Friday, October 22, 2010

Two Doubts and a Covenant (Genesis 15:1-21)

Genesis 15 begins with a rather surprising incident.  God gives a message to Abram in a vision, and says, "Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward." (Genesis 15:1 NIV)  This seems a strange thing to say to a man who has just managed to defeat Kedorlaomer and the three kings allied with him, and successfully rescue not only his nephew, but also the other inhabitants of Sodom who had been captured.  Why would Abraham be afraid?  He obviously was afraid, or else God, who knows all things, wouldn't have bothered to say this to Abram.  I am sure that Abram knew very well that it was not by his own strength that he had accomplished this victory.  Now, at least four kings and their armies were likely to be planning some payback.  Abram had 318 trained men in his household, but what was that against so many?  He probably thought that he and his household would be in danger of being swallowed up by these enemies.  God reassures Abram that He will continue to be Abram's shield.  The word 'shield' can also mean 'sovereign'.  The Bible is full of examples of similar word-plays:  God would be both Abram's leader and protection.

God also promised to be Abram's "very great reward".  Genesis 13:2 lets us know that Abram was already quite rich in livestock, silver and gold.  Yet his heart longed for an heir.  At this point, it seemed as though a trusted servant in his household was likely to become his heir, for, as Abram says, "You have given me no children, so a servant in my household will be my heir." (Genesis 15:3 NIV)  God had already promised to make Abram into a great nation (Gen. 12:2).  Abram is probably speaking out of post-battle exhaustion.  He is likely physically tired and also tired of waiting for God to fulfill His promise.

God does not rebuke Abram.  Instead, He reassures him that "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." (Gen. 15:4 NIV)  I must continue to quote from this passage, for it is beautiful:  "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.' (Gen. 15:5-6 NIV)

"Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness."  (Gen.15:6 NIV)  This is the first time that the idea is expressed that righteousness could be obtained by faith.  Deeds are great and a necessary evidence of the faith that is in the heart.  However, without faith, those same deeds are useless.

God proceeds to cut a covenant with Abram.  Why we use the term 'cut' a covenant will be evident in a few more sentences as we read the account.  God knows that Abram may be having second thoughts about having given up all of the loot from his battle against the four kings.  The future may seem uncertain.  God graciously decides to cut a covenant with Abram.

Some covenants in those days were between equals.  Each would bind themselves to the other and consider the other a 'brother'.  If friendship was impossible, at least they would maintain mutual respect for each other. These are called parity covenants.

Other covenants were between a king and his subject.  As long as the subject continued in loyalty and service ("love"), the king would pledge to be his sovereign, and protect him.  There was more of a king/subject relationship, and it was conditional upon the subject continuing to show absolute loyalty and obedience.  Hence, it is often called a suzerain-vassal covenant.

However, the type of covenant which God sets up with Abram is neither of these types.  Instead, God sets up what is called a royal grant.  This is an unconditional type of covenant.  The king assumes the responsibility for carrying out the grant.  It is unconditional and perpetual.  This is the type of covenant which God decides to grant to Abram.  Often, before a sovereign would make such a grant, he would rehearse at least some of the history between himself and the recipient.  This becomes a kind of introduction to the grant, and also serves to remind the subject just why he/she should continue in loving service to the king.  God says, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." (Genesis 15:7 NIV)  Abram, who was willing to believe that God could give him a son, is still a bit uncertain that he will actually obtain the land. In verse 8 of Genesis chapter 15, Abram said "...O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"  I am glad that this passage is here, because sometimes -- despite all of God's goodness to us -- we, too, are reluctant to believe.  Abram is not afraid to be honest with God about his doubts, and God graciously reassures 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 upon the carcasses, but Abram drove them away."  (Gen. 15:9-11 NIV)

It looks as though preparations are being made for a suzerain-vassal covenant.  However, "As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him."  (Gen 15:12 NIV)    Abram is basically incapacitated, unable to participate in any way except as a witness to this event.  The thick and dreadful darkness which came over him was not intended to terrify him, but perhaps to shield him from the presence of the Holy One who walked nearby.

"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.' " (Genesis 15:13-16 NIV)

This was perhaps not exactly what Abram had been expecting.  On the surface, it does not seem to be particularly reassuring!  However, it establishes the fact that God has His plan, and is able to carry it out.  As a side note, the fact that one reason why God was allowing Abram's descendants to be enslaved and mistreated for 400 years was so that the Amorites would have a chance to repent may have been very puzzling to Abram.  God's merciful character shines forth here, and also His sovereignty.  

"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 15:17-21 NIV)

There it is -- the royal grant.  God Himself walked through the middle of the cut pieces alone, signifying the self-maledictory oath He was taking:  May I be cut in two like these animals if I do not fulfill this covenant.  It is also interesting to see how God chooses to do this in the darkness with a blazing torch.  What better way to allow Himself, a spiritual being, to be 'seen' by Abram?

In further posts we can explore the physical land indicated by this covenant, and the fact that there are people groups already living in this place.  For now, just take a moment to marvel at the wisdom and graciousness of God as He deals with His imperfect servant.  Then take a moment to reflect upon how He has dealt with you in your own life. Abram was anxious about the safety and continuation of his family line. These are concerns which often cause anxiety in our own times. God, in His gracious dealings with Abram, not only met these needs, but also gave him a gift which in reality was even more precious: He gives Abram a relationship with Himself. As He said to Abram, "...I am your very great reward." (Genesis 15:1 NIV)

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