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What in the World is Going on in This Sunday’s First Reading?

If you are not prepared for this Sunday’s first reading (Gen 15:5-12, 17-18), you will probably have a difficult time making sense of it. Your homilist might not discuss it, so I hope this brief explanation will be helpful. It is not a lengthy reading, so we will go all the way through it, splitting it into two parts but hopefully not slaughtering it.

The reading begins straightforward enough:

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

He then said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” “O Lord GOD,” he asked, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God promised Abram (who was later renamed Abraham) countless descendants and possession of the land. Abram then asks God for assurance. The rest of the reading tells us just how God assures him.

He answered him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram stayed with them. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

Unless you are familiar with ancient Near East covenant ceremonies, God’s act of assurance probably seems bizarre. But Abram was familiar with such ceremonies, so it made perfect sense to him.

When two parties entered into a covenant, splitting slaughtered animals in two and walking between them was a symbol of one’s commitment to the covenant promise. It was the equivalent of saying, “Let what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep my word.” 

That being the case, God had Abram select animals which Abram slaughtered and split in two. Then, appearing as “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,” God passed between them.

Of course, God could never be slaughtered and split in two, but that’s irrelevant. God was communicating to Abram in terms he could understand. It was an act of “divine condescension.” 

In time, God did indeed fulfill his covenant promises. Abram went on to have countless descendants, many of whom would eventually possess the Promised Land.

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