Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
GENESIS 13-15: THE CONTEXT
In chapter 13, Abram and Lot separated because “The land was not able to bear them, that they might live together: for their substance was great, so that they could not live together. There was a strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock” (13:6-7). Abram allowed Lot to choose the left hand or the right (13:9) with the result that “Abram lived in the land of Canaan, and Lot lived in the cities of the plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom.” (13:12). The narrator states ominously, “Now the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against Yahweh. ” (13:13).
In chapter 14, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah found themselves on the losing end of a great battle (14:10). “They took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their food, and went their way. They took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed” (14:11-12). When Abram learned of this, he assembled “his trained men…three hundred and eighteen, and pursued ” (14:14). He defeated the enemy and rescued Lot, his goods, and all the people (14:16).
Then Abram received a blessing from the priest Melchizedek (14:17-20) and the king of Sodom gratefully offered to give Abram the booty from his raid if Abram would only return the people to him. Abram refused to keep anything beyond his expenses, lest people say that the king of Sodom had enriched him (14:21-24).
This background is of interest, because the shield in 15:2 is part of a soldier’s armament and may be related to Abram’s raid in 14:14-16—and the reward in 15:2 may be related to Abram’s refusal of booty in 14:21-24.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 poses a many challenges. There are a number of things, such as the reference to the slave Eliezer of Damascus in verse 2 and the symbolism of the ritual in verses 7-11, that we poorly understand and about which we can only make educated guesses. However, the significance of the major emphases—that Abram “He believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (v. 6) and that “Yahweh made a covenant with Abram” (v. 18) are clear enough.
GENESIS 15:1-6: ABRAM BELIEVED IN YAHWEH
1After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” 2Abram said, “Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, since I go childless, and he who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3Abram said, “Behold, to me you have given no seed: and, behold, one born in my house is my heir.” 4Behold, the word of Yahweh came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir.”5Yahweh brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So shall your seed be.” 6He believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.
“After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision,” (v. 1a). The phrase, “after these things,” connects what follows with the events of chapters 13-14.
“Don’t be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (v. 1b). People are often fearful upon finding themselves in the presence of the Lord. We are reminded in particular of the angels using these words to reassure Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds (Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10). God or God’s messenger often uses these words to encourage people facing danger (21:17; 26:24; 46:3). God does not pose a danger to Abram, but is instead Abram’s shield. Soldiers use shields to deflect the weapons of their enemies. Abram can surely identify with this “God is my shield” metaphor, having just returned from battle (14:14-16). To use a shield requires skill, but having God as one’s shield places the initiative in God’s capable hands. The outcome depends on God, and therefore is certain.
“your exceedingly great reward” (v. 1c). Rewards are usually given in recognition of commendable behavior, but God doesn’t specify here which of Abram’s behaviors he is rewarding. Earlier Abram obeyed the command to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house (12:1) and God promised to make of him a great nation and to bless him (12:2-3). Most recently, Abram declined to take goods from the king of sinful Sodom, saying, “I have lifted up my hand to Yahweh, God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread nor a sandal strap nor anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich'” (14:22-23). Most likely, God is rewarding both of these behaviors.
“Lord Yahweh, what will you give me, since I go childless” (v. 2a). No reward can have any meaning for Abram in the absence of a legitimate heir—someone to inherit his wealth and to carry on his name. Abram is already wealthy (13:2), so additional wealth won’t change his lifestyle. What he needs is not more sheep or land, but an heir.
What is remarkable here is Abram’s willingness to question (or challenge) God at the very moment that God is offering to reward him. Abram’s question shows that his childless condition is very much on his mind. It also shows that he is comfortable enough in the presence of God to raise this question.
“and he who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (v. 2b). This has provoked a great deal of scholarly debate. First, there are questions of translation that go beyond the scope of this exegesis (see Hamilton, 420-422; Wenham, 328). Second, we know nothing of Eliezer other than this and the following verse. Third, we are not sure about the custom that would result in Eliezer being Abram’s heir. From extra-Biblical sources, we know that the Nuzi tribe from Mesopotamia allowed a childless couple to adopt a slave who would then become responsible for assuming the responsibilities of a son—caring for the couple in their old age, seeing to their proper burial, and mourning them following their death. The adopted slave would then assume the right of inheritance (Hamilton, 420; Wenham, 329). We have no reason to believe that Abram has adopted Eliezer, but he has obviously considered it as a last resort.
“Behold, to me you have given no seed: and, behold, one born in my house is my heir.” (v. 3). This is where we learn that Eliezer is Abram’s slave and was born in his house. God has promised to make of Abram a great nation (12:2), but has failed even to give him a son. There is a great distance between God’s promise and Abram’s reality.
“This man will not be your heir, but he who will come out of your own body will be your heir” (v. 4). God reassures Abram that he will, indeed, have a son who will become his heir. At this point, God could fulfill this promise by having Abram father a child by someone other than Sarai. Not until 17:16 does God specify that the mother of the child will be Sarah.
“Yahweh brought him outside, and said, ‘Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ He said to Abram, ‘So shall your seed be’” (v. 5). Earlier God promised, “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth” (13:16). Now he promises to make Abram’s descendants like the stars of the sky.
Both metaphors (dust and stars) suggest numbers beyond comprehension—beyond human counting. A shepherd accustomed to walking unpaved pathways with a flock of sheep would be intimately acquainted with dust—with its pervasiveness and endless quantity. He would also be accustomed to seeing stars on very dark nights. There would be no light pollution to spoil his vision of an otherwise perfectly dark sky lighted by millions of tiny points of light.
Stars are a more attractive metaphor than dust—we don’t like dust, but we do like stars. Also stars have a permanence that dust doesn’t enjoy. Dust gets kicked around and blown about so that you can never tell where a particular grain of dust will be tomorrow. The stars, on the other hand, are immanently steadfast. An astronomer can predict with great accuracy exactly where a given star will be at any given time.
“And he believed the Yahweh” (v. 6a). This is a key moment in the text—in the Bible—in human history. Abram decides to trust the promise rather than the evidence. God has been faithful to him in many ways, so he believes that God will be faithful to him in this way as well.
Verses 1-3 and 4-6 have a similar structure. “In each there is a promise and a response. The promises are the same in substance. But the two responses are very different” (Brueggemann, 144).
In the next chapter, Abram will seem to waver. At Sarai’s behest, he will go in with Hagar and she will conceive and bear a child (16:4). It will seem that Abram has decided to take the initiative—to force the issue—to remove the matter from God’s hands. However, we must remember that God has not yet told Abraham that Sarai will be the mother of his child. When Sarai insists that Abram have a child with Hagar, he might believe that she has discovered God’s plan. At Ishmael’s birth he will be eighty-six years old (16:15), and it will have been many years since God first began making promises. Best to get on with it! Of course, as it turns out, it isn’t best at all. Ishmael isn’t God’s plan. He will turn out to be “like a wild donkey among men. His hand will be against every man” (16:12). Hagar will regard Sarai with contempt, and Sarai will force Hagar to leave (16:6). It will be thirteen years before God brings up the subject again (17:1).
“and he reckoned (hasab) it to him for righteousness” (sedaqa) (v. 6b). Hasab “means ‘to assign…value; in this case the Lord assigns Abram’s faith the value of righteousness” (Mathews, 167). It is as if a beneficent creditor has decided to wipe the debtor’s slate clean—a matter of pure grace.
In the Old Testament, righteousness (sedaqa) is something most often achieved by compliance with Jewish law. However, God has not yet transmitted the law to Moses, so there is no law for Abram to observe. Yahweh is reckoning Abram as righteous, even though there are not yet any standards by which Abram’s conduct could be judged as righteous.
The New Testament spells out the implications of Abram’s belief:
• “By faith (Abram) received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11; see also Hebrews 11:8-22).
• Just as Abram received righteousness as a gift, so also we “being justified freely by (God’s) grace” (Romans 3:24). Paul says,
“For what does the Scripture say?
‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’
Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace,
but as something owed.
But to him who doesn’t work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly,
his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:3-5).
Paul goes on to note that God did this reckoning before Abram was circumcised.
“He received the sign of circumcision…
that he might be the father of all those who believe,
though they might be in uncircumcision,
that righteousness might also be accounted to them.
He is the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision,
but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham,
which he had in uncircumcision” (Romans 4:11-12; see also 4:13—5:11).
• Paul also says:
“We, being Jews by nature, and not Gentile sinners,
yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ,
even we believed in Christ Jesus,
that we might be justified by faith in Christ,
and not by the works of the law,
because no flesh will be justified by the works of the law…..
For I, through the law, died to the law, that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ,
and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.
That life which I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me,
and gave himself up for me. I don’t make void the grace of God.
For if righteousness is through the law,
then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:15-16, 19-21).
GENESIS 15:7-11. I AM YAHWEH
7He said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.”
8He said, “Lord Yahweh, how will I know that I will inherit it?”
9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all of these, and divided them in the middle, and laid each half opposite the other; but he didn’t divide the birds. 11The birds of prey came down on the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
“I am Yahweh who brought you of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it” (v. 7). God began this conversation with Abram by identifying himself, “I am your shield” (v. 1). Now God identifies himself, “I am Yahweh who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees.” God will use nearly identical words in speaking to Moses, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).
“Lord Yahweh, how will I know that I will inherit it?” (v. 8). Given Abram’s faith, it seems odd that he would require a sign to confirm God’s promise. It shows that even people of great faith sometimes waver—that is the human condition.
“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (v. 9). God does not rebuke Abram for requesting a sign. Jesus will be less charitable when asked for a sign (Matthew 12:38; 16:4; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:29)—but he will be dealing with religious authorities who oppose him rather than a man of simple faith like Abram.
The five animals listed here will all be part of the Jewish sacrificial system. Sacrificing animals three years old is unusual, however. Jewish law will call for animals one year old (Exodus 29:38; Leviticus 9:3) (Mathews, 170).
“He brought him all these, and divided them in the middle, and laid each half opposite the other; but he didn’t divide the birds” (v. 10). This is a unique ceremony, described without explanation. It doesn’t involve burning by fire, so it doesn’t correspond to the temple sacrifices with which we are familiar in later Jewish history. Tucker refers to it as a covenant ritual rather than a sacrifice (Tucker, 142).
The only Biblical parallel to this ceremony is Jeremiah 34:17-20, where the Lord said:
“Therefore thus says Yahweh:
You have not listened to me, to proclaim liberty,
every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbor:
behold, I proclaim to you a liberty, says Yahweh,
to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine;
and I will make you to be tossed back and forth among all the kingdoms of the earth.
I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant,
who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before me,
when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts;
the princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem,
the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land,
who passed between the parts of the calf;
I will even give them into the hand of their enemies,
and into the hand of those who seek their life;
and their dead bodies shall be for food
to the birds of the sky, and to the animals of the earth.”
The primary thrust of the passage from Jeremiah is judgment on unfaithful Judah. It refers in passing to a ritual where officials pass between the parts of a slain calf—probably to ratify a covenant. The ceremony may be intended to illustrate “the consequences on the parties should they violate the oath” (Roop, 113)—i.e., may be the equivalent of saying, “May I be as this slain calf if I fail to live up to the provisions of this covenant.” In Jeremiah God says that he will make the officials of Judah like that split calf—i.e., God uses the calf as a symbol for harsh judgment.
However, the circumstances in Genesis are quite different from those in Jeremiah. Abram is faithful, while the officials of Judah will be unfaithful. The ceremony in Genesis might be intended to confirm a covenant (we aren’t certain), while the ceremony in Jeremiah is a symbol for the punishment of the unfaithful.
“The birds of prey came down on the carcasses, and Abram drove them away” (v. 11). Again, we can only guess at the meaning of this verse. Birds of prey, of course, are fearsome creatures, swooping down from the sky at blinding speeds to snatch small animals and fly away. By Jewish law, they are unclean (Leviticus 11:13). Carrion feeders such as vultures are even more fearsome because of the gruesome nature of their feast. This verse might involve vultures since the animal that they seek to eat (the slain calf) is dead. Abram demonstrates responsibility and courage in driving the birds away.
It is worth noting that the prophets use the phrase, “birds of prey,” to convey the idea of a terrible judgment (Isaiah 18:6; Jeremiah 12:9; Ezekiel 39:4). “Birds of prey” can also mean foreign nations, such as Egypt (Ezekiel 17:3; Zechariah 5:9) (Hamilton, 433).
GENESIS 15:12. A DEEP SLEEP FELL ON ABRAM
12When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. Now terror and great darkness fell on him.
This is obviously not ordinary sleep, but is instead preparation for the vision that will follow in verses 17-18. “terror and great darkness” sounds as if it describes more than the physical darkness. Most of us have experienced a deep and terrifying darkness at some point in our lives—a spiritual or psychological state involving fear or despair.
GENESIS 15:13-16. KNOW THIS FOR SURE
13He said to Abram, “Know for sure that your seed will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them. They will afflict them four hundred years. 14I will also judge that nation, whom they will serve. Afterward they will come out with great wealth, 15but you will go to your fathers in peace. You will be buried in a good old age. 16In the fourth generation they will come here again, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.”
These verses, not included in the lectionary reading, were probably inserted into the text later. They tell of Israel’s Egyptian enslavement and the Exodus—events that will take place centuries in the future.
GENESIS 15:17-18. IN THAT DAY YAHWEH MADE A COVENANT WITH ABRAM
17It came to pass that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18In that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.
“It came to pass that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (v. 17). In Israel, animal sacrifices are made during daylight hours, but this ceremony takes place at night. The smoking fire pot and flaming torch are symbols for God—like the pillars of cloud and fire by which God will lead Israel through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22) or the smoke at Sinai (Exodus 19:18; 20:18).
Extra-Biblical sources shed light on the ceremony (see Hamilton, 430-432; Mathews, 172-173). In Mesopotamia, Nuzis ratified covenants by slaughtering an animal and laying out the pieces in this fashion. They would then walk between the pieces, perhaps signifying that God should make them as these dead animals if they failed to live up to their part of the covenant. However, the Genesis ceremony is one-sided. Abram does not pass between the pieces, but the smoking fire pot and flaming torch do.
“In that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (v. 18). In chapter 12, God promised Abram “this land”—meaning either Canaan as a whole or just the land around Shechem (12:7). In chapter 13, when Abram remained in Canaan after separating from Lot, God said to Abram, “Now, lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land which you see, I will give to you, and to your offspring forever…. Arise, walk through the land in its length and in its breadth; for I will give it to you” (13:14-15, 17). In 15:18 God expands the promise to include the land from the border of Egypt to the Euphrates River.
The river of Egypt mentioned here is not the Nile but rather a wadi (a streambed that is usually dry except during the rainy season) that marks the boundary between Egypt and Canaan—perhaps the Wadi of Egypt (1 Kings 8:65). The Euphrates, however, lays hundreds of miles to the east, so the territory defined by this verse is very large. Only during the reign of King David and King Solomon will Israel extend its borders to the Euphrates (1 Kings 4:21-25).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, in Van Harn, Roger, E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan