What does Genesis 15:17 mean?
ESV: When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
NIV: When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
NASB: Now it came about, when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, a smoking oven and a flaming torch appeared which passed between these pieces.
CSB: When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals.
NLT: After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses.
KJV: And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.
NKJV: And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.
Verse Commentary:
After God completes His prophecy about Abram's descendants, He returns to the covenant ritual that began with Abram dividing and arranging the halves of the animals God had instructed him to bring (Genesis 15:9). Now the sun goes down, and God completes the ritual. Whether Abram is now awake and sees it with his own physical eyes, or sees this event in his vision or dream, we don't know for sure. Either way, what Abram sees is remarkable. In the dark, two items move between the halves of the animals. One is a smoking fire pot, something that served as an oven in Abram's day. The other is a flaming torch.

In the narrative itself, we're not told what these two items represent. However, fire is often associated with both God's judgment and His holiness. In addition, these elements of smoke, fire, and the various kinds of animals later used for sacrifice under the Law point to God's future relationship with Israel.

Finally, in moving between the two halves of the animals, God is apparently finalizing the agreement between Himself and His people through Abram. This aspect, in particular, is important for its symbolism. Scholars suggest that this ritual—passing between the halves of sacrificed animals—was meant to imply a binding oath on those who participated. By walking between the animals, the person was accepting that same destruction if they broke their end of the bargain. Pointedly, note that Abram does not pass between the halves—only God does, via the symbolism of the pot and flame. The promise God has made here is entirely dependent on His will and His work.

Abram had begun this part of the conversation by asking the Lord how he would know if God would keep His promise to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. Abram's dramatic experience of God's answer in performing this covenant ritual would surely have made a lifelong impression on him.
Verse Context:
Genesis 15:1–21 falls between Abram's heroic rescue of Lot in Genesis 14 and his less-than-heroic choice to have a child with his wife's servant in chapter 16. Chapter 15 features Abram's hard questions to the Lord about how the lofty promises of uncountable descendants and possession of the land will be kept. God responds, in part, by formalizing His covenant promises to Abram with an elaborate ritual. He also reveals to Abram details about the difficult circumstances his descendants will face before they come back to take possession of the land ''in the fourth generation.''
Chapter Summary:
Genesis 15 consists entirely of a long encounter between the Lord and Abram. When the ''word of the Lord'' comes to Abram in a vision to bring reassurance of God's support for him, Abram takes the opportunity to press God with questions. Abram asks both about his childlessness and how he can know he will one day possess the land of Canaan. God responds, and Abram believes. God's response includes leading Abram through a covenant ritual involving slaughtered animals, as well as a prophecy about the future of Abram's descendants before the time will come to occupy the Promised Land.
Chapter Context:
Where Genesis 14 was an action-packed story of war and rescue, Genesis 15 consists of a single conversational encounter between the Lord and Abram. This concludes with the formalizing of God's covenant promises to Abram in a dramatic covenant ritual. Abram respectfully asks the Lord some hard questions about how the seemingly impossible promises might be kept. God responds and Abram believes. In addition, God reveals to Abram a prophecy about the difficult future his descendants will face as servants in another country before returning to take possession of the land of Canaan.
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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