So Abram has won his battle against the confederacy of four city-states that kidnapped his nephew. But now that the fighting is over, Abram is about to become involved in a very different kind of struggle…
“After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
The verse quoted above tells us about this new battle for Abram but the answer may not be obvious if you aren’t looking carefully. Can you guess what it is from the clue given to us in this verse?
Well, Genesis 15:1 tells us that Abram’s new struggle is with fear. We know this because the very first thing that God says to him is, “Do not be afraid…” or, “Fear not…” as it says in some other translations. There would be no reason for God to encourage Abram to be fearless if he wasn’t already afraid to begin with.
Now the word translated as “fear” or “afraid” in this verse carries the idea of someone who feels frightened or dreadful regarding someone or something. (1) So with this definition in mind, what you do you think Abram may have been afraid of? What was it that Abram may have dreaded?
Well, let’s remember that Abram has just defeated the military alliance of four cities with just 318 men. Because of this, Abram may have thought, “What if these cities get back together to seek revenge? What if they plan to counter-attack against me? What if they show up with reinforcements? What if they come back looking for me?” Each of these thoughts begins with a little two-word phrase that can be very wise or very dangerous depending on the circumstances. Those two words are, “What if…”
You see, the world can be a cruel and unforgiving place and many people today live in fear of the unknown future. They are plagued by questions like, “What if I can’t get into a good school? What if I can’t find a job? What if I can’t earn enough money? What if I can’t find a place to live? What’s going to happen to me?”
When you read about the unstable political situations in the world or think about the potential for destruction that exists at the touch of a button, it’s just as easy (or maybe even easier) for someone in the 21st century to become nervous about the future, just as Abram was in his day.
(1) New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006
But let’s look again at God’s response to Abram’s fear:
“‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1b).
The word “shield” implies protection, and a reward carries the idea of something that is valuable and good. So the idea is that God is promising to protect Abram now and benefit him in the future as well.
The New Testament equivalent of God’s encouragement to be fearless is found in the words of 1 John 4:4 where we’re told that, “…the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (NLT). In fact, Jesus Himself once said this about His followers…
“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. No one shall snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else, so no one can kidnap them from me” (John 10:28-29 TLB).
So the Scriptures tell us that God is more powerful than anything that the world can throw against those who follow Jesus, and Jesus personally reaffirmed this idea of protection and future benefit to those who follow Him.
Because of this, it’s important for Christians to be careful and avoid the trap of constantly dwelling on questions that begin with the phrase, “what if…” While it’s good to ask “what if…” in the sense of considering your options and being prepared, it’s another thing to spend all of your time thinking about all of the bad things that might possibly happen in the future.
When someone is continually thinking about all the bad things that might happen (as in, “what will happen to me if such-and-such should occur”), then that person is taking their attention off the God who has promised to care for him or her in every situation. Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t be realistic about your problems, but it does mean that a constant focus on negative things that may not ever happen can only lead to worry, fear, anxiety, and distress- things that God would like to see you avoid.
We can say that God wants people to be free from anxiety because His Word tells us exactly how to do it…
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
So remember God’s encouragement to Abram the next time you are feeling fearful or anxious: “Don’t be fearful, Abram, for I will defend you. And I will give you great blessings” (TLB).
So God promised to be Abram’s protector and defender, but He also promised something else as well: “I am… your exceedingly great reward” (Genesis 15:1b NKJV). This promise to Abram is especially interesting in light of another reward that was promised to Abram earlier.
Do you remember what the king of Sodom offered to Abram after Abram defeated the army that had taken over his city? After Abram returned from his battlefield victory, the king of Sodom met him and said, “Give me back the people but keep all the plunder for yourself” (Genesis 14:21b MSG). This was an opportunity for Abram to keep all of the riches of an entire city and would have made him very wealthy in material things- if he had decided to take the king up on his offer.
But what was Abram’s response to this proposal? Well, Abram told the king, “I solemnly swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will not take so much as a single thread or sandal thong from what belongs to you. Otherwise you might say, ‘I am the one who made Abram rich’” (Genesis 14:22b-23 NLT).
So Abram turned down the great reward that was offered to him by the king of Sodom because he didn’t believe that it was the right thing to do before God. And even though Abram passed up on this seemingly great offer, we’re going to find that God will eventually provide him with much, much more, just as He promised. Abram’s experience reminds us that God is able to become the answer to our needs when we choose to honor Him and put Him first.
Now even though God had promised to protect and provide for Abram, he did have one other problem…
“But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir’ (Genesis 15:2-3).
In the culture of that day, a childless couple could pass their inheritance to a close family member or choose to adopt a servant who would care for the couple in their old age. The adopted servant then would then receive an inheritance from that couple after their death.
Since Abram and his wife Sarai had no children, it seems that Abram chose this second option with a man named Eliezer (pronounced “ee-lee-A-zer”). If nothing changed and Abram died without having any children, Eliezer would then be the one who would inherit everything upon his death.
Even though God had protected and provided for Abram, he still had one big problem: “You have not given me any children, and this servant of mine will inherit everything” (Genesis 15:3 CEV).
Now when someone died without having any children in Abram’s time, the next closest living relative usually received that person’s inheritance. If there weren’t any close relatives, a childless couple could choose to adopt a servant who would care for them and receive their inheritance after their death. This is apparently what Abram had in mind.
But let’s back up for a moment- who were Abram’s closest relatives during this time? Well, Abram’s father Terah had already passed away (Genesis 11:32) and his brother Haran was dead too (Genesis 11:28). So who should have been the next relative in line to receive Abram’s inheritance?
The answer is Abram’s nephew Lot, the son of his brother Haran (Genesis 11:27). Because Lot was Abram’s nephew, he should have been the next logical choice to receive Abram’s inheritance instead of his servant Eliezer. But Lot doesn’t seem to be around for some reason. In fact, Lot apparently disappeared after Abram rescued him from the four-king alliance that held him as a prisoner of war in Genesis chapter fourteen.
So where was Lot during this time? Well, we’ll get the answer to that question in a few chapters (but if you want to read ahead to see where we’re going, take a look at Genesis chapter nineteen).
So when Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir,” does this mean that Abram doubted God? Well, to answer this question, we need to take a close look at the difference between an honest question and an attitude of doubt that denies what God has said. We can see a good example of this difference by looking at the responses of two people in the New Testament book of Luke.
You see, Luke chapter one tells us about an angel who appeared to a man named Zechariah to tell him that his wife was going to have a baby- the same baby who would eventually grow up to be known as John the Baptist. In response to this great announcement, Zechariah said…
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18).
As we’ll see, that answer is going to provoke a very serious response from Zechariah’s angelic messenger.
As we said earlier, Luke chapter one tells us about an angel who appeared to a man named Zechariah to announce that his wife was going to have a child, the same child that we know today as John the Baptist. In responding to this great announcement, Zechariah said this…
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18).
This brought a sharp response from Zechariah’s angelic messenger…
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time” (Luke 1:19-20).
Now a little later on in Luke chapter one, this very same angel appeared to a young woman named Mary with another message…
“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:31)
You might recognize this announcement as the beginning of the well-known story of Christmas. If so, then you know what Mary says next…
“‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God'” (Luke 1:34-3).
Since Zechariah’s question (“How can I be sure of this?”) and Mary’s question (“How will this be…”) seem to be almost identical, how can we explain the differences in Gabriel’s response to each of them?
Well, the explanation must have something to do with a difference between Zechariah’s attitude and Mary’s attitude towards God’s message. Zechariah’s question must have carried an attitude of skeptical unbelief while Mary took Gabriel at his word, but genuinely did not understand how his announcement would be accomplished.
So what does all this have to do with Abram? Well, God had already promised that He would be Abram’s “…exceedingly great reward” (Genesis 15:1) but Abram responded by saying, “Sovereign LORD, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? My only heir is Eliezer of Damascus” (Genesis 15:2 GNB).
As we’ll soon see from God’s response, we can say that Abram didn’t doubt God’s ability to do what He promised, nor did he carry an attitude of skeptical unbelief. Instead, Abram -like Mary- was honest and upfront with God about his questions but still willing to take God at His word.
So here is God’s answer to Abram’s question…
“Then the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir'” (Genesis 15:4).
God told Abram’s that He intended to fulfill His promise by giving him a son to carry on his own genetic line. But there was something “missing” in God’s response to Abram that’s very important and might go unnoticed.
You see, God told Abram that he would be the father of this promised son, but notice that the child’s mother is not identified. This little detail will become very significant in the choices that Abram and his wife Sarai will make later on.
Anyway, God then proceeded to guarantee His promise to Abram by giving him an illustration…
“He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be'” (Genesis 15:5).
Astronomers currently believe that the universe contains over 100 billion stars. So does this mean that God was actually planning to give Abram more than 100 billion descendants? Well, God’s promise to Abram doesn’t necessarily mean that he will have more than 100 billion physical descendants, but just like the stars in the sky, there will eventually be way too many to count.
So God has now given Abram two important guarantees. Remember that God had already given this promise to Abram: “Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you” (Genesis 13:17 NLT). Now God has also given His word that Abram’s descendants will be too numerous to count, just like the stars in the sky. For Abram, these promises meant that whenever he looked up or looked down, he would always have a reminder of God’s assurances to him.
This leads to one of the most important verses in the entire Bible:
“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
It’s hard to underestimate just how important this verse is in understanding our relationship with God. First, the word used for “believed” in this verse means, “to stand firm, to trust, to be certain, to believe in.”(1) Next, notice that Abram didn’t believe in the promises that God made to him, but that Abram believed God personally. The idea is that Abram believed these promises because he believed in the One who was making them.
” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
This illustrates the difference in believing that “god” exists and believing in God. You see, it’s one thing to simply believe that a “higher power” or “greater intelligence” exists. It’s something very different to place your trust and belief in God as a Person. Remember that Abram didn’t believe in the promises that were given to him; instead,“Abram believed the LORD…” (emphasis added). In other words, Abram placed his trust and faith directly in God Himself.
But what does it really mean to place your faith, trust, and belief in God? Well, the Biblical book of Hebrews asks that very same question and then goes on to answer it like this…
“What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. Men of God in days of old were famous for their faith. By faith– by believing God– we know that the world and the stars– in fact, all things– were made at God’s command; and that they were all made from things that can’t be seen” (Hebrews 11:1-3 TLB).
The people who did great things for God in the Bible all had one thing in common- faith. One dictionary defines faith as “A belief in or confident attitude toward God, involving commitment to His will for one’s life.” (1) Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Now you’ve surely heard the old saying, “seeing is believing,” right? Well, real, Biblical faith is just the opposite- first you believe and then you see. Jesus illustrated this difference for us when He told His followers, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). This kind of faith becomes possible when you have total confidence and trust in the Person who can answer those prayers.
You see, faith involves the confident expectation that God is who He said He is, and that He will do what He said He’ll do even when we may not understand why things are happening the way they are in our lives. Remember also that “faith is being… certain of what we do not see.” This make good sense because if you can see or touch something, then there’s no use for faith, is there? Faith is necessary for those things that you can’t see or physically touch.
(1) “Faith” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
So Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” but it’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between “faith” and “blind faith.”
For example, let’s say that you have to move some furniture but you need a little help to do it. So you call a trustworthy friend who agrees to help you move your furniture at 10:00 am on Saturday. Now when Saturday arrives, you’re not likely to assume that your trusted friend has backed out of their promise if it’s 10:05 am and they still haven’t arrived. After all, a trustworthy friend will always do what they promised- that’s what makes them trustworthy. Even if it looks like they might not show up because they’ve been delayed for some reason, you can still have confidence that they will follow through on their promise.
A good friend can be trusted no matter what the outward appearance looks like, and this would be a good example of real, Biblical faith. In this situation, faith is the confident belief that your trusted friend will follow through on their promise even if the outward circumstances might seem to indicate otherwise. This concept will become very important in Abram’s life later on.
On the other hand, “blind faith” would be more like picking a random name out of the telephone book with the belief that the person that you’ve chosen will agree to drive to your house and help you move furniture on Saturday. That belief would require the kind of faith that doesn’t have any basis in reality, or “blind faith.” Since there is no basis for believing that a random person chosen from the telephone book would agree to help you move furniture, this belief would have no foundation other than blind faith.
Real Biblical faith is different from blind faith because there is a reasonable basis for Biblical faith. For example, you can look in the Scriptures and see the many Biblical prophecies that have come true. You can read through the Scriptures and see how God came through in the lives of people (like Abram, for instance) who had confidence in Him. Even today, you can look and see the example of God’s provision in the lives of those people who have placed their trust in Him.
These things all help to provide a reasonable basis for faith in the God of the Bible. Real Biblical faith is not blind faith- it involves a belief in a God who has already proven Himself.
“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
In a sense, Abram “deposited” his faith in God and God responded by placing a credit in Abrams “account,” so to speak. So what was this credit that God placed in Abram’s account?
Well, Genesis 15:6 tells us that God “…credited it to him as righteousness.” Now to be righteous means that someone has “right standing” with God. The New Testament book of Romans goes on to explain how this applied in Abram’s life…
“(Abram) did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness'” (Romans 4:20-22).
Now this was great news for Abram, but how does this apply for people who are living today? Well, let’s keep reading…
“The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:23-24).
So Abram believed God and God put righteousness to his account as a result. In a similar way, the Scriptures tell us that everything that you’ve ever done wrong was also put on Jesus’ account when He was punished on the cross in your place. Now whenever someone believes in Jesus and accepts His punishment on the cross as the payment for the wrong things that he or she has done, His righteousness is put on that person’s account and he or she is made right with the all powerful, 100% perfect, and totally holy God.
But remember that “believing in Jesus” or having “faith in Christ” doesn’t mean that we simply accept Jesus as a great man, a good teacher, or an important religious figure. To “believe in Jesus” means to trust Him, to stand firm in Him, and to place your faith totally in Him. It means demonstrating the same kind of faith in God that Abram displayed in his day. The Scripture quoted above in Romans 4:20-24 tells us that God will accept people today in the same way that He accepted Abram when they place their faith in Jesus.
Jesus was once asked the following question: “…What must we do to do the works God requires?” He answered that question by saying, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (see John 6:28-29). God will credit righteousness to everyone who does just that.
“He also said to him, ‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’ But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?'” (Genesis 15:7-8).
So Abram has demonstrated his faith in God, but now he is going to try and build on that faith even further by saying, “LORD God, how can I know the land will be mine?” (Genesis 15:8 CEV). If we wanted to put this question another way, we might rephrase it like this: “Lord, you are the all powerful God- please give me an added foundation to believe what you’ve already told me. I understand that you can fulfill your promise; help me to believe more strongly that you will do it.”
Here’s God’s response…
“So the LORD said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away” (Genesis 15:9-11).
Now there’s a lot about this whole scene that can definitely sound very strange to anyone living in the 21st century. In fact, it can be easy to look at what Abram does in these verses and get the impression that he is involved in some strange religious practice that has very little to do with the God of the Bible. But this is a situation where a little background information can be helpful in understanding what’s really going on here.
You see, back in Abram’s day, contracts and legal agreements weren’t negotiated and signed by attorneys and law firms as they are today. Instead, legal agreements were formalized through the ceremony that we see in Genesis 15:9-11. This ritual was known as “cutting a covenant” and it bound two parties together in a legal agreement through the death of one or more animals.
The parties who were involved in making an agreement would cut these animals in half and place the halves opposite to each other on the ground. Then both parties would walk between the pieces of the sacrificed animals. This ceremony vividly declared that if either party failed to keep up their end of the agreement, then that person deserved to suffer the same fate as those animals who had been sacrificed.
So God instructed Abram to prepare everything that was necessary to enter a legal agreement according to the custom of that day. But even though Abram got everything ready to “sign” the agreement just as he was told, notice that God didn’t appear to Abram as soon as Abram was ready for Him.
Abram’s experience with God in Genesis 15:9-11 reminds us that God acts when the time is right and not necessarily when we think the time is right. During those periods when God doesn’t seem to be moving as fast as we think He should, it can be easy to fall into the trap of saying, “why bother- nothing’s going to happen.” But if Abram had taken that attitude, then all the elements of the agreement that God instructed him to prepare would have disappeared.
You see, the birds of prey that had been attracted to Abram’s work would have quickly eaten the animals that he had prepared. If that happened, then there would be no agreement left to “sign” when God arrived. But Abram demonstrated his faith and trust in God by chasing these birds off. This put Abram himself in a position to be ready when God decided that the time was right to move forward and confirm the promises that He made.
Here’s what happened next…
“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.
You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’ 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 river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates– the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites'” (Genesis 15:12-21).
This whole passage has a kind of “gothic” feel, with a sense of enveloping darkness, dread, and foreboding. We’ll look at some reasons for that next.
“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and everything became dark and frightening” (Genesis 15:12 CEV).
It seems that God not only spoke with Abram, but also allowed him to experience a physical sense of what was going to happen in the future. This accounts for the sense of fearful anticipation that we see in this part of Genesis chapter 15.
So what did the future hold? Well, here’s what God had to say…
“Then the LORD said to him, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years'” (Genesis 15:13).
This “thick and dreadful darkness” (NIV) served to help Abram experience and understand the slavery and mistreatment that his descendants would eventually suffer. So God allowed Abram to get a glimpse into the future for his descendants by basically telling him, “You will receive the land, but your descendants will definitely go through a period of intense hardship.”
At that point, Abram may have said to himself, “If that’s the way it’s going to be, then maybe we shouldn’t go through with this. Maybe it would be better for me not to have any descendants at all.” But God had some additional plans for Abram’s descendants when this trial period was over…
“But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:14).
So God assured Abram that everything would eventually turn out OK for his descendants and if you read the Biblical book of Exodus, you’ll find out that this is exactly what happened. God brought Abram’s descendants out of the country where they were enslaved and mistreated in a way that no one could have expected (you can see Exodus chapters 1-14 for the whole story).
But what did the future hold for Abram personally? Well, God had that part covered as well…
“You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).
We’ll find out later on in Genesis 25:7 that Abram eventually died at 175 years old, so this is another promise that God kept. But following this, something unusual happens- a smoking firepot and blazing torch suddenly appear on the scene. These two items would seem to have very little to do with the things that God has been speaking to Abram about- until you stop to think about what these elements do and what they represent.
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces” (Genesis 15:17)
The “smoking firepot” mentioned here was a round or cylinder-like oven or furnace. The “blazing torch” was a lamp or flame that went alongside this firepot or perhaps came out from it. So God chose to interact with Abram using these two symbols (or emblems) to personify Himself. But why would God choose these two particular items to represent Himself to Abram?
Well, these emblems makes good sense because the Biblical book of Deuteronomy will later tell us that “…the Lord your God is a consuming fire” and 1 Timothy 6:16 says that God “…alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” In fact, we will see God make use of this smoke, fire, and light symbolism once again in the book of Exodus when He will lead Abram’s descendants by a pillar of cloud during the daytime and a pillar of fire at night (see Exodus 13:21).
But there’s something else that’s important to notice besides the symbols that God uses to represent Himself in this passage. For example, you may remember that contracts and legal agreements in Abram’s time were formalized through a ceremony that involved the death of one or more animals. The parties involved in making the agreement would cut these animals in half and place the halves opposite to each other on the ground. Then both parties would walk between the pieces of the sacrificed animals.
This ceremony officially declared that if either party failed to keep up their end of the agreement, then that person deserved to suffer the same fate as those animals who had been sacrificed.
Now you would normally expect God and Abram to finalize this agreement by walking through these pieces together- but that’s not what happened. Instead, this smoking firepot and blazing torch passed between the pieces on their own. It seems that Abram’s part in this ceremony was to prepare the animals and then simply to serve as an observer as God officially confirmed His promise.
There was a good reason for this. You see, God wanted to make sure this agreement would hold up, and the only way that it would hold up is if God was the only one who was responsible for making sure that it didn’t fail. God entered into this agreement for each of them and because of this, Abram could be fully assured that God’s agreement with Him would never fail because God can never fail.