An Unlikely Man of Faith (IV)
XV 1-6. The Covenant to Abram Revisited
XV 7-16. The Covenant to Abram Ratified
XV 17-20. The Covenant to Abram Reiterated
God officially established His Covenant with Abram.
What were the “these things” in v.1?
The events happened in the previous chapter, especially Abram turning down the spoils as a gift from the king of Sodom, which was rightfully his to take. That’s why the Lord responded to Abram and reassured him that “[his] reward shall be very great” (v.1).
It is also possible that, after the sweeping military victory, the patriarch was concerned that those defeated adversaries would temporarily pull back but eventually recover and prepare for another campaign to avenge their loss. And perhaps that’s when God assured him, “Do not fear” (v.1).
Can we encounter God in a vision today, as Abram did (v.1)?
Every religion ever invented by men, be it Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, has in its heart a way to enable men to transcend their natural existence and reach out to the supernatural realm. It is, as it were, man trying to get himself out of the “box” of time and space.
The problem is he can’t.
For Christians, we know that it was God who became a man Himself and entered the “box” of time and space, trying to show us who He is and how He is like. All man-made religions are men’s attempt to get themselves out; Christianity is the exact opposite. It is God coming to us, telling us about Himself, redeeming us to Himself. The message of the Gospel is that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10).
The question is, then, how did God communicate with us?
The author of Hebrews wrote, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, …” (Heb. 1:1-2a)
The verse summarizes the fact that God spoke to men through the written words of the Old Testament. The many portions may refer to the literary genres and sections of the OT or simply the 39 separate books in it. The many ways may refer to visions, dreams, or sometimes direct revelation, through which the prophets penned the Scripture. Though there are many portions and many ways in which God spoke, it is unmistakably God speaking.
And thus for Abram to encounter God in a vision at that particular time in history, it was perfectly out of question.
From the OT to the NT, divine revelation has been a process known as progressive revelation, from the types of Christ to the reality of Him, from the promise of salvation to the fulfillment of it. The OT was not in any way erroneous; it was in a development, until the truths it contained were refined and finalized in the NT. The difference between the two Testaments was not that of truthfulness, but of completeness.
And that’s why it is written, “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, …”
Therefore, divine revelation has been completed at the first coming of Christ, and specifically, during the apostolic era when all of the NT documents were written down. The Bible, as a whole, is, according to the apostle Jude, “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). To add anything to Scripture, whether it is the Book of Mormon or a dream that we had last night, then, is blasphemous, and invokes the severest curses possible (Rev. 22:18-19).
Charismatics may continue to claim extra-biblical revelations from God, but they simply have no Scriptural basis whatsoever to say that. How do you know it is from God? What is your standard of saying that it is from God? If, for example, in a “vision”, a so-called “divine” voice told you to kill the person next to you, what would you do?
Theologians put it this way, “the (biblical) canon is closed”. Today, God never does it as a norm to speak to us in a direct and private way. The primary way He speaks to us is through His Word revealed in Scripture.
To clear out some confusion, perhaps it is also necessary to distinguish between “God speaking to us (as if through an audible voice)” and “the Holy Spirit prompting in our hearts”. While the former was for the most part a counterfeit and dangerous experience, the latter is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which is never apart from the Holy Scripture (Jn. 16:13).
To see this from another angle, we are more than familiar with what Paul had written in 2 Tim. 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” In order for the man of God to be adequate (or some translations render the word “complete”), equipped for every good work, the Bible here we have is more than enough. After all, why do we need a vision to tell us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength plus love our neighbors as ourselves? And why does God care to tell us His Will for us which is not revealed in Scripture, when we does not care about His Will which is revealed in Scripture?
So, you’re telling me you had a vision from God and God told you to do such and such? No offense, buddy, but I highly doubt that it was from God.
Was Abram showing a lack of faith or respect by “talking back” to God in v.2 and desiring for proof in v.8?
In fact, quite the contrary, it showed his willingness to communicate with God, even though things are nagging at him. And in v.8, Abram was not doubting God (“how may I know…”) but asking Him for a covenant ceremony to ratify that promise. God would certainly not have commended Abram, if his requests meant accusation or complaint against God.
However, one should notice that often times similar, if not same, words can be spoken out with totally different intentions, as if from two opposite angles. When Gabriel told Zachariah about the amazing birth of his son, John the Baptist, Zachariah marveled and said, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk. 1:18). And later when Gabriel told Mary about the miraculous birth of her son, Jesus Christ, Mary also marveled and said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34). These words sound extremely alike, yet the immediate outcome to these two persons for the words they had spoken, respectively, were drastically different: Zachariah was truly “dumbfounded”, and could not speak till his son was born, whereas Mary was commended and assured, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35). Why? Because though their words were almost identical, their hearts were altogether antithetical: Zachariah spoke out of doubt and unbelief, for the angel said, “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (Lk. 1:20, emphasis mine); while Mary spoke out of faith and obedience, for later she replied to the angel, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38, emphasis mine). And in Mary’s case, she had her “proof”, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren” (Lk. 1:36).
This interesting phenomenon shows us at least two things: 1) Sometimes it is really hard to know the true intentions of one’s heart merely by examining the words he speaks, for as it is written, the human heart is “more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). 2) In our crisis of faith, perhaps it cannot be categorized as “tempting the Lord your God” when we bring our concerns to Him in prayer, telling Him about our pains, asking Him to give us an answer, a way out, or even a “sign”, as long as we do this in faith, both in His sovereignty and His goodness. However, we must remind ourselves the epitome of faith is deep conviction despite an absence of such “proof”. Or put in Christ’s own words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).
Why did Abram choose “Eliezer of Damascus” (v.2) to be his heir?
“Eliezer” literally means “God is help” or “God of help” in Hebrew. Since “he was born in [Abram’s] house” (v.3) yet was from Damascus, he was probably a slave that Abram acquired on his way from Haran to Canaan. He became a trusted member of the family, and eventually was adopted by Abram as the candidate of official heir to the household – an act that was customary in ancient Mesopotamia (also included in legal codes of the Middle East, e.g. the Code of Hammurabi). Abram must have, at this point, wondered whether or not the Promise of God about him being made into a great nation (Gen. 12:2) would be realized.
Eliezer had earned his master’s trust. And it is interesting to note that some actually thought that Eliezer was the unnamed servant who went on the quest for Isaac’s wife later (Gen. 22:5, 24:2).
What’s the fuss about all the heifer, goat, ram, turtledove and young pigeon and cutting the animals (but not the birds) in half, (vv.9-10)? Why was there suddenly a deep sleep that fell upon Abram (v.12)? What was that smoking oven and flaming torch that passing between the pieces (v.17)?
These all were the proceedings of making royal land-grant treaties in ancient Near East. The MacArthur Study Bible explains, “The sign of ancient covenants often involved the cutting in half of animals, so that the pledging parties could walk between them, affirming that the same should happen to them if they broke the covenant (Cf. Jer. 34:18-19).” The NIV Study Bible adds, “The practice signified a self-maledictory oath: ‘May it be so done to me if I do not keep my oath and pledge.’” However, in the ESV Study Bible, another interpretation was postulated that “… the ritual is an acted sign in which the sacrificial animals symbolize Abram’s descendants (all of Israel), the ‘birds of prey’ signify their enemies (unclean nations), and the “fire pot” and “torch” represent God’s presence. The promises in vv.13-16 look forward to God’s being in the midst of the Israelites after they come out of Egypt.”
As for this moment, among all the commentaries I read, I have not yet found one theory that can satisfactorily explain why Abram did not cut the birds in half. Most Bible scholars simply leave this minute detail untreated.
There is unanimous consensus that the “smoking oven and flaming torch” in v.17 symbolized God’s presence. Some speculated that these are the types of the pillars of cloud and fire in Exodus (Ex. 13:21). When a deep sleep fell upon Abram (v.12), followed by the passing of the pieces by God’s presence, it indicates that God solemnly promised Abram by a divine oath to fulfill His Word. In this transaction, Abram was bound by nothing. It was a unilateral, unconditional covenant on the part of God (some Bible scholars argue that when the sign of the covenant, i.e. circumcision, was given later in Gen. 17:9-14, the Covenant became two-sided: Abram had his part of the obligations).
What exactly is the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant?
In the immediate historical context, the Abrahamic Covenant is a covenant of nationhood. It has two components with regard to Abram: one is his physical descendants (vv. 1-6), the other is the physical land for his descendants (vv.18-21). Abram could not be “made into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) unless these two conditions are met. Although the eventual realization did not take place until centuries later, Abram was now guaranteed with a divine pledge.
Quoting from the Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, the Abrahamic Covenant was foundational to other covenants:
The promise of land in the Palestinian Covenant (Deut. 30:1-30)
The promise of kingly descendants in the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16)
The promise of blessing in the Old and New Covenants (Ex. 19:3-6; Jer. 31:31-40)
What does it mean when in vv.13-16 God talked about Abram’s descendants being “strangers in a land” and “enslaved and oppressed for 400 years”?
“Stranger” implies someone who dwells in a foreign land. It anticipates the Israel’s sojourning and oppression in Egypt before Exodus. The 400 years is a round number for 430 years (Ex. 12:40). The NKJV Study Bible adds a footnote: “No doubt this would impress Abram, but consider how it would impress the first readers of the book. They were the generation who came to fulfill God’s promise!”
What does it mean when God said “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (v.16)?
According to the ESV Study Bible, “The Amorites are one of the main population groups in Canaan and are frequently listed alongside the Canaanites and others. God’s comment implies that Amorites will be dispossessed of their land as an act of divine punishment. At that time, their accumulated iniquity will be so great that God will no longer tolerate their presence in the land.”
Lessons and Reflections
The opposite of love is not hatred.
Abram did not turn his back on God when hope seemed dim; he still spoke to God in prayer. As E. M. Bounds put it, “Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). Indeed, God sees our heart and knows our very thoughts better than we do. And it is not a lack of faith or respect to present to God what bothers our heart. The author of Hebrews says, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). The problem is, we often erred on the other side by not drawing near to Him. As the old hymn goes, “O, what peace we often forfeit? O, what needless pain we bear?”
Coming back to the story of Abram, Genesis XV records the first time Abram ever spoke to God. It was tough for him to make sense of God’s promise, yet “in hope against hope he believed” (Rom. 4:18). The father of faith understood faith not only to be “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), but also to be an intimate relationship between him and God that involves mutual communication. He acted out that faith bona fide by voicing out his real thoughts to God in prayer. That truly makes him an unlikely man of faith.
Justification by faith has always been the means of salvation.
Gen. 15:6 is repeatedly quoted in the New Testament in Rom. 4:3, 9, 22; Gal. 3:6; Jas 2:23. The Old Testament did not teach salvation by adherence to certain laws or any other different kind of work-based soteriology. Beyond any shadow of doubt, Abram was justified by faith alone. And just as “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), there is, similarly, no other way under heaven that has been given to men through which we can be saved. From the beginning to the end, it has always been Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, andSola Christo: salvation has always been through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone.
As the old hymn goes, O what peace we often forfeit; O what needless pain we bear? Prayer, as a way of communicating with God, should be a continual habit. “Pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18).
It is said that whenever we move on to the next level in our faith, the previous level would seem like unbelief to us. Ask God to increase my faith in Him.