The Abrahamic Promises Confirmed
Genesis 15. The previous three chapters form one section of the life of Abraham. They deal with the call of God, and its consequences; i.e. separation (ch.12), dependence (ch.13), and glory with Christ (ch.14). The next three chapters deal with the promises of God, and faith tested as to those promises. Ch.12-14 were largely public; i.e. Abram’s testimony before the Egyptians (Gen.12:17-20), before the Canaanites and Perizzites (Gen. 13:7), and before the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:22-24). Ch.15-17 are largely personal, in which God deals especially with Abram’s soul on a personal level. In the beginning of ch.15, Abram’s thoughts rise up to the purpose of God; to give him an heir. He is told that the heir would be his own son, and that his seed would be as the stars of heaven. God then repeats the promise of the land of Canaan to Abram’s seed, and Abram asks for a sign to confirm it. God showed Abram that he would die first, and his descendants would suffer in bondage in Egypt, before God would bring them up into Canaan. But though they would suffer, God would given them light for their pathway, leading them all the way home to the promised land. Then God gives Abram the full boundaries of the land promised to his seed.
The Word of Jehovah Comes to Abram (15:1)
1 After these things the word of Jehovah came to Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, thy exceeding great reward. v.15 Abram’s Shield and Reward. The expression “After these things” marks this chapter as a new subject, although chronologically it follows the events of ch.14. This is also the first time in scripture that we have the expression “the word of Jehovah”, which later occurs 242 times in the Old Testament, always in connection with Divine revelation, and often as a test for faith; e.g. 1 Sam. 15:23; 1 Kings 20:35; Psa. 105:19; and frequently in the prophets, typically in the form of; “the word of the Lord came unto ____ saying,” or some similar expression. This will characterize the next few chapters of Abram’s history; i.e. faith tested by the Word of God. What are we going to do when the word of the Lord comes to us? Believe it like Abram, or reject it like Saul? Abram had just successfully refused the offer of the king of Sodom, who would have rewarded Abram with all the goods of Sodom. The Lord tells Abram not to fear, and that He would be his “shield”, for protection against the Canaanites or any of the Mesopotamian kings that might retaliate against him, and his “exceeding great reward” in lieu of the goods he had refused to take from the king of Sodom’s hands. Often the Lord will do this. He will confirm some truth to us after we have acted by faith!
Seed-Promise Confirmed (15:2-6)
2 And Abram said, Lord Jehovah, what wilt thou give me? seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus. 3 And Abram said, Lo, to me thou hast given no seed, and behold, a son of my house will be mine heir. vv.2-3 The Need for A Seed. The word of the Lord to Abram brought certain thoughts into Abram’s mind about the future. God had made promises to Abram in general terms, but the fulfillment of them was obscure. Abram wanted more details. What good were the promises of land and blessing if Abram had no seed? He had three-hundred and eighteen servants, but no son. Abram knew it would all go to his servant, “this Eliezer of Damascus”. What are we to think of Abram’s question? It wasn’t the highest expression of faith, but it was faith communicating out of weakness. Yet we see that Abram’s thoughts are rising up to the thoughts of God concerning the promised seed. All the blessing was contingent on Abram having a son.
4 And behold, the word of Jehovah came to him, saying, This shall not be thine heir, but he that will come forth out of thy body shall be thine heir. v.4 Abram’s Own Seed to Inherit the Promise. A servant would not do. Abram would have a biological son, and this son would be the heir of the promises. God had not yet explained that the heir would come from Sarai as well. In the next chapter, Abram and Sarai try to bring about the fulfillment of the promise through a surrogate mother.
5 And he led him out, and said, Look now toward the heavens, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them. And he said to him, So shall thy seed be! v.5 An Inumerable Seed. Not only would Abram have a son, but his descendants would be as innumerable as “the stars” of the heavens. Every time Abram looked up into the night sky he would be reminded of God’s promise. This is an expansion of the earlier promise that Abram’s seed would be as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16). In Gen. 22:17 “the sand which is upon the sea shore” is added in connection with the stars.
Seed as the Dust, Sand, Stars. The first figure God uses to convey the numerous seed promised to Abram is the "dust of the earth", then "the stars of the heavens" and then "the sand of the sea". All three of these figures are simply used to convey to Abram that his descendants would be innumerable. The seed mentioned in each case refers to the children of Israel. When the seed is mentioned without any figure applied in Gen. 22:18, it refers to Christ. The figure of the sand does not refer to Gentiles, as some believe. Gentile blessing is only included two times: in Gen. 12:3 they are to be blessed in Abram, and in Gen. 22:18 they are to be blessed through Christ.1It is interesting that when we come to Isaac, we find that only "the stars of the heaven" is applied. Isaac represents the heavenly man on the other side of resurrection. Then when we come to Jacob, the "dust of the earth" is applied. Jacob is the father of Israel, who are called after his new name. Some conclude from this that the seed "as the dust of the earth" refers to the Jews, the seed "as stars of the heavens" refers to the Church, and that the seed "as the sand of the sea" refers to the Gentiles.234 I have no difficulty with taking this view as an application, but I do not see it to be the actual interpretation of the passages cited. If we compare the following references, the previous definitions do not fit. In Gen. 15:5, when the focus is Jewish and earthly promises, seed as the "stars" are mentioned. In Gen. 22:17 ,"stars" are mentioned when the connection is earthly, possessing the gate of their enemies. In Gen. 26:4 "stars" are again mentioned in connection with possessing countries; i.e. not a heavenly hope. Then in Gen. 32:12, seed as "the sand of the sea" is mentioned, referring to Jacob's family, the father of Israel. Furthermore, in numerous other scriptures, the figure of the stars is shown to be fulfilled in Israel, not the Church (Deut. 1:10; 10:22; 28:62; 1 Chron. 27:23; Neh. 9:23; Jer. 33:22; Heb. 11:12). In Revelation 12, the woman who gives birth to the man-child (Christ) has a crown of twelve stars on her head; an obvious reference to Israel. The same can be said of Joseph's dreams. In the second dream, the stars bowed down to Joseph, referring to his natural brethren, the children of Israel (Gen. 37:9-10). The dream was repeated twice using first sheaves then stars for confirmation, much like the dreams of Pharaoh; "as regards the double repetition of the dream to Pharaoh, it is that the thing is established by God, and God will hasten to do it" (Gen. 41:32). In conclusion, while it may be helpful to view the dust, stars, and sand as the three people groups that will come into blessing through Abraham, we should realize that it is only an application. The strict interpretation of those figures is to the Jews alone.5
6 And he believed Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. v.6 Abram Justified by Faith. God had just made Abram a promise that seemed totally impossible to the natural eye. How could Abram have innumerable descendants if he had no biological son? Yet Abram “believed Jehovah”. This is faith (see John 3:33). It is the first mention of faith in the Bible, although not the first time we see faith in action. This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (see Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Jam. 2:23). In Romans and Galatians, Paul refers back to this chapter in Genesis to show that justification is through faith alone, without the works of the law. The point is that Abram did no works, but simply believed God’s word, and God reckoned him righteous by grace. This is also the first mention we have of justification. Read more… Abram got what we call “imputed righteousness”, which is a righteous status that we are given by God if we have faith. God reckons men righteous who by practice are not righteous, but have faith in what God has said.
Is Old Testament justification the same as New Testament justification? Abraham was “justified,” but not in the full New Testament sense of justification, which involves being brought into a new position before God “in Christ” risen (Gal. 2:17). However, the principle of faith on which Old Testament saints and New Testament saints are blessed is the same, which is Paul's point here. The Old Testament saints received absolution for each sin they committed; but never were brought into a new position through the blood of Christ, because it hadn’t been shed yet. They were shut out from entering into the holiest by the separating veil. However, while justification was not revealed before the cross, God did justify anticipatively. David only knew of sins being covered (held in abeyance for one more year) as the Day of Atonement indicates (Lev. 16). But today, with the work of Christ having been accomplished, we have a fuller revelation through the Gospel as to what God has done with our sins. We know that our sins are taken away, not just covered (1 John 3:5). And now, a new and living way has been opened for us! The “offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” is complete, and we have “no more conscience of sins”!
Land-Promise Confirmed (15:7-17)
7 And he said to him, I am Jehovah who brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give thee this land to possess it. 8 And he said, Lord Jehovah, how shall I know that I shall possess it? vv.7-8 Asking for a Confirmation of the Land Promise. The Lord reminded Abram that it was He, Jehovah who had appeared to Abram in Ur and brought him out, that had promised the land of Canaan to Abram for a possession. Abram asks the Lord for a confirmation of the promise; “how shall I know that I shall possess it?” Naturally we would think that it would be harder to believe the seed-promise than the land-promise, yet Abram seems to struggle a bit more with the land-promise. It shows us that the focus is turning toward the earth, to Jewish hopes, and “Jews indeed ask for signs” (1 Cor. 1:22). Perhaps this is connected with God announcing Himself as “I am Jehovah”, which was characteristic of His relationship to Israel, not with Abram (Exodus 6:2-3). Perhaps if Abram’s faith was stronger he would not have needed a confirmation, but I do not think Abram asked this in unbelief. It was like Gideon, who asked the Lord for a sign that He would save Israel by Gideon’s hand. It wasn’t strong faith, yet it was real faith. It is wonderful that Abram’s justification is connected with a time of imperfect faith, rather than a high point such as Gen. 22. Our gracious God only requires a little faith for justification.
9 And he said to him, Take me a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. 10 And he took all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid the half of each opposite its fellow; but the birds he did not divide. 11 And the birds of prey came down on the carcases; and Abram scared them away. vv.9-11 The Sacrifice. Abram was to take three herd-animals that were three years old, and two birds, and offer them as a sacrifice. This sacrifice was a seal of the promise Jehovah had made. For the meaning of the animals divided in half, read Jer. 34:18-19. The promise would be made good to Abram’s seed through death. The animals that were killed represent the Lord Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed on the cross. In a general way, this gives us the principle that all promised blessing comes through the death of Christ. Each animal represents Christ or His work in a different aspect. The heifer represents Christ as a sinless victim (Deut. 21:1-9), the she-goat represents Christ as the sin-bearer (Num. 15:27), and the ram represents Christ as consecrated, or fully devoted to God (Ex. 29:15-26). These three represent Christ offered in death. They were three years old, perhaps representing the Divine completeness of the work. They were divided in half, with the pieces facing one another, to form a path between them. The turtle-dove and pigeon were common birds in Canaan, and they were the offerings of the poorest Israelites (Lev. 1:14; 14:22; Luke 2:24). They represent Christ’s humility, and were not divided because there were two birds. Once the pieces were arranged, the “birds of prey came down on the carcases”, attempting to scavenge from them. The animals Abram was told to offer were clean animals, but the scavengers were unclean. These birds represent the agents of Satan (Matt. 13:19; Rev. 18:2), who are seeking to defile and diminish the sacrifice of Christ. Abram worked to scare the birds away, being protective of the sacrifice which Jehovah had commanded. As an application to us, knowing that the work of Christ is the basis of all blessing, how careful we ought to be that nothing would come in and tarnish it!
12 And as the sun was just going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, a horror, a great darkness, fell upon him. v.12 A Great Darkness. As the sun was going down, God caused Abram to pass into a deep sleep, and a horror, that Abram might experience the awfulness of death, without actually dying. He was experiencing the valley of the shadow of death. He doesn’t get the blessing (vv.18-21) until he passes through the darkness. It shows that the promised blessing would come to Abram’s seed after much suffering, which the Lord explains in the following verses. It also shows us that God would devise means that Abram’s seed would inherit the promises only after death to nature had taken place. The ruin of the first man had to be exposed first, before God would allow the fulfillment of the promises. This is the subject Paul takes up in Galatians 3. He shows that the law came in, not to annul the promised, but for a specific reason; “for the sake of transgressions”. The law was given to make man see that he had nothing in himself to deserve the promises, and that all must be attributed to God’s grace. In a prophetic sense, the Tribulation must precede the Millennium.
13 And he said to Abram, Know assuredly that thy seed will be a sojourner in a land that is not theirs, and they shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. 14 But also that nation which they shall serve I will judge; and afterwards they shall come out with great property. vv.13-14 Prophecy of Israel in Egypt. Here we find the prophecy of Israel going into a strange land and being oppressed by the people of that land. Although the land is not named, we find at the end of Genesis that it was Egypt. The prophecy predicts that Israel would go down into Egypt as strangers, and becoming oppressed by the Egyptians. The 400 years began when Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian, and concluded when God brought Israel out of Egypt with a high hand (see note). Egypt was judged by God because of the oppression of Israel, which was fulfilled in the ten plagues of Moses, and also the Red Sea. It was even foretold that they would come up out of Egypt with “great property”, which was fulfilled in Exodus 12:35-36.
How long was Israel in Egypt? Galatians 3:17 says that there were 430 years between the promise and the giving of the law. If Abram was 75 years old when the promise was given, and 100 when Isaac was born, and if Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born, and if Jacob was 130 when he stood before Pharaoh, then the years from the promise to Israel’s time in Egypt was 25 + 60 + 130 = 215 years. Therefore the years of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt proper were 430 – 215 = 215 years. This agrees with Genesis 15:16, which says “in the fourth generation they shall come up hither”. In Ex. 6:16-20 we find the four generations: Jacob’s son Levi, his son Kohath, his son Amram, and his son Moses. If Moses was eighty years old at the Exodus, and he was born when his mother was forty-seven years of age, then we are left with 215 – 80 – 47 = 88 years for Levi to have Kohath, and Kohath to have Jochebed, which is quite reasonable. But then in Ex. 12:40 we read “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” The 430 years must include the total time of the sojourning of Abram until the Exodus from Egypt.6 What then does the 400 years of Genesis 15:13 refer to? It refers to the full time in which Abram’s seed was afflicted by the Egyptians. The 400 years began thirty years after the promise, which lines up with the time when Isaac was five years old, and was persecuted by Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian! If a discrepancy appears to our minds, it is our minds that are at fault, not the word of God.
An Alternate View. There is another view of these dates that would be good to explain, although I tend to think it is not correct. There are some who take the 430 years of Ex. 12:40 to be the time of Israel’s actual time in Egypt, because it sounds like that if we read that verse without the rest of scripture. That leaves them with the 400 years (Gen 15:13, Acts 7:6) being the time of bondage, meaning they enjoyed freedom in Egypt for 30 years, before another king arose who knew not Joseph. One difficulty with this view is that Paul quotes from Gen. 15 in Galatians 3, showing that the law was given 430 years after the promise to Abraham. Those who take this view hold that the “covenant”, which begins the 430 years, refers to the confirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant to Jacob when he was preparing to enter Egypt (Gen. 46:1-4). The problem with this is that Paul was clearly referring to the promise made to Abraham, the father of faith, not Jacob. Further, by doing the math, you would be forced to have four generations in 430 years, which is problematic. We know Levi had Kohath before coming to Egypt, because he entered Egypt with three sons (Gen 46:8, 11). The problem is that the lifespan of Kohath (133) and Amram (137) combined with the age of Moses at the Exodus (80) cannot possibly cover the 430 years; i.e. even if Kohath began Amram in his last year, and Amram begat Moses in his last year, Moses would be 80 years old only 350 years after Jacob stood before Pharaoh, which disagrees with Exodus 7:7. This view simply does not work.
15 And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. v.15 Abram’s Death Foretold. All of this was told Abram 215 years before Israel went into Egypt! Abram would not live to see it, although he would live to a good old age. This would have been a great revelation to Abram. Nothing before this had suggested that the possession of Canaan would take place after Abram’s death. The pilgrim character would characterize Abram his entire pathway. The same is true for Christians. We are not home yet, and we are never free, in this life, to settle down on the earth.
16 And in the fourth generation they shall come hither again; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. v.16 Israel’s Conquest of Canaan. Not only would the oppressors of the people be judged, but the usurpers of the land would be as well. The Egyptians were judged for the sake of Israel, but the Canaanites were judged for the sake of Jehovah, because they had defiled His land. The Canaanite tribes that inhabited the land of Canaan during the 400 years became exceedingly wicked. We find that Aner, Eschol, and Mamre were associates of Abram, but their children strayed further and further from the paths of righteousness. Yet God was patient with them, and allowed the chosen people to remain in bondage for “four generations”, until “the iniquity of the Amorites” became full. This verse is tremendously helpful in understanding the ways of God in the conquest of Canaan.
The Morality of the Conquest of Canaan. One of the most popular attacks made by unbelievers against the Bible has to do with God commanding the children of Israel to drive out the Canaanites. It is stated that the God of the Bible is “a god that commands the slaughter of innocent women and children”. How could the same god that commanded such bloodshed also command, “thou shalt not kill”? While not the full answer to the question, this verse gives us an important truth about the conquest of Canaan. God used the children of Israel to judge the Canaanite tribes for their wickedness. God’s care for the Gentiles and reluctance to judge is seen in many places, such as when communing with Abram about Sodom, and in sending Jonah to Nineveh. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). God waited patiently for 400 years, but the Amorites only grew more debauched and immoral. The slaughter of these tribes was necessary because of their extreme wickedness, not only worshiping idols, but sacrificing their children in the fire to false gods (Deut. 12:30-31). Years later, when Israel turned away from Jehovah, and fell into the same wickedness as the Canaanites, He sent the Assyrians and the Babylonians to drive them out, as they had driven out the Canaanites centuries earlier. In both cases, whether the Israelites or the Assyrians, both were the instruments of Divine justice. In the case of the Assyrians, it was an infidel power operating in the permissive will of God, and they were later judged for it. In the case of Israel, they were operating directly at the command of God, and they were blessed as a result. But what about the children of the Canaanite tribes? Had they any personal guilt in what their tribes were carrying on with? No. But this raises a deeper accusation from the atheists: that it is immoral for God to kill. This is not true. God is the Creator and Giver of life, and it is His sovereign prerogative to take life. There is absolutely no moral issue with God taking the life of any person, whether young or old! Nevertheless, as the “judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25), He does what is right, and He always has a purpose in what He does. This moral right to take life is extended in the use of the children of Israel to drive out the Canaanites, and to kill any that remained. The children that were exterminated in the conquest of Canaan were no doubt taken instantly to heaven, and spared a life of wickedness and governmental judgment. But what made their deaths moral was that God commanded it. Killing is not murder if God has commanded it. A utilitarian decision on their part to kill their enemies would have been immoral. The children of Israel lived under the dispensation of the law, in which God sometimes commanded them to kill their enemies. It would have been disobedience for them to refuse, as we see with King Saul and the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). Christians live in a different dispensation, in which God does not sanction even the killing of enemies (Rom. 12:20). So we can see that the conquest of Canaan was morally justified (1) because God, who has the sovereign prerogative to give and take life commanded it, and also (2) because it was God’s judgment on the Canaanites for their wickedness.
17 And it came to pass when the sun had gone down, and it was dark, that behold, there was a smoking furnace, and a flame of fire which passed between those pieces. v.17 The Furnace and the Flame. By symbol and type, the Lord shows Abram how his seed would possess the land of Canaan. God appears between the pieces of the sacrifice as a smoking furnace and a burning torch. Typically speaking, the promised blessing would come “between the pieces”; i.e. on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. It would come through “a smoking furnace”; i.e. a time of purifying trial. Note that Egypt is connected in scripture with a furnace (Deut. 4:20). Yet there would be “a flame of fire”; i.e. the lamp of God’s guidance through the trial. Prophecy functions as “a lamp shining in an obscure place” (2 Pet. 1:19), not only for those who live before the events at the end of the age, but for those who will actually pass through them. The path to the inheritance is through affliction’s furnace, but all along the light of prophecy is there to encourage and guide.
The Boundaries of the Land Promised to Abraham (15:18-21)
18 On the same day Jehovah made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates; 19 the Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, 20 and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaim, 21 and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. v.18 The Abrahamic Covenant. Jehovah then makes a covenant with Abram, which is more specific than any of the prior promises. It gives the exact boundaries of the land promised to his seed. (Note: the River of Egypt is not the Nile. Rather, it is a small river to the south of Israel.) In history, Israel only possessed a small part of this land. But in Isaiah 27:12 we learn that, in the Millennium, Israel will finally possess the boundaries promised to Abram in this verse!
Prophetic Application. In addition to the immediate fulfillment of Abram’s vision of the children of Israel in Egypt, there is a future prophetic application as well. Abram between the pieces of animal represents the faithful remnant of the Jews, occupying the land of Palestine during a time of great tribulation. The birds of prey represent the Gentile nations that will descend on Israel, attempting to destroy or conquer that land. The smoking furnace pictures the intense persecution that the faithful Jews will face in that time, and the burning lamp represents the light of prophecy that will guide them though that dark time. At the end of the great tribulation, the remnant will inherit the full possession promised to Abram, from the river of Egypt, to the river Euphrates.
- In Genesis 22, the two things are quite distinct. Where the seed is spoken of without allusion to number, the blessing of the Gentiles comes in; but where they are said to be multiplied as the stars and the sand, then the character is unequivocally Jewish precedence. Such is, I believe, the argument of the apostle. - Kelly, William. Lectures on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians.
- Not a word about the sand of the sea. He is as ever exclusively connected with what is heavenly as far as the figure goes. In the case of Abraham appears the double figure: the children were to be as the stars of the sky, but also as the sands of the sea. Isaac has the peculiar place. Abraham takes in both; as we know, he is connected with that which is heavenly, but also with what is earthly. - Kelly, W. Notes on the Book of Genesis.
- God speaks of multiplying Isaac's descendants “as the stars of heaven.' He does not tell Isaac, as He does Jacob later, that his seed would be “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:14), for Jacob is seen as the father of Israel, while Isaac, typifying Christ, is prominent for His relationship to Rebekah, a type of the church. - Grant, L.M. The Book of Genesis.
- So Abraham received the promises in this order-dust, stars and sand. When God gave confirmation to Isaac as to his seed, He said it would be "as the stars of heaven" (Gen. 26:4). Later, when God confirms it to Jacob, he tells him, "and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth" (Gen. 28:14). Isaac is typical of the heavenly company and Jacob is typical of the earthly. So to Isaac the stars are mentioned and to Jacob the dust. - Davison, George. Matthew 12:38-50
- The stars of heaven are the Jews only, as Moses says, "Behold ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude," Deut. 1. It is a great thing to see what the Lord is pointing out in a passage. And He takes two illustrations of a great number - what we see in the heavens, and what lies on the sea-shore. - Darby, J.N. Notes of Readings on 2 Corinthians
- It is interesting that the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch read that they were in “Egypt and Canaan” for 430 years. It could be that the words “and Canaan” were omitted from the Masoretic text on accident. However, the same words could have been added in the other documents to try to account for an “apparent discrepancy”. We cannot know for sure.