Time: Between 2081–2080 b.c.
Lesson Aim: To recognize that faith is a journey with God.
Bob remembers traveling as a child with his father, a regional salesman, to visit accounts throughout southern Illinois. “On those trips, my dad relied as much on his datebook as he did his map,” Bob says. (This was decades before the arrival of smartphones and tablet devices.)
The book was filled with the names and addresses of his customers, directions to their businesses, their purchasing history, and of course, the date of their next appointment. “Without that book,” Bob says, “my dad would have been out of business in less than a week.”
As with Abram, sometimes God has other plans for our lives than the ones we so carefully map out. And these are based on the trustworthy promises found in His Word. Maybe there is a lesson we need to learn, a person we need to meet, or a task only we can do. When God calls, the tools we use to organize our lives must be set aside. We are travelers with God on a lifelong journey of faith, so His planner takes precedence.
I. The Lord’s Affirmation of the Covenant: Genesis 15:7-11
A. God’s Pledge to Abram: vs. 7
Many years after the Flood and the Tower of Babel, God began a new approach in His dealings with humanity. He began to devote special attention to one family (later to become a nation) that would bear His name before all the world’s peoples. Then, from out of this nation, He would raise up the Messiah, who would achieve salvation for all who would believe in Him.
The Hebrew phrase rendered “this is the account of” (Gen. 11:27) is one of several places in the book where such wording appears. The phrase, however, introduces more than genealogies. It is a signal to the reader that the narrative is about to detail what became of the individual mentioned in the heading (in this case, Terah and his family).
In particular, we learn that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and that Haran had a son named Lot. Verse 28 notes that, while Haran was still relatively young, he died in Ur of the Chaldeans, which was the place where he was born. In the time of Abram, the city of Ur, in the southern part of what is now Iraq, was an important commercial center with a population of several hundred thousand people.
Verse 29 supplies other details about Terah’s family. While Abram married Sarai, Nahor married Milcah. The background information provided in these verses helps to prepare the reader for upcoming events discussed in Genesis. For instance, notice the brief statement in verse 30 that Sarai was barren. God would use this circumstance to mature the faith of Abram and Sarai.
To set in motion His grand plan, God needed one man to become the progenitor of a holy nation (Israel), and He chose Abram of Ur for that role. We cannot be sure why God called this person and not someone else. Yet, from later events in Abram’s life, we know he had many fine qualities. This does not mean Abram was perfect. In fact, Joshua 24:2 reveals that at the time Abram was living in Ur, his family was worshiping false gods.
At first glance, it might appear from Genesis 11:31 that God originally called Terah from Ur to go to Canaan. Yet, other passages make it clear that God called Abram to leave his homeland (Gen. 15:7; Neh. 9:7; Acts 7:2-3). The patriarch began his journey to Canaan with his father, wife, and Lot, his nephew. After traveling north along the Fertile Crescent trade route, the group arrived in Haran, where they stayed for a time, accumulating possessions and servants (Gen. 12:5). Once Terah died (11:32), Abram continued his journey, obeying the message God had given while in Ur.
God called Abram at the age of 75 to leave everything that was significant to him—his culture, his relatives, and his family—and set out for an unknown destination (12:1, 4). This must have seemed painful and risky to the elderly patriarch. Nevertheless, along with Abram’s call came a blessing that surely acted as a powerful incentive for him to obey God.
The blessing came in the form of a series of seven promises. (In Scripture, seven was often viewed as the symbolic number of perfection.) First, God promised to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation (vs. 2). Second, God would personally bless the patriarch. Third, God would make Abram famous.
Fourth, God would make the patriarch a blessing to others. Fifth, God would bless anyone who blessed Abram (vs. 3). Sixth, God would curse those who cursed Abram. Seventh, all the families of the earth would blessed through (and because of) the patriarch.
Here we find God’s blessing of creation now being carried forward to Abram. In the ancient Eden orchard, God had blessed Adam and Eve, giving them a fruitful place, endowing them with the ability to multiply, and making them rulers over creation. That was all ruined at the Fall.
Then, as God began to build His covenant people, He promised to give Abram’s descendants a fruitful land, a great nation, and kingship. From our perspective in time, we can see some of the ways these promises were fulfilled.
Abram became the progenitor of the Hebrew nation. In his own day, he was rich, and ever since, he has been famous. His descendant, the Lord Jesus, has spread God’s blessings to people from all nations. Yet, Abram did not know about these fulfillments. He had to accept the blessing and obey the call by faith (Heb. 11:8-10).
When the patriarch arrived in Canaan with his extended family (Gen. 12:5), the land was thinly populated by a variety of peoples who had descended from Canaan, the grandson of Noah (10:1, 6). Nomadic tribesmen moved through the hill country and valleys. Some urbanization had begun to take place at fortified cities. Generally, the area was far behind the standard of civilization Abram had left behind in Ur.
While the patriarch was at Shechem (12:6), the Lord appeared to him and promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants (vs. 7). God next appeared to Abram while he was in the Negev (13:1). The Lord repeated His promise that Abram’s descendants would one day possess the whole of Canaan (vss. 14-15). God also assured the patriarch that his offspring would be like the dust of the earth in number (vs. 16).
During the next 10 years, Abram got involved in regional politics (chap. 14). He may have begun to wonder whether he would survive much longer and have offspring, as God had promised.
Around the time the patriarch was 85, the Lord came to him in a vision at night and told him not to be afraid. Moreover, God pledged to protect him and to reward him in great abundance (15:1). Abram, however, wondered about the value of such blessings when he remained childless.
In that day, the desire to have children—especially sons—was great. With no clear understanding of immortality, people believed that children provided the opportunity for a kind of earthly immorality. A son could carry on his father’s name and take over the family’s possessions. Abram concluded that he would have to leave his estate to a favored bondservant (or slave), Eliezer of Damascus, rather than to a son of his own (vss. 2-3).
God did not go along with Abram’s plan to make Eliezer his heir. Instead, the Lord affirmed that a son of Abram’s not yet born would become the patriarch’s heir (vs. 4). Furthermore, while Abram looked ahead just one generation, God saw the whole future and knew about the multitude of people who would call Abram their forebear.
So, in a dramatic move, the Lord led the patriarch out of his tent and directed him to look upward at the nighttime sky. Abram lived in a time before the invention of electric lights. On a clear night, the stars shone brilliantly against the backdrop of space. Thousands upon thousands of points of light were visible in the heavens.
The above was the context in which God said to the childless patriarch, “Your offspring will be that numerous” (vs. 5). The idea was that his descendants would be too many to count. Upon hearing the Lord’s statement, something happened in the heart of Abram. Before he had been doubtful about having a child. Now he finally believed God’s promise (vs. 6).
An examination of the original indicates that the patriarch considered the Lord’s pledge as being reliable and dependable. Indeed, the patriarch was confident that God was fully capable of bringing about what He had promised.
The text says that Abram’s faith was “credited . . . to him as righteousness.” Expressed differently, the Lord considered the patriarch’s response of faith as proof of his genuine commitment and evidence of his steadfast loyalty.
Paul referred to this verse in Romans 4:3 to stress that an upright standing before God comes through faith, not by means of obedience to the law (Gal. 3:6). As Abram’s life illustrated, God forgives the believing sinner based on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:25-26).
In connection with these truths, we learn that God’s covenant with Abram had two main provisions: descendants and land. With the matter of the heir settled, the Lord reminded Abram of His promise of the land to which God had called the patriarch. The people as numerous as the stars would need a place to live, and that place would be Canaan (Gen. 15:7).
B. God’s Directive to Abram: vss. 8-11
The first 11 chapters of Genesis are filled with profound truths concerning the basic themes of life. Genesis starts with the Creation accounts, which address the theological question, “Where do we come from?” The book continues with the historical essays on “how humans messed up God’s good creation,” “how relationships are shattered,” and “God’s promise making.” The accounts interwoven in the first 11 chapters contain the most basic and foundational information concerning the origins of all humans.
Beginning with chapter 12, the focus begins to narrow. Genesis presents us with a set of biographical narratives involving the patriarchs. The individuals highlighted in chapters 12 through 50 are not paragons of virtue and piety. Instead, they are flawed people, just as we are. Yet, even as their accounts unfold with all the sin and earthiness that characterizes every person’s life, their abiding faith in and obedience to God is clear.
In this regard, consider Abram. It was with deep reverence and respect that he addressed God as the “Sovereign Lord” (or “Lord God”; Gen. 15:8; see vs. 2) and asked how he could be sure he would receive the land of Canaan. Probably, we should not take this as a sign of weakened faith on Abram’s part. Instead, the patriarch just wanted some kind of pledge of God’s intention.
Thankfully, the Lord was willing to give Abram the reassurance he sought. God chose to copy a common practice of that day, which was used to confirm covenants. From this observation, we see that the Lord is always eager for His truths to be presented in ways that people of faith can understand.
More particularly, in the culture of the ancient Near East, covenants were accompanied by confirming and binding oaths. The parties to a compact would agree to certain punishments, especially if they failed in their responsibilities as spelled out by the agreement.
These oaths were represented by a figurative passage through death. Expressed differently, by walking between the parts of dead animals, the parties to the covenant symbolically said, “If I am untrue to the stipulations of the agreement, may I die like these animals” (Jer. 34:17–19).
Accordingly, the Lord directed Abram to obtain a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each of which was three years old, as well as a turtledove and a young pigeon (Gen. 15:9). In accordance with God’s instruction, Abram gathered the animals and split the larger ones in two. Due to the small size of the two birds, he did not cut them in half (vs. 10).
Next, the patriarch laid all the creatures on the ground to form a corridor between the animal parts. Then, Abram waited until the end of day, and occasionally drove away predatory birds whenever it became necessary to do so (vs. 11).
II. The Lord’s Confirmation of the Covenant: Genesis 15:8-21
A. God’s Predictive Speech: vss. 12-16
As the sun went down over the horizon, Abram fell sound asleep. Then, at some point, he was overcome by a terrifying “darkness” (Gen. 15:12).
It was while the patriarch was in this vulnerable state that the Lord spoke reassuringly to him. Since Abram would not live long enough to see how his descendants would possess of Canaan, God explained what would happen.
The Creator foretold the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt, where they would be oppressed as slaves for four centuries (vs. 13). In turn, the Lord would bring judgment on Egypt and enable the Hebrews to depart from there with many “possessions” (vs. 14). Eventually, God would give them success conquering the promised land.
Abram, however, would die in peace at an old age. In 25:1-11, we read about the final years and the death of the patriarch. He lived to the age of 175, passing away in 1991 B.C.
When the Lord first summoned the patriarch, his peers would have regarded it as an impossible demand. After all, in that day, only an outcast would have packed up and gone away from the affection, support, and security of the closely-knit clan. Likewise, even the dead were buried under the living quarters because of the sense of kinship with the members of the extended family.
In effect, Abram was willing to separate himself from the living and the dead, all because of the call of an unseen God who claimed complete allegiance. Throughout the patriarch’s long life, he took seriously the divine directive, which compelled him to leave everyone and everything behind, sometimes without knowing exactly where he was going.
Given how commonplace it was for people in that era to live a century or longer, the Hebrew noun rendered “generation” (15:16) would be approximately equal to 100 years. Consequently, the mention of the “fourth generation” points to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt in 1446 b.c.
God’s reference to the “sin” (or “iniquity,” “guilt”) of the “Amorites” in His prediction gives us some clues as to how His providence works. The Hebrews’ conquest of the promised land would have a secondary purpose in punishing the Amorites, who stood for all the sinful inhabitants of Canaan.
Archaeologists have discovered that the people of Canaan were involved in such evil practices as child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution, and divination. Yet, the Lord was patient with them and would not judge them until the proper time came. This truth indicates that while God weaves together strands of purpose in a narrative fabric too complicated for us to understand fully, His actions are rich in mercy.
B. God’s Enactment of the Ceremony: vss. 17-21
At the conclusion of the Lord’s predictive speech to Abram, God enacted the ceremony for which the patriarch had prepared. By now, the sun had gone down and it was completely dark outside.
It was then that Abram saw a “smoking firepot” (Gen. 15:17), along with a “blazing torch,” pass between the animal carcasses. The Lord used the two objects that were engulfed in flames to symbolize His holy presence and confirm the “covenant” (vs. 18).
The compact between the Creator and Abram was now legally binding. God, by His actions, had ratified His intention to fulfill all His promises to the patriarch.
In human agreements of that day, both parties to a covenant usually passed between the dead animals. Yet, in this case, only the Lord did so. That’s because God’s promises to Abram and his descendants were unilateral and unconditional. Put differently, since the fulfillment of the pledge depended on the Lord alone, the patriarch was merely a spectator.
Next, God defined the extent of the land He would give to the chosen people. It was between the “river of Egypt” (probably one of the seasonal wadis or brooks in the Negev) in the south to the Euphrates River in the north.
When the patriarch arrived, at least 10 different groups of people occupied the land (vss. 19-21). While their origins are disputed, their presence in Canaan was undeniable. When they moved into the promised land in the years preceding Abram, they caused considerable destruction and upheaval. Also, in the patriarch’s time, the majority of the region was thinly populated. This set of circumstances made it easier for Abram and his group to move freely through Canaan.
Despite the uncertainties that lay ahead, Abram and Sarai set off. The call of God was their reason. This journey was not their doing. Abram was not a religious genius, nor was Sarai a woman of special spiritual insight. They set off in faith. God also commands each of us to live this way.
1. THE PLIGHT OF THE PILGRIMS. Abram and Sarai set out as pilgrims with only God’s promise. Living as pilgrims means realizing there is no permanence. After all, a tent is about as impermanent a shelter as one can find. As pilgrims for God, we must not put personal interests ahead of God’s call.
2. THE PROMISE OF A PEOPLE. Abram and Sarai had been childless. Yet, part of God’s call to them was that they would have a son, and that they would be the founders of a great people belonging to the Lord. Initially, such a promise seemed absurd to them. Yet, they trusted God anyway, and took Him at His word. Faith means trusting the Lord despite a lack of proof.
3. VICTORY OF TRUST. Faith has been described as “in-spite-of confidence in the Lord.” Despite misgivings and problems, doubts and delays, a person may trust God to keep His pledge. Abram questioned whether God would deliver on His promises of a son. Yet, despite everything, the patriarch took the Lord at His word and was declared to be in a standing of uprightness before Him.
4. TITLE FOR A TERRITORY. God entered into a covenant, promising Abraham sufficient land to provide for his needs and provision for his descendants. In the centuries that followed, the Lord fulfilled His pledge to watch over and provide for His covenant people.