How do we go about creating a contract? We draw up the conditions, we write them out with the help of lawyers, we sign the document. Sometimes it will include witnesses, in some instances ceremonies, depending on the people, the purpose, and the context. Signing the contract is the key, though. At the point of signature, a contract is enacted.
Now think: animal sacrifice. Strange and horrific, right? But there it is, right smack dab in our Bibles.
Specifically, I am referring to Genesis 15:1-21. We read as God instructs Abram to gather certain animals, and split them in half (Genesis 15:9-10). If we know this God, though, we know that He acts with purpose.
So why animal sacrifice? It was the method at that day and time of drawing up a contract. And how did they officiate a covenant in those days? What was their equivalent of a signature? Acting it out.
With gory halves of animals arranged to create an aisle, the participants would walk through. By walking through that aisle, they would be declaring, “If I do not uphold my part of the deal, may I be ripped apart such as these, becoming food for the birds.” They acted out the consequences of the broken covenant as their official signature. In that, the covenant would become active.
Really, we don’t have quite any ceremonial comparison quite like it today. A signature is has become relatively routine and relatively easy to go back on. Contracts are nullified all the time. Marriages are commenced, only to be undone at any given point at which one or both spouses feel that it’s time to move on, for varying reasons.
Why don’t we return to that old method, then? Should God still be cutting covenants with His people?
First of all, it’s important to remember that God does not change—meaning His character, His moral code, His plan, etc. all remain the same. However, He does speak to groups of people through their culture. There is not any sort of reinventing Himself to become “relevant.” But He does make use of familiar customs to communicate His message to people. Think: parables.
At the Genesis 15 point in time, Abram and those around him would have immediately understood what was happening as he gathered and slayed the animals: preparation for the making of a covenant. But, imagine attending wedding season this summer, and looking on as the bride and groom arrange that type of an aisle. It would be, just as I described earlier, strange and horrific. This is not our cultural norm, so we can expect that God will not be calling on any of us to cut a covenant in this fashion.
Second, and maybe more importantly, is this: God has fulfilled that covenant. By being the only one to “sign” or walk through the aisle, He declared sole responsibility that the promises would be upheld. If He or if Abram failed to uphold their end, God would be torn apart. And that happened, through the body of Jesus on the Cross. In that act, and the following resurrection, we were rescued from our hopeless state of death in sin. God created the conditions, and God upheld them all.
That is the gospel.