Smoking furnace, burning lamp

Last night we saw this conflagration that reminded me of this verse. From 2010

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.

(Gen. 15:17, KJV)

Translation choices lead to interpretive decisions. Below I’ve listed quotes from interpreters of this passage both ancient and modern. Most of these I’ve chosen because they were working from the KJV as their base text. There are a number of layers of interpretation at work here. How did the contemporary readers of this text interpret the text? And then over the centuries this or other interpretations have become more prominent. Then there is the New Testament interpretation of this text. (I haven’t discovered any quotes or allusions to the furnace and lamp in the New Testament. Help me if you can.) Finally, we see how Christians interpret the passage as typological or allegorical. If I were preaching this passage I might want to consider how this entire ceremony foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice and finally what it might say about our own smoking furnace and burning lamp.

John Wesley: The smoaking furnace signified the affliction of his seed in Egypt: they were there in the furnace of affliction, and labouring in the very fire. They were there in the smoke, their eyes darkened that they could not see to the end of their troubles. 2. The burning lamp speaks comfort in this affliction; and this God shewed Abram at the same time with the smoaking furnace. The lamp notes direction in the smoke; God’s word was their lamp, a light shining in a dark place. Perhaps too this burning lamp prefigured the pillar of a cloud and fire which led them out of Egypt.

Ray Stedman: At the place of self-despair, there comes deliverance! When we become aware of how much we are enslaved by selfishness, how little we really experience what God is offering, how much we are victims of our own self-indulgence, self-pity, and self-righteousness, then we are ready for victory. At the moment when the heart is cold and empty and the light of faith has gone out, something will precipitate a crisis, and suddenly you find yourself, without warning, in the midst of a smoking furnace.

John Gill: behold a smoking furnace; or the likeness of one, as Aben Ezra notes; for all this was represented in a visionary way to Abram, and was an emblem of the great troubles and afflictions of the children of Israel in Egypt, called the iron furnace, Deuteronomy 4:20, and may have respect to the furnaces in which they burnt the bricks they made, see Exodus 9:8; the Jewish paraphrases make this to be a representation of hell, which is prepared for the wicked in the world to come, as a furnace surrounded with sparks and flames of fire; and Jarchi says, it intimated to Abram, that the kingdoms would fall into hell: and a burning lamp, that passed between those pieces; or a lamp of fire {o}; an emblem of the Shechinah, or majesty of God, who afterwards appeared in a pillar of fire before the Israelites in the wilderness, after their deliverance out of Egypt, and when their salvation went forth as a lamp that burneth, of which this was a token: this burning lamp passed between the pieces of the heifer, goat, and ram, that Abram had divided in the midst, as was usually done when covenants were made

Emanuel Swedenborg: “And it came to pass that the sun went down,” signifies the last time, when the consummation came; “and there was thick darkness,” signifies when hatred was in the place of charity; “and behold a furnace of smoke,” signifies the densest falsity; “and a torch of fire,” signifies the burning heat of cupidities; “which passed between those pieces,” signifies that it separated those who were of the church from the Lord.

Matthew Henry: “The smoking furnace and the burning lamp, probably represented the Israelites’ severe trials and joyful deliverance, with their gracious supports in the mean time.”

John Calvin: But here, by the word, liberty was promised to Abram’s seed, in the midst of servitude. Now the condition of the Church could not be painted more to the life, than when God causes a burning torch to proceed out of the smoke, in order that the darkness of afflictions may not overwhelm us, but that we may cherish a good hope of life even in death; because the Lord will, at length, shine upon us, if only we offer up ourselves in sacrifice to Him.

Bill Burns: We find ourselves in the midnight hour when darkness is upon the people. Therefore, our glorious God will become a flaming torch and a smoking oven of His glory–the cloud by day and the fire by night–and He shall lead His covenant sons of glory into the final victory! Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen.

Rashi: He hinted to him that the kingdoms of the pagans would fall into hell.

Allan Stanglin: And the Lord, symbolized by the blazing torch, passes through the pieces in Abram’s place. He stands in, actually walks in, for Abram. If the Genesis 17 condition applies here, God is telling Abram, “If  you sin, if you’re not perfect, if your descendents are not blameless, if you break the covenant in any way, you may do this to me.” And it’s at that point that God sentences himself, his Son, to die.

Elizabeth Kirkley Best: The burning, bright presence of God, as has been discussed, is light, guidance and deliverance for Israel, the smoke is seen as a cloud or the enfolding of heaven, and is noted in the Tabernacle as proceeding from the burning of incense, which is later likened to the prayer of the saints. The glory passing through the midst of flesh is also a type and kind of the indwelling of the Temple, of the indwelling Holy Spirit, foretold in Zechariah. Jesus was the Glory enthroned in flesh, manifested in the flesh, and he is called the Glory of God. The Glory passing in the midst of the sacrifice shows the Deliverance by the Glory which is to come.

Ralph Wilson: The smoking firepot  and blazing torch that Abraham observes represent God himself walking between the animal carcasses — binding himself solemnly to his promise. Abraham doesn’t walk between the pieces, Yahweh does, making it a unilateral promise that God pledges to fulfill in the most solemn and binding way.

We Christians know the end of the story, where God himself bears — in the broken body of his innocent Son — the penalty for man’s breaking of the covenant.

I found a number of these through these nice collection of links about Genesis 15: Text Week and Eword Today.

Can you discover other references to this verse by interpreters, commentary writers and preachers? Please share them with a web link if possible.

Did the KJV translation lead to misunderstanding of the text or did it keep the passage within wider Biblical motifs?

James McGrath suggested doing a “synchroblog” on Genesis 15. This is my humble offering for a kickoff post. Maybe Tim and John would consider contributing or spreading the word.

19 thoughts on “Smoking furnace, burning lamp

  1. jkgayle says:

    Then there is the New Testament interpretation of this text. (I haven’t discovered any quotes or allusions to the furnace and lamp in the New Testament. Help me if you can.) Finally, we see how Christians interpret the passage as typological or allegorical. If I were preaching this passage I might want to consider how this entire ceremony foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice and finally what it might say about our own smoking furnace and burning lamp.

    As interesting as “how this entire ceremony foreshadows [Jesus] Christ’s sacrifice” may be, more interesting perhaps is how “Yeshua the Mashiah son of David son of Avraham” himself might have alluded to this bit of Torah.

    First, the commentary of Robert Alter, whom Willis Barnstone praises for his translation of Genesis. Then, more from Barnstone himself.

    Alter, rightly unconcerned with the NT while translating Genesis 15, says this in a footnote:

    “17. a smoking brazier with a flaming torch. All this is mystifying and is surely meant to be so, in keeping with the haunting mystery of the covenantal moment. It seems unwise to “translate” the images into any neat symbolism (and the same is true of the ominous carrion birds Abram [aka Avram] drives off). There may be some general association of smoke and fire with the biblical deity ([the Medieval Hebrew exegete] Nahmanides notes a link with the Sinai epiphany), and the pillars of fire and cloud in Exodus also come to mind, but the disembodied brazier (or furnace) and torch are wonderfully peculiar to this scene. The firelight in this preter-natural after-sunset darkness is a piquant antithesis to the star-studded heavens of the previous scene.” (page 76 of Alter’s Five Books of Moses; page 46 of his Genesis)

    Before turning to Barnstone, it should be noted that Alter admits to translating into English not only from the Hebrew MT but also from the Hebraic Hellene of the LXX. So I’d like to suggest that the NT gospel writers and Yeshua translators (i.e. Greek translators of Jesus) were also aware of the Septuagint.

    For Genesis 15:17, the LXX translators introduce the words κλίβανος [klibanos] and λαμπάς [lampas] (which commonly are translated into English as “oven” and “lamp”).

    For translating the Sermon on the Mountain, Matthew also uses those Greek words. It’s possible that Yeshua (aka Jesus) is alluding to the Genesis scene noted throughout the sermon.

    So here is Barnstone. Barnstone’s translating Matthew translating Jesus, also on a Mountain as was Avram (aka Abram) who saw things coming out of the skies:

    Matthew 5
    14 You are the light of the world.
    A city cannot be hidden when it is set on a mountain.
    15 Nor do they light a lamp [λάμπει] and place it under a basket….
    16 So let your light glow before people so they may see
    Your good works and glorify your father of the skies.
    17 Do not think that I have come to destroy the law [Torah]….
    18 And yest I say to you, until the sky….

    And whoever calls a companion a fool will go before the Sanhedrin, the highest court,
    And whoever calls a companion a scoundrel
    Will taste the fire [πυρός] of Gei Hinnom.
    23 If then you bring your gift to the alter….

    Matthew 6
    30 And if the grass of the field is there today
    and tomorrow is cast into the oven [κλίβανον]
    and in these ways God has dressed the earth,
    will he not clothe you in a more stunning raiment,
    you who suffer from poor faith [ὀλιγόπιστοι]?

    That last phrase, ὀλιγό πιστοι, is Matthew’s translation of something Yeshua (aka Jesus) called some of his audience on that Mountain. And that also hearkens back to Genesis 15, to that famously NT-appropriated verse 6.

    In Alter’s Genesis, it goes like this (and I show the Hebrew and LXX Greek that Yeshua and Matthew seem to allude to here):

    “And he trusted [אָמַן] [ἐ-πίστευσεν] in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit.”

    Notice how Jesus never speaks (in this context perhaps alluding to Genesis 15) of any sacrifice made specifically of “the Christ.” Rather, there is substantial discussion in the sermon on the Mountain of sacrifices and alters and fire and, of course, of the oven and the lamp.

  2. David Ker says:

    I like Alter’s appeal to mystery. It is a very dramatic story and you can imagine it being told at night by a fire with the dark stars above. Was his rendering “a smoking brazier with a flaming torch”? I read all the Genesis tales as didactic so it’s highly probable from my perspective that the furnace and lamp weren’t merely dramatic but consciously foreshadowing the Exodus.

    I really want to see a connection with the LXX and Matthew 5 etc. The smoke gets in my eyes.

  3. jkgayle says:

    The smoke gets in my eyes when trying to see any NT connection; I tried. Guess I started thinking Mt 5 when looking at Dallas Willard’s book on the Sermon on the Mount. Willard says the following, making ‘love’ the point, the eventual (and Christian? or NT?) point:

    Heaven Invading Human Space
    …. In such passages [i.e., Gen 22 and Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac] ‘heaven’ is never thought of as far away–in the clouds perhaps, or by the moon. It is always right here, ‘at hand’…. On numerous occasions fire materialized out of the air (Gen. 15:17…, etc.). The manifestation in atmospheric fire became almost a routine event in Israel’s history, so much so that God came to be known as a consuming fire… –a fire that is also love….

    The New Testament Experience
    Exactly the same types of events continue in New Testament times.” (page 69, Divine Conspiracy)


    I like Alter’s translation, yes full of mystery:

    And just as the sun had set, there was thick gloom and, look, a smoking brazier with a flaming torch that passed between those parts. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram….

    But I like Everett Fox’s translation even better:

    Now it was, when the sun had come in,
    that there was night-blackness,
    and here, a smoking oven, a fiery torch
    that crossed between those pieces.

    On that day
    YHWH cut a covenant with Avram,

    There’s the mystery in the language (i.e., there’s the unspoken name of God, of course, and also play on the imagery of pieces and cutting). In a note before his translation, Fox explains a bit:

    The Covenant between the Pieces (15): Amid scenes of great drama and almost mystery, a number of significant motifs are presented: (1) Avram’s expressions of doubt that God will keep his promise about descendants (thus heightening the tension and final miracle of Yitzhak’s birth); (2) the linking of the Patriarch to the event of the Exodus centuries later; and (3) the ‘cutting’ of a covenant, in a manner well known in the ancient world. This last motif, especially with its setting of ‘great darkness’ and ‘night-blackness,’ takes Avram far beyond the earlier figure of Noah into a special and fateful relationship with God.”

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Perhaps the following form analysis applied to Young’s literal translation might help:

    And the sun is about to go in,
      and deep sleep hath fallen upon Abram,
      and lo, a terror of great darkness
      is falling upon him;

        and He saith to Abram, `knowing -- know that thy seed
        is a sojourner in a land not theirs,
          and they have served them,
          and they have afflicted them four hundred years,
            and the nation also whom they serve I judge,
              and after this they go out with great substance;
              and thou -- thou comest in unto thy fathers in peace;
            thou art buried in a good old age;
          and the fourth generation doth turn back hither,
        for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.'

    And it cometh to pass -- the sun hath gone in,
      and thick darkness hath been --
      and lo, a furnace of smoke, and a lamp of fire,
      which hath passed over between those pieces.

    So, “a terror of great darkness” and “a furnace of smoke, and a lamp of fire” are in parallel. Whether it’s contrastive or complimentary, I’m not sure.

    I might also mention that the Amorite occupied a “land not theirs”.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    Kurk says, For Genesis 15:17, the LXX translators introduce the words κλίβανος [klibanos] and λαμπάς [lampas] (which commonly are translated into English as “oven” and “lamp”).

    And I wondered whether “a terror of great darkness” and “a furnace of smoke, and a lamp of fire” are contrastive or complimentary.

    Given that the entering side of the chiasmus is negative and the receding side is positive, I suspect a furnace of smoke, and a lamp of fire” to be positive.

    So, wouldn’t terror of great darkness refer to death. That is, Abraham falling asleep was as it were a near death experience. And, therefore, a furnace or, as Kurk points out, a oven and a lamp signify life. I don’t want to sound too simplistic; but, these symbols strike me as “some one is home.”

    The whole passage seems to be saying to Abraham that though he will die, he will make a huge mark on the world–he will live on because of the covenant.

  6. Dannii says:

    I think I agree with Bill Burns most (at least from that pull quote, I didn’t read his whole article.)

    Why do so many make the link between the “furnace/oven” and the trials of Israel? It would seem very straightforwardly to me to be symbolising God alone.

    NT allusions: I think this passage is most definitely in mind in Hebrews 6:13ff. This ceremony, as strange as it was, is one way God showed the hope of his unchanging reliability.

    And then, considering what Mike just wrote, Hebrews 11:12 is interesting…

    I’ll try to get in on the synchro-blog too…

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Dannii wrote: NT allusions: I think this passage is most definitely in mind in Hebrews 6:13ff.


    And after vocalizing “Wow” a couple of times, I think I quite agree. 🙂

    Would not a smoking pot/oven/furnace and a fire-lighted lamp “framed” (double entendre intended and without humor) by a bloody sacrifice be two, key, prototypical parts to the future tabernacle and temple? Close your eyes and walk into the tabernacle. What stands out? Isn’t it smoke, dim light, fire?

    Now, with the idea that the smoking pot and lamp anticipates the tabernacle, read Heb. 6:13-20. As I read it, there’s a very high degree of coherence going on between these two passages.

    I’ve often wondered what the expression “two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie” really refers to. Could it be it refers to the two sides of the covenant depicted in Gen. 15?

    IMO, very good observation Dannii. Your observation requires, at a minimum, serious engagement by critical thinkers. Thank you!

    Ya’ll understand, of course (since this is a Bible Translation blog), that the ultimate question we’ve got to eventually get to is: “Ok, how do you translate that?”

  8. Dannii says:

    Mike, although there probably is some link between the furnace and smoke and the tabernacle, I think there is probably a better original meaning than something centuries after Abraham’s time.

    I had thought that the “two unchangeable things” referred to his promise(s) and his oath, though I’d love to see a more subtle answer. What do you mean by the two sides of the covenant? It’s worth noting that the covenants of chapters 15 and 17 are another thing entirely to the oath which was made in chapter 22. I wrote a comprehensive list of the promises which God made to Abraham at

    As to how to translate it: are the furnace and torch (word choices which it seems are far from settled) two distinct items, or do they form a unit? Is there some single English noun phrase which might work better?

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    The two sides of the covenant refers to the bilateral nature of covenants. God, as it were, sat on both sides of the agreement table.

    The idea in Hebrews 6, then, goes something like this: It is impossible for God to lie. So, he is not going to go back on what he promised. By walking through the middle of the sacrifice alone, he made two covenantal statements, effectively signing on both dotted lines. Thus, he was both parties and therefore made two statements of unrelenting commitment, not one.

    Or, to state the intention the way Hebrews 6 says it: “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised.” The rest of the text states how he did that.

    Part of the difficulty in Hebrews 6 is the awkward English of “by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie”. Apparently that rendering is mostly driven by a geometric assumption placed on the Greek preposition εν (‘EN’) (via Machen). A better way through the difficulty is to understand that sometimes an εν prepositional phrase functions in Greek the way an adverb functions in English. For example, εν πνευματι (EN PNEUMATI) could easily be rendered spiritually.

    So, maybe something like, “…[God] entered into a mutual agreement …, specifically through two unchangeable statements, and so expressed the impossibility of God going back on his promise.” The phrase, so expressed… functions adverbially and modifies the verb μεσιτεύω (MESITEUW[1] “to mutually agree”) at the end of verse 17. But even in that rendering, the word “mutual” doesn’t work very well. But that is caused by the fact that two parties “cut” a covenant and yet only one party seemingly was involved. More polish is needed.

    The more I read Hebrews 6 and think that Genesis 15 is in the background, the more I think the whole Genesis 15 scene pre-indicates the tabernacle. At the very least I think I would have to say this cutting of the covenant narrates much of the same metaphor as the tabernacle. I’m trying to make sure I don’t read Hebrews 6 back into Genesis 15, but it appears to me that the writer of Hebrews builds a composite of these three: this Abrahamic covenant act, the function of the tabernacle/temple, and who Jesus is. To the writer’s mind, it all holds together.

    You raise an interesting question regarding the unitizing of furnace and torch. Perhaps that is what I’m doing by thinking of it as a prescient tabernacle event in microcosm.

    [1] Louw & Nida: “to bring about a mutually accepted agreement between two or more parties, with the probably additional component of making something certain.” The fact that μεσιτεύω assumes two parties frames the two unchangeable “things”. And I’m using ‘frames’ here in its linguistic technical sense.

  10. Dannii Willis says:

    WoundedEgo, that’s an interesting idea I hadn’t considered before…

    Mike, thanks for this great discussion. We’re on the outside of translation territory, so I might try to follow it up on my blog instead. I will say something quickly though, which is that although Genesis 15 is in the background of Hebrews 6, Genesis 22 is in the foreground. That’s why I originally said that I said it was “in mind”: Hebrews 6 isn’t about Genesis 15, and yet I’m sure it was in the author’s and readers’ minds as another example of God condescension to use human customs to reassure his people.

  11. jkgayle says:

    As to how to translate it: are the furnace and torch (word choices which it seems are far from settled) two distinct items, or do they form a unit? Is there some single English noun phrase which might work better?

    I like how Everett Fox translates into English as ambiguously both separate noun phrases and also an appositive:

    “a smoking oven, a fiery torch”

    David Rosenberg (in Abraham: The First Historical Biography) has the one phrase modifying the other:

    “a smoking kiln and its blazing torch”

  12. William Ross says:

    I’ve always pictured a censer, but it occurs to me that this might not be the Hebrew or Greek. Do we have any indication on what the furnace/kiln is? Could it be a censer? Or is it a huge fire pit or something?

  13. David says:

    I hope I may come into this late. I have done some study but hopefully rely upon interpretation given by the Apostle Paul. I hope not to deviate. Here is my understanding:

    When Abraham asked God a question, “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it (the promise),” God answered indirectly by giving Abram a command. In Genesis15:9, he was told to divide certain animals in two mirrored parts – a heifer of three years old, a she goat of three years old, a ram of three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon, laying them on each side of a path. This opened the opportunity for the Lord to confirm His oath, underlining His eternal and unchanging plan.

    The Apostle Paul explained it this way: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.”

    The parties of the oath in this case – those who passed through the animal parts – were clearly divine and not human. Verse 17 tells us that a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passed between the animal parts. It is interesting that the Apostle Paul explained this as two immutable parties, representing the Father and the Son, whose oath is unbreakable. Because God cannot lie, the promise of the Father and the Son must come to pass.

    In this oath, the Son submitted Himself to their mutual agreement. Further, Moses explained that God the Father would send a Prophet (God the Son) through the lineage of His people Israel, speaking His words unto them. They in turn must listen to the words of this Prophet and do them.

    This was literally fulfilled by Jesus when He came speaking only the words of the Father and performing the actions of the Messiah.

    The Apostle Paul also placed the emphasis upon Christ this way: “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ…” referred to the passing of these two immutable things: the smoking furnace and a burning lamp – Their divine presence.

    Why is it important for us to understand the identity of these two objects that passed between the parts?
    God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of all the families of the earth hung on this oath. The whole Old Covenant system worked itself out in types and shadows to reveal the physical birth of the one Seed, Jesus Christ. When He was born, all of Jewish history turned toward Him. Jesus was born, consecrated with the offering two turtledoves, and continued to fulfill all of the Old Testament prophesies concerning Himself. And, when He became the eternal sacrifice for our sins, the everlasting covenant in Genesis 15 was fulfilled as well.

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