So far we have looked at the account of creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, the flood, God’s covenant, the Tower of Babel, how nations were formed and the move that would bring Abram from the mouth of the Euphrates, to Canaan. We saw how lot and Abram parted, and how Abram rescued Lot when the kings from the north attacked.

We saw at the end of our last study that even though the Lord had given Abram a great victory, and had blessed him again, Abram had a question – perhaps even a doubt. So now we read Genesis 15:

1After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

‘Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.’

2 But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ 3 And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’

What does ‘the word of the Lord’ mean here? (a vision is something we see – not hear!) Verse 2 suggests that Abram was replying to a visible person – perhaps Jesus? (See John 8: 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57 ‘You are not yet fifty years old,’ they said to him, ‘and you have seen Abraham!’ 58 ‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’)

It is worth noticing that the vision was not over quickly, there was discussion and the whole episode lasted into the night (v17). So how can we understand the word ‘vision’?

The Lord recognized that his appearance to Abram would be frightening. Many times when heavenly beings show themselves to humans they start by saying ‘don’t be afraid’!

Now he confirms to Abram:

    - I am your shield

    - I am your very great reward

This prompts Abram to come out with his great doubt:

What was that? Lord, you told me in Genesis 12:2 that you are going to make me into a great nation, and in Genesis 13:16 that my offspring will be too numerous to count – but I don’t have any children.

What’s more, you’ve left it too late now – we’re both too old.

Waiting for the Lord to act is very difficult. Especially when the ‘opportune moment’ has long past. We believed that the Lord was going to act but now it’s too late, so we’d better sort out something for ourselves. And that always seems to be second best, and could actually cause a lot of trouble. (And so it would be for Abram – Chapter 16)

Remember Saul in 1 Samuel 13:13,14 when he had decided he couldn’t wait for Samuel any more: 13 ‘You have done a foolish thing,’ Samuel said. ‘You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.’

I guess that Abram had made a will (or its equivalent), and as he had no heir he had specified that his chief servant (verse 3 and 24:2) would inherit the business – at least then his name would continue through that.

4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ 5 He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’

Again note ‘the word of the Lord’ . . .  ‘He took him outside

This is not ‘voices in his head’ but a real person, talking to Abram, taking him outside: and he is called ‘the word of the Lord’. I think that this has to be a Theophany, where God, or Jesus takes on a physical form in order to show himself to people.

Again the Lord repeats his promise to Abram – now, will he believe it?

If you were Abram, what conflicting thoughts would you have as you stood looking at the stars?

Abram makes a decision:

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Now read Romans 3:21-22

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Romans 4:1-3 

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’

Gal 3:26, 29 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, .  .  . 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

That was a momentous moment, not only for Abram, but also for us too!

But, like us, having ‘made a decision’ for God, Abram still had questions – and doubts:

7 He also said to him, ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’

8 But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?’

God is not disappointed in us if we have doubts and fears. He made us and he knows us, and he knows that sometimes faith and doubt go hand-in-hand.

Abram had settled in Hebron and by now felt quite at home there. But there is a vast difference between feeling accepted in a strange land, and owning it! How on earth could Abram (in his eighties) ever imagine ‘taking possession of it’?

Abram really does believe God, but he still asks God:    what?

(How can I know?)

God could have said ‘It is sufficient that you trust me’ – but that wouldn’t have been too helpful.

9 So the Lord said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’

These were all animals which would be used in sacrifice – but this sacrifice was to have another significance.

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

What is all that about?

It’s all about making a covenant, or signing a contract. In ancient times, an animal was cut in half, and the pieces separated. The two parties to the covenant would walk between the pieces, or stand between them and make the covenant with each other. The symbolism was that if either party broke the covenant, then they would expect to be cut in half as punishment. Effectively God will be stating on oath to Abraham that he will keep his covenant.

Interestingly the word used in Hebrew for ‘Make a covenant’ is ‘to cut, cut down, cut off’ – to ‘cut a covenant’.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and ill-treated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’

Firstly, God allows Abram an insight into the future, perhaps specifically to demonstrate that it will be many years before God’s plans will come to fruition. Perhaps Abram had expected to see all this in his lifetime! (Actually it will still be another fifteen years before Isaac is born) It is also an amazing insight into the times and purposes of God ‘for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.’

The Lord confirmed the same to Moses as he led the Children of Israel towards the Promised Land Exodus 23:23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

Who were these people? See Genesis 10v15-18 and remember Genesis 9:25

God knew, even when Canaan was a child, that eventually his descendants would fill with idolatry the land he had earmarked for Israel. Because of this, and his knowledge of the potential fickleness of the Israelites, he could not allow them to live together as the ‘Children of Israel’ grew into a nation. Only when the time was right could they be allowed to take over the land, driving the inhabitants out.

But Abram was still left with the problem of a wife, Sarai, who had been barren all her life and by now was far too old to have children anyway.

Sarai had an idea which she thought would help God provide an heir for Abram.

Is it a good idea to help God provide the answer to our prayers?

(The next study Genesis 16 is a short one and could be added here).

Genesis 16Genesis 14

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Genesis 15:1-21 God’s Covenant with Abram