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(KJV) Genesis 15:7-9

And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. 8 And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? 9 And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.

According to the levitical law one year old sacrifices/offerings were required.

(KJV) Exodus 12:5 .

5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:

(KJV) Leviticus 23:19

19 Then ye shall sacrifice one kid of the goats for a sin offering, and two lambs of the first year for a sacrifice of peace offerings

(KJV) Numbers 7:15

15 One young bullock, one ram, one lamb of the first year, for a burnt offering: 16 One kid of the goats for a sin offering:

Could there be some significant or prophetic meaning behind the requirement?

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    A very good question. Why indeed ? – Nigel J Dec 5 '17 at 13:21
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Firstly, although Christian translations all follow the KJV here, the Hebrew wording is משולשת, which is a major source of debate among the commentaries and translations. Various other approaches include:

  • 3 of each animal (Onkelos)
  • a third-born animal (Kimhi)
  • a fatty animal (see Exodus 14:7, other Jewish commentaries)
  • cut into three pieces (personal understanding)

John Gill asks this question directly, and suggests: "Though this difference is to be observed, that the Levitical law required creatures of a year old only to be offered; whereas these were three years old, because they are then at their full growth, and in their full strength and greatest perfection; and such were used among the Heathens for sacrifice; so Lucian represents Ganymedes as proposing to Jupiter, that if he would let her go she would offer a ram of three years old: but it should be remarked, that these creatures here were not taken merely for sacrifice, nor is there any mention made of their being offered; though it is probable they might be offered after they had answered the principal end, which was to be a sign, whereby Abram might know that his seed should inherit the land; but the intention of God was, that as by them Abram's seed might be taught what sort of creatures they were to offer for their sins, so chiefly to show that they themselves would fall a sacrifice to the rage and fury of their enemies, in a land not theirs, and be used as these creatures were: and the number three may denote the three complete centuries in which they would be afflicted, and in the fourth come out safe and whole like the undivided birds, the turtle, dove, and pigeon, to which they were comparable."

D.Z. Hoffman suggests a number of symbolisms based on the 3 years of age - here is a rough translation:

[he discusses some of the possible meanings for this phrase, and concludes that it means three-year-old animals] "It needs to be understood, why were these animals specifically three years old? It is possible that this detail comes in order to symbolize the nation of Israel in its fourth generation, when it will be complete, after it had been preceded by its three original fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob... ...And it is also possible, that these three animals are coming to symbolize the three first generations, which did not have to bear the slavery, and the turtledove (see Paslms 74:19) and pigeon (see Deuteronomy 32:11, which shows that it still receives protection from God) symbolize the 4th generation".
He also mentions the concept of an animal being at its peak strength in the fourth year.

Other Jewish writers make various parallels, see Gill's commentary for details on Nahmanides and Genesis Rabbah, among others.

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  • A solid answer +1 – user20490 Feb 12 '18 at 15:56
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As I read the list of animals that Abram is to collect for God and the order in which they are listed what stands out to me is that they seem to appear in order in size from largest to smallest. The significance of this size order is obviously... well, not obvious!

In the previous verse Abram had asked the Lord GOD "Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" That, I believe establishes the prevailing context and I suspect that the trend of the animals downward in size is intended to help answer that question. But there is much, much, much more to the story.

The animals were all animals that would be, under the Torah, ceremonially clean animals, suitable for sacrifice. Abram was to provide the animals, divide them, lay each piece alongside the other and, apparently, protect the animals from birds.

Abram was to divide the three large 3 year old mammals in half but the birds were not divided. The Jewish Encyclopedia shows that the apocalyptic writers think that they refer to the "four kingdoms" of Daniel:

His [IE: Abram's] prophetic vision (Gen. xv.) furnished especially grateful material to apocalyptic writers, who beheld foreshadowed in the four different animals used for the covenant sacrifice the "four kingdoms" of the Book of Daniel (see also the Midrashim and Targums and Pirḳe R. El. xxviii; compare Apocalypse of Abraham, ix.).

I think the Daniel references in apocalyptic writings is significant but a little beyond my ken at the moment.

While I seem to be oddly alone in this view, it looks to me that we have some intertextuality in "To the Hebrews":

YLT Heb 9: 17 for a covenant over dead victims is stedfast, since it is no force at all when the covenant-victim liveth 18 for where a covenant is, the death of the covenant-victim to come in is necessary,

The covenant is "stedfast" because the ritual "seals the deal" and henceforth is cannot be changed except on pain of death of the one who provided the animals (normally the beneficiary):

Gal 3:15 KJV - 15 Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.

So for Abram's part, he was to provide the various animals and chase away the birds. These, I believe alludes to the various sacrifices that Abraham was to offer in order to be cleared of any transgression of the covenant. This was to indicate that it was the life of himself and his descendants that was on the line if they break the covenant but the sacrificial system would allow the covenant to remain in tact when maintained by frequent expressions of remorse through animal sacrifices.

So Abram had from God a covenant that Abram and his offspring were responsible to maintain. The chasing away of the birds symbolized his required "works". If he and they abide in the covenant they will inherit the land. This was Abram's works oriented assurance of salvation.

Seven chapters later, however, YHVH appears to him again and asks him for the ultimate sacrifice: his monogenhs son Isaac. Abraham, knowing that all his hopes and dreams rested on the vision he had been given of a works covenant. And yet, seemingly, God was asking him to cut off his line making it impossible for his seed to inherit the land. But he trusted YHVH so implicitly that he presumed that he believed that God would fulfill his promises if he kept his part, even if it meant raising his son from the dead!:

Heb 11:17 KJV - 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

And what did Abram say to Isaac?:

Gen 22:8 KJV - 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

Heb 11:17 KJV - 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

Rom 4:13, 16 KJV - 13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. ... 16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

And of course he did provide the Messiah, the "Lamb of God". Now, because God provided the Lamb it was God's responsibility to cause his descendants to inherit the land.

And what did YHVH say to Abraham?:

Gen 22:16-18 CSB - 16 and said, "By myself I have sworn," this is the LORD's declaration: "Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, 17 "I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. 18 "And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command."

God added more assurances and said the whole world would be blessed through his "seed". The primary assurance was his oath.

Deu 31:21 ASV - 21 And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they frame this day, before I have brought them into the land which I sware.

Jer 11:5 ASV - 5 that I may establish the oath which I sware unto your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day. Then answered I, and said, Amen, O Jehovah.

Eze 47:14 ASV - 14 And ye shall inherit it, one as well as another; for I sware to give it unto your fathers: and this land shall fall unto you for inheritance.

Perhaps the diminishing size of the sacrificial animals indicated that the system of animal sacrifices was going to fade away.

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Maybe it has to do with Jesus' completing His ministry in three years before being sacrificed. Each animal represents a different type of sacrifice offering or sin offering.

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  • This is not a substantial answer. Its vagueness make it hardly a comment. Please see the Tour (below) which has more information. – Nigel J Jan 9 at 5:46
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Three year-olds would tie in the idea that the blood covenant lasted three generations. After the blood covenant, you see many references to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So the blood covenant was perpetual but did not pass into the fourth generation

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  • Why do you think each year of a heifer refers to each generation? Where did you get that idea from? What supporting evidence can you provide that this is what God meant? – curiousdannii Mar 11 at 1:43

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