Life of Abraham: God’s Covenant Ceremony
Abram had come a long way. He left his homeland, sojourned through pagan lands, separated from his nephew, fought a war, rescued Lot and other captives from a pagan nation, and was honored by a great man of God. He has grown in wealth and notoriety. Yet all of this is dust to him. His desire is for a child; the child that God had promised him.
Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Abram is now listing his complaints to God.
God had blessed Abram greatly. He had grown wealthy, strong, and had come to be respected by the locals. God had given him much. But, for Abram, nothing was to be compared to having a child. He would trade it all for an heir.
It is also important to note that Abram, in this petition, concedes that it is God who gives children. He is recognizing God’s sovereignty in all parts of life.
Abram has long desired a child but the child has never come. God had promised to make him a “great nation” (Genesis 12:2) and, another time, promised his descendents would be innumerable (Genesis 13:16). Yet, Abram was getting older and older and still had no children.
Perhaps Abram feared God had forgotten about His promise. Maybe he thought he misunderstood what God had said to him. He may have even feared he had done something to have the promise taken back.
“While promised mercies are delayed our unbelief and impatience are apt to conclude them denied.” ~ Matthew Henry5
Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4)
God is gentle but firm. He reassured Abram that He meant what He said, He had not forgotten the promise He had made to Abram, He was not going to change His mind, and that Abram had not misunderstood Him. He would give Abram an heir from his own loins.
And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5)
I grew up in the country and could see lots of stars at night. He grew up in the city and we now live in a city. Light pollution prevents us from seeing most of the stars. We recently traveled to west Texas to do some star gazing. It is amazing what you can see away from any lights.
When God escorted Abram out to gaze upon the night sky, he could see millions, perhaps billions of stars. As in Genesis 13:16 when God made the point that Abram’s decedents would be as uncountable as the dust of the earth, here God reinforces that promise by pointing to the stars. God would fulfill His promise to Abram.
Abram Believes God
Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
This short sentence has a huge theological impact that resonates all the way to the New Testament and even to today. Both Romans 4 and Galatians 3 refer to this verse. The implications of Abram being “reckoned” as righteous apart from the works of the Law demonstrates that we are saved, not by works but by God’s grace.
Genesis 15:6 is proof that our salvation is not based on any works we do. God counted Abram righteous before circumcision, before the Law was given, and before Christ had come. God gave Abram not only riches, respect from the locals, protection, and eventually even a child, but most importantly, God gave Abram the ability to believe in His promise.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
This is the Doctrine of Justification. We are justified before God, counted righteous, not based on anything we have or could ever do but based on Christ’s perfect life and death. Christ’s good works are credited to our account and our sins are credited to Him. He took on the penalty of death for His Bride. We cannot be good enough, we cannot do enough good work to earn justification before God. It is wholly a work done by the Trinity alone. The Father chooses, the Son redeems, and the Spirit seals.
“You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” ~ Jonathan Edwards
God Promises Abram Land
And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” (Genesis 15:7)
God proclaims who He is. He reminded Abram that He is the Lord. He is Yahweh, the Living God, the One True God. He is sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. All that God says and promises can be trusted. He knows all that will happen and has the power to bring about all He promises. He is telling Abram, “Abram, you can trust Me.”
God also reminds Abram of what He has already done in his own life.
We do not base truth on our experiences but our experiences can reinforce the truth that is revealed in Scripture and make those truths more personal. When we feel far from God or are in the midst of trials and tribulations, look back over your life and see all the times God has protected you, been with you, strengthened you, blessed you, and preserved you.
God showed Abram special mercy by calling him out from the Chaldeans alone. Abram was God’s chosen, not the hundreds or thousands left in Ur. Abram’s soul was saved while the rest of the Chaldeans, idol worshipers, were destined for eternal punishment. Abram was “credited as righteous,” not those of the pagan nations.
God has called His children out from their lives of sin and out of the world of pagans. He has shown us special mercy. We do not deserve this gift. This should humble us and cause us to rejoice in His glory.
God reaffirms that He will not only give Abram an heir from his own body but He also reminds Abram of the promise of land. He has also promised us a future Land to possess. We have the Promised Heir and we now await the Promised Land.
Request for Assurance
He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” (Genesis 15:8)
Abram liked these promises but they seemed too good to be true. He wanted more than just a promise. He wanted assurance from God. He believed God but wanted to be sure.
Abram’s petition here reminds me of the story in Mark 9 of the father with the demon possessed son. This father came to Jesus and said, “If you can, help us!” Jesus responded to the man, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” Then the man cries out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
I can so relate to this father so many times. I would also venture to guess that Abram, in this conversation with God, would have also related. Abram is essentially saying to God in this passage, “God, I believe; help my unbelief.”
Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this passage said, “It is a very desirable thing to know that we shall inherit the heavenly Canaan, that is, to be confirmed in our belief of the truth of that happiness, and to have the evidences of our title to it more and more cleared up to us.”5
God, being the loving Father that He is, acquiesced to Abram’s request.
Preparing for the Ceremony
So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. (Genesis 15:9-10)
Abram may have expected a miraculous sign at this point. Maybe some astronomical event or something of that sort. However, God had him prepare a sacrifice.
This preparation seems very strange to us. However, this ceremony was very common in the ancient Near East. This process was even called to “cut a covenant.” Two or more parties entering into a covenant would cut animals in two and place the pieces on each side of a path. Then the parties would make the covenant as they walked between the animal carcasses. This was to remind them that should one of them break the covenant, the same would be their fate.
The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. (Genesis 15:11)
Abram had prepared for the sacrifice ceremony but then God tarried. Abram waited and waited. Finally something showed up but it wasn’t God, it was scavenger birds. These birds came to what they assumed to be a feast, but, Abram drove them away.
Below are three quotes from a few of my favorite theologians. These quotes are so much more powerful regarding this passage than anything I could say. So, I decided just to leave the commentary for this verse to them.
“When we meet with God, we must be serious and resolute in His worship—and if difficulties arise, we must encounter them with all our might—resolving that we will offer to God a sacrifice which shall not be torn in pieces by distracting influences.” ~ Charles Spurgeon7
“A very watchful eye must be kept upon our spiritual sacrifices, that nothing be suffered to prey upon them and render them unfit for God’s acceptance. When vain thoughts, like these fowls, come down upon our sacrifices, we must drive them away, and not suffer them to lodge within us, but attend on God without distraction.” ~ Matthew Henry5
“Although the sacrifice was dedicated to God, yet it was not free from the attack and the violence of birds. So neither are the faithful, after they are received into the protection of God, so covered with his hand, as not to be assailed on every side; since Satan and the world cease not to cause them trouble. Therefore, in order that the sacrifice we have once offered to God may not be violated, but may remain pure and uninjured, contrary assaults must be repulsed, with whatever inconvenience and toil.” ~ John Calvin2
And Abram continued to wait. Oh that we would have the same patience. How often do we question God’s timing? How often do we grow impatient with God when He does not act in the moment that we desire?
“Nothing is to be hurried in devotion! Never is haste more out of place than in Divine worship! The habit of quiet waiting upon God, of never being in a hurry to be gone, the willingness to give time and thought to the service of God is not so common as one could wish. But when a man is thoroughly devout and God’s Spirit has spoken with him, he is not satisfied to merely give the allotted time to Divine service or to private devotion, he loathes to be gone! He would be the first in the House of the Lord and the last out of it. He can wait the Lord’s leisure and not grow impatient, even if, hour after hour, the converse is not closed. The longer, the better, when God is near us. And if the blessing seems far away and it does not come all of a sudden, the gracious worshipper waits until it does come, for he would not go away without the benediction of the Lord!” ~ Charles Spurgeon7
Abram Falls Asleep
Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. (Genesis 15:12)
Abram has almost spent an entire twenty-four hours with God. Earlier God took him out to look at the innumerable stars. Now we see that the sun is setting. This has been a long day for Abram.
“God often keeps his people long in expectation of the comforts he designs them, for the confirmation of their faith; but though the answers of prayer, and the performance of promises, come slowly, yet they come surely. At evening time it shall be light.” ~ Matthew Henry5
Adam fell into a deep sleep. This is not just a tiredness from having worked and watched all day. This was a supernatural trancelike sleep. It could almost be compared to the type of sleep someone about to have a surgical procedure may be put in or almost like a form of catatonia. He is asleep but conscious enough to be in terror, hear God speak to him, and see what God was about to show him. He is conscious but not able to interact with what is going on around him.
It is interesting that Abram comes under a sudden attack of terror. God’s presence is terrifying. He is the holy God. People who claim to have visited with God face-to-face and experienced “warm fuzzies” deviate from what the accounts of such interactions that are recorded in the Bible.
God had to cover Moses and only allowed him to see Him from behind or he would have died. The people of Israel were terrified of Moses after he had spent time with God simply due to the effect that God’s presence left on Moses’ countenance.
When Isaiah saw God in a vision, he cried out that he was “undone” or was “destroyed.” John’s account of God on His throne is also a terrifying sight. In Revelation 4:5, John records, “Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder.”
God is loving, gentle, merciful, and tender but He is not to be misunderstood. He is also wrathful, holy, great, and mighty. He is to be feared.
This is not the same kind of fear as we may feel when we think someone has broken into our home in the middle of the night. This is a terror that comes from realizing how sinful and unworthy you are to stand before the holy and righteous Living God.
“Holy fear prepares the soul for holy joy; the spirit of bondage makes way for the spirit of adoption. God wounds first, and then heals; humbles first, and then lifts up.” ~ Matthew Henry5
God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. (Genesis 15:13-14)
This is a bit of bad news followed by good news.
God warns us that we will suffer trials and tribulations in this life. We will suffer them in even greater amount and intensity for simply being chosen of God. But God promises that He will judge the unrighteous and we will enjoy untold riches and blessings when we come out of this life.
Even Christ was not exempt from this truth. He suffered greatly before He ascended to His throne. We are no better than our Master. We can expect to suffer before we join Him in the perfect kingdom.
Abram’s decedents fled to Egypt under the care of Joseph during a great famine in the land. They enjoyed many years as guests of the Egyptians and grew in great number. After Joseph died and new rulers ascended, the Egyptians feared the growing number of Israel and enslaved them. When God chose to free them from their enslavement, He sent Moses to lead His people out. God sent ten plagues to judge Egypt before the Pharaoh agreed to release God’s people.
Just before they fled Egypt, the Egyptians gave the people of Israel much gold and precious items. The Bible speaks of this as Israel having plundered Egypt. This plundering was not from them going in and ransacking the Egyptian’s homes but by God causing the Egyptians to give over their wealth.
Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:35-36)
This may have been a somewhat difficult reality for Abram to hear but God never shies away from telling us the hard truth. Thankfully, God always leaves His children with hope. And, as Romans 5:5 says, this is a hope that does not disappoint.
“As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:15-16)
God then moves on to prophesy about Abram’s fate. Abram is comforted that he will end his life in peace and will die at a “good old age.” Abram would live a long life and be blessed with a peaceful death.
While Abram will never personally possess the Promised Land, his descendants will. And their return will mark the end of the sinful Amorite nation.
The Covenant Ceremony
It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.” (Genesis 15:17-21)
As I mentioned above, the two or more parties who were “cutting a covenant” would pass between the split animals to remind them that if one should break the covenant, his fate would match that of these sacrificed animals. However, in this moment, God alone passes between the carcasses.
RC Sproul paraphrased what God was saying to Abram in this act:
“‘Abraham, I’m putting My very deity on the line here. I’m swearing to you by My holy nature. If I don’t keep this word, I will no longer be God.’ And God made a covenant with Abraham. He made a promise, and He backs up that promise which is not just to Abraham … . To all of God’s people He makes a promise that He seals with an oath based upon His own very nature. There is no conceivably higher guarantee than that.” ~ RC Sproul3
God made a promise to Abram that continues to today. While the temporal part of the promise has been fulfilled, Abram had descendants and they did possess the Promised Land, the spiritual aspect of this promise continues today. God promised Abram he would be the father to many nations. Through God’s redemptive plan, Jews and Gentiles, people from all nations, backgrounds, and people groups are added as spiritual descendants of Abram. As Abram’s spiritual descendants, we wait for that final Promised Land of which we will possess for all eternity.
“Obviously, God cannot cease being God. Thus, there is no chance that the Lord will fail to keep His promise to Abraham. As we look at history, we see that our Creator is keeping His pledge to the patriarch. Abraham has many descendants of faith, men and women who trust in His greatest Son—the Lord Jesus Christ. Despite its imperfections, the church universal proves that God is fulfilling His promises and will keep every other one that He has made to His people.”3
1. “Abrahamic Covenant, Part 1.” Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/abrahamic-covenant-part-1/.
2. Calvin, John. “Genesis 15 – John Calvin’S Bible Commentary – Bible Commentary.” Christianity.Com, https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=clvn&b=1&c=15.
3. “God’s Promise To Abraham.” Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/gods-promise-abraham/.
4. “God’s Sign To Abraham.” Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/gods-sign-abraham/.
5. Henry, Matthew. “Chapter 15 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Gateway.” Biblegateway.Com, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/Gen.15.1-Gen.15.21.
6. Spurgeon, Charles. “Abram And The Ravenous Birds.” Ccel.Org, 1861, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons07.lxiv.html#lxiv-p0.1.
7. Spurgeon, Charles. “Driving The Vultures Away From The Sacrifice.” Ccel.Org, 1887, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons33.lvi.html#lvi-p0.1.
8. Spurgeon, Charles. “Filling Up The Measure Of Iniquity.” Ccel.Org, 1907, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons53.xxiii.html#xxiii-p0.1.