Bible Commentaries
Genesis 15

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This marvelous account of the confirmation of the heavenly promise to Abram is one of great charm and beauty; and even the passing of millenniums of time has not dimmed the luster of it, for, "It carries with it a feeling of awe and mystery which, thanks to the genius of the narrator, can still grip the reader."[1] There were two elements in the divine promise to Abram:

  1. the creation of the first Israel, including the promise of settling them in Canaan and making of them a mighty nation, and

  2. the bringing in, through them, of the Messiah, by means of whom redemption and salvation would be made available to all who live on earth. These are not the results of "two traditions," handed down through several sources, as affirmed by Davies-Richardson;[2] but they are part and parcel of the same purpose of God visible in the very first call to Abram, in which the intention of blessing "all families of the earth" was clearly stated. Without this conception, the choice of Abram and the development of a "Chosen People" would appear as a partial, capricious action which we find it impossible to ascribe to Almighty God.

And, speaking of "several sources," this chapter is the complete frustration of the source splitters, most of whom frankly admit that the theories fail here. "The analysis presents well-nigh insoluble difficulties, and critics are much divided as to details."[3] No two scholars agree; and even John Skinner admitted "the insurmountable difficulties."[4] Thus, it is clear enough that in rejecting in its entirety the whole multiple source system of Bible interpretation, one is merely rejecting that which is neither scientific nor reasonable.

We receive the sacred text as it has come down to us in the full confidence that Almighty God who gave it has also properly preserved it to the degree that its essential message is sufficient to the divine purpose. That trifling and trivial flaws in the Hebrew text are in all probability present would appear to be inevitable, but all of these are as unimportant as a flyspeck on the Washington Monument. Certainly, no community of scholars can find in any such thing a mandate for tearing up the Bible and re-writing it in their own image.

Verse 1

"After these things the word of Jehovah came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward."

"After these things ..." is a reference to the events of the previous chapter. It was not until Abram had at last "left" his father's house that the covenant was specifically renewed and expanded, as here. Therefore, the events of Genesis 14 were a necessary prelude to what is written here. Also, it was important that the great Christ-Type, Melchizedek, should appear, for the purpose of removing any impression that Abram, in any sense whatever, either invented, or discovered God!

"The word of Jehovah came unto Abram ..." God is the author of the Abrahamic promises; and we can only marvel at the arrogant denial of this in the affirmation that, "Abram evolved the phases of this promise through wishful thinking, or some act of inner compulsion!"[5] Our Lord repeatedly referred to the Genesis record in the words, "God hath said," and no believer in the Lord Jesus Christ could set that aside.

"In a vision ..." We believe this whole chapter is therefore a vision, as stated here, and that any limitation of the vision to some particular portion of this chapter is erroneous. The mingling of day scenes and night scenes (Genesis 15:5,12), the passing, evidently, of many hours, the slaughter of animals, the darkness, the deep sleep, and other factors of this chapter are best understood, and all difficulties removed by strict attention to what this chapter is, "a vision." As Leupold bluntly stated it, "This vision covers the whole chapter."[6] Keil also agreed that:

"The expression in a vision applies to the whole chapter. There is no pause anywhere, nor any sign that the vision ceased, or that the action was transferred to the sphere of the senses and of external reality."[7]

Of course, some critics proceed to tell us what parts of the chapter could be in the vision, and which could not be in it. But what do they know, or what does any man know, about what should be or should not be in a vision that God gave?

"Fear not, Abram ..." What fears were in Abram's heart that God should have thus reassured him? Willis thought the fear might have sprung from the Palestinian invasion just described, raising an "uncertainty"[8] Abram had regarding the future and the danger of reprisals against himself; Unger believed that Abram might have been afraid that he had done the wrong thing in refusing the "goods and the patronage of Sodom."[9] Aalders mentioned Abram's being a "stranger in a hostile environment."[10] However, it appears to us that the principal thing on Abram's mind was that the years were slipping away, and that, as yet, he had NO child. At least, that was the thing that Abram brought up at once.

"I am thy Shield, and thy exceeding great reward ..." This statement at the head of the chapter removes all possibility that this chapter gives clues as to how a sinner is saved from sin. Abram, in this chapter, does not correspond in any sense to an alien sinner. He had been following God ever since he left Ur of the Chaldees; and again, and again, he had strictly obeyed the commandments of Jehovah, in leaving Ur, in leaving Haran, in going to Canaan, and (probably) in the return to Bethel; and, as we have already noted, the expedition to rescue Lot could not have been undertaken without prayer for God's aid. Abram's obedient faith was the grounds upon which God had accounted Abram righteous, long before the events of this chapter. Could God possibly have said, "I am thy shield, etc.," if this had not been so? Was God in the business of being the shield and exceeding great reward of unforgiven sinners?

Verses 2-3

"And Abram said, O Lord Jehovah, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold to me thou hast given no seed; and, lo, one born in my house is my heir."

The Hebrew text in the phrase regarding Eliezer is said to be imperfect, but the general meaning is clear enough. And, as to just who Eliezer was, whether he came from Damascus or not, all such questions are unimportant.

Verse 4

"And behold the word of Jehovah came unto him, saying, This man shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir."

It was not specifically stated here that Sarai would be the mother of the promised heir, although both Abram and Sarai should have understood it thus. That they did not do so, led to their "helping God out" by the events that led to the birth of Ishmael.

Verse 5

"And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be."

"Number the stars ..." Previously, God had promised that Abram's seed would be as "the dust of the earth"; and the dramatic change here suggests the two Israels that call Abram their father, the fleshly Israel and the spiritual Israel of God's church. Also, Morris thought it indicated that the redeemed of both Israels would be active "both on earth and in heaven." The innumerability of the stars is a scientific truth, there being, in fact, innumerable galaxies, the total number of stars in any one of them being innumerable, and the question rises as to how such a fact is mentioned so casually. The answer has to lie in the omniscience of God, the real Author of Genesis.

"So shall thy seed be ..." Seed, of course, has two meanings, being a collective noun, meaning: (1) a single Seed, or (2) billions of seeds. Both meanings are found in the Scriptures. Here the "seed" refers to the vast and innumerable company of Abram's physical posterity on earth. However, in Genesis 3:15, and in Genesis 26:4, "seed" is used restrictively as reference to Jesus Christ only. Some of the scholars made a big thing out of "seed" usually having the plural meaning, but no scholar on earth, nor all of them concurrently, have the right to deny or question the "Seed Singular" reference to Jesus Christ in Genesis 3:15; 26:4, and in the references from Galatians 3:16-19. God used a word with "two" meanings purposely, and apostolic authority guarantees to us the understanding of the "Seed Singular" as Jesus Christ.

Verse 6

"And he believed in Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness."

One may only be astounded at the amount of nonsense written about this verse, which is hailed as the plan of salvation for the sinners of all ages, some even claiming that Abram was "saved by faith only," and trying to find here a corroboration of the great Lutheran heresy. There is no truth whatever in such views. Morris even discovered (?) here "a new covenant,"[11] and Unger hailed the passage as "the pattern of a sinner's justification"![12]

(1) It is absolutely impossible properly to observe this place as the record of a new covenant. Genesis 12:1f contains the embryo of all that is given here. Therefore, this chapter has a recapitulation and further explanation of the covenant God had already made with Abram, a covenant upon which Abram acted, which he received in good faith, and in which actions he had already demonstrated his faith by OBEDIENCE, the prime factor without which salvation for anybody, past, present, or future, is totally impossible. Payne strictly understood this and commented that: "It is the tranquil and obedient acceptance of God's plan (of history and of salvation) which places man in the right relationship with God."[13]

(2) Luther raised the question of whether or not Abram had been justified already before this time, and upon the flimsiest of reasons decided that here Abram for the first time appears justified. The truth must be that for a long while prior to this reaffirmation of the covenant already in existence, Abram's OBEDIENT faith had been "reckoned unto him for righteousness." This chapter began with the revelation that God was already indeed the shield and "exceeding great reward" of Abram. Therefore, Abram's status before the recapitulation of the covenant here, was definitely NOT that of an alien sinner. As Whiteside, a scholar of great discernment, exclaimed:

"One of the strangest things in all the field of Bible exegesis is the contention so generally made that this language refers to the justification of Abraham as an alien sinner. It seems to be taken for granted that up to the time spoken of in this verse, Abraham was an unforgiven, condemned sinner ... The facts are all against such a supposition."[14]

The notion that Abram had not been justified previously leaves unexplained and, in fact, inexplicable, why God should have providentially intervened in Egypt to rescue him from the situation where his wife was in the harem of Pharaoh, or why God would have aided Abram in the violent little war in which he rescued Lot. No, justification of Abram could not have begun in this chapter. There was a degree in which it already was done, although his final justification in God's sight did not even occur here but came when he offered Isaac (James 2:21).

(3) Paul's statements concerning this event in such passages as Romans 4:3,5, etc., have no reference whatever to Abram's receiving justification WITHOUT OBEDIENCE, but to the fact that his justification was not, in any sense, founded upon circumcision and the Law of Moses. No one in any dispensation was ever justified apart from obedience. Abram's justification was totally apart from the Law of Moses, which came over 400 years afterwards; but it was not apart from obedience.

Verses 7-8

"And he said unto him, I am Jehovah that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. And he said, O Lord Jehovah, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?"

Significantly, (1) Jehovah (by that name) is already known to Abram; (2) also, the covenant is already in existence (Genesis 12:1ff); and what the narrative here is concerned with is the question of Abram as to how he could know that it would really be fulfilled.

Verses 9-11

"And he said unto him, Take me a heifer three years old, and a she-goat three years old, and a ram three years old, and a turtle dove, and a young pigeon. And he took all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other: but the birds divided he not. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away."

The function of the slaughtered animals here was not that of a sacrifice, but of the ratification (confirmation) of a covenant. The ritual in view here was actually used in antiquity by numerous ancient people as the means of assuring the performance of agreements. There was no need whatever for God to do such a thing; and, evidently, it was prompted because of Abram's question as to how he might "really know" that he would inherit the land. The whole design is anthropomorphistic, God, in a vision, representing himself as taking an oath, in the manner of the ritual described, for the purpose of reassuring Abram. Psalms 110:4 speaks of God's swearing "with an oath" to raise up a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. In such events, the heavenly Father condescends to assure men by the same devices by which men seek to reassure one another.

The animals here chosen, however, did not include an ass, as was used by the Amorites;[15] but they were clean creatures, later confirmed as suitable for sacrifices to God, as in the Law of Moses. That all of this was part of the vision, and not an actual happening, is confirmed in the truth that Abram did not pass between the carcasses, and that God did so only in a symbol. In the actual rituals, both parties passed through between the slain animals. Also note, that Abram did not need time to procure the creatures mentioned. It all took place in the vision.

"The birds of prey ... Abram drove them away ..." Christ himself used "the birds" as symbols of evil in the N.T. (Matthew 13:4); and they doubtless have the same symbolical meaning here. Morris suggested that: "They symbolized the efforts of Satan to thwart the plans of God."[16] Abram's watchfulness and his driving them away symbolize the need for Christians to be alert and aggressive in their opposition to evil.

Verses 12-14

"And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a horror of great darkness fell upon him. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance."

"And when the sun was going down ..." All of this is still part of the vision "The horror of a great darkness" was also part of it, as were the words spoken by Jehovah.

"They shall be sojourners ..." This is a prophetic revelation of the captivity of Israel in Egypt, "thy seed" being a reference to the posterity of Abram.

"Four hundred years ..." The same period is referred to as 430 years in Exodus 12:40, a well-known pseudocon, but no contradiction exists. Note that it is not the total stay in Egypt, but the period of their "affliction" which is here prophesied as "four hundred years." They were not afflicted during the early years of their sojourn there while Joseph was yet Pharaoh's deputy. Also, in all probability, the time period here is stated in round numbers, meaning "about four hundred years." The same period is called "four generations" a little later, that being correct in view of the longevity of the patriarchs.

"That nation will I judge ..." The ten plagues brought against Egypt, as fully related in Exodus, were the fulfillment of this.

"Come out with great substance ..." This too was related in Exodus. From Egyptians, the Israelites borrowed great wealth on the very night that God delivered them; and this immense booty they took with them into the wilderness. In these dire promises concerning Abram's seed there would seem to be the source of that "horror of great darkness" that came upon Abram.

This kind of prophecy was not intended to inspire shouts of joy on Abram's part.

Verses 15-17

"But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. And in the fourth generation shall they come hither again; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full. And it came to pass when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces."

"Thou shalt go to thy fathers ..." This cannot apply to the place where Abram was buried, for he was not buried with his fathers, but in the cave of Machpelah. "We find here a clear testimony to belief in an eternal life in the patriarchal age.")[17]

"And in the fourth generation ..." See under Genesis 15:14 for note on this.

"They shall come hither again ..." Hebron, where Abram lived at the time, was in Canaan; and the promise that in subsequent ages Abram's seed would "come hither again" meant that they would come and possess the land of Canaan.

"The iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full ..." The word "Amorite" is used here as a "collective term for the pre-Israelite population of Canaan."[18] The justice of God is visible in this, as Francisco noted:

"God would not arbitrarily dispossess one people for another, even to fulfill His purpose. Later, when the Canaanites were conquered, it was because they had lost the right to the land by their own sinfulness. Later, the Jews were expelled for the same reason.[19]"

"Smoking furnace ... flaming torch ..." Such symbolism stands for God Himself; and it should be noted in this vision, that Abram did not pass between the carcasses, because only God would keep the covenant. In no sense whatever did Israel keep it.

Verses 18-21

"In that day Jehovah made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Gergashite, and the Jebusite."

"In that day Jehovah made a covenant ..." This must be understood in the sense that God ratified and confirmed with this ancient type of oath the covenant already existing, and which was recounted in Genesis 12:1f. He also elaborated significant details not previously given:

  1. Abram himself would not inherit the land at all, but it would be possessed by his posterity.

  2. Even his seed would not possess the land until centuries should pass and the iniquity of the Amorite should have run its course and reached a fullness requiring their dispossession.

  3. All ten of the nations of Canaan (standing here as a figure for the totality of the Canaanites) would, in time, be destroyed and the land repopulated by Israel.

  4. In the 400 years preceding the ultimate possession of the land by Israel, the people would undergo slavery and affliction.

  5. The nation that would thus subject them would be severely judged.

  6. The Jews would finally leave the land of their oppression with great wealth.

  7. The actual boundaries of Israel's ultimate domain were given. Such a great wealth of additional information more than justified the statement that, "In that day God made a covenant, etc. ..."

"From the river of Egypt ... the river Euphrates ..." This would seem to say, "From the Nile," since that great river could also be called "the river of Egypt," but the scholars are unanimous in the declaration stated thus by Dummelow: "This is probably the Wady of Arish on the border of Egypt."[20] This was precisely fulfilled in the days of the Solomonic Empire which embraced all of the territory included here.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 15". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.