The mystery of the broken calf

Kidron Valley, Jerusalem, Israel

High above the Kidron Valley is today’s Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount retaining wall. As the lowest place near the Temple, drainage pipes naturally would send waste to the Kidron Valley. After the massive slaughter of Passover lambs, the valley must have been stained with blood.


It’s one of the strangest little sentences you’ll ever come across in your Bible reading.

“Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me,” come the words of Jeremiah 34:18, “I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”

Jeremiah is speaking for the Lord.

I’d like to speak for the calf.

Somewhere in the Bible is a very strange butcher. He kills a calf. He splits it in two parts. And then he walks between the pieces of the carcass.

Sure hope that’s not what they’re doing behind closed doors at my favorite grocery store!

The mystery is solved with an understanding of covenant agreements.

A covenant is more than a contract. A modern-day covenant is marriage. Somewhere in the ceremony, a bride and groom will say to one another, in one way or another, “I’m in this until I die. Until death parts us, I’ll be here.”

It’s one thing to break a contract. You might lose a home, a car or that nice TV you rented from the Rent-to-Own store.

It’s an entirely different matter to break a covenant. To get out of this, you’ll have to die.

Ancient cultures wanted to symbolize this. If two individuals made a covenant to work together, they might choose the very symbolic, very visual splitting of a calf to express their intent.

Abram did this. In Genesis 15, God instructs Abram to bring a heifer (cow), a goat and a ram for a special sacrifice. Abram split them in two, laying them opposite one another. He would also bring a dove and a pigeon. These he would behead, but not split.

The blood would, of course, run between the halves.

This practice had not stopped by Jeremiah’s time, apparently.

The two parties – imagine two landowners – making a covenant would prepare the bloody environment, have the details of the covenant read, and then walk between the carcasses.

They would get blood on their feet, and possibly their clothes.

The symbolism?

“If I break my word to you, you can cut my body and lay it on this same piece of ground.”

As a father of three girls, I am so tempted to make this a part of my next wedding ceremony!

Pay attention to Abram’s experience. After Abram fought off the birds of prey until the sun went down, he fell into a trance. In the trance, he saw a “smoking firepot with a blazing torch” pass between the pieces.

This was God’s promise that He would love Abram and his descendants. If God failed to love His people, He would pay for that action with His life!

Interesting detail: Abram never walked the bloody path.

But Jesus did.

After the Passover meal, Jesus led his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would pray with the desperation of a condemned man. We “crossed the Kidron Valley,” John writes of that last, short walk the group had together.

The day before, thousands of Passover lambs had been slaughtered on the Temple Mount. The blood ran through drainage pipes strategically placed so all the mess would flow to the lowest point of discharge near the killing table.

That place? The Kidron Valley.

There was no river of blood there by the time Jesus arrived. Like Abram’s sacrifice, some time had passed.

And yet it must have smelled bad. It must have been obvious that this crossing was over ground that had been marked by the blood of sacrifice.

Finally, after all that time, a second party had walked the bloody path of the covenant agreement.

God had not sinned. Abram’s descendants had sinned. But God’s love was – and is – so profound, He would choose to pay the penalty we deserved.

Can you hear the message from God’s heart?

Abram, I love you so much that if I fail to keep my promise, I will pay for that sin with my life. But Abram, I love you so much, that if you or your descendants fail to keep your promises, I will also pay for that sin – your sin – with my life.

And only a few hours after He walked across the blood-stained Kidron Valley, He did.