Last post, we began “turning the lenses of Scripture” around again, as we seek to look at the familiar stories of the Bible in their original historic, geographical, cultural, and religious context. We saw how the instruction found in the Torah – the Law of God – to wear tassels, or “tzitzit”, on the corners of their garments reminded Israel of the responsibility to keep God’s commandments. We saw how David made a powerful statement in cutting off Saul’s tzitzit in the cave of Ein Gedi. And we learned that the woman who grabbed the “hem” of Jesus’ robe was doing much more than seeking healing. She was boldly declaring that Jesus was the promised “Sun of Righteousness” who had risen with “healing in His wings” – His tzitzit. She was telling all, that she believed that Jesus was the Messiah.
Part 2: Morning and Evening
Abraham and the Covenant – Genesis 15
Would you have the “chutzpah” to question God, straight to His face? That’s the way the story of Genesis 15 begins. God shows up at Abraham’s tent to remind him of the promise made to him in Genesis 12. God promises that He would protect Abraham and that he would be blessed beyond all imagination. And Abraham basically tells God that it doesn’t matter all that much, because he has no heir to carry on the line anyway. But rather than condemning Abraham, he lovingly understands Abraham’s doubts and asks him if they could go for a walk together. God tells Abraham to count the stars spread above him – an impossible task. And then God promises that Abraham’s descendents will be just as innumerable. But that’s not enough for Abraham. He boldly asks God to prove it to him. And God does.
God tells Abraham to go get five animals: a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us that Abraham was given any further instructions, but he seems to know exactly what God was thinking. Abraham cuts the animals in half and creates a “path of blood” between them. In doing this, Abraham is preparing for an ancient covenant ceremony that is still practiced among the Bedouin culture of the Middle East today.
This covenant ceremony involves both a greater and lesser party. The greater party makes a series of promises to the lesser, and the lesser party agrees to follow certain practices as a result. Then, the greater party walks through the “path of blood” between the animal halves, stomping in the blood the whole way. In doing this, he’s saying, “If I fail to honor my part of this covenant, you may slay me like these animals and stomp through my blood.” Then, the lesser party repeats the act, making the same oath.
God’s promise to Abraham was that all who bless him and his descendents would be blessed; all who curse them would be cursed; and through Abraham’s line a descendent would come that would bless all of humanity. Abraham’s part was simple: walk before God and be blameless; be perfect; no sin; no errors; no mistakes.
Genesis 15 says that Abraham is overcome with a “thick and dreadful darkness” (verse 12). This phrase is an ancient Hebrew idiom for someone becoming completely overcome with terror. And when Abraham hears of his responsibility in the covenant, this is the only response he could have. He cannot fulfill his end.
It is after this that God manifests into a smoking fire pot – smoke being a common Biblical metaphor for God: the Pillar of Cloud (Exodus 13); at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19); in the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40); above the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16); in the Temple (I Kings 8; 1 Chronicles 5); Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6); in Heaven at the judgment of mankind (Revelation 15) – and as He declares the future of the descendents of Abraham, the smoking fire pot proceeds to pass between the pieces.
And now it is Abraham’s turn.
Every Morning and Every Evening – Exodus 29
It’s early in the day. As has been the custom for centuries, a priest stands at the brazen altar with a knife pressed against the throat of a lamb. Another priest is waiting at the pinnacle of the Temple, with a ram’s horn (shofar) pressed to his lips. A third priest is waiting in the Temple courtyard watching a sun dial. As the sun dial indicates the specified moment in time, he signals the priest on the pinnacle; the shofar is blown, and the lamb is slain. The priest sprinkles the blood against the base of the altar, as the people plead with God to be faithful to the covenant promise made to Abraham. And the day’s worship begins.
For the next six hours, animal after animal is sacrificed on that same altar. Sin offerings; trespass offerings; burnt offerings; peace offerings; meal offerings are offered again and again. Cows; rams; goats; turtledoves; pigeons; the same animals Abraham slaughtered to create the “path of blood” 1,800 years earlier, are slain in the Temple.
And again, at the close of the day’s worship, the sacrifice of the lamb is repeated. This sacrifice had been made ever since the Hebrews left Egypt, as God commanded; in the Tabernacle while wandering in the wilderness; in Shiloh; in Jerusalem; in the glorious Temple constructed by Solomon; in the Temple rebuilt by Zerubabel; in the beautifully renovated Temple of Herod. And every day, a river of blood flowed from the Temple, down into the Kidron Valley; reminding all of Israel of the “path of blood” that God passed through 1,800 years earlier; of God’s promise to them.
The Day of the Cross – Mark 15:25-39
And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Six hours. Jesus hung on the cross from morning till evening. As the people prepared to offer up cows, rams, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons as sacrifices, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was being nailed to a tree. Mark wrote his gospel to those in Rome, so he uses the Roman reckoning of time. “The third hour” would be 9:00am – and it was at this specific time for 1,200 years that the lamb was slain on the altar to begin the worship in God’s House. The offerings commenced. And as Jesus’ blood was being shed, the blood from the altar began to flow from the Temple Mount into the creek that ran through the Kidron Valley: water and blood.
A Flaming Torch – Genesis 15
Abraham realized immediately that his life was over. There was absolutely no way he could honor his side of the covenant being made. God’s promise was amazing, but God would be released from it the very first moment that Abraham sinned. God had been clear: Abraham was to be perfect before God. Abraham was 86 years old. He’d learned early on that he couldn’t go a day being blameless. The very second that he dipped his toe in the “path of blood,” his fate would be sealed. It was only a matter of hours before he would be judged.
Genesis 15:12 says that Abraham fell into a deep sleep, but this misses the nuance of the language. It really means that Abraham passed out in fear. He had no chance. God was standing before him, and Abraham understood immediately the gravity of the situation he was in. Abraham knew he was expected to walk the “path of blood”. He couldn’t do it and live.
We miss the point of the story. We know that God passed through the animal halves, but there’s an important verse that reveals the beauty of the story:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot AND a flaming torch passed between these pieces. – Genesis 15:17
We’ve already looked at the smoking fire pot, but this verse reveals a second manifestation of the presence of God. In Hebraic religious writings, fire always symbolizes God: the Burning Bush (Exodus 3); the Pillar of Fire (Exodus 13); God descending in fire on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19); a Consuming Fire (Deuteronomy 4); the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7); the Eternal Messiah (Revelation 1; 19).
And the Fire of God crossed through the “path of blood” in Abraham’s place. God broke the protocol of the covenant, and declared to Abraham and all who would read this story after, “If YOU fail to honor YOUR part of this covenant, you may slay ME like these animals and stomp through my blood.”
And Jesus fate – not Abraham’s – was sealed.
Century after century thereafter, as the morning and evening sacrifices signaled God’s promise to keep the covenant, Jesus saw the blood flow. He heard the animals cry. He saw the fire on the altar and smelled the smoke rising to the Heavens. And he thought about His future. He saw the picture of His own death.
It Is Finished – Hebrews 10:5-14
That is what is meant by this prophecy, put in the mouth of Christ:
You don’t want sacrifices and offerings year after year;
you’ve prepared a body for me for a sacrifice.
It’s not fragrance and smoke from the altar
that whet your appetite.
So I said, “I’m here to do it your way, O God,
the way it’s described in your Book.”
When he said, “You don’t want sacrifices and offerings,” he was referring to practices according to the old plan. When he added, “I’m here to do it your way,” he set aside the first in order to enact the new plan—God’s way—by which we are made fit for God by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.
Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process. – Hebrews 10:5-14 (The Message)
At 9:00am on the “Day of the Cross”, Jesus was nailed to His execution stake – at the very moment that the morning sacrifice was taking place. And again, at 3:00pm – as the final sacrifice of the day was slain in the Temple – Jesus cried out that once and for all, “It is FINISHED!” (John 19:30)
The Wondrous Cross
When I survey the Wondrous Cross, on which the Prince of Glory died;
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet; sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!
Next Post: He Shall Be Called a “Nazarene”
We must have the intellectual integrity to understand that there are Scriptures regarding Jesus that have some problems. If we press the Scriptures hard, will they still stand up under the scrutiny? Matthew writes that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that “He shall be called a ‘Nazarene’.” But do the ancient Hebrew prophets ever predict this? Why does Matthew 1 indicate that there are “14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity, and from the captivity to Jesus?” But there are only 13 generations listed from the captivity to Jesus in Matthew 1. Why? And for that matter, why are there two different genealogies of Jesus that both claim to be through his earthly father, Joseph, but come through two different sons of David? Are there answers to these challenges?
Readings for the Week:
- Matthew 2:21-23
- Matthew 1:1-17
- Luke 3:23-38
- Isaiah 11
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