“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” Genesis 15:17
No, not that kind of pot, but this is surely a strange text. Does God appear as a fire pot? Certainly nothing is beyond God’s power but the verse seems strange nonetheless. How are we to make sense of this passage?
It is not uncommon to attempt to exegete the passage by means of the following argument.
1. If we take the literal reading of X passage, we end up with absurdities and attributing improper things to God. (If P, then Q)
2. But we cannot believe absurdities and attribute improper things to God, (Not Q)
3. Therefore we cannot take the literal reading of X passage. (Not P)
The worry here is that taking the passage in a straightforward way commits us to believing all kinds of silly things, namely that God is a pot. But God can’t be literal fire and most certainly not a flaming pot. Consequently we have to re-interpret the passage along allegorical lines.
This move has a long history. One of its most explicit advocates can be found in Plato. In the Republic, Plato argues that since the gods are good, they can never give off a false appearance. If the goods could, this would mean that they were not fully good but a mixture of good and something else, namely its opposite, the bad. But since the gods are fully good, they cannot give off a false appearance. Therefore, any text that attributes something bad to the gods must be edited or interpreted as allegorical.
Such passages then are routinely interpreted as symbols or temporary created manifestations of God. When God appears in the burning bush to Moses or as a flaming pot to Abram, they are a divine “sound and light” show. The problem with this argument is not that it is an argument but that it isn’t a positive exegesis of the passage. It functions as a philosophical grid to guide exegesis but is itself not an exegesis of the passage.
I argue that while the above argument is valid, it is unsound and that therefore I deny that a literal reading of the passage implies an absurdity.
But before giving exegesis of the passage there are some philosophical rejoinders to give. Taking the passage in a literal way it doesn’t follow that if God is fire that we think of it in terms of natural fire. It is philosophically possible for another object to be “fire” phenomenally without any of the physical properties that we associate with fire.
Let’s take the philosophically well known example of Twin Earth. Even though the Twin Earth case was designed to serve other purposes I think I can impress it into service here. Suppose that one day through some magical device of transportation, astronauts discover a planet. We’ll call it Twin Earth and the reason we will do so is because everything on Twin Earth is exactly the same as that on Earth, with one exception. The stuff that the Twin Earthers call “water” has all of the phenomenal characteristics of water-it freezes as the same temperature, boils at the same temperature, etc.). But the stuff that the Twin Earthers call water, (we’ll call “twater”) is not H20. It has some very long chemical formula which we will designate as XYZ. So it is obvious then that twater isn’t the same thing as water even though they behave in exactly the same ways.
Now transporting this into the supernatural, it is possible for God to be fire and have all of the physical phenomenal qualities of fire, without actually being physical fire. From this thought experiment I conclude that it doesn’t follow that if God is fire in any real sense, that he must be physical fire. God can be real fire without being the physical fire that we know through physical-chemical inquiry. Real doesn’t necessarily imply natural. While it is true that I stretch the relation since water and twater are still physical objects, logically this is irrelevant since I only need to show that it is possible to produce the same phenomenal effects without the presence of the physical phenomena but with the presence of some other reality. I take it as logically uncontroversial that God could produce such effects by just being who/what he is.
With that out of the way, I move on to exegesis. Taking the passage at face value doesn’t commit us to an absurd belief because the face value of the passage isn’t teaching that God is a “smoking pot.” The text actually refers to an oven, but ovens in western civilization for quite some time are very different than what the term here denotes. In Mesopotamia jars were filled with charcoal and lit. Dough or other objects were placed on the heated jar to cook them. The jars themselves could become red hot and therefore did double duty as a source of heat as well as light.
Such ovens were common among the Hebrews. (Lev 7:9, 11:35, 26:26, Ex 8:3) Sometimes they were used as incinerators. (Hosea 7:6-7 Mal 4:1) Akkadian texts give us some further insight as to their significance. The sending out of a torch, a lighted oven, brazier (literally, “lighted coals”) was a magical practice to ward off sorcerers or evil powers. The lighted coals or burning furnace had significance then for Abram at the cutting of the covenant. This is seen in v. 1 of Gen 15 where God states, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield.” God’s manifestation of a burning and bright furnace shows that Yahweh is powerful enough to protect Abram as well as expiating his offenses. Abram’s sense of dread in v.12 therefore makes sense in light of the fact that he is in the presence of God and not something created.
But we aren’t done yet. There are two subjects denoted in the passage, the furnace and the torch. But the verb is singular implying that the subject is one and the same thing. The oven/furnace is the torch. A literal smoking pot isn’t the same as a torch. Clearly then what the text is describing is a source of great light and heat that passes between the sacrificed animals. Furthermore, we know it was God that passed through sacrificed animals because it is God who makes the covenant (v.18). Here what we have is nothing different than what Moses sees at the burning bush-a supernatural fire.
If then, what Abram sees is actually God and not a created symbol, how are we make this view cohere with Exodus 33:20? (“And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”) If no one can see God isn’t that in direct contradiction to my view that Abram actually did see God? Scripture teaches both that men have and cannot see God. Here are some examples.
Job 19:26 And [though] after my skin [worms] destroy this [body], yet in my flesh shall I see God
Mat 5:8 Blessed [are] the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
1Ti 6:16 Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom [be] honour and power everlasting. Amen.
Scripture then, on pain of contradiction, creates the logical space for the distinction between God as seen and God as unseen. What is seen is really God and not a temporary effect because is it identified with God. And yet Scripture denies that it is God as he is in himself. What Abram and others see is in fact a divine light but there is something more to God that is not available to be grasped by them. (The encounter with Moses sheds more light-Ex. 33:18-23.)Whatever we wish to call divinity as really these two different things is irrelevant since the distinction is forced upon us by the text itself. Here then is the antidote for those who think that the distinction between essence and energies is the product of overly metaphysically minded theologians rather than the teaching of Scripture.
Here are some passages that should “light up” for you as a consequence of taking God as a fire and brilliant light literally.
Deu 4:24 For the LORD thy God [is] a consuming fire, [even] a jealous God.
Deu 5:24 And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth.
1Ki 18:24 And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.
1Ki 18:38 Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that [was] in the trench.
Psa 50:3 Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.
Eze 22:31 Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord GOD.
Dan 3:25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.
Hbr 12:29 For our God [is] a consuming fire.
2Pe 3:12 Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?
Exd 33:20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.