One of my favorite passages of the Bible is Genesis chapter 15. There, God and Abraham participate in an ancient-near-East covenantal rite; a ceremony that many commentaries note was relatively common at the time. God asks Abraham to bring him a cow, a ram, a goat, a turtledove and a pigeon. He cut them in half, laying the pieces across one another, and waited until nightfall.
The idea was fairly simple (and incredibly powerful). Two people would stand in the midst of the halved animals and make their vow. Implicitly, one was saying, “May this happen to us should we break our vow.”
But God breaks from the custom here, and if you notice in the story, Abraham makes no vow; only God does. Abraham stands and witnesses as God’s presence, represented by a smoking fire pot and a torch, pass between the pieces.
I find it startlingly easy to imagine myself there. You can see the flames flickering in Abraham’s eyes, their warm glow causing the pooling blood and exposed viscera to shine like jewels under the dark, starry sky. God revealed himself as light in the darkness, and He foreshadowed a violent solution to the world’s biggest problem.
There’s surely a mix of revolt and relief in Abraham’s mind. Though the sight of butchered animals was anything but foreign to him, I still imagine that the sheer, bloody violence of it all must have made his stomach turn. And yet, there was great relief. God alone appeared amongst the carcasses. God alone made a promise. God alone put a price on his Sacred Head, saying, “may this happen to Me should we break our vow.”
It’s a relief for Abraham, because he knows he doesn’t have it in him to keep the promise. God has promised him countless descendants, but he’s an old man. Only God can give him children. Only God can change his future, filling it with his children. Only God can remain faithful to the promises made, as Abraham’s own story demonstrates.
And though God asked Abraham to prepare for the ceremony, God takes it upon himself to make the vow, saying, “I’m going to do this. Singlehandedly, I’ll get it done.”
I imagine that standing in the glow of the fire pot and torch felt a lot like standing at the foot of the cross, watching the One who made the world bleed, agonize for breath, and finally die. It’s no wonder the sky turned black. There, God kept his word, and the price of a broken covenant was exacted. He took it upon himself, and as he died, he said, “It’s finished.”
As we gather on Good Friday with our churches, remembering that dark day, we share in Abraham’s revolt and relief. The cross is revolting, Good Friday is a day to look with horror upon the violent results of our sin in God’s world. But it’s a relief too. The promise was kept, and we know that what God began, he’ll finish.
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