A Bible Lesson on Genesis 12:1-5, 15:1-21

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

We move ahead from Noah’s time to the time of Abram (Abraham, as God renamed him).  Genesis 11 puts the birth of Abram about 350 years after the flood.  Abram was descended from Shem, the son of Noah.  There are 8 generations between Shem and Abram. Chapters 10 and 11 of Genesis recount the repopulation of the earth and the story of the tower of Babel.  Theologians identify Chapter 12 of Genesis the beginning of redemption history.  In some ways, there have been two beginnings before this: creation itself and the fresh start after the flood.  Both have gone badly from the point of view of the condition of humanity.  Chapter 12 provides a beginning that culminates in Christ and salvation by faith, the only salvation there is.  It opens with the call of and promise to Abram.

Our part, if we are to know God, is to obey Him and take Him at His word.  How could it be otherwise?  If indeed He made all and owns all — is who the Scriptures say He is — could mere creatures possibly truly have relationship with Him and simultaneously be willfully disobedient or maintain that He lies?  Adam and Eve did both, and the end of it was misery for all human beings.  Redemption history begins with another command and God’s promises.

Genesis 12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Kidner comments “Abram’s part is expressed in a single though searching command, while the heaped up I will’s reveal how much greater is the LORD’s part.  At the same time their futurity emphasizes the bare faith that was required: Abram must exchange the known for the unknown (Heb. 11:8), and find his reward in what he could not live to see (a great nation), in what was intangible (thy name) and in what he would impart (blessing).”

In verse 3 we find the second Messianic promise.  (The first was in Genesis 3:15.)  This is the most important part of the I will’s.  This is the core promise of God to Abram.  While Abram’s trust in God’s good intentions for him personally and temporally is important, his belief that from him would come One that would truly bless humanity in an ultimate sense (One who would deal with our misery and sin) is the faith through which he is ultimately reckoned as righteous.  This is the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 4 and 9 and in Galatians 3.

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Abram is characteristically obedient.  God says “go” and Abram goes.  God tells him how things are and will be and he takes God at His word.  That is true faith.

Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.

5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. …

The New Testament version of this comes to every believer.  Jesus called the disciples to drop their fishing nets and follow Him.  He passed by and demanded that Matthew immediately leave the tax collection booth and follow Him.  All those who will truly know God will break with their old familiar fallen ways and cultural assumptions, and follow Him, not knowing where they are going, except that it is with Him.  They will cast themselves upon Him.

We jump now to the official ISSL lesson passage, another pivotal episode in the life of Abram.  As we pick up the story, Abram, a sojourner in the land of Canaan has been on a military expedition and rescued his nephew Lot and others from some of the local warlords.  He has given Melchizedek (as God’s priest) a tithe of the spoils of war, but has refused to keep anything else for himself, especially anything that would make him in debt to the king of Sodom.

Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

The word of the LORD came to Abram.  The knowledge of God had by Abram’s time become extremely clouded (there has been the flood, there has been the tower of Babel, etc.).  The Scripture says that Abram’s father was an idol worshiper.  Abram had been brought up in Ur in a pagan culture where they worshiped the local moon goddess.  Quite literally, they were worshiping the creation instead of the Creator.  Out of this situation, God had sovereignly called Abram.  Now He comes to him in a vision.

God says “Fear not.”  Possibly God is speaking of not being afraid of His appearance.  Another strong possibility in context, is that Abram is brooding over the way that he has potentially antagonized the warlords of the area with his recent military excursion (see Chapter 14), wondering if in fact what he’s done will stir up retribution.  His expedition with 318 fighters had been successful through a surprise night attack, but he’s surely way outnumbered, and what if the kings who have laid waste to whole large cities and peoples reorganize and come for him and his?

“I am your ‘shield'” (or possibly, sovereign/king).  In the context of the recent military outing, this is reassurance from God, that ultimately it is God who is responsible for the safety of Abram and his household.  That is the way that it always has been and continues to be.  It is God who is the protector of His people.  It is not their numbers, weapons or political power that guarantees their safety.

“your reward shall be very great” says God.  Abram is reminded of the promises of the covenant of Chapter 12.  Abram is a wealthy man.  He has just had and passed up the opportunity to acquire more wealth through keeping the spoils of war.  But God says that what Abram has that is most precious is Abram’s relationship to Himself.

2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abram recalls that God’s promise to him includes the provision that he would be the father of a great nation and one through whom humanity will be blessed.  To this point, he sees little evidence of that coming to pass.  In fact, he’s childless.

The custom of the time and place was that a man’s main estate passed on to his oldest son.  If there was no son, it was possible to adopt one to serve as a primary heir and guardian of the estate.  It seems here that Abram either has, or is thinking about adopting this person Eliezer, possibly a servant he’s acquired on his trip from Ur to Palestine.

Kidner points out that a lesser person would have simply taken comfort in the promise of verse 1.  Abraham remembers the original promise of Chapter 12 and asks for clarification concerning the whole business of offspring and a great nation.  This question is not lack of faith, but rather the very opposite.  It is calling into memory the very real and specific promise of God and not simply taking some general comfort in some vague good will.

3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”

4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”

At this point, Abram is a minimum of 75 years old.  (12:4 says that he was 75 when he set out from Haran.  16:16 says he’s 86 when Ishmael is born.)  His wife Sarai is 10 years younger, but presumably beyond the age of child bearing.  God is promising Abram something that Abram can’t really put together from his finite, human perspective.  This is a natural impossibility.

5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Hartley points out that God doesn’t debate with Abram or point out the weakness of his logic, but rather simply reaffirms His promise and gives a sign that is at once most powerful and (to a disbelieving heart) most ordinary.  The stars are a good object lesson for Abram.  To begin with, there is the very number of them.  But there is also the object lesson that the God who is speaking to Abram is the God who made them.  A look up into the sky ought to remind Abram of the creative power of the One who is speaking.  The same God who made all is the One who is reiterating His promise to give Abram offspring.  What more reliable guarantee could there be than the word of the God who made everything that is?

Next comes one of the key verses of all of Scripture.  Many call it the very “hinge” of salvation.

6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

This verse is reiterated in Romans 4, Galatians 3, and James 2.  This is the first time “belief” is explicitly referred to in the Scriptures.  The Hebrew word means “to support/to hold firm/to rest upon as firm.”  That is, the meaning is “to accept as true/to recognize as valid.”  It is the word from which our English word “Amen” (“it shall be so”) derives.  When Abram believed God, he said “Amen” to God’s promise, fully trusting that it would be so.  He took God at His word.  The result of that is that God credited righteousness to him.  God reckoned him to be both judicially innocent and in right relationship to Himself.  It is worth noting that there is no such statement earlier, when Abram believes God and moves out from Ur and then Haran.  That too took faith.  But here the faith makes Abram righteous in the sight of God.  It is no accident that the subject here is God’s promise of offspring for Abram.  By believing that God will give him a physical heir and fulfill 12:3 (whether Abram completely understands it or not) he is looking forward to God providing the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, through his descendants.  Saving faith is a faith that believes God in the matter of His provision of a Savior, the Lord Jesus, and fundamentally that’s to what Abram looks forward.  It’s a real righteousness, because it’s the righteousness of the perfect Christ imputed to a person who believes.

Kidner pointed out “Note that Abraham’s trust was both personal (in the LORD) and propositional (the context is the specific word of the LORD in verses 4,5).”

James Boice commented on the verse “The ultimate question in life is whether you believe God. It is not a question of whether you believe in God.  Many people say they believe in God.  There has to be a God, in their opinion.  But this does not mean anything to them.  The real question is whether you believe God, who makes these promises, and whether you live by what God has promised.  Has God spoken?  If so, has God spoken clearly?  If God has spoken clearly, can God be trusted to do what he has promised?  Wise is the one who answers yes to those questions and lives by faith in those promises.”

Christians are people who “believe God” in all things, and most fundamentally in the matter of His provision of a Savior.

7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”

8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

Not only will God give Abram heirs (both literally and spiritually), but He promises to give him the land of Canaan.  This too is pretty impossible-looking from where Abram is standing.  His household is good-sized, but not by any means big enough at this point to force out the Canaanites.  The 318 trained men in his military force make not a bad-size local police force, but hardly an army adequate to dislodge the current inhabitants of the land.  God answers Abram in a way that sounds very foreign to our ears, but makes perfect sense in the context of the time.  God makes a covenant with Abram.  God enters into a solemn political and social convention, the most binding form of agreement among men of the time and place.

9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.

The Hebrew description of making a covenant actually means to “cut” a covenant.  The agreement was sealed through the death of animals and splitting apart of the carcasses.  The parties (both of them) making the agreement would then walk between the halves of the bodies, effectively saying “may the same happen to us if we go back on our word.”

11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

The birds seem to be a reminder/picture of the fate of a covenant breaker.  Consider, for example, this passage from Jeremiah.

Jer 34:17  “Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the LORD. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.

18 And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts–

19 the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf.

20 And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.

This is a picture of people who have made and broken a covenant with God.  The birds of prey will feast on their carcasses.  Abram protects the sacrifices from the scavenger birds until sundown.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.

The thick darkness reminds of the darkness that shrouded Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law.  Abram is going to see the awesome presence of God, but he’s going to do so only while in a deep sleep.  (We might speculate that anything more would be too much for him.)  God proceeds now to give Abram more details of when and how his offspring will possess the land.

13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.

This is probably not what Abram was expecting or wanting to hear, but God gives him a glimpse of the Egyptian captivity and the Exodus.  The time is not ready for Abram to possess the land.  It will be for Joshua to lead the Israelites in conquest of the land.  In the mean time, Abram will go on being a tent dweller in the land his descendants will possess.

14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.

16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

God is speaking generically of the people of Canaan.  It was a truly pagan culture.  Their worship was polytheistic, included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution, and divination.  This is the first reference to a common Old Testament theme, namely God graciously restraining judgment on a people, but finally bringing destruction on them through another people when their behavior becomes so outrageous as to absolutely demand His intervention.  In this, God is shown to be completely impartial, bringing this kind of judgment on both pagan nations and His own people who forsake Him and His ways.  The point here is that Abram’s descendants taking the land will be a form of judgment on the Canaanites, and the time is not yet ripe for that to come.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

God now passes between the halves of the carcasses.  Note that Abram is out cold.  He has no part in making a vow or promise.  Abram doesn’t pass through the carcasses.  This is simply the grace of God,  God obligating Himself to provide Abram with descendents and the promised land.  There is nothing that Abram or we can bring to this covenant with God, except the willingness to take God at His word.

Boice summarizes the nature of what has happened here as God’s provision of His unilateral, eternal/unchangeable, and gracious covenant with those who will take Him at His word.

18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,

19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,

20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,

21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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