7 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.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 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 for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 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 ancestors 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 Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
HERE God makes a covenant with Abram, using symbolism and ritual – visual aids, although somewhat bloodier than we are used to in our culture. After assuring Abram over the promise of children God reiterates his promise regarding the land – something that will assume huge importance in Israel’s later identity. Abram again responds with a question – how will I know?
God responds with covenant, in a ritual enacted out partly in ‘deep and dreadful darkness’. This is no airy fairy light in the sky but a profoundly serious experience involving fire and blood. Fire of holiness, perhaps, symbolising Yahweh; the carcasses lying bloodied either side. Death and life – elemental things, things real and distressing, things showing how serious all this is.
Know this for certain.
Yahweh specifies what will happen – including the sojourn and the slavery that is to come and their escape from it. Exodus, another key feature of Israel’s identity in her God, is still to come. But all this would be a long time coming; the timing had to be right; waiting was inevitable. It would not be an easy wait. But, know for certain, says YHWH, it will happen.
But not in Abram’s lifetime. He shall live long, he shall die in peace – to his descendants YHWH gives the land, and even specifies who the current inhabitants are. The mention of the ‘sin of the Amorites’ hints at the evil will later be said to have polluted the land…
God takes the long view, and it’s not an easy one for us to cope with. It is hard for us to see beyond ourselves, to balance the value God places on us with the perspective of history and the millions of others that come and go over the ages. But God sees all of it, knows all of it. In the end, we can only trust, on the basis of the one who guides us, the one who makes the promise.