Ancient legal contracts (or covenants) had an official seal attached to the parchment. From the time of the Egyptians to the Roman Empire, rings with specific emblems (called signet rings) were used to seal legal documents by pressing the ring onto hot wax. In Genesis 15, God entered a binding covenant with Abraham and sealed the agreement when a flaming torch passed between the pieces of the sacrifices.
The Jewish commentaries note that in the ancient east, normally the weaker party in a covenant would walk between the pieces, indicating that person's fate if he violated the conditions of the covenant. Yet it was God, the stronger one, who was sealing the covenant with Abraham, the weaker, by passing between the sacrifices!
According to one rabbi I spoke with years ago, during the ancient Middle East marriage covenants the father would hold a torch, indicating that breaking the marriage vows would lead to a fiery conclusion to the unfaithful partner (as seen in Judges 15:4-6).
God was revealing that He was sealing the covenant at that moment, and if a descendant of Abraham broke the covenant, that person would be "cut off" from God and His covenant (Gen. 17:14). This "cutting off" theme was revealed to Abraham in Genesis 17:14.
From Genesis 12 to Genesis 17, the Abrahamic covenant was ratified and fully established. However, the real secret of Abraham's covenant with God was hidden from Abraham for 24 years. This seal involved the shedding of blood, making this covenant an official blood covenant. If the secret to all spiritual and material blessings originated in the Abrahamic covenant, then the secret of all covenants is linked to blood.
Many ancient nations recognized blood pact agreements. In pre-Islamic times, ancient Syria acknowledged a blood pact called M'ahadat ed-Dam, or Brotherhood of the Covenant. In the agreement, each party must provide guard from treachery, protection in time of danger, and provision for the wants of the others' family members if one covenant partner passes away prior to the other. Many African tribes have used covenants for centuries.
Often a tribal leader would send his chief representative to shed his blood on behalf of the chief. This is the imagery of the new covenant, in which: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16, KJV). Christ was God's representative, using His own blood to redeem mankind; thereby giving redeemed man access to God.
Hebrews 9:12 says, "Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption"
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