Abram has persistent questions. How can he know that YHWH will establish Abram’s descendants as his nation in this land when Abram will be long dead before this ever happens? YHWH responds by offering to commit himself to Abram with a covenant:
Genesis 15:18 (NIV)
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates …”
The covenant is YHWH’s idea, but he uses a ceremony that meant something to Abram. We find it strange that Abram was commanded to slice animals in half to create some kind of sacred pathway between the pieces (15:9-10, 17), but Abram doesn’t find it strange. Presumably this covenant ceremony was meaningful for him in his culture. Having prepared the sacred path, Abram tries to protect it (15:11).
What happens next is a prophetic experience. Remember, this story introduced the language of prophecy (dā·ḇār YHWH) into Scripture for the first time (15:1, 4).
The sun sets. A deep sleep overtakes Abram—the horror of a great darkness (15:12). The deep and dreadful darkness is a prophetic experience of his death (compare 15:15). It’s true: Abram will die long before YHWH’s promises of establishing his nation through Abram’s descendants in this land are fulfilled.
YHWH explains that before his promises are realized, Abram’s descendants will travel to another land where they will suffer affliction. YHWH will deal with the earthly powers that enslave them, and he will bring them back to be his people in this land (15:13-14).
Abram will live out a good, long life (15:15). But the promises won’t be fulfilled in his lifetime, or in the lifetime of his children or his grandchildren or his great-grandchildren. The one who reigns over the earth is not ready to disinherit the Amorites yet (15:16).
YHWH now seals his commitment to Abram. In the darkness Abram cannot see the person who passes along the prepared path, but he sees the smoke and fire he carries. YHWH enacts the covenant, binding himself to the nation who will represent his reign.
Some have suggested that the parties who passed between the pieces were invoking a curse on themselves, as if saying, “May I be cut in half like these animals if I don’t keep this covenant.” While it is possible to find evidence of such an attitude from a later time, there is nothing to suggest that meaning in this text. What is clear is that the sovereign expects his representatives to suffer at the hands of rulers who abuse their power, and that YHWH commits himself to step in among the broken pieces to lead his people out. The fire and cloud of smoke resonate with the story of God’s presence at the exodus.
This revelation to Abram makes it clear that the reestablishment of God’s rule on earth will be more circuitous than he might have imagined. The exodus will be a wonderful and paradigmatic event. And yet what God doesn’t explain to Abram is that the path to restoration will be even longer than that. Through the stories of Judges and Kings, Abram’s descendants will face further oppression, division, decimation, exile and return and centuries of further affliction before God finally brings the Messiah who walks among the brokenness to lead his people into the liberty of the kingdom of God.
We are still living that story—the amazing and all-encompassing narrative of the kingdom of God.
What others are saying
John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 161:
At dark a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. This fire represents Yahweh, passing between the pieces of the sacrifice to seal the covenant. In the ancient ritual of making a covenant the parties passed together between the pieces of the sacrifice to formalize the covenant. God’s passing between the pieces alone means that he was making a unilateral, unconditional covenant. Many scholars believe that this rite meant that the parties submitted themselves to the same fate as these animals should they fail to keep the covenant (e.g., Jer. 34:18). That interpretation faces difficulties in that God is the party who passed between the pieces. D. Petersen (“Covenant Ritual: A Traditio-Historical Perspective,” BR 22 , pp. 7–18) traces the history of this practice and finds that the idea of putting oneself under a curse by passing between the pieces did not arise until the first millennium b.c. In the earlier period this rite was to create a new relationship.
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 332:
Most modern commentators take their cue from v 18, “The Lord made [literally, cut] a covenant with Abram,” and from Jer 34:18, which speaks of the people passing between a dismembered calf. This act is then interpreted as an enacted curse. “May God make me like this animal, if I do not fulfill the demands of the covenant.” A curse like this is actually attested in one of the eighth-century treaties (ANESTP, 532). In Genesis, of course, it is God himself who walks between the pieces, and it is suggested that here God is invoking the curse on himself, if he fails to fulfill the promise.
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 423:
Mesopotamian rituals of this period feature a sacred torch and censer in the initiation of rites, particularly nocturnal rites of purification. Purification is accomplished by the torch and censer being moved alongside of someone or something. While in Mesopotamia the torch and oven represented particular deities, here they represent Yahweh, perhaps as the purifier. This is one of many instances where the Lord uses familiar concepts and motifs to reveal himself.
Read Genesis 15:7-21.