157 G*D said to Abram, “I am YHWH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land, to inherit it.”
8 But Abram said, “Lord YHWH, how do I know that I will actually inherit it?”
9 G*D said, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, halved them down the middle, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t cleave the birds. 11 When vultures descended upon the carcasses, Abram drove them off. 12 As the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A deep dark dread settled over him.
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know deeply that your descendants will live as strangers in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve, and they will leave it with great property. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ iniquity won’t have reached full-measure until then.”
17 After the sun had set and night-blackness had deepened, a smoking oven, a fiery torch passed between the divided animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your seed I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates: 19 the Kenite, the Kenizzite, the Kadmonite, 20 the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Girgashite, and the Jebusite.”
There is an unspecified period between the previous promise and this sealing of it. We have just noted the uncountable stars (at night) and are now leading up to a ritual at sunset.
This ritual began in Ur where Terah had left with Abram and all toward Canaan. Was this an implicit acknowledgment of G*D’s presence with Abram before he was instructed to leave Haran for an unnamed place (that we were already clued into as Canaan?).
At question is what will confirm the surety of a strange and increasingly improbable promise of descendants. Readers are encouraged to consider what they use for confidence in an unprovable future.
Three-year-old cheddar is a minimum for good flavor. From this distance, it is difficult to know if the age of a heifer, she-goat, or ram goes beyond the mystery of the number 3.
Of note here, the Hebrew, “each set his part,” applies to living beings, not to things like halves of animals. This linguistic detail brings a picture of G*D and Abram facing each other, unlike later Mosaic stories where G*D’s face cannot be survived if it is seen. Here, we are dealing with life issues, including future descendants.
After dividing the animals down their bilateral seam, each takes a half part and places it opposite its other half—except for the birds, of which we hear no more.
As the sun set, Abram finds doubt darkening into fear as the ritual makes clear that if he fails in his part, he, too, will be bilaterally divided.
The number of generations (4) and years (400) don’t line up, but we get a flavor of what is being said—there will be a long time of difficulty before things begin to move in a different direction. It is difficult to be precise when dealing with future events. The Butterfly Effect works in time as well as in weather forecasting.
The pyrotechnics of a flaming torch and smoky grill do have elements that look back to reversing menacing cherubim and look ahead to travel through the desert from enslavement in Egypt to this promised return to Canaan (reversing its curse?).
Note: From the Nile to the Euphrates is not merely a long distance, but essentially the known universe of the storyteller.