A Promise to Abram
Lesson Text: Genesis 15:1-6, 12-18
Background Scripture: Genesis 15
Devotional Reading: Hebrews 11:8-12
Genesis 15:1-6, 12-18
1 After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
2 And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
6 And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
12 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.
13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
15 And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.
16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.
18 In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.
To show that God made a covenant to give Abram uncountable descendants and a land they would one day possess.
To confirm that God is able and willing to fulfill every promise He makes.
To teach that God makes promises that only He can fulfill. He is reliable and can be trusted to honor His word.
Through Isaiah Yahweh said, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isa. 46:9,10).
This truth is well illustrated in the events of Christ’s birth. The means (Isa.7:14), location (Mic. 5:2), and circumstances (Jer. 31:15) of His arrival were prophesied hundreds of years previous. As Paul said, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). His primary purpose for coming was to be “wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5) and to have “laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6) by being an offering for sin” (v. 10).
For this to occur, the nation, Israel, had to be prepared, which sprang from Abraham (Gen. 17:5).
Although Messiah’s coming was planned from eternity (Eph.1:4,5; 1 Pet. 1:18-20; Rev. 13:8), it was with Abram that God’s plan began to take shape visibly.
TIME: about 2085 B.C.
In last week’s lesson we learned that Abram made a questionable move by taking Lot with him after God called Abram to leave behind both the land and his father’s household (Gen. 12:1-5). As the men traveled together, they accumulated such great possessions that they could not dwell in the same region. Quarreling among their herdsmen eventually led the two to part ways (13:5-12). Lot and his family settled in the region of Sodom.
Subsequently, certain kings waged war against the city of Sodom and the surrounding area (Genesis 14:1-16). Lot and his family were captured. This put Abram in the difficult position of attempting a rescue mission. Failure and death would have meant the collapse of the promise from God that all nations would be blessed through Abram.
Yet God prospered Abram, and the rescue mission succeeded. Lot and his family returned to their houses, and Abram was established as a powerful man throughout the region. But such power could be threatening to the local populace. By flexing his power, Abram became exposed to retaliation by the kings. By securing Lot, Abram imperiled his own position. But God knew how to respond to this situation.
PROMISE RESTATED (Genesis 15:1-6)
1. How did God communicate with Abram on this occasion? How is God Abram’s Shield and exceeding great reward? (Genesis 15:1)
God’s first words “fear not”imply that Abram is afraid of something—perhaps he was afraid that the kings would seek retaliation against him for his exploits, as noted in the Lesson Background. God can respond to Abram’s insecurity in a variety of ways. He can reprimand Abram for bringing Lot along in the first place. He can give Abram the silent treatment and allow him to stew in his own juices of insecurity. He can congratulate Abram for his great military potential and encourage him to accomplish whatever he puts his mind to. But God does none of these things. Instead, He calms Abram’s fears with a reminder that God alone is the source of Abram’s protection (shield) and prosperity (great reward).
In identifying himself as Abram’s shield, God informs Abram that his security is not rooted in military prowess or in strategic alliances with neighboring peoples. This is an important lesson that the Israelites of the future will forget. In identifying himself as Abram’s reward, God is affirming Abram’s decision in Genesis 14:21-24 not to keep the spoils of war that were rightfully his according to ancient custom. In that act, Abram showed his trust in God as his source of prosperity.
Our Only Certain Protection
After America’s Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s, the U.S. government enacted numerous regulations for the nation’s financial structure. The idea was to reassure Americans that “it can’t happen again.” But it did happen again! The Great Recession that began in 2007 came in spite of those regulations. We learned (once again) that no matter how many rules we make, bad things can still happen. We found that neither the stock nor housing markets go up forever, and that looking to them for security is an exercise in vain faith. We found that no job is secure, no investment is certain, and no one is safe from the ingenuity of greedy people.
Many Christians who thought they were prepared to sail through rough economic seas found their boats taking on water. Many also found that their faith in God and help from their church family kept them afloat when the collapsing economy threatened to swamp them. Even in the midst of economic downturns, God shows himself to be our shield and great reward.
Abram lived a life of vulnerability. God did not remove that vulnerability, but reassured him that his vulnerability was not as great as God’s ability to protect him. It’s a lesson most of us have to keep learning over and over. —C. R. B.
2. What was the fearful response of Abram concerning his heir? What was God’s response? (vs. 2-4)
Protection and possessions are not Abram’s only concerns. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity to converse with God by raising a larger issue: it appears that the heir to his possessions and the promise will be a household steward, a certain “Eliezer of Damascus” (v. 2).
However, God makes it clear that Eliezer will not be Abram’s successor (v. 4). On the contrary, Abram’s own child-to-be will be the heir. Notice, however, what God does not say: He does not say who will be the mother. In ancient society, it is common practice that if a man’s wife cannot have children, then a man may have children through one or more of his wife’s servants (as in Genesis 30:1-6). This possibility will indeed be tried by Abram and Sarai before God later reveals that Sarai will be the mother (17:15,16).
3. How many descendants were promised to Abraham as his seed? (v. 5)
When God challenged Abram to count the stars, He wanted him to realize how large the number of his descendants would be. God wanted Abram to see that just as he could not accurately count the stars because there were so many, so he would never truly comprehend how many descendants he would have. Abram believed God, and he counted it to him for righteousness.
4. What does it mean that Abram’s faith was counted for righteousness? (v. 6)
Since God originally made His promise to Abram, this man Abram, has relocated to a distant country, avoided a drought by laying over in Egypt, and secured an improbable military victory. Yet Abram still seems no closer to having an heir. Even so, Abram believes God! The God who has taken him thus far will finish what He began. This kind of faith is an example for God’s people in all generations (Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Galatians 3:6).
Abram’s righteousness is not based on the number of sacrifices he offers, prayers he prays, victories he wins, or deeds he performs. His right standing before God is rooted in his unwavering faith that God keeps His promises. This does not mean, of course, that Abram’s deeds are irrelevant. If Abram had never put one foot in front of the other in response to his beliefs, had he not packed up and headed for Canaan to begin with, then his belief in God’s faithfulness would have proven hollow (James 2:20-24).
The Working Of Faith—simple belief of what God has said, because He is true; casting all care upon Him. No merit in this. Faith is the channel, not the source of justification. By the look of faith the dying Israelites lived (Num. 21:9), but the healing was from God. God offers salvation freely (John 7:37; Rev. 22:17), because He loves us even while in our sins (Ephes. 2:4). What hinders that love from being effectual is unbelief. Many “believe a lie”—e.g. that they must become better before they can believe (cf. Acts 15:1). Primary lesson of practical Christianity is that we must begin by receiving, not by giving; must learn to believe His word because it is His word. This delivers from the spirit of bondage (Rom. 8:15), and enables to ask with confidence (Rom. 8:32). And this faith is counted for righteousness.
ENSLAVEMENT PREDICTED (Genesis 15:12-16)
5. How long would Abram’s descendents be enslaved and afflicted in a foreign land? (vs. 12,13)
After being declared righteous by faith (v. 6), Abram was reassured that he would certainly inherit the land he had been promised. God initiates a ceremony to affirm the covenant. This involves animal sacrifice (15:9-11).
Yet the ceremony is not quite complete. God brings a deep sleep on Abram, perhaps one like Adam experienced before God fashioned Eve from his rib (Genesis 2:21,22). But Adam’s “deep sleep” is not described as coming with the horror we see here. The language used perhaps reflects that what Abram is about to learn may not be pleasant.
Indeed, the news is not pleasant. Abram’s descendants will not possess the land of Canaan in any real sense for hundreds of years. First, they will be strangers in someone else’s land. Not only that, their hosts in that land will subjugate them for four centuries.
This is an important lesson for Abram to learn: he must show patience with God. Abram must operate on God’s timetable. God has long-term plans.
6. What did God say He would do to deliver His people from bondage? (v. 14)
Abram probably does not welcome this news of long-term enslavement. Yet God’s justice and concern for His people will be made evident when He resolves this ominous development. God will bring justice on the oppressors and will use those oppressors to prosper His people with material abundance. At the end of Genesis and beginning of Exodus, we learn that the Egyptians are those oppressors.
Abram is learning what Paul affirms many centuries later in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” This does not mean that our every experience will be enjoyable. But it does mean that God is sovereign and that ultimately He will keep all of His promises to us.
However, It is not for Abraham to experience personally the enslavement of God’s people (verse 15 of today’s lesson). Though there will be additional struggles ahead, Abram will live many more decades and die peacefully at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:7).
7. Why did God allow His people to suffer prolonged hardship? (v. 16)
The reason that God allows His people to suffer prolonged hardship is stated in verse 16. Apparently, the sin of those currently inhabiting the Promised Land has not yet reached a point that warrants their removal from the land. Note that the term Amorites is used interchangeably with Canaanites in Joshua 7:7-9. Canaan is described as the father of the Amorites in Genesis 10:15,16.
Here again God shows His justice. It is a mistake to assume that God so favors His people that He is willing to bulldoze whoever may be in their way in order to accomplish what He wants. God so honors the dignity of the people living in Canaan that He refuses to punish them prematurely. Even though God knows He will eventually drive them from the land, He does not “cut to the chase” in order to execute His edict before it is justified.
Thus God is in no rush with Abram and Sarai. God has a long time to work out His plans for His people. Of course, God could simply leave Abram and his descendants in Ur or Haran for another 400 years before the time is ripe. But God deems this faith-building process, this long, drawn out struggle, as essential to their formation as a people.
God has infinite wisdom. God knows that a people that wanders without a home and that suffers the shackles of slavery will be best suited to be the kind of blessing to all nations that He is calling them to become.
COVENANT MADE (Genesis 15:17,18)
8. Historically, how has God fulfilled his promise to Abram? (vs. 17,18)
God now provides Abram the sign he requested “Whereby shall I know?” (Genesis 15:8, not in today’s text). Abram is not demanding a sign in order to believe, but rather, after and on account of having believed. God now gives Abram a sign related to faith. According to ancient practice, the two parties of a covenant or treaty split animals in two, and then both pass through the middle of the animals as a sign to one another that they will not forsake their commitment. In passing between the parts, each party is essentially saying, “If I drop my end of the bargain, may I become like these animals here” (compare Jeremiah 34:18).
It is noteworthy that Abram does not pass between the pieces; only the symbols of God’s presence do so. The symbol of a smoking furnace resembles the oven used for baking offerings in Leviticus 2:4. The symbol of a burning lamp might reflect God’s judgment as in Job 41:19 and Zechariah 12:6.
Though Abram has an important part to play, the primary role for him and his descendants is to bear witness to God’s fulfillment of His promises for His people and the world. This serves as an important reminder to Abram that it is not his job to engineer the fulfillment of God’s promise to him, but to wait on God’s timing and God’s strategy for fulfilling it.
God and Abram are not equal partners, as in human-to-human covenants. And so it is yet today: our primary role is to respond faithfully to the tasks that God has given us and not try to remake the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19,20) according to our liking.
In verse 18 of today’s lesson, God reiterates His commitment to Abram: God will give the promised land to Abram’s seed. This is all that Abram needs to know. Though he may want more, he will have to take God at His word—first spoken orally and now enacted in human terms with the kind of covenant ceremony with which Abram is familiar.
Directly to the east of the promised land is a massive desert that separates Babylon from Canaan. Directly to the west is the Mediterranean Sea. So the only two borders Abram needs in order to identify the land of promise is one to the north, which is the river Euphrates, and one to the south, which is the river of Egypt.
The river mentioned likely does not refer to the Nile River, but to a smaller, seasonal river. This is perhaps Wadi el-Arish, which serves as the traditional Egyptian border (see also Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:4).
1.Obedient believers can expect God’s rewards (Genesis 15:1).
2.Questions can either demonstrate our doubt or demonstrate our faith (vs. 2,3).
3.God answers every question to which we truly need an answer (vs. 4,5; cf. Deut. 29:29).
4.God recognizes true faith and always rewards it (Gen. 15:6; cf. Heb. 11:6).
5.God always keeps His promises, but those promises do not preclude trials and tribulations (Gen. 15:12-14).
6.The covenant-keeping God rules over all of history (Gen. 15:15-18; cf. Ps. 103:19).
Any special privilege or fulfilled promise that God’s chosen people experienced in Old Testament times was to serve the greater good of the human race in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. God’s people were not protected and treasured for their own sake, but for the sake of the nations, so they may become a blessing to all nations.
Yet sometimes being a blessing meant that God’s chosen people had to suffer. The Israelites had to suffer in Egypt, the prophets had to suffer at the hands of the wicked, and God’s only Son had to suffer and die on the cross. In light of this bigger biblical picture, all notions of a God who “plays favorites” so that only this or that people group experiences pain and judgment should be dismissed.
Followers of Christ are especially aware of this. When Christ bids us to follow Him, He first bids us to take up our cross (Luke 9:23). This includes suffering in various ways, but it is the kind of suffering that pales in light of the eternal joy set before us in Christ.
Patient Lord, please teach us Your patience and to seek Your approval. It is so difficult for us to submit our busy schedules to Your timetable. We desire instant results, visible progress, and tangible guarantees.
Yet, out of Your grace You rescue us from our faithless, “walk by sight” desires. Instead of giving us what we want, You give us what we need and what is best. Thank You for this gift. In Jesus’ name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Embrace the Lord’s timing.