A "horror of great darkness" then falls in the vision, and it becomes strange and terrible. God promises to Abram that while his seed will suffer oppression in Egypt, they will be delivered with spoil and they will inherit the land. Then a smoking furnace passes between the halves of animals. Robertson understands this to be an indication that God himself, represented in the form of the glory-cloud, is taking a self-maledictory oath, swearing by himself that if this covenant fails, he himself will be destroyed (and thereby assuring that the covenant will not fail). Robertson argues that the rite depicted is in keeping with accounts of ancient near-east covenant rites, which also involve the death of animals, understood as representing the covenant participants. This comparison is made by others who have studied the issue of covenant-making rites. Further evidence for this interpretation is provided in the actions of Zedekiah, referred to in Jeremiah 34: 17-20. The people of Israel made a covenant by passing through the divided pieces of a calf. They are breaking this covenant promise (that they would set free their Hebrew slaves) and thus God declares that they will come under the curse of the covenant, which is to be devoured by the birds (Deuteronomy 28:26). Here are seen elements of the Abrahamic covenant rite reiterated: passing through a divided animal, making of a covenant, and the invocation of a sanction for breaking it involving devouring birds.
Finally, Robertson musters evidence from Hebrews, showing that the term diatheke is best interpreted as covenant, not testament, and that references to covenants being made firm "over dead bodies" are best understood in an Abrahamic context.
We might also erroneously conclude that the breaking of the bread (Christ's body) in the rite of the Eucharist is some kind of continual curse being applied to Christ, and thus a re-propitiation of God's wrath. While none have pressed this understanding yet, it seems like a potential danger.
Some commentators do take issue with the self-maledictory aspects of the rite. Keil and Delitzch write "The division of the animals probably denoted the two parties to the covenant, and the passing of the latter through the pieces laid opposite to one another their formation into one." They identify the animals with Abram and his seed. The devouring birds signify the attempt of foreign enemies to devour Israel, though the seed will endure. Victor P. Hamilton also is critical of the self-maledictory view. So we may ask whether self-malediction is the primary thrust of the narrative. There are several elements of the narrative that call into question the self-maledictory interpretation.
Before Abram enters this deeper phase, the birds of heaven come to devour the carcasses. Instead, Abram drives them away. This seems to be a significant feature of the narrative, in light of later emphases on devouring birds in later curse potions of scripture (Deut. 28:26, Jer. 7:33, 1 Kings 14:11, etc.). Robertson cites these curse-texts, but makes nothing of the lack of a bird-feasting in the covenant rite, even though this is explicit in the curses. The curses allude to Genesis 15, surely, but in a negative fashion so that something different is being signified. Deuteronomy specifies that the curse is to be eaten by the birds, and that, unlike Genesis 15, there will be no faithful Abram to drive the birds away. In Jeremiah, God's pronouncement to the people is not that they will be divided in half as the calf was, but that they will be eaten by the birds.
Victor P. Hamilton cites the Mari text as well, noting that the text makes explicit that the slaughter was to reconcile the two parties, not to call a curse on one or the other party. He also indicates that self-malediction may not even be indicated by the Abba-AN text, depending on the translation. Hamilton does find an indication of a Hittite rite involving passing between animal halves, but this is not a covenant-making rite, rather a pagan warfare-ritual with magical overtones.
Kline cites these parallels as well, asserting that they are informative of the context of the Abramic rite, even though they do not involve the required elements. He does find some rites of the 7th and 8th century B.C. that involved both self-malediction and animal dividing, but these are too late in date to be informative on the Genesis 15 situation.
The prophetic nature of the covenant with Abram is explicit: He is told that for four hundred years his seed will be oppressed in Egypt, because the sin of the Amorites is not yet full.
The animals specified are also prophetic, as this sets them apart as the animals that will represent Israel in the sacrificial system later delineated in Leviticus. Previous to this event, we may assume that it was legitimate to offer any type of clean animal, as Noah had done (Genesis 8:20). The prophetic context and content of the narrative should lead us to understand the word of promise and the sign given to confirm the word as having the same fundamental meaning. Other passages with elements of dividing or breaking something will illuminate the meaning of the rite in this passage.
Abram's situation is similar, but is it is after the introduction of sin and curse and things are not as placid. In deep sleep, a horror of great darkness fell upon him. Deep sleep is now close to death. But it is graciously not death: Abram goes though an ordeal to find security in God's certain promises at the end.
When God comes in theophanic glory on earth, his Glory-Spirit also shows forth the glories of the invisible heavens. Kline shows that this glory-cloud (revealed in detail in Ezekiel 1-2) is one and the same with the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that led the Children of Israel in Exodus, and the flaming torch and smoking furnace seen in Abraham's covenant.
Deep sleep is the time in which God reveals oracles to men, and in this vision God predicts in detail the future history of Abram's descendants, that they will be oppressed in Egypt for 400 years, but that they will come out again and will return to the land.
These animals do not primarily represent God and what will happen to Him, but rather Abram's seed and the land they are to inherit. The five animals specified are those used in the sacrificial system of Leviticus. These animals were to be used as substitutes by the Israelites, each animal symbolizing a different stratum of society. The bull was for the priests, sheep and goats for most of the people, and doves ane very poor (Leviticus 4-5).
The division of the animals points to the alienation of man from the land. Man is created from the soil, having been originally divided off from it by God's own word. With the advent of sin, a curse is on the land, and man is estranged from it. What should have been distinct but united, are threatened by external oppressors (the birds) and lie dead and severed in horrible darkness.
Abram is alienated and estranged from the land of promise, though God has said that he will inherit it. God says that this alienation continues for a time: Abram's seed will sojourn in a strange land for many years. In the end they will return and enter the land, and God's personal presence will bring them in. His own glory will be the binding agent between Abram and the Land, granting him "resurrection" out of darkness and deep sleep (John 11:9-11). As James Jordan writes:
In the context of Genesis 1 and 6-8 we can see God again de-creating and re-creating the world Just as the Flood returned the world to a condition of formlessness and emptiness, which God refilled, so in the vision of Abram the world returns to the primeval darkness of Genesis 1:2, before God established the covenantal separation-union of day and night. Abram himself is in "deep sleep," the same condition as Adam was in Genesis 2:21 when God separated Eve from him and established a covenant separation-union between the man and the woman. Here the purpose is to reestablish the connection between man and the 'erets [land]. The false and perverted relationship between man and land, which came in with the fall, is undone by de-creation; but before the birds can descend to destroy matters utterly, the covenant order is re-created by God Himself becoming the unbreakable binding force connecting the two. Abram is as likely not to posses the land as God is likely to perish.In the sacrificial system, the death of the animal and the display of its blood create a pathway for God to be with his people. The purpose of the sacrifices is that God house (Israel) might be cleansed of its filthiness (sins). If it were not cleansed with blood, God would leave his house desolate. When sins come up closest to God (the sins of the leaders or of the whole nation) the blood has to go all the way into the Holy of holies (Leviticus 4, 16). The blood is placed then in more and more exterior areas, the holy place, and then the courtyard. The animal parts may then be offered on the altar.
What did it mean? it meant that the birds of prey would threaten God's people and oppress them for 400 years (15:13) but that God's covenant was as sure as His Person, and would in time be established.
The altar is itself a sign of the presence of God. It contains fire that is lit by God himself (Leviticus 9:24, 2 Chronicles 7:1) and is never to have "strange fire" upon it (Leviticus 10:1-2). God's flaming presence takes the sacrifice up into himself as food for him.
The ascension offering (Leviticus 1) is a tightly focused picture of this. The ascension offering (usually translated, whole burnt offering) involves all five of the animals of GenesisĘ15, and they are also divided (except the birds). What happens then is significant: the head and shoulders are "ascended" without being washed. They are considered clean already. The entrails and hindquarters need to be washed before they may ascend in smoke up to God.
What does this signify? I believe it offers additional illustration of the principle that Christ is the head and forerunner, and we are his body, and his fullness. He ascended into heaven clean, as the head. We are his body in union with him, and we ascend after having been washed (baptized).
This ascension offering is usually accompanied by a cereal offering, uniquely among the sacrifices called a memorial. It is placed on top of the bloody ascension offering when it is offered. It is always broken up, as similar to the cutting up of the animal sacrifice.
We might believe that the fire of the altar represents judgment, as we might see God calling himself to be slaughtered as the divided animals. But the name of the offering (olah) indicates it's theology and meaning: what is pictured is ascension into the glory cloud of God, having been turned to smoke by His own fire. The element of the smoking furnace and burning torch is thus present in Leviticus 1 as well, in the altar fire itself.
The breaking of the bread is thus significant in the Eucharist. The sacrifices always involved division of blood from flesh, and division of the actual flesh. Even the cereal offering was broken up. This is the context for Christ's breaking, and naming of the sacrament as in remembrance of him or as his memorial.
Who is broken in the Eucharist? The animals of Genesis 15 are multiple, representing Israel (Abram's seed) as called priests. We should understand the bread to represents us, as indeed Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 10:16b-17, "The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread." There is no continual sacrifice of Christ, but the one sacrifice is represented in the sacrifice of the people, cut up and put back together in the presence of the glorified Christ, glorified by the Spirit of God in his resurrection and ascension. We join the ascended Christ in heaven (Ephesians 2:6, Hebrews 12:22-24).
There is a double action to the sacrament: the sacrifices were not complete with the mere killing and cutting up of the animal. Blood also had to be put on the sanctuary as a display. In separate actions, even having separate prayer the broken bread, and then the shed blood of his body, displaying it on the temples of our bodies, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.
Christ was "torn" and under the power of death for a time, but the Spirit granted him resurrection (Romans 1:4; 8:11), and we in union with him are given a down payment of the Spirit and promise of the redemption of our bodies. We are called to live lives of self-crucifixion, and are weekly cut up by the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12), as He renews covenant with us in worship and Eucharist. A focus on malediction, such as found in Kline, and to a lesser extent in Robertson tends to obscure the gracious glorification that God promises to his people.
Hamilton, Victor P., The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Jordan, James B., "Rebellion, Tyranny and Dominion in the Book of Genesis", Tactics of Christian Resistance, Christianity and Civilization, Vol. 3, Tyler Texas: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983.
Jordan, James B. and Leithart, Peter, 1992 Conference on Worship and Sacrifice, Niceville FL: Biblical Horizons, 1992 (Audio Tapes).
Kline, Meredith, By Oath Consigned, Eerdmans, 1968.
________ , Images of the Spirit, Self published, 1986 .
Robertson, O. Palmer, The Christ of the Covenants, Phillipsbugh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980.
Sutton, Ray R. , That You May Prosper, Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1987.
 O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, (Phillipsbugh, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), pp. 130-146
 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans 1971 ).
 Victor P Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 430-433.
 Meredith Kline, By Oath Consigned, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 16-17. Robertson's language is more restrained "Death may be necessary" (p. 146)
 We might compare this to the role of wine, which the priests were forbidden to drink when in God's presence, and which we may now drink in the presence of Christ at his supper. The wine is a constant factor, but totally opposite things are indicated in each place.
 In 1 Samuel 26:12 Saul is in deep sleep when David comes to him. David could easily kill him, but David is faithful to his lord and merely takes things from him to show that he is a protector of the kings (unlike Abner (v15). In Job 4:13, Eliphaz the Temanite relates a frightening revelation from God warning him of his mortality. Job 33:15-19 marks deep sleep as the time when God reveals his purposes to man, and keeps him from walking in paths of death.  Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper, (Tyler, TX, The Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), pp. 125-127
 Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit, Self published, 1986 ), p. 125.
 See footnote 5, above, and also Daniel 8:19ff, where Daniel has revealed to him the future geopolitical sequence.
 James B. Jordan, "Rebellion, Tyrrany and Dominion in the Book of Genesis", Tactics of Christian Resistance, Christianity and Civilization, Vol. 3, (Tyler Texas, Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983).