Of all the major religions of the world, we Christians probably connect most closely to Judaism.
Although some folks would try to downplay the connection, even going as far as a quote I remember hearing when I was a kid that said, “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” they’re just denying reality. Even when I first heard that quote, I remember thinking that there was one Jew in particular I definitely hoped God was listening too – Jesus of Nazareth.
Because, of course, Jesus was Jewish. As were the disciples, as was Paul, as was a large percentage of the church in its first decades. All of those early converts were won over by men and women speaking about God using what we call the Old Testament – the Bible of the Jewish people. We Christians say that the God Jesus called “Father” is the God of Abraham, of Moses, of the kings, of the prophets and so on.
Judaism rests on a covenant that God made with a group of people. What we see in this passage is the first expression of that covenant, made with an old, childless couple named Abram and Sarai. They would in fact have a child, and from that child would come a great nation who would be a people for God. God then renews that covenant with Moses, and extends it through all eternity when he renews it with King David.
Well, fine, folks may say. God made that covenant, but the people he made it with broke it because they wouldn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God.
That’s two strikes in the same sentence, which might caution us before we take a third swing in this issue.
For one, Jewish thought does in fact deny that Jesus is in any way divine. But that’s because to accept him as divine goes against the bedrock statement of Jewish faith, that there is only one God and he made everything in the heavens and the earth. Because everything, including people, has been created by God, none of it may be worshipped or thought of as being divine like God. Jews who want to obey the commandments must have “no other gods.”
In other words, in the minds of Jewish believers, they actually break their covenant with God if they accept Jesus’ divinity. As to Jesus as Moshiach or Messiah, they note that this coming savior was supposed to restore the kingdom of Israel and the reign of God on the earth – all things that are to happen in the end of days. Since they haven’t happened, and since Jesus seems to talk about himself as somehow divine like God, he can’t be the Messiah.
But let’s just say for argument’s sake that God does indeed see things that way and that the Jewish people did break their covenant. Why would that mean that he would reject them? The ceremony Abram does in this passage, where he cuts the animals in half and sets them up with a path down the center, was a part of an ancient legal contract.
The two people agreeing in a covenant would both say what they were going to do, in front of witnesses, and then walk together down the gory aisle the sacrifice had created. They were saying that if they broke the covenant they’d just agreed to, the same thing could be done to them as was done to the animals. This is for serious covenants only, of course – not something you’d do for a library fine.
When Abram, in his vision, saw flame and smoke pass between the animal halves, he understood he was seeing God give his promise in covenant format. The flame and smoke represented God’s presence, just as they would when God led the Israelites through the wilderness and gave them his laws at Mt. Sinai.
Notice God did not make his promise conditional. He didn’t move between the animal halves with Abram, like the covenant ritual said. Whether Abram lived up to his promises or not, God would keep the covenant. And through the history we read in the Old Testament, God does exactly that: Keep the covenant even when his people don’t.
Through idolatry, oppression, moral decay and a host of other ways the people ignored God or took him for granted, God was faithful. He was always their God, and they were always his people, whether they believed it, acted like it or not.
I may be wrong, but I can’t look at this scenario and this history and say that God would change his mind about keeping his promise to his people. After all, if he can break this promise, can we have such full and complete trust in his others? I would find it hard.
So what is the purpose of Jesus, then, in relationship to this covenant? Why did he come, if it wasn’t to supersede an old, outdated deal in favor of a shiny new one?
When we read Paul in Romans, we see his understanding of this matter. In Jesus, God did not erase his chosen people from the world – he extended his covenant to all people, whether they were of the blood of Abraham or not. In Jesus, God did not turn his back on his chosen people – he opened his arms to the rest of us and showed us how we too are his chosen people.