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.
God’s first words fear not imply that Abram is afraid of something—perhaps the jealous neighbors 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.
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? And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
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.
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
God makes it clear that Eliezer will not be Abram’s successor. 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).
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
God uses a visual aid to remind Abram of the massive scope of the future that God has planned for him. Earlier, God used the illustration of the dust of the earth to show how many descendants will come from Abram (Genesis 13:16). Now God shows him the stars of the sky.
Abram has no telescope, of course. In that respect, we can see many more stars than he could. But Abram has the advantage of not having artificial lighting to block his view. It is difficult for modern city-dwellers to see just how many stars Abram can see in his day!
And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness
Since God originally made His promise to Abram, that man 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 unswerving 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).
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him
After God confirms His promise and acknowledges Abram’s faith, Abram asks how he can be sure (Genesis 15:8, not in today’s text). In response, 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.
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
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. Sadly, Abram won’t learn this lesson fully, as we see him try to “push” God’s plan along with regard to having an heir (Genesis 16).
And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance
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.
And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age
It is not for Abraham to experience personally the enslavement of God’s people. Though there will be additional struggles ahead, Abram will live many more decades and die peacefully at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:7).
But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full
The reason that God allows His people to suffer prolonged hardship is stated in this verse. Apparently, the sin of those currently inhabiting the promised land has not yet reached a point that warrants their removal from the land. We should 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.
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
God now provides Abram the sign he requested in Genesis 15:8. 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 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
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).
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