The Faith of Abraham | Genesis 15 | God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
“After these things.” In Genesis 14, Abram faced two battles. One was external, fighting the enemy to rescue his nephew Lot. The other was internal, fighting the enemy to bless God. Abram won both battles, a testament to his faith in God and proof that God was fighting for him.
In Genesis 15, after rejecting the earthly goods from the King of Sodom and accepting the blessing from Melchizedek, Abram received his reward. That is not to say this event came immediately afterward. The formula “after these things” typically indicates a hard break between two events in the book of Genesis. Even still, Abram’s past plays an important role in his future, as it does for us all.
So now, in chapter 15, God comes to him to confirm the promise. This time, with a covenant. Here we have the first recorded conversation between Abram and God. Previously, we’ve seen only God’s words to Abram as Abram obeyed. Now, we enter a dialog—one of several in Abram’s life (17:18, 18:23-33; 22:11). Throughout, we see God answers the questions of Abram by assuring him with his covenant promise.
GOD ANSWERS THE QUESTIONS OF ABRAM (vv. 1-6)
Abram sees the word of the Lord in a vision. Abram here has become not merely a follower but also a seer. Later, he is referred to as a prophet (20:7). This “seeing” the word was significant and rare. It indicates God doing something spectacular, out of the ordinary, confirming the truth of his word in a radical way. The only other person to “see” the word of God was Balaam in Numbers 24. There, Balaam saw that it pleased to Lord to bless Israel. Abram sees the same thing here. Abram’s “prophet-hood” is a major deal to the original readers of this book, those wondering if God is really for them. That what God showed Abram has come to pass is no small matter. Abram would be seen not only as Israel’s father but also their first great prophet.
But for now, the focus is on the promise, not the prophet. God says, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Here, many questions arise. Why is Abram afraid? What is the reward? The answers to these questions come from what Abram says next. He gad grown fearful the promises of God would not come to pass. In all these days of following him, God has yet to give him a son. He’s wondered when Sarai would come to him with the good news. But nothing so far.
In other words, Abram grew afraid, as we all do while waiting on God’s promises. But Abram didn’t silently accept God’s word; he engaged God’s word. He asked questions. We see the need for faith to speak back to God, to take our doubts and our fears to the one who can handle them.
“O Lord God” is, literally, “Sovereign Lord,” a rare title of God used when pleading with him. In Abram’s pleading, he did not compromise his role as God’s servant. He didn’t ask for exceptions, for more power in the relationship. If anything, he added dependence to dependence. Verse 6 assures us that his pleading was the kind of pleading faith we see Jesus command in his teaching, such as in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:7). Abram’s complaint is the complaint of faith—laying hold of God’s promises and pleading with him to bring them to pass. Only the faithful can pray such prayers. Abram had no doubt God would grant his request. He just didn’t know how God would grant it. His fear wasn’t that God wouldn’t provide but that God wouldn’t provide soon, and the waiting is so hard.
Furthermore, perhaps he misunderstood it all along. Maybe it wouldn’t be his own son. Maybe it would be a member of his household. Perhaps Eliezer would be the heir. If Abram remained childless, who else could it be? But, no, that’s not the plan of God, God assures him. The word of the Lord came, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” Then, as if putting his arm around his shoulder, God led him outside to look at the night sky. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.”
God said this before, only about sand on the seashore. His promise has not changed. As Abram looks to the heavens with questions, God answers with the stars. “Yes, Abram, you will have a son. I am with you, and I will not let you down.”
Though Abram doesn’t yet hold the promised child, he holds the promise. He believed the Lord, and God counted it as righteousness. Abram went to bed that night full of trust in God. That’s the life of faith—living in between the promise and the fulfillment.
Abram couldn’t see how it would happen, but he trusted God that it would happen. That’s faith. As Bruce Waltke says, “Faith is living in imagination in God’s word when the situation by sight seems impossible.” He looked at his aged body, at Sarai’s aged body, and then again at the promise of God and placed his hope not in what he could see but what he couldn’t see. He found that no matter what the circumstances, the word of the Living God is greater than any situation may say. If God made the stars of the sky in the past, hanging them and naming them all, then he could give Abram a child in the future. Abram believed that, and it was counted to him as righteousness (15:6).
It is difficult to overstate how important Genesis 15:6 is in the landscape of the Bible. Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3, 22 and Galatians 3:6. James quotes it in James 2:23. The most urgent question in the world is this: how are we justified before God? The answer is here in Abram’s story.
We tend to think of belief as a loose hope that something will come to pass. But Abram’s (and the Christian’s) belief is no such loose thing. It is a solid thing. Abram trusted. He considered God true and reliable. He knew God would get the job done, not only because of his ability to do so, but aslo because of his desire to bring about the promise he made. Abram’s faith was a faith in the character of God, not simply the workings of God.
And that trust was credited to Abram as faith. Therefore, Abram was justified before God. As Paul says in Romans 4:18-22, “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’”
To be reckoned righteous means to be counted as one committed to a covenant relationship with the Holy God. As we will see in the next few verses, a covenant is indeed on the mind of God. This confirmation of Abram’s justification, then, becomes the backdrop for the rest of the story. So it is with every believer—our justification by faith is the backdrop from which the rest of the story makes sense. God’s covenant with us shines brighter than any stars Abram saw that night. It is the sun standing in the middle of the sky, illuminating everything else. And we see, as Abram saw, that it was not what we brought to the relationship but what God gave to the relationship that made it work. Justification by faith, though it is our real faith, is God’s work in our heart. He takes weak people like you and me and Abram, with no ability to save ourselves and saves us by himself, for himself. Our justification means the promises of God are based solely on grace, not merit. Therefore, even in our doubts we cannot fall outside the promise of God. He does not go looking for another. He does the miracle work of faith in our heart, granting what we do not have to give us what we could never imagine. And he does that on the front-end of the relationship, on the crust of our sins and failures, so that as we go deeper with him, we see this justifying grace cover every shred of guilt and shame we carry.
If God does that at the beginning, how could we not trust him with the future? What is the promise of a child to one who justifies a former moon worshiper by showing him the stars?
GOD ASSURES HIM WITH HIS COVENANT PROMISE (vv. 7-21)
John Sailhamer points out that the opening phrase, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” is nearly identical to the opening statement of the Sinai covenant in Exodus 20:2. These words are a refrain God speaks to his people throughout his relationship with them. These are words to Abram as much as they are to his promised seed. And, as there in Exodus, it is important to note the covenant opens with grace. “I am the Lord who brought you out.” God’s grace comes first in his relationship with his people. The covenants of God are made not to perfect people who have something to give but to imperfect people who have only need. God makes covenants with former slaves whom he miraculously rescues. He frontloads the relationship with total newness in him, complete forgiveness through Christ, and utter comfort by his Spirit. The covenant making God proves himself worthy of worship.
In Abram’s life we see the covenant isn’t a baseless promise. There are attachments. He will give Abram the land to possess. Naturally, Abram wants to know how this might happen. After all, he’s a sojourner. He’s wealthy and his herds and people are large in number, but he’s no conqueror. How can God give him this inhabited land? Who will drive away the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites?
Abram complains to God, but those complaints are not acts of unfaith. A faith that questions is a faith that, in God’s hands, grows strong. As Bruce Waltke says, “Complaint and faith are not antithetical; complaint is based on taking God seriously.” Abram doesn’t understand. How could he?
So God shows him the future, making him a prophet for the seed to come. But before that, he makes a covenant to establish the promise. During ancient covenant-making ceremonies, two parties would take animals, cut them in half, and each party would walk through the separated pieces of flesh. Each was essentially saying, “If I break my promise, I’ll become like these animals.” It was an agreement to uphold their end of the deal or die.
But Abram then falls asleep. Or, rather, a deep sleep falls on Abram. He was, as it were, caught up in a vision. Abram becomes a prophet like the many Israel would have in the days to come. God appears to him with a word about the future. At the time when both parties would traditionally walk through the separated flesh together, God walks alone through the flames. It is as if God is saying, “If I break my covenant, I alone will be torn like these animals. You Abram, are not held responsible for this promise. This is mine to bring about. You are the benefactor, not the guarantor.”
Do you see the grace in this? God is not asking Abram to hold up some end of the deal. He’s not expecting Abram not to fail. He’s not waiting for Abram to complete some stipulated set of duties. God makes the promise alone, seals the covenant alone, and becomes the guarantor alone. As the author of Hebrews says, “When God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:17-18) God and his promise: two unchangeable things. Abram received both.
And God’s promise to Abram was a promise beyond Abram. It was a promise to his offspring, to his seed. In the vision, Abram becomes a prophet, speaking of the future of his people. God will send them to a land that is not theirs to be servants for four hundred years. He will bring them out and give them the land he promised to Abram. All of this will happen. It is not vague promise, and the readers of this narrative at the time of its writing would look around them and see what God said to Abram had been done as it was foretold.
Abram lived inside the story God is creating for his people out in the future. In a sense, we all do. The promises of God in the Bible are not mere hopes of a better future; they are guarantees sealed by the Spirit of what is to come. No one can alter the plans of God. And he aims to prove it, even if he must do so over and over again to our wondering hearts.
The boundaries are set before the people of the land are driven away. How can this be? Because God is sovereign over them all. No one goes where he forbids, and no one leaves where he commands. The people around Abram are as under the control of God as Abram himself, though they do not know it and do not recognize it. Truly, God has the whole world in his hands.
Centuries later, Joshua would lead God’s people through the conquest of the land. But it was not to be a second beforehand. Why? Because God is patient, and he’s asking us to be so as well. Though our story may include slavery, if we look to God it will also include salvation. Maybe people are dwelling in the land that will be ours. Maybe it’s because God is giving them a window to repent. We all need that. God’s kingdom is at hand. As Jesus said, repent and believe.
And centuries from now, all the promises of God will be consummated in the coming Christ. He will bring heaven to earth, and all the tears we wept wondering if God would keep his word will be wiped away by the nail-pierced hand of Jesus. We will see him as he is, and we will be like him. All the questions of our heart will be satisfied in a moment. We will be like Abram: safe in the covenant-making God’s hands.