Read all of Genesis 15.
Genesis 15 is an unusual chapter. Without some knowledge of the historical and cultural background, we would be lost! What is going on here, anyway? Why are the animals cut in half and arranged in two parallel rows? What is represented by the smoking furnace and flaming torch passing through the corridor between the pieces? And is there meaning to the action of Abraham driving away the birds of prey? What is the meaning of this ceremony?
The context of this unusual chapter is God's covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 12 God initiated an unconditional covenant with Abraham, re-affirming it in chapter 13 after Lot made his worldly choice. In Genesis 15, after Abraham requested a visible sign for ratification of the Lord's promise (v8), God conducted a covenant-confirming ceremony with Abraham with a solemn "cutting rite." This ritual for treaty confirmation was common in Abraham's day--in fact, covenants made then were said to be "cut." God's promise of a special land for Abraham's descendants was especially stressed. Both at the beginning (v7) and conclusion (v18) of the ceremony, God reiterated the covenantal provision of the Promised Land: "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates" (v18).
In passing, we should recognize that the Abrahamic Covenant granted by God was an unconditional covenant. Although the natural descendants of Abraham were not faithful to God, God has never revoked this covenant. So the covenant is still valid today--including the grant of the Promised Land. Although some of the blessings of God's promises to Abraham and his descendants have been temporarily postponed, they have not been revoked. They will be fulfilled when Israel returns to the Lord.These promises should not be spiritualized or allegorized by saying that they are fulfilled in the Church. There is no indication in Scripture that the Church is to be considered the "new Israel." Restored Israel is the believing Jewish people of the future, and with them the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant will be fully realized. Romans 11 is abundantly clear on this point. All the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant will be literally fulfilled. God does not break or change His unconditional promises.
Certainly there is an application in all of this for the Christian. God will fulfill all His promises to us (2 Corinthians 1:20)! God's covenant promises to us were confirmed by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. All the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, including those in this covenant ceremony, pointed forward to the one great sacrifice of Christ. Those who place their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior are "qualified to share in the inheritance" (Colossians 1:10). We have been given spiritual "land"! God has given us "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, preserved in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:4). More of God's wonderful promises to us are listed in Ephesians 1:3-14, and these promises are guaranteed to us by the Holy Spirit!
While the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15, with its slain animal corridor, may seem quite unusual to us today, it was not unusual then. As already mentioned, covenant confirmations were normally associated with "cutting rite" ceremonies. In Jeremiah 34:18-20, we read, "The men who have violated My covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before Me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth." Here we see that not only passing between the parts of a slain animal was typical practice for confirming or "cutting a covenant," but we see from verse 20 the essential meaning in such a ceremony. Symbolically the parties were saying that if either side broke the covenant, they deserved to die like the sacrificial animal or animals.
So what may have at first seemed unusual and confusing about the events of Genesis 15 now becomes clear. What was unusual about this covenant ceremony, however, was that Abraham was strictly an observer. He did not pass between the pieces, nor did God and Abraham walk through the pieces together. God alone passed between the parts of the sacrificed animals. This was very significant. God was confirming that His covenant with Abraham and his descendants was an unconditional covenant. This was not a joint venture. It was a unilateral covenant. When God's presence, symbolized by the smoking oven and flaming torch, passed through that corridor of slain animals, God was saying in effect that His covenant with Abraham and his descendants would stand, regardless of their continued faithfulness and obedience to the commands of the Lord.
Smoking Oven and Blazing Torch
Why did God choose to use the symbols of the oven and the torch to reveal His presence? The smoking furnace or fire pot represents God's holiness--He is a God who must judge sin. The blazing torch speaks of God's guidance--He is a God who directs His people. Whenever God makes a covenant with man, both aspects of God's character are involved: His judgment of sin because man is sinful, and His guidance because man needs to be led. God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants would involve judgment. Over the years God has judged and disciplined the Jewish people--from their time in Egypt right down to the present time. But God's guidance has faithfully led and preserved the Jewish people for 4000 years--and will continue to do so.
Certainly there's an application here for the Christian as well. Judgment is involved in God's covenant with us. Our sins are eternally forgiven because of the cross of Christ, but as children in God's family, God must judge and discipline us for our sins, and put us "through the furnace" to refine us and purge out the impurities. But the burning torch is there as well! The Lord is always there to guide us. Aren't you glad about that?
In verses 12-16, God promised Abraham that the covenant and its blessings would be fulfilled--but not immediately. The horror of the thick and dreadful darkness that came over Abraham when he fell asleep was a dramatic accompaniment to the news that his descendants would experience bondage and slavery in Egypt for four hundred years. God assured Abraham, however, that there would be a great Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and that they would return to the Promised Land. Just as God promised, Abraham died in peace at the good old age of 175 (v15).Under bondage and suffering in Egypt, his descendants were forged into a nation before God brought them out with great possessions (v13-14). All these promises literally took place. Exodus 12:35-36 tells us that "the Israelites asked the Egyptians for silver and gold and for clothing... and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians." God meant what He said when He promised to give the land to Abraham's descendants, and although there was a delay in the fulfillment, those promises were never withdrawn or denied.
God always has good reasons for His delays. In this case, one of the reasons is given: "The sin of the Amorites has not reached its full measure" (v16). The Amorites were a major tribe in Canaan. Their lifestyle was evil, and the worship of their false gods included many depraved practices. God patiently allowed the Amorites many years to turn from their evil ways, but they never repented. They were finally judged when, at God's command, Israel conquered and finally took possession of the Promised Land. In order to show mercy to a wicked Canaanite tribe, God actually delayed His promises to His people, Israel! "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise...He is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
The lesson for us is obvious. God has reasons for His delays, but remember that His delays are not necessarily His denials. We need to remember this when we're feeling discouraged or doubtful. When it comes to promises given in His Word, God's delays are never denials! Perhaps you're going through a difficult time, and wondering why God seems to delay in answering your prayers. Maybe you're praying on the basis of a promise in Scripture that you feel God has given to you. Don't be discouraged if God's answer to your prayers is delayed or if you don't seem to see God fulfilling His promises in your life. Remember, God's confirmed promises are sure, and He has many good reasons for His delays.
Now, what about the "crows"? In verse 11 we see that birds of prey--most likely crows or ravens or some kind of vulture--came down upon the carcasses of the ceremonial animals, and Abraham had to drive them away. Why did the Holy Spirit include that particular detail in Scripture? Was it just to record the facts of what actually happened, and thus give the account more historical authenticity? There may be a spiritual lesson here for us to appreciate and put into practice.
In Scripture, birds sometimes represent satanic activity. In the parable of the sower, the Lord Himself explained that the birds which ate the seed represented the action of Satan: "Some people are like the seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them" (Mark 4:15). The birds of prey in Genesis 15 may be another spiritual picture of satanic activity. These unclean birds attempted to tear and devour the sacrificial animals, the visible part of the sacred covenant-confirming ceremony. They had to be driven away! While God could have prevented the birds from disturbing the ceremony, or driven the vultures away Himself, He gave Abraham the responsibility to care for the visible signs of the covenant.
Is there not an important spiritual lesson for us in this episode? Besides our inheritance in heaven, God has given us many precious possessions ("land") for our present life here on earth. Satan can never take away the "land grants" which God has given us, but he will do all he can to defile the evidence of God's covenant with believers and will try to divert us from our spiritual commitment. Satan will do whatever he can to disrupt and tear apart the sacred things of God.
As individual Christians, we have been granted the privilege of worshiping and serving our Lord, and of bringing praise and glory to God by our obedient lives while we are here on this earth. (See Colossians 1:10-14, for example.) If we are not alert and watchful, or if we fail to recognize Satan's destructive activity, the quality and quantity of our worship and our service will suffer. Distractions that consume our thoughts or our time are often the devil's attempts to disturb our worship and our service. The troublesome birds of nagging doubt or inconvenient irritations can keep individual Christians from a joyful and worshipful lifestyle. We must drive the birds away!
In the Church, God has granted us the joy of corporate worship, encouragement, teaching and fellowship with believers (Acts 2:42, 44-47). The birds of prey will seize on any area of weakness, pride, complacency or inattention to disturb, disrupt and even destroy the work of God in our local fellowships. Satan is constantly watching for opportunities to wreak havoc from without--or to cause dissension and split God's people from within. Everything from legal threats to legalistic regulations, including "doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1), must be recognized as satanic birds of prey hovering over the holy. If we fail to drive away the satanic birds of prey, our local churches will become places of spiritual stumbling and destruction rather than havens for the worship of God and the encouragement and nurture of His people! God has given us the responsibility to guard against the depredations of Satan (Jude 3-4), and we must take this responsibility very seriously.
Christian families are under great attack today. The devil's birds of prey are doing their best to break down the family structure that God has set up. Our society and culture are riddled with the destruction wreaked on the family by Satan's "crows," and these demonic forces are constantly devising ways to destroy the Christian home. They must be prevented from entering our homes! They are scavengers of the sacred! Because we live in a post-Christian culture, biblical education in the family is more crucial today than ever. We can expect that family Bible teaching and devotional time is one key area targeted for satanic attack. Unfortunately, Satan's destructive disturbances and distractions have all but destroyed devotional times in many Christian homes. If we are not vigilant to drive away the encroaching vultures, it won't be long before our families are thoroughly secularized--with dire results for our marriages and our children.
Using the "Big Stick"
How do we drive off the birds of prey? We use the Word of God! The Word of God is the big stick for driving away the birds of prey! As we read andmeditate upon Scripture to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), the Word of God will transform and protect us from the birds of doubt and deception that desire to ravage our thoughts and our lives. Obedience to the Word of God is essential. Many times the birds of prey penetrate the cracks in our homes and churches because we have allowed the values and attitudes of this satanic world system to creep into our thought patterns and lifestyles. If our minds are renewed through the Word of God we will be motivated to practice lifestyles that differ radically from this world's lifestyles, and the vultures will be driven away! Furthermore, we must obey the Word by practicing the biblical balance of love and discipline in our families and churches. If we don't, the vultures will find a foothold. All too often a lack of discipline--or a lack of love--has provided the unclean birds a sanctuary for destruction within the sacred enclaves of our homes and churches.
When the Bible says we should "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we must obey! We must spend more time in prayer for our families, friends, churches and ministries. An old familiar saying, while not Scripture, catches the biblical concept for disarming satanic attack: "The devil trembles when he sees the weakest Christian on his knees!" James 4:7 says, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Submission to God and His Word, and intelligent and vigilant prayer are the means given us to "resist the devil" and drive away his birds of prey.