With God, your trust must exceed your doubt.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 15
Even though Abram didn’t know everything about God and wasn’t completely certain He understood God’s plan, he chose to trust God. God personal, promise-filled relationship with Abram is the model for the relationship we now have with Him in Jesus Christ. We can trust God to keep His promises.
Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness. (15:6)
This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.
Getting Started: The Icebreaker
The Impossible Promise.
There’s a famous story about both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig promising an ill boy (Johnny Sylvester) they would hit a home run in the postseason to help him get better. They did, and he did. Whether or not it really happened is beside the point for this illustration: we can imagine it to be true. And you can use the idea as your illustration. Think of something you’re pretty good at (throwing a ball accurately, balancing an object, memorizing a number) and bring it with you. Let me use memorization as my example. Say, “If I told you I could memorize a 5-digit number, would you believe me?” Then after you prove you can, move up to a 10-digit number. Then a 12. Eventually say you can do something outrageous (memorize a 30-digit number, balance a ball on a ball on a straw, shoot a basket around a corner blindfolded) and see what your group thinks. What’s the point? Abram thought that having a child at his age was more impossible than any act you could promise. But Abram still believed God. We have to come to trust that nothing is impossible with God if He has made the promise.
Everybody knows that there are lots of “types” of promises. Your leader guide mentions the pinky promise and the “cross your heart”. We can add the “Scout’s honor”, the “hand on a Bible”, the “put up or shut up”, the notarized signature, and even a lawyer. Why do we feel the need to take it to those levels? Because the bigger the promise, the more “guarantee” we want with it. Talk about how people make and break promises and what that means to you.
The Context of Genesis
We’re “skipping over” some very important stuff for understanding Abraham, and you may want to remind your group of these things. At the end of chapter 12, Abram takes his family to Egypt where he lies to pharaoh about Sarai being his wife. (We later learn that Sarai also acquired a maidservant named Hagar.) In chapter 13, Abram and Lot separate, with Lot choosing to move to the lush plain that happened to contain Sodom and Gomorrah. In chapter 14, Abram has to rescue Lot from city-kings (which he does), and at the end of that episode an unknown king named Melchizedek (who is also a priest of the God who had called Abram) comes and blesses Abram.
This Week's Big Idea:
Making Covenants in the Old World
The word for “covenant” was used in many different ways in the ancient languages: for a treaty between nations, for an alliance, for a friendship, and for an agreement between a ruler and his subjects. Kings in covenant with each other would go to war for each other and allow merchants into their lands without harassment. There were two different types: parity (where both parties considered each other equals and gave equal rights), and suzerainty-vassal (where one party was much more powerful and pledged protection for the weaker party in exchange for submission). In Abram’s day, both types of “treaties” were common, and none were permanent. For example, Hammurabi (an Amorite king in Babylon) lived not long after Abraham. He made parity treaties with nearby regional kings and they worked together to establish peace in the region. Then, he became strong enough to conquer them and eventually came back with vassal treaties.
Common customs attending covenant-making included swearing oaths. When a person swore, he would put his finger on his throat (almost certainly symbolizing the “fate” of whoever broke the covenant). At the same time, an animal would be sacrificed; the sacrifice did indicate the level of commitment on the part of the individuals, but it also invoked the gods who were observing the covenant. Apparently, the choice of animal meant a great deal. There are tablets from this region and era (Mari) describing how a party tried to substitute a goat for a foal as a way of weakening the force of the treaty. There are a few references to the parties walking between the remains of the sacrificed animal, but that seems pretty rare. It seems to symbolize the “journey” the parties would now be making together.
Why Would God Make a Covenant with Abraham?
If you stop and think about it, doesn’t it seem strange that God would make a covenant with Abram? Wouldn’t God just demand Abram make an offering? Certainly God could have done that, but remember that Abram came from a polytheistic culture. Most gods from Abram’s life were mysterious, unpredictable, and required a lot of flattery and cajoling; Abram did not know Yahweh. This covenant seems to be the primary way that God revealed His uniqueness to Abram. He was the Supreme God, but He would not demand a sacrifice, He would instead offer a covenant. Indeed, God did not make many demands on Abram at all—He did not tell Abram to stop worshiping his former gods/idols. Abram could very well have interpreted this whole exchange to mean that Yahweh was going to become his “divine sponsor” and protect him from all the other angry and jealous gods. In other words, Abram was probably not a monotheist at this time. He certainly chose to worship Yahweh alone (and vigilantly did so), but he probably still believe the other gods existed.
That makes God’s approach to Abram so ingenious. He gave Abram a chance to get to know Him, to see how He was different from the gods of the surrounding cultures, and to prove His faithfulness to Abram (unlike the capricious gods). He entered into a personal relationship with Abram. No other gods did anything like that. He went with Abram wherever Abram went. All other gods were territorial. He brought Abram along “slowly” (instead of dumping a doctrinal and sacrificial system on him all at once). And Abram came to understand that Yahweh was God alone. He is the “father” of Jews and Christians alike.
Part 1: Abram’s Frustration (Genesis 15:1-3)
After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great. But Abram said, “Lord God, what can You give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir."
For starters, let’s not overlook all the ways God has already done much for Abram. He has great wealth and livestock; he has had great military victories; he even had the wisdom to align himself with the right king. But he wants an heir. That’s the part of the promise he has keyed in on. When you read this, acknowledge that people tend to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do. But God has a plan and timing that we don’t always understand. That’s what makes Abram’s faith so incredible—he still doesn’t really know very much about this Yahweh!
Anyway, God knows that Abram is frustrated and send him a vision (wouldn’t that be nice?). It has been about 10 years since the first promise. Sarai was past childbearing age then; now, things seem even more hopeless. Abram appreciated God’s words, but he didn’t understand how God would fulfill them. When Abram tried to make sense of the situation, he kept coming back to this man Eliezer.
There are a few things to point out in this first section.
We can’t hide our frustrations from God; Abram was smart enough not to try.
It is absolutely appropriate to key in on God’s promises to us. You’ll notice that God was very patient with Abram’s complaint. (This is quite unlike Zechariah who didn’t believe God’s message; Abram believed but wanted to figure it out.) We have lots of promises from God—I list quite a few below—that we can “take to the bank.” We just don’t always know how they will come about.
No matter what, God was Abram’s shield. He is our shield as well. Where in your life do you need to hear God say that He is your shield and reward?
Aside: Don’t Forget about Melchizedek!
Abram encounters Melchizedek right before our lesson passage (14:18-20). We talked an awful lot about Melchizedek when we went through Hebrews, so your class might like the payoff of reading it in its original context! Chapter 14 includes a battle of 9 kings; 4 against 5 (the map above includes the possible movement of the victorious armies). Sodom and Gomorrah are among those regions conquered, which means that Lot (who lived in Sodom) was carried off as spoils of war. Abram sent his men in pursuit, they defeated the army, and they brought Lot back (this shows both how great Abram’s caravan was and also how small most “kingdoms” were). And then Melchizedek shows up.
Melchizedek (the name means “my king is righteousness”) was the king of Salem (likely Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. We are given every reason to believe this to be Yahweh, which is amazing in that no one else has claimed to worship Yahweh. Abram will be the genesis of Yahweh’s people. And Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. The author of Hebrews rightly makes much of this mysterious man: prophet (he blessed Abram), priest and king of the only true God. And Abram makes the right decision by aligning himself with him as opposed to any of the other 9 kings we have just read about in the chapter!
Bonus Aside: Was Abram Testing God?
When you read these verses, you can’t help but conclude that Abram was testing God in a way that He doesn’t like elsewhere in the Bible (for example, Deut 6:16 and everywhere that gets quoted in the Bible, even by Jesus!). God promises Abram the land of Canaan, and Abram responds with “what guarantee will you give me?” Zechariah does the same thing in Luke 1, and God responds by making him deaf and dumb. What makes Abram different?
I believe this all ties together with what I said on the previous page about covenants. God appreciated that Abram had absolutely no context with Him (or anyone like Him). Abram grew up in a world where gods could not be trusted, where gods had to be appeased. Rather than chastise Abram for his lack of faith, God used Abram’s question as a teaching moment, one that led to possibly the most important moment in the Old Testament. You see, Abram didn’t know any better, and God understood that. Where a lesser god would have lashed out in anger at Abram’s doubt, Yahweh in great love and patience “went the extra mile” to demonstrate how much He cared for Abram. We’re not exactly sure how Yahweh would have brought a curse down upon Himself if He violated the covenant, but that’s probably the point: He would not violate His covenant. God could have told Abram to “deal with it” but chose instead to come down to Abram’s level and enter a covenant relationship—not necessarily as an equal! but the fact that God Himself walked through the sacrificed animal (the vision of the pot and torch) proved to Abram that God cared about him and their relationship.
Part 2: God’s Promise (Genesis 15:4-5)
Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then He said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous."
God hears Abram’s frustration and confusion and gives him a very direct answer (wouldn’t that be nice? of course, Abram still manages to get it wrong . . .). God had just given Abram a vision of comfort in the previous section; now, He speaks to him again. We assume that this immediately followed as a part of the vision, but the text doesn’t say for certain. God clarified that Abram will physically produce a son who will be his heir; God knew His promise. And what a promise! I give you a little about the night sky on the back page. I imagine God saying “if you can count them!” with a sly smile on His lips.
Don’t you just love God’s object lesson? Psalm 147:4 tells us that God has counted and named all the stars, not just the ones we can see (maybe He’s named them after us?). Now remember that Abram’s former culture worshiped the moon and the stars. Here, God is gently but clearly pushing Abram away from those old thoughts. The stars are not to be worshiped; they are there to remind you of My promise. Without getting too “tree-hugger-ish”, haven’t you had some kind of experience with God in nature (along the lines of David’s Grand Canyon illustration)? Every time I watch the Discovery Channel, my faith in the power of God is strengthened, even as the TV tries to tell me it is all by chance and coincidence.
Stargazing and the Subtlety of God’s Promise
One of my commentaries asked, “When was the last time you went stargazing?” Where I grew up in a suburb of Houston, there was not much stargazing. Out here in Thomson, I can see the Milky Way every clear night. If we were to visit Israel, we would be able to see basically the same night sky that Abram did. As noted by Rich Mullins, one star Abram saw was lit for me! Here’s a little tidbit about that sky: it turns out that the human eye can only see about 5,000 stars on a perfectly clear, moonless night (surprising, eh?). It wouldn’t be easy or fun, but I could count to 5,000. So here’s the next tidbit: as our eyes get used to the night sky (and as we start using telescopes), we start seeing more stars. It’s not long before we go from 5,000 stars to a truly uncountable number. It’s a beautiful image that Abram would have understood as well as we do today.
Part 3: Abram’s Faith (Genesis 15:6)
Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.
This verse might very well be the most important in the Old Testament. It precedes the Law and the sacrifices, proving that righteousness is not ceremonial. Indeed, it’s the only time “righteousness” even appears in the first 4 books of the Bible. Right here, God shows us how to be “right” with Him: believe Him when He makes a promise. Translating the Hebrew is tricky as there are only 5 words in the verse. The word for “believed” is in the Hebrew declarative case—Abram considered the Lord to be reliable or dependable. “It” sounds indefinite in English, but the Hebrew very clearly connects the verb “credit” with Abram's act of belief. “Credit” can mean account or esteem; in all of Abram’s years and acts, this is the only one that actually went down on his “account” (in the book of life?) as righteousness. This word pair also occurs in Psalm 106:31. In the context of a covenant, we could easily read “righteousness” as Abram’s fulfillment of his part of the covenant. So we might translate this verse, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered Abram’s response of faith worthy of their eternal covenant.”
I don’t have a whole lot of space to unpack the theology. Your “homework” is to read Romans 4, Galatians 3, and James 2:21-26. Jews believed that Abram’s act of faith was a work; Abram was justified by the force of his belief just as they were then justified by their sacrifices and law-keeping. Paul makes it clear that Abram did not perform some extraordinary work of merit; all he did was trust God. Faith is not a work but the means by which we receive God’s promise and enter God’s covenant (see also Romans 10:9-10).
Paul brings in the idea of “justification” here. Justification is the act of God declaring a sinner forgiven based on the work of Christ on the cross. All of us are made right with God by believing that Jesus’ sacrifice is enough, that way no one can boast about his or her works. We are all equal before God. God has done all the work and taken all the initiative; like Abram, we simply believe Him.
Part 4: God’s Plan (Genesis 15:7-16)
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."
And I think that this is one of the most important overlooked statements in all of Scripture. I give you a sidebar on “the sin of the Amorites”, but know that God’s plan for His people was not simply to enthrone them; they had to take their place in the midst of all the peoples of the world (whom they were supposed to bless). God’s honesty here is a touchstone for Christianity; God will tell us the truth about our experience in this life, but as with Noah He promises that He will be with us.
The lesson plan skips over Abram’s question (which is basically the same question that got Zechariah in trouble in Luke 1), but it’s important to note to your class that God is being patient with Abram. God understands that Abram is bewildered and overwhelmed with all of this talk, but Abram still believes. The lesson plan also skips the verses that explain how God “ratified” the covenant with Abram. Abram sacrificed specific animals and put the carcasses in two lines. God “walked” between them (as a vision of a firepot and torch). Those implements were regularly used in local pagan rites of purification, so they would have been easily recognized by Abram. And there is also a verse about Abram chasing away scavengers from the carcasses, an act taken by many to symbolize the efforts the Jews would have to take to chase away the people who would “scavenge” the Promised Land from them.
The Point. Here’s where I plan on taking this lesson. Just like Abram, we are called to trust God even when we don’t understand how God is going to “come through” on His promises—when circumstances seem impossible. That’s when it’s important to remember exactly what God has promised us. He never promised that our life would be easy; He did promise that He would be with us. We sometimes have to accept that God’s timing is not our timing, but even when God delays fulfilling His promises, we have to keep trusting. And until we die or Jesus returns, we have to keep sharing God’s message of salvation by faith alone. (*) What doubts and frustrations are you experiencing now? How can you pray for God to help you through them? Where do you need to hear that God is your shield and reward?
Aside: The Sin of the Amorites?
This is one of those hidden gems of a statement in the Bible, one that helps me understand what to do with sin and judgment. People often ask how a good God could ever send people to hell, especially those who live in remote areas where they don’t have access to the gospel. This verse helps to explain that. People also ask how God could command the slaughter of women and children in the conquest of the Promised Land. This verse helps to explain that too.
“Amorite” refers to many of the people groups living in what is now the land of Israel. They often stood opposed to the Jews and regularly attacked them. In verse 16, after God told Abram that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years, He says that He will bring them back. But look at the reasoning: “The sin of the Amorites is not yet full.” In other words, He will not give the Promised Land to the Jews until the Amorites cannot sin any worse, so to speak.
Think about that. God waited until the bitter end, until there was absolutely no hope for the Amorites before He brought judgment upon them. They had Abram’s altars and stories floating through their oral tradition; they could have turned to Yahweh. They chose not to. But there is some even more powerful: God left His own people in slavery for 400 years rather than bring judgment upon the Amorites too early. His own people! That doesn’t sound like a God of vengeance and anger but a God of mercy and patience. The problem is that most people can only see the result, not the process. The Amorites stored up for themselves a death sentence by ignoring God’s call for hundreds of years. They probably passed off God’s lack of action in their region as a sign of weakness, not mercy. The same still holds true today: Jesus is coming back, but He waits until it is truly too late for further repentance.
Closing Thoughts: The Promises of God
If we know we can trust God’s promises, what has God promised us? The challenge with this question is that many Bible readers fail to recognize that not every promise in the Bible is made to us. Some promises (like extended life, childbirth, victory, etc.) were made to specific people. God is not obligated to keep those promises with us. But consider these:
God promises rest for everyone struggling to make it in life in their own strength (Matt 11:28).
God promises to meet all of our needs in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19; Matt 6:33).
God promises that nothing will ever separate us from His love (Rom 8:39).
God promises salvation and eternal life for those who believe in Jesus (Rom 10:8; 1 John 2:25).
God promises the Holy Spirit to all believers (Luke 11:13).
God promises He will always give you a way out from temptation (1 Cor 10:13).
God promises to send Jesus back to gather us to Himself (John 14:3).
God promises that there will be a day of no more pain or sorrow (Rev 21:4).
God promises that His grace will always be sufficient (2 Cor 12:9).
I don’t know about other promises in the Bible—whether or not they apply to me. But I know that these do, and these give me great comfort and hope. Share them with your class! If you do your own research on God’s promises, be aware that the internet includes many promises that I don’t believe apply directly to us . . .