The Cutting of the Covenant, 1-21

15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance.”

This chapter marks the beginning of a new phase for Abraham, which will be characterised by the prospect of a son and heir. The fulfilment of the promise, however, is still 25 years and six more chapters away, and there will be further crises of faith recorded in chapters 21 and 22.

This chapter is taken up in two vitally important ways by the NT: firstly, in connection with justification by faith (v6; cf Rom 4:1 ff Gal 3:1 ff); and secondly, in relation to the covenant based on grace rather than on law. (cf Gal 3:17-22)

The word of the Lord – This important phrase is used over 200 times in the OT, but this is the first and only use of it in the Pentateuch. Sometimes, an actual voice was heard, Num 7:8f; 8:1; Dan 4:31; cf Mt 3:17; 17:5; Jn 12:28; Acts 9:4. At other times, no audible voice seems to have been heard, but rather, there was a direct influence upon the mind.

“Do not be afraid” – Abram was having a sleepless and anxious night. It is not difficult to see why he was afraid: he had defeated and humiliated Chedolaomer by overthrowing his vast army with a handful of men. Cruel dictators do not take such things lightly! Moreover, he had just refused the king of Sodom’s offer of a fortune. The prolonged exertion of the battle was followed not only by fear of retaliation, but also by doubt. Had he done the right thing? We too, when we have taken a stand for God, can often be left asking ourselves whether we have done the right thing. Obedience to God, and refusal of worldly things, can often seem foolish.

Once, again, Abram may have been wondering whether he had misunderstood God’s promise. It had been ten years since God had promised him a son, whose descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth.

But, once more: Abram’s fear no doubt also stemmed from an overwhelming sense of the presence of God. Indeed, so often when God, or God’s messenger, appears, the first words are ‘fear not’. See Lk 1:13,30 2:10. Think also of the times when Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid’, Jn 14:1. Cf Rev 1:17.

“…Abram” – The Lord speaks to Abram by name. God has two ways of speaking: to publicly, by his word; and personally, by his Spirit. And these two ways always agree.

“I am your shield” – How often, after the clamour of the battle, do we, like Abraham, need to be reminded that God is our protection? See Heb 13:5-6.

Incidentally, one of the Jewish Targums reads “My word is your strength,” instead of, “I am your shield.” This might be a precusor to John’s use of ‘logos’ in Jn 1:1,14.

“Your very great reward”

15:2 But Abram said, “O sovereign LORD, what will you give me since I continue to be childless, and my heir is Eliezer of Damascus?” 15:3 Abram added, “Since you have not given me a descendant, then look, one born in my house will be my heir!”

“What can you give me?” – Abram’s reply to the reassuring words of the Lord are, in effect, “Yes, but…?” The Lord has just reassured Abram of his protection and reward, yet Abram remained troubled. Had not God also promised him a multitude of descendents? Abram could not conceive how that promise could now be fulfilled.

Abram is trying to adjust to the possibility that he will not have a son after all, but that his servant might become his heir.

It can be good to voice our complaints before God. The Psalms contain many such grievances, when God seems far away, or when evil seems to triumph over good. ‘Though we must never complain of God, yet we have leave to complain to him, and to be large and particular in the statement of our grievances; and it is some ease to a burdened spirit to open its case to a faithful and compassionate friend: such a friend God is, whose ear is always open.’ (M. Henry)

15:4 But look, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but instead a son who comes from your own body will be your heir.” 15:5 The LORD took him outside and said, “Gaze into the sky and count the stars—if you are able to count them!” Then he said to him, “So will your descendants be.”

The Lord responds to Abram’s complaint, not with a rebuke, but with the promise restated. The Lord reminds Abram of the promise already recorded in Gen 12:2; 13:15-16. The heir would not be his servant, but “a son coming from your own body”.

“Count the stars” – And every night thereafter when Abram looked up to the heavens, he would be reminded of God’s promise. At this point, however, it might have seemed like a bad joke: “Thousands of descendants? – Just one would be a start!”

“So shall your offspring be” – Understood by the NT as the multitude of believers, both before and after Christ, Rom 4:11-12; 9:7,8.

15:6 Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD considered his response of faith as proof of genuine loyalty.

NIV: ‘and he credited it to him as righteousness.’

This verse is quoted by Paul in Rom 4:3 and Gal 3:6, and also in Jas 2:23.

‘This story and the argument of Romans 4 present faith not as a crowning merit but as readiness to accept what God promises.’ (Kidner). Note also that Abraham’s trust was both in the person (he believed the Lord) and in promises (based on the word of the Lord, vv4,5).

Abram was not justified by his good deeds. He had heeded God’s call to leave his home; his dealings with Lot were kind and generous; he routed the robber-kings with noble courage; he refused to take the spoils of war from Sodom; he gave tithes to Melchizedec – all these, surely, were good works? Yet none of these is mentioned here.

He was not justified by the carrying out of religious rituals and ceremonies. As Paul is at pains to point out, Abram was justified before he was circumcised.

‘Faith in Abram’s case was the sole and unsupported cause of his being accounted righteous, for note, although in other cases Abram’s faith produced good works, and although in every case where faith is genuine it produces good works, yet the particular instance of faith recorded in this chapter was unattended by any works.’ (Spurgeon)

In a way, we can make too much of the faith of ‘mighty men of God’ such as Abram. The wonder is not so much Abram’s trust in God, but the God in whom he put his trust. Abram’s faith was in many ways imperfect: as earlier, when he pretended that Sarah was his sister; and later, when he tries to force the promise by taking Hagar, his wife’s maid. ‘A trembling hand may grasp the cup which bears a healing draught to the lip – the weakness of the hand shall not lessen the power of the medicine.’ (Spurgeon)

Abram believed the Lord – despite (a) the circumstances that now militated against the fulfilment of the promise (his and Sarah’s advancing age, and Sarah’s continuing childlessness); (b) the delay in fulfilment; (c) the few who would have believed; (d) the magnitude of the promise; (e) the further difficulties that would yet lie in the way of complete fulfilment; (f) the weakness of the faith itself; (g) the absence of ‘religious’ acts (circumcision was introduced later, ch.17). So it is with us: church attendance, prayer, and so on, will not by themselves put us in a right relationship with God. It is faith that counts – and actions will then follow as acts of loving gratitude and willing obedience.

We, too, similar threats and difficulties to our belief. We look at the weakness of our own resources, the antagonism of the world, and the onslaughts of the evil one, and we are tempted to despair. But we are taught to trust not in our own faith, but in God’s faithfulness. We lean not on our own understanding, but trust in the word of God, which cannot be shaken.

He credited it to him as righteousness – There are two types of righteousness: that which is accomplished by us by our own efforts, and that which is accounted to us on that basis of belief. Abram would have to wait still further years for the fulfilment of the promise; but he was accepted by God there and then.

What was the promise in which Abraham believed? It was the promise of many descendants, and of one descendant in particular, Jn 8:56 Gal 3:16. ‘He saw Christ by the eye of faith, and then he saw the multitude that should believe in him.’ (Spurgeon)

This verse, which is quoted four times in the NT, (Rom 4:1-3; 9-10,19-24; Gal 3:5-7) presents the essence of the gospel in a nutshell. It demonstrates that the message of the Bible is essentially one.

What has God promised to the Christian believer? Answer – All things. See Mt 5:5; Jn 3:34; Rom 8:32; 1 Cor 2:9-11; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Eph 1:3;

Has God secured his promise to us with a covenant, a binding agreement? Answer – Yes.

15:7 The LORD said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 15:8 But Abram said, “O sovereign LORD, by what can I know that I am to possess it?”

“…who brought you out of Ur…” – the word here is also used of the slaves being rescued from Egypt, Ex 20:2, suggesting within the present passage the faint hint of an otherwise undisclosed reason why Abraham and his father left Ur.

15:9 The LORD said to him, “Take for me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 15:10 So Abram took all these for him and then cut them in two and placed each half opposite the other, but he did not cut the birds in half. 15:11 When birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

It was common practice in those days for a contract to be made by the sacrificial cutting of animals, with the split carcasses laying on the ground. Then both parties would walk through the animal parts together, repeating the terms of the covenant as they did so. The symbolism is clear: ‘May I be cut asunder, just like these animals, if I break the terms of this covenant. Jer 34:18-20 refers to the same kind of covenant-making.

15:12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep, and great terror overwhelmed him.

At the end of the day, the Lord had still not appeared to seal the covenant. Abram fell into a deep sleep and it seems that the Lord appeared to him in a dream.

15:13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 15:14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15:15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 15:16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit.”

The promise of descendants for Abram is developed along unwelcome lines. The Lord warns Abraham that his descendants will have to suffer oppression before inheriting the land. Abram might well have thought, ‘Well, perhaps I don’t want a child so much after all!’ The reference is, of course, to the years of hardship that would be suffered in Egypt. So it is with the promise of the gospel: see Rom 5:1ff – justification is followed by tribulation. We must bear a cross if we would wear a crown.

Enslaved and mistreated – Cf. Ex 1:11.

v14 Here is a further promise of what lay beyond the Egyptian captivity. The fulfilment of the promise, notwithstanding an interval of ribulation, is assured of ultimate success.

“In peace” = in tranquility; at ease; without anxiety.

“The fourth generation” – ‘The Hebrews seem to have reckoned time by the generation. In the time of Abraham a generation was an hundred years, thus: Gen 15:16 “In the fourth generation” = in four hundred years (compare Gen 15:13 and Ex 12:40). In Deut 1:35 and Deut 2:14 a generation is a period of thirty-eight years.’ (Easton’s Bible Dictionary)

It would another four hundred years before the conquest of the promised land.

‘Why,’ (asks Wiersbe) ‘did God wait so long to deliver His people? Because God was long-suffering with the nations in Canaan and delayed their judgment so they might have more time to repent (2 Peter 3:8–9; Matt. 23:32). Those who condemn Israel (and God) for the way the Canaanites were treated seem to forget that God gave them centuries to repent of their wickedness.’

“The sin of the Amorites” – The designation ‘Amorites’ can stand for one or (as here) all ten (Gen 15:19–21) of the people groups of Canaan.  The extent of their sin is testified in Lev 18:24–25; 20:22–24; Deut 9:4f; 18:12; cf. 1 Kgs 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kgs 21:11; Amos 2:9.

This ‘throws significant light on Joshua’s invasion (and, by inference, on other Old Testament wars), 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. This is one of the pivotal sayings of the Old Testament.’ (Kidner)

‘By delaying his judgment against the Amorites, the Lord expresses forbearance toward the nations. Retribution against their sins only at “its full measure” attests that judgment is neither capricious nor unwarranted (cf. 18:20–25). Nevertheless, divine temperance toward their iniquity reaches an appropriate point of intolerance.’ (NAC)

‘All the inhabitants of Canaan are referred to by the term “Amorites,” the most important family of the Canaanites (see on Gen 10:16). The term is similarly used in Gen 48:22; Num 13:29; 21:21, etc.; Deut 1:7,19. These aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan had heaped up a measure of “guilt” (‘awon) by this time. The measure was not yet “complete” (shalem), that is, they were nearing the point where divine tolerance could bear with them no longer, but they had not yet arrived at this point. God’s foreknowledge discerned that in a few more centuries these wicked nations would have forfeited their right to live, and then he would replace them in the land of Canaan by the Israelites. Passages bearing on the iniquity of the Canaanites are Lev 18:24; 20:22; Deut 18:9 ff. So God will allow the children of Israel to be absent from the land while the Canaanites continue in their evil ways. When he can bear with the Canaanites no longer, he will have another nation ready wherewith to replace them. Thus far we have encountered no direct evidence of Canaanite iniquity but shall soon see the startling examples offered by Sodom.’ (Leupold)

‘God waited for centuries while the Amalekites and those other Canaanite groups slowly filled up their own cups of condemnation by their sinful behavior. God never acted precipitously against them; his grace and mercy waited to see if they would repent and turn from their headlong plummet into self-destruction…

‘Why was God so opposed to the Amalekites? When the Israelites were struggling through the desert toward Canaan, the Amalekites picked off the weak, sick and elderly at the end of the line of marchers and brutally murdered these stragglers. Warned Moses, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.” (Deut 25:17-18)

‘Some commentators note that the Amalekites were not merely plundering or disputing who owned what territories; they were attacking God’s chosen people to discredit the living God. Some trace the Amalekites’ adamant hostility all through the Old Testament, including the most savage butchery of all in Haman’s proclamation that all Jews throughout the Persian Empire could be massacred on a certain day. (Es 3:8-11) Many make a case that Haman was an Amalekite. His actions then would ultimately reveal this nation’s deep hatred for God, manifested toward the people through whom God had chosen to bless the whole world.’ (HSB)

Hartley: ‘When people persist in sinning, the pollution mounts up, making the land so sick that in time the land vomits out its inhabitants. God usually accomplishes this by empowering a nation to be an instrument of judgment to drive out the sinful occupants. In this case Israel was to be God’s rod of punishment against the Amorites. God did not show partiality in using this method of punishment, for centuries later he used the cruel Assyrian army as the rod of punishment against Israel for their continual violation of the covenant (Isa. 10:5–19).’

Waltke & Fredricks: ‘it is not until the nations become totally saturated with iniquity that God dispossesses them (Lev. 18:24–28; 20:23). So also he does not send the Flood until the earth is fully corrupt (Gen. 6:5, 12), and he does not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah until he has satisfied himself that not even a quorum of righteous are left in the city. Israel’s conquest and settlement of Canaan is based on God’s absolute justice, not on naked aggression. Later, when Israel’s iniquities have become full, God will drive even his elect nation from the land (Deut. 28:36–37; 2 Kings 24:14; 25:7).’

John Walton has an alternative take on this passage.  He understands the word translated ‘sin’ (or ‘iniquity’) to mean ‘destruction’.  The passage as a whole would read something like this:-

“Your descendants will be enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, but I will eventually punish Egypt and bring your descendants back to this land. You yourself will live a long life and will die at a ripe old age, and although I have decreed the destruction of the Amorites, that destruction won’t come upon the Amorites who are your friends and allies.”

15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking firepot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. 15:18 That day the LORD made a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River—15:19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 15:20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 15:21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.”

These emblems of God’s glorious presence pass between the animal pieces by themselves, while Abram watches from the sidelines. This was a unilateral covenant; therefore, the certainty of it is based on who God is, not on who or what Abram is. This is just like the covenant of grace: God establishes and confirms it: we don’t make the covenant with God; we merely enter into it by faith.