll give you the land") from the context of judgment and sacrifice (standing among the animal sacrifices). All God's promises are ultimately made in the person of his son. God speaks his promises to us form the context of his crucified son. If I push it a bit further and risk allegorising I'd say the fire represents the Spirit who illuminates and applies Jesus sacrifice to us but that might be going a bit too far.
Interestingly, the pronouncement of blessing actually starts off in an unexpected direction (as if anything here is expected!). Before Abram' decedents inherit the land along with ample resources to populate it, there will be 400 years of affliction. The promise if fulfilled through and out of suffering and affliction. It seems to me the promises of God are often fulfilled in this way as God brings life from death. Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent exultation did not open up comfortable chartered jet to glory but a painful path following in his footsteps. The suffering of the servant of the LORD through which God's people emerge with great riches.
I do not think that the captivity in Egypt is a punishment on Gods people. At least here the bad guys are the Amorites, who will get far worse before God brings his judgment down upon them and released the land to his people.
In the war against unbelief God brings out a very big gun called "covenant". A binding and rather specific promise of a certain piece of land and a sober warning about hardship ahead. When he made a new convent Jesus did the same, very graphically breaking the bread in two. "This is my body", he said, "broken for you". As he took wine he said "this is the covenant in my blood". These things where given to us to remember what he did, when on the cross the house lights went down once more and in complete darkness Jesus bore our sin and shame. Then, 40 days later, the fire came.
I love the word for today emails I get. This is that they draw out of this passage:
All our fears basically come down to these two questions: First: 'Lord, will you protect me?' Second: 'Lord, will you provide for me?' With Abraham, God addresses both: '..."Do not be afraid...I am your shield, your very great reward"' (Genesis 15:1 NIV). The words, 'very great reward,' literally mean, 'I am your unfailing, inexhaustible, ever increasing source of supply.' Awesome! You don't have to go to anybody else for protection or provision; God's got you covered! And notice what happened next. God entered into a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17); He said to him: 'I'll take care of you and your descendants as long as you live.' But there was a problem. 'Then birds of prey came down on the [sacrifice], but Abram drove them away' (Genesis 15:11 NIV). There's a lesson here. Even though God has promised to take care of you, you must drive away the worries satan sends to prey on your mind. How do you do that? By standing squarely on the promises God has made to you in His Word. (The Word For Today, http://www.ucb.co.uk/, daily devotional readings are available for the UK and Republic of Ireland.)
I think the first bit about "protection and provision" is helpful. I wonder if that touches deeper issues of identity and fears that we are unloved and unvalued. I hadn't thought of the birds has having that significance but they must be in the story for some reason.