When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates (Genesis 15:17, NIV).
Abram hears from God when he is 75 years old (12:4). He and his wife Sarai have been married and childless for a long time already. There is no reason to think that they are going to start having kids now.
This may come as a shock, but Abram was not a good godly boy waiting to hear from God in Genesis 12. To the contrary, according to Joshua 24:2, Abraham was living in a pagan culture, worshipping idols. The god de jour in Harran at that time was a Nanna, a top tier moon god associated with cattle and fertility. Abram was not the “honest Abe” odd-ball-out who didn’t bow to the gods of Mesopotamia. He, Sarai and his whole family were all regulars at Nanna’s temple when God first spoke to him in Genesis 12.
It is to this pagan 75 year old guy that God says:
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV).
In that light, God’s promise seems prodigal in the true sense of the word! Prodigal does not mean “lost,” it means “recklessly extravagant.”
Like the lost son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 who rejected his father but gladly took his money and wasted it on food, booze, and women, Abraham was also far from God and was lost in an idolatrous lifestyle. But unlike the younger son in Jesus’ parable, he never realized he was, in essence, living among the pigs (Luke 15:15).
However, just like the father in that story, God was out on the road looking for Abram, and when he found him, he blessed him, made Himself his God and promised what Nanna had never been able to provide—children, provision, land, and honor.
How did Abram respond? He starts off well, taking his family out of Harran. But the stories of Genesis 13 and 14 tell us that Abram certainly did not become a paragon of patriarchal piety overnight.
When he is in Egypt he lies about Sarai to Pharaoh telling her she is his sister, not his wife, which put her in a situation where she would be tempted to commit adultery with Pharaoh. The whole thing blows up because God intervened, and Abram and Sarai end up being sent away.
The next thing we see is Abram and Lot getting into a family fight over feeding their flocks. Things got so bad that Abram floats the idea that they should part ways. He couldn’t keep his family together.
The result of that is that Lot and his family end up being taken as prisoners of war. When Abram hears about it, he takes some of his men and with God’s blessing, took the captors by surprise and saved Lot and his family. Again, God is going with Abram and protecting him and his family even though he was unable to keep what family he had from splitting.
That brings us to Genesis 15. Abram had enjoyed a great victory, but now was anxious about what revenge the four kings he defeated would take. God encourages him, telling him not to fear them, for He would be his protector and provider.
At this point, Abram’s anxiety and angst come to the surface. “How can I believe that? I am an old man with an old wife and I have no children! How do I know you are telling me the truth? You promise children, but I have none. You promise land, but I have none and no means to possess it. Without children, you cannot give me what you promise. The closest I have to an heir is my servant.”
How does God respond to his doubt and fear? He doesn’t rebuke him, condemn him, or correct him. He makes him a promise:
“This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:4-5, NIV).
And then we have that pivotal verse upon which the doctrine of justification by faith is built: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness (15:6). Abram accepted God’s promise and put his faith in it…sort of.
I say “sort of,” because in the next verse where God reaffirms his promise to give Abram and his descendants all the land he was living in, Abram’s faith again gives way to his doubts, But Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it? (Genesis 15:8 (NIV). Not five minutes has gone by and already Abram’a faith seems to have faded and flickered.
God then tells Abram to bring Him a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:9, NIV). Once Abram gets them, he kills them, cuts them in half and set up the halves opposite each other.
How did Abram know to do that? Because this was how promises were made legal and binding in that culture. God was making a covenant promise, what Abram would have understood as a legally binding agreement. The Hebrew word for covenant comes from the verb, “to cut.” The way it normally worked is that animals like the ones Abram was asked to get were cut in two and then the person making the covenant would walk between the pieces while legal witnesses watched, saying that if he or she did not keep the promise they were making, may I end up like these animals. If two people were making a covenant together, each would walk through them. When a king made a covenant with his people, his subjects would walk between them.
Notice that God does not tell Abram to get the animals for Abram, He wanted them for Himself (15:9). They were for God to make the promise, not for Abram to make the promise.
Second, God put Abram to sleep as He passed through the pieces (15:12). Abram was kept from walking through the pieces. Only God did. This promise did not depend on Abram. It was not a two-way covenant where one promises to do this as long as the other person does that. It was one-way.
Abram asked God for a sign, and God gave him one. He gave him one that he understood. He gave him one that put all the risk and responsibility on God and put none of it on Abram. God promised to do everything He promised Abram. Period. Abram’s being faithful and obedient had nothing to do with it. It was all grace.
God let Abram witness God entering into a covenant with Himself on Abram’s behalf. The covenant was “with” Abram in the sense that it was for Abram, but it did not depend on Abram. His part in this covenant was not to take an oath, but to be the legal witness of God’s oath to give him and his descendants the Promised Land. Abram’s only part was to believe that God would keep His promise, and God accepted that faith and counted him righteous because of it.
Abram’s story makes it very clear why a messiah was needed, why that Messiah had to be God, and why He needed to suffer and die.
Abram’s story makes it clear why a Messiah was needed. Abram was a broken, messed up, anxious guy. The very next thing we read about Abram after God makes this incredible promise, complete with a divine theophany of God’s visible presence, is him agreeing with Sarai that it was impossible for her to have children, so he should sleep with her maidservant!
My friends! Islam traces its roots back to Abraham through that son, through Ishmael. We are still living in the after effects of that sin! If Abraham was ever going to be the father of the faithful, it was going to be by grace.
We are no less prone to such things as he. Our faith waivers like his. We are prone to fall like him. We are prone to fail like him. If God did not decide to step in and graciously say, “I will take your faith and count it as righteousness,” we would be done. Abram’s story makes it crystal clear—we need a savior.
Abram’s story makes it clear why that Messiah had to be God. When God passed through the pieces of those animals, He was showing Abram what He was going to do. What we see in Genesis 15 is the second Person of the Trinity foreshadowing what He was going to do on our behalf.
The Hebrew word that the NIV translates as “descendants,” is actually the word “seed,” and it is singular, not plural. In Romans 5 and Galatians 3, Paul makes the argument that what was promised had two meanings: first that God was promising Abram and his descendants the land, and second that it was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Bringing Abram’s descendents into possession of the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites (Genesis 15:19-21, NIV) was a historical sign of what God was doing spiritually with Abram and his descendants. Jesus was the seed through which All Abram’s spiritual descendants would be given the Promised Land—heaven.
Abram’s story makes it clear why Jesus needed to suffer and die. God cut Abram out of the transaction, so Jesus could cut Abram and his decedents in on its benefits. What God promised Abram in that covenant, He did through Jesus’ death on the cross. Neither Abram nor any person before or after him could make that walk and live. So if Jesus was going to really live as one of us and take our place, He had to die too.
Both the covenant and the cross teach us that the penalty for sin is death. Physical death is necessary for sin to be forgiven, for “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
Both the covenant and the cross teach us that Jesus was going to take our place in making and giving that sacrifice. Jesus’ death was substitutionary, meaning He took our punishment upon Himself. I wrote about that at length here.
If Abram had been made to walk through those pieces, if God’s covenant had depended on his faithfulness and obedience or on that of his descendants, he and all who tried would have failed, been judged, and condemned to die.
Instead, Jesus took our place. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and took the judgement we should have been given when He was on the cross. He made that walk through the valley of the shadow of death for us.