Genesis 15 Study Notes


15:1 Abram’s role as a prophet (20:7) is shown here. Visions were one of two standard means (the other was dreams) by which the Lord revealed his word to people (Nm 12:6). The only other patriarch who is said to have received a vision was Jacob (Gn 46:2). The content of Abram’s vision included a command (Do not be afraid), an assurance (I am your shield), and a promise (your reward will be very great). Though Abram turned down a reward from the king of Sodom, the Lord would reward him richly.

15:2-3 Neither God’s protection nor his reward seemed important to elderly Abram since all his goods would go to Eliezer of Damascus, a slave born in his house. Engaging in something of a “pity party,” Abram made seven references to himself (in the Hb) in the space of twenty-two Hebrew words and twice utters the complaint that he was childless.

15:4-5 Ignoring Abram’s apparent lack of gratitude, the Lord gave Abram one of the great promises of the Bible; the elderly patriarch would produce an heir . . . from his own body. God then made the breathtaking promise that Abram’s offspring would be as numerous as the stars.

15:6 Old and childless, Abram believed the Lord; that is, he affirmed that God is dependable. God credited it to him as righteousness, that is, he judged or accounted that Abram measured up to the standard, conformed to the norm. Abram’s faith and God’s gracious response to it served as a paradigm of the Christian experience in three different NT books (Rm 4:3; Gl 3:6; Jms 2:23).

15:7 For the third time in Abram’s life (12:1; 13:14-17) the Lord addressed the issue of land. Here the Lord linked his name and his past leadership in Abram’s life to the promise of land. He reminded Abram that the same God who had faithfully brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans would just as surely give him this land to possess.

15:8 Abram, the shrewd businessman who had once dealt with earth’s mightiest human—the pharaoh of Egypt (12:14-19)—now negotiated with the Lord God. How can he be assured of God’s promise? Verse 9 provides the answer.

15:9 God provided assurance in the form of a solemn commitment ceremony. The cow . . . female goat, and ram were mammals later authorized for sacrifice in the law of Moses; however, this is the only time that three-year-olds—specimens in the prime of their lives—were used. Turtledoves and young pigeons were permitted for certain Israelite sacrifices (Lv 5:7). The ceremony here differs from other sacred rituals in the OT involving animals in that no animal parts were burned.

15:10-11 In an act unparalleled in the OT, Abram cut the animals in half, and laid the pieces opposite each other, creating a clear central lane flanked by the carcass portions. The birds, being smaller, were not cut; one was probably placed on each side of this lane.

15:12 Since days were reckoned in that culture from sunset to sunset, the events of vv. 12-21 occurred at the end of the day that began in v. 1. Abram’s deep sleep (Hb tardemah) recalls the one Adam experienced when the Lord created Eve (2:21).

15:13-16 Here the Lord revealed to Abram the prophet (20:7) an outline of the events of Gn 46 through Ex 13. Like Abram himself, his promised offspring would live as resident aliens (Hb ger; Gn 23:4). The land that did not belong to them was Egypt, where they would be enslaved and oppressed (Ex 1:11-14) for approximately four hundred years (more precisely, 430 years; Ex 12:40). God would judge the nation they served through a series of ten miraculous plagues (Ex 7:14-12:30), after which they would go out with many possessions (Ex 12:35-36). Though Abram would not live to see these events, he would go to his fathers in peace—die a peaceful death—and be buried at the good old age of 175 (25:7). Abram’s descendants would return to the land in the fourth generation; that is, after four hundred years in Egypt. In this case, each generation seems to be a hundred years, Abram’s age when Isaac was born (21:5).

The Lord also hinted regarding the purpose of the return of Abram’s descendants to the promised land. In large part Israel’s return to Canaan would bring God’s judgment on the iniquity of the Amorites.

15:17 When the sun had set the Lord climaxed the mystery by causing a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch to appear and pass between the divided animals. Both elements symbolized essential aspects of God; the smoke perhaps representing divine inscrutability, and the flame God’s power. By going between the divided carcasses, the Lord was solemnly obligating himself to fulfill the terms of the covenant—symbolically indicating that he would himself be split asunder if he failed to carry out his promises. Typically, both covenant partners would walk between the pieces, but here God was unilaterally obligating himself to fulfill his promise.

An alternate interpretation is that the animal parts represented the Israelites, Abram’s future descendants, and God hereby promised to be among them.

15:18-21 The first explicit covenant in the Bible between God and a person was with Noah (9:9-17). The second, with Abram, was expressed in 12:1-3 and ceremonially confirmed here. It obliged God to provide the patriarch with offspring and a geographic inheritance for them that began in the south with the brook of Egypt (either the Wadi el ‘Arish or the Shihor River—the easternmost branch of the Nile in Egypt’s delta region) and extended as far north as the Euphrates River. The list of ten different people groups here is the longest list of Canaan’s inhabitants in the Torah. This is the only list to include the Kenites, Kenizzites, and Kadmonites; the Kenites and Kenizzites were probably groups living in the Negev that coexisted peacefully with the Israelites (Nm 32:12; Jdg 1:16). Perhaps the Kadmonites were the same as the Qedemites, a desert-dwelling enemy of Israel (Jdg 6:33). The Hethites were descendants of Heth, son of Canaan (Gn 10:15). These were not the same as the Hittites, who lived further north, from Syria to Anatolia, modern Turkey (Jdg 1:26; 1Kg 10:29).