Genesis Lessons 15: 1-7, 13-16, Awaiting Promises
INTRODUCTION: Last week, in Gen. 12:1-9, we moved into a new section-the age of the Patriarchs, that centered on the call of Abram, who will later be renamed Abraham. We learned that God's call of Abram marked one of the greatest turning points of human history, a point that would ultimately produce the nation of Israel and from it, the coming of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the entire world. In the lesson, we saw Abram give up everything he knew-his country and his family-to answer God's call. Childless and married to a barren woman at the time, Abram was called by God to pack up and travel to a completely strange place based upon the promise he would become the father of a new nation that would be populated by his own children. Because Abram believed the Word of God, he answered His call by walking in faith-spiritually and physically-from Haran to Canaan. To you and me, this represents the gold standard of faith. This week, in Gen. 15:1-7, 13-16, we skip Gen. 13 and 14, which I'll summarize: Chap. 13 reports that the grazing flocks of Abram and his nephew, Lot, had grown to the extent that they needed to be separated, with Abram settling in the region of Hebron and Lot moving to the fertile plain near the city of Sodom, a place God characterized as "exceedingly wicked" (13:12). Chap. 14 reports a war between the city states near Sodom during which Lot, his people, and everything he owned were taken captive. In response to this, Abram gathered his own army, which thereafter rescued Lot and all of his people and recovered all his possessions. This is where we meet up with Abram in today's lesson.
Read Gen. 15:1-3 - BEHOLD, YOU HAVE GIVEN ME NO OFFSPRING
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." 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?" 3 And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir."
v. 1a: "After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:" - The preface, "After these things," refers to Abram's recent rescue of Lot. God coming to Abram in a "vision" is evocative of how God at times communicates His Word to prophets.
v. 1b: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." - Since God already knew what was troubling Abram, His first words were to give him reassurance: with God Almighty acting as your "shield," the outcome, his "reward," should be certain, yes? Why worry about it?
v. 2a: "But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me," - What's amazing in this reply is that Abram at that moment answers God's promise to reward him with a distressed complaint.
v. 2b: "for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" - According to Mesopotamian custom, a childless couple could adopt a slave who would be responsible to care for them in old age and would assume the right of inheritance. "Eliezer" is apparently a household slave.
v. 3: "And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir." - Abram hasn't lost faith but wants answers, something concrete. God has promised to make him a great nation but has thus far even failed to give him a son, a blood-heir. If he died today, everything he owned would go to people having no blood relation to him. To him, there seems to be a great distance between God's promise and reality. So, if God isn't going to give him his own children, how does He plan to fulfill His promise to make him a nation? He's worried and wants an answer.
Read Gen. 15:4-7 - NUMBER THE STARS
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." 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." 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 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."
v. 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." - In this verse, God unambiguously informs Abram that the original promise is still good and He plans to keep it. The Hebrew word God used here for "heir" (yî-rā-šə-ḵā) literally translates to one who will come from your own body. In saying this, God makes it explicit that Abram's promised heir would be biological-a son that would come from his own flesh and blood. God also makes it abundantly clear that Eliezer or any other servant of his IS NOT THAT MAN.
v. 5a: "And He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." - God moved Abram outside to peer up at the nighttime sky. In that unpolluted desert sky, the expanse of God's universe would have been spectacular. The stars would have been bright and sharp pinpoints of light in their millions. God challenges Abram to count them.
v. 5b: "Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." - Abram, of course, couldn't count all those stars. God's message to Abram is that his blood descendants will be so numerous that they will be uncountable. Think forward to the twelve tribes-millions-numbered at the time of the Exodus.
v. 6: "And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness." - This is a key moment in this text, in the Bible, and in all of human history. Abram has decided once again to leap out in faith and trust in the promise of God rather than what seems evident to his human understanding. And for his faith, God deemed Abram to be "righteous," as a free gift-he was justified by grace.
v. 7a: "And He said to him, "I am the Lord" - God began this conversation by identifying Himself to Abram as his shield (protector) in v. 1, but now identifies Himself as I AM (YHWH), the sovereign Creator of the universe-having the unlimited power to do anything and everything.
v. 7b: "who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." God now comes back to his previous promise to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan for their own possession. As God puts it, He has taken Abram out of his old life, his former home and relatives to be a new people in a new place (a foreshadowing of salvation). Again, according to his human senses, Abram can't fail to notice that this land is already inhabited and controlled by a sizeable group of people who significantly outnumber his own followers. He wants God to explain how this promise is going to come true. He can't see it.
Read Gen. 15:13-16 - KNOW FOR CERTAIN
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 you, 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."
v. 13a: "Then the Lord said to Abram," - In v. 8, Abram directly put the question, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" In answer, God will make a covenant with Abram that will specify, in part, the boundaries of the future Israel that is to be possessed and occupied by Abram's descendants; first, however, God will reveal to him a prophecy.
v. 13b: "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" - God's pronouncement, "Know for certain," means that this prophecy is in effect a done deal. But before they are in a position to occupy this promised land, Abram's descendants will have to spend "four hundred years" as strangers and slaves in another land. God, of course, is referring to a time in the future, after the death of Joseph (Gen. 50:26) but before the call of Moses, when the Israelites (i.e., descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob), who by then "had multiplied and grew exceedingly strong" (Ex. 1:7) would be enslaved by the Pharaoh of Egypt. So, even though God has made it clear to Abram that the promise of the land is a certainty, it will happen according to God's own timeframe, which translated to centuries in the future. Though God never mentions Pharaoh or Egypt, Abram might have guessed this from his earlier experience in Egypt (see, Gen. 12:10-20, which we are not covering).
v. 14: "But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. - Here, God continues to clarify and unroll this future event about Abram's descendants and the land that they will one day possess. When God includes he conjunction "But" in a pronouncement, it frequently foretells a divine reversal in history. In this case, He promises an end to the captivity of Abram's offspring, the nation of Israel, by then 12 tribes of people numbering in their millions; and God further promises that He won't leave them impoverished, but they would come out of that ordeal "with great possessions" that would enable them to make a fresh start.
v. 15: "As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age." - After revealing to Abram (remember that he is seeing all these future events unfold in a vision that God gave him), God informs him that he won't live to see any of these things happen. Instead, he would "go to your fathers in peace"-a metaphor for death. Scholars estimate that Abram was about 85 years old at the time of this vision, and God implies he has many years left to-"a good old age"-which, as events turn out, will be about 85 more years.
v. 16a: "And they shall come back here in the fourth generation," - God now returns to His prophecy about Abram's future family. In the context of this era of Biblical history, a "generation" consisted of a hundred years, so the "fourth" would approximate 400 years, as a round figure. In exact figures computed from the book of Exodus, the Israelite's time of captivity actually spanned 430 years (Ex. 12:40). Our modern system now numbers generations in 25-year intervals.
v. 16b: "for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." - Here, we run into some interesting theology. The reason God cites for the delay in conquering the promised land is the unfinished wickedness of the Amorites, a Near Eastern people who settled in the hilly area east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The theological principle at work here is that God may hold off judgment in order to allow a people more time to come to repentance and acknowledge Him as LORD (Ezek. 8:21-22). When that time expired in this case, God planned to use the nation of Israel as an instrument of judgment on the Amorite people, which in fact happened when the army led by Joshua completely annihilated them in 1207 B.C. (Josh. 11:8), an event that took place about 800 years after God's conversation with Abram in this chapter.
APPLICATION-Living Between Promises and Fulfillment:
One Broad Principle: As we live life between God's promises and fulfillment, we must be able to see past our personal circumstances and trust God. A while after God had promised to make Abram a great nation, Abram got confused and discouraged. Time had lapsed since God had made that promise, and Abram was older, still childless, his wife was still barren, and if he died at that moment, his only heir was an unrelated household servant. Then God reaffirmed his promise to make him a nation by showing Abram's that his biological heirs would be as numerous as the stars in the sky-and he believed God-decided to completely trust in Him, despite the fact that his present circumstances hadn't changed, and "God counted it to him as righteousness," a foreshadowing of salvation by grace. The same is true for us 21st Century Christians. We have many great and precious promises in our Lord Jesus Christ. And like our forefather Abram, we must step out in faith and believe in the redemption, restoration, cleansing, and the kingdom that Jesus has promised. Very simply, we make God's promises real by believing them.