17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram… (Genesis 15:17-18a)
Through the Bible: Genesis 12-15
There is a strange (and fairly gruesome) ancient near east custom described in Genesis 15. When two parties made a covenant in ancient times, they would ratify the covenant by slaughtering an animal (or several animals) and split the carcasses in half. Then both parties would walk between the pieces. The symbolism has become obscure over the centuries, but essentially each party was saying, “May the gods make me as one of these carcasses if I break this covenant.” (Fun fact, there is a theory that this is where the idiom “cutting a deal” comes from).
But there’s a unique detail in this particular covenant ceremony. Verse 17 tells us that “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces.” There are lots of opinions as to what the torch and smoking oven represent. The most comprehensive survey of them that I found is this article from Neverthirsty.org. All of them boil down to speculation and educated guesses because the Scripture doesn’t explicitly say what they symbolize. I’ll give you my opinion, based on context, language, and cross references.
The Bible can never mean what it never meant. So we have to try to get to what this meant either to Abram, who was there; or to Moses, who wrote down the story under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit centuries later.
Abram had just heard God’s prophecy of Israel’s captivity in Egypt. Look at verses 13-14:
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
Since this is the immediate context, it is likely that the torch and the firepot relates to the 400 years of bondage, followed by the exodus.
“Flaming torch” is pretty straightforward. A torch is a torch. Smoking firepot is a bigger challenge. The Hebrew word tannoor, translated as “fire pot” in the ESV, is used 15 times in the Old Testament. In the majority of those, it describes an oven or a portable cooking stove. In the KJV, it is translated as “furnace” four times. Some interpreters have noted that Egypt is described as an “iron furnace” in Deuteronomy 4:20, and conclude that the smoking oven in Genesis 12:15 refers to Egypt, especially given the prophecy we just talked about:
20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.
However, it’s a different Hebrew word in in Deuteronomy. Koor in Deuteronomy always refers to a forge or crucible for smelting iron or purifying precious metals. Tannoor in Genesis 15:12 is a clay pot or cooking stove, used for baking bread.
It can be portable. Remember that detail. It will be on the quiz.
One more question to consider is whether there are any parallel passages to Genesis 15:12. There’s only one I could find. The prophet Zechariah wrote about the return of God’s people to Jerusalem after seventy years of captivity in Babylon. He deliberately used similar language to make the connection between Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and Judah’s deliverance from Babylon:
6 “On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot in the midst of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves. And they shall devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem.Zechariah 12:6
Notice that Zechariah even makes a connection to the animal carcasses Abram laid out on the ground. He said the returning exiles would devour all the surrounding peoples “to the right and the left” of the torch and firepot.
Put all this together, and it seems like these strange symbols are alluding to the Exodus:
- God has just spoken of the four hundred years of captivity.
- When they left Egypt, the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea, “with the waters like a wall to them on their right and the left”between the waters (Exodus 14:22). This is the symbolic significance of the torch and firepot passing between the pieces.
- For 40 years, the Israelites wandered through the wilderness. They ate unleavened bread “baked in an oven” (Ex. 12:39), and manna, boiled and pounded into cakes (Numbers 11:8). Remember the word tannoor we talked about earlier? It typically referred to a portable stove. You know—like you would need on a 40 year camping trip.
- Throughout their journey, the Israelites were guided by a pillar of cloud by day. What guided them by night? A pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). Like a blazing torch.
One More Thing
So when the Lord made a covenant with Abram in Genesis, all the elements of the traditional covenant ceremony were there. The animals were killed. The carcasses were divided. But unlike a covenant between two human beings where they meet each other between the carcasses, only one party to the covenant walked between the carcasses: God, His Presence symbolized by the torch and the stove.
Although verse 18 says that “the Lord made a covenant with Abram,” the truth is God is the one faithful party to this covenant. Human beings break their promises to God all the time. But God is the ever faithful, never failing, covenant keeping God. When God swears to keep a promise, He swears by Himself (see Isaiah 45:23; Genesis 22:16). If God was a witness in a courtroom, He would swear, “So help Me, Me.” Even when we are faithless, God remains faithful (2 Tim 2:13). We can trust God to always keep His promises.