In this episode God comes to Abram and reaffirms his promise that he will become a great nation even though he is without a child and is a wonderer in a country that is not his own. God "cuts" a covenant with him and promises that if he is not faithful to this covenant He will be cut in two. This is a fascinating ritual that they practiced in Abram's day to show the seriousness of the agreement they were making. And so God makes this covenant with Abram to demonstrate the seriousness with which God is making this promise.
The LORD’s Unconditional Promise to Abram
15 Some time later, the LORD spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.”
We can infer that Abrams was afraid living as a foreigner in the land. The LORD makes this promise and because Abram believes the LORD, he can live without fear. The LORD loves him and is going to care for him. He can live joyfully in this knowledge. What was Abram afraid of? “After this” refers to the war he was involved with. He is living in a foreign land and was called the one who crossed over. He is afraid because he is a foreigner and subject to attack. He is not a warrior but a pastoralist. He was afraid that he
would never have a child. Maybe he was wondering if leaving Ur was the right thing to have done. Doubt was nipping at his faith.
2 But Abram replied, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son?
Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth.
3 You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.”
Abram responded by arguing with The LORD. He will do so again in chapter 18 over the destruction of Sodom. This is the hallmark of an authentic relationship, the freedom to agree to disagree without threatening the relationship. When disagreement causes rejection, the relationship is under threat. To make sure that The LORD gets his point, Abram repeats his complaint. Notice that he even holds the LORD responsible for the calamity of his lack of an heir. This is a real argument, but it will have a resolution. Debates seldom resolve issues but dialogues have a resolution in mind and enrich the
relationship. Debate is making your point; dialogue is attempting to understand the other’s point. This is a similar situation to Jacob’s trouble when he wrestled with his assailant for a blessing.
4 Then the LORD said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.”
5 Then the LORD took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and
count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”
Abram never realized this promise. Imagine his surprise on the new earth when he discovers the whole earth is possessed by his uncountable descendants. Abram wanted one son and the LORD gave him millions of sons. This parallels the thief on the cross. He asks to be remembered and the LORD promised his eternity in person.
6 And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted him as righteous because of his faith.
What did Abram believe that dealt with his fear? He believed The LORD’s word to him, his promise to him of uncountable descendants and possessing the land. Abram believed The LORD knew him by name,that he was precious to The LORD, that The LORD did not hold his many mistakes against him. He believed that The LORD had great affection for him. The covenant process is now repeated, The LORD makes his unconditional promise, Abram questions it, The LORD confirms it and Abram believes the LORD. A faith relationship is a process. It is ongoing as any and every relationship is.
7 Then the LORD told him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” 8 But Abram replied, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” I left Ur or Haran and I own no land yet. I have no child either. 9 The LORD told him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
We know have the process of “cutting a covenant” described. This process is culturally defined (Jeremiah 34:18-19). Today, we have lawyers who describe and attest covenants or agreements in place of this covenant process from Abraham’s time. “Three” there is no “years” in the Hebrew. The three indicates rather the perfection of the animal.Female animals are fertility symbols. They are pledges of the fertility The LORD is promising Abram. For desert nomads this variety of animals includes their agricultural sources of income are included. These are sacrificial animals used in different sacrifices later in the sacrificial system.
10 So Abram presented all these to him and killed them. Then he cut each animal down the middle and laid the halves side by side; he did not, however, cut the birds in half.
11 Some vultures swooped down to eat the carcasses, but Abram chased them away.
The divided animals are symbolic of what must happen to the one who breaks his covenant promise. It is the equivalent of signing a binding legal agreement. The vultures were a threat to the covenant and by chasing them away Abram holds with or defends the covenant agreement.
12 As the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a terrifying darkness came down over him.
This darkness represents a depression or foreboding that came over Abram as it came as it came when Jesus was crucified. We would like to have the LORD operate in our timetable, but we are not in control of the LORD. Out of the darkness we know that something is about to happen.
13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. 14 But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. 15 (As for you, you will die in peace and beburied at a ripe old age.) 16 After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”
From this passage we calculate that a generation is 100 years, 400 years is 4 generations. Were the descendants of Jacob oppressed for 400 years? Did their favoured position under Joseph and his Pharaoh disappear so quickly? Did Abram feel good about the suffering his descendants would experience but the LORD would be with them.
17 After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses.
We have matches and butane lighters and do not realize the difficulty of making fire and having light in previous millennia. These symbols light and warmth indicate the comforting presence of the LORD. They indicate of the LORD’s continuing presence and care in the pillar of cloud and the column of fire for the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. Think of the burning bush, the shekinah glory and Jesus the light of the world.
The story of Abram is the story of the faithfulness of The LORD, not that of Abram as it is often perceived in our desperate attempt to find some virtue in ourselves. Our value lies in our identity as children of the LORD. It is conformed by the performance of the LORD in caring for us in a many ways, most of which we know nothing about. Abraham is the great prophet of the faithfulness of the LORD— we are not rejected if we disagree with the LORD.
18 So the LORD made a covenant with Abram that day and said, “I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River—
19 the land now occupied by the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.”
Only under king Solomon would Israel occupy the territory envisioned in the promise. These territorial boundaries existed from about 1000 BCE to 735 BCE when the Assyrians invaded the northern area and carried off the ten tribes into captivity and obscurity. They never returned as those in the southern part who were carried off by Babylon in about 600 BCE. These returned after 70 years of captivity and rebuilt the city and the temple.
Ian Hartley, March 2023