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16. The Focal Point of Abram’s Faith (Genesis 15:1-21)

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In Genesis chapter 15 we come to one of the high-water marks of Old Testament revelation, summarized for us in verse 6: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Up to this point, Abram’s faith has been more general in its nature. It has rested primarily upon the call of God as recorded in chapter 12:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse (Genesis 12:1-3).

God seldom allows our faith to remain general, however, and so we face crises points which bring our faith from the abstract to the concrete, and from the general to the specific. Such is the case with Abram in this chapter.

Abram’s Hope for an Heir

God’s words to Abram155 are far from what we would have expected in such circumstances: “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).

Why would Abram possibly be afraid? He had just won a great victory over Chedorlaomer and the three other eastern kings (Genesis 14:14-15). Because of this, he had, no doubt, received considerable recognition, even from the pagan king of Sodom (14:17, 21-24). What fear could haunt Abram’s faith at such a time of victory?

It is possible that Abram feared future military reprisals from Chedorlaomer and his allies. He may have won the battle, but had he won the war? The word of God to Abram, “I am a shield to you,” could very well be aimed at subsiding this fear of future military conflict.

This cannot be Abram’s greatest concern, especially in view of the remaining verses. Abram’s victory was not so sweet in the light of one question which seemed to overshadow all else, “What good is success, without a successor?”

Abram’s response to God confirms this: “And Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir’” (Genesis 15:2-3).

In the Ancient Near East there was a well-attested practice to ensure an heir, even if no son were born to the man.156 The childless couple would adopt one of the servants born into the household. This ‘son’ would care for them in their old age and would inherit their possessions and property at the time of their death. At this low point in Abram’s faith, it was the best for which he thought he could hope.

God had promised Abram far more than that which he could provide for himself. Eliezer was not the heir that He had promised. His descendants were to come from his own reproductive cells. He would have a son of his own.

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir’ (Genesis 15:4).

To reassure Abram, God took him outside and drew his attention to the stars in the heavens. This is how numerous the offspring of Abram would be through his son that would surely come (verse 5).

Verse 6 describes Abram’s response to divine revelation: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The translation of the NASV is somewhat unfortunate. The first word ‘then’ attempts to convey the idea that Abram responded to God’s promise of a son by belief. In this sense, it is a good translation. The difficulty which arises, is that ‘then’ may convey more than it should. Verse 6 is the first time the word ‘believe’ is used. It is also the first time that Abram is said to have been reckoned as righteous. It would be easy to conclude that Moses meant that this is the first time Abram had faith in God, and that he is here ‘saved’ (to use the New Testament word).

In the book of Hebrews we read: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

Here the writer to the Hebrews intends us to understand that Abram ‘believed’ God before chapter 15, even as he left Ur to enter the land of Canaan.

The solution is not as difficult as it may seem. The grammar of verse 6 indicates that Abram’s faith did not begin here.157 Not only did he previously believe, he continued to believe. The ‘then’ of our translation may therefore be a little too strong.

But why did Moses wait until this point to tell us that Abram believed, and that he was justified by faith? Luther’s answer, I believe is most satisfactory. Abram’s faith is not mentioned until now in order to emphasize the fact that a saving faith is one that focuses upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.158 Here Abram’s faith is focused upon the promise of a son, through whom blessing will come to the whole world. While we may not fully determine how complete Abram’s understanding of all this was, we must not overlook the words of the Savior: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” ( John 8:56).

While Abram had believed in God, here his faith is more clearly defined and focused. Here his faith is in the promise of God to provide the blessing of a son, and blessings through Him. It is at this point that God chose to announce that Abram’s faith was a saving faith.

Notice three things about this faith of Abram:

(1) First of all, it was a personal faith. By this I mean that Abram believed in the Lord. He did not merely believe about God, but in Him. Herein is the distinction between many professing Christians and those who are possessing Christians—genuinely reborn by faith in the person of Christ.

(2) Second, Abram’s faith was a propositional faith. While Abram believed in the person of God, his faith was based upon the promises of God. Many believe in the god of their own definition. Abram believed in the God of revelation. The covenant God made here with Abram (verses 12ff) gave Abram specific propositions on which to base his faith and his practice.

(3) Abram’s faith was also a practical faith. By this I mean that Abram’s belief was one that necessitated action. Clearly, Abram’s works did not initiate his salvation, but they did demonstrate it (cf. James 2:14ff.). Also, Abram’s faith was related to a very practical and sensed need—the need for a son. God does not ask us to believe in the abstract, but in the everyday matters of life.

When Moses says that Abram’s faith was reckoned for righteousness it does not mean that Abram’s faith was, in some fashion, exchanged for righteousness. Abram’s faith, like ours today, was not something which he conjured up by mental or spiritual effort. Faith itself is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). His faith was in the coming child and in his offspring, one of whom would be the Messiah. It was because Abram looked to the One God would provide for righteousness that God declared him to be righteous. Technically speaking, salvation (and faith) are a gift, but righteousness comes through the legal process of imputation. Abram was legally declared righteous by God because he trusted in Him Who was righteous. The righteousness of Christ, imputed to Abram because of his God-given faith, saved him.

God’s way of saving men is not new. It has not changed from Old Testament times to New. Always, God has saved men by grace, through faith. There is no other way. While Abram was saved by faith in the One Who would come, we are saved by faith in this One Who has come. That is the only difference.

Reassurance Concerning
the Land Abram Would Possess

Having dealt with Abram’s greatest need for reassurance—namely that of an heir, God went on to strengthen Abram’s faith concerning the land he would possess: “And He said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it’” (Genesis 15:7).

Abram’s question does not seem to reflect disbelief, but wonder at how this will be accomplished: “And he said, ‘O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8).

The tone seems similar to that of Mary when told she will be the mother of Messiah: “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:34).

God did not rebuke Abram for his question, but confirmed His promise by a covenant.

So He said to him, ‘Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away ( Genesis 15:9-11).

In the ancient world of Abram, legal and binding agreements were not put on papers written by lawyers and signed by the parties involved. Instead, the two parties would arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement, and then they would formalize it in the form of a covenant.

The covenant was sealed by the dividing of an animal (or animals). In fact, the technical term literally means ‘go cut a covenant.’ The animal(s) was cut in half and the two parties would pass between the halves. It seems that in this oath, the men acknowledged that the fate of the animal should be theirs if they broke the terms of their agreement.

So we see that these verses do not describe the process of animal sacrifice, but the legal act of making a binding agreement. Verses 9-11 set the stage for the final ratification of this covenant.

Some time seems to have passed between the preparation of the animals and the final ratification (cf. verse 11). Toward the end of this delay, Abram fell into a deep, trance-like state: “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12).

The “terror and darkness,” in my estimation, was more than that occasioned by an awareness of God’s presence. I believe it was the normal response to the horrors of the revelation of the treatment of Abram’s children in the next 400 years. Abram’s descendants would possess the land of Canaan, but not until after a considerable delay and many difficulties:

And God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions’ (Genesis 15:13-14).

Very carefully, Egypt remains unnamed as the land where this bondage would occur. Not only did Abram not need to know this, but such knowledge could have been detrimental before this bondage came to pass. It was no problem for those who read these words of Moses to know the land of which he spoke. Indeed, they had just come forth from Egypt. What a strange thing it must have been for those Israelites who were brought out of Egypt to read this prophecy which so accurately described their experience.

There seems to be two reasons for the 400-year delay before the land of Canaan would be possessed. First, the children of Abraham would not yet be able (or numerous enough) to possess the land earlier. Also the people of the land were not yet wicked enough to thrust out: “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).

Here is an important principle, and one that governs the possession of the land of Canaan. God owns the land of Canaan (Leviticus 25:23), and He lets it out to those who will live according to righteousness. When Israel forgot their God and practiced the abominations of the Canaanites (cf. II Chronicles 28:3, 33:2), God put them out of the land also.

In the light of the present debate over who has legitimate claim in the land of Israel, let us remember this principle. It is God who owns the land, not the Jews, nor the Arabs. God will not allow the Jews to possess the land and live wickedly any more than He will the Gentiles.

Over the next 400 or more years from the time of this revelation, two programs were simultaneously at work. The Canaanites were growing more and more wicked, and their day of reckoning was steadily approaching. At the same time, the nation of Israel was about to be born, growing rapidly in number, and in spiritual maturity, preparing for the day of possession.

Is this not a picture of our own day as well? Has God not said that in the last days wickedness would intensify (cf. II Thessalonians 2:1-12; II Timothy 3:1-9; II Peter 3:3ff.)? At the same time, God is purifying and preparing us for His return (cf. Ephesians 5:26-27; Colossians 1:21-23; I Peter 1:6-7). The wicked will receive recompense for their sin, and the saints will be rewarded for righteousness.

When God had spoken of Abram’s peaceable death at a ripe old age and the fate of his offspring, He ratified the covenant concerning the land that would belong to Israel:

And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:17-21).

This covenant is distinctive because only God, in the appearance of a smoking oven and a flaming torch, passed between the divided carcasses of animals. This was done to signify that the covenant was unilateral and unconditional. No conditions were placed upon Abram for its fulfillment.

The geographical boundaries have been clearly defined, and even the peoples who were to be dispossessed were named. God committed Himself to a very specific course of action. What more reassurance could be asked?


The bottom line for Abram was that God’s promise was now much more specific. Abram would have a son of his own through whom blessings would be poured out. Abram’s offspring would be very numerous and, in time, would possess the land. But before this, they would go through a time of delay and great difficulty.

The essence of Abram’s faith was that while he waited for the promise of future blessings, he was content in the meantime with the presence of God. Abram did not come out on the short end of the stick. Abram’s great reward was God Himself: “I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1, NASV, marginal reading).

Our theology has been greatly distorted in recent days. We are invited to come to Christ as Savior because of all that He can and will do for us. We may have come to Him for His presents, rather than His presence.

Abram was neither cheated nor short-changed in the delay of God and in the difficulties he and his offspring faced. Abram was blessed, for if God is our portion, that is enough.

The day before I delivered this message I performed the funeral for one of the young women in our church. She was a lovely young woman, a model wife and mother. She was twenty-eight years old when she died in her sleep. We still do not know the medical explanation for her death.

For the funeral message, I chose Psalm 73 as the text. In it the psalmist confesses his perplexity at the fact that so often the righteous seem to suffer (verse 14) while the wicked prosper (verses 3-12). When the writer looks at the eternal destiny of man, he realizes that God ultimately sets matters straight. The requirements of justice are often not fully met until eternity is entered. Heaven and hell are thus required by righteousness. Without them, justice is not satisfied.

This leads the psalmist to the conclusion that the ultimate good in life is not freedom from pain of suffering or poverty, but knowing God:

Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.… But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:23-26, 28).

Here, then, is the key to understanding the blessing that is to be found in delay and difficulty: while prosperity often leads us away from God (cf. Psalm 73:7-12), affliction draws us closer (Psalm 73:25-26).

If nearness to God is the highest good, then suffering is good also, if it enhances our intimacy with Him. And prosperity is evil if it inclines us away from the good of knowing God.

That, I believe, is the key to Genesis chapter 15. Abram’s faith is strengthened by specific revelation concerning his son and the soil his offspring will inherit. But even beyond this, he is brought to the realization that faith cannot be separated from suffering, for God uses this to draw men into intimate fellowship with Himself.

Faith is seldom strengthened by success (cf. verse 1), but by believing God in the midst of delays and difficulties.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).

155 The expression found in verse 1, “the word of the Lord came to . . . ” is first employed here in the Old Testament. It is commonly used to introduce a divine revelation given to one of God’s prophets (e.g., I Samuel 15:10). We should remember that Abram is later called a prophet (Genesis 20:7). This would seem to indicate that Moses understood this revelation to have come to Abram for his benefit and ours.

156 The discovery of a number of adoption tablets at Nuzi, has greatly aided our understanding of Abram’s words: “One ‘adoption tablet’ reads: ‘The tablet of adoption belonging to {Zike}, the son of Akkuya: he gave his son Shennima in adoption to Shuriha-ilu, and Shuriha-ilu, with reference to Shennima, (from) all the lands . . . (and) his earnings of every sort gave to Shennima one (portion) of his property. If Shuriha-ilu should have a son of his own, as the principal (son) he shall take a double share; Shennima shall then be next in order (and) take his proper share. As long as Shuriha-ilu is alive, Shannima shall revere him. When Shuriha-ilu {dies}, Shennima shall become the heir.’” Mesopotamian Legal Documents, translated by Theophile J. Meek, in Pritchard, ANET, p. 220., as quoted by John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 185.

157 “The form is unusual, perfect with waw, not as one would expect, imperfect with waw conversive. Apparently, by this devise the author would indicate that the permanence of this attitude is to be stressed: not only: Abram believed just this once, but: Abram proved constant in his faith . . . ” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 477.

158 “We feel our answer must take the same form as Luther’s, who points out that justification by faith is first indicated in the Scriptures in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved, in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from Him.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 479.

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