He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him…
…When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land…Genesis 15:7-12, 17-18
God promised Abram descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:1-6), and then promised him land. Abram wanted some kind of sign, some kind of covenant contract to assuage his own insecurities about the promise of land. So God entered into a covenant ceremony, guaranteeing that God’s word will come to pass.
The idea with this ceremony was that a cow, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, were cut in half with a little pathway down the middle between the pieces. Then a dove was placed on one side and a pigeon on the other side next to the halved animals. The expectation was that whoever walked between the pieces of animals was saying, “If I break our covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.” And, of course, we expect Abram to be the one to walk between them.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, God put Abram in a trance-like state and delivered a prophetic word to him filled with declarations about the future. Then, when the sun had set, the Presence of the Lord–taking the form of fire–passed between the pieces. Instead of making Abram engage in the covenant ceremony, God Himself makes Himself vulnerable and puts His own life on the line for the sake of His covenant with Abram.
And we would see God do the same thing through Jesus as He established the New Covenant. One way to look at Jesus sacrificing Himself on the cross is that He was fulfilling this oath to Abram as He ended the Old Covenant. He was ending the Old Covenant to establish the New. But since He promised never to end the Old Covenant except on penalty of death, He fulfills His own promise, His own word, in Jesus on the cross.
Jesus on the cross not only fulfilled the Old Covenant in about 15 different ways, but it started the New Covenant. It was once again God making Himself vulnerable, putting His life on the line, in a covenant ceremony. Rather than making us engage in the new covenant ceremony, He did it for us. Jesus passed between life and death and came out on the other side into the newness of resurrection life. Our job now is simply to believe the Lord and have it be credited to us as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
One final thing to notice about this covenant ceremony with Abram is the birds of prey that Abram had to drive away. I wonder if this is what Jesus had in His mind when He told about the seed along the path in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:4). Jesus later interprets the parable to the disciples and tells them that the birds represent when “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart” (Matthew 13:19).
I believe these birds of prey represent the same thing with Abram. I believe they foreshadow what the enemy is always trying to do when God is establishing His relationship with people. Right before the covenant is ratified, the enemy comes to try to disrupt the process. And he must be driven away.