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Verse 10: Divided
- "Divided." This is probably not referring to animal sacrifice, but refers to a symbolic act that seals a treaty. The symbolism is such that the contracting parties accept the covenant obligations and will accept the fate of the animals if the obligations are not fulfilled. The Lord spells out this symbolism more graphically in Jer 34:17-20. See verse 17 for the symbolism of passing between the pieces. (For more discussion, see the Nahum Sarna reference below.)
- This verse probably refers to the children of Israel going to Egypt (Gen 46:6) and then essentially becoming slaves there (Ex 1:11).
- "that nation . . . will I judge": This probably refers, at least in part, to the ten plagues inflicted upon Egypt (Ex 7-11).
The smoking furnace and burning lamp are likely symbolic of God (cf. Ex 3:2, 13:23, 14:24, 19:18, 24:16ff, 40:33 and 38; Num 10:34, 14:14). According to Nahum Sarna (see reference below), "It is generally believed that when the contracting parties passed between the severed pieces they thereby accepted the covenant obligations and inovlked upon themselves the fate of the animals if the terms of the pact were violated" (p. 126). It is interesting here that only God (symbolically) passes between the animals. As Sarna explain, "[T]he covenant complketely lacks . . . mutuality. It is a unilateral obligation assumed by Godwithout any reciprocal responsibilities being imposed upon Abraham. The use of established legal forms of treaty-making to express such a situation is a dramatic way of conveying the ummutable nature of the divine promise" (p. 127). See also Gen 15:10 and Jer 34:17-20.
Points to ponder
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- "Counted it to him for righteousness"? What does Abraham do that is counted as righteousness? believing the Lord? if so why is this believing explicitly "counted to him for righteousness"? (See similar wording in Jacob 4:5 and Ps 106:31; also compare Paul's discussion of this passage in Rom 4)
- Sign-seeking? Although in verse 6 we are told that Abraham "believed in the Lord," and that this was counted unto Abraham "for righteousness," here it seems Abraham is asking for some sort of sign or further evidence to support his belief regarding the inheritance of the land. Is this verse evidence that Abraham's faith is somewhat ambivalent—that is, strong regarding the promise to have seed but not strong regarding inheritance in the land? What is going on here? Cf. Isa 7:12 where it seems Ahaz may be rationalizing not asking for a sign when he should be asking for a sign as Hezekiah does in Isa 38:22, which seems to be a commendable action in that case. Nevertheless, sign-seeking seems a problem in Luke 1 where Zechariah is struck dumb, and in Alma 32 where Alma contrasts sign-seeking with faith. (See also discussion here regarding potential positive aspects to sign-seeking in the Gospels.)
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- Pastor Ray Stedman proposes that the heifer symbolizes patience and strength, the she-goat symbolizes nourishment or refreshment of soul, the ram symbolizes power or might in warfare, that the birds symbolize gentleness and grace, and that the age of the animals being three years old is significant because the public ministry of Jesus Christ was three years.
- Kurt Neumiller says that, according to traditions of the time, animals that were three years old were considered fit for work. "Thus," he continues, "the symbolism is if one failed to be fit for the task laid before them they would be cut up even as the animals were. Compare this with the likening of Israel to draft animals in 1 Kgs 7:25 and Hosea 8:9."
- Matthew Henry suggests that the animals were three years old "because then they were at their full growth and strength: God must be served with the best we have, for he is the best."
- John Gill provides a very complete discussion of this verse. He suggests that the number three here (three years old and three animals, not including the birds) may represent the three complete centuries that Abraham's posterity will have to suffer. Gill also reports that Jewish writers have suggested the animals represent different monarchies, for example: the heifer, the Babylonian monarchy; the goat, Media (or Persia) or Crecia; and the ram, Grecia. Gill also suggests that the animals represent the following good and bad qualities of Abraham's posterity: the heifer, hard-working, long-suffering, and stubborn (cf. Hosea 4:16); the goat, vicious and lustful; the ram, strong and courageous; and the birds, innocent and harmless.
- Nahum Sarna discusses the symbolism of "cutting a covenant" in Understanding Genesis p. 126.
- Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (ISBN 0805202536), 1966 (first edition).
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