By Sam E. Stone
Last week we learned how God called Abram to leave his homeland and journey to a new country God would give him. The initial call from God came while he was still in Mesopotamia (Genesis 12:1-3; see Acts 7:2). Scripture next describes his sojourn in Egypt and his experiences with Lot. In chapter 15 we find Abram approaching the Lord with something that was troubling him.
Genesis 15 is considered a monumental chapter because the apostle Paul alludes to it years later when he explains how a man can be justified in the sight of God (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). This scene from the patriarchal age is a remarkable introduction of the doctrine of justification by faith.
God appeared to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Immediately Abram responded, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” All of God’s previous promises to Abram were dependent upon his having a son. In this culture, childless couples would sometimes adopt a child in order to have a legal heir to whom they could leave their property. Abram saw his servant Eliezer as the only recipient presently available.
But God had other plans. “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir . . . Look up at the heavens and count the stars . . . So shall your offspring be.” Imagine looking into the sky on a clear night. How many stars can you count? Abram got the message. Abraham’s seed includes all who belong to Christ (Galatians 3:29). One day that group will compose a multitude so great no one can count it (Revelation 7:9).
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as right-eousness. Here, for the first time in Scripture, the principle of justification by faith is clearly set forth. Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11). Salvation comes only through faith in Christ (see Acts 4:10-12). Abraham had unconditional faith in the Lord and his Word even when, humanly speaking, there was no reason to expect what God promised. Abraham proved what he believed by what he did
In Genesis 15:7-11 (not in the printed text), Abram asked another question of the Lord: “How can I know that I will gain possession of it?” He believed God’s promise of a son, but asked for a guarantee of the land promised. God told him to bring specified animals to use as sacrifices. Before the ceremony affirming the covenant, the Lord caused Abram to fall into a deep sleep. Keil explains, “The vision here passes into a prophetic sleep caused by God.” It brought dread and darkness to the patriarch. Hard times were ahead for Abram and his descendants.
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.” Abram would have to follow God’s timetable, not his. Later Paul affirmed, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). After years of enslavement, the Hebrew people would be freed. Then they would leave Egyptian bondage with great possessions. Abraham himself would not experience all the suffering his descendants would endure. He died peacefully at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:7).
The time 400 years mentioned here is obviously a round number; the precise amount of time (430 years) is confirmed in Exodus 12:40, 41 and also Galatians 3:17. One reason for the delay in returning to the promised land is cited in Genesis 15:16—for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
Genesis 15:17, 18
There is special significance in the smoking firepot with a blazing torch that passed between the meat as it lay on the altar. In ancient times a covenant was solemnized when each party walked past the pieces of slaughtered animals (Jeremiah 34:18, 19) showing they will keep their word. God gave Abram this covenant to confirm everything he had promised. You can count on him. John H. Walton summarized it well: “Don’t just believe; live in faith. Go beyond carpe diem to carpe Deum (embrace God).”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.