Abram asks how he can know that this is true; it is not that Abram does not believe, it is just that he is looking for an indication of when God would act.
Bring a list of farm animals: a heifer (cow), a goat, a ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.
This may seem like a strange answer to us, but Abram likely believes it to be some sort of sacrificial ritual. So, he goes and gathers the barn for the purpose of seeing whatever it was God was about to show him.
Now, why does he kill them and cut them in half? Well, if it were some sort of offering then the animals would have to be dead and the pieces made manageable to burn. Now mind you, God did not tell Abram to do any of this, but Abram sensed that God wanted this.
How many times does God not directly tell us what to do and yet we sense that he is leading us in a certain direction and so we go ahead and act on the instinct? If we are walking with the Holy Spirit, then God allows us to use spiritual wisdom and discernment (backed by Scripture) to make choices that are aligned with his will for our lives. Still, there are times when we don’t seem to get where God is prompting and we need him to clarify.
Abram believed God was going to have him perform a ritual of sacrifice; he was half right.
It should be noted that God did not show up immediately; he tarried so long that carrion birds swooped down on the carcasses and Abram had to chase them off. Sometimes God takes an incredibly long, roundabout way of responding to our requests or fulfilling his promises; there is something about the patience from the wait that builda our character and forces us to continue to hope in God’s words to us.
Abram was waiting for God to show up and he did not show up until the sun started going down.
How many times have I wanted God to show up and he waits till it starts getting cold and dark? I am at the end of my rope, life is falling apart, and God is nowhere in sight; he waits till I am overwhelmed and about to give up hope before he steps in.
Yet, he does step in and when he does his presence is unmistakable.
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.” (Genesis 15:12-16 NIV)
God causes Abram to fall into a deep, supernatural sleep where he gives him sweet, melodic overtones and tells him how bright his future is and they have cotton candy afterwards, right?
God arrives and so does a “thick and dreadful darkness.”
Seriously, Abram’s been anxiously awaiting God’s arrival all day like the faithful follower that he has always been and God finally shows up and scares the poor guy to death? Didn’t he do that earlier in the same passage?
How many times does God show up in our storms and darkness and temporarily make matters worse? God is not a tame God and he is definitely not a God who hides most of the force of his being (though he does shield us from the full force of his being). So, while it kind of terrifies us, we should not be surprised that God shows up like he is and it causes us, like Adam and Eve, to want to go run and hide.
But Abram could not do that, could he…he was asleep!
The darkness was not meant to scare Abram but was the beginning of the vision God gave Abram about his descendants sojourning and being enslaved in another nation (we know this to be Egypt and the description is of the Exodus). This will last four hundred years and after that they will plunder their slave-drivers and take back the land; this will give time for the Amorites (symbol of all the residents of Palestine) to fill up the level of their sins to the point that God cannot stand them anymore.
But Abram need not worry about the details, he would die at a good, old age.
What happens next is extraordinary.
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.” (Genesis 15:17-21 NIV)
What does this smoking firepot (weird…) with a blazing torch passing between the pieces (weirder…) mean?
“Since only God walks between the pieces, the covenant is based on Abraham’s (Abram) past faithfulness…To judge from ancient Near Eastern texts and Jeremiah 34:18, God is invoking a curse upon himself if he does not keep his covenant…Once the animal was killed, the one making the covenant could expect the same fate as the animals if he broke the covenant. The sacrifice is thus an enactment of the oath.” (Waltke, 2001, 244-245)
Don’t miss this: Abram never walks through the animals, only God does. The entire burden of the Abrahamic covenant lies on God; it is God who will ensure that it comes to pass. This may be a little unsettling to us; we like to be sure we can do things without the help of others. But the fact of the matter we can’t stay faithful to God on our own and even if we could God would not let us. Our faithfulness and salvation in the NT sense is based upon God upholding his covenant promises and staying faithful to his oath; in other words, we have to trust him though we cannot make him keep his word.
Even with a God as great as the one the Scriptures shows us, that is still a bit scary.
God tells Abram of all the people he will depose from the land; quite the motley crew of names most people cannot pronounce. But as will be shown in the next chapter, this covenant does not keep Abram from going and doing something boneheaded (with the nagging of his wife); serious consequences occur when we try to fulfill God’s promises ourselves.
Waltke, Bruce K.with Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: a Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001.