Published: 15 November 2021

The Bizarre Story Of Abraham Cutting Animals In Half

Cutting animals in half

In Genesis 15 we find Abram (later renamed Abraham) performing a really strange ritual involving cutting animals in half. This incident was in response to God reiterating His promise that Abram would become the father of offspring as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5). God had made this promise years earlier, but so far had not made good on it. Abram is beginning to despair and is resigning himself to the possibility that his heir might end up being his servant Eliezer (Gen 15:2).

After being reassured, Abram took God at His word and believed the promise (Gen 15:6). This promise was not only about offspring, but also about a place where Abram’s descendants could call  home. God said that place would be the land where he now dwelt; the land of Canaan. Abram wanted to formalize this promise. He wanted it to be “official.” Therefore, God told Abram:

““Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.” (Gen. 15:9–10 ESV)

Notice that God did not tell Abram to cut the animals in half, he just knew he was supposed to do this. This is beyond strange. What is going on? 

What this is not

Let’s notice what is not happening here before we look at evidence for what the ritual is about.

“It is not a sacrifice. There is no altar, no offering of the animals to deity, and no ritual with the carcasses, the meat, or the blood. It is not divination. The entrails are not examined and no meal is offered to deity. It is not an incantation. No words are spoken to accompany the ritual and no efficacy is sought.”[1]Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. Vol 1, 85.

If it wasn’t a sacrifice, divination, nor an incantation or spell, what could this ritual be? Clearly, we don’t have a category to put this in. While this may be strange and incomprehensible to modern readers, everyone in the ancient Near East would have been familiar with what was about to take place.

Cutting a covenant

What is being described here is “cutting a covenant.” In verse 18, the English translation says “the LORD made a covenant”, but the Hebrew says “the LORD cut a covenant.

This was a well known rite in the ancient Near East in which animals were cut in half. The two parties who were to be bound by a covenant walked between the halves of the animals. The idea is that just as the animals were cut in half so shall it be done to the one who violates the covenant. The covenant ceremony is also referenced by Jeremiah: 

18 `And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it— 19 `the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf— 20 `I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. (Jer. 34:18-20 NKJV)

As Jeremiah makes clear, the parties entering into covenant “passed between the parts of the calf.” Furthermore, he implies they will die for violating this covenant (v. 20). This was a covenant inaugurated with blood. The Sinai covenant was also introduced with blood (Ex 24; Heb 9:18-21) as was the New Covenant (Heb 10:29; Mat 26:27-28). This ANE rite could be the origin of blood covenants. 

Our English phrase “cutting a deal” preserves the language used in making agreements. However, we’ve disconnected the words from the rite in which our modern phrase originated. 

Binding the covenant by taking a walk

Based on what we know of this covenant ritual, what we expect to see next is God and Abram taking turns walking between the animal halves. This would bind each of them to the covenant. In effect, if either were to break the covenant, they were agreeing that the violator would suffer the same fate as these animals. But this isn’t what happens. 

Abram fell into a deep sleep (Gen 15:12) and we read that a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the animals. Abram never takes the walk! Two objects passed between the animals instead. Scholars have suggested various ideas as to what the smoke and torch may represent. Some say the smoke represents the affliction that Abram’s offspring would endure while the torch represents hope of deliverance. Others say that the smoke and torch foreshadow the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that would lead them in the wilderness.

Regardless, the interesting thing is that Abram did not walk between the pieces with God. Instead, both the pot of smoke and the torch passed through which suggests that it was God walking through. These objects represented God walking through “with Himself.”[2]Ibid., 86.

What this means is that God was committing Himself to bear the consequences in the event that Abram or his descendants fail to uphold the covenant. With the exception of keeping faith in God, Abram ends up with no obligations in this covenant. It was God who would take sole responsibility for keeping its terms. The burden of fulfilling this covenant rested squarely on God’s shoulders. 

Conclusion

As the story of Abram’s children unfolds, we are going to see that they failed to keep faith in God. True to His commitment, God would eventually suffer the fate of these animals – death. This would take place more than 1800 years later at a place called Golgotha (Mk. 15:22-24).

References

References
1 Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. Vol 1, 85.
2 Ibid., 86.