The Promise Keeper
The Promise Keeper
Do you ever look up into the night sky and stand amazed by the immensity of the universe? When I was in University in eastern Washington, my friends and I often went water skiing on the Snake River when the weather was warm. When it got dark, one of our favourite pastimes was to lie on the grass and look up at the stars. With no city lights to interfere it was an amazing sight to ponder. If there’s anything that will make you feel small, it’s gazing up into the depths of the night sky. We can expect that Abram probably did a lot of stargazing, and even though to him the stars were simply points of light fixed on the dome of the sky, they were certainly a humbling sight to behold. If anything, you and I have reason to be even more humbled as we look into the night sky as modern people, with our ever-increasing knowledge of what’s out there. I was a few days ago about a project called the Dark Energy Survey that went online last week. The purpose of the project is to observe the dynamics of the expansion of the universe by taking photographs in the red spectrum of visible light using powerful telescopes high up in the Andes Mountains. The images are captured with digital cameras more then twenty times more powerful that the top-of-the-line models used by professional photographers. Each photo they take captures 100,000 galaxies—not stars, galaxies—and over the next five years they expect to photograph at least 300,000 million galaxies, some as far away as 13 billion kilometres. The point is to learn more about how the universe is expanding. It’s been expanding since its creation and we’ve observed that it’s expanding exponentially: the more time passes the faster it expands. Just for some perspective: if we were to represent the distance between the earth and the sun by the thickness of a piece of paper—a distance that even light takes eight minutes to travel—the distance to the edge of the universe would be represented by a stack of paper 50 million kilometres high! The size of the universe compared to our little planet—let alone ourselves—is mind-boggling—and it keeps getting bigger! As I try to wrap by brain around these sorts of things I cry out with the Psalmist:
O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
or the son of man that you think of him? (Psalm 144:3)
Or with Job:
What is man, that you make so much of him,
and that you set your heart on him. (Job 7:17)
In the immensity of the universe, is it rational to believe that God—if there is a God—gives us a thought? Some people have pondered this and been driven to atheism. Thanks be to God that he has spoken and given us his Word. He not only confirms his existence, but he makes it clear that despite the immensity of his Creation, he does in fact regard us—that he makes much of us and has set his heart on us. Genesis 15 is, perhaps, one of the greatest proofs of this in all of the Old Testament. In it we see that God not only cares, but that in his care—in his promises—he is faithful and he gives us reason to stand firm, sure in our faith in him.
As we jump into Genesis 15 remember what’s been happening in the last two chapters. God had promised the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants, and yet so far Abram has no son to inherit anything from him. Twice we’ve seen God overcome obstacles in the way of Abram possessing the land, but still the land is firmly held by the Canaanites. Even in Chapter 14, where we saw Abram earn title to it by conquest, Abram chose to give up that prerogative because he didn’t want anyone to question that it was God who gave it to him. Look now at verse 1:
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
God comes to Abram as he comes to his prophets, but he also comes to Abram as a king to his loyal officer who has fought well in battle. When God tells him to “fear not”, he speaks as he would to a king, to assure him of victory. When God tells him that he will be his shield, he portrays himself as protecting his warrior. And when he tells Abram that his reward shall be great, he uses a word that describes the spoils of war. Abram had walked in faith and had turned down the tainted spoils of his battle with Chedorlaomer and now God promises him something better. Not only will he, himself, protect Abram from reprisals, but he assures him that he will make good on his promises.
Abram responds by asking how this will be. It’s not a question that comes out of Abram’s doubt; it’s a question motivated by Abram’s faith. Abram trusts God and so he asks for surety, for a guarantee, for more details.
But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Abram cries out to God. Literally he addresses God in Hebrew as Lord Lord, or Lord Yahweh. A better translation is probably “Sovereign Lord”. Even the way he addresses God shows his faith. He trusts that God is sovereign in this situation and that he will be faithful to his promises. Abram just wants confirmation, because so far the closest thing he has to an heir is this man—a slave or a servant—named Eliezer. And so, in response God confirms his promise with Abram. Notice how each time God comes to Abram, each time he reiterate the promise, he gives a little more detail. Look at verses 4 and 5:
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
In Chapter 13 God promised that Abram’s offspring would be as the dust of the earth. Now he compares them to the stars in the sky. Think of the night sky again. God led Abram out of his tent and directed his eyes to the heavens—to the uncountable number of stars in the ancient near eastern night sky, completely unpoluted by city lights. Not only could Abram see the big stars, he could see the innumerable little ones, he could see the depths of the heavens and God promises him again: you will have a son and you will no more be able to number your descendants than you can number the stars. Then we’re told:
And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
Abram believed—or, better, he trusted—God’s promise and God counted it or credited it to him as righteousness. Abram believed: he knew God’s Word to be true and so he staked his life on it. Brothers and sisters, that’s what it means to “believe”—that’s faith. When we say that we “believe” the Gospel and that we trust in Jesus for salvation from our sins, we’re expressing the same kind of trust. That said, this passage isn’t about Abram being saved from his sin. It’s about the grounds for God’s giving him an everlasting blessing. In the Old Testament it’s always faith in God’s promises that leads men and women to follow him and, in return, to receive God’s blessings or to take part in God’s covenant. Abram’s “Old Testament” faith parallels and points to our “New Testament” faith. God promised an everlasting covenant of blessing to Abram and his children and Abram took hold of it by faith. To us God promises an everlasting covenant of forgiveness and eternal life. By faith we lay hold of it—as we admit our need as sinners, as we admit our inability to merit eternal life on our own, and as we have faith in—as we trust in—Jesus’ payment for our sins on the Cross, God credits his righteousness to us.
Abram’s faith was simple. His theology was almost non-existent. Like the other people of his day, he didn’t think in terms of heaven and hell or of eternal punishment and salvation. He didn’t know what a “Messiah” was. But he did know that God had called him to walk with him and had promised blessing in return. God’s call to Abram and Abram’s trust in God are the first steps in the unfolding of God’s covenant of redemption that came to full fruit at the Cross.
As Abram believes, God gives him further confirmation and further reason to trust in his promise. In verse 7 God speaks again. The text isn’t clear whether or not the second half of the chapter followed immediately after the first part. It seems likely that God spoke again some time later. Whatever the case, as God made clear the promise of offspring to come, now he makes clear his promise of the land.
And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
God speaks to Abram using the same formula we see in Ancient Near Eastern royal grants and proclamations. “I am the Lord” stresses the absolute authority of everything that follows. And yet Abram still asks to know how this thing will be:
But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8)
Again. Abram addresses him as Sovereign Lord—not questioning the promise, but asking for confirmation. Like the man in the Gospel he acknowledges God’s authority and his faith in God’s Word as he cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And God responds; he instructs Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon—all animals that would later be important to the sacrificial system of Israel—and he asks Abram to prepare them and wait. Look at verses 9 to 16:
He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Abram seems to have known what God had in mind when he asked him to bring these animals. Other literature that we have from the Ancient Near East, both from the Old Testament and other sources, describes how covenants were sometimes ratified. The Hebrew word used here literally describes “cutting” a covenant in the same way we might speak of “signing” a covenant in order to make it official. In this case two parties would agree on the content of the covenant, whether it was an exchange of land or livestock, or pledges made between a king or nobleman and his vassal, then an animals would be brought and its throat slit by the parties. It was their way of solemnising the oath, effectively saying, “If I fail to uphold my covenant responsibilities may this be done to me.” There’s no way to know for sure, but I expect Abram thought that God intended for him to make that sort of pledge: “God I will follow you, doing what you command, and if I fail, may I be cut in two as these animals have been.”
As the sun sets, God does indeed come to Abram. As he had previously clarified his promise of a son and of offspring like the stars in the heavens, now he clarifies his promise of the land. We’ve been asking all along how it will be that Abram will inherit a land already controlled by powerful kings. God now gives an answer: Abram himself will not control the land. In fact, God intends to give it to Abram’s descendants. God foretells their captivity in Egypt for four hundred years, but promises that in his timing he will judge the Egyptians, he will lead his people into Canaan enriched with the treasures of Egypt, and he will give the land into their hand.
God’s explanation for the delay is interesting: “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”. The Amorites is a catch-all for the pagan peoples of Canaan. These were wicked, wicked people. These were people like the Sodomites who were not only violent and sexually immoral beyond anything in our culture, but who sacrificed their own children to their gods. And yet as we saw with Adam and with Cain, God does not simply descend from heaven to unleash his destruction without first showing that his judgement is fair and righteous. Remember that he was the one who allowed Adam and Cain to convict themselves with their own words. This time he will allow the Amorites—the pagans of Canaan—four hundred years to convict themselves so that when his judgement comes no one will think it unjust.
It’s interesting that one of the modern objections people have to the God of Holy Scripture is his command to the Israelites as they conquered Canaan. He didn’t simply call them to conquer and subjugate the Canaanites. No, he gave them clear instructions to kill everyone and everything; not just the warriors, but even their wives and their children. What we forget is that the Canaanites practised demonic evil the likes of which we can only imagine. And we forget, too, that God gave them four hundred years of grace—four hundred years in which they could have turned from their evil. Instead they only confirmed their wickedness and depravity. It’s a reminder that God is just.
Now, back to Abram. God has confirmed his promise and he’s explained his plans. Abram might have been thinking that this was the point at which God would call him to take an oath of loyalty or obedience in light of the cut-up animals. Instead, exactly the opposite happens. God does something that makes this one of the most profound and amazing passage in all of Holy Scripture. God manifests himself to Abram and, himself, passes through the carcasses of the animals! Look at verses 17-20:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
Instead of instructing Abram to invoke a curse on himself should he fail in his faith or his obedience, God comes himself. He manifests himself to Abram as a smoking fire pot (or a censer) and as a flaming torch. These were important symbols Abram would have known from the rituals of his own people. Mesopotamian religious texts tell us about initiation rituals that were made at night and in which the participants were ritually purified with a censer and a torch. The torch, in particular, represented the deity into whose cult the person was being initiated. And so here God draws on these symbols familiar to Abram—again, he speaks in the language of his children, stooping down and lisping to us that we might understand. He comes as Abram’s purifier, but instead of asking Abram to invoke a curse on himself should he fail God, God—absolutely amazingly—invokes the covenant’s curse on himself: “May I be cut in two as these animals should I fail in my promise to bring Abram’s offspring into possession of this land.”
Can you imagine how profoundly important this was to Abram. He was accustomed to gods who were fickle and immoral. They made promises that they didn’t keep. The pagan gods were simply human beings with great power. They created human beings as their servants and did as they willed with them. And yet this new God of Abram’s not only makes promises, he pledges to keep them. And, brother and sisters, this was no “pinky-swear” promise. God committed himself to his own word in the most profoundly solemn way imaginable in that time and place. He pledged his own destruction should he not make good on his Word.
Now, do you see how Genesis 15 is so profoundly important to us as we follow this same God ourselves? We walk by faith in a God who is eternally faithful. We should take deep comfort in that. Even at our best you and I are horribly fickle. Even in Abram, the father of all who walk by faith, we see him stumble and fall repeatedly. But, dear friends, when we choose to walk with God by faith, he will hold us up no matter what. Once we have trusted in the power of Jesus’ blood to wash away our sins, God never ceases to see anyone but his Son when he looks at us. Never once does he forget his covenant of grace and choose to take a glance under the long robe of Christ’s righteousness to condemn what it covers. He has promised us the righteousness of his Son and that’s what he gives us. We come to his Table each Sunday having spent a week walking with him, sometimes walking faithfully and often having strayed, and yet here he gives us gifts of his grace that depend on his eternal promises, not on our fickle obedience. And once each of us stood at the font to be washed with pure water and to have the Holy Spirit poured into us that God might make us holy. The promise he offers us in baptism depends not on our fickle obedience, but on his eternal Word. His grace is with us always, not only when our faith is strong, but especially when our faith is weak.
More importantly what does God’s revelation of himself as the Promise Keeper teach us about the nature of our faith? Genesis 15 is amazing because it shows us not only the eternal faithfulness of God, but because it also shows us the nature of the faith we should have. It shows us the difference between mere “belief” and life-changing, God-honouring “faith”. Belief is a shallow thing. Belief is the spiritual counterpart to opinion. I believe things because, at best, I’m moderately sure that they’re true or, at worst, because no one has yet convinced me that I’m wrong. In contrast, faith is rooted in conviction—in the sure knowledge of something. When it comes to God and his promises, I don’t merely believe them, I am convinced by the Word he has spoken, by the Scriptures he has caused to be written and by the evidence of his faithfulness that he has given. And so when God promises, when God pledges, when God says he will do something I embrace his Word with the arms of faith, sure in the knowledge—not the opinion—that he will do what he says. I know that his Word rests on his character and on his very being. As he promised to Abram: Should I fail in keeping my covenant, may I be as these slaughtered carcasses—may I be mutilated and cut in two.” Can God be slaughtered? Absolutely not! And so we know, we are sure, we are convinced that what God says is worthy of our trust, of our faith.
Brothers and sisters, this is what makes the difference in our lives. Do we walk in mere belief—in spiritual opinion—unsure of God’s promise of care and of provision and of salvation? Do we walk by sight, hedging our bets, holding back from generous giving of our time, talent, and treasure out of fear that what God has spoken may not really be true and wholly trustworthy? Or do we walk strong in the power of faith, going where God calls, doing what he says, generously giving of ourselves and never fearing that as we seek him first, he will take care of everything else. And as you trust in the sacrifice of Jesus at the Cross for your sins, are you still also trying to earn your way into the kingdom by hedging your bets with good works? Or have you fully trusted in Jesus and God’s promise that he has fully paid the penalty for your sins?
Notice what impressed God about Abram. Abram didn’t just believe God. He trusted God’s Word and he embraced God’s promises by faith. How often do we try to impress God with our works—by doing this or that good deed, by giving money to this or that good cause? Brothers and sisters, our best works are as filthy rags when compared to the holiness of God. If you want to impress him, if you want to please him have faith—real, life-changing faith. And, friends, not just the faith in Jesus that saves us, but faith that God is who he says he is; faith in his promises not only for our salvation, but for our provision; faith in who God is: faith in his character and attributes, faith that he cares for us, faith that he is sovereign over all things, and faith that he is good. Brothers and sisters, it’s as we move from mere belief to real conviction that our faith will grow and our commitment to God, to his kingdom, and to holiness in our own lives will take root and grow.
Let us pray. Sovereign Lord, we thank you and we praise you as we consider the majesty and immensity of your Creation: that you are mindful of us and that you care for us. Father, thank you that you not only care for us, but that you speak that we might know you and walk with you. Strengthen our faith, we ask Lord, that as we read and study and meditate on your Word and as we see you revealed in its pages we might trust you more each day, moving from mere belief to life-changing faith. As Abram’s faith was a light to the people around him, let our faith be a light to the people who surround us. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Richard Hess, “The Slaughter of the Animals in Genesis 15” in He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50, ed. Richard Hess, Gordon Wenham, and P.E. Satterthwaite (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), pp. 55-65.