Abram was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to him again and said, “I am God All-Powerful. If you obey me and always do right, I will keep my solemn promise to you and give you more descendants than can be counted.” Abram bowed with his face to the ground, and God said: I promise that you will be the father of many nations. That’s why I now change your name from Abram to Abraham. I will give you a lot of descendants, and in the future they will become great nations. Some of them will even be kings. I will always keep the promise I have made to you and your descendants, because I am your God and their God. — Genesis 17:1-7
Can we know for sure that God keeps his promises? It’s very easy to say, “I promise,” but then waffle if it becomes too difficult to keep. Could this ever happen with God? God made a series of promises to Abraham: He promised to give him many descendants and make him into a great nation, to bless him and make his name great, and to bless all the families of the earth through him. He also promised to give the descendants of Abraham a particular land. But Abraham, like any of us, was unsure. How could such promises be kept?
Abraham asked God some questions: “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless,” and, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess [the land]” (15:2)?
These are fair questions. Wouldn’t you wonder the same? In answer to these questions, God did something that seems strange to us in our cultural and historical context. He had Abraham sacrifice some animals. He was told to cut them in half and then lay the pieces of the animals across from each other. Then Abraham fell into a deep sleep. During this sleep, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces. This ceremony, common in the ancient Near East, was called “cutting a covenant.”
Two parties entering into a binding agreement or covenant with one another would cut an animal in pieces and pass between the pieces to inaugurate the covenant. The ceremony signified that the two parties were promising to fulfill the terms of the covenant. If they failed to keep the promises of the covenant, they were saying, “May we become like this animal.” It’s like they were saying, “I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.” The sacrificial ceremony was literally a pledge of one’s life to keep the promises of the covenant.
That’s quite a promise! So when the smoking fire pot and flaming torch (which were symbols of God’s presence) passed between the pieces of dead animals, God himself was assuming responsibility to make sure that all the promises of the covenant were kept. O. Palmer Robertson writes, “The solemn ceremony of self-malediction provides the Lord’s reply [to Abraham’s questions]: ‘I promise. I solemnly commit myself as Almighty God. Death may be necessary. But the promises of the covenant shall be fulfilled’.”
Y’all! That thought should have chills running up your spine! God was saying, “May I be torn to pieces like these animals if the covenant between me and Abraham’s descendants is broken.”
Abraham’s descendants would be unfaithful to God and his covenant. But, God kept his promise. He had sworn on his life to bless Abraham. So, the blessing for Abraham and his descendants (which includes us as Christians) was made possible by the curse of death that fell on Jesus.
In Jesus, God the Son took on flesh, and his flesh was torn apart in order to keep his covenant promises to Abraham (and us). Jesus, the covenant- keeper, sacrificially offered himself for us: “Take, eat; this is my body. Drink of this cup, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). The blood of Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, is our assurance that God keeps his promises.