The Glorious Kingdom
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4. God's Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
God shows Abraham the stars to illustrate his innumerable descendents. By German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), engraving, from "Bibel in Bildern" (1851-60). Larger image.
Abraham has faced fear in battle with the Mesopotamian kings. But now he faces fear of a different sort -- fear in the presence of an awesome God who appears to him.
Yahweh -- a Shield and Reward (15:1)
"After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
'Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.'" (15:1)
Abraham experiences both God's "word" and a "vision," some kind of visual perception of God's presence. Now God assures Abraham, "Do not be afraid, Abram," calling him by name. The words "Do not fear," are commonly heard in Scripture from the mouth of God, a prophet, or an angel (26:24; 46:3; Exodus 14:13; Numbers 21:34; Deuteronomy 1:21; 3:2; 7:18; 20:1; 31:8; Joshua 8:1; 10:8; 11:6; Isaiah 7:4; 10:24; 41:10; Daniel 10:12; Luke 1:13, 30; Revelation 1:17).
"Shield" is the Hebrew noun māgēn, "shield, defense, ruler... māgēn refers to an object which provides covering and protection to the body during warfare… the smaller and more common type of round shield carried by light infantry and officers. sinnâ is the rectangular shield which covered the whole front of the body." God is Abraham's protection. God is revealed as "Shield" a number of times in Scripture (Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 3:3; 5:12; 18:2; 28:7; 84:9, 11; 91:4; 115:9-11; 119:114; 144:2; Proverbs 30:5).
But it is possible that instead of "shield," the word here should be rendered "sovereign," as the NIV alternate reading suggests. Let me explain how. Punic and Ugaritic examples show that the verb māgan can mean "bestow a gift," so the noun can mean "giver of gifts, benefactor, suzerain, sovereign." Both "shield" and "sovereign" imply God's protection. But a suzerain better fits the context of offering a reward to a faithful servant or vassal, as the text suggests in verse 1. In addition, it would be appropriate for a suzerain to initiate a covenant with his servant or vassal, as we see later in this chapter. (Note: a suzerain is (1) on a personal level, "a superior feudal lord to whom fealty is due" and (2) on an international level, "a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state, but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs.")
As Abraham's suzerain or sovereign, God offers him the promise of great compensation. "Reward" is the Hebrew noun śākār, "hire, wages." The basic idea of this root is "engaging the services of a person in return for pay." "Reward" has a pair of modifiers (1) "very" (NIV, NRSV) or "exceeding" (KJV) is the Hebrew adverb me’ōd, "exceedingly, much, force, abundance." (2) "Great" is the verb rābā, "be(come) great, many, much, numerous."
God is saying to Abraham: Don't be afraid. I am your suzerain (protector, sovereign) and I am offering you an exceedingly humongous reward, beyond your wildest dreams, for serving me.
Q1. (15:1) What does it mean to you personally to call God your "Shield"?
What does it mean to you that he promises to you (as heir of the promises to
Abraham) "an exceedingly great reward"? What does it mean to you to call God
your Suzerain or Sovereign?
Abraham's Longing for an Heir (15:2-6)
But payment or money isn't what Abraham desires. He is already wealthy. His heart longs for a son, an heir:
"But Abram said, 'O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?' And Abram said, 'You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.'
Then the word of the Lord came to him: 'This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.'
He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars -- if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.'
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." (15:2-6)
God's promise of great wealth doesn't appeal much to Abraham right now. He is saying: Without an heir to which to pass my wealth, what can you give me, Lord, that means anything? Abraham is "childless." The Hebrew adjective ‘ărĭfĭ, "stripped, childless, used to describe the loneliness and 'nakedness' of the childless in an era when children were necessary for a sense of completeness."
As things stand now, one of his servants, Eliezer of Damascus, will become his heir at his death. This probably represents an adoption procedure known from the Nuzi texts. A childless couple can adopt a slave, who will bury and mourn them when they die, after which he will inherit their estate -- unless a natural son is born after this adoption to become the chief heir. This Eliezer is probably the trusted servant whom Abraham sent to Haran to find a wife for Isaac (chapter 24).
God speaks an abiding word to Abraham in this vision that is fixed forever in his mind: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir" (15:3). Now Abraham knows that his heir won't be an adopted son, but his own natural son. What an encouragement to a childless man!
Next, in the vision, God takes Abraham outside his tent, asks him to try to count the stars, and tells him, "So shall your offspring be" (15:5). So God gives Abraham two everyday reminders of his promise of offspring:
- During the day he can look at the innumerable grains of fine dust and recall God's promise: "I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth" (13:16).
- During the nights he can look up at the innumerable stars and recall God's promise, "So shall your offspring be" (15:5).
What wonderful, constant reminders as Abraham waits for the fulfillment of the promise!
Abraham's Faith Is Accounted as Righteousness (15:6)
Abraham had questioned God's first promise of reward. Now he believes that God will fulfill his promise of offspring.
"Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." (15: 6)
In this key verse -- which is a mainstay of Paul's teaching on justification by faith (Romans 4:3-6, 9, 20, 25; Galatians 3:6-9; James 2:23) -- we see three important elements to understand: (1) having faith, (2) crediting, and (3) righteousness.
What is the essence of Abraham's faith? This is the first time we find the Hebrew verb ’āman (from which we get our word "Amen" and the capital of the present-day Kingdom of Jordan, "Amman."). The root idea is of firmness or certainty. In the Hiphil stem, as it is here, ’āman has the meaning "to be certain about, to be assured." This biblical word for "to believe" shows that "biblical faith is an assurance, a certainty, in contrast to modern concepts of faith as something possible, hopefully true, but not certain." Abraham has believed before -- faith prompted his journey to Canaan, his worship, his deliverance, and his victory -- but here Abraham put his trust in the certainty of God's promise afresh. His confidence takes on a new steadfastness. He believes God's promise will certainly be fulfilled. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). Abraham doesn't understand how everything will work out, but this he believes -- that God will keep his promises!
Credited or Accounted
The first element is Abraham's faith. The second is God's response. God "credited" (NIV), "counted" (KJV), or "reckoned" (NRSV) that faith to him as righteousness. The verb hāshab means "think, plan, make a judgment, count. The basic idea of the word is the employment of the mind in thinking activity." In this passage and a few others, the verb carries the idea "to impute," a specialized sense of "to make a judgment" -- "to reckon or credit something (as something) to someone's account." There are several other examples of this particular usage in the Old Testament, both active (2 Samuel 19:19; Psalm 32:2) and passive (Leviticus 7:18; 17:4; Numbers 18:27).
The third key idea in this verse is "righteousness." God counts or reckons Abraham's steadfastness in faith as "righteousness," Hebrew noun sedāqā. The root speaks of conformity to an ethical or moral standard. In the Old Testament, of course, this standard is the nature and will of God. A righteous person is one who does righteous acts. "The forensic aspect of sedeq applies to the equality of all, rich and poor, before the law… The man who has the position of right in litigation must not be turned aside (Isaiah 5:23)." But here, it is not acts of righteousness or justice that Abraham performs that are significant -- though Abraham (for the most part) is acting righteously. Rather, God counts, considers, reckons, accounts his faith to be righteousness before God.
Based on this understanding, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins (Isaiah 53), the apostles saw faith as the key element. God accounts faith to us as righteousness, just like he did for Abraham. Of course, we in no way deserve this as a result our personal behavior -- it is the righteousness of Jesus Christ that is credited to our account (Romans 1:17; 3:21-23; 4:5, 11, 24; 9:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). (You can learn more about substitutionary atonement in my study of "The Lamb Who Took Our Place," Isaiah 53.)
That may sound like theological mumbo-jumbo to you, but as you take time to think it through, it will help you understand what the amazing good news of Jesus Christ is all about.
Q2. (15:6) What is so amazing about this verse? On what basis does God
declare Abraham a righteous person? What significance does this have to our New
Testament understanding of justification by faith?
Taking Possession of the Land (15:7-8)
But the vision isn't over yet.
"He also said to him, 'I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.'
But Abram said, 'O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?'" (15:7-8)
Abraham may have seen his journey from Ur to Canaan as an act of obedience, but from God's perspective, God is the chief actor: "I am the Lord who brought you out...."
God's purpose for Abraham coming to Canaan was for him to "take possession of" the land. "Take possession" (NIV), "inherit" (KJV), and "to possess" (NRSV) in verses 7 and 8 translate the same Hebrew verb (yārash, "take possession of, inherit") that we saw in verses 3 and 4 in reference to an heir. "In civil matters the verb means to become an heir. In military matters it means to gain control over a certain area by conquering and expelling the current inhabitants of that area." Abraham hasn't taken possession yet, of course. Nor will this possession take place within his lifetime. God is talking to Abraham as the progenitor of a race of people who will accomplish this 400 years hence (verses 13-16 below).
The term Abraham uses to address God in this verse is noteworthy. "Sovereign Lord" (NIV) or "LORD GOD" (KJV, NRSV) is a combination of the noun ’ādōn, "lord, master, owner" + God's revealed name Yahweh. This combination occurs 247 times in the Old Testament. Literally, Abraham is addressing "the Lord Yahweh."
Cutting the Covenant (15:9-11)
Abraham acknowledges God's promise that he will possess the land. He isn't doubting here in the way that Zechariah doubted the angel's word in the temple -- "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years" (Luke 1:18). Abraham's faith is firmly anchored in God. Rather he is asking God for further information about God's promise.
God responds to Abraham's request by instructing him to prepare a solemn ceremony of making a covenant:
"So the Lord said to him, 'Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.'
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away." (15:9-11)
God asks Abraham to prepare the ceremony. The larger animals Abraham kills and then butchers, cutting them in half, then laying them on the ground, each half opposite the other with some space between them to walk. When vultures come to eat the carcasses, Abraham drives them away until the ceremony is ready for execution. Remember the "cutting" of the animals, since we'll refer to that in a moment.
Apparently, Abraham's preparation takes place during the daytime between the first vision and the second. By nightfall, the scene is set.
A Thick and Dreadful Darkness (15:12)
"As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him." (15:12)
Abraham seems to fall into a deep sleep, perhaps even a trance. As he sleeps a darkness comes over him that is "dreadful" (NIV), "horror" (KJV), "terrifying" (NRSV). The Hebrew noun ’êmâ, means "dread, fear, horror, terrible, terror. In all its occurrences it connotes the concept of 'fear.'" As this nighttime vision unfolds, Abraham is surrounded by a terrifying darkness.
400 Years in Slavery (15:13-16)
As he sleeps in this darkness, he hears the voice of the Lord:
"Then the Lord said to him, 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.'" (15:13-16)
It is a prophecy of what will happen to Abraham's descendents, no doubt handed down from father to son until it comforted the Israelites during their captivity in Egypt. This prophecy uses round figures, 400 years, 4 generations. In the patriarchal age, 100 years might be considered a generation. In Exodus 12:40 the more precise figure of 430 years is given.
The Sin of the Amorites (15:16)
But the last sentence of the prophecy gives an intriguing reason for Abraham not possessing the land at this time:
"In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." (15:16)
Just who are the Amorites that God is referring to? Though occasionally "Amorite" is used quite specifically, here it is used as a generic term for all the peoples who possessed the land of Palestine prior to the Israelites.
What does he mean "the sin ... has not yet reached its full measure"? "Full measure" (NIV), "full" (KJV), and "complete" (NRSV) translate the Hebrew verb shālēm, "be complete," entering into a state of "completion and fulfillment." God reveals here that the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, and the conquest of Israel are part of his long-term plan, not only for Israel but for the Amorites. At this point their sin was clearly present, but hadn't reached such proportions that God saw fit to expel them from the land. But 400 years later, that time will have come. Kidner notes that this phrase "throws significant light on Joshua's invasion ... as an act of justice, not aggression. Until it was right to invade, God's people must wait, if it cost them centuries of hardship."
Q3. (15:16) Have you ever been frustrated with God for not fulfilling his
promise to you immediately? Why does God sometimes delay the fulfillment of his
promises to a future time?
A Blazing Torch Passes between the Pieces (15:17-18a)
Yahweh now solemnly enters into covenant with Abraham:
"When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram...." (15:17-18a)
The word "covenant" is the Hebrew noun berit. Between nations it is a "treaty, alliance of friendship." Between individuals it is "a pledge or agreement, with obligation between a monarch and subjects: a constitution." Between God and man it is "a covenant accompanied by signs, sacrifices, and a solemn oath that sealed the relationship with promises of blessing for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it." In our study, the covenant is between God and an individual (and his offspring). When the Biblical account moves to the Exodus, God makes a covenant with his people, on the pattern of the suzerain-vassal treaty found in the ancient Near East.
But what is going on here with the animals cut in half? The word "made" as in "made a covenant" in 15:15 is the Hebrew verb kārat, with the root meaning "to cut off." It is used in the phrase "to cut" or "make" a covenant. "A covenant must be cut because the slaughter of animals was a part of the covenant ritual."
There is widespread evidence that in the biblical world animals were slaughtered in treaty contraction ceremonies. When the parties to the treaty walked between the rows of freshly killed animal flesh, they placed a curse upon themselves -- May they too be cut limb from limb if they violate the treaty or covenant. This explains a passage from Jeremiah:
"The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth." (Jeremiah 34:18-20)
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.
Q4 (15:17-18a) Why did God go through the covenant ritual with Abraham,
with the divided carcasses? Why does God bind himself to a solemn promise? How
does Abraham respond to God's promises (15:6)? What promises has God made to us
that affect our futures? What significance does blood sacrifice have in those
A Covenant Promise of the Land (15:18-21)
The chapter closes with specific promises of the land that God will give to Abraham's descendents:
"On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates -- the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.'" (15:18-21)
The boundaries of this territory are huge -- from the Nile to the Euphrates! God acknowledges that other peoples populate the land at present, but still promises it to Abraham and his descendents.
As mentioned above, the terms Amorites and Canaanites are sometimes used to describe all the peoples of Palestine. But when used specifically, here's what we know:
Smiths or metal craftsmen.
Area of Moab and Edom, descended from Esau, associated with Caleb's family.
Lived around Hebron, the central hill country, and around Beer-sheba.
Just north of Jerusalem, the highlands of Samaria, in Ephraim and Manasseh.
Could include the Emin, Anakites, and Zamzummites. More or less gone by the time the Israelites arrived in Canaan.
Lived east of the Jordan and in the hill country west of the Jordan.
Lived along the coastal plain as well as some along the Jordan River.
Uncertain, as the name only appears in lists of people.
Hill country between Judah and Benjamin, city of Jerusalem.
The Bottom Line for Disciples
The passage we've just studied is amazing in its scope. First, we learn that God accounts or imputes righteousness to Abraham, not on the basis of his righteous actions or keeping some law, but on the basis of his faith, his believing and trusting in God. The New Testament apostles realized that this is how God accounts us righteous, too. Not on the basis of conformity to law, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but on the basis of faith in God's ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
Available in PDF and Kindle formats.
In our passage, Abraham sacrifices animals at God's command and God solemnly pledges himself to his promises and his covenant by walking between the carcasses. In the New Testament, we read, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22b). The Abrahamic Covenant was ratified by an animal sacrifice through which God pledged himself to be faithful to his covenant promises. The New Covenant has been ratified through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself, who is God's most solemn pledge of all that he will keep his promises to us of forgiveness and eternal life. Glory be to God!
Lord, thank you for your great integrity to pledge your Word to us and then keep it. Help me to value my word and truthfulness as much as you do. Forgive me for the times when I've failed to keep my promises. Help me to trust you in the times when I'm waiting for you to fulfill your promises, but don't see the answer yet. Help me to be steady in faith, like my spiritual ancestor Abraham. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6)
Common Abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/abraham/refs.htm
- "Vision" is the Hebrew noun mahăzeh, "vision," used of a true revelatory vision, from a verb that refers to "perception with physical organs of sight" (Robert D. Culver, TWOT #633f).
- James E. Smith, TWOT #367c.
- Hamilton, Genesis 1:419, who cites studies by Dahood. Also Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (Word Biblical Commentary; Word, 1983), p. 71, note 4.a., who sees Dahood's case as plausible. Craigie, however, retains "shield" which seems to fit the context of several psalms better than "suzerain." Also James E. Smith, TWOT #367c.
- Cleon Rogers, TWOT #2264.1b.
- Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1134a.
- William White, TWOT #2103.
- Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1705a.
- Hamilton, Genesis 1:240. "Heir" (NRSV), "steward" (KJV), and "one who will inherit" (NIV) in verse 2 is the common Hebrew noun, bēn, "son." Here it refers to an adoption procedure, which was especially common in Nuzi law" (Elmer A. Martens, TWOT #254). "Children" (NIV), "seed" (KJV), and "offspring" (NRSV) in verses 3, 5, and 18 is the Hebrew noun zera‘, "sowing, seed, offspring." The verb refers to the action of sowing seed in the fields. Figuratively, the noun can refer to the seed as semen or seed as offspring or descendents (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #582a). "Heir" in verse 3 and twice in verse 4 is the Hebrew verb yārash, "take possession of, inherit" (John E. Hartley, TWOT #920). Here it refers to becoming an heir. In verses 7 and 8 the verb refers to taking physical possession of the land.
- "Count" (NIV, NRSV) or "number" (KJV) is the verb sāpar, "count," is used of general mathematical activity (R.D. Patterson, TWOT #1540).
- Jack B. Scott, TWOT #116. Hamilton (Genesis 1:424) sees either a "decolcutive" use of the Hiphil -- "He declared 'Amen' in Yahweh" -- or the traditional internal-transitive Hiphil -- "He became steadfast (or firm) in Yahweh."
- Leon J. Wood, TWOT #767. Hamilton, Genesis 1:426-427.
- Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #1879b.
- This is the Hiphil or causative of yāsā’, "cause to go out."
- John E. Hartley, TWOT #920.
- Robert L. Alden, TWOT #27b.
- This generic word for "lord, master," often pronounced Adonai, was used to substitute for the divine name Yahweh, which was considered too holy to pronounce. Whenever you see "LORD" capitalized and with small caps in most study Bibles the actual word in the text is "Yahweh."
- "Cut" (NIV, NRSV) or "divided" (KJV) is the Hebrew verb bātar, "cut in two" (TWOT #297).
- "Deep sleep" is the Hebrew noun tardēmā, "deep sleep, sleepiness, lethargy" (William White, TWOT #2123a).
- Thomas E. McComiskey, TWOT #80b.
- Philip E. Satterthwaite and David W. Baker, "Nations of Canaan," DOTP 596-605. Archibald Henry Sayce and J. Alberto Soggin, "Amorites," 1:113-114. In some Biblical texts, "Amorites" and "Canaanites," as the most populous groups in Palestine prior to Israel possessing the land under Joshua, are used as shorthand for all or most of the seven peoples spelled out in 15:19-21, at the end of our passage (Joshua 7:7; 24:15; Judges 6:10; 1 Kings 21:26; 2 Kings 21:11). For example, Joshua 10:5-6 refers to five "Amorite" kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon -- though we know from other texts that Jerusalem was Jebusite (Joshua 15:8; 2 Samuel 24:16) and Hebron was Hittite (23:1-20). Amorite as used in 15:16 is a general term encompassing all the inhabitants of the land.
- G. Lloyd Carr, TWOT #2401.
- Kidner, Genesis, p. 125.
- Elmer B. Smick, TWOT #1048 cites Speiser, Genesis, in AB p. 112; BA 34:18. The significance of the cutting of the animals "depicts the self-destruction of the one making the contract in an analogous way: that the fate of the animal should befall him in the event that he does not keep the berît." This meaning is also suggested by Jeremiah 34:18. Smick cites an eighth-century treaty that reads, "As this calf is cut to pieces so may Mati'el be cut to pieces" (Sefireh, I, A).
- "Firepot" (NIV, NRSV) or "furnace" (KJV) is the noun tannûr, "furnace, oven. The word denotes basically the relatively small and sometimes portable stove or oven rather than the larger furnace. Constructed of clay and often sunk into the ground, they had a cylindrical or beehive shape and were two to three feet in diameter" (Ronald F. Youngblood, TWOT #2526). Here the analogy is a "smoking oven."
- "Torch" (NIV, NRSV) or "lamp" (KJV) is Hebrew noun lappîd. "The flaming torch, like the pillar of fire, the lamp in the tabernacle, and the glory of God, signified the holy, awesome presence of the Lord moving among his people" (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1122a).
- "And so the Creator of the universe binds himself through this theophany-ritual to an unconditional promise ratified by blood. The binding is symbolized by the smoking furnace and flaming torch passing between the pieces of the slain victims. Perhaps it was a symbol that ultimate fulfillment would come only when the God-man as an innocent victim bore the curse of a broken body in behalf of those who have broken the Covenant" (Elmer B. Smick, TWOT #1048).
- Elmer B. Smick, TWOT #282a.
- Philip E. Satterthwaite and David W. Baker, "Nations of Canaan," DOTP 596-605.
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