Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on February 21, 2016.

God's Promises to Abram - Tissot
God’s Promises to Abram – Tissot

Genesis 15 is a conversation between God and Abram with three sections, first 1-6, and second a ritual act of making a covenant 7-12 and finally a conclusion of the covenant ritual. The opening verse of the chapter uses a formula found in prophetic literature. The passage begins with a “After these things the Word of the LORD came to Abram.“ The narrative connector “after these things” introduces the prophetic formula “the Word of the LORD was to…” which occurs in 2 Chronicles, here in Genesis, but mostly in prophetic literature.

Prior to this chapter the reader finds only divine monologues (12:1ff. 7; 13:14ff) but here we find a conversation. Abram chides God about the unfulfilled promise. The divine speech begins with the formula “do not be afraid.” This reassurance is part of the Genesis tradition (26:24 and 46:3). But it is a staple of the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. This makes sense when one considers the prophetic element. This assurance or imperative to fear not occurs absent a clear and present danger. The formula occurs often in the Hebrew Bible but also in Luke 1:12. In both this passage and Luke 1:12 the addressee is a childless man who would be a father.  “The word of the LORD came to…”  The divine speech continues “I am your… shield”  as in many translation such as AV, RSVC, and NIV, but a slight emendation of the Hebrew text would render this as “benefactor.” Shield is a metaphor that we know from the cult (see Psalms 3:3; 28:7; 33:20).

The dialog moves to Abram’s question in verse two where he laments his childless state. This lament/protest in verses two and three has Abram’s petition, “What will/are you giving to me?”; a reference to the promise of Genesis 12 is meant to reframe the reassuring opening of the chapter. The lack of an heir created economic havoc in antiquity for a person of means. The lack of an heir created psychological and theological havoc as well. Theologically it was interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure. At a psycho-social level it was construed as an emblem of shame because children were an artifact of honor.  Sarai/Sarah is the first in what will be a long line of “barren” women stories: Rachel (Gen 30), Hannah (1 Sam 1-2) and Elizabeth (Luke 1). Typically the barren woman who eventually conceives gives birth to a propitious character: Jacob, Samuel, and John the Baptist. But in the stories themselves there is no awareness of this trope. So Abram laments and protests the reassuring message from God.

Abram’s laments and protest do not lie in the air without divine rebuttal. But rather than providing proof of the promise, God dismisses Abram’s claim about his heir. Further, God doubles down on the promise of Genesis 12, namely “I will make you a great nation.” God brought Abram outside and uses a demonstration of the stars of the night sky as an analogy for the heirs of Abram. The instructions are, “go outside, look to the heavens and count the stars.”

The interchange ends. The writer describes Abram’s response to the conversation. There are two Hebrew verbs aman “to believe” and chashab “to reckon”. Both of these verbs in the Hebrew are active. The nouns Abram and God are also in Hebrew masculine singular. It is clear that Abram is the subject of the first sentence. The second sentence either Abram or God could be the subject of the verb “reckon.” The Septuagint translator tried to remedy what he considered as an ambiguity by rendering the second verb as a passive with the subject being the belief in the first sentence. Through the lens of the Septuagint, Abram’s response captured the imagination of Paul (see Rom 4 and Gal 2-4).

The causative form of the Hebrew word aman found here occurs in two other places (Gen 42:20; 45:26) Hamilton suggests that form indicates a declarative use. Abram declared trust in God and reckoned God as in the right. Abram’s declaration functions as a pivot for the passage. The language of “reckon” is reminiscent of legal and cultic use (Lev 7:18; 17:4; Num 18:27) that designates the judging function of the priests. Righteousness is a term of relationship, a person in the honor position. When Abram recognizes the righteousness of God it reframes Abram’s earlier speech and in fact his whole world.

The second half of the passage describes a covenant ritual. However, here the primary actor in cutting this covenant is God. The conversation continues in verse seven. The next divine speech recounts the works for Abram that seem to be invisible to him. The divine speech “I am the LORD who brought you…” will become a formula in later passages. Even the commissioning is a sign of divine providence.

The promise of heirs (Gen 12 and 15) now includes land. But when Abram once again asks for more concrete evidence God instructs Abram to put together a covenant-making set of sacrificed animals. Now the believer Abram becomes the acolyte preparing for the covenant worship service. Notice the messiness of covenant. When you cut this animal in half it makes a mess.

The Bible says “As the sun was going down a deep sleep and profound dread came over Abram. Here the parallel is Genesis 2 when Adam was put to sleep (Gen 2:21). The actor in this half of the verse is meant to be God. This is nowhere more clear than “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces.” These were theophanic metaphors.

The theme of divine providence drips from most every word of this passage.  The divine initiative that we might call ‘grace’ is always there in this passage.

reidDr. Stephen B. Reid

Professor of Christian Scriptures
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX



Tags: divine presence, covenant promise, heir, land

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