Genesis 15:1-21.
Trusting in God's Promise

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

It wasn't long ago that there were many places in the world where a man's word was his bond.  Contracts were sealed by handshakes instead of reams of paper and batteries of lawyers feasting off of the carrion of man's mistrust of one another.   It would seem that true trust is becoming a rare commodity in this postmodern and increasingly secular and pagan world where the leading cultures have abandoned Judeo-Christian roots. 

Greed and corruption are the primary forces that drive society’s leaders.  A Gallup poll revealed that in 2002, 60% of Americans stated that they trust the federal government “just about always/most of the time.”  That number has dropped to 19% by 2010 and 15% by 2014.

Can we trust each other?  An AP poll held in September 2015 revealed that 66% of “Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters.  Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.  People stopped trusting each other during the baby boomer generation and beliefs people have in their twenties will likely stay with them.”[1] 

Much of the context of modern culture is shaped by the media that determines the agenda of daily discussions, and forms the presentation of that agenda within the boundaries of its faithless ideologies.  Trust in the media is now at an all-time low, at a 40% average among the general public, and 17% among those who hold to Judeo/Christian values. [2]

We might hope that people still trust the church.  However, a recent Barna study revealed that “one in four unchurched adults in the country now identify as atheists or agnostics. The study also found that rejection of the Bible and lack of trust in the church are two main reasons why people are turning away from faith. … Barna found that the three main reasons people decide not to believe in God stem from rejection of the Bible; lack of trust in the local church; and the cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview."[3]

Significant amounts of research, examining a wide range of social constituents, consistently reveals a dramatic loss of trust in virtually every area in our lives.  People are searching for something and someone whom they can trust.  People need the comfort and security of knowing that they can rely on the integrity of the people and systems that impact their lives.  When virtually every system of man’s invention can no longer be trusted, where do we turn?

As much as the culture and behavior of man continually changes, there is one reliable resource in this world that never changes: the nature, purpose, and presence of God.  People can still turn to God whose promises are not influenced by the vagaries of human choices, whose promises are sure.

One of the reasons that we no longer trust in the manner that we as a people used to is the lessening patience that people demonstrate in their pursuit of their personal desires.  People’s faith in God is increasingly challenged when they find that they have to wait for God’s answers, or they may miss them completely when their expectations differ from God’s will.

Much of the beginning of the biblical narrative in the book of Genesis is a biography of the life of Abraham, a descendent of Noah, and the father of the nation of Israel.  The depth and sincerity of is trust in God was unique in his contemporary community, and even his trust in God was challenged by difficult circumstances.  However, because of his trust in God, and his sensitivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit in his heart, he overcame tremendous obstacles that served to strengthen his faith rather than discourage it.

A Demonstration of Faithfulness

Genesis. 15:1-3 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.

In the time since Abram and Lot, his nephew, left Haran for the land of Canaan, the two separated ways when Lot desired to establish his own family and lands.  However, Lot did not exhibit the faithfulness that characterized Abram, and apart from his uncle, he stepped out of the hand of God’s protection.  The separation from his uncle exposed Lot and his people to the intrigue that existed between warring Canaanite kings.  When Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam conquered the region around Lot’s settlement, he took Lot, his family, and his goods into captivity as spoils.  When news of his nephew’s capture reached Abram, he gathered his servants, now numbering three hundred and eighteen,[4] routed the “army” of Chedorlaomer and retrieved Lot, Lot’s family, and their possessions.  When the King of Sodom inquired of Abram concerning the spoils of the victory, Abram quickly and completely returned anything that could be considered spoils, keeping only those who he came to rescue, and enough provisions to return home.  It is also after this victory that we find Abram worshiping under the leadership of Melchizedek, the King of Salem, and being blessed by Him as Abram was returning to his homestead.  This time of worship, that included the giving of the tithe, was a demonstration of the sincerity of his faith in God. 

Such faithfulness did not go without God’s notice.  The LORD spoke words of encouragement to Abram, promising both protection and provision.  The type of shield that is described is one that serves to protect the entire body, and is wielded, not by the soldier, but by one or two attendants.  The idea is that God will not only serve as his full shield, but also is serving as the attendant who manages it, leaving Abram free to continue the task to which God has called him without the need to be anxious about his protection. 

God also promised a form of blessing as He would Himself serve as Abram’s “great reward.”  The prize for faithfulness is God, Himself.  The reward for faithfulness is to have a positive and encouraging relationship with God. 

Genesis 15:2-3.  And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? 3And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.

The Promise of an Heir

When the LORD spoke of reward, Abram immediately thought of the promise that God had made to him concerning the birth of a son who would become the first of a great nation.  This response by Abram emphasizes the significance of his childlessness.  The only reward that meant anything to him was to receive the promise that God had already made, and several years had passed since he left Haran when the promise was given to him.

Without an heir, his lands would be granted to someone of his choosing, usually one who has been like a son, or one who has shown love and loyalty to him.  When Abram considered who would receive his inheritance, he concluded that the obvious recipient would be “Eliezer of Damascus,” his favored servant, a man who had grown from childhood under Abram’s authority. 

One can sense Abram’s frustration.  One cannot question the sincerity and depth of his faith in God, yet he could not yet understand in his own heart that God did truly plan on giving him a son.  Instead, fully believing that it was impossible for him and Sarai to have a child, he was left with the speculation of other scenarios by which God might fulfill his promise.  Short of having a son, what could God give him as an equal reward? 

Genesis 15:4.  And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.

One of the wonderful characteristics of the LORD is that He always comes to us and meets us at our point of need.  The LORD intended upon rewarding Abram for his faithfulness, and would do so in His own time, under His authority, as He still had some plans for Abram’s spiritual growth.  Yet, Abram’s doubts were stealing away the joy of God’s promise.  Abram allowed the circumstances of his life to distract him from the blessings that God had for him, replacing the joy and expectation of a promise with doubts and fears.

We may often find ourselves in a similar situation when we focus on the circumstances of our lives, and select from them those issues that would serve to discourage or overwhelm us, ignoring the purpose that God has for us as we are immersed in those circumstances.  However, as overwhelmed as Abram was, he could still hear the Word of the LORD as He spoke to Abram’s heart.

The LORD made a simple statement that would serve to relieve Abram’s anxiety:  Eliezer will not be the heir, but rather the heir would be his own child.  God said literally, you will be the natural father of this promised child, and he will be Abram’s natural son. 

God’s answer to Abram seems to him to be even more impossible now than it was when the promise first came to him in Haran.  He is approaching one hundred years old, and Sarai is approaching ninety.  As much as Abram wanted to believe the LORD’s promise of a son, he was having difficulty doing so.

Genesis 15:5-6.  And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. 6And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

In order to help comfort Abram, God clarified his promise to in a simple illustration.  How many stars could Abram count when he looked up into the night sky?  It is rare for us to see a great number of stars because of the light pollution that covers most areas of the earth.[5]  However, prior to electric lighting, a dry, dark, moonless night would reveal a sky that is textured with uncountable points of light.  It is in this setting that the LORD compares the number of stars seen in the sky with the population of those who would be his progeny.

One might argue that God’s promise has come true, with about two billion people on earth who express true faith and trust in God. This number can be doubled when we consider those who have lived and died.  Modern science, technology, and scrutiny has no problem dealing with this scale of numbers.  However, the ancients had no concept of large numbers.  The ancient Hebrew language had no word for a number larger than one thousand.

Even though Abram had no children, and fully in his heart he believed that he and Sarai could not produce a child because of their advanced years, he chose to believe God’s promise.  How does one fully believe in the impossible?  Abram was able to believe God because of the sincerity of his faith and trust in Him.  It is

in this faith that the LORD accepted Abram as a “righteous” man. 

The Promise of Land.

Genesis 15:7-8.  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. 8And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?

God had a purpose for calling Abram out of the region of Ur, near the traditional setting of the Garden of Eden.  God had, in His sovereignty, ordained a piece of real estate as a home for the nation of Israel, named for the grandson of Abram through whom the nation would form.  God brought Abram to this land, one that was populated by descendants of Canaan, among others. 

The selection of this particular piece of property may be interesting.  It is as the intersection of three continents, making it the most valuable real estate on earth, yet no nation-state had ever been formed in it.  Even after Israel would be destroyed by Babylon, until Israel returned in 1947, no nation-state was ever formed there.  It was virtually the only real estate on earth (with the exception of Antarctica) that was not within the borders of a nation.  It is as though God has always “reserved” this piece of land for the sons of Abraham.

The inheritance, or assignment of this property to Abram and his progeny, free of any government or nation-state, and unrecognized by any of the surrounding nations troubled Abram.  What could identify that this land belonged to him?  In response to God’s promise, Abram simply asked for a sign, something that would establish his “ownership” of this land.

Today we often consider the request for a sign from the LORD as an indication of one’s lack of faith.  Some consider a sign as “putting God to the test,” a clear violation of the imperative of Deuteronomy 6:16.  However, in practice the LORD was not critical of the ancients when they asked for a sign as a vehicle to strengthen their faith or to embolden a decision.  One of the most important prophecies of the Old Testament came in response to a sign:

Isaiah 7:10-14.  Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, 11Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. 13And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

There are over sixty biblical passages that describe signs that the LORD gave to the faithful with the purpose of encouraging them or helping them to understand an important spiritual truth.  God can show his love towards us when He gives a sign.  Such an act is encouraging, strengthens one's faith, and certainly blesses the receiver.  In some cases, such as that of Gideon and the fleece,[6] signs were requested of the LORD by an individual.  However, most signs were given by the LORD, using a literary device such as “this shall be a sign.”[7]

A Covenant Ritual

Genesis 15:9-10.  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. 10And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not.

The LORD gave Abram some very specific instructions.  He was to take a heifer, a ram, and a goat, each three years of age, a turtledove, and a pigeon and butcher them in the manner that had become traditional for the offering of sacrifices.  The first three are specified as three years old, perhaps chosen because this is where the animals would be of their peak value.[8]  It was never a common practice for all of these animals to be sacrificed for a single purpose of atonement.  The heifer was used only on special occasions, including the anointing of David.[9]  The goat was permitted for the Passover sacrifice.[10]  The ram was used for the ordination of priests,[11] guilt offerings,[12] and on the Day of Atonement.[13]  The dove and pigeon were utilized in many different forms of sacrifice, and often allowed for poor families who did not own the larger animals.

Though specific instruction is not recorded, Abram followed the imperative of the LORD by cutting the larger animals into two pieces and placing them apart on the ground, making a passageway between them.  It is likely that he place the two birds on opposite sides of this passageway.

Genesis 15:11.  And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away.

The sacrifice of animals was always understood to be substitutionary for the death that we all deserve because of our unrighteousness.  This is why animals were chosen that were of greatest value.  A sacrifice is not a sacrifice if it does not cost anything. 

Jeremiah 34 describes the rite of sacrifice that Abram is now establishing.  The idea is that the animals of the sacrifice are laid on the ground in the manner that Abram has done.  When two parties are establishing an irrevocable covenant between them, they would walk between the parted sacrifices.  Again, the substitutionary element is at work when the parties of the covenant agree that they deserve the death that has been experienced by these animals should one of these break the oath.

Having set out the animals, the covenant would be established by both Abram and the LORD walking together between them.  This introduces a conflict that, again, demonstrates Abram’s faith.  There is no second individual who can walk down this pathway with him, yet he still prepared the sacrifice with the expectation that the LORD would find a way. 

Abram’s patience is evident by his watch over the sacrifice.  When birds would approach the dead animals, Abram chased them away.  The narrative reveals that Abram was content to wait upon the LORD, and would wait as long as necessary to witness the impossible.[14] 

Genesis 15:12.  And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.

Certainly the setting of the sun established the scenario through which the LORD would give Abram the sign for which he is waiting.  However, prior to the giving of the sign, the LORD has a very specific, and very important prophecy to reveal to him.  This prophecy is not one of joy, but one of grave tragedy, the ultimate tragedy that his progeny, the nation of Israel would experience.  Consequently, the gravity of this prophecy is established when the LORD gave to Abram a feeling of tremendous dread that came upon him when he fell into a deep sleep.

Genesis 15:13.  And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;

Abram would father Isaac, who would father Jacob and Esau.  Jacob would father the twelve children who would become the twelve tribes of Israel.  However, it would be those grandchildren of Abram who would travel to Egypt from Canaan, fleeing a drought, hoping for salvation at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and their second-in-command, Joseph, one of the twelve grandchildren who had been sold by the other eleven into Egyptian slavery.

The children of Jacob would remain in Egypt for 14 generations, about 400 years, and during that time they would go from a small, respected community, to a huge nation that threatened the authority of the Pharaoh who responded by placing them into grievous bondage.

Genesis 15:14.  And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

However, the story would not end with his children in Egyptian bondage.  Speaking of the Exodus from Egypt, the LORD assured Abram that they would come back to Canaan, back to this land that is given to Abram by a covenant with God, doing so with “great substance,” a reference to the great spoils that were given to the Hebrews by the Pharaoh when they left.

Genesis 15:15-16.  And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. 16But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

Having given Abram a prophecy that describes a dreadful start to the nation that would come from his children, the LORD gave Abram an assurance that none of the other Israelite patriarchs received: that he would die in peace, and at an old age.  God promised Abram that his days would be long, and would be characterized by peace as His protection would surround him.

The “fourth generation,” which the LORD refers to would be those who would return to Canaan after four hundred years.  This may appear to be an unusual way to declare a generation that is usually about 20 years.  However, it may be instructive to note the generation that would start the nation of Israel:  Abram was 100 years old when Isaac was born.  Using this as a measure, four generations is four hundred years.

Why would the LORD cause Israel to wait for 400 years to take the land that God promised?  The answer is given here:  “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”  God has a purpose for all people, not just those who turn to Him in faith.  God has progressively revealed Himself to us with a determined plan to teach us of His purpose of salvation.  Sometimes those lessons take many years, and make use of entire generations and entire nations of people to do so.  The name “Amorites” is a reference to the entire population of Canaan that would, in this interim 400-year period, develop the mythological stories of the Baals, Asherahs, and the pantheon of gods that they would worship instead of the LORD.  Furthermore, their “worship” would be the antithesis of God’s plan for the spirituality of man, as it was characterized by an egregious level of sinful behavior. 

This 400-year period would serve to draw the tremendous contrast between the nature of those who turn to Him in true faith, and the nature of those who give their lives to the wickedness of this world that is immersed in the worship of the prince of darkness.  The line is drawn through the ages, a line that God would deal with in His time and with His purpose.

A Covenant Promise.

Genesis 15:17.  And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.

As Abram was waiting for the LORD to pass through the sacrificial pathway with him, he saw a “smoking furnace” and a “burning lamp” pass between the pieces of the sacrifice.  The symbolism of these objects is consistent with God’s revelation throughout the Old Testament narrative.  Both of these symbols involve the appearance of fire, God’s Shekinah Glory.  God often used the appearance of fire to demonstrate His own presence, and this appearance is a precursor to these.  Moses would find the LORD through fire in a burning bush.[15]  A “Pillar” of fire and smoke would lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt and remain over the Tabernacle of the LORD for 1,200 years.[16]  The Shekinah Glory would return on a hillside while shepherds were watching their flocks, when the angels of the LORD would proclaim the birth of the Christ Child, Immanuel, God With Us.[17]

By passing through the pathway of sacrifice, the LORD established an inviolable covenant with Abram, a covenant that symbolically could not be broken without the death of God, Himself.  Abram asked for a sign.  What the LORD gave Him was far greater, and next to the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary, would be the most clearly established covenant that God made with man.

Genesis 15:18-21.  In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: 19The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, 20And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, 21And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.

This covenant was simple:  this land is given by the LORD to the children of Abram. 

And yet, Abram had no children.

We might draw some inferences from this passage:

[1]  October, 22, 2015.

[2] Gallup Poll, September 7, 2014.

[3] Prophesy News Watch.  March 13, 2015.

[4] Genesis 14:14.

[5] Because of the light pollution that now characterizes night viewing in most parts of the earth, the average number of visible stars is estimated to be about 6,000 to 10,000.  The investigation of the number of observable stars is a far more substantial task.  An observation of a very small area of the Ursa Major constellation by the Hubble telescope revealed about 3000 galaxies.  If this area is extrapolated to the dimensions of the night sky, the number of observable galaxies is about ten trillion.  If an average galaxy is similar to the one we are in, they would number about 100 billion stars each.  This extrapolates to 100 octillion stars ( 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.) Obviously, the biblical narrative is intended to refer to a number that is beyond imagining.

[6] Judges 6:36.

[7] Numbers 16:38; 1 Samuel 2:34; 14:10; 2 Kings 19:29; Isaiah 7:14; 37:30; 38:7; Jeremiah 44:29; Ezekiel 4:3; 20:20; Luke 2:12, et. al.

[8] Animals chosen for Israelite sacrifices were to be one year olds without blemish or defect.  Exodus 29:38; Leviticus 1:3, 9:3.

[9] 1 Samuel 16:2.

[10] Exodus 12:5.

[11] Exodus 29:1; Leviticus 8:18; 9:2.

[12] Leviticus 5:15.

[13] Leviticus 16:3-5.

[14] One might note the parallel between this period of expectation, and the period that Abram waited for a child.

[15] Exodus, Chapter 3.

[16] Exodus, Chapter 13-14.

[17] Luke, Chapter 2.