Verses 1 to 3
Last week we read how Abram won an amazing victory over King Kedor-la-omer and his allies in order to rescue his nephew, Lot who had become caught up in a war between Kedor-la-omer and the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. And when the King of Sodom came out to meet Abram, Abram handed over to him all the spoils from the war.
So, what happens next? Well, at the beginning of chapter 15, God spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him:
Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield and your very great reward.
Now these were words to comfort Abram and to re-assure him. Maybe Abram was afraid that Kedorlaomer might want to get his own back. Maybe he was afraid that there would be recriminations or some form of retaliation following the battle he had just won. So, here’s God saying to Abram::
Don’t be afraid. I’m your shield.
In other words:
I’m here to protect you.
And since Abram had given away the spoils of the war, God said to him:
I’ve your great reward.
The word God used here which is translated ‘reward’ is the same word used for the spoils of war. So God was saying:
Abram, you’ve just given away what you won. But don’t worry. I’m here with you. And if you have me, then you’ll lack nothing.
And what is Abram’s response? Well, it’s really very interesting and it’s really very honest and open. He said to God in verse 2:
Sovereign God, what can you give me? What can you give me to make up for the fact that I’m childless?
Now, in those days, to be childless was a great disaster. It was the worst thing that could happen to a married couple. You see, if you were childless, then there was no one to mourn for you after you had died. And there was no one to bury you and to take care of your grave. And there was no one to inherit your possessions. And so everything that you had worked so hard to get went to a stranger. And if you died childless, then there was no one to carry on the family line. So, when you died, and you didn’t have any children, then the family died with you and there was no memory of you left. It was as if you didn’t exist. So Abram turned to God and said:
What can you give me to make up for that?
And then Abram added in verse 3 that he now expected that one of his servants would become his heir and would take over all his possessions. That, you see, was standard practice in those days if you were childless. It was so bad to be childless and to have no one to keep your memory alive, that people would adopt a servant who would then inherit your possessions and look after the funeral arrangements and take care of the grave. Those who were childless might do that as a last resort. But much better was to have your own children to take care of these things.
So what about that, God? What can you give me to make up for the fact that I’m childless?
Now, Abram is being remarkably honest and open and direct with God, isn’t he? It seems that he’s having a hard time believing God’s promises. Back in chapter 12, God had promised to make him into a great nation. And God has repeated that promise in chapter 13. His descendants would be like the dust of the earth. There would be so many of them that no-one would be able to count them all. But look: there’s no child yet! Not one single descendant like alone a nation. And so, right now, at the beginning of chapter 15, Abram’s having a hard time believing God’s promise.
And that’s so important for us, isn’t it? After all, isn’t that the way it is with us from time to time? We often have a hard time believing God’s promises to us.
Take the promise he makes us in the gospel. In the gospel he promises to pardon all our sins. He says to us:
I will remember their sins no more.
But then what happens to us? We mess up. We give in to temptation. We keep sinning against the Lord. We keep failing to keep his commandments. And so our conscience begins to whisper to us. And it says to us:
There’s no way God will accept you. Look at you! You’re such a sinner. There’s no way he’ll forgive you. There’s no way God would allow a sinner like you into his presence. You’re far too bad for God. Our conscience accuses us.
And doubts begin to fill our thoughts. And we start believing our doubts and we start believing that we’re not good enough for God. That’s what can happen to us. We start doubting our salvation. We start doubting his promise to remember our sins no more.
Or, if we don’t doubt our salvation, we can start to doubt God’s faithfulness. You see, he promises never to leave us or forsake us. He promises to help us and to protect us and to take care of us. In his word, he’s told us not to be anxious about anything, but to cast all our cares on him, because he cares for us. But something happens to us. Something happens that rocks our faith. And we begin to doubt God’s faithfulness and we begin to wonder whether he really does love us. We become anxious and afraid. And we begin to doubt God’s promises to help us. And so, we find ourselves worrying over so many things. We worry about our work. We worry about paying our bills. We worry about our family and what’s happening to them. We worry about our health and how we’ll cope if we become ill. We worry about growing old. Though we know that God has promised to be our loving, heavenly Father, and though we know that he has promised to help us and to provide for us, nevertheless, we find it hard to trust in his promises. We find it hard to believe all that he has said. We’re just like Abram in this passage who was beginning to despair and to wonder whether God was really going to keep his promise. And from time to time, it gets hard for us. From time to time, doubts arise. From time to time, we find ourselves struggling to believe all that God has said he’ll do for us.
The Lord said to Abram:
Don’t be afraid, Abram. I’m your shield to protect you. I’m your great reward to bless you.
But Abram’s response is:
But I’m still childless. What about that child you promised me?
He’s having a hard time, believing God’s promises.
Verses 4 to 6
What did God do in response to Abram’s question? Well, notice what he didn’t do. He didn’t respond and say:
Abram! How dare you say that to me? How dare you question me?
No, he didn’t say that. You see, the Lord is not like an angry headmaster or parent who will not let anyone question them. He’s not like that, because instead he’s very gentle with us, and patient and kind. And instead of reacting angrily, he took Abram outside. And it was dark outside. It was night time. And the stars were out. And the Lord said to Abram in verse 5:
Do you see those stars. Can you count them? No, you can’t. There are too many of them. So shall your offspring be!
Now, what was the Lord doing here? Well, I think he was doing two things. First of all, he repeated his promise to show Abram that he hadn’t forgotten what he had said to him previously. He was saying:
Abram. I haven’t forgotten. That promise about a nation coming from you still stands. I still intend to keep that promise.
But then, secondly, I think the Lord was doing something else when he showed him the stars. You see, when he brought Abram outside and showed him the stars, he was saying to Abram:
Look at all those stars. I made them. I made them all. And if I could make all those stars, then it’s easy for me to give you many descendants. Nothing is too hard for me!
So, the Lord didn’t get angry with Abram. He didn’t get mad. He answered his doubts and his questions and he spoke to re-assure him. And it’s good that we have this story in our Bibles, because we need to know that whenever we’re afraid, and whenever we have doubts, and whenever we find our faith beginning to shake, then we can come to the Lord in prayer and be open about it with him. We can make known to him all our doubts and fears and all our anxieties. And we don’t need to be afraid that he’ll be angry with us, because if he was gentle and patient and kind to Abram, then we can expect him to be the same with us.
And, of course, if you want a New Testament example, just think of Doubting Thomas. Remember how he refused to believe that the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead. The other disciples had seen the Lord for themselves. But Thomas hadn’t yet seen him. And so he said that he would not believe it until he was able to see the Lord for himself and see his wounds. And do you remember what happened? The Lord Jesus appeared to him and showed him his hands and his side. Thomas didn’t believe what he had heard. And so the Lord appeared to him and removed all his doubts.
Well, of course, we don’t expect the Lord Jesus to appear before us today the way he appeared before Doubting Thomas. After all, the Lord Jesus is now in heaven. And he doesn’t appear before us in visions today as he once appeared to Abram in a vision. But the Lord speaks to us in his word, the Bible. And so, whenever doubts arise in our mind, whenever our hearts become fearful, whenever we’re having a hard time trusting in God, we need to return to his word, and we need to remind ourselves of all his promises to us. And, as we read his word, and as we read again all of his promises, we need to ask the Lord to send his Spirit to help us to believe his promises. He doesn’t appear to us today in visions. But he comes to us by his Spirit and his Spirit helps us to believe what we read and to continue trusting in the Lord.
And look at verse 6. God spoke to re-assure Abram; and Abram believed the Lord. Or a better way of translating it is:
Abram continued to believe the Lord.
You see, Abram believed the Lord the first time he spoke to him, back in chapter 12. And though his faith was stretched and though Abram was assaulted by doubts, he kept believing what the Lord had said to him. And throughout the rest of his life, Abram continued to believe the Lord.
Verses 7 to 21
In verses 7 to 21 the emphasis changes from God’s promise to give Abram many descendants, to his promise to give Abram and his descendants the Promised Land. And in these verses the Lord confirmed that promise to Abram through this ceremony which is described in these verses.
And so, in verse 7, the Lord repeated his promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. And, in verse 8, Abram asked for some kind of confirmation. He said:
How shall I know? How shall I know that I will really take possession of the land? How can I be sure that what you’re promising will happen?
And God responded to his request by telling Abram in verse 9 to go and get a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. What’s going on? Well, what we have here is a ceremony to enact a covenant. Do you see that in verse 18? It says that, on that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram. Or more literally, it says that on that day, the Lord cut a covenant with Abram. You cut a covenant because, as part of the ceremony, you would cut some animals in two.
Now, this ceremony strikes us as very strange. Interestingly, verse 10 makes clear that Abram knew precisely what to do with the animals and the birds. He seemed to know what was happening and what he should do. But while it may have been familiar to Abram, it strikes us very strange.
Now, what we would do in a situation like this is that we’d get out some paper and a pen, because a covenant is a solemn promise. It’s an agreement between two parties. And when we enter into an agreement with someone, we write a contract and sign it. We need paper and pens, not heifers and pigeons. For instance, when I was the Clerk of Presbytery down south, I had to sign leases on behalf of the Presbytery. You know, a church owned some property and maybe someone wanted to rent it out. And so the solicitors got together and they drew up a lease and it was sent to me and I had to sign it. And the tenant had to sign it as well. And by signing it, we were saying:
We understand that this contract binds us to do certain things. We promise we’ll will do them all.
So, the tenant agreed to pay so much rent each month. And the church agreed to let them have the use of the property in return. And by signing the lease, we were putting ourselves under an obligation to keep our side of the agreement.
Or take another example. When we were down south, Yvonne and the children became members of a gym. But before they could become members and start using the gym, they had to sign the terms and conditions for membership. By signing the terms and conditions, they agreed to abide by certain rules. And the terms and conditions laid down what penalties they would suffer if they ever broke the rules.
Do you see? When we enter into an agreement, we use paper and pens to sign a contract. But in Old Testament times, they didn’t use paper and pens. They used heifers and goats and rams and doves and pigeons and ceremonies like this one in Genesis 15. Abram cut the animals in two and laid out the animals and the birds in two rows. And then, what would normally happen is that both parties making the agreement would walk down the middle of the two rows. And by walking down the middle of the two rows, they were saying to one another:
If I don’t uphold my end of this agreement, if I don’t abide by the terms and the conditions of our agreement and I let you down, may I be cut in two like these animals. If I let you down and don’t do what I promise, may I be killed like these animals.
It was pretty dramatic, wasn’t it? And severe. If Yvonne didn’t follow the rules of the gym, she’d have her membership revoked. But in Old Testament times, if you broke the terms of the covenant, you were saying to the other party:
You can tear me in two.
Now, what’s really interesting about the ceremony in Genesis 15 is this: Who walked down between the two rows of animals? Look at verse 17. It tells us that a smoking brazier and a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. Now, what’s this referring to? Well, think of when the Israelites left Egypt and went through the wilderness. Do you remember? We read how God went with them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire at night. The cloud and the fire represented God’s presence. They saw the cloud and they saw the fire and knew that God was still with them. So, here in Genesis 15 Abram saw, not cloud and fire, but smoke and fire. But it meant the same thing. The smoke and fire represented the presence of God.
So, God was walking down through the pieces. And he was saying to Abram:
I will give you this land. I promise it. Your descendants will be enslaved in a strange country for 400 years [and he’s referring to their captivity in Egypt], but afterwards I will bring them here and give them this land. This is my promise to you today. I will surely do it.
And by walking between the pieces, God was saying:
And if I don’t do it, may I become like these animals. May I be killed and ripped in two if I don’t do as I promise.
In other words, he was saying to Abram:
I’m serious about this. I will do whatever it takes to bring you and your descendants into this land. I swear it on my life.
But notice now that Abram didn’t walk through the pieces. Only God did. When we enter into an agreement to rent a property or to join a gym, both parties agree to do certain things. If I do this, then you’re to do that. There are obligations on both sides. But in Genesis 15, it’s entirely one-sided. God said to Abram:
I promise to do this for you. And if I don’t do it, may I be torn apart and killed. But, Abram, you’re to leave it up to me. I will do it.
And Abram isn’t being asked to do anything in return. He wasn’t put under any obligation. He only had to believe what God promised to do for him.
Keeping the promise
Well, we only need to think about the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament to see how God kept his promise to Abram. Think of the Ten Plagues the Lord sent on the Egyptians in order to persuade them to let the Israelites go in the days of Moses. And think how the Lord, miraculously, opened a way for them through the Red Sea. And think of how he then sustained them during the 40 years they wandered through the wilderness. Do you remember how he sent them manna every morning. And there was quail. And there was water. And their shoes and clothes did not wear out. The Lord promised Abram that he would do whatever it took, and what it took was for him to perform all these miracles for them in the wilderness. And then, do you remember how he opened a way for them across the River Jordan. And then, what happened at Jericho? The walls came tumbling down whenever the Israelites blew their trumpets. Blowing trumpets cannot bring down the walls of a city. But the Lord can. And he did. And then he gave them one victory after another over their enemies so that there were able to take over the land. And in the days of the Judges, he sent them leaders like Gideon and Samson to deliver them from their enemies. And then he gave them David to be their king and the Lord enabled David to settle the land. And then the nation prospered under Solomon because God made him so wise. Again and again and again in the Old Testament we see the Lord doing marvellous things and performing mighty miracles and helping his people in so many different ways in order to keep his covenant promise to Abram to give him and his descendants the land to live in. By walking between the two rows of animals when this ceremony was cut, the Lord was saying to Abram:
I will do whatever it takes to keep my promise. Whatever it takes.
However, as we’ve already seen, God’s promise to Abram is fulfilled in two ways. It was fulfilled in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way whenever God gave them the land of Canaan to live in. And, of course, giving them the land of Canaan to live in was really quite easy for God. It was easy for him to send the Ten Plagues and to open the Red Sea and send them manna to eat in the wilderness. It was easy for God to open a way for them through the River Jordan and to tear down the walls of Jericho and to help them defeat their enemies. Since God made the heavens and the earth and all that they contain, then it was an easy thing for him to give the land to Abram’s descendants.
However, remember that I said God’s promise to Abram is also fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way. The New Testament tells us that Abram was looking forward to entering a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. Though God led him and his descendants to the Promised Land of Canaan, Abram was longing for something even better. He was longing for a better country. He was longing for heaven. When God promised to give Abram and his descendants a land to live in, he was really talking about heaven and that’s what Abram was longing for.
And so, when the Lord walked through the two rows of animals here in Genesis 15, he was saying to Abram:
I promise I will bring you and all who share your faith into heaven. And I will do whatever it takes to bring you there. Whatever it takes, I will do it.
So, what did it take for God to keep this promise? Well, what it took was the death of his Son. His one and only Son had to die on the cross in order to pay for all of our sins and to satisfy God’s justice for ever. God said to Abram:
I will do whatever it takes. And what it took was the death of his Son.
In Genesis 15 only God walked between the pieces. His covenant with Abram was entirely one-sided. God was placing himself under obligation to keep the promise; and there was nothing for Abram to do, except to believe what God said to him. And it’s the same for us. All we’re to do in order to receive the hope of everlasting life is to believe.
But here’s the thing. Every other religion makes us walk through the pieces. Every other religion says:
This is what God will do and this is what you must do. In order to have eternal life, in order to reach fulfilment, in order to be blessed, this is what you have to do. God will do his part. You must do your part.
And so, ultimately, every other religion is about us and our performance and how well we do. You know, are we good enough? Have we done enough good deeds? Have we performed enough ceremonies? Every other religion makes us walk through the pieces and makes us fulfil conditions. But only in Christianity does God say:
Leave it with me. I’ll do it all. I’ll do everything necessary. I’ll send my Son. And my Son will die for you. There’s nothing for you to do. There’s nothing for you to add. I’ll do it all. All you have to do is to believe what I have promised.
In the gospel, God says to us:
I’ve done everything necessary. So, you just sit there and listen to what I have done for you. And after hearing what I’ve done for you, believe it.