Bible Question:

What do the smoking oven and flaming torch represent in Genesis 15:17?

Bible Answer:

Genesis 15:17-21 is a very unique passage in the Bible because it refers to a “smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between two pieces.” There are many views as to the meaning of the symbolism. Here is the passage.

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying,
“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.” . . .  Genesis 15:17-21

These verses create several questions. The first question is: what is the context of Genesis 15:17-21? The second question is: how are they related to the Abrahamic Covenant? The third question is: what do the smoking oven and the flaming torch represent?

Abraham Travels To Canaan

Context of Genesis 15:17-21

Genesis 15 describes two visions. The high point of the first vision (v. 1-11) occurs when Abram was declared righteous because he believed in God (Genesis 15:6). Romans 4:13-24 uses Abram as an illustration that salvation is by faith. We are not saved by doing good deeds.

And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:5-6 (NASB)

Because Abram believed God, the land promised in the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1)  was finally defined (Genesis 15:7-21). It is important to realize that Abraham was not declared righteous because he kept the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant was established after he was declared to be righteous (see Romans 4:10-24).

And He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. Genesis 15:7-11 (NASB)

In verses 9-11 God directed that multiple animals be sacrificed as an establishment of the covenant: a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Abram was directed to cut them in half and lay them opposite one another, except for the birds. This was in preparation of the establishment of a covenant which occurred in verse 17. The covenant was instituted by God alone—a unilateral covenant.

At Sunset Abram’s Deep Sleep Begins

Beginning with Genesis 15:12, Abram entered into a deep sleep as the sun was setting. The time of the night would have been somewhere between 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm in Israel.

Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. Genesis 15:12 (NASB)

The Hebrew word for “deep sleep” is tardema. Genesis 2:21 tells us that Adam fell into tardema. It is commonly used for divine revelations (Job 4:13; 33:15; Isaiah 29:10). Abram was receiving a divine revelation.

Then starting in verse 13, we are told that God spoke to Abram. In his deep sleep Abram experienced terror and great darkness. This was a foreboding of his descendants’ or Israel’s four hundred years of captivity in Egypt (see Exodus 12:40-41).  The four hundred years is rounded off from four hundred and thirty years. In verse 14 God encourages Abram by telling him that the nation his descendants will serve will be judged. His descendants will be the nation  of Israel. But Abram will not see these disappointing events of slavery (v. 15-16). Abram will live long and die before the events occur.

Abram’s Deep Sleep Ends After Sunset

The pinnacle of Abram’s deep sleep occurred when it was very dark after the sun had set.

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. Genesis 15:17 (NASB)

Smoking Oven

We are told that Abram saw a smoking oven and a flaming torch move between the cut up animal pieces on the ground (see verses 10-11). The Hebrew words for the phrase “smoking oven” are anan tannur. The critical word is tannur which refers to a “portable oven or a firepot.” A fuller explanation about the Hebrew word tannur follows:

The word denotes basically the relatively small and sometimes portable stove or oven rather than the larger furnace. Constructed of clay and often sunk into the ground, they had a cylindrical or beehive shape and were two or three feet in diameter. (Similar ovens are still made and used today in the hinterlands of Palestine.) Bread and other foods were baked in them (Lev 2:4; 7:9; 26:26; cf. also 11:35 and Ex 8:3 [H 7:28]), and apparently a special area in the northwest sector of ancient Jerusalem was reserved for the bakers of the city, because it was defended by the Tower of the Ovens (Neh 3:11; 12:38). In Gen 15:17 a smoking oven and flaming torch represent the presence of God in a fiery theophany.[1]

The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology end Exegesis defines tannur as an “oven, firepot or a furnace.[2]  That is, the “smoking oven” was a portable firepot which was emitting smoke.

Flaming Torch

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament describes the Hebrew word for “torch,” lappid, as,

The flaming torch, like the pillar of fire, the lamp in the tabernacle, and the glory of God, signified the holy, awesome presence of the Lord moving among his people. Thus God moved as a flaming torch between the divided pieces to confirm his covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:17) and appeared in flashes of lightning on Sinai (Ex 20:18; cf. Ezk 1:13).[3]

In Exodus 20:18 the Hebrew word lappid is translated as “lightning flashes,” that its the emphasis of the torch is the brilliance of the flaming light. God is envisioned as a flashing light, lappid, in Exodus 20:18.

Meaning of The Symbols

The question we are interested in is “What does the smoking oven and flaming torch in Genesis 15:17-21 represent?” A wide variety of opinions exist as to the symbolic meaning of the smoking firepot and the flaming torch. Two views have been  given already in the quotes above. Here are seven more viewpoints. Several of them are almost identical.

Allen P. Ross in his commentary on Gensis states,

Fire represents the consuming, cleansing zeal of Yahweh as well as His unapproachable holiness, which are interrelated (cf. Isa. 6:3–7).[4]

Kenneth Matthews believes,

The “smoking firepot with a blazing torch” symbolizes the presence of God as it passed between the animal parts . . .

A metaphorical use of “furnace” (tannur) depicts divine judgment against Israel’s enemies . . . “Smoke” (asan) attends divine judgment  . . .[5]

J. Vernon McGee states,

Both of these speak of Christ. The furnace, of course, speaks of judgment. The lamp speaks of Him as the light of the world.[6]

James Murphy comments,

The oven of smoke and lamp of flame symbolize the smoke of destruction and the light of salvation.[7]

W. H. Griffith Thomas writes these words about the firepot and torch,

A cylindrical fire-pot and a fiery torch combined to symbolize and express the Divine presence.[8]

Derek Kidner says,

The smoke and fire (see on 11, 12), like the ‘fiery, cloudy pillar’ of Exodus, were evidently a theophany, a manifestation of God.[9]

H. C. Leupold is of the opinion that,

This “smoking firepot and flaming torch” represented Yahweh passing between the halves of the victims and so concluding the covenant.[10]

A. C. Gaebelein has a view that has much merit,

After God had spoken of the coming affliction of the children of Abraham and announcing the judgment of their troubles, a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passed between the pieces. The smoking furnace, the spectacle of a fire and the dark smoke from it, showed to the eye, what God had spoken to the heart of His servant. The smoking furnace is the type of Egypt and the tribulation through which the sons of Jacob and their seed had to pass. The burning lamp is the type of God’s presence with them.[11]

The Correct View

Before the recommended view is given, notice that verse 17 tells us the smoking oven and a flaming torch “passed between these pieces,” that is, the animal pieces. Typically, covenants were ratified by a sacrificial offering (Exodus 24:1-8). But this covenant was ratified when two or more people passed between the animal pieces. It is described in Jeremiah 34:18-19.

. . . the officials of Judah and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers and the priests and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf  . . . Jeremiah 34:19 (NASB)

It should be noticed that when the smoking oven and flaming torch passed between the animal parts in Genesis 15:17, the covenant in regards to the promise of the land was ratified (v. 18-21). Later in Genesis 17 the promise of a Son and a great nation will be further elaborated in the Abrahamic Covenant.

Now we are ready to recommend the best viewpoint as to the meaning of the smoking oven and flaming torch. Since Scripture does not give us the meaning of the symbols, every opinion is an educated guess. The more difficult symbolism is that of the “smoking oven” while the easiest is the “flaming torch.”

We believe that a modified version of A. C. Gaebelein’s view is best for several reasons. First, the immediate context is the prophecy about Israel’s future captivity and slavery in Egypt for four hundred years (v. 13-15). Since Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51 and Jeremiah 11:4 all refer to Egypt as an “iron furnace,” it seems that the smoking oven is an illusion to Israel’s slavery in Egypt.

But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today. Deuteronomy 4:20 (NASB)

The second reason a modified version of A. C. Gaebelein’s view is best is that the Hebrew words for “iron furnace” and “smoking oven” or “firepot” are different. They are different 1) because the smoking oven was portable and 2) it symbolized God bringing Israel through Egypt to the Promised Land (v. 18-21). That is, Abram’s vision pictured Israel passing between the animal pieces. God would help Israel pass through the suffering of slavery to obtain the Promised Land. Zechariah 12:6 is a parallel verse. It describes God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies during the tribulation. That is, Israel will suffer in the tribulation and near the end God will make Israel as a firepot and a flaming torch. When the verse refers to Judah being like a firepot and a flaming torch, it is God unilaterally and independently enabling Israel to defeat its enemies.

In that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot among pieces of wood and a flaming torch among sheaves, so they will consume on the right hand and on the left all the surrounding peoples, while the inhabitants of Jerusalem again dwell on their own sites in Jerusalem. Zechariah 12:6 (NASB)

That is, the smoking oven is an allusion to Egypt and yet a sign of judgment on Israel’s enemies—the Egyptians. Admittedly, the “smoking oven” is the most difficult symbol since Genesis 15 does not give us the meaning. The smoking oven could simply have the same meaning as that of the “flaming torch.” Smoke is often present when God appears. Yet, it seems best to understand the “smoking oven” or “smoking firepot” as referring to Egypt and a promise of God’s judgment on Egypt.

The “flaming torch” is the easiest symbol. It symbolizes the presence of God as illustrated in various passages. Here are two of them in which fire and smoke reveal that God is present.

The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.  Exodus 3:2 (NASB)

All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Exodus 20:18 (NASB)

Thus the “smoking firepot and flaming torch” symbolize God’s unilateral covenant to Abram that He would cause his descendants to go through suffering and then give them the inheritance of the Promised Land (v. 18-21). God unilaterally ratified the covenant.

Conclusion;

The land described in this covenant, Genesis 15:18-21, is the fulfillment of the promise of a land made to Abram in Genesis 12:1.

Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you . . .”
Genesis 12:1 (NASB)

This covenant reveals the faithfulness of our God. He keeps all of His promises. The initial promise was given in chapter twelve; but the first part of the Abrahamic Covenant was not detailed until years later. This is a great reminder that God is faithful. We just need to trust and wait.

 

References:

1. Ronald F. Youngblood, “2526 תַּנּוּר,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press. 1980. vol. 2. p. 975.
2. I. Cornelius. #9486. Willem A VanGemeren. Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Zondervan Publishing. 1997. vol. 4. p. 312.
3. Walter C. Kaiser, “1122 לפד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press. 1980. vol. 2. p. 481.
4. Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 56.
5. Kenneth Matthews. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary. B&H Publishing. 2005. p. 175.
6. J. Vernon McGee. Thru The Bible. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1981. p. 69.
7. James G. Murphy. Barnes Notes. Baker Books. 1873. p. 300.
8. W. H. Griffith Thomas. Genesis. Eerdmans Publishing. 1946. p. 144.
9. Derek Kidner. Genesis. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Inter-Varsity Press. 1967.p. 125.
10. H. C. Leupold. Exposition of Genesis. vol one. Baker Book. 1942. 487.
11. A. C. Gaebelein. The Annotated Bible. Publication Office of “our Hope.” 1913. vol. 1, pp. 47-48.

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