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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 15

 

 

Verse 1

‘After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I am your shield and your exceeding great reward.’

The phrase ‘after these things’ is used elsewhere as a connecting phrase between narratives but always following ‘and it happened’. Thus its use here without ‘and it happened’ is distinctive, signifying a specifically closer connection with what goes before. So the covenant about to be received is intended to be directly connected with what precedes it and is Yahweh’s response to Abram’s behaviour there, especially his refusal to take riches for himself. In the combined collection the two chapters are to be seen as one whole with the Melchizedek covenant narrative used as background and explanation to the new covenant.

“The word of Yahweh”. A unique phrase in Genesis for a unique situation. It arises here as a contrast to his covenants with kings. The word of Yahweh is more important than covenants with kings. Here is a word that is permanent, that is everlasting, that is above kings.

It is also a prophetic word that is coming. The prophets constantly received ‘the word of Yahweh’. Here such a word is given to Abram. He is now a prophet (see Genesis 20:7). No wonder he is filled with awe. This is confirmed by the words ‘in a vision’ (compare Numbers 12:6). What he is to see is not natural, it can only be seen in vision, for no man can see God and live. He has repudiated earthly riches, now he is to have spiritual riches. We must not underestimate what this meant for Abram and also for his followers. He is their priest, now he is to be a prophet.

“Do not be afraid”. Although it is not yet mentioned this already suggests the beginning of an experience which fills Abram with awe. But he need not fear. Yahweh is his shield and protector so that he need fear nothing (for shield see Psalms 3:3; Psalms 28:7; Psalms 33:20). He is also overflowingly abundantly his treasury above all treasuries and the guarantee of his future prosperity and fruitfulness. He has refused wealth so that none might say they had made Abram rich. Yahweh will therefore Himself assure him of riches of a far greater kind.


Verse 2

‘And Abram said, “Oh Lord Yahweh, what will you give seeing that I go childless and he who will be possessor of my house is Dammesek Eliezer?” And he said, “see, you have given no seed to me, and see, one born in my house is my heir”.’

How the yearning of Abram’s heart comes out in these verses. Yes, Yahweh will reward him in many ways, will even make him a prophet, but what is that to this lack which cannot be satisfied? He has no heir born of his flesh. Let Yahweh look. He has promised him abundant seed, but that seed will not be that of him and his beloved wife. We cannot avoid the suggestion that he feels that God has disappointed him. God has only to look and He will see the cause of his unhappiness. But there is also a hint of hope. Surely Yahweh can do something about it?

“He who will be possessor of my house”. The appointment of a steward as heir, to be replaced if a son is born, is well attested elsewhere. In return he would ensure a suitable burial for his master. Similar situations are found, for example, in documents at 15th century BC Nuzi and in Ur around 1800 BC. An Old Babylonian letter from Larsa states that a childless man can adopt his own slave.

“Dammesek Eliezer”. Names are nowhere else given to Abram’s followers in these narratives, and the mention here stresses that this man is the heir. As such he could not be anonymous and so must be named. We do not know the significance of Dammesek but ‘the Damascene’ was understood later. This is not certain (Eliezer was ‘born in my house’) and further discoveries may throw light on the matter.

“See ----- see ----”. The force of Abram’s feelings come over in the repetition. Ancient literature is constantly repetitive, sometimes almost monotonously so. It was written to be repeated aloud and the hearers loved to move along with familiar ideas. So the repetitions in Genesis 15:2 and Genesis 15:3 are typical. Indeed the repeated ‘see’ (‘behold’) refers back to the previous statement, putting emphasis on the thought.

This interruption in the vision is quite remarkable. Yahweh has come to confirm His promises in an increasingly emphatic way, but Abram, in the midst of his awe and fear, breaks in and reveals the deepest yearnings of his heart. Although he loves Yahweh and believes Him and His promises, he is also human, and years of hurt, both on Sarai’s part and on his own, now come through at this crowning point in his life. A prophet, yes, the founder of a nation, yes, but if he is a prophet let him know, - why, oh why, must it be through the seed of another?

But Yahweh is aware of the longings of his heart. He is aware of what lies in the depths of his soul, and He takes time off from His greater revelation to comfort His servant. What comfort these verses should give to us. The faithful and redoubtable Abram has his weaknesses after all, and his God bends to him in that weakness.


Verse 4

‘And see, the word of Yahweh came to him saying, “This man will not be your heir. He who will be truly of your own blood (will come forth out of your own bowels) will be your heir”.’

We note that the writer himself responds to Abram. He responds to Abram’s ‘see’ (‘behold’), twice repeated, with a third ‘see’ (‘behold’). Three is the number of completeness and he wants us to know that what Abram was calling God to look at is completely answered.

“The word of Yahweh came to him”. He has become a prophet and his first prophecy will be concerning his own deepest desires. ‘This man will not be your heir, one who is of your own body and blood will be your heir.’ This is what he had craved, and this Yahweh gives him. A child of his own.

And yet it had not been a totally selfish craving, it had been a craving that God would fulfil in him what He had commanded in all, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 9:1; Genesis 9:7). He had not only felt sick at heart, he had felt that he had failed God. But now Yahweh Himself assures him that this will not be so. He is to have a son and heir.


Verse 5

‘And he brought him outside and said, “Look now towards heaven and name the stars by number if you are able to number them.” And he said to him, “So will your seed be”.’

The repetition of ‘He said to him’ is to emphasise the certainty of the promise. Abram may grieve no longer, for of his own blood will be born countless multitudes, countless as the stars above as seen in a clear Near Eastern sky with no artificial light of man to hide them.


Verse 6

‘And he believed in Yahweh, and he counted it to him for righteousness.’

What a remarkable verse is this, for it is the heart of the Gospel. As Abram looks at the multiplicity of stars he believes, not in the stars, but in the faithfulness and goodness of Yahweh. All his disappointment and bitterness melts away for Yahweh has promised and He is faithful. And Yahweh sees his believing heart and accounts it to him as righteousness, as the fulfilment of all that was required of him in the covenant of God.

To the men of those days, in tribes and nations of which they were an essential part, the idea of righteousness was very much founded in loyalty to the tribe or nation. The truly righteous was he who truly served his tribe. This did, of course, include a certain morality, for obeying the laws of the tribe was part of his service, but it meant more than that, it meant total dedication to the tribe.

But here that thought is transferred to a man’s response to his God. Abram had left his tribe because of his loyalty to his God. Now in a supreme act of faith he responds to God’s promise, the God who in his own heart had replaced his tribe. And God accounts him as a worthy man, both as one who has walked in obedience to all His requirements and as one whose total loyalty is to Him.

But the vital point is that this is not because of his obedience, nor because of his loyalty, although both had in fact been amply proved, but because of his response of faith, because he accepted the impossible of which God spoke to him. For his obedience could never be total, and his loyalty could never be total (we have seen how he has sometimes failed in both) but God accounts him as, and accepts him as, totally faithful and obedient because of his faith in God’s promise. No wonder Paul uses this verse as the rock on which his doctrine of justification by faith is founded (Galatians 3:6).

The pointing to the stars by Yahweh is subtle. To other nations the stars were gods, but to Abram they are to be the permanent reminder of the promises of Yahweh. Wherever he goes he will see them and remember.

Now in Genesis 15:7 God returns to the point he had begun at in Genesis 15:1. This is the main revelation, the ‘word of Yahweh’, although in His goodness God has given Abram a second subsidiary word of Yahweh to confirm the birth of a natural son. In a sense there has been a diversion over the great concern of Abram’s heart, but how blessedly it has been responded to, and what great blessing it means for Abram both with regard to the desire of his heart and in his spiritual life, but now Yahweh must return to His primary purpose. This is no break in the narrative. It is demanded in verse 1. Now will His covenant with Abram be ratified as never before. (Genesis 15:2-6 were in one sense a break in the narrative, to satisfy the deep yearning in the heart of Abram).


Verse 7

‘And he said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to inherit it.” ’

This solemn declaration commences the giving of what follows. We can compare it with Exodus 20:2, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. It is a declaration of Yahweh’s total sovereignty and goodness in readiness for a solemn declaration. Here is specific confirmation that it was in Ur of the Chaldees that God began the calling of Abram.

“To give you this land to inherit it.” Abram has spurned riches at the hands of the king of Sodom, now Yahweh promises not only riches but total possession of the land. In the final analysis land meant everything. While a semi-nomad Abram had many blessings but he was to some extent dependent on others like Melchizedek for the use of land, now Yahweh promises that the land will one day be his, all of it. For purposes which only Yahweh knows the end of.


Verse 8

‘And he said, “O Lord Yahweh, By what means will I know that I will inherit it?” ’

Moved by Yahweh’s goodness and compassion to him Abram asks a vital question. ‘And he said, “Oh Lord Yahweh, how shall I know that I will inherit it?” This is not a question arising from doubt, but arising from the faith that is welling from his heart as a result of his response of faith to Yahweh’s previous promise. Inspired as a new prophet he is now bold to ask, for he must convince his people. He wants to know what he can give them as a guarantee.


Verse 9

‘And he said to him, “Take on my behalf a three year old heiffer, and a three year old she goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove and a young pigeon”.’

As a prophet Abram is commanded to act on God’s behalf. As he acts it is Yahweh Who, as it were, takes the animals and birds.

“Three years old”, three, the number of completeness, indicates one which is complete and full. It is the equivalent of ‘without spot and blemish’. What follows takes some considerable period of time, lasting until sundown. Abram has asked, and now he must act deliberately on Yahweh’s behalf, not knowing fully what He does.


Verse 10

‘And he took on his behalf all these and divided them in the middle and laid one half on one side and the other on the other. But he did not divide the birds.’

Abram does what God tells him. He takes the defined animals and slays them and cuts them in half and lays the halves on the ground to provide a way between them.


Verse 11

‘And the birds of prey descended on the carcasses, but he drove them away.’

This totally unnecessary description of a seemingly irrelevant incidence is an evidence of the fact that this account came from an eyewitness. Yet it has in it the seed of truth. For the birds of prey are a reminder of those who will seek to prevent his descendants’ possession of the land, who as it were are even now trying to prevent the establishing of the covenant, and a reminder that they too can be driven away. It also draws attention to the awfulness of the fates of the victims, not only dead but, were it not for the intervention of the prophet, to be torn up and eaten.

Are we also to see in this incident the sinister figure that lay behind the snake in the Garden of Eden seeking to intervene? He too desires to prevent the establishing of the covenant, for he senses its importance.

But we may ask, what is the purpose of all this? The answer is that it is following ancient custom in the swearing of a solemn oath and the establishing of a solemn covenant (see Jeremiah 34:18-19). The divided animals are saying, ‘let me die if I break this covenant’ (Jeremiah 34:20).

But we know that the animals are but a symbol, a type, for the blood that must be shed, for the fulfilment of God’s covenant is to be His own blood, shed for the sins of the world.


Verse 12

‘And when the sun was going down a deep sleep fell on Abram, and lo, a horror of great darkness fell on him.’

Words fail to describe the sacredness of that moment, and the awe and even godly terror that seizes hold of Abram. He falls into a deep sleep (compare Genesis 2:21; Job 4:13; Job 33:15-16), for wakeful he could not see God and live. And the horror of darkness is an awareness of inconceivable things that are occurring at this moment, which he can sense but cannot comprehend. An awareness of darkness, of unbelievable darkness, for before the light there must be darkness; it is as though this was a new creation (Genesis 1:2-3) and one hovers near who would destroy this symbolic act which speaks of something, although he knows not what, which will totally destroy him.

And Another will one day hang, with His blood shed, and he too will experience such intense and unbelievable darkness so that even the skies around Him will become dark in sympathy. But Abram knows nothing of this. Yet he is a prophet, and a prophet reveals better than he knows.

Now before the symbolic act, the words of the covenant must be spoken over the dead carcasses of the victims.


Verses 13-16

‘And he said to Abram, “Know for a guaranteed certainty that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not their’s, and will serve them, and they will afflict them, for four hundred years. And that nation whom they serve I will also judge. And afterwards they will come out with great substance. But you will go to your fathers in peace. You will be buried in a good old age. And in the fourth generation they will come here again. For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full”.’

Yahweh reveals to Abraham something of the future. Firstly that the certainty of him having seed comes out in that God can speak of their future. Secondly that their future will not be straightforward. They will be aliens and slaves in a foreign land. He has control of their destiny. But it stresses that their land will not be theirs for a long time to come. Thirdly there is the implication that this will be followed by them receiving a land of their own. Fourthly it brings out Yahweh’s power as the One Who can alone determine the future of that foreign land as their Judge. He is not a local tribal god. Fifthly Abraham has the guarantee that it will not happen in his lifetime. Sixthly it brings out that God is a God Who acts as Judge only in the light of true moral necessity. His judgments are not arbitrary, but on a moral basis, and He will not punish or condemn any until it is necessary, and will judge according to deserts. Again there is the implication that all judgment is in His hands. He is over all. Other ‘gods’ were arbitrary and limited in what they could do and rarely took morality into account. They were simply sinful super-humans.

This recognition of God’s power and goodness may be obvious to us. In the time of Abraham it was very special revelation.

The Amorites here represent the inhabitants of the whole of Canaan and Transjordan. The depth of their iniquity is spoken of in Leviticus 18:24-27 where the full nature of their sexual abominations, resulting from their debased religion, are discreetly described. But it has not yet reached its pinnacle and therefore a period of waiting is necessary. Yahweh allots to nations their times and seasons (Daniel 2:21). Thus again does the writer remind us of the universal sovereignty of Yahweh.

The interchanging of the terms ‘Canaanites’ and ‘Amorites’ to describe the people of the land (although they are not necessarily precisely synonymous) is testified to in Egyptian texts where the inhabitants of the land can be called ‘Canaan’ or ‘the land of Amurru’.

This is a time of prophetic revelation. Yahweh has previously promised the land to Abram but now he is made aware of what will result before its fulfilment. Before that time Abram’s seed must be a stranger in a land that is not theirs. Already even now they were strangers in ‘a land that is not theirs’, a land where there were many nations (a contrast with what is to be), but they will yet suffer under another single nation, who must therefore be a powerful nation, whom they will serve, and who will afflict them, and this condition will go on for four hundred years. But it is the service and not necessarily the affliction that will endure for this time.

Abram may well have thought of some great king coming in and subjugating the land, but the later reader aware of the final complete narrative will know what is meant

Yet when it happened there could be no complaint, for Israel could have returned from Egypt when things were going well, but they did not do so. They had this warning but they still did not do so. They preferred the land of delights and plenty to the land promised to them by God. Thus it was also through their own disobedience that they suffered. It is the result that is being prophesied, not what should be.

But the promises of Yahweh cannot be hindered by men’s failure, or by great nations, and judgment will come on the nation which enslaves them and they will return to the land God promised them with great substance, just as Abram had himself come into the land with great substance, for God never does things by halves.

The number 400 is significant. Neither 3, 5 or 7 could be used for they would represent completeness, covenant connection and divine perfection. But four is certainly seen later as the number which signified the world and is the number of judgment. Four rivers flowing from Eden to encompass the known world outside the Garden (Genesis 2:10), 40 days of rain on the earth producing the flood (Genesis 7:12), 40 days still under judgment before release (Genesis 8:6), 400 hundred years signifying the decline of man (Genesis 11:12-17 - each with another significant number added on), four kings who were the first invaders of the land (14:9), four beasts who represent world empires (Daniel 2 and Daniel 7). Only four intensified could be used here. Thus it means a long period connected with world empire and judgment.

“But you will go to your fathers in peace, you will be buried in a good old age”. Abram is promised that while he is alive this will not happen. Until he dies there will be peace. To ‘go to one’s fathers’ was a stereotyped phrase meaning simply to die and be buried, for that is finally where one’s ancestors were. ‘In a good old age’ (compare Job 5:26). This was considered a special gift from God (compare Genesis 25:8). So Abram learns that the land will not be theirs in his day.

“In the fourth generation they will come here again”. Later a generation would be 40 years, but here it is a hundred years. Longevity was still remembered and enjoyed. Yet again the emphasis is on ‘four’. Thus the number may be symbolic and not necessarily to be thought of as needing to be applied too literally. Once God’s judgment is ready for ‘the Amorites’, the inhabitants of the land, then they will come back.

So finishes the prophetic ‘word of Yahweh’ to Abram (Genesis 15:1). Now its fulfilment must be finally guaranteed.


Verse 17

‘And it about that when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a flaming furnace and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces.’

The covenant is finalised and sealed. As elsewhere the flaming furnace and the flaming torch represent Yahweh Himself, although not directly. The mention of two signifies a twofold divine witness. We can compare the two angels who will be witnesses to the judgment of Sodom (Genesis 19) as Yahweh’s representatives. Abram is not involved. This is a gift of God’s grace.

The writer now summarises the covenant. The special nature of what has occurred is clear. Nowhere else is such a comment made on a theophany as ‘know of a surety’. He recognises the solemnity and totally unbreakable nature of what has happened. This can only indicate the end of the original tablet recording the covenant, finalising the extent of the promised land.


Verses 18-21

‘In that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram “to your seed I have given this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the River Euphrates”; the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim, and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.’

So the boundaries of the promised land are fixed in a general sense, to be achieved in the day of Solomon. ‘The river of Egypt’ may not be the Nile but the Brook of Egypt (1 Kings 8:65), the southernmost boundary of the land (it is in contrast with ‘the great river’, while the Nile is as great a river as the Euphrates), probably the Wadi el Arish just below Gaza, which reaches up towards the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, thus excluding the absolute desert. But etymologically it would appear to speak of the Nile for a ‘brook’ (nahal) is a torrent wadi arising after the rains, while a river (nehar) is a river of more permanence. There is no difficulty with seeing it as the southernmost part of the Nile in a general sense, not necessarily applied too literally. (We do not know how far south tributaries of the Nile came then). Either way the general boundary is clear. The land reaches from Egypt to the Euphrates, two natural boundaries. In inscriptions Sargon II reaches the ‘brook of Egypt’ and establishes a governor there to Pharaoh’s alarm (see 2 Kings 24:7).

The writer then summarises the inhabitants of the land that is promised. There are ten in number, a number which signifies totality. (Compare the lists of ten patriarchs). This use in this way of a group of ‘ten’ may indicate the great age of the narrative. Later it would be reduced to seven.

The Birth of Ishmael and God’s Covenant With Him (Genesis 16:1-14).

This chapter is a record of the covenant God makes with Ishmael and the historical background and theophany that seals it. Without the covenant, which would be put in writing on her return to Abram as evidence of Yahweh’s covenant with Ishmael, these events would have disappeared into obscurity.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 15:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-15.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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