The story of God’s covenant with Abraham includes a strange ritual, described in an eerie scene in the book of Genesis. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land […]” (Genesis 15:5-18)
What was the reason for this odd ritual, with animals cut in half and fire passing between the pieces? The ceremony was actually based on the way ancient covenants were made between people in Bible times. A covenant was a solemn agreement, a binding oath between two parties, which was sealed by blood. The usual steps in a covenant were these: First, the terms of the agreement were decided upon. If there were rewards for keeping to the terms, they were spelled out, along with any punishments for breaking them. Second, binding oaths were sworn. An animal was sacrificed, and then the body was cut in half. (In fact, the actual phrase in Hebrew, usually translated as “making a covenant,” is really literally “cutting a covenant.”) The two parties then walked between the animal halves. They made sure to make contact with the blood, by stepping in it. This was a kind of self-curse. They were in effect saying, “If I break the covenant, then may what happened to this animal, happen to me.”
A vivid illustration of this self-curse and its penalty may be found in the book of Jeremiah, in which God declares that the people have broken part of the covenant they made with him at Mount Sinai. The agreement they had made was this: “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.” (Deuteronomy 15:12)
God says through Jeremiah, “You yourselves recently repented and did what was right in my sight by proclaiming liberty to one another, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name; but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back your male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them again into subjection to be your slaves. Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by granting a release to your neighbors and friends; I am going to grant a release to you, says the Lord--a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf shall be handed over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives. Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 34:15-20)
The covenant with Abraham, though, is different. Abraham asks how he can be sure he will receive the land, and God’s answer is to swear a binding oath, a covenant, according to the rituals used at the time. The terms are spelled out in a description of the future, and the animals are cut in half. But notice that Abraham does not walk through the animal halves. Only the fiery representation of God passes between them. This is an unconditional covenant, in which only God makes a promise – Abraham only needs to accept it.
To modern people, the necessity for blood to seal a covenant may seem distasteful, nevertheless, it was the way things were done. The covenant between God and the Jews at Mount Sinai was also sealed with blood. “And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:1-8)
Understanding this helps us to understand the story of Jesus at the Last Supper. There, Jesus spoke of a new covenant which was also to be sealed by blood. “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28) Just as ancient parties made contact with the blood of a covenant by stepping between the animals, we can make contact with the blood of the new covenant when we take part in the Eucharist, whether we think of it symbolically or literally. In baptism, and in faith, we pledge our own loyalty to this covenant, which is described by Jeremiah:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)