Genesis 15: God's Covenant with Abraham

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Given the incredible spiritual encounter of the last chapter, one might expect Abraham to continue to soar. However, that does not seem to be the case. Isn't it typical that sometimes after the greatest victories, one often experiences greater challenges? So it seemed to be with Abraham. For the text says that some time later, God spoke to him and the first thing He says is, "Fear not, Abram." Clearly, this is a verbal connection relating to the many dangers left unresolved in the last chapter. How long would it be before the four foreign kings were able to regroup and come after him? Retaliation was a way of life. Abraham might also have regretted his decision not to keep the spoils of war to help him prepare for the inevitable attack.

So, God comes to his aid and says, "Fear not, Abram. I am a shield to you; Your very great reward." It's to say, do not fear retaliation; I am your protection. In a literal way, God tenderly acknowledges Abraham's concerns. He zeroed right in upon his immediate needs and, in effect, encouraged him to voice them aloud.

But Abraham's pent up feelings burst forth in an anguished complaint. "Oh, Lord God,… I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezar of Damascus? You have given me no children…." In unquestioning obedience, Abraham had left his father's house and wandered around as a stranger in a foreign land. He had suffered untold hardships, found himself in dire straits, placed himself in danger on several occasions, and watched the years roll by without realizing the promise of descendants. Through it all, he was silent.

Now, he speaks and bares the bitterness of his soul. "What good is any reward if I am to remain childless?" The blunt force of that question is breathtaking. In his world, a family's only future existed in an unbroken chain of parents and children. Without children, life could not be whole and blessed. Without children, Abraham and his wife might not even have a proper burial. From a practical standpoint, Abraham was apparently planning to make some such arrangements with one of his servants. Documents from the Ancient Near East do attest that a childless couple could adopt a servant or a stranger who would fulfill the required filial duties. In return, this adopted son would inherit the estate of the couple. But such plans could hardly be in keeping with the promise that God had made to him.

God wasted no time in responding to Abraham's concern. He states that the servant is not the one. Abraham's heir will not come from any outsiders. Abraham's heir will be a "son coming from your own body." This verbal promise is immediately followed by a visual experience. God asks him to count the stars. Then he adds, "So shall your offspring be." Earlier God had promised descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth, now he adds another dimension, that of innumerable stars.

God isn't just renewing the promise; He is also acknowledging the spiritual progress that Abraham has made. "Count the stars," sends one's thoughts soaring to the broad expanse of the activity of the creator. There is an immediate change of perspective as one's thought is uplifted. This was the case with Abraham, for the next line reads "...and Abraham believed the Lord." The passage that opened with despair and frustration ends with a steadfast declaration of trust.

But let's discuss the implications of 15:6, "And Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." This is one of the most quoted passages from Genesis. It is often used as a proof-text for the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone. Nonetheless, it has a context for Abraham. He is rendered as a man of faith, to whom God imputed righteousness.

This chapter began with a Word of assurance from God. Abraham responded with a cry of lament. Then, God spoke again, and Abraham believed the Lord. "And God credited it to him as righteousness." One might want to conclude that after this second Word from God, Abraham finally believed Him, and he finally got it. And God both acknowledged this and rewarded him by reckoning righteousness to him. But is that true? Hasn't Abraham believed God's Word before? Hadn't he already left hearth and home in obedience to God's demands? Hasn't he already heard these promises before? Of course, he has. Maybe, then, it would be more accurate to say that after seeing the stars, Abraham believed God, just as he had always believed God, that Abraham was, in fact, the same believer as he always had been. And God acknowledged this. In point of fact, the Hebrew can be argued both ways. So, we have to rely on the context to help us out here.

The only real new information at this point is that the seed will come from his body. It is at this point that he believes, and God reckons righteousness to him. What is it that he believes? How about God's totally unsubstantiated promise, "You shall have a child!" The words of the promise are clear. The Hebrew word for "believe" means "to have faith in;" its form includes the sense of making a personal response of confident trust in someone. It goes further than merely accepting what someone says as true; it requires active trusting. Doesn't that alone lend credence to the argument that Abraham's faith in God was his usual response, and this is simply another example of something that occurred regularly? And what does it mean to reckon "righteousness" to someone? Given the way the Hebrew is written, it probably does not mean that God regarded Abraham as a righteous man. The particular idiom that is used cannot mean that someone is regarded as something. It has to have the sense of reckoning something to someone. In this case the "something" was righteousness and God reckoned it.

So in a very real sense, something very significant has happened here. Yes, Abraham had heard God's promises before; he had even acted upon them. But, many years had passed and they remained unfulfilled. Abraham could do nothing to bring them about.

This passage is not a question of works versus faith. Abraham is not counted as righteous because he has finally earned enough spiritual extra credit. Rather, it is a matter of faith versus no faith. Abraham is being commended for his faith that despite the facts at hand, God's promises can be believed. Abraham's response is simply to be expected when God makes a promise. God is trustworthy. Abraham has rededicated himself to God's unfulfilled promises. He has essentially clawed his way back to faith following a desperate and lengthy inner struggle. For this, he deserves the recognition of righteousness. This is not an explanation of the nature of faith; this is a journey of the fight of faith. God's delays are not denials, and he prevailed.

God identified himself as Abraham's benefactor, the one who brought him out of Ur. And then he renewed His promise of land. Once again, Abraham asks, "Oh, Lord, how will I know?" God responded with an incredible sign, an intricate symbolic ceremony. Scholars think the form of this covenant is modeled after a royal land-grant treaty, common in the Ancient Near East, whereby a king would bestow a gift upon a servant or vassal for some reason.

Abraham is told to bring three, three-year old animals and two birds. These five are the animals that will be used later on as acceptable sacrifices. Animals that are three-years old are considered full grown and acceptable for sacrifice. As soon as he brought the animals, he cut them up and arranged them in pairs, one bird on each side. Then he waited.

The person initiating the covenant would pass between the animals, as if to say: like these animals, so may I be cut up if I break this covenant. While the idea of God taking an oath is very problematic, it would have made a great deal of sense to Abraham. God was letting him know that He was willing to enter into a covenant with him, using a form similar to the one by which humans sealed their bargains. Abraham would understand that from now on, nothing could stand in the way of God's promises.

So he waits—all day! Abraham is sitting out in the hot sun with these cut up animals awaiting the sign from God. Birds of prey start circling above, drawn by the fresh kill. The delay suggests that while God's covenant was sure, it would take some time. More years would pass before Abraham would have his heir, and many more years would pass before his descendants would inherit the land.

Finally, evening comes, Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and a great sense of dread falls upon him. Whatever its cause, God responds by clarifying His promises. Earlier, He had said that the land would be given to Abraham, but now it becomes clear that his descendants will be the ones to inherit it after 400 years of enslavement and oppression. To impress upon Abraham the fact that He is speaking in certainties, not probabilities, God says, "Know for certain…." For his part, however, Abraham would go to his fathers in peace, having peace of mind, knowing that he would live to a ripe old age.

Now the covenant is consummated. Under the cover of darkness, the fiery elements of smoke and fire pass through the pieces. These are traditional representatives of the divine presence. Abraham does not pass through the pieces. He is a passive observer. He is also not assuming any of the obligations; he is merely the recipient of the promises. The one who passes through the pieces is binding himself under the punishment of death to fulfill the promises. This was a unilateral agreement, but now Abraham has a solemn assurance that the promises are forever sure.

They would be given the land of ten nations, within the land of Canaan proper. But the geographical extent of the territory extended beyond Canaan. In actuality, it describes the outer limits of David's kingdom that lasted only one generation. Yet, it is clear that by the end of this chapter, the promise of an heir and of land is assured. Everything seems so certain, so clear, and so perfect.