God’s covenant with Abram

Scripture: Genesis 15

Title: God’s covenant with Abram


  • Introduction
  • Conversation 1 – counting stars (vv. 1-6)
  • Conversation 2 – cutting a covenant (vv. 7-21)
  • Conclusion


Today we continue our series on the life of Abram by focusing on Genesis 15

–         Last week we heard how Abram went to war to rescue his nephew Lot

–         This week we listen in to two conversations God has with Abram

–         To make it easier to follow we’ll deal with these two conversations separately – firstly from Genesis 15, verses 1-6 we read…

After this, 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, “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.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us

Conversation 1 – counting stars (vv. 1-6)

Let me tell you a story…


One day a young acorn was growing on a tree

–         As he hung there he wondered to himself…

–         ‘Why am I here? What is the point of being an acorn?’


So he asked the leaves beside him if they knew why he was there

–         They never stopped whispering to each other, except on a still day

–         The leaves looked at the little acorn with contempt and said,

–         ‘We are here to clothe the tree and make her look beautiful. But we can’t think what you are here for, you ugly little nut.’

–         Then they went back whispering to each other like they always did, except on a still day


The young acorn was hurt by their tone and fell silently into his own thoughts

–         It was true that they were delicate and thin while he was round and fat

–         But he couldn’t help the way he looked – it was just the way he was

–         Still he wondered, if I’m not here to look beautiful then why am I here?


By and by a finch landed on the branch beside him tickling the leaves with her quick jerky movements

–         The young acorn asked the finch, ‘Why am I here?’

–         And the finch looked at the acorn with pity saying, ‘I am here to fly through the whole forest. I can travel wherever I please’, said the finch. ‘But you are stuck where you are – you are going nowhere’

–         Then, as if to prove her point, the finch flew away


The acorn thought hard about what the finch had said

–         It was true that the finch could fly and that he was going nowhere. But that didn’t answer his question, not really. He couldn’t help not having wings – it was just the way he was

–         Still he wondered, if I’m not here to fly through the forest then why am I here?


By and by a squirrel came along the branch he was hanging on, stopping every few seconds to rub his whole head in his hands

–         The little acorn wondered why he did that but thought it too rude to ask so ventured another question instead, ‘Why am I here, Mr Squirrel?’

–         The squirrel smiled at him but not in a warm friendly way, like the sun when it rises in the morning

–         The squirrel’s smile was more sinister, like he was holding back a secret

–         ‘I am here to store up food to eat and you are here to become my dinner. But not just yet, you’re too green right now. I’ll come back for you later.’

–         Then the squirrel rubbed his whole head in his hands one more time before disappearing along the branch


The young acorn was so scared he forgot to breathe for a moment

–         All his thoughts had run into hiding and it took him the rest of the afternoon to coax them out again

–         It was true that some of the older brown acorns went missing sometimes but life didn’t seem fair if his only purpose was to feed a greedy squirrel

–         He couldn’t help the way he tasted – it was just the way he was

–         Still he wondered, I must be more than lunch for a squirrel


By and by the little acorn asked everyone he could think of, ‘Why am I here?’

–         But no one could give him a proper answer

–         After a while the acorn gave up asking and tried to distract himself by thinking about other more trivial things


Then one night there was a big storm


The wind blew so hard that the acorn, who wasn’t so young and green anymore, fell off the branch and landed on the ground


A few days later, after the storm had passed, a little girl came by and picked up the thoughtful acorn

–         Her hands were soft like nothing the acorn had ever felt before

–         And her eyes were kind like nothing the acorn had ever seen before

–         And her voice was sweet like nothing the acorn had ever heard before


She showed the acorn to her grandad and asked him, ‘What is this here for?’

–         The old man looked at the acorn and then at the little girl

–         ‘You see that big tree there? This acorn is here to become like that oak’

–         The girl looked in awe at the acorn then carefully placed it back on the ground where she had found it


The acorn heard what the old man had said and even though he didn’t know how it would happen he still believed it was true

–         Now he knew at last why he was here


Genesis 15 is not the first time God has spoken to Abram, but it is the first time he has spoken to Abram in a vision

–         This vision happens at night, when the stars are out

–         We are told that ‘the word of the Lord came to Abram’

–         Prophetic messages are often introduced in the Bible with this phrase which signals to us that Abram is a prophet

–         Last week we heard how Abram acted in a kingly manner, even though he didn’t have the title of king

–         This week he acts in a prophetic manner


The Lord says three things to Abram…

–         Do not be afraid

–         I am your shield, and

–         Your reward will be very great


God often introduces himself by saying, ‘Don’t be afraid’

–         Fear is a natural response to the presence of God

–         After all God is the most powerful being there is


Then God says to Abram, ‘I am your shield’

–         A shield is something you hold close by your side to protect you

–         Given that Abram has just recently defeated the most powerful military alliance in the area he might very well be worried about reprisals

–         He needn’t worry though for God is his shield – right there beside him to protect him


The third thing God says is, ‘Your reward will be very great’

–         You may remember from last week (in Genesis 14) that Abram refused the reward of the spoils of war – he wanted nothing to do with the loot of Sodom, preferring instead to trust in God for his reward

–         Now here, in chapter 15, God is saying Abram will receive a great reward

–         What that reward looks like though is still somewhat ambiguous


Abram responds to God by saying…

–         What can you give me since I remain childless?


It’s not that Abram doubts God’s ability to deliver

–         It’s really more a question of meaning or purpose

–         Like the acorn Abram is wondering why am I here?

–         If the answer is to receive a great reward or to become rich then I don’t get it – there’s no meaning in that because when I die the reward goes to my servant Eliezer

–         Wealth is only a means to an end, not an end in itself


Then the word of the Lord came to him

–         Remember, that phrase means that what follows is a prophetic message

–         And the message is: Abram, you will father a son

–         Then God takes Abram outside (in his pyjamas) and shows him the stars saying, in effect, you will have so many descendants you won’t be able to count them

–         This is Abram’s oak tree moment – this is when the acorn gets a clear picture of why he is here and what he will become


At this point Abram doesn’t know how God will accomplish this

–         He simply believes God – he takes God at his word


I say ‘simply’ but as we know, simple isn’t the same as easy

–         Sarai was barren (she couldn’t have kids) and Abram wasn’t getting any younger

–         Believing that God would give him a son from his own body was equivalent to the acorn believing he would become a mighty oak one day

–         It’s equivalent to believing that God can raise people from the dead

–         That he can transform our mortal bodies into the immortal

–         It is such a leap that we must go beyond our own logic and exercise our imagination – which is what Abram does

–         Abram believes God’s word to him and God credits it to him as righteousness


Righteousness is a word that means ‘right relationship’

–         So a righteous person is someone who relates to others in a right way

–         They do justice and love mercy

–         Abram was not morally perfect – he didn’t always relate to others with justice & mercy – but by believing in God, by taking the Lord at his word, Abram did relate to God in a right way


Verse 6 is famously used by the apostle Paul in the New Testament [1]

–         “Abraham is the model for our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, faith God will credit to us as righteousness” [2]


Conversation 2 – cutting a covenant (vv. 7-21)

Okay, so that’s the first conversation between God & Abram in Genesis 15

–         Now let’s hear their second conversation in this chapter


From verses 7-21 we read…


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, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

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.”

10 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. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.

15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us


On the wall here is a diagram, to scale, of the sun & planets in our solar system

–         As you can see the sun is enormous relative to any other planet

–         God designed it this way I believe

–         Not only does the sun provide light, which is the foundation of life on earth, the mass of the sun also provides the gravity needed to give order and stability to the solar system

–         Who knows what would happen without the gravity of the sun

–         Maybe the planets would float all over the place and bump into each – it would be chaos

–         God created the sun to give order and life and stability to our planet


In the first 6 verses of Genesis 15 God talks to Abram about children

–         Now, in the last 15 verses (which we just read), God talks about land

–         This second conversation takes place during the day and then at dusk


The Lord begins by reminding Abram that he brought him out of Ur to take possession of the land of Canaan

–         As I understand it God is saying, ‘Abram, we have history and a future. I’ve got plans and a purpose for you’

–         One gets the feeling there was more that God was going to say before Abram interrupts the Lord with another question…

–         How can I know that I’ll gain possession of it?

–         And the question is jarring, isn’t it, because it sounds like Abram doesn’t believe God – he wants some kind of guarantee or solid commitment

–         When Zechariah (the father of John the baptist) asked a similar question he was struck dumb and couldn’t talk for 9 months [3]


Some experts reckon that Abram’s questioning of God comes out of faith, not unbelief

–         They reason it takes more faith to speak up before God with a compliant than it does to despair in silence [4]

–         Maybe, but the fact is Abram is asking for a guarantee and asking for guarantees is a long way from taking God at his word

–         Abram believed God’s word that he would become a father

–         So why doesn’t he take God at his word about the Promised Land? [5]


Well, I can’t pretend to know the heart and mind of Abram

–         What I am in touch with (through my own experience) is that faith needs commitment to survive, in much the same way that a plant needs sunlight

–         Or in much the same way that the earth needs the gravity of the sun to give it stability, so that it doesn’t float all over the place

–         We are not big enough to sustain the commitment that faith requires

–         We don’t have the mass & gravity to give order and stability to faith

–         So we look to God to provide the commitment (the light and the gravity) that our faith needs to thrive

–         Our faith commitment depends on God’s much larger commitment to us


God had promised to give Abram possession of the land but the problem was there were already at least 10 other people groups living in the land

–         Add to that the complication of foreign invaders, which Abram had recently been fighting with, and we can see that, without a firm commitment or guarantee from God, Abram’s belief in God’s promises was at risk of becoming destabilised

–         Like our earth would be destabilised without the gravity of the sun


God, in his grace, understands that for our faith to survive, over the long haul, he needs to provide the guarantee of a stable commitment

–         So the Lord God gives Abram the guarantee he asked for

–         The Lord tells Abram to bring him some livestock and birds

–         Abram does this, cutting the livestock in two and laying the pieces on the ground opposite each other

–         This was a messy and smelly business – there would have been a lot of blood and flies


Abram has to wait till the end of the day, shooing away the carrion, until God speaks again


12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.


This thick and dreadful darkness signals to Abram (and to us) that what is about to take place carries huge gravity


The Lord goes on to explain the future to Abram – how his descendants will be enslaved in a country not their own for 400 years

–         God is talking about the Israelites in Egypt

–         But the Lord God will punish the nation that mistreats Israel and bring Abram’s descendants out of slavery

–         The implication here is that possession of the land is a slow train coming – it won’t happen overnight

–         There will be a lot of waiting and suffering before the promise is fulfilled

–         I guess if we are going to ask God for guarantees we need to be ready to hear what he wants to tell us – we may not like it


Verse 16 explains the reason for the delay…

–         16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”


God is patient and just – he is slow to anger and rich in love

–         He intends to give the inhabitants of the land more than 400 years to change their wicked ways

–         Only when they’ve gone past the point of no return will the Amorites be dispossessed of the land

–         The reference to God’s patience in waiting for the sin of the Amorites to reach its fullness indicates that Joshua’s invasion was an act of justice, not aggression [6]


Verse 17 describes God cutting a covenant with Abram


17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire-pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land…


In the ancient culture, of Abram’s time, this is how people made an irrevocable agreement

–         It was called cutting a covenant because you cut the animals in half and walked between them as a way of saying, ‘If I break this promise then what has been done to the animals will be done to me’ [7]


It was serious, heavy weight, stuff

–         In our culture we don’t really have anything that comes close to this level of commitment

–         Our culture is relatively low on commitment but high on inclusion,

–         The prevailing thought is pretty much anything goes, so long as you don’t hurt anyone else – we’re more easy come, easy go

–         Our society, as a whole, tends to value convenience over commitment


The smoking fire-pot and blazing torch are symbols of God’s presence

–         The Lord walks between the animals that Abram has cut in two to demonstrate his solemn commitment to do what he has promised

–         What we notice is that God is the only one who walks between the severed animals – Abram doesn’t walk between them

–         So this is a one sided covenant – God is binding himself

–         It’s not that God requires nothing of Abram – as we’ll see when we get to chapter 17, God does ask some things of Abram and his descendants

–         The point here is that Abram can have 100% confidence in God’s oath


God’s covenant with Abram had the mass & gravity of the sun providing the light and stability Abram’s faith needed

–         But not just stability for Abram’s faith – also stability for the faith of his descendants

–         Isaac and Jacob and all the Israelites could look to this covenant and it would give light and order to their life, even through the hardest times



Now God didn’t just cut a covenant with Abram

–         He has also cut a covenant with us


When Jesus went to the cross God was cutting a covenant with humanity

–         He was making an irrevocable commitment that anyone who accepts Jesus by faith will have their sins forgiven and be gifted eternal life in the kingdom of heaven

–         God’s commitment to us, as demonstrated through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, has the mass & gravity & light to give stability and life to our faith


So the question is: do you believe in Jesus?

–         His death & resurrection




Questions for discussion / reflection:


1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?


2.)    In what sense is Abram like the acorn in the story?

–         Why are you here? (What is the purpose or meaning of your life?)


3.)    How was Abram’s belief that God could make him a father equivalent to believing in resurrection from the dead?

–         What do you believe about the resurrection?


4.)     What is righteousness?


5.)    Why do you think Abram asks God for a guarantee in verse 8?

–         What does our faith depend on for stability and survival?


6.)    Why must Abram’s descendants wait over 400 years before God’s promise of them possessing the land is realised?


7.)    What does it mean to cut a covenant?


8.)    What covenant has God cut with us?



[1] Romans 4

[2][2] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, page 247.

[3] Luke 1:18

[4] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, page 241.

[5] Part of me wants to come to Abram’s rescue and put a positive spin on his words by saying that Abram was asking the question in pursuit of the promise. So, ‘How can I know I’ll gain possession of it?’ means something like, ‘Great I believe you God. When can I start kicking people out?’ But I suspect that would stretching the text too far

[6] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, page 244.

[7] Refer to Jeremiah 34:18-19