Have you ever wondered where the phrase “cut a deal” comes from? Its roots appear to be from an ancient Near East covenant-making ceremony that shows up in Scripture. In Genesis 15, for example, there’s a scene that, at first glance to us today, looks really strange. Abraham slices some animals in two, lays the halves opposite each other, and creates a pathway between them. He then falls into a “deep sleep,” where a “great darkness” comes over him. God promises to be with His people in the future and to ultimately bring them back to the land. Then God walks down the pathway in between the animals, as “a smoking oven and a flaming torch.” What is going on here?
Sealing the Deal
In the ancient Near East, one important purpose of sacrifice was “sealing the deal” when two political parties were making an agreement. It was kind of like signing a contract. So let’s say Great King Joe is negotiating with Little King Ben, saying, “I’ll protect your people and land from invasion.” Little King Ben responds, “Great! I’ll pay taxes and send men to join your military.” Great King Joe smiles. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a deal!”
To make it official, they’d perform a covenant ceremony. They would cut the sacrificial animals in half, lay the sides opposite each other, and then take a stroll down the pathway together, walking as two parties united, between the ingredients for the covenant meal. It was a way of saying, “If I don’t keep up my end of the bargain, may I get sliced up like these animals.” They literally called this ceremony “cutting a covenant.”
In the Old Testament, the word kārat (“to cut”) shows up about 90 times in reference to making covenants. So when you’re reading your Bible and come across the English phrase “make a covenant,” chances are it’s a translation of the Hebrew phrase “cut a covenant” (kārat berît).
In Jeremiah 34:8-22, for example, Zedekiah and the people of Judah enter a covenant together, agreeing to free their slaves. But when they break their word, God points out how He kept His covenant when He freed them from slavery. He confronts the people, saying they have “transgressed My covenant” and “have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me.” So God goes on to declare, “I will treat [them] like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces[—the] leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf” (Jer. 34:18-19 NIV).
God is referencing how the people walked between the pieces of the calf in the covenant ceremony, but now they have broken their word and will become like the animal. The people will fall by the sword, the passage goes on to say, and their corpses will become food for the birds.
The covenant ceremony was a way of saying, “If I don’t keep up my end of the bargain, may I get sliced up like these animals.”
God takes their word seriously, and the treaty ceremony graphically demonstrates the gravity of breaking the covenant.
I’ll Pay the Debt
The Lord regularly reminds the people of the covenant He made with them. (See Deut. 29:1; 1 Kings 8:9 NIV.) Interestingly, however, His emphasis is not on the covenant we made, but rather on the covenant He made. This highlights an interesting feature of the covenant God cuts: God walks through the animals alone.
Normally, the two parties would go together. But in Genesis 15, God takes a stroll on the covenant pathway by Himself. The significance? God takes sole responsibility for His commitment to Abraham’s family. If Israel messes things up, makes a blunder of the relationship, and fails the covenant, God says, May I get sliced up like these animals if I still don’t keep My word.
God will be faithful to His end of the deal, even if Israel is not to hers.
Can you imagine going to a car dealership to purchase a brand-new Ferrari and watching the papers drawn up to declare you the proud new owner of this fancy car—only when you go to sign, there’s no dotted line for you at the bottom? The only dotted line is already signed—by the president of Ferrari. You’re invited to contribute the payments and participate in the deal, but even if you don’t, he’ll incur the debt.
The full weight of responsibility for this hot rod to remain yours rests solely on the president being faithful to stand by his word.
This is important, because Genesis 15 is a foundation story. It sets the stage for Israel’s sacrificial system. Years later, when the people brought their animals to the temple, they were not “sealing the deal” with God, but rather celebrating the God who had already done so with them. They were not creating a new covenant, but commemorating an ancient one.
God was for Israel with an unwavering commitment. However unfaithful they might be, God was going to be faithful to the vows He had made to His bride.
While the sacrificial system did many things, an important one was this: It reminded Israel that God was for them with an unwavering commitment. However unfaithful they might be, God was going to be faithful to the vows He had made to His bride.
Jesus’ Solitary Journey
Ultimately, God would bear the weight of the covenant Himself. When His people betrayed, rejected, and rebelled against Him, God took on flesh and allowed Himself to be torn apart in Christ. As Jesus fixed His eyes on Golgotha, He prepared to walk the path alone, to bear the burden of our betrayal upon His own back, in order to bring us home.
When we come to the communion table, we come to the sacrifice of Christ. We don’t come to show Jesus how serious we are about Him, but to be shocked afresh at how serious Jesus is about us. Jesus declares of the wine at the table, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20). Did you catch that word covenant? Jesus is cutting a new covenant, like Abraham’s covenant so long ago—only this time in His own blood. Great King Jesus is sealing the deal with us, His little people. And He does so, not with the blood of animals but with His very own life on the cross. We can know that we will forever be together with Him, because He is the God who was willing to walk alone for us.
Illustration by Adam Cruft