Breaking and Dividing: Covenantal Sacramentology

By Paul Duggan

O. Palmer Robertson discusses the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 in terms of an oath taken by God.[1] The promised land had recently been invaded, and while Abram was victorious over the invaders, he is concerned for the continuance of his genealogy, and of his descendants continued possession of the land. In a vision God promises that Abram will have both heir to inherit, and a land to pass on. Abram asks for more than just this statement; "Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it." God instructs Abram to get five animals. Abram does so, and cuts them in two and lays the pieces opposite each other. Birds come to eat the carcasses but Abram drives them away.

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.

The Problem

This view presents a theological problem, however. If the curse which God threatens on Himself is to be divided in two as the animals were, were He to fail to keep the covenant, we would possibly conclude that the breaking or tearing in two of Christ's body, literally in the Eucharist and the veil of the temple, and in the disjoining of his bones physically in the crucifixion (though no bone is broken) indicates that God did in deed fail to keep the covenant. We understand correctly that Christ had to die to satisfy divine justice, but that does not mean that God applies a sanction to Himself justly based on non-performance.

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."[2] 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.[3] 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.

1) God doesn't indicate any self-malediction verbally.

Jehovah does not verbally indicate self-malediction in the narrative. He does not say "so as these animal's have been divided, may I be torn in pieces if I fail to give you the land, Abram." He simply makes a promise to Abram, first in the visionary state, and then again in the state of deep sleep.

2) Multiple dead animals, not just one.

Several animals are split, rather than just one. Were these animals to be representatives of God, we might expect only a single animal (or perhaps three). Instead, five animals are used.

3) What is usually termed the curse of the covenant is to be devoured by the birds.

There is an inconsistency of language on the part of those who advocate the self-maledictory aspect of the Abrahamic cutting rite. Kline says, "if [God] failed to fulfill the promise of the covenant, He was like these creatures to be slain and devoured as a feast for the fowls" and that God passes, not just between the animals, but "beneath the threatening birds of prey."[4] Kline is, strictly speaking, incorrect on this point. The birds have already been driven away by Abram, night has fallen, and the dream of the furnace passing between the pieces takes place in a "deeper" phase of the vision, in darkness without any birds present at all.

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.[5] 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.

4) Robertson does not cite strong ancient near east parallels.

Robertson cites parallels from other ancient near east documents to indicate that what is going on is a form of self-maledictory oath. But the parallels are not particularly strong. The Syrian text concerning Abba-AN and Yarimlim makes no explicit mention of division of the sheep in two, nor does it mention passing between the pieces. The 18th century B.C. Mari text that he cites also does not indicate any self-malediction in the context of the rite, nor is passing through the divided halves mentioned.

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.

5) The prophetic content of Genesis 15.

It helps to keep the prophetic element of this narrative in mind. Genesis was composed by Moses for the instruction of the Children of Israel. In knowing what came before they could be forewarned against committing certain errors and sins.

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.

Other covenantal dividings

Breaking and tearing are important to the covenant ritual, no doubt. But are malediction and death always indicated by them? Before the fall of man covenants certainly are not made firm "over dead bodies," but perhaps something analogous does take place. We may understand this as similar to the symbolic role of darkness: In Genesis 1, darkness is not evil per se. It is eschatologically incomplete, and needs to be overcome with light. Light is eschatologically superior, and God evaluates it (which light is a precondition for) as Good. With the arrival of sin, darkness and light take on moral overtones in the bible, John 1:4-5 being a prime example. Similarly, division before the fall is neither horrifying nor in the realm of death and destruction, but it takes on these characteristics afterwards.

The marriage covenant

The covenant with Abram contains important parallels with a primordial covenantal narrative, that of the creation of Eve and the covenantal institution of marriage. To make Eve for Adam, God makes Adam fall into a deep sleep. In the time before the fall or any curse is pronounced, deep sleep is yet the covenant-making time for man. In sleep, Adam has his rib divided off from him by God himself: he is "torn." The flesh is open, and God closes the wound. From the rib, God forms Eve, and the two are bound together by the action and personal presence of God in their relationship.

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.[6] But it is graciously not death: Abram goes though an ordeal to find security in God's certain promises at the end.

The work of creation: dividing and naming

The work of dividing by God and then naming of the new parts (as Adam names Eve as "Woman") parallels what has already been seen in Genesis 1 (which points to the thematic unity of the first and subsequent contra liberal scholars). In God's creative work (which has covenantal overtones[7]), He continually makes separations, dividing day and night, waters below from waters above, land from sea, man from soil. In the dividing of waters above and waters below, God does so by means of a firmament-boundary called Heaven. It is called "Heaven," because on it is displayed material symbols of the spiritual things in the highest heaven (clouds, rain-bows, shining light, etc.). The firmament is thereby a medium that reveals the throne-heaven of God on the Earth.

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.[8]

God Glory Cloud

The furnace is a sign of God's glory shining through in the midst of darkness and terror. The glory passes between the pieces in the form of a furnace, prophetic of the furnace of affliction which Israel will experience (1 Kings 8:51). God's burning glory is a promise of resurrection. Commentators take note that no indication that the animals are consumed by the fire is given, so we may understand this as parallel with the burning bush, symbolizing God's personal presence with Israel as a purifying fire that does not consume or destroy. Here with Abram, God's glory is comes to meet the need of separated dead animals, and is predominantly promissory of re-creation and resurrection. The prophetic aspects of the passage (which are not dwelt on by Robertson) can help us to interpret the rite. God is providing two co-relative revelations, one verbal, the other pictorial. This is what is indicated in Hebrews 6:18 about the promise God makes to Abram two immutable things, God's verbal promise and the covenant oath He makes.

Deep sleep is the time in which God reveals oracles to men[9], 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.

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.

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.

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.

Sacramental Implications

The dividing rite of the Abramic covenant is thus connected to the other dividing rites of scripture, including the Eucharist.

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.


Keil, C.F. and Delitzch, F., Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans 1971 [1949].

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 [1980].

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.

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, (Phillipsbugh, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), pp. 130-146

[2] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans 1971 [1949]).

[3] Victor P Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 430-433.

[4] 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)

[5] 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.

[6] 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. [7] Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper, (Tyler, TX, The Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), pp. 125-127

[8] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit, Self published, 1986 [1980]), p. 125.

[9] See footnote 5, above, and also Daniel 8:19ff, where Daniel has revealed to him the future geopolitical sequence.

[10] 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).