Genesis 15:7-21 “God’s Covenant with Abram”

Posted on November 29, 2009. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Redeemer Sunday School- Genesis Class

Genesis 15:7-21 “God’s Covenant with Abram”

Sunday, 11-29-2009

Bryan E. Walker

Read Gen.15:7-21

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

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

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

Introduction: We are going to look at a foundational passage for Israel’s history this morning as we attempt to finish up ch.15 of Genesis. This dramatic text shows the covenant that God made with Abraham and we will discover that it is linked with the covenant God makes with Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20. We don’t use the term, “covenant”, very often today, although we use the word “Testament” in reference to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and Testament comes from Covenant. But what is a covenant? Essentially it is like a formal, legal promise, more meaningful than a contract, but similar. Perhaps using the word Treaty is appropriate. So we will look at this covenant between God and Abram this morning and seek to relate it to the New Covenant we have in Christ.

  1. I.                   Literary Analysis
    1. A.      Structure
      1. 1.         vss.7-9 have a similar structure to verses 1-5. Vs.7 begins with a statement from the LORD and uses the covenant name for God, YHWH, just as in vs.1.
      2. 2.         Vs 8 is Abram’s response to God’s self revelation and matches vs. 2-3 “But Abram said…”
      3. 3.         Vs.9 is the LORD responding to Abram as in vs.4-5.
      4. 4.         Vss. 10-11 Abram does what God tells him.
      5. 5.         Vs. 12 has some relation to vs. 1 in that he falls into a deep sleep whereas in vs. 1 it was a vision. Also, the term “deep sleep” points us back to 2:21.
      6. 6.         Vss.13-16 The LORD speaks to Abram, prophesies of his descendants.
      7. 7.         Vss.17-21 The formal conclusion of the covenant.
    2. B.      Parallel with Exodus
      1. 1.         Vss. 7 and Ex. 20:2 “I am the LORD…who brought you out.”
      2. 2.         Vss. 13-14 relate back to Abram’s sojourn in Egypt in 12:10-20 and the plagues that were afflicting Pharaoh and the Egyptians on the account of Sarai and then forward to Exodus and the enslavement of Israel and the plagues that led to their release.
      3. 3.         Vs.14 with the “come out with great possessions” relates to Abram leaving Egypt with much wealth and how Israel would leave Egypt with much wealth given by the Egyptians.
      4. 4.         Vs. 15 points forward to Abram’s death in 25.
      5. 5.         Vs. 16 points forward to Exodus 23 and to Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land.
      6. 6.         Vs. 17 with its smoke and flame points forward to what? The presence of God with Israel on their Exodus in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
      7. 7.         Vs. 18-21 points to Exodus 24.
    3. C.      Expository Outline
      1. 1.         One possible expository outline would be to use the statements by God in vss. 7, 14, and 18: “I Am”, “I will”, and “I give”
  2. II.                Theological Analysis
    1. A.      Verse 7
      1. 1.         I am the LORD– God uses his covenant name here, YHWH, I Am Who I Am, in a very rare occurrence for Genesis. Some of the older or more liberal scholars point to the use of the name YHWH as proof of a much later editor imposing this late name for God upon the patriarchal narratives. However, the key texts are Ex.3:13ff; 6:2-3. In these texts in DOES sound as if the LORD is just now revealing his new name, YHWH, to Moses. However it is possible to interpret Ex.6:2-3 as meaning that the LORD had not revealed his name in action to the patriarchs. But now, with the Exodus, he is revealing himself through his actions of deliverance. Keep in mind that the first use of YHWH is all the way back in 2:5, 7, 8, 15ff. For a similar construction see Ex.20:2 and Deut. 5:6. There is no clear solution to this, but I think in order to best preserve the principle of no-contradictions in the Bible, interpreting Ex.6:2-3 as meaning God did not reveal himself as YHWH through his actions is the best way to go.
      2. 2.         Who brought you out- this is the third time in ch.15 that the verb “brought you out” is used. See also vss.4-5, the ESV obscure it, but it is “coming from your own body”. The LORD brought Abram out of Ur and he will bring Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
      3. 3.         Application: We can thank the Lord for bringing us out of slavery to sin. We have a God who delivers, who brings his people out. We look forward to the day when he brings us out of this sin-filled world into his glory.
      4. 4.         to give you this land to possess- just as God brought him out of Ur safely, so he will indeed give him this land to possess. Compare what God promises with what he has already accomplished and you cannot go wrong.
    2. B.      Verse 8
      1. 1.         “How am I to know”- Calvin kind of gets on to Abram a bit here saying that Abram has some doubts even after verse 6 that extols his great faith. Other commentators say that asking for a sign is elsewhere in Scripture not a problem, see Gideon in Judges. In other words, Abram is taking God seriously and is asking for some visible confirmation.
      2. 2.         Application- Have you ever wanted some kind of visible confirmation of the promises of God? Maybe it is just visible fruit? We can sometimes mistake worldly signs of success, however, for divine confirmation.
    3. C.      Verse 9
      1. 1.         Bring me a heifer, three years old, a female goat… These are standard sacrificial animals. Three years old means they were matured and able to reproduce or work. The difficulty is that most of Israel’s sacrifices involved one year old animals, not three year olds. This is fairly unique. A sacrifice of a heifer was not unheard of, but rare, see 1Sam 16:2 and the appointment of David, and in a purification ritual for a murder in Deut. 21:1-9. Goats could be used for the Passover meal and was used in the Day of Atonement as a sin offering  (Lev.16:5) and then also as the scapegoat in Lev.16:21-22. The ram was also common in sacrifices as was the turtledove. But the young pigeon is a rare word in Hebrew and has the scholars a bit confused.
      2. 2.         Many commentators seemed to make a big deal out of the original vision in verses1-5 taking place early in the morning when the stars are still out and then this encounter taking place at sunset. I think there is some unnecessary confusion here that is rooted in the fact that most theologians have not worked a ranch or butchered any animals. It would take several hours to go round up this livestock and then butcher them in the prescribed manner. I see no problem with the encounter beginning early in the morning, taking all day to get ready and then having a late evening encounter too.
    4. D.      Verses 10-11
      1. 1.         And he brought him all these- Abram was quick to obey. Not cutting the birds in half is mentioned in Lev.1:17. This ritual is a bit unique in that ancient literature and the Bible do not produce anything exactly like it. In Jeremiah 34:18-19 is the closest thing. The number and kinds of animals are different, the word for cutting a covenant is different, in Genesis it is God who passes between the cut animals and in Jeremiah it is the people. The cut in half animals represent Abram’s descendants, Israel.
      2. 2.         when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away- this may represent the dangers that lie ahead for Israel of enemies seeking to attack them. It could represent the prophetic role of Abram as intercessor. This also clearly shows that this ritual was being set up during the day, when birds hunt.
    5. E.       Verse 12-16
      1. 1.         As the sun was going down- provides a proper setting for the dark ritual that will soon be experienced.
      2. 2.         a deep sleep fell on Abram- this is the same word used of Adam when God took his rib. God had previously used a vision in vs.1 and now it seems to be a dream.
      3. 3.         dreadful and great darkness fell upon him- If Abram experienced fear of the LORD in verse1, now it is a dreadful and great darkness. We think of God as being light, looking back at Gen. 1:3 and forward to Christ in John 8:12 “I am the light of the world”. What role does darkness play in this encounter? Darkness can indicate judgment, Jesus, in Matt.8:12, says, “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Look at Ex.13:17-14:20. The pillar gave light to Israel but darkness to Pharaoh’s army. One of the many pictures of hell is of darkness. The same God who gives his people light, gives those opposed to him darkness. In the dark of hell the demons can attack you from all directions and you won’t see them coming. In this revelation and prophecy there is judgment by God towards the Amorites.
      4. 4.         Application- you can also look at this overwhelming feeling of dread and darkness experienced by Abram as another experience which every Christian should prepare for: times of dread, fear and depression. I have seen this text presented with the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul. We do experience times of darkness in our soul, and we need to understand that for those of us who are prone to fears or depression, this too is from the Lord and we should seek him especially in those times, for He is there, he does not abandon his own.
      5. 5.         Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain…” Here is the direct answer to Abram’s request for a sign in vs.8 “how am I to know…”
      6. 6.         that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs- the word for sojourner is ger meaning stranger, alien resident, non-citizen. In 12:10 we saw that Abram only sojourned in Egypt. He did not dwell there as a citizen, but as a temporary alien. In 23:4 Abraham professes to be a “sojourner and foreigner” in the land.
      7. 7.         Application- 1Peter 2:11 “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles…” This world is not our home either. We are sojourners, passing through, and should not love the things of this world or become like this world.
      8. 8.         and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years- in Gen. 46 Jacob and his family immigrate to Egypt where his son Joseph is the Prime Minister (by the way, in recent months I have seen a couple of news articles claiming that some coins or amulets of some kind have been found that they think may be from Jospeh’s time period and bear his name. This is still in dispute and will take some time to corroborate.) They start off free but when, in Ex.1:8 a pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph, the people were enslaved.
      9. 9.         for four hundred years- this total is problematic as are many uses of numbers, ages and years in the OT. Ex.12:40 “the people of Israel lived in Egypt…430 years”. Acts 7:6 Stephen uses 400yrs but in Gal.3:17 Paul uses 430 yrs. I will not go into the complexities of all this, but some rabbinical writers and some Christians have used various schemes of coming up with the four hundred years because verse 16 says “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation.” How do you reconcile 400 yrs with 430 yrs and with 4 generations? Some say that the ancient world considered 110 yrs to be the perfect, full life, and so if you look at a generation as one complete lifespan…then you end up with 440 yrs. When you look at Moses’ genealogy in Exodus 6 you have Levi>Kohath>Amram>Moses, four generations. Some try to measure the 430 years from the year that Abram left Haran.
      10. 10.     Application- the bottom line with the years and genealogies is that we are safe in stating the 400 years is to be taken as a general rough estimate used in the common way that we use years and numbers too. The four generations are also best taken as either the idealized 110 yr generation or as an imprecise way of saying “several generations”. Genealogies such as in Ex. 6 are best taken as being representative, accurate in the information that is actually given, but incomplete. Anytime you make a dogmatic stand and point of essential doctrine on something like the use of numbers, years, days, or generations you are on difficult turf. Keep in mind that in our common language we use numbers, years, dates figuratively as well.
      11. 11.     Verse 14, 16- I will bring judgment on the nation they serve…the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.- God did judge Egypt with 10 awful plagues and drowned their army. While obviously great miracles were involved in this, and God was obviously doing something unique, however, I do not think we should discount the idea that God does indeed judge nations. Time an again in Scripture we see that. Vs.16 he mentions that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete. He was forebearing with the sinful Amorites.
      12. 12.     Application- does God judge nations today? Is it possible that he is beginning to judge America? In light of this how should our faith relate to our society in evangelism and politics?
      13. 13.     they shall come out with great possessions- similar to the wealth Abram acquired while in Egypt, the Israelites were showered with gifts by the Egyptians on the way out in Ex.12:35f.
      14. 14.     Application- what great riches await us in heaven as we depart this fallen world!
    6. F.       Verses 17-21
      1. 1.         a smoking firepot and a flaming torch- represents God himself passing through the halved animals, indicating that God is saying the burden of keeping the covenant is on him alone as Abram did not pass through. Some of the symbolism is hard to reconcile theologically because it appears that the process of passing through the halved animals means, “May it be done to me if I fail to keep this covenant!” It can be reconciled by understanding that if God fails to keep his word, he ceases being God, for God cannot lie or fail.
      2. 2.         The firepot and torch– fire pot is a clay oven that you can fill with hot coals and bake on its surface, it would smoke holes. The torch is to light the way. Again, this points to the presence of God with Israel in the wilderness in the column of smoke/cloud and the pillar of fire.
      3. 3.         the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, To your offspring I give this land.”- Moses is very deliberately showing the people of his day that their covenant at Sinai is linked directly to the covenant and prophecy God gave Abram on this occasion. This covenant is unconditional, it is God’s covenant of grace to Abraham and his descendants. It is this covenant that was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and which we now enjoy. There is a whole theology of the covenants that we could go into but that is more than this lesson could hold, and I am not prepared for that at this time.
      4. 4.         from the river of Egypt to the great river- the river of Egypt is obscure and may mean the Wadi el ‘Arish, the border mentioned in Numbers 34:5, or even the eastern branch of the Nile, but the word does not match either.
      5. 5.         the land of the Kenites, et. al- there are 10 names mentioned symbolizing completeness. Israel was to replace ALL the current occupants of the land. They of course would fail to do so and that would lead to problems.

Conclusion: this covenant with Abram will be further expanded in ch. 17 but is the founding covenant with Israel. All others will flow from this. The covenants are linked and ultimately fulfilled with the New Covenant mentioned in Jer 31:31f.


Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary, vol.1 Genesis 1-15. Word Books: Waco, TX 1987 (pp.322-335).

Francisco, Clyde T. The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol.1, rev. ed. “Genesis”. Broadman Press: Nashville, TN 1973 (pp. 164-166).

Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary, Vol.1B Genesis 11:27-50:26. Broadman&Holman Press: Nashville, TN. 2005 (pp.169-178).

Calvin, John. The Geneva Series, Genesis. Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, 1847 (1554 originally), (pp.410-421).

Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 1998 (pp.310-314).

Currid, John D. Genesis Vol.1 Genesis 1:1-25:18. Evangelical Press: Darlington, UK, 2003 (pp. 293-299).

Hamilton, Victor P. New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17. William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1990 (pp.429-438).

Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2001 (pp.242-247).

Sailhamer, John H. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol.2 “Genesis”. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1990 (pp.130-132).

Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Obedient. Victor Books: Wheaton, Ill. 1991 (pp. 49-52).


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