God's Plan to Bless Mankind
Where a covenant exists, the death of that which has
ratified it is necessary
Animal sacrifices for religious purposes have occurred from the very earliest .times. Abel sacrificed the best of his flock and God accepted his sacrifice and not the “fruit of the ground” offering of his brother Cain. The symbolism of an animal sacrifice certainly indicates a strong commitment on the part of the individual making the offering, even unto death. The symbolism apparently continued after the flood and became part of religious rituals among people and cultures that had strayed far from God.
God used this symbolism to confirm his covenant with Abraham. Perhaps he did this because of Abraham’s familiarity with similar covenant confirming practices among the tribal peoples in his experience. More likely God chose this method because it showed in the most powerful way possible the seriousness of the covenant. After all, other practices of the time served to bind parties to a covenant. These included shaking hands (Ezekiel 17:18), “loosing the shoe” (Ruth 4:7-11), and giving presents (Genesis 21:27-30), to name a few.
The account of God ratifying his covenant to Abraham by animal sacrifices is recorded in Genesis 15:9-21 in response to Abraham’s request in verse eight for a sign that God would do as he had promised. God instructed Abraham to “take” a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. Abraham knew that this meant he was to kill these animals and that he was to divide them into halves (except the birds) and place them in such a way that someone could walk between the pieces. One can assume that the birds were not divided because of their size, but perhaps there is a deeper symbolism both in the kinds of animals sacrificed and in whether or not they were cut asunder.
What is the meaning of such a symbolic practice of slaying animals and passing between their divided bodies? Surely the death of valuable animals would indicate a commitment on the part of an individual to be faithful to his part of an agreement, but by walking between the cut pieces an individual further symbolized his willingness to be put to death and cut asunder if he was not faithful to his covenant. Obviously God cannot die, but nevertheless, the symbolism carried the same weight as God’s oath to Abraham described in Hebrews 6:13, “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could sware by no greater, he sware by himself.”
Here is a thought from A Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown on this passage: “On occasions of great importance, when two or more parties join in a compact, they … observe … the same rites as Abram did … According to these ideas, which have been from time immemorial engraven on the minds of Eastern people, [God] condescended to enter into covenant with Abram … [Abram] asked a sign, and God was pleased to give him a sign, by which, according to Eastern ideas, He bound Himself.”
Having recognized the important overriding principle inherent in the covenant sacrifice just described, one might ask, “Are there yet other lessons to be learned from the details provided in the account?” Is there a typical significance to the total number of pieces between which passed the “smoking pot [furnace] and burning lamp” (Genesis 15:17)? Do the lamp and the pot typify important lessons? Why were the birds not cut asunder? Is the covenant with Abraham typical of a greater covenant and the details of the sacrifice that ratified the covenant therefore typical of another greater covenant?
A commitment to be slain for not fulfilling one’s promise or covenant was also shown in the making of the Law Covenant as recorded in Exodus 24:3-8. In this instance, the blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled on those promising to be obedient to the covenant as a sign that death should be required of them if they were not faithful to their promise. The death of the animal showed the consequence of disobedience. But in this instance it is the sprinkling of the blood that indicated the ones to whom it applied, rather than walking between the pieces of a sacrificed animal. It also pictured the greater sacrifice of Jesus that would ratify a new and better covenant than the Law Covenant (Hebrews 9:14-22).
Other Symbolic Pictures in Genesis 15
God instructed Abraham to slay five animals. Five is a picture of the New Creation, as in the five wise virgins (and their companions of the same number). In like manner, Genesis 15 seems to focus specially on the spiritual seed of Abraham, and thus God’s instructions for Abraham to slay five animals is symbolically consistent. Further evidence that this passage deals primarily with the spiritual seed is indicated by the following:
1. Abraham was concerned over the lack of a seed. God affirms that he will have the promised seed, which turns out later to be Isaac, who represents the church (Genesis 15:4; Galatians 4:28).
2. When God answered Abraham (Genesis 15:5), he mentioned the “stars of the heaven” but not the “sand of the sea” nor the “dust of the earth.” Specifically God said, “Look now toward heaven, and number [ASV] the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.” We thus conclude that this passage focuses on the spiritual seed.
3. In Genesis 15:13 God informed Abraham that his seed was to be afflicted by the Egyptians for 400 years before obtaining the promised possession. (When Ishmael and Hagar were cast out, Ishmael would be regarded as an Egyptian—Genesis 16:1; 21:9,21.) About 400 years later Israel left Egypt and subsequently inherited the Promised Land. But there is possibly a deeper spiritual level also. If one multiplies 400 years by 360 days (the length of one prophetic year), the result is 144,000 days. This is a numerical tie to the number used for the church in Revelation 7:4 and 14:1,3.
4. The 400 years represent a period of testing, trial, and development. In this case it represents the Gospel age testing of the saints, the spiritual seed of Abraham. The period ends at the Exodus, a result of the plagues sent by God through Moses, just as the Gospel age ends with the seven last plagues of Revelation. Since there were 430 years between Abraham entering the land at age 75, and the Exodus, these 400 years evidently began when Abraham was 105, five years after the birth of Isaac. It is possible that this was the time Ishmael was mocking at the weaning of Isaac, representing the Jewish persecution of the church at the beginning of the Gospel age (compare Genesis 21:8,9; Galatians 4:29). Thus the 400 years began with an episode which represents the beginning of the Gospel age, and ends with an episode that represents the end of the Gospel age.
5. The burning lamp represents the Divine Presence. The smoking furnace represents the trials and afflictions that would attend Israel in Egypt (compare Deuteronomy 4:20; Jeremiah 11:4). On the spiritual level, the shining lamp represents the presence of Jesus among the church (compare Revelation 1:14, 15, “his eyes were as a flame of fire” as Jesus walks among the churches which are pictured by the animal sacrifices in Genesis 15). The smoking furnace represents the purifying trials and afflictions of the church.
6. The ending of the chapter lists ten peoples which the Israelites would master. This seems to represent the world of mankind (ten is an earthly number), inherited by the saints (Daniel 7:27). Also note Isaiah 53:12 where God divides the spoil with Jesus, and Jesus with the church.
Heifer, Goat, Ram
The heifer, the goat and the ram are used in other texts that imply cleansing, reconciliation, and an acceptable sacrifice (burnt offering) in that order. Specific texts for consideration include Numbers 19:17 and Hebrews 9:13 for the heifer, Leviticus 16:15,18 for the goat, and Leviticus 16:3,5 for the ram. Collectively these three animals picture redemption (the symbolic meaning of three). Through redemption comes cleansing, reconciliation, and acceptance.
The age of each of the three animals was three years, amplifying the theme of redemption. So on all levels—the number, kind, and ages of animals—Genesis 15 speaks of the redemption of the church.
The number five is composed of 2+3. These two numbers represent, respectively, the holy spirit and redemption. Perhaps the two birds (a dove and a pigeon) symbolize the holy spirit, and the three larger animals symbolize redemption.
Thus God’s instructions together with Abraham’s night vision symbolize how God would carry out his plan to bless all mankind. What a magnificent confirmation of God’s promise was thus provided to Abraham in response to his request for a sign from God. What a blessed assurance to us who are of the faith of Abraham that what God has promised he will surely perform.