The Problems with the Promise

Today’s passage contains both the simple and the weird. The simple is what we just read. God makes Abram promises; Abram believes those promises. It’s simple; it’s straightforward; it’s worth pondering and reflecting upon, but the basic concept is not difficult to understand. The rest of the passage is the weird. God makes a promise about land. God tells him to cut a bunch of animals in half. Abram chases some vultures away from the carcasses. Darkness descends; there’s a prophecy about the future, and then a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass through the dead carcasses. Not so simple. Very weird.


And the entire Bible is like this. The basic story is often simple enough for a child to understand. God is the creator. God is gracious. God makes promises. We ought to trust his promises and obey him. When we fail, God forgives us. Christ died for sinners to bring us to God. There’s a melody line that runs through the Bible that is simple. At the same time, throughout the Bible, there are complex, rich harmonies that often confuse us. There are stories that puzzle us and confound us. So I want to begin this sermon with some application: Don’t let the weird keep you from the simple. Don’t let the simple keep you from the weird. As pastors, when we preach, our goal is to try in 30 minutes to do justice to the passage. Often that means covering both the simple and the weird. If you’re listening and you’re confused by the weird, don’t let that keep you from loving and trusting the simple. And if you’re loving the simple, labor to try and understand the weird. One of the things that we’re seeing in Genesis is that God is growing Abram up into maturity. He’s bringing him along and helping him remain faithful as he faces obstacles to his faith. And the same is true with us. God wants all of us to grow up to maturity, to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus. And he does so by giving us both the simple and the weird. Both are good, and we ought to love the simple while pressing into the weird.

Abram: Priest, King, and Prophet

Last week in the exhortation, I noted that Abram claims the land through worship. After God makes the promise in Gen. 12, Abram trusts and obeys God and moves to Canaan, and he travels the length and breadth of the land, building altars and establishing the worship of Yahweh in Canaan. In doing so, Abram is acting as a priest. In Gen. 14, Abram rescues Lot from a confederation of kings in battle and then interacts with two kings after his victory. In doing so, Abram establishes himself as a royal figure himself (the word “king” appears 28 times in this short chapter). So Abram is a priest, establishing worship in the land, and Abram is a king, defending the land from rival rulers. In Gen. 15, we see that Abram is also a prophet.


“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision” (15:1). That phrase, or one like it, appears often later in the Bible when God reveals himself to the prophets. This is the first prophetic vision in Scripture. Now, we often think about prophets as those who see the future and speak the word of the Lord to the people. And this passage contains those elements. But both of them are united by a more fundamental fact about prophets. Prophets stand in the inner council of God. A priest offers basic obedience to God. He is a servant in God’s house, maintaining right worship. A king rules in wisdom. He is a son over God’s house, exercising dominion. A prophet is a friend of God, standing in his councils, knowing his mind, and speaking as his mouthpiece to others. So in these chapters, we see a progression from priest to king to prophet, as Abram grows in maturity and faith.


And this prophetic revelation is part of what God means when he says, “your reward will be very great.” Abram’s reward is God himself; as Pastor Jonathan noted last week, Abram refuses reward from the king of Sodom because he knows that God is his reward. God is his portion. But not only that, Abram’s reward for his faith in God is that God invites him into his council. God lets Abram in. Abram has been faithful—he’s moved to a land he didn’t know; he’s trusted God in the face of obstacles; he gave the best land to Lot instead of clinging to it for himself; he trusted God to fight for him and deliver his enemies into his hand. And now, God invites Abram in as a co-laborer, as a junior partner, as a prophet, as a friend of God.


God’s first words to Abram are “Fear not.” Now, why would Abram be afraid? Some scholars suggest that Abram might be afraid that the kings of the east will come back and God wants him to know that he’ll continue to protect him. That’s possible, but we’ve just seen that Abram isn’t afraid of kings. He trusts God in the midst of battle with kings. It seems to me that God’s words to Abram—Fear not, for I am your shield—are designed to provoke Abram to say what’s on his mind, to name his real fear. God knows Abram’s heart, and he is drawing out of him his true fear. And so we see what haunts the back of Abram’s mind. Abram sees some problems with the promise. Abram believes; he really trusts God. But he has questions; there seem to be problems with the promise. And this is instructive for us. Faith and questions, faith and doubt, can exist side by side. We can believe, and still ask God to help our unbelief.

Problems with the Promise: Offspring

So what are these problems with the promise? There are two of them. There is an offspring problem and a land problem. Verses 2-6 deal with the offspring problem. Verses 7-21 deal with the land problem. And both of these problems flow from God’s promises to Abram. In Gen. 12:7, God says, “To your offspring I will give this land.” In Gen. 13:14-17, God reiterates this promise after Abram doesn’t cling to the best land:

The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (ESV)

Though Abram believes these promises and acts in faith to follow God, he also sees problems with the promise. Let’s take each problem in turn.


The offspring problem is simple—Abram doesn’t have any. He is childless. He has no child, and so he has basically adopted one of his servants (Eliezer of Damascus) as his heir. So how will Abram’s offspring inherit the land, if he has no offspring. Does God mean that Eliezer will be the one to inherit? And God lets Abram in on his councils. “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son (literally, one from your loins) will be your heir.” And then, to solidify the promise, he gives him a visual aid. He takes him outside and tells him to count the stars. Now the ancient sky is not like the modern sky. Our sky is obscured by the sheer number of lights on earth. The ancient sky would have been a sea of stars. And God says, “So shall your offspring be.” Earlier, God had said that Abram’s offspring will be like the sand of the seashore. Now they will be as numerous as the stars.


What this means is that, no matter where Abram looked, he would be reminded of God’s promise. During the day, when he’s wandering around the desert, he’ll look down and see the sand and say, “God will make my offspring as numerous as this.” And at night, when he looks at the sky ablaze with stars, he can say, “So shall my offspring be.” Now that’s all Abram has to go on—the specific word of the Lord (“one from your loins”) and two visual aids (sand and stars).


And that’s what makes Gen. 15:6 so important. “Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now, in a few weeks Pastor David is going to talk about the second half of that verse—reckoning righteousness, or justification. I want to think for a moment about Abram believing God.


What does it mean for Abram to believe God? Here it means, quite simply, he takes him at his word. Abram so trusts God that his word has the force of reality for Abram. I think the author of the letter to the Hebrews is thinking very carefully about stories like this when he gives us his definition of faith. Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Abram doesn’t have children. He hopes for children, but he doesn’t see children. But God promises children to Abram and God’s promise trumps what Abram sees (or doesn’t see). God’s promise has the force of reality with Abram. It assures him that what he hopes for will come to pass. It is evidence that the unseen children will be a reality.


That’s one way for us to think about our faith. Do the promises of God have the force of reality, of real things, with us? Do we live and act as though Jesus is real? Because Jesus is real. When we look at our lives and the obstacles and challenges and anxieties and confusions we face, and then we hear the promises of God to be with us and provide for us and to sustain us in suffering and to raise us from the dead, do those promises have the force of reality so that we can face reality? Abram believed God. He took him at his word. And God commended him as righteous.

Problems with the Promise: The Land

Now that’s the simple. God promised. Abram believed. The problems with the land get us into the weird. What are the problems with the land? For starters, Abram doesn’t own it yet. And so when God says that Abram will possess it, Abram understandably asks, “How will I know this?” But these aren’t the only land problems we’ve seen. In Gen. 12, there was a famine in the land that forced Abram to go to Egypt. In Gen. 13, the land was too weak to support both Abram and Lot together. And in Gen. 14, the land was the site of a major war between rival alliances. Famine, weakness, and war. This land has problems. And Abram doesn’t own anything in it. So how will he know that he will possess it?


God tells him to take specific animals at specific ages (heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon) and divide them in half. Then the sun goes down, and the passage really emphasizes the darkness. “Sun goes down.” “Deep sleep falls.” “A dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” “When the sun had gone down and it was dark.” And in the midst of this darkness, God tells Abram about his own future and the future of his descendants. And then a smoking pot and a flaming torch pass between the divided carcasses of the animals, as God binds himself to his promise by a covenant.


Now this is very strange, and even the best biblical commentators aren’t entirely sure about what’s going on here. Why these particular animals? Why specify the ages? Why not divide the birds in half? I don’t have answers to all the questions. But here are a few observations and then my proposal for the meaning of these events.


First, this passage has a few echoes of Genesis 2. In Genesis 2, Adam was alone and lacking something—a suitable helper. God puts him into a deep sleep, takes out part of his side, and builds the woman from his rib, before reuniting the two of them in marriage. Here, Abram is alone and lacking something—children and land. God puts him into a deep sleep (same phrase as Genesis 2), and shows him how the promise will be fulfilled in the future.


Second, this passage has a number of anticipations of the Exodus. God says, “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans” (15:7). In Exodus 20:2, at the beginning of the 10 Commandments, God says, “I am Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). This phrase is echoed throughout Exodus and Leviticus (19:36; 22:33; 25:38; 26:13), and Numbers (15:41) and Deuteronomy (4:37; 5:6). Second, while the meaning of the smoking fire pot and the torch are not perfectly clear, they do resemble the way that God led his people in the desert after the exodus—as a pillar of cloud (or smoke) by day and a pillar of fire by night.


Third, we have the explicit promise of the exodus: Abram’s descendants will be servants in a land not their own for 400 years, and then God will bring judgment on the oppressive nation, and they will leave that nation with great possessions. And this promise is all the more significant in light of what’s happened earlier in Genesis 12. In that passage, Abram journeys to Egypt because of a famine. While there, Pharaoh takes Sarai into his harem and threatens God’s promises. God brings judgment on Pharaoh in the form of plagues, and then Abram leaves Egypt with great wealth. We’ll say more about that passage and the parallels to the exodus in a few weeks. For now, the main issue is that in this passage, God echoes the exodus in words (“I am Yahweh who brought you out”), in symbol (smoking fire pot and flaming torch), and in explicit promise.


So what then does this whole ritual mean? My suggestion is that the divided animals are meant to symbolize the Promised Land. Abram asks how he will know that he will possess the land, and God tells him to cut these animals in half. Abram has just recently divided the land between himself and Lot (Gen. 13), and the land has also been torn asunder by famine and war. Thus, divided animal carcasses represent a divided land. The symbolism of the land in the animals is strengthened by the fact that Abram drives off the vultures when they descend on the carcasses. In the previous chapter, kings from the east descended upon the divided land like vultures in order to plunder it. And in that chapter it was Abram who drove the vultures away and rescued his nephew. So, the divided animals represent the divided land with all its problems. Then, God’s presence, represented by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch, passes through the divided animals. Thus, God’s Spirit will one day restore the division and bring peace to the land by establishing Abram’s descendants in it.


This is what God does: he divides things in order to unite them with greater glory. He divided Adam in half in order to reunite Adam and Eve in a glorious union. He divided the light from the darkness, the seas from the skies, and the earth from the seas, in order to create a fully ordered cosmos, an ordered world of harmony and glory. So now, God promises that the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates will not always be divided and weak. In 400 years, he will fulfill his promise and bring the divided land back together, with Abram’s descendants inheriting it as their possession.


That, at least, is my best attempt to explain the weird in this passage. Regardless, I want to underscore a few of the things that are obvious in this passage. First, Abram here is set apart as a prophet of God. He is a priest who establishes worship, a king who defends his own from invaders, and a prophet who is welcomed into God’s inner council. Second, there are offspring problems and land problems with God’s promise, and God reiterates that he will address them. The offspring problem will be addressed in Abram’s own lifetime. A son from his loins will inherit the promise. The land problem, however, will not be addressed for 400 years. Abram will die without receiving the land himself. But God both shows and tells him that he can “know for certain” that God will bring his star-like descendants back to the land and they will inherit all the land that runs from river to river, from the Nile to the Euphrates.


I mentioned earlier the connection between Abram’s confidence in God’s word and the book of Hebrews. Let me draw another connection to Hebrews 11. When the author to the Hebrews celebrates the faith of Abram, listen to what he highlights.


By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (11:8) We saw this in Genesis 12, as Abram left Ur of the Chaldeans.


By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents (11:9) We’ve seen this in the previous chapters, as Abram doesn’t settle in the land, but instead roams throughout it as a nomad, establishing worship from his tents.


Then the author notes that the reason Abram was able to live like a nomad is because “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:10).


Finally, in 11:13, the author to the Hebrews summarizes the life of Abram and Sarah, as well as Isaac and Jacob:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, (that’s what we saw today; Abram greets the fulfillment of the land promise from afar) and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. [14] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. [15] If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. [16] But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

In other words, Abram’s faith in God and his refusal to seize the promise before the time, his trust in God’s goodness and wisdom and his patience in waiting for God to bring his promises to pass in his own time—these demonstrate that Abram’s ultimate hope was not in any earthly homeland. Abram doesn’t ultimately want an earthly country. The earthly country is weak and filled with famine and war. Abram desires a heavenly country. And because Abram looks beyond what is seen to what is unseen, because he has assurance of the things that God has promised him, we read these amazing words in Hebrews 11:16. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

The Table

This brings us to the Table. At this table, God reminds us that, to those who believe, he is not ashamed to be called their God. He is not ashamed to eat with us, to share a meal with us, to welcome us into his fellowship and into his councils. Because of what Jesus has done, God looks at each of us in Christ and says, “I’m not ashamed to be called his God and her God and their God. I’m your God, and I don’t care who knows it.”


But this promise is only for those who believe, and so let’s take one more pass at understanding what it means to believe. I’ve already mentioned one definition from Hebrews 11. Let me close with the other definition in this passage. “Without faith it is impossible to please him.” You must have faith in order for God to be pleased with you, for him to be unashamed of you. “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” What is faith? Faith is drawing near to the God who is for the reward he offers. It’s seeking God because you believe in your bones that he’s real. He exists. He is the living God. And not only that, but drawing near to him because you believe that he is your shield, and that in him your reward shall be very, very great. So come and welcome Jesus Christ.