I’ve never been a big fan of the fairly common exegesis of Genesis 15 where Yahweh has Abe cut up the animals and passes through the halves of animals as the smoking oven and burning torch. The common take is that this covenant making ceremony (which it obviously is) consists of making a ‘self-maledictory oath’, that is, the persons bound in covenant who pass between the divided animals say, ‘may this be done to me if I break this covenant.’ Of course in Genesis 15 only Yahweh passes through the divided animals, and thus the obvious conclusion drawn is that this is an allusion to the cross. Abraham does not have to pass through the animals; Yahweh takes full responsibility for the keeping of the covenant, and he will take upon himself any of the curses of the covenant.
But I’ve never been a big fan of that explanation.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it has never appeared to me to be found in the text. It’s been largely based on extra-biblical texts, other ancient near eastern literature, etc., but while I do think that material can be helpful in places, I want the text to do the heavy lifting of exegesis and use the ANE material as garnish. Often the ANE literature gets brought in and the text is treated like Gumby in order to get it all to fit. Another objection I have to reading Genesis 15 like this is that it reduces the meaning of the ceremony to God saying, “I promise, I really, really, really promise.” The ceremony doesn’t actually answer Abe’s question if all Yahweh is saying is that he will die if he’s wrong. And that leads to the third objection: why does God need to make such a promise? Why would God swear about something that he can’t do? He cannot break his word.
My working hypothesis has been to suggest that the covenant making ceremony in Genesis 15 is actually more of a prophetic vision of what God is promising to do. The smoking oven and burning torch seem to be most closely fulfilled in the pillar of smoke and pillar of fire that lead the children of Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus. Thus, Yahweh is not making a self-maledictory oath; he’s showing Abe exactly what he’s telling him. While passing through the animals, he’s explaining that Abe’s children will be slaves in a foreign land but that he will bring them back up into the land of promise with great riches. The text itself has to do with God’s promise to give Abe children and the land of promise (15:2,7). Thus, it makes sense for Yahweh’s oath to visualize the reality of that promise. The fact that Abe does not pass through the animals can be explained in several ways: first, part of the word of God to Abe is that he is going to die (15:15), that is, he is not going to inherit the land, but Yahweh himself will lead Abe’s descendents into the land. Second, animals represent people throughout Scripture; this is why animals are fitting sacrifices. They represent the people who offer them. Angels are glorified animals that in some sense represent what God intends for glorified humanity (e.g. Mt. 22:30). That being the case, Yahweh passing through the divided animals is a picture of his intention to pass through the midst of Abe’s descendents, to be near to them, to fill them. This is Yahweh’s action, his role in the covenant, and therefore again, it would be strange for Abe to pass through the animals. Last, Yahweh promises that Abe’s descendents will be afflicted four hundred years in this foreign land; this means that Abe’s descendents are going to die (like Abe); but even after that death of slavery and exile, Yahweh will bring them back up into the land of promise. Yahweh passing through butchered animals is his covenant promise to make the dead live again.
One last point: As far as I know this sort of covenant making ceremony does not occur anywhere else in Scripture except for Jeremiah 34. There, it is once again tied (and here explicity) to the Exodus (34:13-14). The nobles of Jerusalem had bound themselves together in covenant to free their Hebrew slaves in the face of the coming exile to Babylon but ended up breaking their word and refusing to free their slaves. Their covenant ceremony had apparently consisted of cutting a calf in two and passing bewteen the parts (Jer. 34:18-19). While I grant that some might see this as confirmation of the self-maledictory oath idea, since Yahweh promises to “give them into the heand of their enemies and … their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth” (34:20). And one might reference the fact that Abe worked diligently to keep the carion from the butchered animals in Genesis 15:11. I actually think this is far more of a stretch than my reading. If Genesis 15 is Yahweh enacting his promise, displaying his intention to bring Abe’s descendants back up into the land out of bondage and oppression, it makes complete sense that these Jewish nobles would perform a similar ceremony when it comes to their promise to free their slaves. This time it is fully fitting for them to pass through the divided parts of the animals because they are the ones promising to do the freeing. In Genesis 15, it was Yahweh who was swearing to free his slaves, and therefore he passed through the animals. In Jeremiah 34, it is the nobles promising to free their slaves, and therefore they pass through the animals.
What is also striking is the context of Jeremiah 34. There, this covenant to free the Hebrew slaves comes on the heels of Yahweh’s promise to bring back the captives to the land after exile. He promises an heir to David (33:21 cf. Gen. 15:2-4), he promises to multiply and glorify the descendents of this heir as the stars of the heaven (33:22, cf. Gen. 15:5), and finally, Zedekiah the king is told that he will die in peace and be gathered to his fathers (34:5, cf. Gen. 15:15). All the momentum of the text is in displaying the promise of God to be the God of Abraham, the God of the Exodus; the nobles are then right to initially draw the connections and make a covenant to free their slaves. Passing through animals cut in half was an enactment of their intention to free their slaves, an enactment of the Exodus, giving freedom to slaves, giving life back from the death of bondage and exile. When they broke their word and broke covenant, they certainly came under God’s judgment and wrath. But here of all places it would be fitting for Yahweh to have these worthless men split in two to show how the “self-maledictory oath” works. Of course he doesn’t because that’s not what is really going on. There are always covenant curses, punishments for breaking covenant, but the ceremony of passing through animals seems to make a great deal more sense in connection with the freeing of slaves, bringing the dead to life, and trusting Yahweh to do it.