“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.” 10 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. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” 17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” Gen. 15:9-18
Abram had just asked God “how may I know that I will possess [the land]? Rather than a straightforward answer from God, He instead issues instructions to perform a sacrifice (v. 9). This may seem like God is changing the subject at first, but in reality God is setting everything up to form and seal a covenant with Abram. God will tell him about the future of his people, and calm his concerns by making a covenant concerning the giving of the land to his descendants. Like the covenant God made with Noah (as well as with the earth and all living things) in Genesis 9, it is important to note that this covenant is one-sided; it obligates God but not man, and is not based on any specific performance or duties of man.
In verse 10 we see Abram does not split the birds he is offering. Later in Leviticus 1:17, the law of burnt offerings is being explained, which in part reads: “Then he shall tear it by its wings, but shall not sever it.” And so the method later prescribed for offering birds does not differ from what Abram does here. God may have previously told Abram this was the preferred method, or God may have allowed Abram to set the method here, and then later ensured his method became law; we do not know.
In verse 11 birds of prey are descending upon the carcasses Abram is trying to offer to God, and he drives them away. Some translations seem to indicate that Abram had to retrieve some pieces from the birds. In any case this is generally meant to be taken symbolically – that there are things which try to distract and prevent us from making our offering to God, and that we will do well to drive whatever these things are away so we can complete what we have begun. This does not take away from a literal interpretation of the verse, which I hold to be true as well. Many verses in scripture have several levels of understanding.
In verse 15, God tells Abram that he will go to his fathers in peace at a good old age. This is a stark contrast of the fate to befall the Israelites in Egypt, but what a relief to Abram! To know one’s end will be peaceful would empower us not to fear death – if we have so great a promise we need not fear dying prematurely, nor dying due to violence or some form of disease.
In verse 17 we see a manifestation of the LORD passing between the pieces of the sacrifice. Again note this covenant obligates God but not man. We can contrast this to a covenant formed between God and the Israelites after they were rescued from Egypt, partially explained in Exodus 21:2 where Hebrew slaves were to be freed after six years of service, then released in the seventh year. Jeremiah 34:18-19 recalls this event, where all the Israelites “passed between the parts of the calf…” Abram’s offering here is before the law is instituted and does not place the burden of keeping the law as part of the covenant.