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2019-07-13

Saturday Series: Genesis 15

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This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

  • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
  • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
  • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.