God’s Covenant With Abram (15:1–21)
1–5 “Do not be afraid,” said the Lord to Abram (verse 1). What was Abram afraid of? He was afraid that God’s promises would not be fulfilled. God had promised to give him the land (Genesis 13:15), but Abram as yet possessed none of it. God had promised to make his offspring like the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), but Abram as yet had no son, and his wife Sarai was barren.
So God reassured Abram in a vision that He would be his shield—that is, his sovereign, his protector. And God further said that He Himself would be Abram’s reward (verse 1). It wasn’t land or a son that Abram should look upon as the highest good; it was God Himself. The Giver is greater than all His gifts. Abram had refused the reward offered by the evil king of Sodom; now he would receive the greatest reward of all: God Himself.
Abram opened his heart to God, as a child does to his father. Having no son, Abram thought that according to the custom of the times he would have to appoint one of his servants, Eliezer, to be his heir. But then God gave Abram the specific promise that he would have a son of his own (verse 4), and that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars (verse 5).65
6 Abram believed the LORD. In this statement we see the basis of God’s acceptance of man. Simple trust and humility are what God looks for first of all. In God’s eyes, this counts as righteousness.
Unrighteous humans cannot find acceptance with a righteous God; they will only find judgment. But like Abram, through simple childlike faith we too can find acceptance with God and be welcomed into His family (Mark 10:15). Abram did not follow a set of laws (there was no written law in Abram’s day); he didn’t make himself righteous by building altars or sacrificing animals or doing other good works. He simply believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness66 (see Romans 4:1–5,18–24).
Abram would see the fulfillment of God’s promise of an heir, though he had to wait many years for it. But God’s other promises he would never see fulfilled in his lifetime (Hebrews 11:13). Abram’s example to us, then, is one of patience and perseverance; we too must not give up when the answers to our prayers are delayed.
7–8 After God had promised Abram a son, He then repeated His earlier promise to give him this land (verse 7). While Abram had believed the promise of a son, he seemed to need reassurance concerning the land: “. . . how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” (verse 8). God didn’t rebuke Abram for asking an honest question; instead, He gave Abram a vision of his descendants eventually taking possession of the “promised land.” God affirmed the vision by establishing a covenant with Abram, a covenant in which God solemnly promised that after four generations He would bring Abram’s descendants back here (verse 16)—that is, back to the land of Canaan, the promised land, in which Abram was then living.
9–10 In Abram’s day, agreements were formalized by cutting animals in two and walking between the pieces. Abram followed God’s instructions about dividing the animals, and then God put Abram into a deep sleep.
Cutting animals in two and then walking between the pieces symbolized an oath that was sworn, in effect, by the parties to the covenant: “May it be done to me as has been done to these animals if I do not keep my part in the covenant.”
11–16 During Abram’s sleep God showed him in a vision that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country (Egypt) for four hundred years,67 after which they would gain their freedom and come out with great possessions (verses 13–14). All this was fulfilled; it is described in the book of Exodus.
Thus the fourth generation68 of Abram’s descendants would finally take possession of the land of Canaan (verse 16). God’s promise of the land would take almost six hundred years to fulfill. Let us remember Abram when we get impatient over other promises that aren’t fulfilled as quickly as we’d like (see 2 Peter 3:8–9).
In verse 16, God gives the reason for the delay of six hundred years: “. . . the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” Here the Amorites represent all the Canaanite tribes (verses 19–21). The Canaanites (descendants of Canaan, Noah’s grandson) were becoming more and more evil as the generations passed. They worshiped idols, they were sexually immoral, and they even offered their own children as sacrifices to their gods. In this way their sin finally reached its “full measure,” and God brought judgment upon them by giving their land to Abram’s descendants. In doing this, God was completely just: the Canaanites, by their sin, had brought this judgment on themselves.
17–21 Verse 17 records one of the most significant actions in the Old Testament. God passed between the pieces—by Himself. Usually both parties to a covenant walked between the halves of the animals, but in this case God alone walked between them; Abram was sleeping. God alone was the author of the covenant; the covenant was made totally by His grace. Abram did nothing to deserve it.
This type of covenant using sacrificial animals was the most binding covenant of all; it was a covenant of blood. The covenant partners pledged their very lives to uphold the covenant. Here we see God “pledging His life” to uphold His covenant—no matter what the sleeping Abram did. Centuries later God would establish a new covenant with mankind and again He would pledge a life—the life of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus too would walk alone “between the pieces” on the way to His death.
Abram had asked God, “. . . how can I know?” (verse 8). Now he had his answer. When God passed between the pieces alone, Abram knew the covenant would stand and that his descendants would Indeed gain possession of the land. In the darkness God passed between the halves of the animals in the form of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch (verse 17). This visitation of God signified not only the pledge of God’s life but also His ongoing presence with Abram and with his descendants. The firepot and torch were symbolic of the pillars of smoke and fire that would be proof of God’s presence with the Israelites later in their history (Exodus 13:21–22).
Finally, God described the land that He had now promised by covenant to give to Abram’s descendants: it extended from the river of Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula to the Euphrates in present-day Iraq (verse 18). Its inhabitants included the tribes mentioned in verses 19–21, most of whom we shall encounter again in our study of the Old Testament.