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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 15

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


5. The Abrahamic Covenant ch. 15

Abram asked God to strengthen his faith. In response Yahweh promised to give the patriarch innumerable descendants. This led Abram to request some further assurance that God would indeed do what He promised. God graciously obliged him by formalizing the promises and making a covenant. In the giving of the covenant God let Abram know symbolically that enslavement would precede the fulfillment of the promise.

From chapters 12 through 14 issues involving God’s promise to Abram concerning land have predominated. However from chapter 15 on tensions arising from the promise of descendants become central in the narrative.

Abram was legitimately concerned about God’s provision of the Promised Land as well as his need for an heir. He had declined the gifts of the king of Sodom and had placed himself in danger of retaliation from four powerful Mesopotamian kings. God had proven Himself to be Abram’s "shield" (defender) in the battle just passed. Now He promised to be the same in the future and to give Abram great "reward." This was God’s fourth revelation to Abram.

"Genesis 15 not only stands at the center of the external structure of the Abraham narratives, but also is regarded in the history of exegesis right down to the present as the very heart of the Abraham story." [Note: Westermann, Genesis 12-36, p. 230.]

"Scene 5 [ch. 15] consists of two divine encounters (Genesis 15:1-21) involving dialogue between the Lord and Abraham and powerful images symbolizing God’s presence and promises. The first occurs at night (Genesis 15:5) as a vision (Genesis 15:1) and pertains to the promised seed. The second occurs at sundown (Genesis 15:12), partially in a deep sleep (Genesis 15:12), and pertains to the promised land." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 238.]

Moses’ declaration that "Abram believed the LORD . . ." (Genesis 15:6) links the two sections.

Verse 1

"’The word of the LORD came.’ This is a phrase typically introducing revelation to a prophet, e.g., 1 Samuel 15:10; Hosea 1:1; but in Genesis it is found only here and in Genesis 15:4 of this chapter. Abraham is actually called a prophet in Genesis 20:7. It prepares the way for the prophecy of the Egyptian bondage in Genesis 15:13-16." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 32]

Only in Genesis 15:1 and Genesis 22:1; Genesis 22:11 did God address Abram directly. Visions were one of the three primary methods of divine revelation in the Old Testament along with dreams and direct communications (cf. Numbers 12:6-8).

"By his bold intervention and rescue of Lot, Abram exposes himself to the endemic plague of that region-wars of retaliation. [Note: "See Sarna, [Understanding Genesis, pp.] 116, 121, 122."] This fear of retaliation is the primary reason for the divine oracle of 15.1 which could be translated: ’Stop being afraid, Abram. I am a shield for you, your very great reward.’ Yahweh’s providential care for Abram is to be seen as preventing the Mesopotamian coalition from returning and settling the score." [Note: Helyer, p. 83.]

The promise of reward (Heb. shakar), coming just after Abram’s battle with the kings, resembles a royal grant to an officer for faithful military service. [Note: M. G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, p. 216.] God would compensate Abram for conducting this military campaign even though he had passed up a reward from the king of Sodom. The compensation in view consisted of land and descendants (cf. Psalms 127:3).

Verses 2-3

Abram used a new title for God calling Him Master (Adonai) Yahweh (i.e., Sovereign LORD). Abram had willingly placed himself under the sovereign leadership of God.

"A childless couple adopts a son, sometimes a slave, to serve them in their lifetime and bury and mourn them when they die. In return for this service they designate the adopted son as the heir presumptive. Should a natural son be born to the couple after such action, this son becomes the chief heir, demoting the adopted son to the penultimate position." [Note: Hamilton, p. 420. See also Cyrus H. Gordon, "Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets," Biblical Archaeologist 3:1 (February 1940):2-3.]

The wordplay between the Hebrew words mesheq ("heir") and dammesek ("Damascus") highlights the incongruity that Abram’s heir would apparently be an alien (cf. Jeremiah 49:1).

Verse 4

Abram assumed that since he was old and childless, and since Lot had not returned to him, the heir God had promised him would be his chief servant, Eliezer (cf. Proverbs 17:2).

". . . under Hurrian law a man’s heir would be either his natural-born son-a direct heir-or, in the absence of any natural-born son, an indirect heir, who was an outsider adopted for the purpose. In the latter case, the adopted heir was required to attend to the physical needs of his ’parents’ during their lifetime." [Note: West, pp. 68-69. See also Sarna, Understanding Genesis, pp. 116, 121-22; Anthony Phillips, "Some Aspects of Family Law in Pre-Exilic Israel," Vetus Testamentum 23:3 (1973):360; and Kitchen, The Bible . . ., p. 70.]

God assured Abram that the descendants He had promised would come through a "natural-born son," not an adopted heir (cf. Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:15-16).

Verse 5

To the promise of descendants as innumerable as the dust (physical descendants from the land? cf. Genesis 13:16) God added another promise that Abram’s seed would be as countless as the stars. This is perhaps a promise of Abram’s spiritual children, those who would have faith in God as he did. Abram may not have caught this distinction since he would have more naturally taken the promise as a reference to physical children.

Verses 6-7

Moses did not reveal exactly what Abram believed (confidently trusted, relied upon) for which God reckoned him righteous. In Hebrew the conjunction waw with the imperfect tense verb following indicates consecutive action and best translates as "Then." When waw occurs with the perfect tense verb following, as we have here, it indicates disjunctive action and could read, "Now Abram had believed . . ." (cf. Genesis 1:2). God justified Abram (i.e., declared him righteous) because of his faith. Abram’s normal response to God’s words to him was to believe them. Abram had trusted the person of God previously, but he evidently had not realized that God would give him an heir from his own body (Genesis 15:4). Now he accepted this promise of God also (cf. Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). Perhaps he believed the "counting" promises of Genesis 13:16 and Genesis 15:4-5 regarding numerous descendants, and the result was that the Lord "counted" his faith as righteousness. [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 167.]

"In the middle of this chapter occurs what is perhaps the most important verse in the entire Bible: Genesis 15:6. In it, the doctrine of justification by faith is set forth for the first time. This is the first verse in the Bible explicitly to speak of (1) ’faith,’ (2) ’righteousness,’ and (3) ’justification.’" [Note: Boice, 2:98.]

Trust in God’s promise is what results in justification in any age. The promises of God (content of faith) vary, but the object of faith does not. It is always God. [Note: See Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 110-31; or idem, Dispensationalism, pp. 105-22.] Technically Abram trusted in a Person and hoped in a promise. To justify someone means to declare that person righteous, not to make him or her righteous (cf. Deuteronomy 25:1). Justification expresses a legal verdict.

Moses probably recorded Abram’s faith here because it was foundational for making the Abrahamic Covenant. God made this covenant with a man who believed Him.

James 2:21 suggests that Abram was justified when he offered Isaac (ch. 22). James meant that Abram’s work of willingly offering Isaac justified him (i.e., declared him righteous). His work manifested his righteous condition. In Genesis 15 God declared Abram righteous, but in Genesis 22 Abram’s works declared (testified) that he was righteous.

"In the sacrifice of Isaac was shown the full meaning of the word (Genesis 15:6) spoken 30 . . . years before in commendation of Abraham’s belief in the promise of a child. . . . It was the willing surrender of the child of promise, ’accounting that God was able to raise him up from the dead,’ which fully proved his faith." [Note: Joseph Mayor, The Epistle of Saint James, p. 104. Cf. Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, pp. 28-31.]

Verse 8

Abram requested a sign, a supernatural verification that God would indeed fulfill the distant promise. His request shows that he was taking God seriously.

"Requests for signs were not unusual in Old Testament times. They were not so much to discover God’s will as to confirm it." [Note: Davis, p. 186.]

God responded by making a covenant with Abram (Genesis 15:9-12; Genesis 15:17).

"Only after he had been counted righteous by his faith could Abraham enter into God’s covenant." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 152.]

"Four rites are mentioned [in the Old Testament] as parts of the covenant making event. They are the setting of a stone or a group of stones, the taking of an oath, the sacrifice of animals, and/or a communal meal." [Note: Livingston, p. 157.]

This rite (the sacrifice of animals) normally involved two parties dividing an animal into two equal parts, joining hands, and passing between the two parts (cf. Jeremiah 34:18-19). On this occasion, however, God alone passed between the parts indicating that Abram had no obligations to fulfill to receive the covenant promises (Genesis 15:17).

Verses 9-10

The animals used were standard types of sacrificial animals and may have represented the nation of Israel, "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6).

"The use of five different kinds of sacrificial animals on this occasion underlines the solemnity of the occasion." [Note: Gordon J. Wenham, "The Symbolism of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15 : A Response to G. F. Hasel, JSOT 19 (1981):61-78," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 (1981):135.]

"We suggest that the animal cutting in Genesis 15:9-10; Genesis 15:17 is designated a ’covenant ratification sacrifice’ . . . The killing and sectioning of the animals by Abram is the sacrificial preparatio for the subsequent divine ratificatio of the covenant by Yahweh who in passing between the pieces irrevocably pledges the fulfillment of his covenant promise to the patriarch. The initiative of Yahweh remains in the foreground both in the instruction for the ’covenant ratification sacrifice’ (Genesis 15:9-10) and in the act of berit [covenant] ratification itself (Genesis 15:17). . . .

"Genesis 15:7-21 contains covenant-making in which Yahweh binds himself in promise to Abram in the passing through the animals in the act of covenant ratification. Abram had prepared the animals for this ratification act through the ’covenant ratification sacrifice’ which involved both killing and sectioning of the victims. Certain basic features of this covenant ratification rite are most closely paralleled only in aspects of the function of animal rites of the extant early second millennium treaty texts." [Note: Gerhard F. Hasel, "The Meaning of the Animal Rite in Genesis 15," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19 (1981):70.]

To "ratify" means to give formal consent to (a treaty, contract, or agreement), making it officially valid.

Verse 11

"The birds of prey are unclean (Leviticus 11:13-19; Deuteronomy 14:12-18) and represent foreign nations (Ezekiel 17:3; Ezekiel 17:7; Zechariah 5:9), most probably Egypt. . . . Thus Abram driving off the birds of prey from the dismembered pieces portrays him defending his descendants from the attacks of foreign nations. Genesis itself tells of a number of attacks by foreigners against the children of Abraham (e.g. chs. 26, 34) and it already looks forward to the sojourn in Egypt (chs. 37-50 [cf. Exodus 1:11-12]). But in what sense can Abraham’s actions be said to protect his offspring? Genesis 22:16-18; Genesis 26:5 suggest it was Abraham’s faithful obedience to the covenant that guaranteed the blessing of his descendants. . . . Exodus 2:24 and Deuteronomy 9:5 also ground the exodus in the divine promises made to the patriarchs. The bird scene therefore portrays the security of Israel as the consequence of Abraham’s piety." [Note: Wenham, "The Symbolism . . .," p. 135.]

Verse 12

Abram’s terror reflects his reaction to the flame that passed between the parts and to the revelation of the character of God that the flame represented (cf. Genesis 15:17).

Verses 13-14

Moses gave more detail regarding the history of the seed here than he had revealed previously (cf. Genesis 15:14; Genesis 15:16). The 400 years of enslavement were evidently from 1845 B.C. to 1446 B.C., the date of the Exodus.

Verse 15

The ancients conceived of death as a time when they would rejoin their departed ancestors (cf. 2 Samuel 12:23). There was evidently little understanding of what lay beyond the grave at this time in history. [Note: For a synopsis of Israel’s view of life after death, see Bernhard Lang, "Afterlife: Ancient Israel’s Changing Vision of the World Beyond," Bible Review 4:1 (February 1988):12-23.]

Verse 16

The Hebrew word translated "generation" really refers to a lifetime, which at this period in history was about 100 years. [Note: See W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra, p. 9; and Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, s.v., "dor," by Robert D. Culver, 1:186-87.] This seems a better explanation than that four literal generations are in view. The writer mentioned four literal generations in Exodus 6:16-20 and Numbers 26:58-59, but there were quite evidently gaps in those genealogies. [Note: Kitchen, Ancient Orient . . ., p. 54.] "The Amorite" serves as a synecdoche for the ten Canaanite nations listed in Genesis 15:19-20. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one part of a whole represents the whole, as here, or the whole represents a part.

Verse 17

The smoking oven and flaming torch were one. This was an intensely bright, hot flame symbolic of God in His holiness. The flame is a good symbol of God in that it is pure, purges in judgment, and provides light and warmth.

"This act is . . . a promise that God will be with Abraham’s descendants (e.g. Genesis 26:3; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 28:15; Genesis 31:3; Genesis 46:4, etc.). Indeed the description of the theophany as a furnace of smoke and ’a torch of fire’ invites comparison with the pillar of cloud and fire that was a feature of the wilderness wanderings, and especially with the smoke, fire and torches (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 20:18) that marked the law-giving at Sinai. These were visible tokens of God’s presence with his people, that he was walking among them and that they were his people (Leviticus 26:12).

"In this episode then Abram’s experience in a sense foreshadows that of his descendants. He sees them under attack from foreign powers but protected and enjoying the immediate presence of God. Elsewhere in the Abraham cycle, his life prefigures episodes in the history of Israel. Famine drove him to settle in Egypt (Genesis 12:10; cf. chs. 42-46). He escaped after God had plagued Pharaoh (Genesis 12:17; cf. Exodus 7-12), enriched by his stay in Egypt (Genesis 13:2; cf. Exodus 12:35-38) and journeyed by stages (Genesis 13:3; cf. Exodus 17:1; etc.) back to Canaan. In Genesis 22 Abraham goes on a three-day journey to a mountain, offers a sacrifice in place of his only son, God appears to him and reaffirms his promises. Sinai is of course a three-day journey from Egypt (Exodus 8:27), where Israel’s first-born sons had been passed over (Exodus 12). There too sacrifice was offered, God appeared and reaffirmed his promises (Exodus 19-24).

"Finally, it may be observed, the interpretation of Genesis 15:9-11; Genesis 15:17, that I am proposing on the basis of other ritual texts in the Pentateuch is congruent with Genesis 15:13-16, which explain that Abraham’s descendants would be oppressed for 400 years in Egypt before they come out with great possessions. Whether these verses are a later addition to the narrative as is generally held, or integral to it as van Seters asserts . . ., they do confirm that at a very early stage in the history of the tradition this rite was interpreted as a dramatic representation of the divine promises to Abraham. It is not a dramatized curse that would come into play should the covenant be broken, but a solemn and visual reaffirmation of the covenant that is essentially a promise . . . ." [Note: Wenham, "The Symbolism . . .," p. 136.]

Another writer argued that this verse does not picture a covenant-making ritual for a unilateral, wholly unconditional covenant (cf. Genesis 17:1-2; Genesis 17:9-14; Genesis 18:18-19; Genesis 22:16; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:5). He believed the covenant is unconditional, but it did not become unconditional until chapter 22. [Note: Gordon H. Johnston, "Torch and Brazier Passing between the Pieces (Genesis 15:17): Does It Really Symbolize an Unconditional Covenant?" and "God’s Covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 : A Contingently-Unconditional Royal Grant?" papers presented at the 56th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, San Antonio, Tex., 18 November 2004.]

Verse 18

This was the formal "cutting" of the Abrahamic Covenant. God now formalized His earlier promises (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7) into a suzerainty treaty, similar to a royal land grant, since Abram now understood and believed what God had promised. God as king bound Himself to do something for His servant Abram. The fulfillment of the covenant did not depend on Abram’s obedience. It rested entirely on God’s faithfulness. [Note: Westermann, "The Promises . . .," p. 690.]

". . . it is fitting that in many respects the account should foreshadow the making of the covenant at Sinai. The opening statement in Genesis 15:7: ’I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Ur of the Chaldeans,’ is virtually identical to the opening statement of the Sinai covenant in Exodus 20:2: ’I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ The expression ’Ur of the Chaldeans’ refers back to Genesis 11:28; Genesis 11:31 and grounds the present covenant in a past act of divine salvation from ’Babylon,’ just as Exodus 20:2 grounds the Sinai covenant in an act of divine salvation from Egypt. The coming of God’s presence in the awesome fire and darkness of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 4:11) appears to be intentionally reflected in Abraham’s pyrotechnic vision (Genesis 15:12; Genesis 15:17). In the Lord’s words to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-16) the connection between Abraham’s covenant and the Sinai covenant is explicitly made by means of the reference to the four hundred years of bondage of Abraham’s seed and their subsequent ’exodus’ (’and after this they will go out,’ Genesis 15:14). Such considerations lead to the conclusion that the author intends to draw the reader’s attention to the events at Sinai in his depiction of the covenant with Abraham.

"If we ask why the author has sought to bring the picture of Sinai here, the answer lies in the purpose of the book. It is part of the overall strategy of the book to show that what God did at Sinai was part of a larger plan which had already been put into action with the patriarchs. Thus, the exodus and the Sinai covenant serve as reminders not only of God’s power and grace but also of God’s faithfulness. What he sets out to accomplish with his people, he will carry through to the end." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 152.]

Moses revealed the general geographical borders of the Promised Land here for the first time. Some scholars interpret the "river of Egypt" as the Nile.

"The argument is usually based on the fact that the Hebrew word nahar is consistently restricted to large rivers. However, the Hebrew is more frequently nahal (= Arabic wady) instead of the nahar of Genesis 15:18 which may have been influenced by the second nahar in the text. [Note: "J. Simons, The Geographical and Topographical Texts of the Old Testament, p. 96, sec. 272."] In the Akkadian texts of Sargon II (716 B.C.) it appears as nahal musar." [Note: "James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 286; also Esarhaddon’s Arzi(ni) or Arsa = Arish (?), (ibid., p. 290). See Bruce K. Waltke, ’River of Egypt,’ Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible 5:121; and J. Dwight Pentecost, Prophecy for Today, p. 65. An interesting case for the Nile is made by H. Bar-Deroma in ’The River of Egypt (Nahal Mizraim),’ Palestinian Exploration Quarterly 92 (1960):37-56." Walter C. Kaiser Jr., "The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View," Bibliotheca Sacra 138:552 (October-December 1981):311.]

God later specified the Wadi El ’Arish, "the geographical boundary between Canaan and Egypt," [Note: Charles Pfeiffer and Howard Vos, Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, p. 88.] as the exact border (Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:4; Joshua 15:47). That seems to be the river in view here too. The Euphrates River has never yet been Israel’s border. These borders appear to coincide with those of the Garden of Eden (cf. Genesis 2:10-14). Thus the Garden of Eden may have occupied the same general area as the Promised Land.

Some amillennialists take these boundaries as an ideal expressing great blessing and believe God never intended that Abram’s seed should extend this far geographically. [Note: E.g., Waltke, Genesis, p. 245.] However such a conclusion is subjective and finds no support in the text.

Verses 19-21

Here Moses named ten of the native tribes then inhabiting the Promised Land. The longest of the 27 lists of pre-Israelite nations that inhabited the Promised Land name 12 entities (Genesis 10:15-18 a; 1 Chronicles 1:13-18). Sometimes as few as two receive mention, and most of these lists identify six. [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 177.] "Canaanites" is both a general name for all these tribes (a synecdoche) and, as used here, the name of one of them. These "Hittites" lived near Hebron (Genesis 23:10); they are probably not the same Hittites that lived in Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern western Turkey; cf. Genesis 10:15).

The Abrahamic Covenant is basic to the premillennial system of theology.

"How one understands the nature and function of this covenant will largely determine one’s overall theology and most particularly his eschatology." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "The Covenant with Abraham," Journal of Dispensational Theology 12:36 (August 2008):5.]

This covenant has not yet been fulfilled as God promised it would be. Since God is faithful we believe He will fulfill these promises in the future. Consequently there must be a future for Israel as a nation (cf. Romans 11). Amillennialists interpret this covenant in a less literal way. The crucial issue is interpretation. If God fulfilled the seed and blessings promises literally, should we not expect that He will also fulfill the land promises literally? [Note: See Daniel C. Lane, "The Meaning and Use of the Old Testament Term for ’Covenant’ (berit): with Some Implications for Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology," a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Toronto, Canada, 20 November 2002.]

The Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenants are outgrowths of the Abrahamic Covenant. Each of these expands one major promise of the Abrahamic Covenant: the land, seed, and blessing promises respectively.

Now that God had given Abram the covenant, the author proceeded to show how He would fulfill the promises. This is the reason for the selection of material that follows. So far in the story of Abram, Moses stressed the plans and purposes of God culminating in the cutting of the covenant. Now we learn how Abram and his seed would realize these plans and purposes. This involves a revelation of God’s ways and man’s responsibilities. [Note: See J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, 1:54-55.]

God’s people can rely on His promises even if they have to experience suffering and death before they experience them. [Note: See Jeffrey Townsend, "Fulfillment of the Land Promise in the Old Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 142:568 (October-December 1985):320-37; and Cleon L. Rogers Jr., "The Covenant with Abraham and Its Historical Setting," Bibliotheca Sacra 127:507 (July-September 1970):241-56.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 15". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-15.html. 2012.
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