If the word “horror” is taken as a key word, that will dispense with mere darkness. Yes, there are lots of mentions of darkness in the Bible, supernatural ones too, but how often is that associated with ghastly dread? And if we take the matter of the carcasses laid out by Abram before darkness comes, we may well think of the body of Christ nailed and lifted up to be seen both as a horror to behold, and as that dreadful, supernatural darkness descended at mid-day for three hours. Did anyone ever suffer such dread as did Christ during those hours of darkness? He had been in dread anticipation of it in the dark garden of Gethsemane hours earlier, but when that supernatural darkness enveloped him, then he knew being forsaken by God, though he had done nothing to warrant that. He had become something – a sacrifice.
This was surely foreshadowed by those unique events at nightfall, when Abram slept but then this awful darkness gripped him. “Why does it fall of Abram”? you ask. Matthew Henry’s Commentary makes these suggestions.
“This great darkness, which brought horror with it, was designed, (1)
To strike an awe upon the spirit of Abram, and to possess him with a
holy reverence, that the familiarity to which God was pleased to admit
him might not breed contempt. Note: Holy fear prepares the soul for
holy joy… (2) To be a specimen of the methods of God’s dealings with
his seed. They must first be in the horror and darkness of Egyptian
slavery, and then enter with joy into the good land… (3) to be an
indication of that covenant of peculiarity which God was about to make
with Abram.” (page 32, columns 2 & 3)
There seem to be parallels. Consider the awesome ceremony. After Abram had cut a heifer, a she-goat and a ram in two (the two birds were not cut) and laid each side opposite the other, with a gap between the two, God did something extraordinary in the fearful darkness. Normally, a covenant was cut with the animal carcass split in two and the parties to the covenant walking between them, as a visual aid that they were agreeing to respective penalties if they broke their side of the covenant. But with this one, only God moved (unseen but for the burning brazier and brand), showing he would bear the penalties for BOTH sides of the covenant agreement (as Abram was immobile). So if Abram and his descendants broke their side of the covenant, God would bear the penalties. And there was no ‘if’ about it. God knew full well before the covenant was sealed that the descendants of Abram would break the covenant. Of course, God would never break HIS side of the covenant but this mysterious ceremony showed that God had bound himself to keep his covenant.
Contemplate this: God will pay the ultimate price for covenant failure. The Son of God was willing to die on behalf of Abram and his descendants, literal and spiritual. When they fall short of the covenant's terms, he will take the curse for covenant failure in their place. This is why God credits Abraham with righteousness the moment he says 'yes' to the covenant (Gen. 15:6). Surely this foreshadows the cross of Jesus? His flesh was torn and sacrificed so that God's word to Abram might be fulfilled, not just for land, not just for one tiny nation, but for forgiveness and eternal life for all who put faith in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike! “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
Jesus stands between the holy God and unholy sinners who have broken their covenant obligations. Jesus supports the latter who trust in him while upholding the righteousness of God in justifying sinners. God is completely righteous in sending his Son to die on behalf of covenant violators who accept by faith that provision. God is keeping his terms of the covenant as displayed that dark night when he cut the covenant with Abram. This is the ultimate purpose of that terrible darkness. Galatians 3:16 says that Christ is the seed (singular) of Abraham. Christ paid the penalty on behalf of covenant breakers, immobilised, unable to move out of our darkness. And because Christ is God incarnate, we come full circle, back to that awesome dark night which parallels the horror of that dark day when the sword pierced Christ and he was sacrificed in the fire of God’s righteous judgment on sin. We could not keep the covenant. He paid the penalty on our behalf.