By Mark Scott
God made covenants regarding creation (rainbow), about days (Sabbath), in bodies (circumcision), and within the spiritual parts of bodies (heart)—all last month’s lessons. But he also made covenants with individuals (Abram and David) and with groups of people (ancient Israel and post-exilic Israel)—this month’s lessons. The God of the Bible loves to work an agreement. He did this with Adam (Genesis 2:16, 17) even before the word “covenant” appears for the first time in the Bible (6:18).
The Abram narrative makes up a large portion of Genesis (chapters 12 through 25). Much had happened to Abram by the time we get to this text. He had been called from Ur and Haran to the land of Israel. He had moved his family to Egypt to escape a famine and lied about his wife. He had both separated from and rescued his nephew Lot. Finally he had had a most interesting encounter with a priest of God named Melchizedek.
A Prominent Servant
But it had been a while since God gave Abram his original commission/covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), and hence the phrase in our text, “After this.” It was time for God to initiate the “promise” regarding it (15:15) and give the “sign” about it (v. 17). Abram played the role of a prophet (20:7) in that he experienced a vision (an ecstatic dream that brings a revelation) and in that the word of the Lord came to him (mentioned twice in our text—verses 1 and 4).
Before the particulars of the covenant were announced, God called Abram away from fear and identified himself. God is a shield and a very great reward. These metaphors for God are common in the Bible (Psalm 3:3; Isaiah 40:10). Abram was respectful in his direct address, “Sovereign Lord,” but he admitted his angst in that he had not witnessed the fulfillment of the promise given earlier (Genesis 12:3). Abram recognized that he was “as good as dead” and that Sarai was beyond the age to bear a child (Hebrews 11:11, 12).
Abram strove to work his own deal with God by suggesting that his chief servant, Eliezer (“The Lord helped”) become the heir of promise. This was not uncommon in Abram’s world. Eliezer had been with Abram for some time—maybe when Abram journeyed through Damascus. But the prominent servant would not be the promised son.
A Promised Son
The covenant would be made through Abram’s own flesh and blood. To reinforce that promise God used an object lesson with Abram. God took Abram outside and had him look up at the sky and count the stars—one, two, three. This could take a while. Later God would use another object lesson, the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17), to reinforce the promise. While these object lessons could have been visionary in nature, they could also have been literal in time and space.
Without one son to his name, Abram was asked to believe that his descendants would number in the billions (and they do at this very moment in history). The narrative reached a climax in one of the most significant verses in the Bible. Abram just believed. This verse is used several times in the New Testament (Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) and became the basis of Paul’s argument about justification by faith (Romans 4:18-22). God’s faithful righteousness was embraced by Abram and became the example for the church (Galatians 3:23-29). This is no small verse of a promised son.
A Provided Sacrifice
Abram knew this sacred space was encompassing a holy moment. God had him prepare a sacrifice (a heifer, a goat, and two birds). The larger animals were “cut” (as in making a covenant) in half. A most strange thing happened next. In the midst of darkness (see Matthew 27:45), a smoking firepot with a blazing torch . . . passed between the pieces. Fire is a symbol of God’s presence, and the Hebrew word for “passed” is the same word used in Exodus 12:12 for the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt.
While it is possible that these actions are self-maledictory oaths from the ancient world (wishing the same thing would happen to the person who breaks the covenant that happened to the animals), it might also be symbolically possible that God himself passed through sacrifices showing that he would “take the hit” to establish the covenant. And of course, part of that covenant involved possessing the land (from Egypt to Syria) that for now belonged to the various “ites.” God’s covenant, both then and now, will need to be kept in the midst of unbelievers.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.